Reviewed by James Davis
STORM ABOVE THE REICH (GMT Games, 1 to 2 players, ages 12 and up, 30-60 minutes; $95)
The United States Eighth Air Force deployed to England during WWII with a mission to gain command of the European skies. The German anti-aircraft batteries, however, were extremely deadly, and the Luftwaffe was at the height of its strength during most of the war. Many of the German FW190 fighter pilots had been flying since the 1930s, and had become seasoned professionals. The Americans had only recently joined the war and did not match the German’s experience.
The Americans did have many things in their favor, though. One being the B-17 “Flying Fortress”. It was a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Even when all but one of its engines failed during combat, the B-17 still was able to bring its crew home almost every time. It carried 13 50-caliber guns for self-defense. Combined with American fighter pilots, they were able to put up a tight, cohesive defense.
At least on paper. The Germans quickly found a weakness. The B-17 only had four guns able to defend from directly in front of the bomber. So, the Germans changed tactics and dived in at high speed directly towards the cockpit, with only seconds to aim and fire. And it worked. American casualties mounted as the bombers were downed with this new assault.
The Eighth Air Force, realizing their plight, also changed tactics. They created the “Combat Box”. It was a tactical formation of many bombers flying near each other in an effort to create an overlap of interlocking defensive fire between the planes. Starting in August 1942, they began experimenting with formations. Eventually, by the end of the war, many different and sometimes quite complicated formations were created based on the requirements of each mission. While not at all a perfect defense, it punched a hole in the German’s overall superiority of the air.
Storm Above the Reich, designed by Mark Aasted and Jeremy White and published by GMT Games, is a very well-developed solitaire simulation of this fascinating part of WWII history. In this game, you control a Luftwaffe squadron of Fw190s attempting to stop the US Air Force daylight raids over the Mediterranean and Germany during WWII. It is not an easy task, given what I just described. Thus, the game’s subtitle: “Breaking the Combat Box.”
Storm Above the Reich is actually the second game in this series, the first being Skies Above the Reich. Skies is focused more on the beginning of the war where the Americans are flying B-17s and your Staffel (Luftwaffe squadron) is mostly comprised of Bf109s. With Storm, the Americans have the superior B-24 and you have the deadly Focke-Wulf Fw190.
You do not need Skies to play Storm. However, there are rules to combine the two into an overall campaign with a total of eight maps (each representing a different Combat Box formation), six pursuit maps, and an option of combining the aircraft, allowing you many more choices when creating your squadron.
A Mission is where you send your Fw190s into combat. It is played on the map, and can (but typically doesn’t) last up to 12 turns. A Season is either six or ten of the hundreds of Missions that your Staffel would typically be sent on during each time period. It is meant to be a broad stroke depiction of the success of your squadron during that stage of the war. A short game is one Season, while a Medium game is played until you either win or lose a Season. With the full Campaign you keep playing until you win four Seasons or you lose just one.
Unlike many other games, the choices made during set up are a part of your strategy, not some chore to get through to start playing. The Season setup will tell you how many ace and green pilots you will have. If you are playing the Medium or Campaign game, you will also accumulate experience points for your pilots which can be spent to gain useful skills that may greatly affect future Missions.
The Mission parameters are decided with die rolls to determine what formation of Combat Box you will encounter. The dice also govern if your squadron is catching the bombers inbound, outbound, or over their target, how many Operation Points you can spend, and what type and how many fighter escorts will be defending the bombers. You can spend seven of your Staffel’s Experience Points to select a result and ignore the die roll for one of these elements of the Mission.
The Operation Points you gain represent the number of resources and manpower the Germans had at each stage of the war, and are used to choose which aircraft will be in your Staffel during the Mission. From these points you can choose pilots from your Staffel flying the Fw190, auxiliary fighters (such as the Mc202 or Bf110) and attachments for your planes, such as cannons, rockets, armor and cables.
Cables, you say? According to the rules, the Luftwaffe experimented for a time with dangling steel cables beneath their fighters into bomber formations in an effort to disrupt the Combat Box. I had never heard of that tactic before playing Storm Above the Reich. Don’t let anyone tell you that games are not instructive.
