On the Table column from Line of Fire Magazine published by Lock ‘n Load Publishing (http://www.locknloadgame.com/)
An In-depth Review of John F. Stanoch’s Black Cross/Blue Sky by Blue Sky Game Works
Black Cross – Blue Sky
One of the most important battles that took place during World War II was The Battle of Britain. This was the first campaign that was to be fought entirely by air forces. Hitler needed air superiority before Operation Sea Lion (Seelöwe), which was an amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain could take place. To that end, he ordered Hermann Goring to destroy the RAF (Royal Air Force), and the British air fields and infrastructure. Winston Churchill entrusted the defense of Britain to Hugh Dowding. The Battle of Britain was the largest aerial campaign to date and decided the fate of Europe. (You can perform a Google search on the term Battle of Britain for more information on this historic battle.)
Black Cross/Blue Sky is a board/miniature game devoted to this historical event. The planes that fought in these aerial battles during the summer and autumn of 1940 are all represented. There are:
- Fighters (F)
- Fighter Bombers (FB)
- Ground Attack (G)
- Night Fighter (N)
- Reconnaissance (R)
- Level Bomber (B)
- Dive Bomber (D)
(Note: While some of the planes mentioned above are not directly mentioned in the game, when you build your own scenarios, you can substitute plane types. For example, the Bf110c can be used as a German Night Fighter to simulate a night-fighter attack; it may not be 100% historically correct, but it will provide you with acceptable results.)
Other planes that are talked about in the rules but are not included with the game are:
- Jet Fighter (JF)
- Jet Fighter-Bomber (JB)
- Torpedo Bomber (T)
- Light Bomber (L)
- Medium Bomber (M)
- Heavy Bomber (H)
- Super-heavy Bomber (S)
- Transport (P)
These I believe are scheduled for future expansions of the game system.
Before we look at the game system, let’s take a look at what you get for your money (MSRP – US $104.95 / Intl $114.95). Just let me say that all of the components are very high quality. The counters are nice and thick, which gives them a sturdy feeling, the cards for the planes are very colorful with great stories of the planes’ history on the back of the card, and the overall artwork is extremely well done.
The components are:
The Game System
The rule book is 51 pages in length. Now, before panic sets in, let me say right away that the basic game rules are only 26 pages that include many extremely valuable examples illustrating some of the rules. The remaining 25 pages deal with Advanced Rules, Scenarios, History, Designer Notes and Bibliography. The basic rules provide the definitions of the terminology that will be used through the rest of this game and the game series. The Basic Game rules sections are Basic Sequence of Play, Movement, Combat, Air to Surface, and the Aerial Terrain. You are given the details of how to move and battle with your aircraft within each of these main rule areas.
For instance, Flight Altitudes are explained in the Movement area of the rules. Here you learn about the Flight Stands and how they are used. There are 24 levels of altitude with each level representing 500 feet of vertical space. Therefore, the vertical volume of the playing field is 12,000 feet. The Flight Stand system the game employs allows the gamer to represent this vertical volume in a very, very simple way. In the example provided you can see how the Flight Stand defines each of the Altitude levels by the notch that the plane sits on, on the stand and with a turn button on the base of the stand itself. There are 6 settings on the button, and each is equivalent to the 500 feet of vertical space mentioned above.
The next area to discuss is the Attitude of the plane. No, I am not talking about personalities here; the Webster Dictionary defines it as “the position of an aircraft or spacecraft determined by the relationship between its axes and a reference datum.” In Black Cross/Blue Sky a plane can be in 1 of 5 different Attitudes, and they are:
- Level (L)
- Climb (C)
- Steep Climb (SC)
- Dive (D)
- Steep Dive (SD)
Also covered in the Movement section are the rules for maneuver. A maneuver is a change in the horizontal direction. In order for a plane to perform a maneuver it must move forward a number of hexes. The number of hexes that it moves forward is the aircraft’s momentum. Each maneuver costs a certain amount of momentum and an aircraft must have the proper momentum for the maneuver to be completed.
