On an April morning in 1918, seven aircraft from the German Luftstreitkrafte unit, Jasta 11, took off from a temporary airfield in France and flew west to conduct aerial patrols along a very active section of the front lines near the Somme River. Leading this mission was a twenty-five year old Prussian aristocrat and former cavalryman who — because his plane was usually painted bright red — had come to be known by many of his Allied foes as the “Red Baron.” This was a mission that was similar to countless others that the Jasta had flown during the preceding days; in fact, by this stage of the First World War, these types of air operations had become routine. Both sides regularly conducted combat air patrols to prevent enemy air reconnaissance of friendly positions, particularly artillery emplacements and supply depots located behind the lines. Now, however, it was vital for the patrolling pilots to prevent Allied aircraft from penetrating into the German rear areas. The Kaiser’s Army, reinforced by fresh troops from the East, had taken the offensive on 21 March, and it was critically important that German ground operations be shielded from Allied reconnaissance flights.
One of the most active and aggressive of the air units assigned to this section of the Western Front was Jagdgeschwader (wing) 1, which was composed of Jastas 4, 6, 10, and 11. This elite German formation was under the operational command of an expert pilot and brilliant tactician who, with 80 confirmed victories, was also the most successful ace of the entire war, Rittmeister (Cavalry Captain) Manfred Albrecht Freiherr (Baron) von Richthofen. And it was von Richthofen who, at the controls of his red-painted Fokker Dr.I, led Jasta 11 towards the front lines on the fateful morning of 21 April, 1918. Unbeknownst to Germany’s greatest ace, however, this would be his final flight and he would not live long enough to score his 81st victory.
RICHTHOFEN’S WAR is a two-player simulation of pilot-to-pilot combat during the last two years of The Great War: the period during which the war in the air became an important adjunct to the bloody ground fighting in the trenches below. The competing players pilot their planes in an effort to shoot down or disable their opponent’s aircraft in air-to-air combat; alternatively, players may also fly missions to bust enemy observation balloons, conduct trench-strafing, gather photoreconnaissance, or bomb enemy ground targets. Each aircraft counter in the game represents one of the over 30 different types of combat planes that actually saw action in the skies above France during World War I.
In the turn-to-turn action of RICHTHOFEN’S WAR, players will find that each game turn follows a comparatively simple sequence of play: first player Movement Phase; first player Attack (machine gun) Phase; second player Defensive Fire Phase. Roles then reverse with the second player moving, firing, etc. Each map space is essentially a 50 x 50 x 50 meter hexagon, and each game turn equals 10 seconds of real time. To manage the transition from the two-dimensional medium of the game map and aircraft counters to the three-dimensional environment of aerial combat, each player of RICHTHOFEN’S WAR uses a sheet from the Aircraft Status Pad to record the altitude, speed, accumulated damage, ammunition supply, and maneuver schedule of his aircraft, turn-by-turn. The specific performance characteristics of each aircraft type represented in the game are cataloged in the Aircraft Capabilities Chart section of the rules booklet. Although the game system appears somewhat slow-moving and cumbersome, it really isn’t. RICHTHOFEN’S WAR does require a certain amount of recordkeeping, but the sheets from the Aircraft Status Pad are easy to use, and the player operations are generally uncomplicated and intuitively logical. For those players — like me — who may have a little difficulty conceptualizing aerial combat, the game rules offer numerous play examples to help new players understand and master the game system.
RICHTHOFEN’S WAR offers seven basic scenarios: Richthofen vs. Brown; Dogfight Mission; Photo-Recon Mission; Trench-Strafing Mission; Tactical Bombing Mission; Artillery Spotting Mission; Balloon Busting Mission. Each scenario can be played using the Basic Level rules, or, if the players prefer, with the more detailed and complex Advanced Level rules. Players may also opt to expand the scope of the game to encompass an extended series of missions — conducted over time — by playing the Campaign Game. In addition, there are even rules for solitaire play, if opponents are hard to find.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATION
RICHTHOFEN’S WAR is one of those games — and there are many in this category — that can be fairly described as being widely-familiar, but seldom played. Often, these tend to be “specialty” titles that, although different from each other, usually attempt to simulate unique or unusual types of combat situations. Games like WIZARD’S QUEST, DUNE, MERCHANT OF VENUS, or any design associated with the LORD OF THE RINGS, for example, are virtually guaranteed to appeal to a niche gaming market. Other titles, however, fail to gain large followings because, fairly or not, they are viewed as being too complicated and/or time-consuming to be enjoyable. Sometimes, these are monster games, but more commonly they are highly-detailed, tactical-level simulations.
