LNL-Tactical (Modern)

RAF – Boardgame Review

Michael’s thorough and detailed look inside of Decision Games’ RAF gives you everything you need to decide if this excellent air combat game should be gracing your tabletop.

Michael Eckenfels, 10 January 2014

Designer: John Butterfield and Publisher: Decision Games

as always, click images to enlarge

While I am quite a World War II geek, I’m not much into the airpower aspects of it. Most of my interest in that regard is with the bombing campaigns (and with it, games like B-17 Queen of the Skies); indeed, I’m more taken in with tactical and strategic ground combat and the games that focus on that arena. That said, the Battle of Britain has always fascinated me as a true ‘turning point’ campaign that had so many fulcrums and angles that it wasn’t really a foregone conclusion that the RAF would have pulled off a victory.

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It was with great anticipation that, back in the late 80s, I found the first edition of RAF on my favorite hobby shop’s shelves. Solitaire games were big for me as it was hard back then to find opponents, and gaming fixes were sometimes few and far between. I was initially a little disappointed that I could only control the RAF in battle and not the Luftwaffe, but the game itself was solid, always different and therefore highly replayable, and even better, had quite a bit of tension to it.

 

I grabbed my copy of the second edition of RAF late this past summer and have been playing with it as often as I can in a chaotic house with a middle-schooler and a high-schooler and a wife who’s not all that big into games. No cats, fortunately.

 

Overview

RAF: The Battle of Britain 1940 is a simulation of the trying days of 1940 when the Luftwaffe sought to wipe the RAF from the skies of southern England, in preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of England itself. In the original first edition, you could only play the RAF, as I mentioned above; however, in this second edition, not only can you run the RAF solo, but also the Germans solo, or even play a two-player game. All the angles are covered here, and the added ability to run the German campaign solitaire seems to make for a hit-in-the-making. Of course, one must first open the box and see which way their initial impressions will run…

Out of the Box

Initial impressions were highly favorable when I opened my copy. The counters are nice and thick, with clearly-delineated information; these counters are much easier on the eyes, actually, than the old white silhouette from the older version. Unfortunately, these nice counters are almost impossible to separate cleanly and require trimming to do so, which is a major pain in the tail section. Perhaps it is simply my OCD, but I believe that counters must be clean and have sharply-defined edges – no rabbit bushy tails sticking out from the corners, thank you.

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The cards are very nice as well, but I’m not sure they’re an improvement on the old version. While the older version was no-frills and was pretty much print on a card, they were legible and easy to read. The Second Edition’s cards are busy, with lots of background to decorate them. The fonts are similar, in that they’re sans serif, large, and sharp, but these new cards might be difficult to read for some people on a few of the cards.

That said, the more I played with the cards the more I liked them; they grew on me. The Event cards are particularly fun to play with, as you draw them at certain times during the game and they can cause you headaches or give you bonuses; this adds to the overall tension of the game and helps make it even more replayable.

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The manuals – oh, man, am I ever impressed with Decision Game’s choice to print separate manuals for each game system. The two-player game (called Lion vs. Eagle), the German solo game (called Eagle), and the English solo game (called Lion) each have a separate manual, a wonderful (and no doubt not that inexpensive) touch. There’s also a color 40-page booklet covering the Battle of Britain, which will give even lay historian-gamers a complete picture for the background of this massive aerial battle. The three rules manuals are not in color, but are good-quality printing.

 

I started with the Eagle (German solo) game, and the manual was not quite clear on some things, which provides a few minutes’ worth of confusion. Some of the counters, for example, are not fully described in the rules. It’s easy enough to figure out that the “R” on the counter means they’re a reinforcement squadron or gruppen, but this is not pointed out. Nor is the VHF RAF counter, either, but that becomes clear later in another manual. The Eagle rulebook is structured oddly as well, with a quick overview of the rules, then a full description of each step, although not all steps are covered. I think this last one might have been more my fault as I spent a bit of time trying to find the Airbase Ops phase rules following the full rules, but could not locate it anywhere; finally I found it in the early part of the manual in the summary of rules section.

