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WINGS FOR THE BARON

Reviewed by Joe Huber

WINGS FOR THE BARON (Victory Point Games, 3 to 5 players [with a solitaire variant], ages 13 and up, 45 minutes; $49.99)

 

As with many gamers, I very much enjoy attending game conventions. But my criteria for attending conventions isn’t based upon locality, or cost but on who I’ll get to see there. This might naturally push me towards large conventions but I’m not a fan of big crowds so I tend towards conventions with no more than 150 or so attendees. This is ideal for getting to see the folks I went to visit and meeting some new folks as well – but it does require playing some games that aren’t on my radar. While this often leads to playing games that aren’t for me, every now and again it leads to an interesting discovery. Such a case occurred this Spring when, at a convention in England, I was a late join to a game of Wings for the Baron.wingsbaronbox

The game, as designed by Dave Townsend, looks like a wargame and, being published by Victory Point Games, my initial expectation was for a wargame, albeit potentially an economic one. But while World War I is the setting for the game, it’s not the theme. Instead, players take on the role of aircraft manufacturers in Germany, producing planes for the war effort.

The structure of the game is fairly straightforward. There are five phases to every round. First, players choose their actions for the round. Five actions are available: building factories (the more factories, the more planes can be sold), espionage (allowing stealing of technology from other players), design (allowing for play of new technology and for overall improvement of design),  research (finding new technology, each of which offers an event that can be used as an alternative), and banking (converting paper money to gold). One action will be executed twice, the other one once though a player can execute the same action three times if desired. The second phase is completing the actions chosen. The third phase is selling planes – with the player with the best design selling first. The government always pays in paper currency, of course. Then comes inflation. There’s a 50% chance of inflation every turn, resulting in the loss of some paper money but no gold. Finally, there is a war status card, reducing the morale of both the German and Allied forces, an increase in the number of contracts to be awarded, and possible improvements in Allied aircraft technology. The side with the better planes receives a morale boost.

Rounds continue until one of the four end game conditions is reached. One is hyperinflation; if this occurs, paper money is worthless and only gold (plus information markers, which include engineers and flying aces) counts for victory. The other end game conditions all involve German, Allied, or both morales dropping to zero. If only German morale drops to zero, paper money is worth half of its value. If morale for both sides drops to zero, paper money loses one quarter of its value. And if only Allied morale drops to zero, paper money is worth its full value. The player with the most money plus information markers wins.wingsbaron2

Long ago, I learned that while I enjoy randomness in games (while there are exceptions, the vast majority of my favorite games involve a random element), I am not a fan of conflicting randomness in games. And after my first play of Wings for the Baron, that was precisely my concern about the game: the randomness of the technology/event cards was acceptable and the randomness of the die rolls for espionage, design, banking, and selling was acceptable but these two random elements did not work ideally together. But . . . I was still sufficiently intrigued by the game to pick up a copy.

I liked how smoothly the game worked. It’s a very easy to explain game, helped in no small part by the logic of the actions. I liked the historical feel of the game – the war status cards, in particular, are all based upon real events, even if the effects are abstracted. And I really enjoyed how interactive the game was. Between the espionage action, the events, and most importantly, the competition to sell planes, almost nothing in the game is done in a vacuum. As a result, with further play I’ve continued to get caught up in the game even if my concern has not abated.wingsbaron3

The game does have interacting random elements, making it unlikely that the winner of the game is actually the best player, even on that particular day; it’s hard to beat the right cards and the right die rolls. But it’s still a fun game; all of the other positives the game offers make for an enjoyable experience regardless of where one falls on the luck curve on that particular play. In my first six games, I never finished better than next-to-last, but I was happy to keep coming back to the game. The short play time, with a full game completing comfortably in an hour, certainly helps. Also included in the box are the rules for an “advanced game”, with a more complex technology track and three different types of planes. I’ve read the rules for this variant and, while it seems to me to detract from the bitter fighting over contracts, I’ve heard mixed comments from those who have played the game that way. Having purchased just one game from Victory Point Games previously, and not been impressed by the production, I must note that Wings for the Baron is very nicely produced. The use of wood counters rather than cardboard is nice, and the game looks good. With a list price of $50, it’s not an inexpensive game, though I do think the price is comparable to other games with comparable components.

One nice element of the game is that each of the companies has its own character. I’m not sure they’re precisely balanced but, given the other elements of the game, they don’t need to be. They do each provide interesting choices which is the more important accomplishment.

The rulebook for Wings for the Baron isn’t perfect – there are important rules that blend in a little too well. But one can see the wargame influence in the book as there are many historical details included. In fact, there’s a whole supplemental book with nothing save for historic details which will undoubtedly please those who come at the game from a wargame background.

In some sense, Wings for the Baron is neither fish nor fowl. It’s not a wargame, even an economic wargame, as there’s no conflict in the foreground. And it’s not a European-style game either, with the heavy die rolling and lack of precise control. But Townsend has certainly managed to design an interesting game and one which will undoubtedly appeal to some in either crowd. Wargamers who want real conflict on a map and fans of European games who want full control over their destiny can likely steer clear of the game. As for me – I’m still split. I like the game enough to have now played it seven times and it’s gone over well enough with the groups I most often game with to facilitate future play. It’s definitely not the game I want it to be and, as a result I’ll be very surprised if it ever becomes an all-time favorite for me. But I do appreciate Wings for the Baron for what it is and, in the worst case, am confident I’ll have gotten my money’s worth out of my purchase. Given that the game remains in my collection and might well end up doing better than that, it’s a success in my book. – – – Joe Huber


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