Bomber Command – Boardgame Review
Bomber Command, The Night Raids 1943 – 1945. Boardgame. GMT Games. Designed by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood. Suggested Retail Price $67.00.
Passed Inspection: Game flow will keep each player focused on doing his job the best he can with the assets at hand. You’ll worry about your planes not just getting off the ground but also back on the ground safely.
Failed Basic: Too few examples of play
The pilot of the FW 190 was searching for a British bomber. The bombs had started falling upon the city and a glow was building from the fires that were sprouting amongst the buildings. He could see the colors of the TI’s dropped by the enemies pathfinders. He banked to the SW keeping a sharp eye out. There! A brief silhouette against a burning background. He throttled up and started a pursuit curve upon the enemy.
Inside the British plane, Pilot Officer Wilburne tried to keep the big bomber on an even keel as his bomb aimer gave him corrections on the TI’s that were appearing: “Almost there Skipper, a bit left.” Wilburne gave the bomber a tad of rudder.
“That’s got it, steady, steady … “
The cockpit exploded in a crazed carnival of windscreen, metal and wind. The cannon shells of the Focke-Wulf tore through the cockpit and into the right wing and engines. The controls went sloppy, and Wilburne found his body wouldn’t respond as normal. The bomber heeled to the left. In the distance, he heard, “Right me up! Right me up Skipper! I’ll get the bastard, Right me up!”
It was Brodie, the mid-upper gunner. Wilburne felt tired, but Brodie’s calls stirred him as he tried to haul the control column back to the right. He felt strangely at peace, wind blasting at his bleeding face as he heard Brodie’s machineguns and someone screaming about an engine fire. Then, all went quiet …
Bomber Command is an operational-level game of the British nighttime raids over the European mainland. It focuses on two periods of the struggle: 1943–1944 and the raids against Berlin and other (sometimes deep) targets, and late-1944 to early 1945. A game can be as short as an hour (for near-to-England targets) or up to a couple of hours for deep raids. A game covers a single night, but several games could be strung together for a campaign.
I like this game and find that it can create as much tension for the British as for the German player. I have enjoyed operational air war games since I first purchased Avalon Hill’s Luftwaffe, followed by GDW’s Their Finest Hour and RAF (West End Games) boardgames and Gary Grigsby’s Battle of Britain and Bombing the Reich for PC. Bomber Command is similar to the recent game Duel in the Dark but is a little more complex, in that it requires a greater amount of record keeping.
For the German, units are represented as squadron equivalents and the British player’s units are represented by Raid counters and Bomber Stream counters. Each player will have to make decisions during the course of the game that can cause the other grief. But, for the British, much will depend on their planned and plotted missions, whereas for the Germans it’s a game of blind man’s bluff as they try to figure out what is going where. Ahhhh, tension and frustration! Can’t you just smell it?
The game comes in the usual GMT quality box with a nice illustration that the narrative at the beginning of this article could have accompanied. There are two main game maps—one for each of the two periods of the war the game covers; on the late-war map France is considered to be Allied occupied. Additionally, there are five generic city target maps, a couple of reference sheets, a pad of Raid Plotting Maps for the British, two decks of event cards, two dice, a rule book and a playbook. The main maps are rather plain, being in shades of black, but they get the job done for flying over a blacked-out continent. They also have large hexes to accommodate the counters; rarely will there be enough fighter, raid and combat counters in a single hex to create stacking problems. The Reference Cards and City Maps are printed on the same type of cardstock and event cards are of the usual GMT quality, so all will stand up to repeated handling and use. The cards are nicely illustrated, and the events they represent are expounded upon in the Playbook.
Unfortunately, this is not a game that will allow you to just plop down it on the table and jump right in after a quick rules read-through. I was disappointed to find not even a single full game-turn example of play. In a previous effort by the designer, Downtown, about the air war over North Vietnam, there was a nice five–game turn example of play that took up four pages of the scenario book. The Playbook for Bomber Command (12 pages) has three and a half pages of game hints for players, three and a half pages about the event decks, a page of historical notes, a page of Designers Notes, a page of map and city keys and a page with a Raid Tally Sheet.
I was not pleased about the absence of any full game-turn examples of play, which are usually standard fare in GMT games. As the game play is a little different from other games, you have to sit with the rulebook open to insure you’re getting it right the first time around. You’ve got to figure things out on your own, and the only way to do that is to sit down and push the counters, check the sequence of play, then dig into the referenced rule(s). After a few turns, you finally get that “Aha!” moment where the rulebook can, for the most part, be set aside. But you also get an occasional, “Oops, we’re doing that wrong” moment.
