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Skies Above the Reich: Game Review

R Updated
Skies Above the Reich review

Game Information

There Will Be Games
A solo game of the struggle between the pilots of the Luftwaffe and the bombers of America's 8th airforce in the skies over Germany at the height of World War Two.

I visited East Berlin on July 4th 1985 as part of a student exchange program. We passed through the wall at Check Point Charlie and went from a vibrant and modern city to one of concrete apartment blocks, where stores had little for sale and the only restaurant worth visiting had closed sometime in the past year. Every building had a camera on it's roof and any person we tried to talk to had a strange look of apprehension in their eyes fearing that some unseen observer might make note of their interaction with corrupting influences from the West.

As a tourist, there was little to see or do but one place remains in my memory. There was a museum dedicated to World War 2. Only it presented the war as seen through Soviet eyes. Inside we were treated to a film where it was made to seem as if the Russians had won the war. Now, as a teenager in the 1980's, I knew this to be patently absurd. It was America that had won the war. Every movie, TV show, and comic book that dealt with that conflict made it clear. This film we were subjected to was no more than commie propoganda and could be dismissed.

As I grew older, and learned more about the war, I realized that the movie may very well have been propogandistic but even so it was true or had elements of truth. So I was forced to re-evaluate what I had been taught and shown all my life. There were other points of view to be considered. Since then I have been drawn to accounts of events that are related by those less heard. A German's perspective of World War Two for instance or more specifically the struggle in the air over Germany.

Skies Above the Reich does just that by putting you in charge of a squadron of BF-109 Luftwaffe fighters attempting to disrupt the bombing raids being conducted by the US 8th Air Force over Germany from 1942 until the end of the war. Time and time again we have seen that struggle from the American side but I have never considered what it must have been like in the cockpit of that Messerschmitt tasked with taking on a formation of B-17s. If this game is any guide, it must have been a harrowing experience.

The game divides the conflict into several seasons of approximately four months from late 1942 until the end of the war. Each season you will be tasked with taking your squadron of 16 pilots and flying six or more missions. The parameters of these missions are determined randomly. Is the bomber formation in bound or out bound or near the target, how many resources you've been allocated for this mission, how much time you'll have before you run out of fuel, the position of the sun, allied fighter escort and the size and type of the formation and even it's relative position in regards to other bomber formations.

The resources allocted to you by Luftwaffe command are used to "purchase" the forces at your command for any particular mission. Your core pilots must be paid for so you will seldom have all of them flying at once but you can buy flights of different types of planes to join you from BF-110's to the jet powered ME-262 depending on what time frame you are playing. You can also customize the load out of your planes with things like cannons, rockets, or if you are feeling defensive some armor for the cockpit.

The actual engagement portion of the game is quick. Even if you've been given a lot of time to complete your mission you'll be lucky to get three attack runs on the bombers and those runs will be harrowing. Be overly aggressive and you may find  yourself zooming past your target into the heart of the formation where the chances of survival plummet. Play it too safe and you'll never get enough damage on those B-17's to force them from the sky. Hang back and you might run into the bomber's "little friends", that is the fighter escorts of P47s or Spitfires or worst of all Mustangs. Before you know it, the mission is over and you can take a deep breath and assess the damage both to your squadron and the bombers.

In terms of game play, Skies does some things I really like. It tries as much as possible to do away with the consultation of a million charts. There are some, in set up mostly, but for random results it uses two different methods. The use of cards in determining the results of your attacks is the first. Depending on which direction you've attacked from you draw from a set of cards. These cards then take your altitude, demenour of your pilot (determined or evasive), and the relative lethality of your position in regards to the formation to provide a result. These can range from your pilot damaging a bomber, being damaged himself, or perhaps both along with occasional odd ball results like hitting debris or getting a free second shot at the bomber.

The second thing this game does a bit differently is the use of two pools of chits to further differentiate the hits shown by the cards. The cards tell you a bomber is hit. The random chit pull will tell you where the hit was, it'll give you a possibility of the bomber falling out of formation or even being destroyed. Providing it's neither of those results, the back of the chit will give a number representing damage points to the bomber. If it gets 10 points or more it is shot down as well. The second pool of chits represents hits done to your fighters. A chit will list a location and a number. Roll higher than the number and the hit was minimal and is ignored. Roll lower and that plane is out of the fight and is put on the fate track where at the end of the game the pilots fate will be determined by a die roll. He might land his damaged plane and live to fly again or he may blow up.

This seems like a lot of randomness but I think a lot of thought went into those card results. If you can figure out the best way to approach a given formation, the best weapons and tactics to use, you can mitagate much of the risk. Like those German pilots, you've no choice but to learn as you go and the cost of that education is going to be steep. Over the course of 10 or more plays, I find that I am getting better results but am by no means the master of this game.

