Zero! – Boardgame Review
"Yankee Tomahawk fighters at 12:00 high," shouts the Japanese pilot to his wingman. As the American fighters dive to medium altitude, the Japanese Zero leader is able to maneuver his fighter into attack position. Two bursts from the plane’s machine guns damage the Tomahawk. The Japanese have taken the initiative and the fight to the Americans.
As I looked at my cards in my second run through of Zero!, GMT‘s Pacific edition in its Down in Flames series, I realized that my early lead would be short lived. My hand did not have enough offensive firepower to finish off the Tomahawk leader. Sure enough, four turns later in this quick paced game, three of my four fighters had plummeted to earth, victims of my opponent’s skillful card play. Fortunately, I "survived" to fight another day.
Zero! is a card game which recreates fighter dogfights between two or more players during the opening months of combat in the Pacific Theater. The aircraft cards in the Basic Game represent several types of Japanese, American and British fighters that came into existence between 1938 and 1942. Zeros, Wildcats, Hurricanes, Nates, and Tomahawks are examples of the aircraft players may select at the beginning of a game.
There are two types of fighter cards: Leaders and Wingmen. Together, the leader and corresponding wingman card make up an element. A player or players control one or more elements during the game. The beautifully illustrated cards give the necessary combat ratings for each Leader aircraft. Performance, bursts, horsepower, and bombing capability (Campaign Game) are the four combat ratings for each fighter. A Wingman card shows offensive and defensive ratings instead. Usually, a player will hold five or six cards in his hand, which represents the performance rating of the aircraft.
During the course of a game turn, players perform for each element the following steps: wingman attack, altitude adjustment, play cards, and discard/draw step. Play cards is the most important part of the player turn, for it is during this step that the player will play cards from his hand for his leader, one card at a time, in order to gain an advantaged or tailing position in order to engage an enemy aircraft. Maneuver and half loop cards are used for this purpose. The opposing player has the opportunity to respond immediately by playing an appropriate card, such as barrel roll or tight turn, to cancel the attacker’s card. The attacker can respond to the defender by playing an appropriate response, such as ace pilot, then the defender can play, and so on, until the action (change of position or damage) takes effect or was negated. Then, a new action can be initiated. If a favorable attack position can be achieved, Out of the Sun or In My Sights cards can be played to inflict damage.
Wingmen attack and defend using mini hands based on the offensive and defensive performance ratings of the aircraft. Wingmen can attack other wingmen or leader aircraft. A wingman’s mini-hand can be used to improve the position of its leader versus an engaged enemy leader. Or, the wingman can play "Out of the sun" or "In my sights" cards to inflict damage. Unlike a leader, wingmen are not restricted by burst limitations. So, if the right cards are drawn, a wingman can do substantial damage.
A dogfight in the basic game lasts six turns, and then points are scored for damaged and destroyed aircraft. The player(s) with the higher score wins.
Bombers make their appearance in the campaign game. Light bombers are treated like fighters in most respects, and light bomber leaders play cards and are subject to positioning from enemy fighters. Medium and heavy bombers "fly" in two plane formations, and can be targeted by fighters. These bombers defend against attacks using their turret defense ratings, as well as the turret support rating from the other aircraft in the formation.
Bombers begin their missions at an assigned altitude and remain at that altitude for the mission’s duration. Once reaching the target bombers, as well as intercepting and defending fighters, are subject to both area flak and target flak. Bombers that survive flak then drop their bombs. Depending on the aircraft and type of mission, a bomber may use level, saturation, dive or torpedo bombing. Cards are drawn to determine whether bombs are hits or misses. Each level of damage against a target produces an associated number of victory points for the attacker. For example, putting an airfield "out of operation" scores ten victory points, while "cratering" the field scores six points.
An added feature of the campaign game is the random selection of skilled pilots that can improve aircraft performance. For example, an ace pilot gets to use a free ace pilot card once during the mission or strike. Another rating might boost the aircraft’s horsepower or performance rating for the duration of the combat, thus increasing the number of cards a player can keep in his hand.
Finally, players can choose what type of campaign they wish to play. Burma, Malaya, and the Philippines are land campaigns. Missions and targets in these campaigns are randomly selected depending on the historical date chosen. For instance, playing The Philippines, Early December 1941, will generate a possibility of ten missions. Targets include the airbases at Clark and Iba Fields, a freighter in Manila Bay, and the docks at Cavite. For each target there is a specified aircraft type which the attacking player uses. The defending player gets to select a resource (one time per campaign), whether that be aircraft or an abstraction such as clouds over the target. The campaign lasts four missions after which victory points are totaled to determine the victor.
Players may also employ aircraft carrier tactics and fight the Battle of Coral Sea, or the Battle of Midway. There is also a solitaire Pearl Harbor mission, where the player can attempt to better the historical outcome of December 7, 1941. I played Pearl Harbor and scored sixty-nine points which earned "good" on the Operation Victory Table (the historical outcome was over 120!). However, this campaign consists merely of assigning aircraft to a target, and then drawing cards to assess damage to aircraft, and then damage to the target. It is not very exciting or stimulating.
Zero! is a low to medium-low complexity card game that can be played in under an hour (basic game) or, depending on the campaign, about three hours. The rules are very straight forward, and I did not find any glaring problems with rule interpretations.
As in all card games, luck plays a factor in Zero!. However, players can maximize their chances to damage and destroy aircraft by using wingmen in tandem with leaders when conducting attacks. Keeping track of cards played can also give a player an edge over his opponent. In addition, knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each fighter helps a player to decide when to break off an attack, or dive to a lower altitude in an attempt to lose a tailing enemy.
If you do not like card games, then Zero! is definitely not for you. However, for those of you who like a quick paced game, and the chance to outwit your opponent, then I recommend Zero!. There is a sense of exhilaration–and accomplishment–in shooting down an enemy. And conversely, being on the receiving end of an attack and having your plane shot from under you, gives you a definite sinking sensation.
Zero! is the third game in the Down in Flames series, and follows The Rise of the Luftwaffe and Eighth Air Force. There is a follow-up addon for Zero! called Corsairs & Hellcats as well. If players have played any of these versions, it should be no problem to jump in to Zero! in a matter of minutes.
Bob Skinner is a retired middle school principal who has been playing wargames for more than forty years. His hobbies include playing clarinet in a chamber orchestra, community band, and dixieland jazz ensemble. This marks his debut as a game reviewer.