A somewhat misleading title now as I look back at it, because in Wild Blue Yonder tracking your fuel is a much more minor part of the game, and not even present in the main dog-fighting rules. Anyway. Wild Blue Yonder from GMT Games, is their latest title in the Down in Flames series. Down in Flames (DIF) is a tactical air war system that has many titles, from many companies, and has yet to dwindle in popularity. I had some trepidation at first about getting into the system because there’s just so much available (kind of like ASL, where the volume can be overwhelming). With that said, when GMT announced WBY I was curious because it was touted as a somewhat definitive edition, that was perfect for new players. So let’s dive in.
Wild Blue Yonder
Wilder Blue Yonder is a tactical dog-fighting game at it’s heart, and that’s mostly what we’ll discuss in this particular review. After we’ve explored the campaigns more we might come back and address those more specifically. In it’s simplest form each player controls an Element, made of two fighters. Their main Leader and a Wingman that they only semi-control. The game revolves around trying to gain an advantage over their opponent’s planes, and then shooting them out of the sky. This has to be done within a specific time frame of 6 rounds that keep the games short, violent, and very tense.
The game comes in a massive 3″ box, akin to the COIN games or Combat Commander. It needs to as well as each player has a deck of 110 action cards, and then there’s 300 different aircraft cards along with a huge amount of paper and cardboard for all of the different campaigns included in the box. If you want to hear me harp on about the components and see more of the artwork on the cards you can check the unboxing video here. The production quality is excellent and your money is well spent on this one.
Now, tactical dog-fighting may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in this instance I would say that it is very, very accessible – especially if you have someone to teach you. That’s not to say you can’t easily learn the game on your own, because you can, it’s just that to some people a 20 page rule book might be something of a discouragement. The 20 page rulebook is actually a misrepresentation of the complexity of the game. There’s a few exceptions to rules, and sub systems like tail gunners that don’t come up as often, but the reality is that I can explain to you in five minutes how to play and get a basic dogfight over and done with in around 15 minutes. That’s the main beauty of the system. There’s a lot of very complex aerodynamics abstracted into the hands of cards. A simple relative advantage with an altitude counter is all you need to determine the position of your plane for game pruposes. As such, the foot print of the dogfighting is also very small on the table and would make a great lunch break game.
Dagger, dagger, dagger!
The game is played using a hand of cards from your action deck. Each player has an identical deck of 110 cards. The cards are made up of either Attack cards, Response cards, or some that have a choice of both. If it’s my turn I might play a card to put my plain in a more advantageous position. This is abstracted by turning the opponent so that it looks like my plane it attacking it’s side. In doing so it increases by Burst rating (fire power). I then might play a second card to try and shoot at the enemy plane. Attack cards have a burst rating – meaning how many bursts you must have to play the card. If the attack is successful then you do damage equal to that printed at the bottom of the card. Sounds simple, right?
And it is. That’s basically it, except that every time I play a card the opponent gets to try and counter that card, and all of a sudden we have a game! Each aircraft has a Performance Rating, which is a hand limit of action cards. This game boils down to excellent hand management, a little luck, and being able to maneuver yourself out of sticky situations.
The exchange of Response cards can go on until all cards are expended, but that’s unlikely and not very advisable unless you’re in dire straits. But there’s some really fun interaction between trying to cling onto your cards so you can proactively use them, versus using them now to avoid being forced on to your back foot and disadvantaged. The amount of cards you can redraw is limited by your plane’s horsepower. So you don’t want to blow a hand of seven cards only to be able to draw two or three back up, leaving you at a distinct disadvantage when it changes to your opponent’s turn.
You can, however, use your altitude to influence the card drawing. If you climb, your plane loses horse power and you’re forced to discard cards. If you dive you get to freely draw an extra card, helping to bolster your hand. This is where the tactical aspect starts to skyrocket. A plane that has advantage over you or is fully tailing you can match your change in altitude without much penalty, but there can be very opportune times where you make them waste their hand with responses and then climbing to a different altitude they cannot match and exhausting their hand.
Honestly the games, as quick as they are, are very action packed, and you really feel like you’re barrel rolling, climbing, pitching, yawing and turning for positioning. The fire can be deadly, and there’s a few cards in each deck that can deal insta-kills. Normally something I cannot abide (how tactical is that, you just played a “you are dead” card?) in this game I think it’s really interesting. Because you know they’re there and you need to maintain a hand capable of at least trying to fend those cards off.
Is this game for me?
If you like air combat, absolutely. It’s one of the most popular, and easy to learn tactical air games out there in the wargaming world. There’s a ton out there for it, but this edition is the premier jumping off point. If you don’t like air combat, I’d still recommend finding someone’s copy to play, at least to try. The time investment to learn it is as low as they come, and who knows, you might really enjoy it!
If there’s one thing you need to know about me it’s that I love WWII fighter planes. There’s nothing like the sound of a Rolls Royce Merlin engine. I get nostalgic watching Michael Caine in The Battle of Britain. And watching real footage of Pacific dog-fighting against Japanese zeroes over the open ocean is breath taking. Wild Blue Yonder is therefore right up my alley thematically speaking. Mechanically the game is simple, tight, and very fun to play. You could be reductionist and say this is an over glorified game of the kids card game War, where you just try to keep trumping each other in order for the original card to go into effect, or be disregarded. But to me that’s disingenuous. The Down in Flames series has done an excellent job of taking complex air physics and making it a playable, and enjoyable game. I’m now desperate to crack out the longer campaigns which include bombers, ground targets and many other moving parts. The game can also play basically as many players as you want if you have enough action decks, so one day, maybe at a convention or if we ever make it to GMT Weekend at the Warehouse, we’ll sit down with a bunch of people and get a huge game going.
Grant put together some Action Point posts that you can check out to get some better insight into the rules for the game. Action Point 1 covered the anatomy of the aircraft cards and some examples of cards and Action Point 2 covered dogfighting and how the cards work.