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GrogHeads Reviews Battle of Britain (the new one!)

Never have so many spent so much backing a game by so few that plays…  so well? ~

Jim Owczarski, 31 March 2018

During the mad era when Lorraine Williams lead TSR, the company released, counter intuitively to some, a few of the most popular wargames ever created.  Chief among these was The Hunt for Red October, but the list also includes bright lights like Red Storm Rising, A Line in the Sand, and, less brightly, Europe Aflame.  This list was joined in 1990 by Battle of Britain (hereafter just BoB), a Richard Borg design that brought Mr. Borg’s love of light simulation and dice-heavy combat resolution to the skies over Britain and the English Channel in those early years of the Second World War.

More than 25 years later, the Plastic Soldier Company, which partnered with Mr. Borg to create the First World War iteration of his Commands and Colors system, launched a Kickstarter to re-release BoB and bring its production values up to contemporary wargame standards.  The Kickstarter was well received, but, as with many of these endeavors, there were lots of delays, allegations of poor communication on the part of the company, and a fair amount of displeasure with the quality of some of the components.  I received my own copy over a year after I backed it — about eight months after I expected it — and I’ve been having a go at the game with my son.  What do I think of the re-boot?  That would be telling; please read on.

Lovely cover art

Everything in this new version is, in some way, bigger than the original.  Counters have been replaced with planes that “fly” on plastic bases, the organizational charts are bigger, the dice are a bit nicer, and the map board is well done and heavily mounted.  I was having none of the board given to the hoi poloi, however, as nice as it is, given the opportunity to have a special map printed on a thin, vinyl fabric in a much larger size.  If one is to properly imagine himself below 10 Downing Street directing the RAF command, no little map will do.  The larger map, though pricey, is lovely and makes the whole display very special.

There we go!

It is the planes that have caused the most consternation among those displeased with the results of the Kickstarter.  Let me say first, and this is just this one man’s opinion, that I find all the anger very, very weird.  In the rules for BoB, each model represents a squadron of planes.  This squadron can be composed of several different types of craft and will frequently be a mix of both fighters and bombers.  The Plastic Soldier Company could very easily have given the RAF a pile of Spitfires and the Luftwaffe a batch of Heinkels and called it a day.  It chose to include Stukas, Hurricanes, Bf-110s, and even my bete noir the Blenheim for aesthetic purposes, and, one supposes, stretch goals.  It is true that the plastic used for these molds is oddly flexible and has resulted in some unsightly down-turned wings.

Not bendy wings!?!

It is to the company’s credit that it has decided to remold and reissue all these planes to backers free of charge; entirely unnecessary in my judgement, but to its credit nonetheless.  I would rather they had spent the time to make the notches at the bottom of the planes fit more snugly with their flight bases, but that’s another matter.  Overall the component quality here is very high and makes for an evocative table when set up.

Were I to offer a criticism, though, and I will confess it is a small one, I would have made the “Intercept/Dogfight” markers far more substantial than the cardboard chits they are.  One of the key limitations placed on the RAF player is that he can only engage in five interceptions or dogfights per turn (more on this in a bit).  This is a great mechanic and forces the British player to make some tough choices.  Given this significance, had I designed the stretch goals, I’d have made them a bit bigger and certainly heftier.  A bit of an OCD completionist, I am mortified at the thought of ever losing one of the five teeny chits dedicated to this vital process.

As to the game itself, I have two thoughts.  The first is that I believe I’ve figured out Richard Borg.  To my knowledge he has never, and likely will never, created a game that will appeal to the grognard.  He counts no rivets and paints none of his buttons square.  What he does do, however, is fashion games that let gamers of the proper mindset feel like what they think a commander in a particular era would feel.  His epic Napoleonics is far from a simulation of warfare in the period, but there are big battlefields, lots of units, buckets of dice, infantry, cavalry, and cannon.  Memoir ’44: D-Day Battles is a paen to gaming excess with giant maps, hundreds of little plastic men and tanks, and all kinds of weird widgets that anyone who knows anything about the Normandy invasion would expect; everything from airborne drops to Hobo’s Funnies.

And it’s very much the same here.  At the beginning of the game, both sides are given a complement of aircraft at random.  RAF squadrons come in groups of three plane flights while the Germans can six.  These are an, initially, random mix of fighters and bombers.

A slightly disheveled 11 Group at midgame.

