Sunday, June 23, 2013

Down in Flames: Guns Blazing Review

Down in Flames: Guns Blazing is a World War II air combat game designed and published by Dan Verssen in 2010.  It's half of the current printing of a series that has its root back at GMT Games 20 years ago.  The other half of the current printing is Down in Flames: Aces High, which I have not played, but which has identical rules.

I discovered Down in Flames one evening when I wandered into my local gaming shop.  These two older grognards were playing the original GMT version and appeared to be having a great time.  They were also the only people not playing Magic, so I asked them if I could watch.  They took the time to introduce me to the game, and answer a few of my questions. It looked like a lot of fun, so I went home and looked to see what the current availability of it was.

I have no clue what happened, but some poor guy must have messed up their order to a distributor.  Because one retailer was selling copies of Down in Flames: Guns Blazing for $4 on Amazon.  Turns out that retailer was sitting on over 100 copies of it, where as most retailers might stock 2 or 3.  Sure, it wasn't the GMT version I saw being played, but for $4 who was I to say no?

Rule Summary

Down in Flames consists of a deck of action cards and a deck of planes, along with various chits to track damage and other stats.  At the beginning of a game, players will select their planes based on whatever criteria they want.  Every plane has a year, and is worth a number of points.  The rules encourage players to select a year and a point total, and then pick a single plane within those constraints.

Two fighters and one bomber.

Planes have numerous stats.  Performance is how many cards they may hold in their hand.  The two horsepower ratings are how many cards they may draw at the beginning and end of their turn.  Next is a plane's firepower and burst rating.  Every time a plane fires it uses up bursts, and the firepower is a bonus added to that attack total.  Next is speed.  Most planes have a speed of 2.  However if a plane has more speed that it's target, it can get some free maneuvering on it.  Lastly, planes have hit points, which determines how much damage they take before they are weakened, then shot down.

Some action cards
Once players have selected their planes, and drawn their starting hands for each plane, randomly decide who acts first.  In a campaign game, the player with initiative acts first.  If players are controlling multiple planes, one player will act with one plane first, and then play alternates between players until every plane has acted.  The turn ends once every plane has gone.

When a plane acts, first it draws cards based on its horsepower, up to it's performance limit.  It may then adjust altitude higher or lower.  If it has a speed advantage it may use that against planes.  Then players begin playing action cards.  Once a player has played all the action cards they wish to, they may discard any cards they don't want, and draw cards again according to their horsepower.

Action cards are extremely versatile.  Most action cards have a maneuverability rating, an action, and a reaction.  The maneuverability rating allows a plane to try to position itself on enemy planes, getting into an advantaged or tailing position.  The actions usually affect positioning in some way, or fire on an opponent.  Lastly, the reactions allow you to try to cancel an action just played on your fighter.

When playing action cards on an opponent, they can play their own cards as reactions to stop you.  Players can continue playing cards as reactions back and forth until one player runs out of cards or capitulates.  The cards themselves will list the actions they can react to.  If the aggressor played the last card, their original action takes effect.  If the defender plays the last card, the original action was cancelled.

Players will continue back and forth in this manner, maneuvering and taking shots, for 4 to 6 turns.  Then the game ends, and whoever has earned more points for shot down and damaged planes is the winner.  In the campaign, points are also awarded for dropping bombs on the target, or for destroying all the bombers and protecting the target.

Campaign map
I've hinted several times at Down in Flames' campaign rules.  In a campaign, players are attempting to bomb each other's targets.  One player will try to escort bombers to their target, and the other player attempts to intercept them.  Bombers behave somewhat differently from fighters, in that they only get temporary hands of cards when shot at, and cannot maneuver or evade.  However they can fire back.  Bombers also support one another, increasing the size of that temporary hand of cards.

During every mission of the campaign, players also get to choose an option, in addition to certain default bombers and interceptors.  Options provide additional fighters and other modifications.  However each option can only be chosen once.  Players may also get special pilots they may use once.

Through the campaign, initiative will change sides depending on the success of the bombing runs.  Each campaign says how many missions get flown, and how many turns they last.  At the end of the game, players determine their success by comparing the net point difference against historical outcomes.

How accessible is the game to new players?

The most basic form of Down in Flames, which is having two fighters duking it out, is extremely accessible.  Planes have a hand limit, and pre and post turn draws all printed on them.  The only thing players might forget is the bonuses conferred by being advantaged or tailing an opponent.  Those advantages being that you get extra bursts, which are used to fire at them.

The action cards are especially wonderful as they leave little ambiguity in their effects.  Every card says exactly which cards it can react to.  And every card spells out precisely what it does when played as an action.  The card interactions here are not overly complex, and not subject to interpretation.  Nobody will be arguing over the definition of what a "burst" is.

The reference material is ok.  All you get is a campaign score sheet you are intended to photocopy, with a turn summary and scoring summary printed on it.  It's decently helpful, especially when you are playing the campaign which has a more complicated turn order.

What could have been done better?

