Wings for the Baron is one of those games where I opened it up, looked at the components and had a bad impression. It looked super spreadsheet-y, with flowchart player mats and nothing but a large track for a mutual board. But it had a really cool setting- as its subtitle verbosely states, it’s about “innovation and profiteering among the German aircraft industries during World War I.” Which means to you, the player, that it is an economic game with a technology development angle. During World War I.
Each player represents one of the great, real-world companies that essentially made the first warplanes- I always pick Fokker, but maybe you prefer Pfalz Flugzeugwerke. Each, of course, as a special advantage the others do not to be applied toward the end goal of making the most money by selling aircraft to the German government. To win those valuable contracts, you need to have the most advanced, effective planes in the sky, capable of outperforming the allies’ own. But this is a wartime economy, so the effects of inflation can completely deflate your profits, unless you invest in gold. And since it is World War I, morale is on the downbound train from the get-go- once morale hits rock bottom for either Germany or the Allies, it’s over and the value of each player’s fortune is affected according to who actually won.
This is a simultaneous action design. Each player has a hand of five action cards that are locked in each turn (two in the standard game, three in the campaign version) and resolved in a specific sequence. First up is Build- this is how you create factories, which is also the limit of the number of contracts you can take on each round. Espionage follows, and it is a die roll attempt at stealing someone else’s previously developed airplane tech. Third is Design, wherein you can play a Technology card to add a new feature to your aircraft. That flowchart I mentioned on the player mats is actually a tech tree, and you have to meet specific prerequisites for certain additions. You can also switch from biplane to monoplane or triplane models. Everything you add gives a +X die roll modifier because at the end of the Design phase, you roll and add that DRM to determine the effectiveness of your product. You’ve got to keep pace with the Allies’ effectiveness or the Kaiser doesn’t want your junk planes.
So Design is really the most important part of the action phase, but to execute it you have to have cards. That’s what Research does, and each of the Tech cards also a playable event so you can choose to either to use it to add to your design or to use its event. The fifth and final action is Bank, which is how you spend your fluid and potential worthless Papiermarks to buy gold, which can not be devalued by the end-of-round inflation check. There is also a Focused Effort card which allows players to double an action.
After the action phase, the player with the most effective planes gets to roll on the big board to see how many contracts they win, again limited by their factories. Each turn, the column shifts down. Every contract gives you a Papiermark, and then the Inflation phase hits and you could lose up to 50% of that funny money. Rounding out the turn, the War Status phase gives you a historical event that adjusts morale, sets the contracts for the next turn, and automatically adjusts the Allied aircraft efficiency.
So here’s what’s going on in all of the above. This is essentially a simple economic Eurogame-style design dressed up in GMT-style finery. The language it speaks is Wargame, and the influence of card-driven wargames is definitely present with all of the historicity, dual-use cards with Very Serious photographs on them and a sense of world events impacting things on a more micro scale. But here, it’s all about the economics of a specific industry rather than theaters of war. I really like this approach, and I really like how the game depicts this sort of “arms race” between rival companies against the backdrop of the events of WWI.
It didn’t look fun. But it actually is, because the goals are concrete and there is plenty of player interaction. In fact, there may be too much for some players looking for a more solitary development game. But the event cards add some take-that punch, and the fact that anything you add can be stolen through Espionage is always a consideration- especially if you are looking at adding something crucial to future designs like ailerons. Or if you just can’t research your way into them and find yourself needing to resort to more crooked methods.
I like Wings for the Baron best with three players but it supports five. The standard game is easy and not too heavy, but for those wanting a little more out of it you can flip the player mats over for a Campaign game that adds slightly more abstracted development of Recon and Bomber aircraft and a Political Influence element that affects contract rewards. I prefer the standard game as it keeps things nice and tight, focusing solely on the fighter-making competition. The campaign elements feel somewhat bolted on to the standard core. There is also a solo variant that allows for some automated opposition and it’s quite satisfying in its own regard.