ADVENTURES IN GAME TIME: Wings for the Baron Edition

IMG_0456.jpg

When it comes to depictions of World Wars, Germans have not fared so well. Therefore, it’s a bit surprising that there’s a board game out there casting the Germans as protagonists during WWI. How could this possibly be??? Allies are, like, THE BEST. Well, don’t get yourself worked up into too much of a tizzy. The morality of WWI is hardly a factor in the entertaining, historical game Wings for the Baron (even though at times you will find yourself actively rooting against ‘Murica).

Set against the backdrop of WWI, Wings for the Baron by Dave Townsend isn’t actually about the war — at least, not directly. Instead it’s about building airplanes to help the war effort. And yes, it’s all based on a true story.

According to the copious historical material that comes with the game, the Germans were so in need of cutting-edge airplane designs that the government devised monthly contests to dole out military contracts to private aviation companies. This is where the players step in. We assume the role of aeronautic company chiefs. It is our duty to build factories, research new technologies, improve airplane designs, and occasionally spy on our opponents (hey, all’s fair in love and war). Along the way, the German dollar will teeter towards hyperinflation, thus imperiling our fortunes and threatening to undo all our hard work.

If that doesn’t sound intriguing enough, there are also catastrophic events to endure (factory fires, Socialist rebellions, etc), political powers to gain, and real life military developments that push German and Allied morale down, down, dowwwwwwn (until one side hits zero and the whole game ends). Here’s the thing: for a game that’s about the world getting sadder, it certainly is a lot of goofy fun.

Yes, goofy — in the best way. Wings for the Baron may look like a serious war game with its flow charts and tables and teeny, tiny pieces, but at its heart, there’s a lot of lighthearted joy that comes out of this game. You’ll find yourself cheering when the Allies lose morale, moaning when inflation goes up, and chuckling when your opponent fails repeatedly to convert more than one or two Papiermarks at a time to gold. That’s right: chuckling at currency conversion. Here’s how it all works.

IMG_0495.jpg
A four player game in action.

Wings unfolds over a series of rounds, and each round has several phases. When Allied and/or German morale hits zero or if the German economy hits hyperinflation (claaaaasssic Weimar Republic), then the game ends, and whoever has the most money wins.

Everyone starts the game with two sets of cards. One set, the Technology Cards, either cause events to happen or improve your designs. Don’t worry about them for right now. The other set of cards indicate the kinds of actions you can take. Everyone has an identical set of six, and during this first phase, each player secretly chooses which actions they’re going to take.

The actions are:

Build. This allows players to build factories. This is important because the number of factories a company has restricts the amount of income it’ll ultimately receive. In this game, money by and large comes from winning contracts, but no one can take more contracts from the government than they have factories to produce in. What that basically means is that if you have four factories, and you win seven contracts, you’ll only be able to accept four contracts. As a result, building factories is super important to make sure you retain the revenue your airplanes earn you.

Research. This is basically a fancy way of saying “draw a card.” Research allows players to pull from a central deck of aforementioned Technology Cards. Each card has two abilities on it. One ability allows players to improve their airplane designs (ie. if you want your plane to have Thick Wings, play a Thick Wings card!). The other ability is an “event” which can boost your player powers, or more likely, sabotage someone else’s. One catch: cards can only be used for only one power; so if you really want to upgrade your plane with one card’s tech, but you also really, really want to burn down your opponent’s factories using that same card’s event, you’ll certainly have quite the dilemma on your hands. Having a variety of technology options and events is essential, and as such, doing the Research action is key.

Design. This is an absolutely critical action, and it’s certainly the most fun. This is where players get to use those Technology Cards to improve their planes. Every person has a nifty flow chart (or tech tree, as it’s known in gaming parlance) that represents potential improvements to their planes. As players use their Technology Cards, they’ll be able to add little markers to indicate which technologies have in fact been developed. Of course, there’s a customary dose of trickiness added to the mix in that certain technologies must be developed before others. You can’t just skip to Better Engines III — you need to develop Better Engines I and then Better Engines II first (obvi).

In the basic game, players need to use specific cards that match the technologies they wish to improve. However, there’s an advanced game that’s actually a bit more relaxed in this area, but I’ll touch upon that later. In the meantime, go on with your bad self and improve your plane. Afterwards, add up the value of all those markers on your flowchart and then roll a die. The total of the markers + the die = your plane’s value / quality / worthiness / awesomeness. The better your final plane value, the more revenue it will generate. We like revenue.

Just remember that if you don’t have the cards you need to improve your plane, you better get to researching some more. Or better yet, you can commit—

ESPIONAGE. Who doesn’t mind a little espionage from time to time? This is war, after all. What better excuse to send some spies into a rival’s factory? With this action, players can attempt to steal a technology that someone else has already developed. This all hinges on the roll of a die (there are little numbers associated with each tech, and the die roll has to match or exceed that value). Should someone be successful in this arena, they will gain the technology, even if they never had the tech card to match it. This mitigates some of the randomness of the card draw, but it also adds some sneaky player interaction. No one likes having someone else piggyback off their hard work, but then again, it’s oddly satisfying when you’re able to swoop in and steal a technology.