As an aside, instead of cardboard counters, your fighters are represented by square wooden blocks that you affix stickers upon. I’ve read that some people don’t like that, but I think it was a good choice. During a Mission, there will be quite a few cardboard counters on the board. Using blocks, it is very easy to distinguish your fighters from all of the other tokens. And you can use the provided blue blocks to visually show the height of your fighters.
At this point you are ready to set up the last few details of the Mission. Again, die rolls are used to simulate the chaotic variabilities that your fighters will encounter. Elements such as the sun’s position, if this formation is part of a larger one, how many turns you have, and the number of Tactical Points you can spend during the Mission. As above, you can spend seven Staffel Experience Points to override the result.
There are two double-sided boards in each version of the game. Each map represents a different Combat Box formation of American bombers. In the center of the map is a grid of whitened lines with an image of a bomber at some of the intersections. The bombers will be shown in groups separated by empty rows and columns.
Around each bomber there are blue numbers that represent how dangerous that part of the formation is to your fighters. It represents the overlap of defensive gun fire from all surrounding bombers. Attacking a lone bomber on the edge of the formation would be a 1, for example. A foolish dive into the middle of four bombers would be a 5. Those numbers are reduced as bombers are either destroyed or forced out of formation.
At each of the four edges of the game board are a group of boxes that represent where your fighters are located in relation to the Combat Box. The four groups represent the formation’s nose, tail or the flanks. In each group you will find High, Level and Low boxes which show where your aircraft are flying outside of defensive gun range. When you are ready to attack the formation, you move your fighter tokens into the Approach boxes, and then later in the same turn onto the center of the map. And there are Return boxes where your fighter tokens will be placed after their attack. In essence this gives you a very good indication of where your fighters are located in the sky in relation to the bomber formation. And it is an excellent method of simulating the cyclical flybys your fighters take on their attack runs. These boxes are also used by enemy escort fighter tokens, making those areas of the sky much more perilous to fly through.
The sequence of play for each Mission is as follows:
You move your fighters among the High, Level and Low boxes on the game board. On the first turn you place them on one or more Low boxes, simulating your climb to the formation. Movement is free for small adjustments, but to move farther in one turn, you can spend Tactical Points. Fighters with Hit markers on them do not move.
Near each High and Low box on the board are a Return and Evasive Return box. These boxes simulate the time it takes your fighter to circle around towards the bombers for another attack run. Normally your fighters are placed on a Return box after attacking, either High or Low depending on their flight path last turn. But if that fighter used Evasive Maneuvers during their attack, they are instead placed in the Evasive Return. During this Return phase, these fighters are moved towards the High or Low box they are adjacent to. Thus, a fighter on the Return box will take one turn out of play while the Evasive Return forces two turns out of play. Fighters with Hit markers do not move during the Return phase.
If enemy fighter escorts are present or arrive on this turn, this sequence is followed. Using the escort display on the sideboard, you roll dice to determine where the escorts will move. They will either move between areas off of the map, or enter in the position boxes I described above. Sometimes they show up right on top of your forces without warning!
Once on the map, the escorts move towards your fighters during this phase. If there are any escorts on the same box as your fighters, aerial combat occurs. This uses a table where you compare the escort’s fighter type with your targeted fighter, adjust for modifiers and roll a d10. The results range from your fighter being shot down to your fighter downing the escort. Or there is a chance your fighter is chased away and must be placed in a Return box. And there is a chance of an ensuing dogfight that places your fighter out of action until it is resolved.
If any of your fighters have a Hit marker from a previous attack, you then roll a d10 to determine how destructive that hit was. Each Hit marker has a number on it and the type of hit it was (Cockpit, Elevator, Engine, Fuel, Fuselage, Rudder, and Wing). If the roll is less than the number, then that fighter is out of action and is placed in the Fate Box representing the type of hit. After the Mission, you will roll to find out what happens to the pilot. Otherwise, it was just a scratch. Either way the Hit marker is removed. Notice that if a fighter has a Hit marker, it does not Move or Return. So even a scratch will affect that fighter’s performance.
