The hunt is on! Catching scent of your prey, you dive in for the kill. Canines bared and wind whipping through your fur, your Sopwith Pup’s growling engine gives you away. Flushed from his flight path, your nervous quarry frantically jumps, shakes, and rolls over in a desperate maneuver to avoid your attack. But with dogged determination you stay on his tail and line him up in your sights. The barking staccato of your .30 caliber Whiskers machine gun tells the rest of the story as your victim slips earthward and plays dead. This is what you were bred to do. Will you be the leader of the pack? Or just another flying flea circus?
How it Plays
Dawgs of War is an arcade-style flight simulation of pooch-to-pooch aerial combat. Using cards to program flight, and dice to resolve firing, you’ll need to match wits and nerves with your enemy…as well as forget all you’ve ever learned about physics.
These unfriendly skies are represented by a hex-grid game board. Up is up and down is the ground…which you don’t want to meet. Players can engage in a team vs. team dogfight or a swirling free-for all. In either case, they choose which side to come in on and roll for starting altitude, placing their personal plane token at the appropriate map edge.
Each player also takes their plane’s corresponding condition card, setting it in front of them. The reverse side is a sort of dog tag listing your pilot’s name such as General Pit Matheson, Bernard Dupant, or Madam Woufier, along with some vital vet statistics. While quite clever – or groan-inducing depending on your tolerance for puns – these are quickly forgotten as you flip it over for its condition side which marks your aircraft’s speed and vulnerability. These are the same for all machines, and everyone starts with the throttle set at 1.
Most actions are resolved simultaneously. First, everyone chooses two cards from their hand to control their plane’s movement – your stick and rudder, so to speak – and places them face down to the table. Once everyone has selected a pair, they’re all revealed and resolved. Your hand consists of seven cards, six of which are identical for all pilots. Three cards rotate your plane either clockwise, counter-clockwise, or not at all. The other three are labeled, 1, 2, and 3, respectively, indicating exactly how many hex faces and/or vertices you will rotate in that direction. One of the two cards you play for control must be a numbered card. So, for example, if you played the clockwise card and the #2 card, you will rotate your plane twice in a clockwise direction.
Your seventh option is a unique special ability randomly dealt to start the game. After resolving your pair of control cards, they return to your hand, so you will keep this special ability throughout. These accord a variety of benefits such as better defense or pulling off some trick maneuver. There are a couple more powerful capabilities, however, that may only be used once in the game, so apply it wisely.
After everyone has appropriately rotated, you move. Advance your token forward on its current course a number of spaces equal to your speed, which will never exceed three. A “space” in this case is equivalent to a plane’s full length, or two hexes. If your speed is ‘0,’ then your plane actually drops once straight down, while still maintaining its current orientation. All this occurs simultaneously and there are conveniently no collisions.
After movement, players can shoot at any one plane within their cone of fire, as consulted by a handy-dandy diagram in the rule book. Results are determined by rolling against your target’s vulnerability, which is related to its speed. Basically, the faster they’re flying the harder they are to hit. If you roll high enough, you can even inflict two damage points.
When the shooting’s over, all planes now adjust their speed. Any aircraft flying level, or nearly so, retains their current speed – unless they were at ‘0,’ in which case they go to ‘1.’ Those planes pointing up decrease their velocity by one, while those point down increase it. Then everyone checks for “break up.” As you take damage, a special token marks your condition on the speed/vulnerability track. If you’re flying the same speed as or faster than your damage rating, your fragile little crate of wood and canvas may exceed its structural integrity. Roll for break-up and consult you’re vulnerability track in a similar fashion as with resolving combat. If the result equals or surpasses your vulnerability rating, your plane is destroyed and tumbles earthward, at which point you wish you were the species that had 9 lives.
Beware of the Dog? Or All Bark and No Bite?
The term “dogfight” has long been associated with aerial combat at least since its first documented use by A E. Illingworth in his WW1 personal memoirs/squadron history, Fly Papers, published in 1919. Of course, canines and warfare have long been linked, at least as early as 1599 in a certain Shakespearean tragedy. But what if you took it all literally? Well, Nathan Hansen does in his latest design and, in the process, has defied game design convention, evolutionary biology, and gravity.
