So I'm reading Fortress Ameritrash one day, minding my own business, when reviewer Michael Barnes mentions a new game he's been playing about developing fighter aircraft in World War I. It's heavily historically based he says with an executive theme implementing hyperinflation, morale and the need to constantly compete against Allied aircraft technologies as well as those of your fellow players. As I'm reading I'm thinking, "holy crap, this game was designed for me." Barnes wrote "I’m really digging it, not one for everybody but I think folks that like business games or are interested in the subject matter will really like."
Well, that's me. That's exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for in gaming (and rarely finding), and just as I'm thinking this, Barnes says, "Sag, this means you." Damn right it does. Tape a game like this to a good bottle of whiskey and I'll believe in Santa Claus again.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So I purchased a copy immediately and called in my markers with several of my gaming buddies, reserving slots for playing the game so that I could give this title the attention that Mr. Barnes' hype indicated it deserved.
And deserve it it did, something that became apparent on my first solo play. Wings for the Baron comes with solo rules, but this first game was for learning. I wanted to play the game in the traditional way so that I would be in a position to teach with authority when I sat down with friends. So I set up three of the German aircraft manufacturers and played all three. The manufacturers are the roles that players take in the game. Each provides a minor special power that provides small differences in approach to the game, but more importantly reflect each company's strength at the beginning of the war. Thematic elements are not flourishes in this game, they're an integral part of its core concepts that can't be separated from the mechanics. I've played hundreds of titles. Never have I seen a game's theme so entwined with the gameplay, so carefully modeled in the ruleset. This game is exceptionally well thought out, by someone who has spent time reading the history of the era, the history of Germany, the history of aircraft evolution. This part of the game is flawless.
And here's the thing with games that model history. They need to be relatively fickle. They need to have dice, or cards, or some element that simulates the lucky and unlucky breaks that each of us rolls with everyday. Like the wargames that VPG is better known for the players need to have a controlling hand over their destiny, but simple, dependable journeys are tedious. Simulations provide surprises for you to react to and this first play of mine provided three very different experiences in the three different companies I was playing. Albatros, a powerhouse manufacturer prior to the war started the game strong, earning good money with its four up-and-running factories at the beginning of the game. Fokker had to build out early and succeeded, getting a solid Fighter in the air, which is a must-have in the Standard Rules version of the game. A couple of good card pulls and a couple of good die rolls had them on Albatros' heels.
Halberstadt was another story. In theory Halberstadt has a better R&D base. They get to draw extra cards used for design, and so should have been able to get a solid plane in the air and give the other two companies a run for their money. But Halberstadt had cursed dice, rolling nothing higher than a two turn after turn at the beginning of the game. They floundered, unable to get traction, unable to capture so much as one contract from the German government to provide aircraft for the war. Albatros and Fokker were leaving them just one opportunity in each of the early turns, and Halberstadt's dependable die roll of 1 each time meant they couldn't even land that.
The third time something like this happens is grounds for banging your fist on the table and throwing foul language at your opponents or even the game box. But in Wings for the Baron this doesn't have to be the case. With lady luck snubbing Halberstadt I spent a moment to consider what I was doing wrong, a moment looking at the company's cards to see how I could change their fortune regardless of the cold-blooded cube on the table. The answer came in one simple word -- Design.
The fundamental concept in Wings for the Baron is this -- build a better airplane. It's the heart of the game, and if you get a better design put together fickle dice won't have enough opportunity to get in the way of your plans. The game has three other issues that need attending: dealing with inflation eating into your revenues; building enough factories to handle the contracts you land; and gaining political influence for the bidding process. But without a solid enough aircraft to capture the German government's attention the other three issues are moot points. You can't lose money you don't have. So while it made sense for Albatros to convert its paper money to gold and to work on influencing the bid process, and made sense for Fokker to build factories to fulfill orders it was having to turn away due to lack of capacity, Halberstadt needed to spend its time taking luck out of the equation, building a world-class aircraft that would give them first pick at contract time. They didn't need factories . . . yet. They needed a plane. Two turns later Halberstadt was in the hunt, a turn after that they had the best plane in the war and suddenly couldn't handle the contracts coming their way. In spite of continuing to roll 1s, Halberstadt had an up and running concern, suddenly needing to attend to the other three issues.
