"Keep Summer Safe!"
[This review originally written in 2001 -- Brian]
Card-based wargames work well; and is a genre I'm appreciating more and more. They can be combination card and board games (like Paths of Glory) or pure card games (like Up Front), or even the very simple (like Battle Cry) the uniting factor is simply this: A hidden hand of cards provides fog of war.
Compare these scenarios. You can attack, but should you? In a standard wargame, you know you have 2:1 odds, and can mathematically figure out your attack and his counter attack possibilities. Now the card based game. You can attack ... but what if he has a defensive bonus card, or a retreat, or a counter-attack? The combat rules are simplified; but the results are impossible to determine.
The Down in Flames series covers WWII era dogfights. Each player controls one or more "elements" (a plane and maybe a wing man) -- each element has a hand of cards. Planes are rated for the number of cards you can draw in a turn, hand maximum, offensive potential, amount of damage they can take, and maybe a special ability. Wing men are rated by offensive and defensive potential.
On your turn, you can adjust your altitude by discarding a card to go up, or lowering altitude and drawing a card. Then, if you are at the same altitude as an enemy, you can maneuver and shoot.
Maneuvering can put you in a better position. You start neutral against all enemies, but if you maneuver against a particular enemy successfully, you are engaged and "advantaged", which increases your offensive rating and lowers his offensive rating. Maneuver again, and you are tailing him, for even bigger advantage.
"Bursts" measure offensives rating, it costs you a number of bursts to play a damage card, which gives your opponent 1-4 points of damage, or kills him outright. Most planes take 4-8 points of damage before being shot down. Once planes take a certain amount of damage, you flip the plane over and use the damaged side.
But in either case (maneuvering or firing), your opponent can respond. For example, the "Tight Turn" cancels a "Maneuvering" card. The attacker can then play a card that cancels "Tight Turn" and back and forth, until one side passes. If the attacker played the last card, the original card takes effect. If the defender played the last card, it doesn't. The player whose turn it is can play cards to his hearts content (but can only fire once).
All of this plays quickly, once you know it. There is no board, just the cards (in the player's hand and the plane cards) a few chits (for damage and altitude). You just point planes at other planes to show who is engaged, advantaged and tailing.
Planes can also have wing men. Wing men don't have hands of cards. Whenever they are shot at (or shooting) they draw a 'mini-hand' to play cards whenever they attack or are attacked.
Fast, simple. It seems mindless but decisions await. After more play these decision may be tougher, once I get a feel for the cards. Specifically, there are times when it's better to attack the wing men, and times to go for the leader. Do you stay at the same altitude as your enemy and attack (leaving yourself open to the player and his wing man on the next turn) or do you dive to improve your hand?
However, it's not as simple as it could be. Attacking restrictions are subtly different depending on if you are engaged and whether you are attacking with a leader or wing man. The rules do a poor job in clearly stating the differences. GMT normally does a decent job with rules. But once you have the basic idea, the rules do contain a two turn example that covers most of the basics. That, coupled with the play aid, should cover about everything. Once you know the rules, gameplay flows well, and is clean and tense. A four player dogfight (2 on 2) took about 30 minutes for our second game, and we stopped to check things a few times. Component quality seems very nice for Zero!, with sturdy cards. Rise of the Luftwaffe is almost as nice. (I think Zero! added some more information for the cards so that they could be used for other forms of resolution beyond dogfights, bombing, etc.).
The games also have campaign versions and advanced rules like bombing. I can't speak to them, yet. The campaign would let interested players run through a series of missions and keep score, but right now this series seems like a wonderful filler. I'm sure that I'll eventually learn the mission rules, but for now I'm satisfied.
I've looked through the Campaign rules and set up a campaign. On the whole, the rules look very nice, but there is a glaring omission. Victory Points do not seem to be defined except for basic fighters. Obviously, for a dogfight, that's all you need. But how many VPs are heavy bombers worth? Light bombers? Also, the rules mention symbols on the cards without defining them. There's really only one way to read the rules, but it's disheartening. I just got 8th Air Force (which updates the Rise of the Luftwaffe rules) and the rules were much cleaner, but I found pages of errata on the web.
As it turns out, the VP information isn't in the rules, it's on one of the chart sheets. It's not where I expected, but at least the information is there.