Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Fighters of the Pacific: Aerial Chess

We’re really enjoying Frank Garibaldi and Didier Dincher’s Fighters of the Pacific. After playing a few games against myself to learn the rules, my son and I fought the first two scenarios. At first I was a little intimidated having so many aircraft on the board at once, but I soon realized this was one of the game’s hallmarks. The movement system, with no random elements determining attack success, reflects each aircraft’s strengths (and weaknesses) and really captures the spirit of squadron combat of the period. Fighters of the Pacific plays like “aerial chess” with some basic yet elegant core mechanics that recreate the sprawling dogfights of World War II.

I was initially skeptical of Fighters of the Pacific. The game is one I passed on when it funded on Kickstarter. I’m not sure what I was thinking at the time. Maybe “Do I need another World War II aviation game?” or “Do I want to deal with a game with lots of pieces?” or “Do I want to shell out $100 for another heavy boxed board game with all the extras?” (about $95-$105 factoring in shipping and variable dollar exchange rates with the Euro). It seemed a bit overwhelming with huge squadrons of cardboard-chit aircraft on the board, particularly given my admiration for the more individualized dogfights I’ve enjoyed with Wings of Glory. After it released I started hearing good things about it; I found a good deal on the basic set (minus all the Kickstarter stretch goals and add-ons) and bought it this summer with some birthday cash.

At its core Fighters of the Pacific plays like aerial chess. It contains no random elements. Planes survive or go down based on their initiative and maneuvers; knowing how to manage formations (or “air groups” in the game) and get the jump on enemy planes is essential to winning.

Air groups consist of several adjacent planes at the same altitude and facing the same direction. A single plane is its own air group. The more air groups one has on the board, the greater their handicap when a turn begins, The player with the lowest handicap gains initiative and can choose who moves with a single air group first. Most of the time going first is an advantage, but sometimes it’s better to let one’s opponent act first. Naturally as an engagement progresses air groups break up as individual planes break off to go after enemy craft, much as one would expect in a real dogfight.

Movement and maneuvering
seem very much like chess. Rather than different pieces having different movement patterns in chess, planes can generally use all the maneuvers, depending on how many movement points they have to spend. Fighters usually have three movement points, bombers only two. They can move forward one hex, slide to the right or left while maintaining the same direction, turn and move one hex, dive (a free move forward with altitude change), or climb (for two points). Fighters can perform a split-s (for all their movement points), diving from high to low altitude and ending on any adjacent hex facing away from their starting position. If, after moving, a plane has an enemy aircraft in its field of fire (shown on the player aid card detailing aircraft stats), it might shoot...but if the target hasn’t yet moved this turn, it must evade, making a one-hex maneuver to escape the field of fire. If it does, that plane might have a shot at another enemy aircraft...but if it’s targeted for future attacks, it’s considered as having taken its turn and thus cannot evade, taking damage.

The game progresses as each player alternately moves planes in each air group, trying to catch enemy aircraft in their sights.

Each aircraft has a set of basic stats and traits setting them apart from others. Fighters get to perform split-s maneuvers. They also inflict double damage against targets positioned in the hex directly in front of them, the A6M Zero from its 20mm gun, the American F4F Wildcat because the Japanese aircraft all have the “flammable” trait (reflecting their inferior fuel tank technology). Japanese Zeros and the D3A Vals have an “agile” trait allowing them a “free” pivot turn at the end of their movement. All aircraft can take two hits except the Zero, which goes down with one. Fighters have three “speed” points used for movement, while bombers have only two.

Fighters of the Pacific has a host of other elements that impress me:

Altitude: Each aircraft counter has two sides showing a top-down view of the plane, one with a white background and one with a blue background matching the board’s ocean pattern. They indicate high- and low-altitude flight respectively, an important concept during the game as higher aircraft gain some advantages. Planes can also only attack targets at the same altitude.

Player Aids: The player aid cards have clear layout and good summaries. Players get a card showing information on each aircraft type: speed, armor, and various special traits. The back summarizes the various moves aircraft can make, including the number of speed points they cost and a diagram illustrating each move (and the game provides two for each side, so they remaing available for reference without flipping them). The victory point score cards and initiative/turn tracker each have a “portrait” format on one side and a “landscape” layout on the other; this enables some flexibility on how and where players situate these around the board for easy reference.