Then the Luftwaffe draws a hand of missions from a deck directing its commanders to attack cities, airfields, and radar installations.  These missions are assigned by the German player to Luftflotte, typically depending on the base from which they’re taking off.

MISSIONS:  Very much like the 1990 original.

The German player will then fly his planes over the briney.  As he approaches England, should he enter a space protected by radar, the RAF planer has a chance to scramble fighters to intercept.  If he avoids the radar, the RAF player nonetheless has a chance to have his ground spotters identify the intruder and scramble an air squadron with the end being a dogfight.  England is, historically enough, divided up into air groups with my favorite being poor 13 Group which is responsible for demonstrating against the — often equally feeble — Luftwaffe attacks over the North Sea from Scandinavia.

13:  We may have to send up the Fairfield bi-plane to defend ourselves.  Nobody wants to see that.

When movement is completed, air combats begin with interception fights where three RAF squadrons square off against three Luftwaffe selected randomly from the six they typically have.  Both sides then simultaneously roll handfuls of dice with German crosses scoring hits on German planes and roundels hitting the RAF.  Likely my favorite mechanism in this game is that these hits are scored no matter who rolls them so the RAF can — and did in quite a few of my games — shoot itself clean out of the sky with damage done by its own poor dice rolling.

Have at you!

 

The Luftwaffe’s really, really bad day.

German planes that survive the interception can keep flying in later turns.  RAF planes that survive can either stay in the air or return to bases to refit.  Bombers have significantly lower dogfight value than their fighter counterparts, but their overall strength and strategic importance makes choosing which planes to give up to hits a hair-pulling choice at times.

Following interceptions come dogfights.  Here both sides pick a single flight and they both, again simultaneously, roll the appropriate dice.  Hits are scored but only the squadron that received the most hits is at risk of being destroyed.  Destroying a squadron, however, requires a fair amount of damage and, if that damage is not scored, both planes return to their player’s hand and players select a different card to fight. This can be a significant problem for the RAF which must do everything it can to shoot down planes before they get to their targets.  Players fight their way through dogfights one squadron at a time until all have fought or until only one squadron remains aloft, whichever comes first.

Any German squadrons that survive interception and dogfights and arrive at their mission target are allowed to bomb it.  Again this is a simple buckets-of-dice mechanic with one hit required to take out radar stations and airfields and, typically, three required to take out cities.  Destroying cities has the effect of limiting the number of dice the RAF player is allowed to roll to refit his squadrons as well as rebuild his airfields and radar stations.

London has two parts, both of which my son has shown the ability to set ablaze with disturbing ease.

After bombing, each German squadron has a choice:  stay aloft (typically if its mission is not yet complete) or “reach for home”.  Each squadron is given three fuel token.  Each turn’s movement costs one of these.  Reaching for home with two tokens is safe and automatic.  Doing so with one or no tokens, however, makes the squadron liable for losses due to ditching in the ocean.

RAF points are scored for shooting down German planes.  German points are scored for damaging RAF planes, bombing cities, and completing missions.  The basic game lasts four turns and there are three scenarios depicting the early, middle, and late stages of the Battle of Britain.  These can all be combined into a grand campaign covering the whole of the struggle.  With experience, a four-turn session will come in at well less than two hours.

As simple and light as this game is, my other thought about BoB is that someone would have been well served to pay a professional editor to review the rulebook.  It is far more dense and at times opaque than it has any right to be.  It also desperately wants for illustrated examples of play.  Worse, as will be observed in a quick visit to the BoB page on Boardgamegeek, a few fairly obvious rules questions were missed in playtesting.  As good as Mr. Borg and his crew usually are about this sort of thing, this should never have happened.

That said, I really like this game.  It’s fun, it’s dramatic, you’ll throw a million dice, and the outcome will often hang on the results of only a few dogfights.  These are particularly tense as both sides pit their best fighters one-on-one wondering which side can stay aloft the longest.  I’ve now spent a couple long weekends blasting Iron Maiden’s “Aces High” and shoving stacks of planes around a map in grim defiance of my opponent’s seeming inexorable approach.  He in turn has laughed as my radar stations went dark, my airfields became rutted by bombs, and the cities of my fair island were reduced to ashes.  Mr. Borg may have done nothing to satisfy those who know the horsepower and turn ratio of the Spitfire versus the Hurricane, but he has turned out a terrific game in which the history does not ring false.

 


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