Sunday, November 25, 2012

Card Game Review - Down In Flames: Guns Blazing

We need to start a campaign to stop ugly games. We'll have an online petition and send letters to our state representatives. The petition will be something like, 'We hereby do swear to talk like lawyers as we ask for a law that will make people stop producing ugly games.' This is necessary because there are just too many ugly games out there, and some of them might be fun, except for they are so darn ugly.

Case in point - Down In Flames. It's a card game about WWII airplane fights. It should be basically pretty awesome, because it has a few cool ideas and some neat stuff that could work, except that unfortunately it's just butt ugly. I mean, I've had the game for months and haven't written anything because the game was so unattractive that I didn't have any desire to play it.

The cards could have been cool. They have art on them depicting airplanes shooting at each other, but they look like someone made cheap 3D models and shoved them on top of a Photoshop cloud background. If they had actual awesome art, from awesome artists, you would want to play just because they would look cool. But when even the design elements scream, 'this is a boring game,' it's hard to get motivated to crack the cigarette wrappers and shuffle up a game.

Conceptually, there are cool ideas in this box. There are two things you can rely on Dan Verssen Games to deliver - one, they will be ugly, and two, they will be meticulously researched and developed. The dogfights are short and brutal, with maneuvering and card management and lots of luck when you're drawing cards. Dive or climb? Shake your tail and get clear or jink sideways to get a better position? Fire full out, or spread the attack over a few different trigger pulls? Lots of neat ideas create excellent decision-making conundrums (should that be conundra? Probably).

Unfortunately, if you play this game in its most basic mode - two opposing airplanes in a sky duel - it's not particularly interesting. Sure, there's card play and stuff, but it mostly comes down to being luckier than the other guy. There's a little maneuvering, and a few smart card plays can tilt the balance, but mostly you just hope you get the right cards to keep your ass in your plane and your finger on the trigger. If you only bought this game for the mano-a-mano dogfights, you would be disappointed. Because not only did you get a game that looks like the south end of a north-bound pack mule, but the game itself is kind of on the dull side.

Which is why there are like a hundred planes in the box. Not literally, of course - the printers would be furious, trying to fit all those airplanes into one box. No, they're all on cards. There are fighters and bombers and - well, there are fighters and bombers. That's about what we had in WWII. But there are enough different planes, plus lots of different scenarios, that you can run a complicated bombing run over Germany or a kamikaze attack on an aircraft carrier. You can fly through flak attacks or send whole fighter squadrons after other fighter squadrons. You can even team up, and have British and American planes battling two squadrons of German Luftwaffe.

It's actually a really good thing this advanced play is in the box, because in my book, they were on two strikes with no balls up to this point. The more complicated scenarios are no grand slam, but they're a solid base hit, maybe a double to left field. With this more interesting format, what starts as a dry, ugly dogfight game becomes an involved, strategic, ugly dogfight game.

This is where the game really comes to life. You can build big airborne battles, count victory points, jockey for position, and otherwise play out a really interesting fight in the sky. There are several scenarios to pick from, with their own special rules, and there's no reason you can't play the ones you like more than once. This is really the redeeming feature of Down In Flames, because these big battles introduce a much greater degree of intelligent card play.

If you're looking for a clean, smart, attractive game about airplane battles, this is not the game you've been hunting. It's busy and ugly (though it is smart). DVG makes involved games for people who want to spend some time using their heads, and if that's the kind of dogfight game you want to play, Down In Flames should be just your cup of tea. If they hired a couple really good artists, it would be my cup of tea, too, but as long as the cards make my inner artist want to choke on its own inner vomit, I am not looking forward to the expansion.


2-4 players

Some cool dogfighting card play ideas
Exciting theme
A great expanded mode makes for much more interesting aerial battles

Super ugly
Played as a straight-up two-plane dogfight, it's a little weak

If you want to learn more about Down In Flames, maybe because you prefer ugly things, you can check the DVG site right here:

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