Now those of you who know a little—or even a lot—about aerial combat know that maneuvering is one of the most important aspects of an aerial game and can often make or break a game system. Well, in Black Cross/Blue Sky each aerial maneuver is thoroughly explained with detailed examples of each maneuver presented. The maneuvers covered are:
- High-G Turn
- Emergency High-G Turn
- Half Roll
- Half Loop
The final section of the Movement Rules deals with Formations. The mission and type(s) of plane(s) being flown will define the Formation. If Bombers are flying a bomber mission, they must be in a Bomber Formation, Escort Fighters in an Escort Fighter Formation, Hunter Fighters in Hunter Fighter Formations and Interceptor missions in an Interceptor Formation. In this area the Formation Movement Sequence is provided, as well as any Movement Restrictions based on Formation type.
The next major section of the rules booklet describes the Combat Procedure. In Black Cross/Blue Sky combat is handled in a rather simple way that can seem complicated until you try it. To put it simply, all guns in the game have a range of 10 hexes. If you are at the same altitude as the enemy plane, this means that you can be 10 hexes away and fire your guns in the hope of damaging the enemy plane. However, every level of altitude difference adds 10 hexes to the range to target. So, if you are 7 hexes behind and one level above or below your target, your total range to target would be 17. Now, you may wonder, with d10 dice and a range of 10 for your guns, how will you ever hit the target? First of all, you need to look at your aircraft card or the plane chart to determine how many dice you will throw. Let’s say we have a Hawker Hurricane firing at a HE-111. Looking at either the card or chart we see that the Hurricane Armament is 2F, which means that this plane has two front-firing guns. This means we will roll 2d10. Next we look at the range, and we must roll d10 dice equal to or greater than the range to distance to score a hit. Now a single d10 dice cannot roll a 17. But alas, there are dice to-hit modifiers. The first modifier is the size modifier of the target plane. Looking at the HE-111 we see that the Target Modifier is 7, and that we are directly behind the target which also adds +1. The 7 + 1, for a total of 8, is added to our 2d10 die roll (1d10 for each gun) and we now see that on a roll of 9 or 10 we would score a hit. While a difficult shot, not impossible as we have a 20% chance of hitting our target with each die roll.
This is a good example of the Combat System used in Black Cross/Blue Sky. While it is not an all-inclusive example, it does show the subtle and simple manner in which combat is handled. But don’t think of simple as inaccurate, because this combat system is far from inaccurate.
Air to Surface
This is the section that deals with the specialized rules that are necessary to conduct these types of attacks. While not all of the weapons or missions are used in this game, the rules presented in parenthesis below are for future expansions of Black Cross/Blue Sky. The type of Air-to-Surface attacks covered here are;
- (Dive Bombing)
- (Dive Bombing Ships)
- (Dive Bombing Land Targets)
- (Torpedo Bombing)
- Level Bombing
- (Tank Busting)
And finally, while not necessarily an Air-to-Surface weapon, anti-aircraft fire is covered in this area.
The final section of the Basic Rules details the Aerial Terrain. What is Aerial Terrain? It’s Clouds, Balloons, Effects of the Sun, and Storms. Each of these items is presented in its own section at this point in the rules book. You are told the effect it has on flying, or the effect it has on combat. Employing some or all of these Aerial effects can change a game dramatically and cause players use all different kinds of strategies.
The next three pages of the rules book present the Advanced Rules of play. While only three pages long, any one of the Advanced Rules can change the complexity and play of the game. First of all, there is an Advanced Sequence of Play that uses a 1d6 and the Maneuver Loaded or Maneuver Unloaded values to determine the movement sequence number.
Next, we have Aces, and these are determined before the beginning of the game. Here you are told that for every six Allied fighters there will be one Ace and there will be one Ace for every 12 German fighters. Once you determine the number of Aces each side has deployed, you need to decide the enhanced effectiveness the Ace will have. This is done by rolling a 1d10 and referencing the Ace Bonus Chart.
Also covered is the use of Anti-Aces. These are pilots who are not gifted, could be rookies, have combat fatigue or are just plain unlucky. Here again, as with the Aces, for every six Allied fighters there is one Anti-Ace and for every 12 German fighters there is one Anti-Ace. Again a 1d10 is rolled and the Anti-Ace Penalty Chart is referenced for the effect.
The final advanced rule details Night Engagements. It is in this rules section that night actions are dealt with by introducing rules to simulate aerial combat at night before the development of airborne radar. You are told about the limitations that are placed on your aircraft that would allow them to recreate this type of action realistically.
