First off, a huge huge huge huge thank you to Chuck for taking on the laundry duties on Sunday morning so that I could play this game. I usually start stressing over Sunday clean up starting as early as Thursday, and this year I cannot say how nice it was to finish this game and realize that the linens were all washed and the beds all made, and it was almost completely Chuck. Also big thanks to Alex for hanging out and doing the final house closing chores on Sunday, which he can do as he's family.
You are a good man, Chuck.
On to Burning Blue. I have been wanting to try this game for years now, after an initial aversion because of complexity and a lack of solitaire options (I'm aware of the spreadsheet stuff, but that seems to be a) limited, b) complicated, and c) involved). It was a game I listed as a wargaming goal in 2009 that didn't happen (along with the monster game), and was also one of the biggest disappointments of that year as a result.
But now it's 2010, and the newest participant in WBC West, Roger, was also anxious to try it out for the same reasons I had.
The result was that he studied up on the RAF, I studied up on the Luftwaffe, and we had ourselves a pretty fun little game. Total play time was almost exactly four hours, although we more or less ignored any unit that was either aborted, done bombing, or pancaked. I also believe that Roger stopped worrying much about the rearming process for RAF units about halfway in, figuring that they wouldn't have much chance to get back into the fight in time, and he was right.
I drew two raids using Scenario 2, where the Luftwaffe stops channel raids and started going after airbases and infrastructure inland, but before the bombings on London began. Almost all of the raids are historical, with a few that were flown but turned back for various reasons, some of which had nothing to do with the RAF. One raid required bombing runs on Rochester and Eastchurch along the Thames estuary, while the other was a big raid on the sector airfield at Biggin Hill. The latter I split up into two bombing raids, with two Do17s and two Me109's as top cover hitting Eastchurch, one of each bombing Rochester, and two Me109s acting as Freie Jagd to clear the way. The Biggen Hill raid went as one large raid of three He111 bomber staffeln and two Me109 as top cover.
The raids flew at dusk (I recommend this heartily for your first game, or if time is an issue, as all of your raids must form up within a half hour of game start as opposed to 90 minutes), with the Freie Jagd mission forming up at 6:10, the Eastchurch raid at 6:15, the Rochester raid at 6:20, and the big Biggen Hill raid at 6:30 just to give Roger a scare (and it did).
We started early with my Freie Jagd aircraft taking out three different RAF squadrons with taking few plane losses, then finally disrupting to a level where they had to head for home. Disruption is actually the primary goal in this game - the RAF wants to disrupt bombers before they drop bombs, the Luftwaffe wants to force the RAF to pancake before they can get to the bombers). As the RAF have to be careful how strongly they respond to the raid (they are guaranteed no penalty if there are 8 squadrons that go up, and the number of Luftwaffe raids determines how much higher that limit is, in our case 10), every squadron that two Staffeln mission shot down was like VP in the bank. I also got luck with a Random Event that allowed one Channel Patrol Staffeln to take out one more squadron, meaning that Roger only had six squadrons to put up against three raids.
And, in fact, my initial raid into Eastchurch made it unimpeded and scored 40 VP, two thirds of my initial total. Considering that this was a simple two bomber raid with limited top cover, I was very happy about this. The CP random event was what allowed for this, as you get a huge benefit if your raid hasn't been intercepted ("raid-matched" in the rules). The Rochester raid, in comparison, did 7VP of damage, and the final Biggen Hill raid managed another 20 total. Only a single bomber Staffeln was forced to abort prior to their mission, and only a couple of bombers were shot down. The final total was 65 points, and I needed 46 to win. Had Eastchurch been intercepted, that number would have been a *lot* closer, possibly a win for Roger.
The tension in this game is simply incredible, especially for the RAF player, and I think Roger had a great time. As the Luftwaffe player, I got to see how my plans worked out, and to be honest, while I had very few decisions during the game it was a lot of fun and a game I'm going to want to play again in the future. Too many of those, I'm afraid.
Here are a few suggestions from both Roger and myself to learn the game:
1) Start with a Scenario 2 game with a start time of dusk. Scenario 1 is good if you have only a couple of hours to play, or if you are going to try to figure the game out on your own (small target range, short play time). S2 will provide relatively close targets as well as more than one, and there is no real added complexity with multiple targets.
2) Ignore aircraft that are pancaking, aborting, or returning home from target. This will speed the later portions of the game up considerably, reduce situational complexity, and allow you to largely ignore recovery rules for both sides.
3) Use the play aids on the game site, which you can access via the GMT Games website at gmtgames.com. Of particular use was a primer on playing the Luftwaffe, which will also take you through the process of getting through what is a fairly scattered set of rules. I've already been harsh about the rules for Battle for Normandy, and I think this game suffers from the same problem. However, the difference is that a) the primer on the designer's site is quite good, and b) there is an example of play that helps get you through the initial learning stages. I also recommend quite strongly that you use colored pens to map raid routes as well as an enlarged map (11"x17" sheets are available and useful). I found my maps to be very hard to read and cluttered in a very small area, resulting in at least one raid that ended up somewhere it wasn't supposed to (if only one hex off, but that can be a big difference).
4) You can more or less ignore the rules that pertain to the other side for your first game. The Luftwaffe will eventually need to understand how the Tally Board (Tote Board?) works for the RAF, but not in your first game, anymore than the RAF player will need to know the details of how the Luftwaffe plans raids (other than that a path might have a couple of waypoints and thus won't point straight for a target all the time).
5) Definitely give the example of play a good hard readthrough, and you might also consider studying the raid examples in the book. I would strongly suggest that the Luftwaffe player not use either of these raids in an actual game, as the walkthrough will get you where you need to be when you need to be there and you'll feel more involved in the game when you play it. If you use a prepackaged raid set, you won't be as emotionally invested in the game and it won't be as enjoyable of an experience. Plan a raid, you won't regret it and it's really not all that difficult.
I got a lot of questions at the house as to how this game compared with Downtown, which I've also dabbled in. Obviously, it's a different designer and the mechanisms are largely different (you use hexsides for movement as well as hexes in DT, but not in TBB, as a big example), and at that point in history 30 years of aviation warfare advances were simply incredible for such a short time. The NVA player in DT will need to do much more planning than either side in either game, mostly because the SAM/AA network is the critical element in that game as opposed to their air force. However, DT also has a large number of scenarios (not randomly generated, as in TBB) which facilitate learning the game gradually. TBB more or less throws you in with the whole shooting match, short of things like Jabos (fighter bombers), RAF Wings, the Italian AF, and a few other goodies like London Haze.
Of the two, I found TBB to be easier to learn when using the techniques outlined above, and a bit more satisfying (largely because we were playing a full scenario instead of bits and pieces right away), but I liked both games. However, I am fully aware that most of my wargaming buddies are less interested in this game when alternatives such as RAF will now do more or less the same thing on a more abstract scale, so I may be limited to VASSAL games. However, I'm good with that - this game would work really well with VASSAL, especially if you can plan the raid in the VASSAL system. Something to look into.
Regardless, this was a great way to finish off the week, it was great to play a one-on-one game with Roger, and really nice to not have to drop out of gaming for the morning so that the house could get closed up and the laundry done.
I'll cover the evening gaming, overall thoughts, and how well the iPad worked as a gaming tool during the week in future blog entries, but that's enough for today.