Hex Board: The versatile hex board consists of eight interlocking panels printed with a blue seascape surface; since they’re double sided they can be arranged to show several cloud banks or islands.

Tokens: Like most games these days, this one comes with plenty of punch-out cardstock tokens. They’re nice and thick and cover the range of game functions. Damage markers consist of smoke plumes to position aft of a damaged aircraft. Activation markers in the shape of small, round crosshairs indicate which air groups have already moved, essential for keeping track of which ones can’t evade future attacks in a turn. Tokens also indicate ships (both aircraft carries and destroyers), flak barrages, objectives, boms, torpedoes, and anti-aircraft emplacements.

Scenarios: Ten scenarios provide plenty of play value. Each one illustrates the set-up over a two-page spread oriented with opposing player information along the sides and the board shown in the middle. An overall situation summary provides historical context, and each player gets both game information and an in-context mission order (though I’ll admit the layout can sometimes seem cluttered and confusing). The suggestion to play each scenario twice, switching sides, extends the game’s replay value and keeps one player from always fighting the same nationality.

Fighters of the Pacific strikes a nice balance between playable rules and historical considerations. The core mechanics are easy to learn but hard to master in practice. It captures some of the nuances of World War II aerial combat even with the level of abstraction required for a board game. The solitaire rules included sound good, though I have yet to try them. Although I still get a little overwhelmed managing so many planes, I do feel a grand sense of satisfaction commanding so many aircraft, even after they disperse from their impressive starting formations and peel off into individual dogfights.

Games with No Random Elements

I’m particularly impressed with how Fighters of the Pacific distills aerial maneuvering and combat into a few core mechanics...none of which rely on random elements. The adventure gaming hobby rarely sees games without such mechanics. Most use them to simulate the “friction of war,” those uncertainties on the battlefield over which commanders have little influence, factors that can affect the course of an engagement. Many folks expect to find dice, card and tile draws, and other ways to determine chance in tabletop games.

But sometimes its more challenging to understand one’s reliable capabilities and pit them against the greatest uncertainty at the game table: the opponent’s mind. Many classic abstract games rely on player strategy alone: chess and checkers and similar classic games like alquerque, fox and geese, asalto, and hnefantafl.

Glancing around my game library I can think of only a few modern tabletop games with no random elements: oddly enough the WWI and WWII aerial combat game Wings of Glory, Reiner Knizia’s Tutankhamen (though it uses a random tile set-up before play begins), and the infamous Diplomacy (though I’m sure I’m missing a few). It’s rare in modern games – and those dependent on history – to see such richness of play as I’ve found in Fighters of the Pacific with rules void of random elements.

Missing Out on Kickstarter

My experience buying Fighters of the Pacific illustrates my frustration with the ephemeral nature of games in today’s markets. It’s easy to miss out on something you might really enjoy if you don’t first hear about it and then miss out on getting it, whether by poor timing or by waiting to see how the gaming community receives it. Carpe ludum, I suppose. I was lucky to change my mind about Fighters of the Pacific when I did, before it played through the cycle where titles release, sell out, and pass into obscurity in the face of the next wave of “new hotness” in gaming.

I’m hoping to place an order with Don’t Panic Games for some of what I assume are add-ons from the Kickstarter campaign, notably the Battle of Midway and Heroes of Midway expansions, which appeal to my historical interests.

Unfortunately I got the game after the conclusion of the related Fighters of Europe Kickstarter campaign. The Battle of Britain is another aspect of World War II that interests me; combined with the mechanics of Fighters of the Pacific I can imagine a similar game in the European theater can provide more challenges in that historical context. With the Kickstarter version delivering in spring 2024 I hope copies find their way into the retail market where I can pick up one and perhaps order some of the expansions (though what’s in the box seems like plenty to keep me busy).


  1. Hurm... Thinks like this are dangerous to the wallet. It looks like something I'd really enjoy.

    1. Glad to be of service. :) Despite the high Kicksterater pricing (especially given shipping, add-ons, etc.), I've seen the base game on Amazon for around $50, often below that. E-bay prices fluctuate around the $50 mark. Probably worth the money given its replay value over similarly priced or more expensive wargames, especially if you like WWII aviation.

    2. Well, Christmas isn't too far off. I like the sound of the replay value.


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