- Blast & Flak
This is where you get to use your cables. You can also fire rockets and a Ju88 cannon to disrupt the formation, if you have equipped them. You choose an area in the formation and check to see if your cable or rocket has an impact. Your attacks will either damage the bombers or add disruption to the Combat Box formation in the form of markers that adjust the formation’s Cohesion.
Flack is then determined by rolling a d10 against the Situation Manual’s formation maps. It will point out which bombers in the formation will be targeted. You draw a damage marker for each. If you happen to have any fighters in Approach boxes preparing to attack, they may also be hit by friendly fire.
There are a total of seven kinds of markers that can affect the formation’s Cohesion. These tokens represent things such as detonations from your rockets, damage to the bombers, previously fallen bombers, and so on. A roll less than or equal to the number of markers in that space will degrade the formation. There are three states: Good Order, Loose and Kaputt. Once that part of the bomber formation is Kaputt, nearby bombers will begin to fall out of formation. You have broken the Combat Box.
The attack sequence is broken down into:
You take your fighters placed in the Approach boxes during your Move phase at the beginning of the turn and place them pointing towards your choice of individual bombers. If they flew from the Nose Approach boxes, they are pointed at the bomber’s nose, and similarly with the Tail and Flank approaches. If you fly out of the sun, you will gain an advantage. You determine your height by placing blue blocks beneath your fighter block, two for High and one for Level. This is optional, but I found it useful when I have a large number of fighters on the board.
For each fighter you choose if you want it to be Determined or Evasive. Determined is much more dangerous to the bombers, but your fighter is also more prone to be hit. You then choose how each fighter will maneuver after their attack. Will it climb or dive, or roll to another direction? This will determine which Return box it will be moved to after the attack.
You will gain a Rotte advantage in the attack if you have more than one fighter in a space, but there are consequences in the chaos of the attack run. If you have placed more than one fighter in a location, perform a collision check by drawing a Proximity marker. Being in Evasive mode will bypass most of these effects. This can result in your fighter colliding with a bomber or fighter, being hit, or veering away from combat. You also gain a Position advantage for attacking from more than one direction, or you have four or more fighters in a Schwarm. (A tactic developed during the Spanish Civil War, according to the rules.)
Each of your fighters attack by first determining their Lethal Level. This is the blue number on the game board described above, modified by tokens placed on that space representing a loss of Cohesion. You then draw an Attack card based on your fighter’s position (Nose, Tail, or Oblique). The table on each card has the Lethal Level on the top and the fighter’s altitude on the side. Compare those factors to find the results.
The results are: damage to the bomber, a hit to your fighter, a Pass Through which moves your fighter block past the bomber into another part of the formation, a collision check as outlined above, Riding the Tail that may give you another chance to attack, No Ammo, and Jam. Typically more than one of these occur. If you are flying in Evasive mode, both positive and negative results tend to be less effective.
- Break Away
Then your fighters must fly through defensive fire. For every fighter, draw a Continuing Fire card. These cards have two sections: an event and the number of hits your fighter takes. The hits depend on the Lethal Level where the fighter ended up. Remember it could have moved into a much more dangerous area with a Pass Through result. And again, Evasive mode may result in fewer hits. The event on the card may modify the fighter’s movement or could add additional hits depending on the situation.
For each hit fighters took during the Attack phase, a Hit marker must be drawn and placed on its block. These will be checked next turn during the Recovery phase. Each fighter then moves away from the formation onto the appropriate Return box based on its Maneuver chosen earlier.
If there are more turns left in the Mission, return to the Move phase and continue. Otherwise, move on to determine the fate of your pilots. If they had a bad roll during the Recovery phase, they will have been placed on the sideboard on a box representing their type of damage. Roll on the table corresponding to that damage. A high roll will enable the pilot to land safely. A low roll is not so safe, destroying the fighter, with a chance the pilot bailed out.
