Side-Scrolling Spitfires: Wing Leader (GMT Games)

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The art of design involves knowing what to remove as well as what to add. So I find what Lee Brimmicombe-Wood has done with Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 (GMT Games, 2015) rather appealing: he’s created an air combat game, at squadron scale, that eliminates an entire dimension, portraying the combat interactions of fighters and bombers from a side-on perspective. By focusing his game of Second World War air combat at the point of contact between the opposing sides, the need to maneuver squadrons to their destination has been eliminated, and with it, the need for that Z dimension on the plot. Wing Leader provides the sharp end of the stick, as it were, without the rest of the stick.

Wing Leader: Blenheims in Trouble

Similarly, the differences between aircraft types have been smoothed down to a small range, demonstrating the broad similarities between aircraft of the same generation. There are certainly contrasts between, say, a Spitfire and a Me-109, but they come out in very subtle ways that require the player to use the planes to their proper, and historical, advantage. Which is not to say the game lacks chrome, as Wing Leader includes forty beautifully drawn aircraft types (with data presented on nice cardboard cards) from Great Britain, the United States, Japan, Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union. I defy any discerning gamer to resist playing a scenario involving Regia Aeronautica CR.42 biplanes against RAF Hurricanes over Malta.

As can be seen in Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s earlier large-scale air combat game, Downtown, once fighters start mixing it up in Wing Leader, they quickly become ineffective in combat, not from losses per se but from progressive disorganization. Squadrons deteriorate slowly and then very suddenly in this game, and a single dogfight can reduce a fresh set of planes to a leaderless gaggle over a game turn or two. Loss, morale, and status tracking takes place on a set of charts, using counters for various states. The ergonomics work well, as though there are quite a few variables tracked, the counters mostly flip when needed to the next state, and ammo is only broadly traced. It’s not fiddly, the bane of many a game that uses charts and counters for tracking.

Wing Leader: Wing Tracking Chart

I had the opportunity to try the system recently with regular gaming opponent Mike Vogt at the District of Columbia’s finest game store, Labyrinth Games. We played a scenario set during the Sedan campaign in 1940 that features both sides escorting bombing missions. It was a fairly hefty scenario, with seven to eight squadrons per side, but we gamed through it in a decent time frame, perhaps four hours tops, and came away with a good sense of why you don’t let Stukas reach their targets.

As with Downtown, once the fighters lost cohesion and headed for home, the end of the game dragged slightly, with little to do but roll up the final bombing raids and flak attacks, but the overall experience remained solid. The game flowed quickly, with a fairly simple sequence of play that allows for focus on tactics rather than rules. Proper usage of squadrons was rewarded, and poor usage penalized. (Mike won a German victory by four VP, helped by some abysmal British bombing, if anyone is keeping score at home.)

Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 stands as the first in a series of games exploring the development of air combat during the Second World War. The second volume is already under development, promising to bring more aircraft from later in the war into the system, and I’m keenly following its progress. Not, of course, that I need much more in this life than a game that gives me Gloster Gladiators and Fairey Battles in the same box.

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