Thursday, February 12, 2009

B-29 Superfortress Review

Here's Part 4 of my "try new companies" out resolution. This time, we're looking at Khyber Pass Games' only "boxed" professionally produced title, B-29 Superfortress. The game is a direct descendent of the old-school Avalon Hill solitiare game, B-17: Queen of the Skies. B-17 is an interesting simulation, but with very few decision points to be made. The meat of the game is to get as realistic an experience as possible with a board game over many missions bombing Japan (and occasionally Iwo Jima in the early missions). Like it's predecessor, the "fun" is in seeing what happens over the course of the campaign, not only to your aircraft but to your crew, whom you are encouraged to name. As the campaign goes on, your crew improves in their skills on various die rolls, and my experience is that once you have a good feel for the system that you can fly about one mission an hour barring frequent and constant annoyances like flak bursting around you or enemy fighters attacking you, which can add some time to the game. 

The B-29 was a much different plane than the B-17, almost from a different era. It had to be in order to reach the Japanese home islands from their base in the Marianas Islands, specifically Tinian. As such, instead of five or six cardstock sheets of tables to roll on for various game functions, there is an entire booklet, and believe me it's full. Full of tables, full of notes, and full of errata. Because the game can pretty much be played solely from the rules and tables (there are various play surfaces, but to be honest you could keep track of everything on paper just as easily as sorting the counters), KPG doesn't make the rules or tables available online as "living" rules, such as GMT does, and so you have to either mark up your rules and charts or constantly refer to them. I find this mildly annoying, and wish that KPG would make an updated rules/charts PDF file available to people who have purchased the game with proof of purchase. I chose to mark up my booklets to some extent, which doesn't bother me, but I know some for whom this would be a deal breaker, especially considering that the game is fairly expensive. 

The components are pretty nice, fairly lightweight counters ranging from 9/16ths through better than an inch (for the fighter tokens, of which there are a ton - this could have been cut by 2/3rds if they'd added some Ace/Avg/Grn tokens to place on the fighters, of which you usually get one or two in a given combat). The diecutting process also was done so that there is a bit of flash along the sides of the counters, which wasn't bad enough for me to feel like I needed to trim. The map is horrendously oversized for what is needed in this game about four times too big. If space is an issue, you'll wish they'd kept the scale down, although my suspicion is that they wanted to make it "bigger" than the B-17 sheets. Unlike B-17, there is no map of the region you fly through, mostly because at the B-17 scale you'd have bands and bands of open ocean followed by a very small area of the concentrated Japanese Islands. So we get a color coded track instead. To be fair, that doesn't bother me too much.

There are also a few sheets included that you can copy for the mission log, the campaign log, and another sheet that is used to mark damage to urban areas over time. All of these are on heavy card, which is silly because you'll never use them but instead copy them (or download the pages from KPG's website). Better to have included these in the rulebooks, or given you a few lightweight copies to use until you get your printer fired up. 

I'll also note that this is a $50 game that comes without dice, and you'll need two d6's. I understand that small publishers have to deal with a lot of issues when putting out pro-level packages, and that $1 spent on components can end up costing the consumer $5 or even $10 by the time they go through distribution and shipping, but in this case the game was purchased directly from the publisher and I just don't see why some of these issues couldn't have been seen ahead of time, especially if they've been exposed to other wargame publisher choices. 

Enough whining about the components and four pages of errata (blessedly, in fairly large type). How does the game play?

First of all, the B-29 was a bigger plane with a lot of forward-looking systems such as fire control computers, pressurized crew areas, an eleven man crew, and some very heavy artillery to protect itself. It was also just barely able to do the job - if everything goes right, and you're taking off from the Marianas, you'll have enough extra fuel for five or six extra turns on the way back, or three if you run into trouble on the way out. If you aren't carrying extra fuel tanks, it will be very tight indeed. There's also a Random Event table that I foolishly thought you rolled on every turn - they say the plane was buggy, but on my first mission I had two engines go out and the bomb release mechanism go south before I even formed up with the other bombers. Fortunately, I later figured out that you roll 2d6 to see if you roll a '12' *before* rolling on the table, so actually no damage had occurred at all. 

One of the interesting parts of the game is that you form up with the other bombers three zones into your mission (as soon as you can get to high altitude), and how well that goes can have a big effect on how everything else goes, especially if you are trying to fight off those enemy planes. Of course, night missions don't include any forming up, as they just flew in a big stream (and there are considerably more rules if you are doing something at night, such as searchlights, modified fighter combat). For most turns, you'd check the weather (which sometimes can slow you down on the way in because of the jet stream - something no one knew about until they tried flying at high altitude to bomb Japan), which (like most things in the game) has the potential to go horribly horribly wrong, and see if you get the dreaded Random Event, so those turns generally go quickly. For the first few missions, you'll also need to check to see if any of the Japanese planes at Iwo are going to come after you, at least until the Americans take the island. Once that happens, you can even start from Iwo, which really takes the fuel pressure off. 

One thing that you *do* do is have to make sure you're on course to the form up point. That's a good thing, because it shows just what a bunch of hocus pocus flight over the vast Pacific was. If you are "lucky" enough to be the lead plane in the middle layer of the formation, or it's a night mission, you get to check in every zone. The navigation is interesting enough, but it involves five different dice rolls just to get the modifier to roll to see if you're on course or not. Out of the two missions I've flown, I got off course a bit once before I met up with my homies at the form up point, but I was also assigned to be the lead plane. Since it was my first game, I changed that so that I was no longer in the lead as I wanted to get a feel for the system, not crap out my rolling wrist. You literally roll for piloting, dead reckoning, radio navigation, celestial navigation (by the stars), and by observation. There's a nice track to keep everything straight, but man oh man will that make this game less interesting for me. At least the first ten missions are automatically Day missions (right up until we take Iwo). 