Bank. This is a vastly important yet utterly mundane action that kicks in during the late game. As mentioned earlier, the threat of inflation lingers over this game. In fact, every round, there’s a specific phase where the players roll to see if the German dollar will devalue, which can cause everyone to lose 25% or even 50% of their earnings. The only way to protect against this economic downturn is to convert cash into gold, which is impervious to wartime inflation. The Bank action is what allows players to do this. There’s nothing particularly thrilling about converting cash into gold, but when that dollar tanks, you’ll be glad you did so.

Focused Action. The final action one can play is not really an action as it is a power. You see, whenever anyone selects their two actions for the round, they place the cards face down on two slots. The first slot allows players to perform the action twice. The second slot only allows for a single execution of the action. However, by playing the Focused Action card in the second slot, a player may opt to do the first action a third time. This may sound confusing, but it’s really not. Basically, you’re saying, “Hey, I’m only going to do one action, and I’m going to do it three times.” The upside is being able to get some serious stuff done in one area. The downside is neglecting EVERYTHING ELSE.

IMG_0405.jpg
The player mat for ALBATROS FLUGZEUGWERKE: a track around the periphery allows players to keep track of factories, gold, and cash. In the center are the technologies that may be developed (as well as an explanation of special powers). At the bottom are slots to place action cards (“2” & “1”). Basically, it’s the flow chart of your dreams.

IMG_0408.jpg
After a few rounds, the player mat brims with life — or at least, small chits. See all those numbers? Those are the things you add up to determine the quality of your plane design (in addition to a die roll). And who doesn’t love some basic arithmetic?

IMG_0407.jpg
My friend James’s player mat after a few rounds. Looks as though his company, FOKKER, is on the up and up.

Welp, those are the actions. Did you survive? Good. Anyhoo, players select their actions, and then everyone reveals at the same time. Subsequently, we resolve everything, but in a specific order. For instance, Espionage occurs before Design, which means that if you add a new technology to your plane, you don’t have to worry about some jerk immediately stealing it this round. Similarly, if you want to perform the Design action but don’t have any cards, you’re out of luck because Research happens after Design. What this really means is that by the time you draw new tech cards, the opportunity to modify your plane has passed. Anyone who has played Mission: Red Planet will immediately recognize this tricky sequencing (and then they’ll curse both games loudly, but in a loving way).

Once everyone has built their factories and upgraded their planes and committed various criminal acts, it’s time to reward contracts. This is what the game is leading up to: the big climax of every round. Basically, the person with the most advanced plane design rolls dice, and then based on the quality of their design and the value of the die roll, that player will win a certain number of contracts from the government. Yay! But if they don’t have enough factories, they won’t be able to accept them all. Boo! But then that means there are more contracts available for everyone else! Yay!! But maybe not the last person in player order. Boo!!

I’m not going to get into all the nitty gritty of this process, but basically, there are a limited number of contracts available every round, and players are trying to win as many as possible. Contracts translate directly into cash: win five contracts, gain five on your revenue track (unless you have a special power, in which case you may earn more). This is a good thing. If one should happen to accrue political influence, there’ll be even more contracts to enjoy. It should be noted, however, that as the game toils along, the Allies also quietly improve their airplanes, and should your designs be too far behind in the race, you won’t even be able to roll for contracts. How rude.

IMG_0410.jpg
James’s Fokker fighter has a quality of sixteen. He then rolls a die to see how many contracts he’ll win. In this case, he would get eight if he rolled a five. Fancy! But if he’s only built three factories, he only gets to keep three of those factories. Sad.

IMG_0409.jpg
Also note the Allied and German moral tokens, which are in the shape of medallions. It’s too bad our fighter tokens are merely squares instead of little airplanes.

After doling out contracts, we then check for inflation, which involves yet another die roll, and then finally, we wrap up the round by reading an exciting war development fresh off the newswire (we provide our own Breaking News music). These events cause Allied and German morale to drop, and oftentimes, they’ll also direct players to raise the quality of the Allied plane designs. In other words, it moves the game along towards its inevitable conclusion when either the Allies, the Germans, or Hyperinflation wins.

IMG_0498.jpg
The current state of affairs. The war grinds on, but luckily a bag of orange Milanos nearby keeps hope alive.

There are a lot of little bits and pieces and moving parts in Wings for the Baron, and yet after a round or two, it becomes very simple to play. If anything, it just sounds complicated (see the three thousand paragraphs above), which can be a turn-off to some. That’s not to say that this is a streamlined experience. No, far from it. While the gameplay is pretty simple, there are still all sorts of tokens and markers and chits that must be pushed and placed and rearranged. This invariably leads to a moment every ten minutes where one person must announce that they have accidentally adjusted the wrong marker (or, more likely, that they forgot to do x, y, or z). Sure, this is player error, but considering it has happened to everyone I’ve played with on a consistent basis, it makes me wonder if there were perhaps some ways to mitigate this. Not having everything the same shape would help. The Factories and the Gold and the Papiermarks tokens should be different shapes or colors. Same for the “Contracts Remaining” token and various other chits. Plus, it’s easy to mistake the gray counters for the blue ones, and sometimes even the green ones. Again, bolder colors could make a big difference here.

