Saturday, September 11, 2010

Crimson Skies

Wow, it has been many months since I have written about a game in my collection. The reason for that is because the game that got randomly selected was one I had just recently purchased, the old Crimson Skies boardgame from the gone but never forgotten FASA Corporation. Those of you who play video games may remember that back in 2000 Microsoft released a video game for the Xbox and PC called Crimson Skies, and the video game is set in the same game universe as the board game. The board game itself was first published in 1998, during the summer before I moved to Washington, D.C., and I never played it, or even actually saw it played, back then. In early 2001 FASA ceased publication, and the Crimson Skies boardgame was a victim of that time. Nothing new has been published for the game in about 10 years, but early this year I had a chance to buy almost everything ever published for the game for $15, and I just couldn't pass it up. Battletech, also published by FASA, is one of my favorite wargames ever, so at such a low price it was worth picking up Crimson Skies to see how it compared.

But first, a discussion of the game world for Crimson Skies. The setting for the game is in the later 1930s of an "alternate history" United States of America that shattered politically when the Great Depression started. By 1937, there are 19 separate nations where once one had stood. Because of this, land-based transportation like rail, and especially automobiles, have lost in transportation priority to airplanes and dirigibles. In the game you play pilots flying fighter planes against your opponent's fighter planes, and in some scenarios you are either attacking or defending a dirigible against the enemy. Granted, these dirigibles mount flak cannons and machine guns to defend themselves, and thus you can play out scenarios like that pictured on the box cover, which shows air pirates attacking an Empire State dirigible while Blake Aviation Security attempts to intervene. This is all very much in the vein of "pulp" adventure stories from that time, when men were men and women were women, which basically means that you are supposed to play the game in a daring and dashing manner, as if Errol Flynn was flying the plane in an action movie, fighting against sky pirates to save the beautiful dame in danger. Something like that, anyway.

The game itself is played with either cardboard counters or painted pewter miniatures on a hex map. Five different maps are provided in the boxed game, and at least two more came with expansion sets. For the most part, the maps are for looks (fighting over downtown Manhattan or just open sky has no bearing on the game), except that some maps include high-altitude terrain hexes, which are (probably) impassable to your planes. You can try to fly through it, but if you fail your maneuvering roll get ready to hit that obstacle head on at 200 miles per hour. There are a few aspects of the game that are worth pointing out, so let's get to it.

First, this is not a "pick up and play" game. First you have to decide what scenario you want to play, which can be one provided with the game or a supplement, or one the player's design themselves. This can be as simple as "let's each take two fighters and dogfight" to "let's do a zeppelin raid over Manhattan, and the zeppelin is picking up special cargo, which the pirates must try to grab with harpoon rockets without damaging the container. There will be 12 pirates and eight defenders, and the defenders will be elite and the pilots are built with 500 points instead of 450." It can get even more complex than that. Notice that comment about "500 instead of 450" for the pilots? Before each game, unless you are playing in a campaign with persistent flight crews, you have to build your pilot from scratch. There are five skills plus a Constitution rating for each pilot, and you spend your points to buy their skill levels and any increased Constitution you want. This can take a bit of time, but it does allow you to match your pilot's skills to the plane you are flying. Ah, yes, you also have to select your planes. The base game comes with 14 different models, plus the rules to design your own, and expansion sets came with more plane types. Once you select your planes, you have to decide what ammunition they are using and what rockets/bombs are mounted on the hardpoints. Only once all of that is decided are you ready to play. It can be a quite a bit of work to get that all set up and ready.

Second, movement in the game is simultaneous and mostly blind to your opponent. All movement orders are written at the beginning of the turn, and once every plane has an order then they are all carried out simultaneously. The only exception to this is if one plane is tailing the other. In that case, you add up some modifiers to determine exactly how much information the tailed plane has to provide to his tailer about that plane's movement. This mechanic is actually quite common in aircraft board games, and I have run into it before with both World War I-themed games, as well as modern air combat games. It works OK, but it does take some getting used to if you aren't familiar with that mechanic. It also makes the game about impossible to play solitiare.

Third, the way that weapons do damage is both really interesting and kind of gimmicky at the same time. Each plane has a damage diagram, which is really a collection of small boxes organized to represent the layout of the plane's mechanical components. Whenever a plane takes damage, either from enemy fire or from failing to properly perform a maneuver that exceeds the plane's flight capabilities, you use a special stencil to identify the area of the plane that got damaged, and then you blacken all of the boxes not covered by the stencil. You can see an example of the end result in this picture. The specific stencil you use is determined by the caliber of the gun you are firing as well as the ammunition you loaded it with. Different types of rockets also have different damage layouts. As you take damage and blacken boxes that represent different aircraft components, those components break. In the case of guns or rockets, you can't use that weapon anymore. In the case of wing struts, elevators, flaps, and the like, your plane becomes less maneuverable, which can be a very back thing indeed if your opponent can now literally out-maneuver you. Hits to the cockpit canopy can stun your pilot, hits to landing gear make it harder to land safely (yes, you can lose a pilot and plane to a bad landing) at the end of a mission in a campaign game, etc. Hits to a fuel tank just lose you fuel, unless you were hit in the fuel tank by "burning" ammunition, in which case you explode instantly into a nice fireball.

Fourth, the game appears to be really intended for campaign play, where each player (or each group of players) controls an entire squadron of planes and pilots, which then fly multiple missions against each other. The biggest clue to this is that during missions, pilots gain experience points for successful kills of enemy aircraft, as well as other actions. After each mission, surviving pilots can spend their accumulated experience points to improve their skills. The end result is that a successful pilot in one mission literally gets better before the next mission. This can have an affect on game play, too, as you try to make sure that your really good pilot doesn't get cut off and shot down by enemy planes.

In the end, while Crimson Skies is an interesting boardgame, I doubt that I will ever play it again. It really demands campaign play to get the most out of it, and even if I did know other people that wanted to play it, who has the time to devote to that? Certainly not I, at least not these days. However, if you ever decide to play the game and want to get additional plane counters, I highly recommend grabbing the files from this site and printing them out. The counters work very nicely.

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