 

There are two maps included – one covers the Lion and Lion vs. Eagle versions, while the second covers the Eagle (German solo) game. The maps are quite stunning, actually; the light blue theme makes it much more appealing than its predecessor (which was very functional, just not all that attractive). The inclusion of the sequence of play is handy, but takes up a four-inch or so strip of the map from nearly the top to the bottom on the left side on the Lion/Lion vs. Eagle map, whereas the German version is much more condensed and seems to “fit” better in the scheme.  Also, it would be nice if rules sections were specified next to these listings. Otherwise both are loaded with all the necessary tracks for time, raid planning, losses, battle, and such, and they both do it well. The maps are made of typical game board paper, not mounted on a hard board; it’s fairly thick and sturdy, but I can see how folds will crease the map eventually, especially if played a lot.

 

The game’s contents are rounded out by a nice two-page German Planning Board (actually a paper booklet, so don’t get too excited) and the usual CRTs and tables that didn’t fit on the map – four pages’ worth, actually.

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As mentioned, there are three different games in this box – playing the RAF solo against the system-run Germans (which was the original 1986 game’s premise), playing the Germans solo against the system-run RAF, and a two-player version as well. For this review, I played several times through the RAF and German solo games, but did not play the two-player version.

 

RAF: EAGLE

I will start with playing the German side solitaire as this was the first one I played.

 

In this version, with its own unique map, you are running the Luftwaffe in an attempt to bring the RAF to its knees. You might initially think this means you have absolute control over target selections, force composition, and the like – and you do, to an extent, just not fully so. The system acts as both the RAF and to an extent, Berlin (i.e. Hitler and Goering). And at times, you may feel like you’re fighting both.

 

As the German ‘commander,’ you control Luftflotte 2 and 3 – basically the two major air organizations underneath you. They are split because one covers raids in the eastern part of England (Luftflotte 2) and one covers the western part (Luftflotte 3). In total, you have 77 gruppen (your equivalent of squadrons) split roughly equally between the two Luftflotte. Your forces include two fighter squadron types (the veritable but short-legged Me-109s, and the role-confused Me-110s), and four bomber types (Ju-88s, He-111s, Do-17s, and Ju-87s).

 

Each turn is divided into “raid days” where you execute preparation steps before choosing targets and assigning your gruppen to them. You draw Target Cards for each raid day (either ten or eight cards, depending on the weather for that particular day), then you decide from those cards which will become raids. Technically, you can choose every single Target Card for a raid if you wish, but that will thin you out quickly, especially if most of the raiders are to come from only one Luftflotte. The key to this version of the game is to not only husband your forces, but to protect them appropriately. In my first run-through, I tried to take on too many raids and my Me-109 coverage was thin for each one (thanks to my poor planning and the dreaded Channel Patrol rule, which requires a certain number of Me-109 gruppen to be off being useless, depending on the number of bomber gruppen you’ve assigned). This resulted in a lot of damaged gruppen, needless to say.

 

Selecting these raids is also something of a strategy. You might draw the radar station in one squadron’s sector, and then the airfield in that same sector; it would be a good play to raid the radar station first and hope to take it out, then next execute a raid against the airfield. This would somewhat limit the RAF’s detection of your raids. Or, raid every radar net you draw in the hopes of taking out at least three, which will somehow magically bring down the entire RAF radar network. I don’t quite understand that from a functional perspective, but from a game perspective it actually gives the Germans something to hope for – although it’s not easy to pull it off.

 

Once you’ve selected your targets, you assign them to a raid track along with the time they will be executed. You can have up to three raids per time segment, which may or may not work out in your favor. This will really hammer the RAF, but it will also wear you out as well. Selecting times is also a strategy in itself, as you want to try to ‘domino’ the RAF by making early raids’ results hopefully help you out with the later ones. You assign your gruppen to each raid card with this in mind, placing fighter and bomber gruppen on each according to how much you want to not only damage the target, but survive any RAF response. You’ll note your Luftflotte getting thin really fast, especially if you have a lot of raids; the only thing that will really help you with this is the Event Card that allows both Luftflotte 3 and 2 gruppen to be interchangeable for raids, giving you a much deeper pool to draw from.

