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Review: Wings for the Baron

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War may be Hell.  But there’s no denying it can be good for business.  Nothing seems to drive up orders like military demand.  And nothing seems to propel technological innovation like nations bent on eradicating each other – or perhaps staving off disaster and their own extinction.  The fledging air industry during the First World War illustrates that truism perfectly.  Not long before the terrible conflict, planes were fragile crates with little more than lawn mower engines that could barely fly across the English Channel.  By November 1918 fighters were sleek, nimble and relatively powerful killing machines.  Meanwhile, reconnaissance planes and bombers could fly higher than dreamed, carry multiple airmen, direct artillery fire for miles and deliver unimagined payloads to the terrified below.  The advances made in just four short years were astronomical.  And the profits reaped just as lucrative.  If you could survive national collapse…

How to Play

In Wings for the Baron, players are German plane manufacturers during the Great War competing for government contracts by creating effective designs.  But with a war on your struggle isn’t just against rival companies, but also a deteriorating economy.  One can be just as cutthroat as the other!

Players navigate their industries with a constricted action selection that simulates research, development and business during a modern and total war without bogging play down in the minutia of resource collection and production.  Heading up three to five of Germany’s leading aircraft makers, each with a unique ability relevant to their historical operations, the action propels along like a finely organized assembly line with clearly delineated game phases and largely simultaneous play.

Each player receives an individual, double-sided company board to track design improvements, factories, papeirmarks and gold.  One face is used for standard games in which your factories will only build fighters.  The second side has additional tech trees to account for research and developments in bombers and reconnaissance aircraft for slightly more advanced campaign games.  The rules and phases are similar in both variants with only a few more steps to resolve in campaign mode.

In the first phase, players secretly select actions and resolve them in strict order by action type.  In a standard game you choose two actions per round, designating one of those to perform twice.  In campaign games you get a third action, as well.  Or rather than diversifying, you can opt to focus efforts on just one action, effectively performing it three times – or possibly twice in campaign mode depending on where you slot your role cards.  There are five actions to choose from and all but one resolve quickly.  You can build factories, which is important as you can never win more contracts than you have factories; convert your fickle paper currency to more steady gold reserves that are not affected by inflation; research new technology to upgrade your planes; engage in industrial espionage; or advance one of your plane designs (fighter, bomber or reconnaissance) with the new tech you discover.

Do you have a business plan...?
Do you have a business plan…?

The bulk of activity in the action phase revolves around new aircraft technology through espionage and design.  There are many improvements which increase your planes’ effectiveness.  The tech tree looks rather convoluted and complex at first, but flows smoothly once you’re familiar with it.  Most techs require previous advancements before you can research them.  To upgrade your planes during a Design action, you must expend a Technology/Event card which specifically designates the advance you’re implementing – assuming you have already developed its prerequisites, if necessary.  After playing the card, simply place the appropriate modifier token on that advance’s location in your tech tree, indicating the breakthrough.  That box will then likely point to another tech which is now available to research.  Specific recon and bomber upgrades do not have corresponding cards.  Instead, many Tech cards have icons pertinent to either design which you can play in order to develop those types.

With the Espionage action you may attempt to steal technology from other players – again, as long as you have the prerequisites for the improvement you’re going after.  All upgrades have a target value from two to six.  Simply declare what you’re trying to steal and from who, roll a d6 and if the result is equal to or greater than the upgrade’s value, you may add that technology to your own design.  For each other player who also possesses that target knowledge you get a +1 modifier to your roll.  So if two or more companies are already that more advanced then you, such knowledge is common enough that you can wind up with something quite easily – maybe even automatic.

Each time after improving any of your designs with the specific Design action you test for effectiveness.  Pick one of your three designs (if playing the campaign game, otherwise just fighter) and add all of the upgrade modifiers from that design’s tech tree to a d6 roll.  Then advance that particular token to the resulting value on the community status board/track.  In the standard game, the company with the most advanced fighter design is awarded the most lucrative contracts.  And if your fighter struggles too far behind the Allies’ planes you won’t get any contracts at all.  In the campaign game, you receive additional contracts if your bomber and/or reconnaissance designs are more innovative than their Allied counterparts.

Putting you design to work.
Putting you design to work.

In addition to tracking each player’s aircraft effectiveness, that communal board also tracks available government contracts, the inflation rate, Allied and German war morale and the effectiveness of Allied fighters, bombers and reconnaissance designs.  It can get crowded in a full-player campaign game, as all of that information except for inflation is recorded on the same track.