This first game playing the Standard Rules was a real eye-opener even though I was playing it solo. To a large extent the game lends itself well to solo play but I'll be honest -- I don't think I'm ever going to use the solo rules included in the rule book. A quick glance at them indicated other companies running via a different set of mechanics in an auto-pilot sort of fashion, but as a wargamer I'm accustomed to playing both sides of a battle when no opponent is available. Wings for the Baron lends itself well to this, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first playing three separate companies via the Standard Rules. I was also comfortable enough with the mechanics to teach.
Victory Point Games has a unique look and feel to their games, boxes that look like they came from a smash-and-grab at Pappa John's with a slip cover over it. The box is designed to survive a real war and most eurogamers will be caught off guard by the unorthodox appearance. But once the pieces come out they'll be on solid ground with the thickest chits in the business. Wings for the Baron's art design includes a weathered look to the components. It gives them a war weariness that evokes the era every bit as much as the concepts being played, and the uneven worn look on the backs of the cards make the game look 100 years old. They're similar enough to not give anything away, but your eye can't help but notice the faded colors and appearance of wear, artful imperfections that make the game look different from the clean poppy artwork so common to the euro genre. VPG's laser cut on the chits adds to the flavor with dark brown edges that show themselves off when a dropped piece occasionally comes to rest on-edge. They're thick enough to do that. With muted colors and classic handwritten fonts the pieces look like they've come off a factory floor from the early 1900s.
This is a true Euro in the classic form, thematically 100 years old but mechanically 20, using the kinds of features you find in German games from the late 1990s. Dice and cards come into play and have their effects, but you never feel out of control of your destiny. There's ways to manufacture luck if you need to (as in Halberstadt's case above.) You can get up in your opponents' business by sabotaging their designs or hiring their politically connected employees. And you can steal technologies from them, a remarkably common occurrence in aeronautics from day one. Your catch-up mechanism is scrapping for whatever is available, and if your opponents are ahead in aircraft design they become a ripe resource for your next turn. Wings for the Baron has you performing espionage before performing design, so a good turn may combine both and a lucky break on your espionage die roll can have you can build on the results of your treachery in the same turn. In most games I'm not a fan of catch-up mechs but this game gets away with it for one simple reason -- it is absolutely thematically appropriate for the game to work this way. That buys a lot of goodwill from me.
Game two was with two seasoned gamers, but neither a wargamer by any stretch of the imagination. Both were very interested in playing because I had been calling out the game's virtues since my first play a week earlier. We played Standard Rules again, partly because I wasn't ready to teach the Advanced Rules but partly because the Standard Rules had just been so damn tight in that first play. So the three of us got down to business and got our machines humming in short order. Halfway through the game I made it a point to tell my opponents how the end-game plays out. It's not immediately apparent, but as the end of the war approaches you need to change your focus. You have to set the war aside to a certain extent. You're playing the part of a businessman not a soldier, and although Germany winning the war has its advantages to you it's not a requirement or by any means a foregone conclusion. (The rules actually mention that Germany lost the war in real life, an amusing inclusion for someone who's a history buff and leaps to the conclusion that everyone knows they went 0-2 in World Wars.) So you need to set your plane aside and tend to your money as the war reaches its conclusion. You win via cash in hand at the end, and you're getting paid in German Marks, a paper currency that lost more than 60% of its value in three years during the actual war. The currency devalues in Wings for the Baron as well, often completely but at least heavily, so there is a need to get your Paper Marks converted into gold in order to avoid inflation. That's an action too, just like Research and Design and Espionage are, so you need to decide what is most important to you each turn. As the war burns on this changes. Early in the game you need to be a player in the manufacturing game, creating a quality aircraft and having enough factory capacity to earn money. But late in the war your paper currency becomes a dodgy bet, and if the German war effort isn't going well (the actual historic outcome of the war by the way) you need to set aside your technological focus so you can spend actions to get out of the paper currency. Knowing when to turn that corner is part of the game, a part that was quite different in all my plays to date, as inflation is determined by a die roll each turn. If the currency is holding strong your Marks will pay you handsomely at the end of the game. You want to keep producing. If it's tanking you need to get out, ignoring contracts and capacity at a time when the German government is in need of your best efforts. Alas, business is business.
