And so we arrived at Saturday, the saddest key of them all. Or so it had been in years past, but this year I was looking forward to the games more than disappointed that the week was coming to a close. Today, I was to play both The Burning Blue in a rematch with Roger, and learn PQ-17 from Tex.
Burning Blue is an interesting game in that it puts you in the position of sector air commander, in charge of sending out RAF squadrons to protect England from Luftwaffe bombing. A big part of the tension in the game is that you don't have the vaguest idea of how big a raid will be, and so you don't want to overcommit your forces because there might be a bigger (and notional) raid later in the day and you don't want to fatigue your pilots. Of course, you may have had raids earlier (again notional rather than real) and that's reflected in your readiness rolls.
This time, Roger got to plan the raids as the Luftwaffe, and I think he enjoyed the planning and what is essentially GMing (you get very few choices as the Luftwaffe once things start) as much as I did the last time we played. The game itself is made up of what are really fairly basic but heavily sequenced mechanisms, but they tend to be intertwined with each other, so that you are wondering when to tally (sight) opposing aircraft during what phase, or exactly when combat takes place. Next time I will put together a cheat sheet that lists the specific times when tallying takes place, much as I did for the Fleet game we played earlier in the week, assuming there isn't one already on the eight panel player aid that has the many many tables associated with the game. However, if you follow the sequence of play exactly, you will do alright so long as you understand that tallying and combat take place at several points during the turn and are aware of them. There's no question that we need to get together at some point in the next few months and give this another try so that we can internalize the system better and not spend so much time refreshing at the moment of play. And this despite us both rereading the rules!
Roger's raids formed up over France in fairly impressive form - there was a 200+ form-up that was rather frightening, plus a few more 30-40+ raids that took the numbers well over 300, meaning that I got a pretty good Early Warning of 3 Early squadrons in the air and another 2 Late squadrons (Early squadrons have established Orbits, which are helpful in tallying during enemy movement). I put these in staggered picket lines starting at Dover and working back to England. For some reason I thought that Patrol Lines were more effective, but really you want orbits if you can get them. The first raids to reach me were of course the smaller ones, and the first one turned out to be Freie Jagd, or a fighter sweep, and it broke the cohesion of my lead squadrons, forcing them to pancake (land) early. That's what the FJ are supposed to do, and Roger's were very effective. Of the seven initial squadrons scrambled, I don't think a single one touched a bomber, but they did mostly manage to Raid Match them, which just means that the raid was intercepted by my squadrons and thus did not bomb as effectively.
In fact, I think we shot down about 10 aircraft total the entire game, with largely ineffective rolls in combat throughout, mostly as it was fighter to fighter combat with only four actual attempts on bombers. What I *was* good at was keeping cohesion, and at least four or five attacks resulted in my planes staying in the air after a round of combat, which is both unusual and welcome as it only takes a single cohesion hit for a squadron to be forced to pancake. I was most effective against a small raid that had ME-110 close escort, although all I really did was send the ME-110's home. Also interesting was a 0 Angels ultra-low altitude bombing run featuring Erpro 210, the only organization that can make such an attempt. Roger sent them in underneath a larger raid and it made for an exciting surprise.
In the end, I had three squadrons in the air while Roger had one Freie Jagd mission still orbiting over the mouth of the Thames and one large raid (that had downgraded to 100+ from it's initial 200+). I was very nervous about sending up more than 8 squadrons and risking VP, but I thought that three squadrons just might cause the 3 cohesion hits necessary to send it home. Unfortunately, his Erpro 210 bombers had blown the Kenley sector comm network, and so a squadron I had *just* sent up was going to pancake as soon as it made it to it's vector location, which would be the next turn, so the only way it would attack was if it got a very lucky tally at long distance (made more difficult by an Air Picture that had degraded very quickly with a lot of low Cohesion rolls early on). Amazingly, not only that squadron, but all three of my remaining squadrons did indeed tally right at the point where Roger's final raid broke into three components. While I was unsuccessful in doing much damage to the bombers, perhaps shooting down one or two, I did successfully raid match them and thus kept his points down a bit. In the end, Roger scored 43.5 points, needing 44 to win. As it turned out, I could have launched one more squadron since the readiness level was 9.5 (the assumption on my part was that it was 8). I did not win, however, as the VP would have had to be 22 points, half of Roger's total, for the win, but I considered it a moral victory.