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Next you set up your raid on the board. There are four sections total on this board – the Hunt Box, the Bomber Box, the Close Escort Box, and the Channel Patrol (CP) box. You place your Me-109 gruppen into the Hunt Box, your bomber gruppen into the Bomber Box, your Me-110 gruppen into the Close Escort Box, and then you pull a certain number of Me-109 gruppen into the CP Box based on the number of bomber gruppen you have in the Bomber Box. If it wasn’t made clear before, I hate this rule, but I understand its significance – otherwise the Germans would have a much better chance of overwhelming any RAF interceptions. The roles for your gruppen are easily defined, but may change based on what happens next.

 

Next comes what I call the “waa-waa” moment…the Raid Rendezvous Check. This is a very scary table where you roll one die and pray that the result doesn’t make your raid – that you’ve meticulously planned and set up – return to base with no effect. Each result depends on certain factors, so it’s not like you need to roll, say, a 3-6 to let the raid through. Instead, if you roll a 5, you’ll find that if there are 13 or more gruppen in the raid, the raid is cancelled; if you roll a 6, same result but only if you have 15 or more gruppen in the raid. A 1 result will fail the raid if your raid consists of one of two or three raids from the same Luftflotte planned for the current time segment. And so on. So, there is actually a great deal of tension going into this step, because everything you’ve constructed to this point could fall apart. If you’re like me, you’ll read this table closely and try to create a raid that will not give this table much teeth.

 

Once you’ve survived that little step, the next one is the British Raid Response. I really like this portion of the game, even if it is a bit fiddly. The number of RAF squadrons that react to your raid depends first on the British Detection result, which is looked up on the target card; from there, you draw squadrons from the indicated sectors on the map, creating a ‘pool’ of squadrons. This is not the response to your raid, not yet; next you have to roll on a Raid Response Priority Chart, applying modifiers and determining what the RAF’s response priority is (Minimal, Low, High, or All-Out). The higher the priority, the more squadrons will respond. On this table, you’ll generate a number, and that number is the number of squadrons you randomly pull from your pool and return to their sectors. This will usually leave you with fewer squadrons in the pool.

 

So, is that it? Are we ready to do combat yet? Nope, not quite – next you determine the raid response tactics, which is based on the intelligence the RAF gets (this is part of the detection sequence). This will ultimately determine if the RAF bothers to intercept your raid at all, and is based on both the number of squadrons responding and the number of gruppen you have in the raid. This is what I call the “freakin’ NOPE” phase, where sometimes I cross-reference the number of squadrons left in the pool with the number of gruppen, and if there’s a lot of gruppen, the RAF response will turn tail and run back to their sectors. This happened more often than not in my games, and while it’s frustrating from a time standpoint (going through the entire response list only to have them not intercept the raid), it actually is rather elegant in that the system is husbanding its forces. Conversely, not intercepting a raid means it gets to tremendously shift its bombing results which can do catastrophic damage depending on the target. More on that in a bit. As the German player, that’s absolutely fine, but it sometimes lends to a feeling of getting a cheap/easy victory (unless I roll terribly on the bombing table and do little damage, of course).

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If the squadrons do intercept your raid, you go through your Me-109 gruppen first intercepting them. You DO have Me-109 gruppen with the raid, right? Because if not, the RAF squadrons will merrily make their way into the Bomber Box. If there are more squadrons than gruppen, the excess will make their way into the Bomber Box anyway. So you see why it’s nice to have more than a couple of Me-109s in the raid. And if you do manage to intercept all of the squadrons, that’s no guarantee that the British won’t get through your hunters and try to tag a few bombers.

 

Combat is pretty quick; you get the Combat table handy and cross-reference the number of Gruppen with the total strength of all squadrons and gruppen involved in the raid. Naturally, this means that it’s advantageous for the Germans to seek battle where this number is as low as possible; Me-109s have an air combat strength of zero, which is a good thing, whereas Spitfires have a 3 and Hurricanes have a 2. Once you do your cross-referencing, you roll a die in the section you fall into and determine damage; this can send planes off out of the raid, or cause light or heavy damage.

 

An interesting side note for those of you that played the 1986 version of RAF solitaire: there is no “E” (Eliminated) result any longer. The most you can hope for is an “H” (Heavy) loss. At first, this really disappointed me as I thought they took the edge off of the game – it was satisfying to completely obliterate gruppen in the original game. However, I can see that in this system doing so would greatly reduce the game. Besides, whenever a loss is incurred in this game, elimination is no longer a factor; instead, the game keeps track of losses that can have a huge impact on the game down the road.