For its style, Dawgs of War is in a nice weight class. For the most part (see thoughts on facing below), it’s simple and action-packed, with straight-forward rules. Whether training a new pup or teaching an old dog new tricks, casual gamers especially should appreciate how flight is broken and resolved in three steps. First, rotate your plane, unless you just want to keep her straight and steady. Then, move forward on your present course. Finally, adjust speed based on your orientation. In between, players determine combat depending on location. There are no rulers, tables, general modifiers, or calculations on the fly. It’s short and sweet.
Any casual game of this nature should foster a crisp pace and the design doesn’t disappoint. Almost all action is simultaneous, rarely leaving pilots to sit and wag their tails. Instead, you’re constantly involved in the action. Therefore, even if a session goes a little longer than usual, it doesn’t really feel like it. This pace also helps to alleviate one of the title’s more problematic bones: luck. Successful hits and unfortunate crack ups are determined by a die roll, so results will vary. However, since games run fairly quick and the mood is light, the chaos rolls right off your wings. Letting the randomness get to you in this one is probably more of an indication that you shouldn’t be playing games.
Despite presenting a rather low-level entry point, Dawgs of War provides opportunity for wit and bluffing. The only decision-making is how to rotate your plane. While this may sound really limited, it is the crux of the design, nonetheless. Not only does it determine where you go, and by corollary who you’re going after, but also how fast. Since speed is directly related to orientation, you must balance the two aspects when playing cards to begin each round. Diving to gain movement points may seem like a good idea until you smack into the ground, while climbing looks attractive until you stall out at too high an altitude. Your choice will mean the difference between shaking off a pursuer, zooming in behind an enemy bird for the kill, or falling ingloriously to earth as a giant, burning furball.
Then there are special power cards which inject just the right amount of variability without adding confusion. At first, I was disappointed that each pilot was identical. After all, each one is named with a creative pun and given some silly “stats.” But none of them have any unique ability. On the surface, this is quite a wasted opportunity. However, the use of cards proves the better route, if still a bit underused. This way, instead of eight fixed powers, there are twelve dealt randomly. Plus, to start the game, you don’t know who has which! Alas, it would have been nice to include more than the twelve. In any event, they keep the game from being completely repetitive, while giving some fun benefits. They’re also quit varied in usage. Some remain constantly in effect after playing, others return to your hand at the end of the turn for use again later, and a few – generally more powerful – are played only once and then discarded.
The control cards – each player’s cockpit, so to speak – are so simple, they’re genius. Again, it keeps the design plain and accessible. One card, one track, to determine speed, vulnerability, damage, and break-ups. Everything you need to tally and consult – which admittedly is not a lot – is kept together. One, it makes logical sense as they’re all related. Two, it requires no cross-referencing or fiddly manipulations. However, the game board isn’t always so smoothly interpreted.
And that is the one issue Dawgs of War does suffer from. As a light, fast-paced game aiming for broad accessibility, counter orientation and movement should be seamless. Unfortunately it is a tad confusing. Planes can face either a hex side or vertex, and rotate one point at a time accordingly. Thus, there are 12 points around the hex, not six. Facing and moving via a hex side are intuitive and traditional, so generally cause little problem. However, when lining along a vertex, it looks a bit awkward and unnatural. At first, you constantly feel like you need to “fix” your plane’s compass direction. And when you’re flying upside down like some barnstorming air show stuntman, things can really seem oddly backwards. It takes some practice to completely grok.
Now I’ve probably made Dawgs of War sound more strategic than it really is. This game doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should you. Don’t go comparing this to “flight simulations” like Wings of Glory, X-Wing, or Star Trek: Attack Wing. It’s not trying to emulate or replace them. Nor is it a war game. If you’re looking for any sort of realism like maneuverability, dive stress, climb rates, adjustable throttles, and gun jams, you won’t find it. That doesn’t mean it’s a forgettable, knock-off Great War Air Bud. Instead, approach it as a furious, sometimes hilarious, shoot ‘em up brawl suitable for a variety of gaming groups and experience levels. It’s not really a filler, although it could be, especially for smaller player counts.
The old saying goes, “Every dog has its day.” Well that’s true for board games, too. There are innumerable breeds of all shapes, sizes, and purpose that fit all kinds of different gaming groups and situations. Dawgs of War may seem quirky, light, and frivolous. That’s because it is all three of those things. And that’s fine. It’s not deep or sophisticated, won’t be for everyone, nor will it be a go-to staple. But if you want some plain old-fashioned fun, it is an enjoyable romp through the howling skies with lots of fast-paced action, matching of wits and nerves, and most of all, puns.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games for providing a review copy of Dawgs of War.