Monday, January 24, 2011

Nostalgia for B-17

B-17 Queen of the Skies was an innovative game for its day, combining solitaire play with a basic war game that, despite relying heavily on die rolls, managed to simulate the daunting hazards Allied aircraft crews faced during World War II daylight bombing raids.

An area theater recently screened Twelve O’clock High and I managed to get the night off to watch it on the big screen. The film focuses more on the human cost of the American daylight bombing raids on Germany, with pre-mission tensions running high and ground crews waiting to see how many planes return; but toward the climax the movie includes some intense sequences for the only bomb raid depicted, a narrative collage of studio-filmed action merged with actual period aerial combat footage.

The film reminded me of the old Avalon Hill game, B-17 Queen of the Skies, and I gave in to my nostalgia to pull the slim-boxed game off the shelf and reminisce over its contents. I bought it way back when I was in high school and played it a few times. Solitaire games in general can sometimes serve as little more than exercises in game mechanics, but with compelling stories or settings can momentarily immerse a single player in the game world for an entertaining experience.

B-17 Queen of the Skies simulates daylight bombing missions over occupied Europe, with the solitaire player in command of a four-engine B-17 bomber and its crew. The game’s basic mechanic randomizes the number, location, and type of enemy aircraft assaulting the player’s B-17, modified by how deep into enemy territory the mission takes the formation and whether escort fighters help engage enemy forces on the way to shorter-range objectives. A host of charts, die rolls, and effects tables leads the player’s crew through flak and fighter attacks, all plotted on mission and campaign logs. This element of record keeping (tracking target accuracy, aircraft damage, and various gunners’ kills plus their own injuries and deaths) gives players the feeling of keeping a captain’s log book. Looking at the campaign record shows the imprecision of daylight bombing, the low number of enemy fighters downed during missions, and the high rate of crew injury and death.

My feelings for B-17 Queen of the Skies remain nostalgic, but one could see how playing the game in a classroom setting, even flying multiple bombers on missions, might demonstrate on a personal level the hazards of daylight bombing in World War II.

B-17 Queen of the Skies stands among the first board games to offer entirely solitaire play (roleplaying games and non-game “pick-a-path” adventure books having tread there only slightly earlier). Other war games often provided a rating for “solitaire suitability” or gave alternate rules for playing solo, but few catered solely to single person play. Only a handful of other solitaire wargames reached the market, most notably Victory Games’ Ambush! and West End Games’ RAF: August 1940, The Battle of Britain, both designed by John Butterfield.

Where roleplaying games rely on “programmed” adventures, sending players to different entries based on their choices and die rolls, solitaire board games rely on internal mechanics to run adversaries, obstacles, and other challenges. The concept has been ported to “cooperative” games where all the players struggle against a common adversary; one of the best, most recent examples of these remains Gamewright’s Forbidden Island.

In our modern times, of course, computers can simulate opponents in many games, giving rise to an unstoppable horde of computer games players can enjoy on their own in a trend that further endangers the survival of “analog” board and war games.

Know of an interesting solitaire or cooperative game with innovative systems to handle adversaries? Drop us a line so we can investigate and profile it.