This second play was a close game between the three of us, I won by a hair and had damn near built a World War II era aircraft playing as Albatros. Both my opponents were very pleased with the game and look forward to playing again.
I managed to get another play in last night with two different guys, both of which enjoyed it as well. This time we played the "Campaign Rules" which would be more aptly named "Advanced Rules" because they add more options to a single play rather than extend across multiple sessions. A minor quibble at best. The Campaign Rules are just two very short pages, but I struggled a bit with the new markers and concepts. They are quite simple, but they add a fair chunk of overhead to the running gear of the game. When I apologized for my confusion both of my buddies made it a point to indicate that they were really enjoying the play in spite of it, so apparently this wasn't something that had a negative impact on first time players.
But it did have an impact on me, and I'll be honest -- the Advanced Rules decouple the players from each other quite a bit. What I mean by that is that they open up a lot more space for players to do their own thing away from the influences of their opponents. This a noticeable change from the super-tight competition going on in the Standard Rules. With a couple of plays under my belt I had a little more understanding than the other two guys, so I was able to score some political influence early and build a competitive fighter craft. Factories coming on line shortly after that made me a force to be reckoned with, and in the Standard Rules my two opponents would have had to take me on directly -- out-designing me to get first picks at contracts and finding ways to generate their own political influence or take mine out. Both are options in the Standard Rules and they're a must if someone starts opening a lead. There are cards specifically designed to take shots at your competitors. But with the Advanced Rules my opponents had safe, separate viable paths to choose from, and one of the players more or less withdrew from fighter production entirely. He could fill his factories with bomber contracts instead and more or less own that part of the game all to himself. That left the third player a lucrative middle space where he could be second in line each time for the fighter contracts and then augment with reconnaissance airplane contracts to fill out his factory capacity.
I believe "multiple paths to victory" is the technical term for this and I think it's going to appeal to some groups, those that aren't as comfortable with direct conflict. But it decouples the players in all but perhaps five player games (where there wouldn't be enough options to go around) and loosened up the play too much for my liking. In my prior two games with three you needed to compete directly in a just a few categories to remain relevant, and that meant going hunting now and again. It puts a lot more pressure on you to identify your weaknesses and address them, and to find ways to stick other players. You need to get your Jack Dempsy on in a very tight play space, and I love that kind of gaming.
In short, I think the Basic Rules are the better game. Nothing wrong with that, and it's a testament to this game's heritage in Euroville -- a small, tight set of concepts that are in conflict with each other. This game has four which is more than most. All of them need to be tended to with care in the Standard Rules, and their mix changes as the game proceeds. That's a solid trick to pull off, and the game's positively stunning thematic integration adds to the mix. Wings for the Baron competes with tactical games like Acquire, and El Grande, and Alhambra, where you need to reassess and readjust each turn based on where your opponents are and what they've recently done.
Granted, in a five player game with the Basic Rules you could end up in a world of hurt if your fighter isn't in the top three. Contracts run out very quickly. But falling off the lead isn't a death spiral in this game. Missing contracts one turn does not hinder your ability to get them the next, you just need to focus on different priorities to get back into a competitive position. With five players I could imagine the most effective fighter switching places every turn, which would make for a very interesting run to the finish. I have yet to play a game with five, but I'm very much looking forward to it. Euros don't capture my attention as often as they used to, but damn . . . this is one hell of a good game. You can quote me on that.