The Technology/Event cards are dual use – or more like either/or use.  So if you end up with a tech that is either useless because you’re far from discovering its prerequisites, or perhaps you’ve already developed it, then you can utilize it for its event, instead.  These are historically based generic incidents that can boost your efforts with bonuses and special abilities, or hinder an opponent.

After resolving actions, companies are awarded contracts beginning with the most effective fighter design.  There’s a handy d6-based chart beneath every space on the community track designating how many contracts you’re awarded via a die roll.  The result can be modified by various developments and card play.  Essentially, you earn one papiermark for each contract.  As players win contracts, the available number decreases for succeeding manufacturers.  While there are typically enough for everyone in later rounds, contracts can be scarce early in the war leaving the least effective companies with nothing.

Multi-tracking skillz!
Multi-tracking skillz!

The next phase is inflation, which is based on a die roll.  With a result of 4 or 5, inflation increase by one on the track and everyone lose a quarter of their papiermarks.  With a 6, it jumps two spots and all current cash balances are devalued by half.  If the track reaches hyperinflation, the game ends immediately and all paper money is worthless.

Finally a round comes to an end with the war status phase.  The War Status deck is comprised of historical event cards constructed by a certain chronological formula so that the game’s war unfolds somewhat logically based on the real war, yet with some random variation for unpredictability.  These cards stipulate how much morale declines for either side (with a +1 modifier for whoever has the most effective fighter), how many new contracts might be added to the available count and how far Allied fighter, bomber and reconnaissance designs advance. These are all adjusted on the community track.  Then a new round begins with the action phase.

If hyperinflation doesn’t occur first, bringing Germany to economic ruin, the war ends when either one or both of the combatant’s morale hits zero on the communal track.  If Allied moral plummets first, Germany doesn’t win the war but does get better concessions at the peace table.  That means the papiermark retains its value.  If both sides reach war weariness at the same time, then the mark suffers an additional endgame 25% inflation.  If Germany hits public morale rock-bottom first then their paper currency tumbles a further 50%.  In any endgame scenario, players add their gold, papiermarks and any special bonus tokens earned or kept through the war.  The company with the most assets claims victory as the Fatherland’s premiere aircraft manufacturer.  Of course the economy is in shambles and the Armistice forbids warplane production.  So your achievement may be more for pride and international recognition.  After all, you might consider emigrating.  The air industry is just beginning to boom in the United States…

Gauging the war's status.
Gauging the war’s status.

Military-Industrial Identity Complex?

I really enjoy board games.  But since you’re here you probably guessed that.  What might be a more helpful revelation is that I really enjoy history, too.  So you might think that board games about history would just be so much gravy for me.  Alas, that’s not always the case.  After all there are countless designs with a historical setting.  Yet many of those – I’d even argue most – fail to capitalize on their subject in any meaningful way to create something truly unique.  Most often, historical theming is more akin to a pretty bow wrapping a package of rules, mechanisms and flavor art without significantly informing gameplay.  It’s a backdrop to yet another victory point generating apparatus.  They can still be good games, but often waste a broader potential.  Now and then, however, a historically-based design rises above the others.

While I like reading about and studying many eras of history, by far my favorite is early aviation after the turn of the century through World War I and the advent of the jet age in the late 1940s through the Korean War.  Both stages witnessed sweeping and staggeringly rapid technological advancements fueled by the needs of armed conflict.  The deeper I explored Wings for the Baron, the more impressed I was with how well it captures the spirit of enterprise in a depressed wartime economy, in general, and the interrelation between military needs and accelerated industrial innovation, in particular.

To be sure Dave Townsend’s design abstracts most of its thematic elements, but he still manages to nail them.  The biggest theme it addresses is the nature of doing business in a deteriorating wartime economy.  Sure, you can make a profit.  But it’s precarious and always influenced by events beyond your control.  At its core Wings for the Baron is a streamlined economic engine without miring you in the muck of tedious resource management.  German industry certainly suffered shortages in raw materials and labor which the war exacerbated as it raged.  Here, you’re assumed to have the necessary material to produce what you want – as long as you commit to the appropriate action and have the right card.  So there are no dwindling cubes or tokens visually illustrating the economy’s scarcities.  Which is fine.  That means nothing to collect, convert, expend and otherwise fiddle with.  Instead, the very limited action selection restricts your efforts.  Your entrepreneurial spirit cannot run amok.  Your business is tethered by the paucities wartime encumbers you with, as represented by your ability to only do so much every turn.

