Title: Hawks Over Malta
Basic information: Marco Campari, Lumaca Games, 2015 (Volume 1 in The Propeller Rotates and the Engines Roar series).
Overall Evaluation: I’ve enjoyed playing this game for what it is in the gaming world – a free PnP product. It’s fun and on an interesting topic – the air war over Malta in World War II. I’m a big fan of aviation games so I looked forward to “kicking the tires and lighting the fires” on this game. The game is very simple yet the rules demonstrate basic principles of aviation warfare including the fact that some planes are better and faster than others; it’s often about ‘altitude, altitude, altitude’; the proficiency of a pilot can overcome some deficiencies in aircraft design; and some pilots are just downright lucky or unlucky. While the game is not going to become the next hit in aviation warfare, it is enjoyable. The key is to remember it’s a simple, free PnP game. With this in mind, the designer has scored points with me. I would much rather play Hawks Over Malta than many other free PnP games. It does have its problems that I’ll discuss below but I do like it and salute all designers who spend time to bring us free games as a service to the hobby. Many people cannot afford to purchase games and free or inexpensive PnP games offer them new gaming opportunities.
Background Theme: The game simulates the Italian bomber missions over the British island of Malta during World War II.
Format and Components: Hawks Over Malta is a free PnP two-player game that is printable on two 8x11 inch pages. The first page includes 126 single sided counters. British aircraft in the counter mix are Hurricanes, Gladiators, and Tomahawks while the Italian aircraft include the CR42, G50, and MC200 fighters along with BR20 and CANTZ1007 bombers. Other counters represent clouds, anti-aircraft gun positions, target markers, pilot ratings, bombing targets, and combat marker aids. The second sheet holds the map (about 2/3 of the page) which is an aerial photo of the harbor area at Malta overlaid with box squares and colorful altitude indicators. A small section of the same page lists the rules for the game. While not absolutely necessary, I recommend using color ink to print both pages. The player needs to supply his/her own dice (2 recommended).
Rules and Abbreviated Play: The rules are very simple and easy to learn although their simplicity leaves the player guessing the intent of the design on some points. The game includes four scenarios highlighting different numbers and type of aircraft. I recommend playing them in the order listed on the page since they follow a chronological order as aircraft numbers and types alter with time. In addition, the progression allows the player to develop familiarity with the system. For example the first scenario is the expected “Faith, Hope, and Charity” as the three British Gladiator bi-planes with these names counter five Italian bombers and escorts. The final scenario pits five British Hurricanes and Tomahawks against 10 Italian bombers and escorts. Aircraft move from box to box or change altitude within the same box. British fighters try to stop the bombers; Italian fighters try to protect the bombers while the bombers ‘do their thing’ and avoid flak. The designer posted two short but useful videos outlining game play on BGG. The volume is a bit low on each so turn up your computer volume before viewing.
Replay Value: Very Good. Although the players are tasked one mission – bomb the objective or stop the bombers from hitting the objective, the game does vary in its play. The scenarios offer different aircraft which vary in their movement or fighting capabilities. This is a simplified system based on awarding each aircraft 1-3 stars and 1-3 infinity symbols. Simple yet effective in its minimalist demonstration that a Hurricane is faster and has greater combat power (weaponry and survivability) than a Gladiator. The Initiative changes at each turn by a simple random draw of either a British or Italian maker. To have the initiative means that player goes first and the random change (or continuity) of the initiative can have a major impact on game play. Placement of the bombing objectives, flak positions, and clouds (which obscure observation and provide a defensive bonus) are governed by a roll of the die for distance from starting points on the map.
Solo Play: Hawks Over Malta is a two-player game but easy to solo playing both sides to your best ability.
Here are some points I like about this game:
a. This is a simple yet surprisingly fun game that plays fairly quickly. It’s small size definitely makes it transportable.
b. The altitude tracking system is interesting. Each of the four altitude bands is an oval and aircraft move from oval to oval in the same box when changing altitude in the same location. I prefer this to stacking chits with altitude markings on top of the counter. Thus you could see four aircraft in the same box yet each be at a different altitude.
c. The game is light and fun with a very good replay value. I have made this point in many reviews -- I’m a big proponent of “one size does not fit all” in gaming. For many reasons, games of differing complexities on the same topic are important in this hobby. Not everyone likes the mega games; not everyone likes the simple games. Some like strategic oriented games; some like tactical oriented games. Some prefer ASL; some prefer Conflict of Heroes. And the list goes on... There are games for all tastes in this hobby and that is good and something that helps it grow and attract more people. Hawks Over Malta is not everyone’s cup of tea and that is OK. Yes, I own more complex aviation games and enjoy them but I just don’t throw a copy of Bloody April (WWI tactical aviation) or Downtown (Vietnam tactical aviation) into my suitcase or pull it out over coffee on a Saturday morning. Thus, I appreciate a variety of games styles and complexities...and welcome Hawks Over Malta as a simple game on WWII aviation operations.
d. I really enjoy the topic -- air war over Malta with the British tackling the Italians.
e. It’s free courtesy of the designer. How could you not like ‘free’?
There are a few points that some gamers might not like about this game:
a. It is a very simple PnP game. Although assembly is absolutely minimal -- cut out the one sided counters, it is still PnP and many gamers do not like this format. Naturally, I do recommend printing the counters onto some type of card stock. The map can be printed just on plain paper.
b. Many gamers will not be satisfied with the abstract combat system. Roll a die and look at a chart to see if you score a hit. However, the die roll for combat does take into account roll modifiers for aircraft type, pilot proficiency, altitude difference, and cloud cover. Plus, it is a simple game with simple rules so I’ll defend that point while acknowledging many gamers would prefer a more complex dogfight system.
c. The map looks like the floor mat for the game Twister -- a jumble of colored circles/ovals. It is quite unattractive but at the same time highly functional. The mass of colored ovals splashed across the photo of Malta is what makes this aviation game functional and altitude based. So it becomes a matter what a gamer prefers -- looks or functionality. I admit that I like both in the same package.
d. This is a game based on boxes rather than hexes. I have many problems with box-based aviation games when it comes to movement. The rules for Hawks over Malta prohibit diagonal movement and I agree that diagonal flying is odd in a box system. However, planes do not fly strictly in 90 degree angles. I understand why the game is designed this way since it simplifies movement calculations. However, it does reduce the reality aspect when it takes two movement points to reach a box that is adjacent yet diagonal from where you started.
e. The map boxes are slightly larger than the counters. Thus, multiple counters quickly clutter a box. Enlarging the map when printing can be quite useful. A good thing about PnP is that you can experiment with the size before actually printing in order to acquire the best for you.
f. The rules are not clear about how to place the bombing objective, flak position, and cloud location counters. Just says to roll a single die and place them. Many assumptions here and I just adopted a ‘house rule’ to cover it.
g. Unless you have 20/10 vision, you might need to enlarge the rules. As printed on standard 8x11 paper, the rules font is very small.
Bang for the Buck: Excellent. Hawks Over Malta is a free PnP game. Can’t get any more bang for the buck than that point! If you don’t like the game...it just cost you two sheets of paper and some toner.
c The Swamp Hamster