The game mechanics have to reflect the fact that each hex is a large area that may or may not have lots of little planes flying around in it. The mechanics do this well, and the German has to get an understanding of what it takes to get his planes off the ground and into position over beacons, cities or in the Himmelbelt where fighters can become a GCI (ground controlled interceptor). The German movement can best be described as staggered, and a fighter doing one thing can’t quickly change to something else. This learning curve could have been eased by a simple page of a game turn example. I’d recommend GMT add one to the game’s webpage. The major thing the game hints seemed to push is, if you are the German, don’t fly in fog. Never, ever, ever.
Since the British player has to plot out his raids on a provided plot map, the German player can be setting up the game while the Brit is plotting, to shorten game play time. Raid plots can only have up to four waypoints, but a decoy raid can have as many as eight. And remember, the turn at the target to head home after bombs are dropped is a waypoint.
The British plot map is the key piece of the game since no British raids are placed upon the game map unless the German has succeeded in detection (for that turn only). If German detection is very good and the main raid is easy to detect, the bomber stream covers three hexes in length. At the start of the next turn, the detected British are removed from the game map, advance to their next plotted position and the German tries to detect again. Now you see me, now you don’t. Victory Points are awarded for aircraft downed (German) and for damage to targets (British). If the British are headed to a deep target, they will get additional points to offset the threat level. I found the game to be well balanced unless one player has a really good day of dice rolling and the other player’s dice are just abysmal. It is a game of tiny knife cuts: one bomber lost is not much in the scheme of things, but over time, losses pile up. I recommend avoiding flak as much as possible. Flak shoots down planes, it damages planes and it adds disruption. Oh, and it can give away a raid’s location when the German is having difficulty with detection. Nasty stuff, that.
A nice major difference between Bomber Command and Duel in the Dark is that in BC the British player has to drop his bombs upon his target city. Using a city map that matches the target’s size, an Aim Point is selected, as well as an approach direction. You’ll check for drift from the aim point and determine accuracy and bomb error. There is also creep-back to worry about. You want to get as many bombs on the Aim Point as possible, with the goal of starting major fires which may cause a firestorm. The German player would prefer the bombs be scattered all over the countryside. Disruption from flak, fighters, flight path turns and the play of cards while the British raids are approaching the target gives the German some ability to scatter the bombs away from VP areas.
A minor difference between BC and DitD is that in BC the British player selects his main target from a cup filled with 60 target counters. For the 1943–44 timeframe, some cities have only one counter (like Stettin or Augsburg), but others like the Big B (Berlin) can have a dozen. Thirty-five of the counters cover just 11 different cities. So, the German can reasonably guess that over 50% of the time those cities will be the target. The targets of Mannheim, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Berlin occupy 21 of the counters. That’s why those pesky Mosquito raids can deceive the German as to where the main raid is going.
The game cards add a very nice element to play. Each player can only have five cards. You can always discard to refill your hand at the beginning to the turn, but there are many cards and they all have their uses.
The German player can be torn between keeping cards that give combat bonuses, ones that can help throw off bombing accuracy and ones that deal with raid detection. Some cards can definitely assist in detection, but you’ve often got to burn thru the deck to find them. If you can’t find the raids, the combat cards don’t do you much good. Once the main raid has dumped its payload, smoke pots may not be a good card to keep in your hand.
For the British, there are cards that affect the detection roll, bombing accuracy, German fighter availability/capability and bomber defense. Some cards are removed once played, others just go back into the discard pile for possible later reshuffle and reuse. The Fuel Famine card is nice to have early, as it can knock one German squadron out of the game.
If you were looking for a tactical game of a nightfighter vs bomber, I would recommend Nightfighter. It was published last year and is supposed to be compatible with Bomber Command (which generates scenarios). But if you have a desire to be a Bomber Harris or the Defender of the Fatherland, BC is your game. GMT gave the game a solitaire rating of 1 out of 9; I believe that is really too low. Playing solitaire does take some of the tension out of the game, but it can be enjoyed in a solitaire fashion, and there are already rule adaptations appearing on the web. It is an easy 2 out of 5 for me for solitaire play, leaning to 3. So, everybody ready? The target for tonight is …
Armchair General rating: 85%
Solitaire Suitability: 2 out of 5, leaning to 3 (5 is completely suitable for solitaire play).
About the Author:
Michael Peccolo is a retired Armor Major from the US Army with overseas duties, Company commands and additional assignments in recruiting and ROTC. He lives in Tennessee where he raises horses with his wife. He volunteers at Ft. Knox to be a Civilian on the Battlefield.