This game is a lot of fun, but it's more about watching a plan unfold and trying to react to it. There is not a huge amount of combat - I figure we rolled combat about 20 times total in four hours, and many of those were dogfights held over from previous phases or turns. Also, like in naval games luck plays a huge roll - if your pilot is looking left, he will tally the raid, but if he's looking right, he will miss it completely - so it's more about replaying history and an exciting narrative than about a competitive experience, although that is not to say that good players won't have a markedly better chance of success against poor players, just that you don't play this kind of game to be competitive. In the end, I came away liking the game even more than before having played both sides, and I feel I have enough of the rules internalized to give this a try with one or two of the solitaire scenarios available online. A really nice change of pace from the land-based games I usually play.
We finished right at 1pm, as planned, and Tex and I jumped right into PQ-17, a recent game that uses blocks in a slightly different way to game the Murmansk convoys in the Barents Sea. We played the first scenario, which allowed Tex to refresh the rules, me to learn them, but didn't leave much for the Axis player to do. My planes were grounded because of bad weather, and it was only after figuring out that the Random Events table would let them fly that it became apparent why I was assigned them in the first place. That left me with a U-Boat and five destroyers, one of which was inoperable (present solely for the Allies to bomb with their aircraft carrier, I guess). Tex, on the other hand, had a task force that featured an aircraft carrier with recon-capable aircraft so he could try to attack me with them.
I'm pretty sure we screwed up the dummy rules, which are pretty specific in how and when you can generate dummies, although Tex did a *lot* of breaking up and recombining of his naval vessels, and I never was able to get a successful search in any space that had his convoy, although I did have one very exciting moment when my three destroyers (one had been sunk by light drift ice) found his two destroyers and the carrier. Unfortunately, my crews were green and I failed to hit any of his boats, while he sunk one of mine and fled. Aside from a little sub-on-sub action, that was about it for combat. Like Burning Blue, this one hinges dramatically on how well you are able to locate the other player's units, and for the most part I failed. Perhaps I should have broken my destroyer task force up to improve my odds, but in any event the idea was to learn the system.
And here's the thing - PQ-17 has gotten a lot of flak for having incomprehensible rules, and there's some truth to that, although the main issues are ones of making the terminology clear as well as the way the rules are structured. At it's core, however, the systems are all pretty simple, although every type of combat has it's own process. And there aren't all that many of them. Ice, for example, simply means that you make a roll on a table based on the type of ice you are heading into. Fuel means that you track fuel based on your movement and combat for a given task force, and when the time marker hits that TF's fuel marker, it's status changes. Like Burning Blue, the most important thing to know is when you can make Recon attempts. Perhaps the most confusing is that the block sides don't reflect combat strength, as in every other block game, but how well identified the force is. To make that issue more confusing, the counters, which stay on your force display for the most part, *do* represent combat strength, but sometimes that means multiple ships and sometimes it means damage to a single ship. The designer is trying to make these concepts clearer in the Norway 1940 expansion he's working on, and I'm trying to help out, which will be easier now that I've played the game.
All of that said, it's a fun game that plays relatively quickly when someone understands the system. In most turns, you move, you search, and maybe there's some shooty-shooty. That's it. The complexity comes from when you search. You plot your moves, but that's largely for planning and unlike Burning Blue doesn't lock you into motion (in fact, Tex ran into a gale on his first move out of port and scrapped his entire plan). You need to move steadily toward the target because of fuel issues (and fewer chances to get sunk), but you've got options.
I found this to be the most satisfying naval game on this scale I own (Fleet is a different feel, much bloodier), whereas this one is more like one of those old "duel at sea" movies where a U-Boat and a destroyer are playing cat and mouse, with the roles switching from time to time. I found it to be extremely satisfying even with no Axis air power (other than the sector recon), and I'm looking forward to giving it another try in the near future.
As you can imagine, putting the two most demanding games, at least in terms of me learning the systems, right up at the end of what is usually a very long and demanding week, and I walked away from both feeling that I had a very good grip on the systems. An excellent time to go out for dinner, which we did at 7pm at the new Hola! restaurant that has taken over the old Trout House venue recently. If you're in the Sunriver area, or even the Bend area of Oregon, you would do worse than to try these venues out - excellent Peruvian/Mexican cuisine, really good drinks (I had the tamarind margarita, which came with chili-infused salt rimming the glass and a shaker filled with another serving), and nice decor. This is not your average cheese-bombed bad Mexican/American food, this is the real deal and well worth the trip.
After an excellent meal, we were all a little tired and I was barely able to get through five or so hands of Sticheln before my brain failed and I needed to get to bed to get one good night's sleep before leaving the next day.
And that, as far as I knew, was the end of gaming for me, as I planned to close up the house on Sunday while others played. Or was it...