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.