Nightfighter – Boardgame Review
Nightfighter. Boardgame Review. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: Lee Brimmicombe-Wood. $55
Passed Inspection: Beautiful full color components, many scenarios, well-written rules. Covers both European and Pacific Theaters. Unusual subject matter. Immersive solitaire play with the downloaded rules supplement.
Failed Basic: Out of the box the game is not suited to solitaire play. Mounted play map would have been nice. Box cover seems to scratch very easily causing damage to some very nice artwork.
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October 1940 – a moonless, nearly cloudless night near the North German coast – a lone Me110C-4 circles over a searchlight zone awaiting. The ground based Freya search radar picks up what may be incoming British medium bombers. The Me110 “Destroyer” pilot heads toward what may be a bomber stream, its pilot and rear gunner strain their eyes looking for any trace of the British planes. After three minutes, the Freya operator reports what may be a lock on a British plane and the pilot of the Me110 gets a radio message with rough co-ordinates to intercept. Through the pitch darkness, the German pilot and gunner continue to watch the sky – cursing the lack of clouds and the wishing for a radar system that was small enough to install in their airplane. Then the air crew sees something and circles around to try and make an identification.
Meanwhile, the Freya operator on the ground picks up two more possible contacts. The German destroyer crew sees a shape looming in the distance – a British bomber. They maneuver to its 6 o’clock position and fire! The cannon shells hit home and the bomber crew are taken by surprise – they don’t even shoot back. A second burst and the bomber explodes. Unfortunately, the Me110 crew are momentarily blinded by the blast and their night vision is ruined. They slowly circle around and, as they regain their night vision, hope to find another British bomber. The German crew is unaware that they have passed within less than 1 mile of a second and third British bomber. The other bombers strike their targets and return home, thankful for the cover of the moonless night.
So reads my play through narrative of the second scenario included in GMT’s new game of nighttime aerial warfare Nightfighter. The designer of Nightfighter, Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, also wrote GMT’s Bomber Command and the systems are compatible.
Ooh, ah! – The game components.
Upon opening the game box, the first response you get from most gamers is a 4th of July firework style “ooh ah” as they see the hypnotic blue, black and purple color scheme of the maps, counters and dice. The box design is nice but on my copy the cover scratches easily but the outstanding components more than make up for it. Aside from the rule book, scenario book, and rule supplement book (which covers campaign gaming aspects), there are two sheets of die cut counters, six gorgeous blue and purple marbled dice, a player map and an umpire map, game screens, one patrol display sheet, and zip lock bags to help keep your counters and dice safe. As with other GMT published games, there is a note from a GMT employee attesting to the quality control of the package. This attention to customer support detail is what distinguishes GMT products from less customer friendly companies whose products dominate the gaming marketplace.
The rules are well written and presented in a programmed learning manner in which the instructions will tell you to play a given scenario to reinforce what you’ve read. There is even a complete glossary to help with terminology that may not be familiar to many players.
Nightfighter is an umpired game. The umpire, with a smaller map, sits behind the included game screen and keeps track of the hidden bombers and intruder night fighters while the player controls nightfighters attempting to shoot down the bombers and avoid the intruder nightfighters. While this system creates a very engaging game for two players, it is not at all suited for solitaire play but with the new Solitaire Rules download from the GMT website, the game becomes perfectly suited for solitaire play as well.
Each counter in the game represents one nightfighter or one bomber. Counters are also provided for searchlights, radar sweeps and lock-ons, damage markers, tally (spotting) markers, as well as counters to randomize where the bombers enter the map and other status displays. Each turn represents one minute and each hex one mile. While most aviation games have turns in the seconds and hexes representing hundreds of feet, the scale in Nightfighter helps to represent the emptiness of the night sky. This game is more about hunting and spotting the enemy and then maneuvering to shoot him down than the classic dogfight. As such, altitude is abstractly represented as is maneuvering. You don’t have to keep track of wing pitch and nose angles in this game. The war in the air at night was very much about finding the prey as opposed to dogfighting. Many bombers don’t have much time to even fire back unless they have tail warning radars. The enjoyment in the game comes from trying to find the bombers or, if you are the umpire, trying to avoid searchlights as well as nightfighters and bomb your target. A scenario typically only lasts around an hour or less.
The game covers the technological advances used in night fighting from searchlights and “cat eyed” pilots to advanced ground and air radars. Scenarios for both the European Theaters and the Pacific Theaters are provided. For a real challenge, try taking a Japanese J1N1-Sa “Gekko” fighter against a bomber stream of B29 Super Fortresses!
When setting up for a scenario, the umpire sets up the phase of the moon, cloud cover and visibility (even the smog found in the Ruhr Valley is modeled in an optional rule). The year dictates the radar types (or lack thereof) used. Ground based, ship based, and airplane based radars are modeled and easy to use data is provided for each. I found some confusion in the rules over how the minimum range of aircraft radar actually works. Flak is factored in (interestingly enough only the “friendly fire” effects from flak hitting night fighters is addressed) as are the modifications to the airplanes for night fighting. Another optional rule provides for early guns and cannons which did not have flash suppressors causing night blindness in the pilots.
In a two-player game, the player maneuvers his plane on the large map while the umpire charts bomber locations on his smaller umpire’s map. The player also controls radar and searchlights and when a fix occurs, the umpire lets the player know and marks the “tallied” bomber on the player’s map. After the bomber is “tallied”, the player must then maneuver in and try and shoot down the bomber without being shot down himself. Even after a bomber is shot down, the player may have to deal with a disruption to his pilot’s night vision due to the target blowing up or even having to dodge the destroyed bomber as it plummets to its doom. Expanded campaign rules are included for tracking everything from pilot rankings to landing accidents. Strangely enough, the expanded campaign rules are based upon draws of cards from a standard 52 card deck (not included) rather than die rolls.
When combat occurs, it is handled simply and elegantly – each plane is rated for a primary weapons factor and a secondary weapons factor for rear-facing guns. Also, each plane is rated for special weapons such as Schrage Musik (Jazz Music) – the upward firing cannons on some German night fighters. Also, the different types of radar used are factored in for sighting purposes – H2S, Village Inn, Lichtenstein, Naxos, etc. are all given their due. Whether the pilot is green, average, or experienced is also factored in. Then two 6 sided die are rolled and the results added to the weapons factor of the plane. The result gives everything from minor damage to a major explosion. Most planes can take two or three points of damage before being “shot down” but some, such as Lancasters, Halifaxs, B-17s and B-29s can take four hits before going to pieces.
A small sample of the more than 70 airplanes included in this game include B-17s and B-29s, Wellingtons, Lancasters, G4M Bettys, H8K1 Emilys, Ju88s, He111s, Fw190s, Me109s, He219s, Ta154s, Me262s, Me110s, Mosquitos, F4U-2 Corsairs and the legendary P61 Black Widow! Even the V1 Buzz Bomb is given data for use in a scenario.
A variety of scenarios and variants to the scenarios are included. One of the most challenging is Scenario 5 “Wilde Sau” aka “Wild Boar” in which three German fighters (two Me109s and one FW190) with only the help of radar controlled searchlights must try and shoot down British Lancaster bombers. The umpire controls 45 (!!!) of the British behemoths while the German player must try and spot a target bomber and then shoot it down all while dodging the gun crews on the bombers plus the trigger happy German flak crews on the ground. After six turns, one of the Me109s finally shot down a Lancaster but as the huge bomber went down, the Me109 pilot collided with it and his plane exploded.
Aside for wishing that the player’s map was mounted and that the game came complete with solitaire rules, this fun, unique, and highly immersive game is a masterpiece of the genre of aviation war games.
Armchair General Rating: 90 % (95% with downloaded solitaire rules)
Solitaire Rating: 1 (out of the box) 5 (with solitaire rules from GMT website)
About the Author
A college film instructor and small business owner, Richard Martin has also worked in the legal and real estate professions, is involved in video production, film criticism, sports shooting and is an avid World War I and II gamer who can remember war games which came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!