This brings us to the most notable drawback of Wings for the Baron: the components. They’re not good. In fact, many of the chits leave a charcoal dusting on the fingers that resembles a long afternoon with The New York Times. Luckily, the publishers provide a complimentary napkin — yes, a napkin — which is simultaneously bizarre and really helpful.

IMG_0397.jpg
The game comes in a small box adorned with the company logo and a paraphrased Hamlet reference.

IMG_0401.jpg
A complimentary napkin. It is NOT a flotation device.

IMG_0402.jpg
Gaming buddy and Golden State Warriors superfan Brendon wipes down the components, as per the napkin’s suggestion.

IMG_0403.jpg
Soot, alors!

I can’t help but think how fun it would be to have little airplanes to push along the main board — whether they be miniatures, plane-meeples, or just a cut-out like the other tokens. This isn’t just an opportunity to have more fun with the components, but it’s a valuable way to differentiate player pieces from some of the other little squares scattered about.

On the plus side, the various chits and pieces are thick and sturdy. Plus, the art on the player mats is solid. But on the down side, those player mats, charts, and cards are printed on stock so thin they could be mistaken for thick paper. It all feels flimsy and fragile, and for some players, this could be a deal-breaker. Heck, so much of the game sort of feels like it was published on some dude’s laser printer, and at a $50 price-point, that could leave a consumer feeling betrayed.

IMG_0400.jpg
The central board is just a hair thicker than a voting ballot.

IMG_0406.jpg
When placed on the table, the central board tends to rise up like a small hillside.

But then… you start to think. This game probably WAS printed by a small company with limited resources, and the fact that they’re able to fund this whole enterprise and push out these games (in what appears to be a pizza box, no less), is sort of commendable. Charming, even. And then I feel bad because there’s a lot of heart and soul that went into Wings for the Baron. There’s so much flavor to the game — from the highly detailed playing cards to a full-fledged booklet with oodles of historical background — that it’s hard to really bad mad at the low-rent components. And truth be told, does thin card stock really matter if the game is fun?

Not really! Because the game is very fun. Surprisingly so. Sure, there’s a tangle of rules (and for the record, the instructions could use a few more visual examples), but it doesn’t take long to get into the swing of things. Players will be designing airplanes and chucking dice in no time.

IMG_0398.jpg
Players control real life aviation companies of the time, and the handbook provides all sorts of detailed, historical information on them.

IMG_0399.jpg
Even the technical advances receive the historical treatment.

Chucking the dice is actually one of the main appeals for me. Every roll seems to have real stakes attached: will you be able to steal a technology? Will you be able to improve your plane? Will you be able to nab contracts? And most harrowingly, WILL THERE BE INFLATION? For a game about the dreary business of World War I, there certainly is a lot of cheering at the table.

I love the theatricality of these dice rolls, but not everyone at the table was won over. Two of my friends registered frustration that everything seemed to come down to random dice values. They bemoaned the emphasis of luck over strategy. It’s a valid complaint, and it can be annoying when your plane design stalls out merely because you haven’t pulled the proper cards or rolled a decent number. The presence of a tech tree suggests an ability to carry out a longterm plan, but this is actually a tactical game, not a strategic one, and as a result, players can suffer from faulty expectations. You’re at the mercy of random card draws and dice rolls, and it can be hard to embrace that if there’s an illusion of control. Truthfully though, this is a dice chucker in the spirit of Catan. The difference is that in Catan, people know their fates hinge on those dice rolls. Wings for the Baron can be misleading for people, and that can spoil their experience. However, I found the dice to be the most fun, exciting, and engaging part of the game.

That’s not to say that the action selection phase is an afterthought. Choosing the proper actions at the right time is essential, and as inflation creeps up and morale drops, there’s that wonderful sense that there’s simply not enough time to do everything you need to do. And you have to do a lot because everything contributes to the effectiveness of those dice rolls. This is not a game where everything comes down to the roll of a die. This is a game where everything leads UP to the roll of the die. Design better planes to get the most contracts out of that roll; build more factories to retain the most revenue from that roll; convert cash to gold to maintain the financial legacy of that roll.

Players who really want to dive into the Wings for the Baron experience can take on a solo mode or even an advanced game, which has people constructing not just a fighter plane but a bomber and a reconnaissance plane too. There are various debates online about which mode is better — basic or advanced — but I’ll save that for you to decide.

I do wish the components of Wings for the Baron were stronger, as this seems to be a barrier to entry for certain players, but other than that, I find this peculiar WWI game to be something of a romp (which is probably the last word I expected I’d be using to describe it) . Players who hate luck may be turned off, but for everyone else, it’s worth giving a try, at the very least.

Thanks to Victory Point Games for providing a review copy of the game.

Share on TumblrEmail This Post Share