Single Player: B-29 Superfortress

It’s something of Air Combat Week here at Movement Point, as we take a first look at Khyber Pass Games‘ newly published solitaire wargame, B-29 Superfortress: Bombers over Japan, 1944-1945 (2008).

Following solidly in the footsteps (airstream?) of Avalon Hill’s B-17: Queen of the Skies (1983; originally from On Target Games, 1981) solitaire game of bomber missions over Axis-occupied Europe, KPG’s B-29 challenges the solo gamer with the task of shepherding a Superfortress and its crew on 35 missions against Imperial Japanese targets in the Pacific. And just as the B-29 was a far more complex beast than the B-17, so too does this new game add to the complexities of its antecedent. The chart and tables book comes in at forty pages, covering such minutia as celestial navigation and engineer instrument damage tables. B-17, by contrast, contains fewer than ten pages of charts and tables.

Cross-reference, check, roll, apply, and move on.

Complexity in a wargame can be a double-edged sword. There are people who live for chrome in their rules, but quite often, games that add layer upon layer of complexity wind up as “shelf queens,” destined to gather dust and the occasional comment from a visiting gamer friend to the effect of, “Oh, yeah, I have that game, too. Never did play it. Looks cool, though!”

However, in a solitaire game, complexity can often mask, or at least minimize, the sense that you’re merely rolling dice to see what happens. One of the real knocks against B-17 is that the limited number of decision points the solo player encounters reduce the game to a dice rolling exercise—you might as well just roll the dice once: 2-6, you win; 7-9, you draw; 10-12 you lose.

I’ve played enough B-17 to acknowledge that assertion as an exaggeration, but I also realize that the enjoyment the game provides derives mostly from the moments of chance when you go to a table and roll the dice, seeing what fate decrees. So, the more tables to cross-reference, the more uncertainty and the more moments of pleasant anticipation one experiences in each mission. And with a campaign consisting of 35 missions in B-29, there better be a lot to draw one back for roll after roll.

Additional enjoyment in a solitaire game like B-29 or B-17 comes from the personification with the bomber and its crew. Any act of gaming requires a degree of identification with the game, whether in a one-to-one relation with an avatar or a general desire for one side or the other to prevail, as in a sporting event. Without that moment of meaning, a game lacks purpose and, consequently, fails to engage us. And, indeed, both B-17 and B-29 encourage you to name the plane and all the crew members. I habitually named my B-17 pilots after myself, and I’m sure that many a Capt. Baer will lift a lumbering silver bird from a strip on Tinian.

The continued production of solitaire wargames in this era of online play speaks to a desire to actually handle counters and maps. We wargamers still enjoy the physical aspects of the hobby, that fabled “fresh from the shrinkwrap” smell of carboard and newly printed cardstock, the volatiles released as the wrap is torn asunder. Nevertheless, B-29 already has online “squadrons” flying missions to the same targets with the same weather, in concert. People join up, get assigned a position in the formation, play their game solo, and report the results. B-17 has similar squadrons, and there’s something intriguing about people playing a solitaire game with other people.

Nine o'clock level

Component-wise, this is one of KPG’s first games to feature mounted, die-cut counters. If you see someone hawking an “unpunched” copy of B-29 on eBay, it’s a lie. The die cuts are razor sharp, and just lifting the countersheets from the slipcased box caused several counter rows to fall out, a far cry from my original copy of B-17, which required much work with an X-Acto knife to finally free the poorly-registered counters from the sheet. The simple act of shipping B-29 will render pretty much every copy “punched” to some extent if they’re all cut so sharply.

I was concerned when I read that there were center-nubs on some of the counters—I trim my counter corners and very much prefer corner nubs, finding center nubs to be aesthetically annoying—but my fears were essentially ill-founded. The center nubs, while not invisible, don’t detract much from the presentation. Very good die-cutting and registration, and I hope they keep the blades sharp for future products.

How does it play? Heck if I know; I just took it out of the box. But from reading over the rules, it looks to be fairly straightforward, with the rules ordered in the general sequence of play. This is definitely a game to set up and play as you read through the rules. I hope to clear some table space and taxi the “Wailing Wildebeest” down the runway soon.

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