With a war on, you can only do so much.
With a war on, you can only do so much.

Inflation also reinforces the economic theme.  Townsend could have treated this aspect simply as a minor penalty mechanism, but instead it hangs like an Albatross (the metaphorical bird, not one of the actual manufacturers you can play in the game) over your collective heads.  It’s appropriately tied to your business’ success in that money means victory.  I prefer inflation be hard-coded to war length or morale, rather than a random roll.  It was an inevitable problem and the German government endeavored hard to mitigate it.  However, true to the design’s emphasis on some uncertainty within historicity, inflation’s depressive influence will impact sessions differently.  You know it will be a factor, but never sure to exactly what extent.  Will the economy completely collapse with hyperinflation?  Can the army hold on to merit favorable post-war concessions and a stronger mark?  Or will defeat or mutual weariness deflate it – and your points?  The morale and inflation tracks gauge the war’s progression so that you can make calculated risks.  But investing in gold protects you from currency’s fickle value, which may end up not worth the paper it’s printed on.  Yet taking that money to the bank means less actions elsewhere.

Another historically rooted element deals with the political clout these companies garnered.  In the standard game, you can woo the support of Germany’s top fighter aces through Event cards.  For each ace that favor’s your design you roll one column higher when collecting contracts and add a +1 modifier to that roll.  While this is random as it depends on having the right draw, you sacrifice that card’s design upgrade to benefit – another tough choice potentially hampering your wartime production.  And it’s insightful as a mechanic modeling the rock-star popularity of aces during the Great War.  You can also earn +1 political influence tokens by producing the most effective reconnaissance or bomber aircraft.  The General Staff token is awarded to the best recon plane, representing the military’s desire for aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting, the real reason for air power during the war.  And while not as strategically impactful, bombing raids nonetheless created dramatic headlines and tied up scores of Allied fighters in England for home defense, so the Kaiser lends his political leverage for the best bomber.

If you can’t schmooze your way to get ahead of the competition, you can always resort to stealing from them.  As in any era of rapid innovation, the person or entity that first discovers or invents reaps the sole benefits for a time.  But eventually another cracks the code, or a close enough approximation.  There are always sneaky ways to learn industry secrets.  The espionage action adroitly functions to address the three ways technology disseminated during the war: licensed production, captured enemy machines, and outright theft of intellectual property.  The random roll to succeed seems appropriate, as well.  One, you could flat fail in the attempt.  Two, even when companies tried to implement “borrowed” technology, the results weren’t always as effective as the original.  At the same time, the more a particular upgrade is known and used, the easier it is adopt that improvement.  Even if you invent the wheel, you can only keep it from others for so long.

Lots to research...or just steal from other companies!
Lots to research…or just steal from other companies!

Of course a title like Wings for the Baron should pit plane designs against each other in a stiff competition both internally and militarily.  In that regards game play does not disappoint.  It is paramount that players keep their fighter designs as cutting edge as possible so they don’t fall too far behind in receiving contracts, and therefore money.  The German high command was constantly keen to make sure their pilots and machines could match or outpace their Allied counterparts, naturally putting in more orders for advanced and proven designs.  Those preferences varied between companies throughout the war, culminating in the air trials at Adlershof in January 1918, a government-sponsored competition of prototypes among the country’s manufacturers to choose the next generation of warplanes.  The game effectively mimics these preferences by awarding first contracts to the most effective designs.  If you lead in innovation and have the factories to exploit it, you can effectively choke out other companies lagging behind.  And if your fighter is so woefully outclassed by what the Allies are flying, then the government won’t even offer contracts for your ineffective crates.

As for those Allied planes, the boost in national morale for fielding the best design is a nice touch to illustrate the budding technology’s impact on the war.  Despite the rapid gains it achieved, aviation was still in its infancy, especially as a weapon.  To be sure, it influenced strategy and aided military operations, but was not a critical factor in the Allies’ victory in the way it would prove so decisive a quarter century later.  Nonetheless, it was a new frontier breaking barriers humans had never reached and considered dashing and glamorous, despite its grizzly survival rates.  Both sides traded air superiority off and on as more advanced aircraft entered the front in alternating periods – sometimes even monthly.  German pilots particularly routed their enemies in April 1917, a month the Allies colorfully dubbed “Bloody April” because of the losses they suffered at the hands of new fighters.  Yet on the ground, things continued at their terrible and stalemated pace.  So the morale boost can make an impact, but not a major one.  That Allied effectiveness is determined by random roll again means its development rests on some measured uncertainty.  Yet the results are not terribly drastic.  Most of the time values between combatants – at least between the Allies and the best German design – remain in close proximity as the game progresses.  On the other hand, it does foster swings in ascendancy just as both sides enjoyed at various times through the real war.