You then calculate experience and victory points. There are separate experience points for your Staffel and each of your pilots. The Staffel experience points can be used to ignore a die roll when setting up a Mission. The pilot experience points are used to gain skills that significantly improve their chance of survival. You may replace any wounded or killed pilots at this time. However, a replaced pilot may not be replaced again. This reduces your Staffel permanently, and you will lose the game if you lose too many pilots.
If there are more Missions in the Season, set up the new one. Otherwise compare your victory points to that in the Situation manual to see how well you did. If you are playing the Short game, you are done. Otherwise set up for the next Season.
As you can tell, the game play is very straight forward and simple; everything fits together into a cohesive whole. And the simulation of the historical combat is exceptional. Many wargames, even the good ones, tend to unintendedly overshadow the simulation with meticulous and sometimes arduous mechanics. Not so with this one. Every Mission I flew allowed me to visualize the complicated air combat as it unfolded. The mechanics of the game enhanced the simulation instead of interrupting it. I am quite impressed by that.
And let me tell you about the rules! Jeremy White has a record of writing truly excellent rules. He is clear, concise and includes copious examples. He also organizes his rules so that there isn’t some important but obscure detail about movement lodged in a paragraph about combat. If you are looking for rules on movement, they will be in the section on movement.
Then there are the little blue squares. Dotted throughout the rules you will find these squares with either a number or a letter inside. If it is a number, then it references the page number that contains the details of what is being described. If it is a letter, it is referencing that section on one of the player aids. For example, one of the results of an attack on a bomber is a Collision Check. In the attack section of the rules, next to the one sentence description of Collision Checks, there are two boxes containing a 40 and a C. Page 40 is where you will find all of the info on Collision Checks, and there is a compact version of those rules in the C section of the player aid. Any time I had a rules question, I had the answer in seconds.
Do you think everyone could get together to have Jeremy White write the rules for every game from now on? No? Bummer.
Once you have mastered the rules for the basic game, I would advise checking out the Advanced Rule Book. It contains a great deal of additional options that can expand the game in many different ways.
The Pursuit rules are the main addition to the base game. It lets you break off a few of your fighters to fly after a bomber that has fallen out of the Combat Box. Without the other bombers nearby, it is much easier to take down. After the normal mission is done, you set out the Pursuit map and play through the attack on a single bomber. It does lengthen the game of course. But the Pursuit battle is different enough from the normal Mission combat that it adds a great deal of variety to the game.
The optional rules add more historical details to the game. For example, the YB-41 rules simulate the American’s experiment of inserting the heavily armed YB-41 gunship into their formations. Or you can opt to add a more heavily armored Fw 190 Sturmböcke (battering ram) fighter in your Staffel. Or you can add the Messerschmit 163 Komet, a rocket-propelled experimental aircraft.
As I mentioned above, within a Season you only play six or ten Missions instead of the hundreds that historically were flown. Which is good as that would tend to be somewhat repetitive after a while. If you’d like to simulate what is happening during those other missions you can use the optional Staffel Erosion rules. Roll low and your pilots will suffer or even be killed. Roll high and you could gain experience points. This makes the game much harder, but it does simulate much better the historical slow dissipation of a Staffel over the course of the war.
Then there is Vectoring. This adds rules for what happens to your fighters before they reach their target. Again, this makes the game harder. It also lengthens the game a great deal without, in my opinion, adding enough detail to make up for it. Especially if you are using the Pursuit rules.
In the next section, there are rules for two players. You both work together to win. You each have your own fighters and pilot rosters. Otherwise, it is essentially the same game as single player. And lastly there are rules for how to combine Skies Above the Reich and Storm Above the Reich together. If you happen to have both, I think it is worth combining them for the additional options you have to choose from.
And there you have it; an excellent and well-designed wargame simulation of a relatively unknown part of World War II. If this in any way piqued your interest, I would highly recommend you look into it. It has flown to the top of my favorite wargames list after only one play. (See what I did there?) This will definitely hit the gaming table again. – – – – – – – -James Davis
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