In the case of most of the tactical-level “also-rans,” I suspect that the failure of these games to achieve wide-spread popularity is usually not the result of a poor choice by the designer of subject matter, or even of an unappealing design platform; instead, I believe that, more times than not, it is because of the strong “miniatures” flavor attributed to many of these titles. Miniatures usually means record-keeping, and gamers, with very few exceptions, do not like to do paperwork. For this reason, I have noticed that both initial player interest and continuing enthusiasm for a new game tend to diminish in inverse proportion to the amount of writing that the game’s design requires of its players. In short, the more detailed a game’s move-by-move records appear to be, the more the typical wargamer’s eyes glaze over. There may be exceptions to this general rule, but they are rare. [Don’t believe me? Then try this little experiment: the next time that you attend a major wargaming convention, see whether it is easier to corral an opponent for WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN or for a game of WAR AT SEA. Speaking for myself, I’ve read every one of the HORNBLOWER novels, and, having tried the game twice, I confess that I really don’t have any interest in ever playing WS&IM again.] This type of thinking, I freely admit, tends to produce a lot of player resistence to some pretty good games. But it also means that I understand why this anti-movement pad bias is so wide-spread in the hobby. Unfortunately, it is probably also the case that this reflexive prejudice, on the part of many gamers, is often ill-founded and unfair.
Such, I believe, is at least partly the case with RICHTHOFEN’S WAR. Admittedly, this simulation of World War I air combat requires players to repeatedly make entries on their individual Aircraft Status Sheets as the game progresses; but, as previously noted, using these game records is really not that big of a chore. And this turn-plotting process gets a lot easier with a little bit of practice. Based on my own experience, I have found that it is really not the record-keeping, but rather the three-dimensional aspect of RICHTHOFEN’S WAR that poses the greatest initial challenge to many new players. This feature, intrinsic to all tactical-level air games, requires a little getting used to — if only because of the two-dimensional nature of the map and counters — but even this turns out to not be as big a challenge as might be supposed. In fact, a few short games are usually all that are required to familiarize most players with the basic ins-and-outs of three-dimensional maneuver and combat. Thus, while the mechanics of this game system might appear to be complicated, they really aren’t.
Is RICHTHOFEN’S WAR the best simulation of World War I aerial combat in print? Even when using some of the post-publication rules modifications, almost certainly not; but nor is it the worst game of its type, either. So granted, KNIGHTS OF THE AIR is both a better game and a much better simulation; however, it also has a significantly more complicated game system and, for this reason, it is much more difficult for a novice player to quickly master the game's basic rules. RICHTHOFEN’S WAR, in spite of its faults, is at least comparatively easy to learn and, unlike a number of the other aerial warfare games, is still both relatively inexpensive and easy to find in the resale market. For this reason, and because of its overall playability, I feel comfortable recommending this title; even for players who have no particular fascination with aerial combat. Moreover, because of its colorful, readily-identifiable subject matter and first-class graphics, RICHTHOFEN’S WAR is probably a reasonable choice not only for the experienced player, but also for the casual or even the social gamer with a passing interest in history.
- Time Scale: 10 seconds per game turn
- Map Scale: 50 meters per hex
- Unit Size: individual aircraft (varying types)
- Unit Types: aircraft (varying types), balloons, anti-aircraft, machine guns, dummy counters, and information markers
- Number of Players: 2
- Complexity: average
- Solitaire Suitability: below average
- Average Playing Time: 1-3 + hours (depending on scenario)
- Three 8” x 22” hexagonal grid Map Boards (with Compass Rose incorporated)
- 192 ⅝” cardboard Counters
- One 5½” x 8½” map-fold Rules Booklet (with Aircraft Capabilities Chart, and Examples of Play incorporated)
- One 6” x 7½” Scenario Pad (with individual instructions for Seven Scenarios and the Campaign Game)
- One 6” x 8½” multi-sheet Aircraft Status Pad
- One 8” x 11” Combined Target Damage and Critical Hit Table
- One 5½” x 8½” Mission Briefing Manual
- Two six-sided Dice
- One 5½” x 8½” Avalon Hill Game Catalogue
- One 5½” x 6½” Avalon Hill Customer Response Card
- One 8½” x 11½” x 2” bookcase-style cardboard Game Box