So you are going to play a few one on one games of Down in Flames, and get excited about the campaign.  You'll read up on it, go to start playing, and suddenly realize you have no clue what you are doing.  The rules for the campaign are flat out incomplete.

I don't know about this...
For example, the manual makes absolutely no mention of turn order with multiple planes.  Does one player act with all their planes, and then the other?  Do they alternate planes?  All the manual says is "Play with multiple planes, it's fun!"  It barely mentions how, except that they each have a separate hand of cards.  There is also some ambiguity as to some of the more exotic configurations that planes can find themselves in.  Can planes alternately tail one another forming a loop?  Does that even make sense?

What makes these rule questions all the more harrowing is their complete lack of answers.  The publisher has a very weak FAQ which answer two obvious questions.  The rest of the answers must be hunted down on BoardGameGeek.  However, they are scattered amongst various reviews and strategy articles where the publisher took an interest.  Visiting the actual rules forum results in numerous wrong answer by enthusiastic players, who contradict the more scattered answers the publisher gave.  You will be best served by doing a search for every post by Dan Verssen in the forum for Down in Flames: Aces High.

Ambiguity issues aside, there are numerous typos and incorrect examples in the rules.  It doesn't come off well when the very first paragraph contains gems like this one.  "In World War II (WWII), there were two alliances, the Axis (Germany and Japan) and the Allies (Britain, Russia, France, Italy, Russia, and the United States)."  I'm not even sure where to start on that one.

How does the new player versus old player match up go?

In a one on one fight, experience doesn't matter much.  The planes are going to be roughly equal if you just picked a year and a point limit.  Hand management skills help, as well as deck knowledge.  There are fewer Out of the Sun attack cards than In My Sights attack cards.  So you may try to wear down their hand by playing an In My Sights, then finishing them off with the Out of the Sun.  But still, one on one matches generally seem too short to really leverage much experience.

When it comes to the campaign, things get more interesting, and there are more areas where an experienced player can excel.  Since you are trying to win over the long term, resource management across missions becomes a better skill to have.  Bluffing also comes up with respect to choosing the flak and bombing patterns around the target.  But even so, the hand of luck always plays it's part.  I've seen some rather large point swings in a campaign because a player's single escort barely got any good reaction cards, leading to their bombers getting wiped out, and the target going undamaged.  There is also a card which hits a plane's fuel tank, flat out destroying it.  A devastating card to play against a bomber, which can't evade, unless it has the appropriate card to block it.

What could have been done better?

A reference card with card counts would have been nice.  The action card deck is 110 cards, so it's unlikely anyone will be able to card count.  However it would have been nice to have some idea how frequently cards will appear.  We are pretty sure Ace Pilot cards are very rare, since they are powerful and can react to anything.  We are relatively sure Out of the Sun cards are rarer than In My Sights, and possibly more difficult to react to as well.  We have absolutely no clue about the rest of the cards.  But having this knowledge up front would have made the hand management aspect of the game far more interesting.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Down in Flames captures the feeling of desperately trying to outmaneuver your opponent.  Hand management is a great abstraction for it, and it results in a lot of tense moments.  You'll know going into a turn that you only have two cards that can react to an In My Sights.  And depending how he reacts to those, you might have one or two more tricks up your sleeve.  The act of saying "I have you in my sights", "I'm doing a tight turn", "I'm matching your tight turn with a scissor", "I'll scissor your scissor" really makes it feel like a desperate series of maneuvers.  The speed of play definitely helps this.

I love the damaged plane artwork

On top of this, I really enjoy the artwork as well.  But that could just be because when I first saw the game, it was the older, 3 color printing.  This edition has a full color palette.  The game also gets especially tense once the planes have taken a few hits.  They get flipped to their damaged side, with weaker stats.  Your options become much more limited.  It really feels like your planes are sputtering along, hanging in there by a thread, taking desperate pot shots at each other.  The card artwork even shows blown out consoles and damaged dials.  It's quite fantastic.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

Pilot chits
Some of the planes have special abilities which aren't fully explained on the card.  Abilities like "Agile" which allows you to play any card you want as though it were a Scissor action.  Or "Barrage" which allows you to play extra In My Sights or Out of the Sun cards to add extra damage to an attack.  What is frustrating is that there is no reference material for these abilities.  Additionally, during the campaign, you can get special pilots, who also have a cryptic code across their playing piece detailing all their special abilities.  Once again, there is no reference material for them, just the manual.

Without readily accessible reference material, it's easy to forget to use these abilities.  And when you do use them, you have to look them up.  This drops you out of the quick back and forth, which is what the theme of this game depends on.  The score sheet/reference page had a blank back side which would have been perfect for all this missing reference information.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

When dog fighting with just two planes, it's all short term tactics.  However, Down in Flames gets increasingly strategic as you add more fighters, or bombers.  The array of strategies broadens.  Suddenly it becomes viable to gang up on one fighter, to burn through their hand and take them down.  Or it could be sound to go straight for the bombers to take them out, leaving the target undamaged and getting yourself the initiative.