Balanced portfolio? Forget that. Give me all the gold!
Balanced portfolio? Forget that. Give me all the gold!

Now even if you’re not into the thematic setting that I’ve waxed on and on about, or don’t know enough about the subject to appreciate the design’s ties with historical details, you can still enjoy the game for two reasons.  One, those details are abstracted, so it shouldn’t bore non-history buffs.  But two, primarily because it’s smooth and well-structured, a genuinely enjoyable gaming experience – even if it looks somewhat like a spreadsheet.  The action selection and phases are straight-forward and familiar so that play is largely intuitive.  There is some slight mental fiddliness when calculating and following information during the war status update, but it’s not daunting by any means.  The biggest uptick to the design’s structure is that the action moves apace with simultaneous resolution and almost zero downtime.

Wings for the Baron also provides plenty of tough choices.  With only two or three actions per round, you will need to plan ahead because those often interrelate over the course of multiple turns.  For example, you can’t design unless you have tech cards, which you must research to draw.  But research is resolved after designing.  And combining espionage (which resolves first) with the design action can potentially provide a windfall of new tech rocketing your fighter’s effectiveness in a single turn.  And in the campaign game reconnaissance and bomber aircraft demand attention, using up cards which could be utilized for your fighters – seemingly more important given their preeminence in winning contracts – or for their event abilities.  Just considering those dual purpose cards for their technology versus their bonus can often be agonizing itself.  Especially when you can use them against rivals to effect some sharp, even nasty interaction.

To design or not to design? That is the question regarding dual use cards.
To design or not to design? That is the question regarding dual use cards.

Probably the most interesting aspect are the five different companies, providing variable powers.  Therefore each Konzern can provide a slightly more optimal strategy.  Although to be honest, it’s not extremely disparate, because players are after the same thing: money.  Which means upgrading those planes to get contracts and building factories to rake them in.  Still it’s fun to experiment with the different manufacturers, and their abilities model historical characteristics.  Which is a really nice touch.  But I’ve bored you too much already with those details.

The rules include a solo variant.  So for those interested, there’s that.  I can’t speak too much to it as I’ve not tried it.  Essentially you play against two or more non-player companies whose actions are programmed.  The game works fine with two players, but definitely loses some tension, enough that VPG has the 3-5 player count designated on the box.  Where the sweet spot lands depends on whether you’d like a more lucrative game with plenty of contracts (3) or a cutthroat affair in which the company lagging behind often ends up with empty pockets (5).  In any event, national morale for both sides decreases at the same varying intervals every round.  So there is a built-in timer and the game never outstays its welcome.  You see the war winding to a conclusion, but again not sure exactly when.

Not worth the paper it's printed on?
Not worth the paper it’s printed on?

It’s been a while since I’ve played a new title from Victory Point Games and Wings for the Baron reminds me again why I’m generally impressed with the publisher’s offerings.  With designs that routinely explore historical themes and settings beyond mere window dressing, they utilize their source material to create games that feel and play unique.  For me, they have an impressively consistent track record in this area rivaled by few other publishers and surpassed by none.

Wings for the Baron superbly continues that trend.  Its core action selection and stratified sequence of play create a smooth running engine, but throw in enough cogs and tough choices to add complexity, tautness and tension.  Its engrossing, never leaves you idle and lasts just enough to satisfy.  And the triumphs and setbacks of wartime make for a frail economy and vague future seemingly on the brink of collapse.  This challenging and variable design has flown under the radar.  Which is fine for 1918, as they didn’t have radar yet.  However, that’s no excuse not to put Wings for the Baron on yours.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games for providing a review copy of Wings for the Baron.

Ace of Aces

  • Rating 9.5
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Summary

Pros:

Theme of wartime manufacturing on precipice of fragile economy well informed
Uncertain outcome creates unyielding play with difficult decisions
Simple structure with familiar mechanisms for accessibility
Yet complexly nuanced and polished for a greater challenge
Companies provide fun and effective variable powers
Dual use cards make for more agonizing choices
Underserved setting in the hobby
Play, theme and setting all around combine for unique experience

Cons:

Inflation should probably by formulaic, rather than random
Poor early card draws and die rolls can be difficult to overcome

9.5 Excellent

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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