 

For the British, you keep track of Spitfire, Hurricane, and (if you choose to play with them, I never did) Blenheims. Each has a counter that tracks how many ‘points’ of each you have. The Germans have a Fighter Replacement Point marker and a Level Bomber Replacement point marker (Ju-87s do not get replacements in this game). Each time a side suffers a loss, at the end of the raid day these losses are made good by subtracting points from these pools. Heavy losses require one point to move to Light loss, and Light loss requires one point to return to the map. Additionally, British squadrons must expend one Experienced Pilots point per loss movement, which is a tense thing to keep track of. Once the Germans run out of replacement points, a Depletion Marker is used to keep track; this is sort of like a deficit marker. While the Germans can make good on their replacements no matter what, if they run out of replacement points, the Depletion marker starts moving on up, which affects combat to a large degree. The higher the Depletion marker, the worse off it is for the Germans. This reflects their gruppen going into combat at reduced strength. What’s even more interesting is German raid numbers actually potentially increase the higher their depletion gets; this in turn is a huge potential for even more losses, considering the Combat table shifts with each Depletion level event.

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As for the British, if they run out of Spitfire or Hurricane points, there are rules to allocate these to specific areas. If they run out of Experienced Pilot Points, then squadrons are returned to the board flipped to their reduced side; they can be flipped to their full side once they get through one air combat to reflect their gaining enough experience to hang with their brethren.

 

Bombing is the heart of the game, where damage done to targets not only generates Victory Points for the German side but can also cause far-reaching effects. For example, damage to airfields will put British squadrons further out of readiness; damage to industry will remove replacement points for them; radar damage will reduce the British detection level; and so on.

 

As raids are completed, your bomber gruppen return to their airfields while your fighters return to the clock, if they made it through combat; so, they return in a few hours’ time and you can use them in raids later in the day. This is very important to keep in mind when planning your raids, as you can technically put raid cards down for the afternoon with no fighter coverage, hoping that you’ll have some free fighter gruppen to put in there. Of course, if you don’t…

 

Ultimately your goal is to wipe out the RAF and pave the way for the Wehrmacht to cross the Channel. There are different scenarios where you can play a day, a week, or the full campaign, and each has different victory conditions. Victory Points run a range from +35 to -35, a 70-point track, which can ebb and flow quickly at any time. If the game gets to +35 or more, the British have basically wiped the floor (and skies) with your Luftwaffe and win automatically; of course the -35 or lower result means you’ve triumphed significantly over your enemy and made things much easier for Operation Sea Lion.

 

As this VP total can move about a bit, you can draw an Event card that will change the target priorities. This can be a slap to the face when you’re behind the curve, and represents your Berlin masters getting impatient and wanting to start going for less important targets. If the Terror Strategy starts, your job will be a lot harder as you’re forced to send your gruppen against cities further inland, giving the RAF plenty of time to knock your birds out of the sky.

 

All in all, I do like the Eagle version of this game. The map is engaging (if busy, but you get used to that), the counters are nice, there’s plenty of space on the map to hold everything, and it’s easy to keep track of everything. RAF: Eagle has a learning curve where you’re going to be referring to every point of every rule for a while, but once you get experienced with it, you’ll get into a flow and it comes second nature.

 

Speaking of flows…

 

RAF: LION

The original RAF game was designed for the player to run the RAF, which is what the Lion portion of this game does, too. I remember that ‘flow’ being very easy to master and I was highly curious to see how well that translated into this newer version.

 

In short: very well. The concept is the same – husband your forces and carefully respond to each raid. This is difficult to do as the British only have 27 squadrons to respond to 77 gruppen (same numbers as in Eagle, for both sides). Initially you have a lot to play with when putting your squadrons on patrol, unlike the original game, you should not put ALL of your squadrons on patrol – at the end of a raid, your patrolling squadrons land and rearm. I made that mistake in my first game and there was a period where there were no squadrons available to counter any raids (fortunately the Germans only had a minor raid after that and it did very little damage – could have been a lot worse though!).