If you have an escort capable of carrying bombs, it becomes a good idea to have them fly in formation with the bombers to provide extra turret support.  You can even have them break away and focus on fighters when the situation changes.

Individual missions only lasts 4 to 6 turns though.  Much of the strategy happens over the course of the entire campaign.  Managing your options, and trying to get your opponent to waste theirs can be vital.  Many options are actually a double edged sword, providing you with amazing planes, but penalizing you in some other way.  Or the opposite, giving you a gimped plane, but allowing you some other benefit.  Deciding on the flak pattern is also difficult since it must be determined before the mission resolves, whereas the bomber can select their bombing pattern after the dogfight.  The defender must select their flak pattern with a particular strategy for taking down the bombers already in mind.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

Down in Flames ramps up nicely.  There is a way to play for any complexity level.  At all levels you'll be torn between trying to make the most of your turn, or keeping enough cards to ward off your opponent.  When you get into the campaign, you'll have new dilemmas.  Do you gang up on one plane, but let the others have free reign on your bombers?  Maybe you want to have your escorts equipped with a few extra bombs.

In fact, when I first read about how certain fighters can be fitted with bombs, I didn't see the point.  Most bombers have at least 10 bombs, but fighters equipped with them usually only carry 2!  What are 2 bombs going to do?!  But then I discovered how in the right circumstances, having a fighter providing turret support for a whole bunch of bombers can be fantastic.  There is no option available to you in this game that you won't want to take at some point.

Why are the dilemmas so good?

I really enjoy the dilemmas in this game, and none of them seem obvious.  But to me, the campaign is clearly the real game.  The mission options offers a good amount of variety, ensuring each mission plays out differently.  It also presents some difficult decisions with respect to allocation of resources.  Trying to pair the right option with the right mission is no easy task.  Especially towards the end of the campaign when your options have grown extremely limited.

Every decision you make has a drawback.  You never get the best of both worlds, and there is always a compelling reason to have made either choice.  It's enough to keep the game interesting for it's duration, which is about 30 minutes for a dogfight, or 2 or 3 hours for a campaign.

Physical component design and limitations?

That's a lot of wear for only a dozen or so games!
The components are another area I have some severe issues with this game.  The chits and cards are very thick and glossy which is attractive to me.  However the front and back of the chits seem to want to peel off, and it was very difficult punching them out without ripping them.  The cards are very stiff and thick, which is good.  However the ink around the edges very quickly began flaking off.  They started to show some moderate wear after just 4 games, and we had bits of black ink all over the table.  They are definitely going to need to be sleeved.  Then the campaign scoring sheet is just a single flimsy sheet of paper.   I suppose I'm supposed to photocopy it, which is very lazy of the producer.

The campaign guides are also printed on very thick cardboard, which is great, but perhaps a bit too much for as often as you use them.  Just some nice thick paper like is used for the loose missions in Combat Commander or Commands & Colors would have been perfect.  As it stands all that extra cardboard just takes up valuable space.

What could have been better?

I think all in all, the game just needed more consistent production values.  Some things are over produced, and other things are under produced.  The card stock and the chits are clearly thick enough.  However the ink or finish that was used on them just wants to fall right off.  I'm actually not sure what is up with the ink that was used in this game.  I've never seen ink just flake off of cards before.  Then the campaign guides are these huge thick cardboard slabs, which is great.  But then there is only a single copy of the campaign scoring sheet, and minimal reference material.

Long term prospects?

Down in Flames has a large toolbox of optional rules.  Optional rules for wingmen, team play, campaign scaling, balancing victory points and fighter values, and starting altitude card bonuses.  There are a lot of different ways to play this game.

Normally I hate that approach.  It's the approach Fantasy Flight Games tends to take, and it feels too much like a cop out.  Like they are telling us to balance their game for them.  It's especially odious in 4 hour epic games, which are always the games which seem to have toolbox style rules.  But Down in Flames plays fast enough that it's ok.  I can try out variants in 15 to 30 minutes tops.  I really want to try X-Wing style squad building rules.  Just set a 50 point cap, and you can pick any planes and pilots that fit under that limit.

 The core mechanic of Down in Flames I find to be extremely fun and dynamic.  However, what gives the game longevity are the campaigns.  I really look forward to having a chance to sit with Down in Flames for an entire afternoon and play through an entire campaign in one sitting.  So far every campaign mission we've played has had interesting decisions, made more varied by the options we've chosen.

What was hardest about writing this review, was deciding the perspective I'm writing it from.  Down in Flames: Guns Blazing retails for $60, a price I consider outrageous.  It can easily be found for $40 from the usual places that offer board games at a discount.  At that price it's an ok value.  All you are getting is a card game. But it's a pretty good card game, that covers a unique topic in a novel way, from a small publisher.  But having found the game at $4?  That's a no brainer.  Sure the rules are awkward.  Sure the components are pretty sub-standard.  But it's only $4!  It's a game that at worst, you may find mediocre.  Personally I really enjoy it, especially considering what I paid for it.  Funny how that works, huh?

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