Thursday, July 30, 2009

How To Feel Like A Complete Idiot In RAF: Eagle

I got through one full day's worth of raids in the Eagle game (where you play the Germans) in the new edition of RAF. I had absolutely no idea of what I was doing going in, and the result was humbling.

To be fair, there are no player notes that come with the game, and so I found myself doing what seemed like good things, but the end result was the British at +13 points at the end of the turn, and I realized I'd completely forgotten to run one more raid (which I have no reason to believe would have come out any better than the others). The British had no planes that were even shot down, while I had three in the Heavy Damage box and another four in the Light Damage box. At this point, I decided that I'd learned what I had set out to learn and pronounce the game over.

RAF: Eagle was introduced to the reprint of the base game in response to players who wanted to play the German side as well. In the end, a 2-player game was also introduced, although for reasons that will become clear as you read this essay, I can't imagine playing this face to face, although I could see some very interesting things happening in a multiplayer online game over time.

For those familiar with The Burning Blue, the German side is almost completely about planning, then seeing what happens as a result of your plans. The end result for a game like this is about 15 to 20 minutes spent carefully considering your options, then about 90 minutes of running the AI. As you can imagine, this is not for everyone, especially those who like to make decisions as the day goes on. Don't get me wrong, you do get to make decisions, but it's limited exclusively to whether your ME109 fighters will be performing close support, hunting, or strafing at the start of each raid. It's not a huge decision.

At the same time, the narrative is fairly compelling, unless (like me) you end up with raid after raid getting it's hat handed to it, only to completely miss with the bombs. I ended up tossing the dice that came with the game after I was done, as they seemed to be weighted toward rolling ones and twos almost exclusively. If you're a serious gamer, you should invest in a set of balanced dice anyway, although getting enough to play (say) Wellington is probably not economically feasible.

So here's how the game works for the Germans. At the beginning of the turn, you do a little administrative work (rolling for weather), then it's time to plan. You draw a set of target cards from the Target Deck, which will evolve as the game goes on. Early in the game you start with no Strategy Cards, but as time goes on you will draw these to give you some options. I could have used these, and really have no idea what they entail although I assume it's a good thing for the Germans. From these 10 Target cards, you find the ones that will result in No Raid (those for low priority targets with strategic importance of 1 or 2, or medium priority targets with strat importance of 1). That means you'll have an essentially random set of targets to choose from, perhaps 10, perhaps 1. Since you're playing the Luftflotte commander rather than Goering (and thank goodness for that, as who wants to play *him*), that makes a certain amount of sense, but it could leave you with very little in the way of choices.

At this point, you decide which of the targets you wish to raid, some of which will entail major raids (up to 16 Gruppen, or counters) or minor (up to 3) based again on strategic importance cross-referenced with target priorities. This is one of the two biggest decisions you'll make during this phase, along with how to sequence them out during the day. There's a planning section at the top of the board where you place the Time markers (they run from 0800 to 1800 in two hour increments), and decide which raids go when. After this, you select aircraft to participate in each raid based on the target area (which determines which Luftflotte they come from), although fighters only get placed in the first three time slots as you'll be able to add them in later depending on which ones come back and which ones you haven't sent out yet. As with the original game, you have to try to select as even a mix of A, B, and C aircraft as possible, but there is no functional difference as this is only for random event unit selection.

That's it. That's all you do, other than the fighter assignment mentioned above for each raid. However, it's really important to do this wisely, as I learned, so you'll want to have some extra information before you start:
  • Stukas are really precious. If you use nothing but Stukas to bomb, it's a good thing for some types of targets (like *not* Radar Stations). However, if they are damaged, they're gone for good, so you'll want a lot of fighter cover. I recommend saving them for minor raids with two ME109s along for the ride.
  • The RAF AI responds based on both the number of aircraft available to intercept, how much warning they get, and how good the intel is (just like in the original). You'll want to take a close look at each card to see how many radar stations are involved, how effective the Observer Corps is, how many sectors can respond depending on the detection level (which combines warning and intel), and how many actual squadrons (counters) are available to respond.
  • Because having more than one raid emanating from the same Luftflotte in the same time slot is a blessing and a curse (but more a curse - you can lose an entire third of the raid if they are too confused to form up correctly), you don't want to throw three major raids at one area in one turn. Instead, send them up one at time slot A, the next at time slot A+0200, and the next at time slot A+0400. Sequence them so that you're taking out the radar stations *first*.
  • Just because you can throw 16 gruppen at a major raid doesn't mean you should. Get to know the RAF Tactics tables to see the cutoff points for various raid sizes.
  • Use lots of fighters. In fact, it's not a terrible idea to make that first of three major raids a sweep with no bombers if you aren't given a radar station to hit. The Brits respond to gruppen, not to types of aircraft.
  • As a corollary, you'll want to know how many of your fighters will end up patrolling the Channel while your bombers head inland. Nothing like running a raid to find out that you don't get *any* fighters for close support or the hunt box. You'll also want to understand the ramifications of how many fighters to throw at close support vs the hunt box, as the number of gruppen you have in the bombing box when the RAF squadrons attack will have a direct effect on the result. A good starting rule of thumb is to have one fighter for each bomber, and in fact you want to completely skip the hunt box if you think there'll be a lot of squadrons there compared to your fighters. In this case, concentration is probably a really good idea to one or the other.
This is just a starting point. I'm sure that I'll learn a lot more as I play the game more.

I mentioned the 2 player game as an online multiplayer game. While I'm just starting to consider this, I think it would be superior to a 2 player ftf game for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that in the latter the German will have almost nothing to do for most of the game other than watch the Brit respond once planning is done. In an online game, you can do the planning, then send it off to the Brit to do all the work, outlining the various fighter assignments before raids start for the first three time periods (after which you get to add the fighters back in as the day goes on). If you gave one sector of the RAF to each player, and one Luftflotte to each German player, you could have an interesting time watching the various sides argue about how best to use those borderline resources to protect someone else's territory (or how best to sequence the various raids and targets). Once there's a VASSAL module out for this, I may think on this further.

Anyway, it's a very interesting game, and I'm unaware of any other game that lets you play the German side in a solitaire effort, and the game is worth buying for that reason alone. The RAF version is, of course, more interactive in terms of how often you make decisions, but they are much smaller decisions as they're per raid, and I suspect most gamers will prefer that. For those like me who enjoy roads less travelled, I enjoyed the Eagle version enough to want to give it another try, just not until I've finished licking my wounds. And there were a lot of them.

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