Wings of War Series – Boardgame Review
Wings of War: Famous Aces. Card game with miniatures feel. $34.95.
Wings of War: Watch Your Back. Card game with miniatures feel. $34.95.
Wings of War: Burning Drachens. Card game with miniatures feel. $34.95.
Designed by Andrea Angiolino and Pier Giorgio Paglia. Published by Fantasy Flight Games.
Passed Inspection: Easy to learn and play; pre-planned movements create intense play throughout the game
Failed Basic: Some important rules are buried inside paragraphs
Wings of War is a series of games about World War I aerial combat that is played with cards, uses board game-like mechanics, and feels like a miniatures game. The first set, Famous Aces, was printed in 2004. Since then, Fantasy Flight Games has published two more in the World War I series and one for World War II. (The latter was previously reviewed on ArmchairGeneral.com.) Each of the games is complete by itself. Booster card packs and prepainted miniatures are sold separately. This review looks at the system and what each title offers.
Famous Aces features the iconic symbols of World War I air combat, such as the Spad XIII, Albatros D Va, Sopwith Camel and Fokker Dr 1. It includes a set of cards depicting aircraft, plus damage cards, four maneuver decks, rulers, counters and game mats. The rules are short and easy to learn, but some essential information is buried in the middle of paragraphs. Several variants of each plane are available, depicted with different paint schemes based on the planes of pilots such as Georges Guynemer, Manfred von Richtofen, Eddie Rickenbacker, Rene Paul Fonck, etc. Different planes do different types of damage, absorb varying amounts of punishment and perform different maneuvers.
There is no game board. Players each select an Airplane card and its set of Maneuver cards and lay a game mat in front of them for bookkeeping. The airplane card is placed face up somewhere in the playing area, its location determined by the scenario.
At the start of every turn, pilots each select three Maneuver cards from their respective decks and place them face down on their mats in the sequence the cards will be played. Possible movements vary according to the plane’s Maneuver category, which in Famous Aces ranges from the basic category A (Look, Ma, I’m flying.) to the very maneuverable D. (How’d he do that?) Other games in the series introduce new maneuver categories.
At the start of each round (three rounds per turn), all pilots flip over their first Maneuver card, which has a blue line that begins at the bottom of the card and ends in a black arrow somewhere on the card; this line shows the plane’s movement for that round. Players place the bottom edge of their Maneuver card against the front edge of their plane’s card. They then pick up the plane’s card and move it to align a black arrow at the bottom of that card over the arrow at the end of the blue line on the Maneuver card. Then, they look around for something to shoot at.
If an enemy plane ended its move within the firing arc shown on an Airplane card, the players use the ruler provided to see if the target is in range and, if so, whether the range is long or short. An unlucky player whose plane has taken fire draws cards from the Damage deck, one for short range or two for long.
The results are kept secret unless they involve fire, smoke or explosions. Most Damage cards have a number, showing how much structural damage has occurred; sometimes the attack scores no damage. Damage is cumulative, tracked by placing the Damage card face down on the player’s mat. When the total equals or exceeds the green number printed on the bottom of the plane’s card, the player reveals the damage cards and removes the plane from play, an event often accompanied by sound effects of a plane crashing to earth.
Some attacks cause additional damage that makes the enemy’s life even more difficult, such as jamming the rudder, which temporarily prevents left or right turns. Engine damage means a pilot must stall once per round; an additional engine hit means your flying days are over. And there’s always the chance your fabric fighter could turn into a burning pyre.
This system provides a simple, yet intense method of resolving movement and combat that makes the game easy to learn and fast to play. It is used in all games in the series.
The Watch Your Back game set introduces a new “B” damage deck and some new fighters, such as the Nieuport 11, HD 1 and DIII. Several two-seat observer/bombers are also included, such as the Ufag C1 or Allied DH 4, which add bombing and aerial photography missions to the game. The two-seaters are slower and less maneuverable but have a wider range of fire, making them dangerous no matter which angle you attack from.
During one game, two German pilots found that out the hard way when my friend Corky took his DH 4 right into the middle of a dogfight. It provided him with a target-rich environment, and he dished out a lot of damage to the enemy during several rounds. However, he soaked up a lot of bullets too, and his rear-seat observer was soon killed. That left him vulnerable so I tried to “watch his back,” but he was too badly damaged and eventually crashed. I extracted revenge, shooting down both his tormentors.
The Burning Drachens set adds the most to the game, including an expanded rulebook, observation balloons (big, stationary targets with lots of hit points), trenches to strafe, light and heavy antiaircraft machine guns, AA artillery, incendiary bullets and primitive air-to-air rockets. It also offers solitaire scenarios and nasty new damage decks.
Using the AA guns requires careful planning. At the start of any of the three maneuver rounds in a turn, before maneuvers are revealed, the gunner can place a shell marker anywhere within range, announcing the altitude at which it will explode. At the end of two more rounds, the shell marker "explodes" and any plane cards that overlap it take damage from the C deck, an unpleasant prospect.
In one game, I used two heavy AA artillery emplacements to help even the odds in a 2-to-1 dogfight, my Sopwith Snipe facing off against two German pilots. My two opponents flew straight in, as I expected they would. Both guns scored hits, inflicting 10 points of damage to one opponent, who only had 15 hit points. However, the guns require three rounds to reload, and the Germans were able to silence them in a strafing attack before they could fire again. I evened the odds by knocking out my flak-damaged opponent in a head-on attack, then engaged the other German in a furious, twisting dogfight until we shot each other down in flames after pulling simultaneous Immelmann maneuvers and coming at each other head-on.
The next experiment included some light and heavy AA machine guns guarding a German balloon. This time, I was defending the balloon from two Allied intruders and had to protect it for 12 rounds while its crew was lowered to the ground. The balloon had 28 hit points, but the Allies used incendiary bullets for maximum damage. I was fairly ineffective in breaking up their attacks, but the AA machine guns riddled the Allied planes, sending one down. However, it had sprayed the balloon with incendiary bullets, starting several fires. As the second fighter made his final run, explosions ripped through the balloon, sending it crashing down in flames.
To further enhance a great game system, four booster packs are available, each containing 18 – 26 planes. Some introduce post–1918 aircraft.
Plastic miniature planes, prepainted to match the images on the cards, really enhance the games’ visual appeal. Each miniature retails for $13 – $16 and comes with its maneuver deck; a clear-plastic base stand that replaces the Airplane card; and four interconnecting, clear-plastic rods to mount the miniature on the stand. The rods can be taken apart to show altitude level. No balloon miniatures have been produced yet (dang it).
Competitive WoW players run campaign games, keeping track of victories and defeats with a leader board. At GenCon, some players entered combat wearing reproduction leather flying helmets! And of course, in the heat of the moment, everybody added his voice to the crescendo of machine-gun fire—dakka dakka dakka dakka!
In short, these are fun, fast-playing games, less complex than old favorites like Blue Max or Richtofen’s War. Returning safely to your aerodrome—let alone becoming an ace—requires good planning to second-guess your opponents. Most scenarios can be played in half an hour or less, giving you plenty of opportunities to hone your skills.