 

Your detection of German raids becomes the centerpiece of your strategy. Detection is also tied in with intelligence levels and can sometimes be a mixed bag. Detection determines which squadrons can respond from which sectors, and intelligence determines when you can actually commit to the interception. This can be tricky if your intelligence level is low and you’re forced to commit before you even know how many gruppen are in a raid. There are three levels of intelligence – Poor, Limited, and Accurate. With Poor, you have to commit to intercepting before you know how many are in that raid; with Limited, you know how many gruppen there are but you don’t know what they’re made up of. With Accurate, you know both the number and the force composition.

 

Sometimes you don’t have much of a choice, though; if the Germans are pounding you for negative VPs you can’t really afford to let their raids through unscathed like you can if you have positive VPs. Also, if you want to bring in reinforcements, this will cost you VPs also – again, if you’re in the negative you probably need them more, which is going to set you back further. It can be a slippery slope at times.

 

The Lion game pretty much flows the same as the Eagle game – raids are created, raids are detected, you respond, combat happens, and bombing (possibly) ensues. VPs are moved, losses recorded, and you move on to the next raid. Unlike Eagle, where your raids set at times throughout the day determines how far the clock moves, in Lion the Event deck determines this; the clock can advance zero, one, or two spaces. Zero advancement pretty much means more pummeling, and this can be bad if you draw a couple in a row. You’ll start to sweat as you try to manage how many patrolling squadrons you put in the air, as they tend to be the best for intercepting – but again, putting them all out there means they all need to land sometime, and that window can be a broken one if the Luftwaffe steamroller a major raid through it right then.

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The system for determining the German raids is the same as the First Edition, and I really like that. You draw one Force card to determine its strength, then you draw another Force card and count down that many to determine its composition. For example, if the system is running a major raid at you and your first draw shows a nine, then with the next Force Card draw you use the first nine listed gruppen. If the Germans run out of anything, usually you stop right there, which can give you a bit of a break in the later stages of the game (sometimes, anyway).

 

Losses are handled the same as they are in Eagle – spending aircraft points to make good on losses, and you as the RAF leader, spending Experienced Pilot Points as well. As you watch your points dry up, each end of day Event Card draw resupplying you becomes a highly engaging experience. Playing the full Battle of Britain scenario will especially give you a huge appreciation for managing these resources.

 

Overall, I also greatly enjoyed the RAF: Lion scenario. It has the same feel I loved from the original game and adds quite a bit to make it even more enjoyable.

 

CONCLUSIONS

A constant referring to tables and charts to make rolls can be something of a pain, but as I mentioned, once you get into the game everything will flow smoothly. Besides, there are tons of player aid files over on boardgamegeek.com and if you feel artistic or creative, you can always create your own – I’m working on some right now, actually.

 

The games are loaded with tense moments, for both sides, and nothing is ever clear. Sending one Hurricane squadron against a major raid of 10 gruppen might seem like a desperate move, but it can sometimes work out; I did this once and managed to get it through the Me-109 Hunt Box into the Bomber Box, which saved me from a non-intercepted bombing table roll (e.g. a disaster). Taking chances in this game is par for the course; if you don’t, the system will take full advantage of you.

 

The game does take a lot of time to get through, especially if you’re new to it, so if you pick this up stick with the shorter scenarios initially. Don’t set up for the full Battle of Britain unless you have a secure, cat-free and spouse-free environment, because it will take you a few days to get through. It can also get a bit tedious at times, admittedly. While there are plenty of exciting points in the game, overall it can be a bit of work to get through, so if you’re not into solitaire games or don’t have the time, this might not be a wise choice for you. (And if you don’t have the time, how did you read through this entire review? You probably could have played a week in the game in the same time it took to read all this.)


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One Response to RAF – Boardgame Review

  1. Matthew Lestina says:

    I played Lion several times and am frustrated with experiencing the same result over and over again: steadily losing VP’s until I accrue -35VP within about 5 days of battle, way before the end of August. As a result, I experience no variation whatsoever, and never get the chance to experience many of the game’s features, such as reinforcements, sea lion evaluation, Luftwaffe depletion, etc etc. Is this a stupid design, or is there something I could or should do differently to get a different result?

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