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Knights of the Air
For the last six months I've been trying to get my arms around an article describing the heavy gaming group my son participates in at the local library every Saturday. My buddy Tim, a wargamer from way back brings in kids from ages ten through seventeen or so and sits them down to "big" games -- Axis & Allies, Conquest of the Empire, you know, Ameritrash. I don't use the word when I'm there because it's not well understood outside of hobby gaming circles but it's pretty clear -- Tim plays Trash, and he's my prime example of how gaming can be used to educate kids in both history and critical thinking, but have one hell of a good time doing it. This he does with a generation accused of having a short attention span. These kids are all-in for six straight hours, often only playing just one game in that time period, eating lunch on the fly and often not finishing before the time runs out. For those of you with no faith in today's kids' ability to inherit the planet, fear not -- they have the chops to take on long, complicated, team-oriented tasking, provided it's delivered to them in a suitable package.
Tim has recently wanted to change things a bit in an effort to reach out to girls as well, and in an effort to take some of the pressure off of his time and his bank account as well. Sequester has doled out a 20% pay cut for him, so showing up with three copies of A&A 1914 pinches more than it used to. We had a Euro day a month back and just prior to that I had brought Wings of War, minis and all and introduced about half of the kids to the game. It was a rousing success, so when CoolStuffInc put a sale on the starter pack and six or seven of the minis (the minis went for six dollars apiece, the cheapest I've seen including the good old days of Chinese production and cheap shipping costs) I made it a point to mail everyone involved, as I had gotten three or four requests on where to purchase. When the sale was announced, Tim decided to have a dedicated Wings of War day, bringing scenarios, fixed-length sessions via fuel chits, and point scoring mechanisms including photographing targets and returning with the plates for extra points. 14 people showed up and we had one hell of a good time.
Tim doesn't let the opportunity to teach escape very often. I have a fairly good understanding of the tactical aspects involved and a deep knowledge of the mechanical aspects of the aircraft being flown. The rules explanation took ten to fifteen minutes, something that would surprise anyone who has played the game as you can teach the basics to someone you don't share a language with in about 90 seconds. But I made it a point to not simply discuss the mechanical aspects of the game, but the tactical aspects of the time, largely codified by Manfred Von Richthofen and referred to in the gaming session as Rick's Rules. Don't fly low over enemy positions. Fly in pairs. Never run from an enemy. Rick's rules were the beginning of the engineering of modern air combat and most of the rules are followed to this day. If you look out the window before your next commercial flight you'll see the pilot walk around the plane, looking for anything out of place or incorrect. That's from Richthofen. These are the concepts that come out at Tim's place, rules that prepare you for a future in engineering. Or history. Or management. You may think kids wouldn't be interested in concepts like this, glossing over them or daydreaming until we got to the game play. You'd be wrong. The heavy atmospherics and historic elements of the Ameritrash titles on hand make something like following Rick's Rules have weight, have practical application. The game presses you to implement the rules, so you ignore them at your peril. These boys have shown up often enough to understand that.
"What did you do?"
"Get my butt kicked."
"What rule did you break?"
". . . I ran from my opponent."
"What are you gonna do next time?"
"Turn into him."
Caden's face indicated that he internalized the lesson. He didn't find himself in the same situation later on, but his teammate did, and I didn't need to speak up the second time. Caden quietly said "don't run from him" to the boy standing beside him. The next three cards hardened the lesson. His teammate's DR.I bent hard right, got one squirt of ammo in and then passed undamaged through his enemy's position, out of reach of his guns.
Basic rules were introduced for the first scenario, one of air supremacy over the region. Tokens were used to represent fuel burn, fifteen tokens for fifteen sets of three cards. After the second turn I had to pay careful attention to make sure I removed a token each turn, as I was the expert on the game and the mechanics involved and had to answer questions. The rules are straightforward enough that the boys at my table simply played without me. With one full game in we introduced the more detailed rules, tailing, smoke and fire. This two phase approach meant that there was no confusion presented, and all players down through age ten were focused on the scenario instead of the rules. Second game was photo recon, each team secretly selecting an aircraft as their photo platform. Four tokens were strategically place on the tables and points were scored for kills, for damage, and most importantly for targets photographed. Both teams came out the gate with all planes driving at a target, a move designed to keep the enemy in the dark regarding each plane's intentions.
We've had the discussion more than enough here -- this isn't X-Wing and it's not as Ameritrash as X-Wing because it can't be. It's tightly bound to the reality of air combat in World War I. It may not be your thing because of that, and I understand. We all come to the table for different reasons. But when you're taking the time to explain to your boy that the plane he's flying is painted bright colors because it's a tradition of old warriors, that Knights of the Air isn't just a public relations phrase, it brings structure to the experience. It brings weight. It places you in a moment in history, and for the kids at the session that clearly made a difference.