The game is won or lost based on how much damage you've dealt and also on how much damage you've sustained. It's not enough to shoot down the bombers, you've got to keep those precious few pilots alive as well. Too many die and the game is over. Victory is based on a given number of bombers you must destroy but the scenarios also have a minimum level of success  you must meet or else you lose and in between there is a wide range of neither victory or defeat. Only survival. And that is what this game does best. It provides both the adrenalin rush of the fight but also the deeper sense of desperation and doom. I imagine the actual men who flew those planes would know just what that was like.



There Will Be Games Skies Above the Reich review

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Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #291152 30 Jan 2019 15:00
Super psyched you put out a full review on this one, been waiting to hear your final thoughts for a while.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #291188 30 Jan 2019 20:29
I realized I provided very little content in my last post---so repo, one question I do have about the game is if the planes distinguish themselves from one another. It's ok if resolution is a little random if the choices you make in the points buy phase actually matter to the ultimate outcome of the mission. Did you get that sense? Or are the squadron purchases pretty interchangeable relative to the randomness of outcomes?
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #291194 30 Jan 2019 21:11
Thank you for taking the time to review this, and your approach is refreshing. I think I may take a swing at this a Vassal.

How long is a typical session?

And as an aside, do you play games like this on the road? If so where do you set up?
repoman's Avatar
repoman replied the topic: #291195 30 Jan 2019 21:32
The type of planes do matter. For example a BF 110 has a modifier that increases the leathality level to any space in the formation. The higher the level the more deadly it is. However, it is better at delivering bombs. It is worse at surviving dogfights.

Different planes can also carry different attachments or different numbers of them.

The only really interchangable planes are the BF109 and the FW190. In fact the sequel Storm Above the Reich has the FW as your primary aircraft.

A single mission can certainly be run in under an hour. But a lot depends on how many turns you get (random) and how many planes you have (rerandomish).
I've played 4 missions in an evening easily.
repoman's Avatar
repoman replied the topic: #291196 30 Jan 2019 21:34
Oh and I'm driving local now, though 3rd shift, so I'm home every morning.
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #291208 31 Jan 2019 08:28
There is a Tabletop Simulator module for the game to play in a mobile fashion.

I will now need to grab a copy of the game after reading the review.
ThirstyMan's Avatar
ThirstyMan replied the topic: #291210 31 Jan 2019 08:37
Bit concerned that Cthulhu doesn't make an appearance but seems like fun. I think (but not sure) that Hunters etc is bit too 'roll on this chart and then this chart' ooh I'm damaged. BGGers seem to think this is narrative play (which it absolutely isn't). I may well be tempted to buy this.

PS It's a bit nippy in Kuwait at the moment, 10C this morning . I had to put a coat on...Warming up soon though.
repoman's Avatar
repoman replied the topic: #291218 31 Jan 2019 09:02
I put this game well above Hunters or B17. While there are still some charts, there are far more decision points.

I should also mention that, in line with GMTs current philosophy, this game's production quality is tops. Using blocks instead of counters for the airplanes is utterly unnecessary but I'd be lying if I didn't admit it makes the game more enjoyable. The formation boards are fully mounted and warp free.

The rule book is also stellar. Designed that you can read along as you play through your first game with nice examples.

The play aids are also good. The sequence of play is nice because by each step has an abbreviated description of what to do and also notes a page reference in the rule book for the full description. That is immensely useful.

Also, Andy, it was -6 degrees F last night at work. That's -21 degrees C.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #291232 31 Jan 2019 10:48
I've enjoyed Silent Victory (The Hunters sequel) but I'll admit that it suffers from "best practices" play. A good game to play through once and gift to a friend.

This one sounds like there's more surprises hiding in the box.
ThirstyMan's Avatar
ThirstyMan replied the topic: #291239 31 Jan 2019 13:26

repoman wrote: Also, Andy, it was -6 degrees F last night at work. That's -21 degrees C.

I know, I was trolling you with resounding success.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #291348 02 Feb 2019 11:19
Repo's repost of this review on BGG had a classic god tier BGG reply that made me laugh out loud. The guy who didn't read past sentence three and the furiously clicked reply:
repoman's Avatar
repoman replied the topic: #291367 02 Feb 2019 15:02
Ha! Made me laugh as well, if a bit ruefully.

At least the next poster let him know that he had made an ass out of himself.
CranBerries's Avatar
CranBerries replied the topic: #291407 03 Feb 2019 13:43
Cool review. I could use a good solo game. I just came to say that every time I read one of these front page reviews and see the real name associated with someone I have only known for years through their site name, and a photo, it kind of freaks me out a little. "Oh yeah, these are real people"