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Followers of air combat lore know that pilots are no strangers to luck. Combat pilots undertake years of training to develop skill, yet veterans always give Lady Luck her due. What pilot hasn’t said, “It’s better to be lucky than good,” when asked about a close call? Many pilots say, “A new pilot starts out with an empty bag of experience and a full bag of luck, and the goal is to fill up the experience bag before the luck runs out.” It’s no coincidence Jimmy Doolittle titled his book I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

On this note I introduce Down in Flames, from ($35, Requires Microsoft Windows 98/Me/2000/ XP, 600MB hard drive space, CD-ROM drive, Internet connection recommended, available online only at www. Down in Flames is a computer translation of a World War II air combat board game from Dan Verssen Games that utilizes a system of cards to represent

Players present cards each turn to attempt maneuvers aerial maneuvers. against an opponent. The opponent can counter with the appropriate response cards. For example, Player A can shoot at Player B if he has an “In my sights” card. If Player B has a defensive card such as “Tight Turn” or “Barrel Roll,” he can produce this card and evade Player A’s burst. Players in Down in Flames begin each game with a number of random cards, and can replenish used cards at the end of each turn. The number of cards a player is allowed to have at a time depends on several factors, including the performance rating of the aircraft, the skill of the pilot and how well the player manages the selection of cards in his hand.

Given the relationship between aviation and luck, it seems altogether appropriate that a card game might serve as the foundation for an air combat contest. The trick for the game developer was fitting the card mechanism to air combat terms. Although there are times when luck can become an overpowering factor in play, the game’s design is clever. Veteran dogfighters favor platitudes about luck, but they also have a mantra that says, “Speed is life,” referring to kinetic energy, the resource a pilot can trade for altitude or a tight maneuver. Pilots learn to manage energy consumption to gain or maintain an advantage over an opponent, and when luck is equal on both sides, this is one of the ways skill makes a difference in dogfighting.

Down in Flames effectively captures the dynamic of air combat. If a player’s aircraft has superior performance and horsepower ratings, within a couple game turns the player should begin to acquire more cards in his hand and thus be able to perform more maneuvers. The player with fewer cards will find himself unable to keep up with the barrage of cards dealt by an enemy, analogous to a pilot in a low energy state. It’s also possible for a player to purposefully absorb a low intensity shot and hold a defensive card in reserve, preserving energy to use against a later attack.

Luck is still the ultimate master of the Down in Flames universe. The maneuver cards comprise offensive, defensive and a few dual-purpose movements. But what you get when you draw your replenishment cards at the end of each game turn is totally up to chance. I played games where my pilot and aircraft were superior to an opponent’s, but due to an unlucky draw of cards I lost. The reverse is also true, and there were times when an opponent had me in a disadvantageous position but was unable to shoot because in that turn no offensive cards appeared in his hand.

Down in Flames features several play modes. The first, solitaire play, lets you build up pilots in any of four factions (American, Japanese, German and British) by playing against the computer in dogfights, as well as escort and interdiction missions. The pilots who manage to survive missions gain experience points that can be traded later in the game for new skills or cards.

The online component opens up two more play modes: campaigns and online dueling. Campaign games represent historical scenarios in which the player manages aviation resources across terrain where he must maintain or acquire air superiority. When it’s time to resolve the action, the campaign drops into the Down in Flames combat engine, where the player participates in determining the outcome. Online dueling features dogfights where the player competes against other live opponents. Successful players will see their pilots ranked at the game’s Web site.

This abstraction as a modeling of air combat might seem a little unrealistic, and at times it is, but on the balance Down in Flames delivers an entertaining and addictive way to dogfight, albeit in a very different way than the traditional flight simulation. This is a nice alternative for those whose reflexes force them to struggle to keep pace with regular flight simulations.

Although Down in Flames isn’t about high-end visuals, the artwork is well done and there are nice animated sequences of the aircraft during play. The documentation could have been better for novice players, and perhaps it should have offered a little more information for history buffs, but there are some brief historical notes for the aircraft and in the online sections for the campaigns.

Down in Flames can typically be played within 15 minutes or less, making this a nice option for busy players who like to get in a fast game to test their skill—and their luck.


Originally published in the March 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here