I honored the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave.
--Manfred von Richthofen
One of the 80s games that has aged really well is Blue Max, and Warbirds in Miniature is a World War II version of Blue Max. A simulation of WWI dogfighting, Blue Max simulates, turn-by-turn with simultaneous action selection, the airplane combat of the War to End All Wars. Wings of War, with its card-driven maneuvers, has become the best known air combat game, and it seems to be heavily based on Blue Max. Of course WoW does away with hexes in favor of cards, but the maneuvers (and their various restrictions) are remarkably similar to what’s available in Blue Max. If you want to get a feel for the original game check out www.youplay.it, an excellent work time-killer (watch out for pokerguy). If you’re looking for another way to use your Wings of War miniatures you might take a look at http://www.eaglesmax.com/. You could probably use a Commands & Colors board for your map.
Warbirds in Miniature has a few differences, naturally. The planes are more powerful; therefore, their movement and climb rates are different. The weapons are more powerful, and the planes can take a lot more punishment. But at its heart, and the designer proudly proclaims this, Warbirds in Miniature is a Blue Max/Canvas Eagles variant.
Whatever version of the “system” you use, this is one of the few boardgames that my game-group has totally played into the ground.
Components and construction
The components are up to you. This is a miniatures game, albeit one where you don’t necessarily have to paint. I wasn’t willing to fork out the cash for WoW miniatures, especially when I saw the 1/144 WWII miniatures made by 21st Century Toys at Wal-Mart. The WoW planes were 10 bucks a piece, but I picked up a bunch of WWII planes at Wal-Mart (and Toys-R-Us), a couple at a time, very cheaply (like one or two bucks apiece). I figured that once I had enough planes, I could find a rules set, and I was totally right. They were kind of like Heroscape figs, a good grocery throw-in.
Other Wal-mart throw-ins are the bases and the antennae. In the crafts section, they have these little wooden plaques, heart-shaped, rectangles, they’re perfect. At the height of my obsession with this game I imagined pasting WWII nose-art onto the heart-shaped bases, but I haven’t done it.
You need adjustable antennae to approximate altitude, and the cheapest way to get antennae is to buy cheap TV rabbit-ears, but it feels like you’re raping the environment when you buy them and then throw away the huge plastic disc that houses them.
Additionally, the planes have to be affixed to the antennae in a way that allows them to be moved. Silly Putty tic-tac stuff (craft store again) is good for that.
You'll also need some kind of blank hex map. I’m using a Battlemasters mat I got from a miniatures gamer I work with, but if you’re geeky enough to be reading this, you probably have your own solution.
There are also miniatures, stands, and maps available through www.warbirdsinminiature.com, which I’m sure you’ll see if you check out the site.
How to play
Each player has a sheet that maps out his possible maneuvers in hexes, depending on his plane. There are some special maneuvers that he can’t do twice in a row and some restrictions that him from banking hard-left to hard-right and vice versa. Sometimes the player has to roll to see if he spins out or whatever. Planes have very liberal restrictions concerning altitude, etc. If someone ends up in your sights, you drop the hurt on him, said hurt being determined by dice and tables (rather than pulling chits Blue Max style). In Blue Max/Canvas Eagles, fuel is the limiting factor for how long the battle goes on. In this, it's ammo, which makes for some interesting decisions when you have someone in your sights for a longer, less damaging shot. If you run out of ammo, you have to retire.
Since moves are simultaneous, there’s no downtime. Most of the of the playtime is spent adjusting the planes. Banking left or right, up or down, these are the things that take up most of the turns, but it’s a pleasure to fuck around with them. Ultimately you're playing with toys, after all, and more than any other game I've played, it recalls for me the childhood feeling of playing with Hot Wheels or Star Wars figures. So it's never boring, but it does take more time than it feels like it does.
It also rewards skill (or at least familiarity with the system). Having played hundreds of games on youplay.it, I'm much more experienced than my friends and have always gotten the drop on them. That's not to say that I always win, but it does say that, despite a lot of dice flying around, it's not that random.
Maybe the best compliment I can pay to the game is to say that it's the only one in my collection that made my friends yell loud enough to wake the baby, who was asleep at the other end of the house. I had two German 109s vs. friends with two Mustangs (late war versions of all), and I had them right where I wanted them. Unfortunately, I didn't notice that I was maneuvering both of my planes into the same hex at the same height, so I had to roll for collision. I was still confident because it's not very likely that they'll hit. Each plane rolls two dice; if the roll is the same on each die (i.e. they wouldn't hit if each player rolled 9; they'd only hit if each one rolled a 4 and a 5). I'll be damned if I didn't roll a 3-2 five with each hand, and at that point my two opponents started yelling so loud that it woke up my infant son (wife was none too happy, either). I had never had that kind of excessive exuberance happen before with any game.
This is a super-fun miniatures game. It suffers a little because it’s hard to create scenarios for it, and the tables are a pain in the ass, but if you’re looking to blast your friends out of the sky (and show them that you’re a smarter, better nerd), this is the game for you.