There is little chance of air combat until you get near Iwo and again once you get near and then over the Japanese Islands. Like B-17, there is a "gazetteer" that gives you a modifier for potential air contact, whether you're over water or land (and what land mass), and whether the area has heavy AA or not. These turns are much like the over-water turns, except you also check for fighter interception, which is far from a sure thing, and of course the bombing run once you get over target. Fortunately, no flak attacks until you're over target for some reason, although they do get two shots at you as you start the run and as you're leaving the scene. 

Both combat and bombing also contain several tables for a variety of elements. Interestingly, your only real decision points are whether or not to attempt to be evasive (and early on you don't get that choice if you're in formation or it's daytime), who can fire guns (and they all have a ton of ammo unless something's gone horribly horribly wrong). Everything else in this game pretty much happens to you, other than deciding whether to abort, dive to low altitude (and out of formation) if your cabin pressure drops (frostbite - it's not pretty), and whether to turn off the cabin pressure if you think something is going to attack you. 

My first mission went very smoothly, a little too smoothly. No fighter interceptions (a bit disappointing as I wanted to see how combat worked), no flak hits over target, back to base with no excitement whatsoever. I also completely missed my target, which in this case was considered a "draw". My second mission (and the last one I've completed) also went smoothly right up until I flew near Iwo on the way out and ran into a Zero that actually dropped bombs into the formation and nipped my rudder! A George flew by without causing any damage as I approached the Islands, but the scary part was getting five flak hits on my plane. Anyone who has played B-17 knows that all it takes is one bad roll during damage and things go horribly horribly wrong. I got very lucky - the only real damage caused was to knock out my alarm bell, which would only be a problem if something worse happened.

The bomb run itself went well - I hit the target (which is not easy to do early in the game with inexperienced crew, and nearly impossible if something has broken) and managed to do damage with 30% of my bombs (only used if you want to get an average over the campaign or if playing multi-aircraft missions, as is often done online). As long as you are on target and get home safely, you're good to go. On the outgoing leg, I got attacked by two more George's, one of which I shot down before it got close enough to do damage, and the other failed to cause damage to my aircraft. Going back over Iwo it was nighttime, so no danger there. My nighttime landing went smoothly, and the mission was a success! Even better, my crew were all uninjured and had two missions under their belts. Seven or fewer missions generally means they're green, 14 or more means they're veterans. You need thirty five missions (not counting ones where you abort early) in order to be sent home, for those of you playing the Catch-22 variant of the game (joke - there is no such variant). 

There is, however, a Korean War variant coming out sometime this year. That may or may not be interesting to me. You see, this is the sort of game that I find interesting right up until I lose my entire crew and aircraft in a single mission. While there are painfully few decision points, the entire point of the game is to get a (much safer) simulation of flying these kinds of combat missions. When my mother married a retired Army Air Corps bombadier who flew missions over the Aleutians in a B-17 in WW2 (and was later "volunteered" to go back into the infantry to invade Okinawa), that game became marginally more interesting to me because I was thinking of the men in these aircraft. Getting the chance to go onboard a functioning B-17 with Colin was also very interesting, although I didn't want to pony up the $400 it would have cost to actually go up in the air in the thing. I'm not stupid. However, slogging through 20 missions only to lose all of your carefully and slowly gained experience and skill because you rolled boxcars at the wrong time is an exercise in frustration for me.

My point is that this is the sort of game you play not to see how successful you are, as you have very little say in your success, but rather to relive a bit of history in some small way. Most solitaire wargames fall into this category, but the bomber command games especially so as they were trained to do very specific things in very specific situations and to give more leeway than that would not be true to the conflict. Me, I start to feel connected to my virtual crew and get upset when someone dies. I have the same problem with Ambush!, with B-17, with Patton's Best, any of the games with a small roleplaying element. 

The cool thing about this game (and about B-17) is the presence of online players who form virtual wings, then fly the same mission "together" (usually within some period of time, such as a week), and use their combined data to give a broader sense of the men and aircraft that fought this part of the war. Now that I've gotten through a couple of missions, I may look to join one of these groups if the play frequency isn't too harsh (once a week would be just right, especially as it's only one hour or so for me to fly a mission), and that may be even more rewarding. 

Colin didn't like talking about combat itself, as is true of many of the vets from WW2. He did, however, enjoy talking about the camaraderie of the flight crew, about how they bombed a whale (they thought it was a sub right up until they hit it), about the dog he had in the Philippines, that sort of thing. Hearing him talk about what it was like to be in the air in a B-17 is a memory I sorely wish I'd recorded - Colin died in early 2009 from complications from Alzheimer's disease, and by the time I thought to formally interview him it was too late. 

Colin, I know you didn't fly any combat missions in a B-29, but you are my starting pilot for what missions I do get through. I also know that while you hated the fighting part of the war, you loved being in the Army at that time, and had many wonderful memories of people and places. I hope that wherever you are, that you get to relive those fond memories, and that you know that I and many others honor you and your fellow servicemen and women's sacrifice and effort in what increasingly seems to have been the last "good" war. 

If reliving history appeals to you, and you don't mind the game playing you more than you playing the game, this one is worth a try, especially with B-17 long out of print. The errata is annoying, and there are a few things that simply aren't discussed (such as the sequence of play - it's more or less the order of rules as presented), but it's an easy game to learn and there is a *ton* of designer and historical information contained within the rules and charts booklets. As such, this is a game for the historian more than the gamer, but well worth the time to get to know if you don't mind a ride. 

No comments: