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Lee Brimmicombe-Wood's latest Adventures in the Air changes the way we may look at air combat in board games forever

  

There are 48 pages in the Rules book which may be a mite daunting when you first open them. If you thought the days of Avalon Hill style rules lawyer style booklets filled with appendages and bullet points was over, then you would be right. This is a long, tough read, but very thorough whilst also being logical and practical. Author, Lee Brimmicombe-Wood - I actually met him once and tenacious, persistent, relentless, dogged, determined and unforgiving are words I would use to describe him from that meeting - employs all of those qualities and more to his research and devotion to detail, making this one of the most accurate tabletop simulations you could hope for.

The author is also responsible, along with Ian Wedge, for the artwork throughout, including that of the airplanes, which are mini works of art. The game board, a folded paper design, is itself unique, being all blue (overlaid with squares - identified by Alphabetical and Numerical side markings) with just a thin greenish line along its southern end to represent the ground-line; as all the action takes place in the air and not from the usual top-down camera view.

One of the first things I liked immediately about this game is the way the rules book is laid out, or prepared if you wish. Turn the front page and you are faced with the glossary, what a refreshing change from having to read through pages of rules and keep referring to the back of the booklet. You have the chance to take the terms in from the start so that as you read through the booklet you already have many of these terms fixed firmly in your mind.

Apart from the rules booklet there is another booklet of historical scenarios. The author has also noted that there will be more scenarios in the future plus I understand that on his own website Mr Brimmicombe-Wood has more important information and assistance for players of his games; he is nothing if not a true professional (maybe mixed in with an iota of gaming ocd ).

  

WING LEADER is played at single aircraft level; type and model being considered different. Each plane type also has its own ratings, statistics and classification, the information required being on the comparable Aircraft Data card, including its loss value in the form of VPs. There are two and a half pages of Environment rules and explanations - specifying types of cloud, the ground, the sun and line of sight, weather modifiers applied to the die roll can affect cloud, haze, rain, in fact all weather conditions - everything has been taken into account. The author has put every modicum of detail into this game to ensure the players can garner useful limited but fine detail and historical knowledge whilst reading the rules and playing the battles. You need to read through the rules as you do with any game but unlike many wargames where the information is given piecemeal the data found here makes the game virtually (well almost) playable direct from the box with minimal preparation (other than the setting up of the chosen scenario).

Speaking of the scenarios, as I was, it is not a problem, though it is somewhat illogical (at least to my way of thinking) how organised the rules are and yet the scenarios are not in chronological order. The game is called Wing Leader Victories 1940-1942 but the first scenario is set in 1941, the second in 1942, and we don't hit 1940 until the fourth scenario. Yes they are prepared so that you get to play an ease-in battle to begin with, China 1941 designed by Allan Cannamore, where the forces are two American P-40Bs from 3rd Squadron on an intercept mission against two Japanese Ki-21-IIa on a Bombing mission. Wing Leader is played with the Air Forces (and occasional Ground Forces) of America, Britain, Germany and Japan as you would expect. There are no "good guys" or "bad guys" and it is not all America trying to intercept Japanese raids and British intercepting German raids, the missions are well balanced so that all Forces aren't exactly equal but are matched to ensure there is a game and not a linear path to follow.

The author has looked long and hard at air combat and created a game that epitomises more than just the basics, taking care to ensure that certain aspects, such as Diving and Dive Bombing, are specifically covered without turning them into cartoon style animations. For example, it would have been so easy to have fighters and bombers diving into the ground or swooping up like Superman skimming the ground and then flashing upwards due to a random factor, so instead of writing a myriad possibilities for such an action Lee B-W has instead just said "No! You cannot do it, that's the ruling".

Because the game is played almost totally in the air the board is virtually blue and the plane counters are viewed side-on you actually get the best possible aspect of air combat that a board game simulation can achieve. Okay, the results of battles depend on die rolls and chart referencing, it is a game and thus there has to be some way to determine the outcome, but there are also tactical decisions to be made prior to the dice being rolled and the strategy chosen does affect the fight, it's not just lip-service to pad out the historical elements. Combat is quick and usually decisive when hits occur and generally involve the intersecting squadron(s) and the bombers and their escorts. Although the theme is mainly interception, each scenario presents its own challenges that make it different enough so that you do not feel that you are simply playing the same actions over and again but using different aircraft. Bombing routes are mainly linear and need little or no action from the controlling player. The fun is the criss-crossing routes and the timing of the dives by the attacking or defending aircraft. You really do get the feel of what it must have been like to be amongst the air-action in the clear blue, but deadly, skies.

  

Apart from the strong paper map the counters and cards are of very good quality, nothing less than I would expect from GMT, plus they actually look visibly good against the sky-blue background of the board. I would like to play this using miniatures and I think that the author also had this thought because the square overlay is of sufficiently large enough spaces to allow for the use of 20mm-25mm miniatures though unfortunately a little too large to be able to use the extremely well detailed ARES Games "Wings of War" models.

Scenarios feature all manner of combat from single plane interdiction up to a sky filled with numerous squadrons casting grey shadows on the ground beneath. Actually the "ground" on the board edge can be used to represent land or sea over which the planes are flying. Some scenarios request that surface units be placed there, no limit to the number of units per space, and these are positioned according to the information provided, once placed they do not move. The counters have been sensibly designed, and elegantly illustrated, so that they can represent one or many actual aircraft depending on the scenario.

You would think that the almost blank playing area would make games boringly simple, aim your interceptors and hope for some good die rolls sort of boring, but it doesn't. When there are no clouds or visibility impairing weather conditions it is possible to become somewhat "snow" blind due to the lack of visual markers or reference points. Also, despite or because the board looks like a large blue chess board, the counters moving across, up and along it have the freedom of movement allowed by the aircrafts specifications and the imagination and control of the players, the pieces are not consigned to specific movement in the same way that chess pieces are and thus the game mechanics allow for realism and realistic flight movement based on skills as well as luck.

The rules book is quite large and you need to read it before playing. Yes you can probably get away with reading through the first 30+ pages and then learning as you play, but for your first game read the booklet throughout and absorb as much of it as you can, making notes if you feel inclined or think you may want to come back to a section quickly later on. There is no actual page index though the table of contents on the front does provide the information required to get you to the needed section quickly enough, you just have to find what you are looking for once you are there - no real problem by any means. There are lots of illustrations and very useful, helpful examples as well as designer's notes throughout the rules booklet, it really has been designed to be played and not created to confuse. 

The scenario booklet is very basic with each scenario running along the lines of: a quick precis on the action, the forces and units to be employed, who sets up first, notes on anything special to be observed and off you go. Everything that is not instantly obvious, such as some of the initialised abbreviations (if you have a poor memory like I do) can be found in the main rules booklet within moments.

We found that we rushed our first couple of games, wanting to get into the action too quickly and not understanding the nuances and setting like we should have. So we slowed our pace a little and began to understand the implications and possibilities of certain bomb raids and interception flights. WING LEADER is a powerful game with a lot going for it. Normally I try to indicate bad points in a game as well as the good points but Lee Brimmicombe-Wood has done his homework well and truly on this one and has thus done GMT proud.

    

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