Almost 30 years ago, a small software development company started by the man behind Star Wars created a seminal game that now ranks, to this reviewer, as one of the best PC games of all time. WWII’s Battle of Britain was the backdrop for Lucasfilm’s strategic and first person air combat game, Their Finest Hour. Not only was George Lucas inspired by World War II fighter pilots when designing the dogfight scenes in Star Wars, but an earlier generation of children was inspired at the bravery and valor of pilots in small fighter planes in an era before jets and guided missiles.
Capturing that imaginative spirit and setting is no easy task. Games such as Wings of Glory and it’s successor, X-Wing, do their best, but in a way, the two dimensional nature of a tabletop removes some of the imagery from the three-dimensional miniatures. Seeking to capture that magic, Dan Verssen has been continuously adapting and reprinting a card game design originally published by GMT games in 1993. That game was Rise of the Luftwaffe. From there, additional designs have adapted the game system.
The latest iteration, originally published in 2010 and still printed, is Down in Flames: WWII-Guns Blazing. It’s a tabletop card game for 2-6 players with about a 30 minute playtime. For a simple dogfight, 2 players is fine, but for a grand aerial battle, an even number of players up to 6 (or 12 with additional decks!) is really the heart of the experience.
A main deck of maneuver cards is the primary focus of the game. In a dogfight, each player controls one fighter plane from those common during WWII. These will range from Bf-109s to Hurricanes, Spitfires, Zeros, Mustangs, and even the P-38 Lightning. Each plane has a set of statistics that affect how players will draw cards, make maneuvers, or fire their guns.
During play, each player alternates turns until a plane is shot down, ending the game for that player. The beginning of each turn allows for planes to change altitude or use a faster speed to maneuver against their opponent, changing the physical attitude of the card representing their plane on the table. For example, if one plane is placed directly behind the other, it is said to be tailing. If a plane is pointed with its nose toward the fuselage from the side, it is said to be advantaged. These positions matter most to how an aircraft fires at an opponent.
An aircraft receives a certain number of bursts (chances to fire) based on its position relative to its target. For example, if an aircraft is tailing, it has three bursts. A tailing player can then use attack cards which show how many bursts they cost and how much damage they do.
However, every action has a chance to be avoided, especially being shot at. Any change in position, attack, or maneuver that one plane attempts can be countered by the opponent provided they have the necessary cards. The multi-use cards in Down in Flames show additional options to cancel a variety of other cards. This creates a back and forth duel, much like a real dogfight as players successively play counters to each previously played card.
A player can win a single dogfight by doing enough damage to shoot down their enemy. However, if players are engaging in a campaign mission, often there will be bombers in the fight. The defender’s goal is to do enough damage to the attacking force so that the bombers cannot complete their mission. A campaign mission resolves with points awarded to the winning side. Total all points from all missions to determine an overall winner.
Readers who like to immediately look at pictures of a game might be in for a shock. The cards for Down in Flames are artistically fine, but they’re nothing to write home about. For those fascinated with WWII dogfights, what is worth real focus here is the gameplay.
It’s very clear from opening the box, this is a game only for fans of WWII air combat. The rules are not elegant and the art is mostly functional. What Down in Flames does deliver in spades is theme and engagement, even with a short dogfight. During play, it isn’t uncommon for some players to make aerial plane noises as they escape from being tailed or imitate the sounds of machine guns as they finally manage to hit their opponent. As one of those fans, this reviewer fell into the arms of this design fully.
However, the mechanisms in the game play out like a tit-for-tat card game. When seen from that perspective, the game lacks a certain depth and strategy that some players would prefer. There are strategies to employ, especially in campaign games, but a quick dogfight still requires the luck of the draw to aid a player in their cause. It could be called realism, but players who prefer games to depend more on skill won’t be enamored.
When players zoom out a bit and see the campaign level of the game, that’s where Down in Flames shines the most. With a group of players all fighting together to attack or defend another side, it’s a title that presents a unique form of team game where players can really feel the pressure and tension of aiding one another in aerial combat. This team-centric magic is rarely found in other game forms and it works surprisingly well here.
The last thing worth commenting on, as mentioned before, is the overall quality of components. Down in Flames skimps on the chrome and sticks with slightly flimsy cardboard counters for tracking game effects. Gamers who need bling in their games won’t find it here.
Listen up WWII aerial dogfighting fans, Down in Flames is the game you’ve been looking for. What it lacks in quality of components, it makes up for with theme and team play in spades. Rarely has a game ever received such a specific recommendation from this reviewer, and the review score reflects the most positive light this game can be received with. For gamers with no interest in the theme or who already have some fine take-that card games, there’s no need to consider this.
Final Score: 4 Stars – It may not have the most elegant or deterministic card system, but sliding a plane on the table, imagining your tactical choices in a dogfight, and pulling off crazy aerial turns to out-maneuver an opponent is incredibly fun.
• Tactical card play that feels close to aerial combat
• Lots of planes included
• Tension in bombing missions
• Planes often feel similar
• Some randomness in card draw