Monday, June 29, 2020

Review: Blood Red Skies- Warlord Games

Via Boardgame Geek

I downloaded the rulebook for Blood Red Skies for free from the Warlord site.  I had been pointed to these rules as I was working on the rules for Glittering Void at the time.  One of my readers thought that my struggles with altitude bands in a space mecha game could benefit from reading these rules and seeing what I learned about air combat rules and how they applied to Space Mecha.  Perhaps they were trolling me because they thought my rules sucked!  Who knows?  I guess I got the last laugh because I downloaded them and have read them.  He who laughs last laughs best!

When I was a wee lad, I used to love to watch a TV show on the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) called Piece of Cake.  It was a show imported from the BBC to the states and consequently had strange viewing slots, so I often would only catch bits and pieces of it.  The movie was about a British Spitfire Squadron during the Battle of Britain.  I wish I could still find it on YouTube or somewhere as I would gladly watch it again.  I have never been able to see it again so if you know of it, have a link, etc. please leave me a comment!

Piece of Cake kindled an interest in World War II, and the air war in particular.  The jargon, the tactics, the personalities, and of course the amazing planes.  Granted, it is not a topic that I have exhaustive knowledge on, but it is an area of interest to me.

Anyway, this game was written by the (in)famous Andy Chambers.  You may remember him for writing the rules for the Starship Troopers game.... and maybe some other smaller game systems here and there.  He was/is a pretty well known name in the wargame industry and fits pretty well with the stable of ex-Games Workshop writers that freelance with Warlord from time-to-time.

I am a huge fan of Warwick Kinrade's Aeronautica Imperialis rules that were put out by Forgeworld.  He was a near contemporary with Andy at GW.  It is also a fighter plane game, but one using 40K universe aircraft.  Everyone knows that 40K aircraft are basically WWII fighters and bombers... IN SPACE!.... so it will be an interesting contrast.  I am also familiar with Check Your 6, X-wing, and Wings of War to contrast the rules with. 

I only have the core 16 page rulebook and not all the fighter stats and pilot stats.  However, after reading and absorbing the game, I think I have a pretty good feel for the rules and how it plays.

Let's clear the runway and get up and at 'em then!  Piece of Cake!

via Warlord's Site

Things That I Like
The win conditions for this game are not necessarily based on shooting down enemy planes.  Instead, it is based on morale, and morale is recorded using Boom tokens.  A Boom token is given when a plane is shot successfully, even if they are not destroyed or shot down.  Of ocurse, you get more if they are shot down.  If you have more Boom Tokens than planes at any point, you lose.

The core rules are Stat of the Pilot + Features of the plane = how many dice you roll.  You are looking for a Target Number of 6 to earn successes.  The more success the better.  This set-up allows for differentiation between pilot skill and plane features.  Therefore, pilot and machine counts when you play the game and allows you a lot of space in between for customization of aircraft types.  Pilot skill and aircraft performance is also used to determine who can act first.

Shooting attacks allow both players to participate.  The plane shooting makes dice rolls based on pilot skill, and the defender makes dice rolls to avoid getting shot up.  This allows both players to participate instead of one just dying.  This also allows some room to add in special rules for head-to-head shooting and deflection shots.  These rules naturally make these types of attacks less enticing, so you want to try to position your plane to avoid them.  This is a nice bit of design that encourages the right period "tactics" but does not force them on you.

The turn sequence is broken down in a few different ways, but the core is:

1. Shoot
2. Move
3. Take an action

This is nice as the Pilot Actions allow you to make some decisions besides simple move and target priority.  These actions include shooting more, outmaneuvering an opponent which can give them a penalty, or trying to improve your place in the turn sequence later, make a flying maneuver to enhance/change distance moved, etc.  They are nice elements of decision making without giving up core actions like moving and shooting.

Finally, the rules for Tailing are natural and again encourage you to use the proper tactics such as a wingman, without forcing you to do it.

Oh look, a Korean War version!
Via the Warlord Site 
Things I Do Not Like
This game uses a very abstract method of determining energy vs. altitude vis-a-vis maneuver.  Many aircraft games use various height bands, thrust changes, set maneuvers that modify your speed or altitude, etc.  This game dispenses with and abstracts most of this detail using a completely different system referred to as Advantage.

This system is the main gimmick of the game and is integrated very closely into the games workings.  Players are constantly moving or being forced to move between Disadvantaged, Nuetral, or Advantaged states of play.  All planes in the Advantaged state get to move through the turn sequence first by order of pilot/machine performance.  Various maneuvers change the state of the aircraft between these three levels.  Planes can only shoot at planes that are within 1 Advantage level so Disadvantaged planes can never fire on Advantaged planes and vis-versa.  Climbing, Outmaneuvering, Tailing change the Advantage state of the target planes.  Only planes at Disadvantage can be shot down, the rest can be shot at but only to earn Boom Tokens.  Remember, a Boom Token is a morale measurement not actual damage necessarily.

These advantage states greatly streamline play and speed up the game.  However, it also forces the game into a very abstract air battle.  In play, they have some aspects of altitude in other games, but also adds an abstract element of pilot space and timing to the game.  If you can handle/want this level of abstraction then you will be fine.  I had some trouble adapting to it since it is very different mechanically than other aircraft games I have played.

Finally, the game is supposed to use custom dice, but only one facing matters on them in the core rules.  You can use ordinary d6 just fine, but proprietary dice make money so..... let's put them in! 

Meh and Other Uncertainties
Now, I only have the core rulebook.  Therefore, I have no idea about the scenarios, different aircraft stats, pilot upgrades etc.  There is space in the rules for this type of chrome and I am sure it is there, but I can't really review what I can't read/see.  Therefore, I don't have much else to say.  I found the core rules fell into Things I Liked or Things I Did Not Like.

The very PDF I downloaded
Via the Warlord Site
This is an innovative take on aircraft combat.  I am very glad that I downloaded the rulebook and took a look at.  Ultimately, if you can handle the abstraction inherent in the rules then you will probably be all set to enjoy it.  The rules work to foster the proper tactics of the period well.  The mechanics are streamlined, easy to figure out, and intuitive.  Resolution is pretty quick.

Despite all these positives, I am just not ready to buy in to the abstraction of the game.  I LIKE altitude bands, maneuver cards, and thrust ratings!  Why, because it allows you to emphasize maneuver in a way that ground or naval combat just can not bring to the table.  To me what makes air combat interesting is the Maneuver vs Firepower element and the trade-offs you have to make.  The game has abstracted maneuver to such a degree that I am unsure if it will deliver the type of game experience I personally will find satisfying.

I can see the appeal, and recognize the elegance in the design.  It has done a lot to "modernize" the air combat game.  However, I do not think it is for me, and that is okay. 

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