The website BoardGameGeek lists almost 5,000 World War II games. Many games treat the same aspects of the conflict, including the air war over Europe between the American and British air forces and the German Luftwaffe. During this campaign, the Allies sought to break the morale and industrial back of the German war-machine by devastating its cities and factories with continuous bombing raids. But Skies Above the Reich, published by GMT Games, takes a unique perspective to this part of the conflict: the German fighter squadrons that fought a futile battle against the Western Allies’ industrial superiority.
the skies above the reich
The game consists of a series of battles tied together into a campaign, of which there are several to choose from. Additionally, the player can experience the campaigns in order. Before the start of each battle, the player has to establish the conditions of the engagement; everything from the size of the bomber formation, the presence and number of escorts, the availability of German fighters and armaments, and even the position of the sun.
The board (of which there are five possible layouts) consists of the bomber formation. The player then decides which pilots to employ, some of whom may have special skills or even demerits, as well as an additional support fighters or weapons (such as bombs and rockets). The battle requires the player to move the fighters from position and approach boxes to maneuver through the bomber formation. This repeats until the player decides to withdraw or the number of predetermined turns is exhausted.
Fighters making a pass at a bomber formation
In some instances, the player will discover that he is at a great disadvantage. The size of the formation, the presence of escorts, and a small number of German fighters might result in a very short battle consisting of only one pass. Alternatively, the player could come across a mission with a vulnerable bomber stream that has no escorts. The randomness of mission generation ensures that every campaign unfolds very differently.
Turn Track and Escort Display
Bandits 12 o’clock high!
The fighters, represented by blocks, are the core of the game’s combat mechanics. During a mission, the player will maneuver his fighters by placing them in the movement and approach boxes before deploying them at a formation.
When attacking a bomber, the player can decide to attack aggressively or conservatively, and also the direction to which the fighter will break, which will determine from where the fighter will attack next. The player can also decide the altitude of the attack. Multiple factors, such as the position of the sun, formation anchoring, escorts, and benefits from grouping fighters in attack waves, will drive much of the tactics.
Unlike most war games, Skies Above the Reich does not resolve its combat by die rolling. Instead, players flip over the appropriate card for the attack direction, and then consults the appropriate space on the card for the type of attack, risk faced by the fighter (called lethal level), and altitude. Although a unique mechanic to resolve combat, I think this is the weakest part of the game. The range and probability of outcomes are constrained by the results of the cards (in turn determined by the card order). It also slows the otherwise fast-paced nature of the game, which is valuable in a game simulating fighter combat.
The aftermath of one mission
That said, the combat system is not broken by any means. In each pass, there is a danger that fighters will be damaged or lost, or that the situation may dictate the break up of the attacking formation, forcing the player to adapt a new strategy for the mission. As fighters are lost, bombers fall out of formation, and escorts arrive, the player will face many difficult and sub-optimal choices. How many fighters to release to pursue straggling bombers? When? Which bomber is the most vulnerable in the formation and from what approach position?
When bombers fall out of formation, the player can decide to dedicate fighters to pursue them. This is actually an optional rule to the game system. When doing so, the player moves the bomber’s damage chits to the pursuit map, and then makes one or more passes against the lumbering fortress with the available fighters. Passes are limited, but these kinds of pursuits are essential to securing the necessary victory points to win a mission, and ultimately the campaign.
“The progressive destruction… of the German military…”
The game offers a perspective of the war not thoroughly explored. Some people may be unsettled about the prospect of shooting down American bombers in a game; after all, American pilots and crew from that era are highly regarded in the country’s military tradition. The parents and grandparents of many wargamers were pilots or crew themselves. This is something that each individual player must decide for themselves.
Ultimately, Skies Above the Reich delivers an easy-to-learn game of aerial combat. With high quality components and streamlined rules with a mostly logical rulebook to explain them, the game should be on every solitaire war-gamer’s shelf.