Combat Results Tables Above the Reich
My grandfather was a bomber squadron commander in the Army Air Corps in WWII. I went most of my childhood without knowing that. He didn’t speak of his time in the Pacific until late in his life, and then only sporadically, quietly, with great effort. He saw friends die and planes fall. His own plane fell. He spent months in recovery before resuming combat missions. The first I heard of his service was at a family gathering. My cousin loaded up a flight sim, undoubtedly rudimentary but photorealistic in my memory. Grandpa watched, hands on hips, frowning in disapproval. One of my uncles told us to turn it off. That it was bothering grandpa.
Grandpa jabbed a finger at the screen. “No, that isn’t it. It’s all wrong. You don’t hit a bridge there. They’d rebuild it in a week. And you need to approach from a wider angle. Out of the sun.” And then he told some stories. Just the silly ones. Running alcohol, almost crashing into a mountain, the fellow squadron commander who died to “friendly fire” for always assigning his own plane in the lead position. The ones that haunted him would wait until we were older.
And then there’s solo wargame Skies Above the Reich by Mark Aasted and Jeremy White. Guess I should probably talk about that.
Right away, Skies Above the Reich doesn’t fly like other air combat games. The first hint arrives when you lay out one of the boards. There are two, double-sided, for a total of four maps. Going further, the scenario book exists to generate randomized arrangements. If the enemy bomber formations are returning from their mission, they’ll already be in pieces. If they’re nearing their targets, you’ll face the prospect of friendly flak. The sun’s over here, over there, or not visible. Enemy escorts are in range, and will appear at t-minus whatever, or drop off to return to England after x-many rounds. In the meantime, here is how many planes you’ve managed to put in the air. How do you approach? If you’ve scrambled in haste, you might be playing catch-up, hounding the enemy’s rear. Otherwise you’ll be able to come in wide, pick your angles.
For a game that provides such breadth, there’s a certain essentiality to Skies Above the Reich that’s refreshing in what it pares away. The game doesn’t bother with the broader context. Are you defending Stuttgart or avenging Leipzig? Rattled by a firebombing or encouraged by ineffective saturation? Never mind all that. What matters is the topography arranged before you. The bombers in their defensive boxes. The escorts dogging the periphery of the formation. The veteran pilot you hope will survive one more mission, the greenhorn who’s a little too cocky for his own good. If it weren’t for gravity, the ground wouldn’t even exist. Everything is measured in fuel range. That or time before you’re forced to break off, which is the same thing. Everything else has ebbed away.
This is appropriate. Grandpa’s stories never lingered over what exactly they were bombing. It was always about the situation in the air.
Part of that essentiality is thanks to the documentation. Skies Above the Reich, like a lot of complex simulations, has so much to offer that even cracking the box can be intimidating. What’s more, the simulation grows in complexity as time passes, both as you complete missions and as your in-game squadron weathers season after season of a losing war. New technology becomes available on the regular. Better planes, more specialized planes, untried armaments, field-tested weaponry. Your roster also becomes more specialized. Some pilots become aces at maneuvering; others at inflicting damage. Incoming pilots bring their own penalties, of which they must be disabused by trial of fire. Names will be crossed out and replaced.
Yet this process is shepherded with surprising deftness. As the rules state, even the setup is part of play. Outlining the particulars of an upcoming mission, the distances and formations and available planes, you’re already parceling out your pilots, evaluating equipment, considering borrowing an auxiliary from an adjacent squadron rather than relying on your trusty Bf109s. Every step is outlined in large text and on the player aids. At first, in the early war when your tools are limited and so are the challenges you’ll face, it can even feel like you’re flying on autopilot. Here are the steps for moving your fighters along the boxes on the enemy formation’s edge; if you need particular details, turn to page 15, or 7 if it’s your first turn. Now remove fighters from their return boxes so they can begin ramping up for another pass. Now check to see if enemy escorts arrive. And so on and so on.
There’s a lot of procedure, but that’s to be expected. The more meaningful measure is what Skies Above the Reich does with all that procedure. The answer is also essential to what it accomplishes as a game: the procedure exists to generate moments of tragedy.
These moments go like this. First the game provides that essential topography. Think of it like a puzzle box of interlacing machine gun fire. Diving into the center of a formation is suicide. Instead you’ll want to nettle at each element’s edges, diving out of the sun or deploying a simultaneous swarm to overwhelm the defensive gunners. As formations are rattled and broken apart, as bombers begin to fall, you can begin to take riskier actions by swatting at the bombers that are covering each other. This is also heavy in procedure. Your fighters reveal their elevation via stacked blocks, a smart shorthand that’s instantly legible. Everything else is communicated via a jumble of tokens. Damage and low ammunition. Where your planes intend to maneuver once the pass is complete. The status of the enemy formation, plus any specific damage. Any advantages earned by your approach.
At times this jumble proves irritating. In particular when a mission is in its late stages. Hurry up and finish, already. Do I really need to place out all these tokens? Do I really need to show that I intend to dive into the opposite approach box, or climb to the left? The answer is, of course, yes. Not only because certain outcomes hinge upon those procedures. Not only because certain events, notably the continuing fire bombers will hurtle your direction, may depend on which way your fighters intend to break. Not only because them’s the rules.
Not only for those reasons. But also because Skies Above the Reich knows that tragedy derives from implosions of tension. The task of preparing each fighter’s approach isn’t mere busywork. It’s the setting of tone. It’s the long hanging moment before the guillotine falls, infinite yet too short. It’s the terrible suddenness of drawing a card, seeing your fighter has taken a hit, and drawing a token that shows their odds of survival. Squadrons become stragglers. Not only among the enemy formations of bombers, but among your own aces.
This is both the game’s appeal and its limitation. Skies Above the Reich can be played as a single mission, but to do so is to swim in all that procedure with none of the payoff. It’s like going to an opera for a single number, or hearing the middle notes of a song, or only reading a single chapter out of a book. The preferable thing is to play for at least a season or two. The entire campaign might last as many as fifty missions, not counting any you make a command decision to avoid, and still end abruptly when you don’t meet a particular goal.
Because this is the context that makes the game worthwhile. Not which city is being saved. Not even the procedures, although they’re utterly brilliant at charting the topography of WWII aerial combat. But rather your staff, your pilots, the men whose names you will scratch out and replace with rookies. From the gradual reveal of information during a mission’s setup to the breathless rolls that determine whether a pilot lands his bruised craft, bails out, or breaks apart, the emphasis is on the yielding flesh within the machines.
Or at least that’s customarily the emphasis. There are moments when the jumble becomes too tangled, especially when adding some of the advanced rules. In particular, the “pursuit” of falling bombers can double the duration of a mission without adding much of note, and there are only so many times I can tell my pilots to break left in a single sitting. Apart from a few exceptions, however, Skies Above the Reich manages to tell an affecting and exhausting story. I mean both of those things. It’s an experience I’m grateful for, even if it isn’t one I intend to repeat.
Unlike my cousin’s flight sim, Mark Aasted and Jeremy White’s Skies Above the Reich gets it right. As far as I can tell, anyway. It isn’t often that games get me emotional. But this is one I wish had come along a few years sooner. Grandpa could have bellyached about the inaccuracies in the combat results tables.
A complimentary copy was provided.