Skies Above the Reich is one of the latest offerings from GMT Games. Designed by Jerry White, it’s not all that surprising that the game is primarily a solitaire air-war game. What is surprising, however, is just how much you get in the game. A lot of games in this vein are a series of counters, charts and log sheets. That’s it! Skies Above the Reich definitely has that, but in addition you get a double sided mounted board, a huge helping of wooden blocks – although this is not a block wargame – and four decks of damage/attack cards.
Skies Above the Reich
So, what is SAtR? When the game was in it’s early days on P500 it was bandied about as being a game of B-17 Queen of the Skies, but from the German’s perspective. To a large extent, that’s true from a content stand point, but mechanically the game is very different. You don’t have a big book of charts to roll on that tells you what happens. This isn’t a choose-your-own-adventure style game, yet it retains a lot of the unpredictability and the storied campaign aspects of the classics we know and love.
To start with you are a squadron commander, in charge of a number of Messerschmitt Bf 109’s. On top of that you might also earn operation points to buy other support planes like 110’s, Ju88’s and others. But primarily your named pilots all fly 109’s and they’re your bread and butter. Like all of these style games, the more you put into the experience, the more you will get out. Your pilots don’t have back stories or personalities, but I love to ascribe them those things. Typically campaigns give you a certain number of pilots that start with Expert traits, or later in the war, Green pilots with corresponding penalties. These provide in-game effects, but I like to add more flavour to those and imagine their backstories for fun. It helps me to immerse myself in the history to deepen the narrative that is so typical of these type airwar games.
The fighters you control are represented by double sided wooden blocks, denoting their determined or evasive approach style. As you may well imagine, an evasive fighter has a harder time hitting, but has a harder time being hit. The game has you cycle these individual fighters through a series of boxes on tracks that represent their approach position, elevation, and any delays from flying evasively.
These tracks are very important as they dictate the altitude from which you will attack the bomber formations, which then affects which row you look at on the attack cards. On top of that, the track acts as a timing mechanism for your fighter squadron. Attacking a bomber formation with a single fighter will be pretty ineffectual unless you score a lucky catastrophic hit knocking it out. You’ll want to group your fighters and have them attack in waves (up to six planes per turn). Leveling more guns, gaining various advantages, like swarming with lots of planes, or attacking from two different positions and altitude angles. These help you to score more hits, and cancel return fire hits against you as well.
But that’s where the trick lies, trying to get your fighters to move along these tracks, changing altitudes and shaking off hits whilst still being able to all pull out into the approach boxes at the same time to attack in force and numbers. This was one of the parts of the game I found very tactical, in an abstract sense. Here the game differentiates itself from the chart-rolling narrative games. You get to organize your attacks to time them to the greatest effects. After you actually attack out of the approach boxes you then put the fighters on to the main board in the spaces between the bombers.
The spaces and angles you attack at have to correspond to the approach box out of which you are attacking. So you end up with fighters pointing in different directions and with different numbers of wooden blocks underneath them to indicate low (none), level (one), and high (two) altitudes. The numbers printed on the board determine the ‘lethality’ of the spaces, e.g. how much return fire fighters can expect to incur. The lower the number the safer it is. You then draw a card from the deck and cross reference your own altitude, your posture – remember determined or evasive – against the lethality column to determine the results of your strafe.
Damage on either side is fairly random. There’s a large pool of tokens for bombers and fighters and you simply draw a token if you are hit. A bomber will make a check immediately to see if the damage is catastrophic, in which case the bomber will immediately fall out of formation or explode. Both of which serve the same game purposes, but for certain mission types may offer greater VP rewards. If the bomber passes the catastrophic check, the token is flipped over to it’s regular damage side, a numerical value from 0-4 I believe.
Fighter damage however is resolved in a slightly different manner. You draw a token in a similar way, but you don’t resolve the damage until the next turn. The important part here is that a unit with a damage marker on it may not move, and damage resolution is performed after the movement step. So what happens is – a fighter with a damage marker is effectively delayed an extra turn before it can get back into the fight. Remember when we talked about organizing efficient attacks in waves? Damage to your fighters is the primary “wrench in the proverbial works” on this one.
When it comes to resolving the damage counter you roll a d10 equal to or higher than the number to shake it off for no effect (other than that delaying effect). If you fail the roll you fighter is removed from the mission and put into a fate box. You wont know what happened to them until the mission concludes.
Fate boxes correspond to the written damage type on the counter, such as cockpit, fuselage, engines, etc. Each fate box has a series of die rolls to determine if the plane exploded, caught fire, crashed, or landed. They have subsequent bail out rolls as well for the pilots, so it is possible to lose the aircraft but save the pilot and their all important ace skills!
There are enemy escort fighters, but these are abstracted in the game. They’re used to gum up the various tracks and to do attacks on your fighters whilst off board. Be warned, do not get too caught up in the escort aspect, you’re here for the bombers! There’s no VP’s for killing fighters. Fighters aren’t bombing the factories! I had a great time reading the rules because the way the escorts worked was unique but the rulebook does a great job explaining the design choices behind it and what the counters really represent.
Skies Above the Reich has been an absolute blast to play. There’s some great, yet accessible tactics you get to play around with so it’s not just an entirely random dice/card fest. Although there is a lot of randomness nonetheless, so make sure lady luck is on your side! Playing campaigns can be really fun as your squadron grows and your pilots gain more and more traits. This then ups the ante when those ace pilots start taking fire and you’re desperate to not have them shot down.
With great tension and fun decision making this was a big hit for me as a solo wargamer. The two player variant is fine, and Grant and I have enjoyed playing it that way to more or less learn the system and tactics, but I truly love solo gaming because there’s no time pressure. I can just play at my own snails pace when I want to.
Check it out, the game is very highly produced and it rewards you the more you bring to the table as well.
To get a better look at the components, check out our unboxing video.