Monday, July 27, 2009

RAF Out Of The Box

A couple of reprints/reworkings of West End Games titles from the 80s are out, and I'll cover them in the next two posts.

First up is RAF: The Battle of Britain 1940. Originally a solitaire game from John Butterfield (who brought you Ambush! and it's offspring), the new game is a major update in terms of components. Gone are the perforated stock cards that were not only unpleasant to handle, but nearly impossible to shuffle without sleeves. Gone also are the dark counters with dark text and images for the RAF. The original board had it's charms, but it's been updated nicely as well.

Not only that, but the game has three different ways to play, upgraded from you playing the role of the RAF (in the new game as RAF: Lion). Now you can plan the Luftwaffe raids in a solitaire version (RAF: Eagle) and there's even a two-player version, although to be very honest I can't imagine how you'd sit through four hours of this just to play the *short* version. It may make a very nice VASSAL version, but for me the charm of this game was the ability to play it over a long period of time, and Lion vs Eagle probably won't cut it outside of the "play for raid days" version, The Hardest Days.

I should note that I have yet to even read the rules in toto for one of the new versions, but so far I'm impressed with the thoroughness shown. The rules are considerably longer and have a lot more examples, which is good. And when I say "longer" I mean it. There are three different rulebooks, one for each game configuration, and each one is about sixteen pages of fairly dense type. Compared with the original WEG rules, these are about four times as long. However, the game is very sequence driven and you can pick the game up by simply running through the introductory "single day" scenario and following the sequence to familiarize yourself with the game by reading as you go.

Which is not to say that you'll know what the hell to do as the Luftwaffe, if you play the Eagle version. In a nutshell, they tell you to make up some raids and see what happens. I expect the learning curve for this version to be a little steeper than the original RAF, even though you have some limitations as to what you can bomb (or even just sweep with fighters). However, for someone who has been dying to play Burning Blue since I got it and can't seem to find an opponent, this may allow me to run the Luftwaffe at long last. I always did think the Brits were a bit suspect. ;-)

The counter art is very nice, and while it can be hard to distinguish the HE 111's from the JU-88's at first blush, it's much easier to distinguish Luftflotte 2 from Luftflotte 3 in the game as the former have a white stripe over their ID, a welcome improvement. The counters are about what you'd expect from a modern wargame in terms of thickness and quality. I use a counter tray to separate the counters for the different Luftflottes and aircraft types, and recommend it as it will make setup about a billion times quicker.

Reserve cards still have the "R" designation on them, which is very clearly marked, but I also liked that the Blennheim and Stuka aircraft had color differentiation on the aircraft type, as these aircraft will enter or leave based on various events, and it's nice to be able to see them clearly on the map.

The maps (yes, maps) are very nice, with almost all of the info you need to play the game on them as in the original, although for some reason it seems like maybe there's more info than before. There's the original "France at the top of the map" orientation for the Lion/2-player map, and the opposite orientation for the Germans on the Eagle map. The Eagle map also has a clever section at the top of the map for planning your raids, which is broken out onto a separate player aid for the 2-player game. The graphics are clearly updated, too. You'll still spend a lot of time finding certain charts and tables on the new map, as they take up nearly 60% or more on both mapsheets. The stock is nice and heavy, and I have no complaints here.

There are a *lot* of player aid sheets, at least six, only one of which is duplicated for both players (the combat info). I believe this was a four-page pull-out section in the original, so it's nice to have them as heavy cardstock now. No frills, just the tables. There's also one play aid with nothing on it but the expanded sequence of play for all three games.

There is also the now-standard Decision S&T/World at War article reprint that comes with the game. This is a very smart way to educate the players on the conflict at hand, and while those of use who get Decision's game-in-a-magazine publications might chaff a bit at having to essentially buy the same article twice, I've found it's nice to give to friends who show an interest in that part of the conflict - I gave the Market Garden article out of the reprint of Highway to the Reich to my good friend Mike, as he doesn't subscribe.

I've gotten through the raid planning part of a turn, and so far it seems very interesting. I did screw up and not sort the various aircraft/Luftflotte types in their holding boxes by their letter code - each plane has an A, B, or C on it that allows you to differentiate the various planes if, say, one third of them is affected by an event. I recommend you do this in your first game to avoid having to completely redo your raid planning (or, in Lion, which aircraft make up the raids).

The cards are definitely much nicer than before, although they're about the same size. I was able to use Yu-Gi-Oh size sleeves, which barely fit the cards height-wise. Euro sized sleeves are still a little wide, and the ones I have were fairly flimsy and I prefer a stiffer sleeve. The original perforated cards used in the original are gone, thankfully, so you can get by without sleeves for a game or two before you decide to protect them. There are now additional "strategy" cards for the Germans that may help with especially important targets (like taking out radar stations early with major raids).

As for Lion, I don't believe there has been a lot of tweaking of the original design other than the occasional minor change in abilities or deck information. In fact, other than raid planning for the Luftwaffe and the addition of AI for the RAF, playing Eagle will be a very familiar experience. Whether it's as interesting an experience remains to be seen. I did not notice any Frei Jagd missions (where ME 109s would roam at will around Southern England looking for stray RAF planes to attack), although you can turn a mission into a fighter sweep just by throwing four fighters at it instead of bombers. I should also note that in Eagle, while you *do* choose from a subset of missions, how you sequence them, and where they go, you make all bomber assignments for the entire day. Fighters, however, can be assigned as the day goes on. Eagle strikes me as the kind of game that those who like to make elaborate plans will enjoy, then see how they pan out. Lion will be more for players who enjoy reacting to an ever-changing assault.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the game so far is the price - $75 retail. Of course, you get two different games in the box, but the same could be said for Fields of Fire (where you get three if you take each conflict as a different game, and Viet Nam sure feels like a different game). I'm sure that the large number of cards needed, the two maps, the three rulebooks all contributed to the total cost. However, unlike a lot of Decision titles, especially reprints, where the games seem to have been tossed out without a lot of thought, this game feels pretty tight and worth investing in if you want to fight the Battle of Britain but don't want the muss and fuss of an actual living opponent.

I'll give a more thorough review of Eagle once I've gotten through the Hardest Days scenario. For now, though, this looks like a winner in a lot of ways.

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