Sunday, April 18, 2010

London Is Burning. Yup. Definitely Burning.

For my April solitaire game, I chose London's Burning. A few reasons - I am familiar with the game so it required little ramp-up time, it plays fast (sometimes really fast), it's on an interesting subject, and I was very interested in comparing it with RAF now that I have that title too.

This was one of the later Avalon Hill games that came out in the late 90's, and IMHO one of their better ones. Ben Knight does some really neat design work, boiling the essentials of a conflict down to a very simple design.

I've gotten through the first week pretty quickly - about two hours total including a rules refresh. Once you have the system down you can get through a two-raid day in about 20 minutes with almost no AI admin, which is possibly the best aspect of the game.

Rather than give a rundown of the game, I think it's just as easy for me to compare the game with RAF now that I've gotten to play both.

Focus - RAF covers the entire air war over southern Britain in 1940, from the initial channel bombings to the entire reason the war was fought - to achieve air superiority for an amphibious assault on England, code named Seelowen (Sealion). It was probably never going to happen even if the Germans had air superiority, but it's kind of a wargamer's wet dream so designers keep incorporating it. In comparison, LB focuses solely on the southwestern corner of England and the attacks by Luftflotte 2 (based in Calais, and admittedly the air group that had the largest role in the conflict). If you want the whole enchilada, RAF is the game.

Realism - RAF puts you in the role of air sector command, assigning aircraft to various zones in anticipation of the coming raids. There are a lot of air units to assign, and this is arguably the "meat" in RAFs sandwich. However, there is almost no attention paid to things like altitude, diving out of the sun, or anything remotely tactical. The combat is abstracted to a set sequence that follows both sides' doctrine at the time. LB gives you two aircraft to worry about, and the level of abstraction is a lot lower. You take and inflict hits on very specific elements of the aircraft, such as engines and pilots. Preference between the two games really comes down to whether you want a fairly strategic sim or a more tactical one, although both do try to cover the bases the other focuses on.

Table Space - Both games require more or less the same amount of table space, although RAF does require a little extra for cards (which are a huge part of that game), while LB relies on chit pulls. LB has two boards (one map, one a combat display) that give a little extra flexibility in how they can be arranged, but when it comes down to it the footprints are pretty much identical.

Component Quality - Had I been comparing LB to the first "West End" edition of RAF, this would be no contest - that game had perforated sheets that turned into cards, very flimsy rules and map, and the usual problems that WEG titles had at the time. In comparison, LB has mounted maps, nice thick counters, and durable rules. However, the recent reprint of RAF by Decision has upped the ante a bit, and RAF now has much better cards, although the graphics are still fairly dull on the map and counters. I give this one to LB with it's painted map and great presentation, but RAF does just as well when you take functionality into account. If you like pretty, LB wins this one.

Time - I can play through a raid in LB in about 10 minutes if there's a lot going on. I can play through a raid in RAF in about 30 minutes if there's a lot going on. Admittedly, RAF is more of a resource management game, but almost everything that the British player (you, I'm not going to cover the "Eagle" game where you play the Germans) is done at the start of the turn when it comes to assigning aircraft. In comparison. LB involves the player almost constantly, and the AI admin is done on the fly. If time is of the essence, LB will get you through a long campaign in what I'll estimate *very* roughly is about 1/8th of the time, and you'll be engaged through the entire game.

Fun Factor - I like both games. They each scratch a slightly different itch because of the different focus each game brings. Note that these are not tactical flight sim games like Mustangs or Actung, Spitfire!, but rather a higher-level view (or even higher, in the case of RAF). As such, much depends upon what you're looking for in these games. I'm finding I really enjoy the combat in LB, which forces me to decide whether it's a good time to break off, whether to go after the fighter cover or straight for the bombers, and I also really like not knowing where the damned raid is going until it gets there. With RAF, I like the resource management aspect of deciding if you want to put planes in the air but at the risk that they'll be exhausted and unable to respond to later raids - it's a game that rewards a longer view compared to LB. And, of course, there's no question that RAF does a better job of representing the Luftwaffe - they have distinct aircraft limits that LB doesn't really model, they have specific "focii" on the targets they are going after, both Luftflottes are represented, along with various random events that do a great job of ruining either your (or their) plans.

Right now, at a point where I'm busy prepping for WBC West as well as some musical performances over the next couple of weeks, RAF would be far more than I could fit into a month without devoting all of my spare time to the game. LB, on the other hand, fits the bill nicely. I can literally throw ten or fifteen minutes into it and get through a raid, or a day depending on how the chits pull out. And the game is fun, no question. Deciding if you really want to go after that 6 aircraft raid with only one lowly Hurricane, but being afraid not to because it's quite possible that the target will be your base - great stuff. Not only that, but since you are dealing with specific pilots rather than air groups, you tend to take a loss rather personally. Me, I've lost two Hurricane pilots (one who had *just* become an ace) in the first week, and it was brutal. But fun. Making it worse was that I'd added a target DRM to an attacking Me109 when obviously the attacker wasn't a target and thus shouldn't have gotten the DRM, but I didn't figure that out until later. Oops.

I should note that both games come with extensive designer's notes and examples of play, and I have found the rules about as transparent (or not) as the other title. I will say that RAF is a more complex game, and thus requires a few more rules lookups after you've gotten the hang of it, but that's par for the course and not something that I consider an issue.

My game has gone fairly well. I've been trying to repair my radar stations as fast as they get hit, and cleaning up London is important (as it takes damage you start adding aircraft to raids for the Luftwaffe). I'm playing the Standard game, which runs into early September (at which point the battle had been decided but not finished), and I figure I'm about 1/3rd of the way through. I figure I'm about four hours or so out from finishing, and that's nice to know during a very busy month when I have limited time to play.

LB is, of course, long out of print, but I suspect you can find copies fairly cheaply. BGG prices run around $50 before shipping. RAF is, of course, back in print, and there's really no reason to look up the old version of the game as the new Lion version is so much like the old edition. It's a pricey bugger, though, at $70 retail.

Of course, what I'm really looking forward to is trying out Burning Blue, which I'll do (finally) at WBC West with Rog. BB looks to be about as realistic at a similar scale (of operations, not of the map) as you can get, and while there isn't a lot for the Luftwaffe player to do (sans Frei Jagd, of course), and it only covers one mission at a time for a fairly hefty time investment, I think it will give about as good an experience as a sector commander as you can find in board wargaming.

If you're in the market for a solitaire Battle of Britain game, it would be hard to go wrong with one of these so long as it matched up well with your needs and expectations.

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