The next ten pages are devoted to scenarios that will allow you to explore this game to its fullest. As with most games, the first section here defines the scenarios Type, Map, Set-up, Destination Board Edge, Game Length, How to Win, and Levels of Victory. The Scenarios provided with this game are:
- “The Lone Wolf” (1 player)
- “The Opening Shots” (2 players)
- “A Bad Start” (2 or 3 players)
- “A Good Party” (2 – 4 players)
- “Heinkels Over England” (2 – 4 players)
- “The End Run: Junkers over Driffield” (2 – 4 players)
- “An Unknown Victory” (2 – 4 players)
- “A Fatal Mistake” (2 – 5 players)
- “Like Unsuspecting Sheep” (2 – 3 players)
- “Into the Fray” (2 – 4 players)
- “They Came at Night” (2 players)
However, these scenarios only scratch the surface as to what you can do with Black Cross/Blue Sky. The game designer provides you with a Creating Your Own Scenarios section. In this section the game designer advises players in detail on the five steps for Scenario Creation, and the last section has suggestions for Balancing Scenarios. While the information presented is excellent, it’s not a fast and hard rule that you need to follow.
The last few sections of the rules book are dedicated to The Battle of Britain, Designer’s Notes, an excellent Bibliography, and an Apologia to the Miniaturists.
Here we will go through a few turns of the Solitaire Scenario that is included with the game. The scenario states that the He-111s should start six hexes from Board 6’s edge while the Hurricane should start on Board 6’s edge.
Figure 1 shows the starting positions of the aircraft. I decided for the sake of this example game to put the He-111s in the middle of the Board with the Hurricane directly behind in a perfect attack position. All aircraft are at Medium Level 3 altitude and flying level.
This is the situation after the movement on Turn 1. The He-111’s moved straight four hexes, as per the special rules of this scenario, and the Hurricane moved five hexes. All of the planes momentum markers were adjusted to show the movement. Those are the blue markers behind each plane (see Figure 2).
Now, the Hurricane fires using three dice and scores three hits with results of 6, 7,and 9. The reason for 3d10 was because the distance was short and there were automatic hits. Simultaneously, the He-111 returned fire with two die, and missed.
On Turn 2, the He-111s again had to move straight forward their four hexes. The Hurricane decided to Slip right to be directly on the 6 of the rightmost He-111 (see Figure 3).
This uses all his momentum, even though it only costs four. The Hurricane then fired and scored three hits on results of 7, 0, and 0. Now a double (two 0s) was thrown, which means that there was a critical hit. Now we must roll another 1d10 to determine what was hit.
Rolling the 1d10 for the Critical Hit, I roll a 0. Referring to the Critical Hit Chart, I see that a Fuel Line hit was achieved, which caused an immediate explosion (see Figure 4).
However, we are not finished as the turns are considered simultaneous, thus the He-111 got a parting shot at the Hurricane; but again a low number was rolled and no hit was achieved on the Hurricane.
Now if we were going to continue this sample game, the next turn the Hurricane would have to move through the explosion hex (it has no momentum stored) and would need to roll to see if there was any damage.
Giving you an example of only a few turns of this game should provide you with a good idea of the ebb and flow of this game system. While Black Cross/Blue Sky may seem complicated, because most aircraft board games are, this system simplifies all the bookkeeping down to the Flight Stand and counters. This keeps the game flowing nicely and allows the players to plan their moves not write their moves.
There is no reason that I can think of not to use this game as the aerial portion of another game. Let’s take a quick look at Nations at War: White Star Rising by Lock ‘n Load Publishing. While the scale of the two games is different, you can still play the game and accept the results. For example, in many of the advanced scenarios of White Star Rising there are aircraft used as ground support. Here you can set up Black Cross/Blue Sky and have a ground-support mission, but instead of using American aircraft, you substitute British. However, once Blue Sky Game Works releases the expansions for this system, you should see many new plane types introduced.
There is really only one negative that I can say about this game. While all the documentation is excellent, there is one thing that has been neglected. The game assumes that you know aircraft and can tell the difference between a Spitfire and a Hurricane, or an HE-111 and the Do-17Z. Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between the planes. One more chart that can be used as a legend for the aircraft would make it much simpler during game set-up.
We have looked at many of the features of Black Cross/Blue Sky. The one thing that I haven’t yet mentioned was the statement at the beginning of this review, which was “Black Cross/Blue Sky is a board/miniature game.” The original version of this game was designed for miniatures. That is why there is an option to purchase Flight Stands that will hold miniatures. The scales of miniatures that can easily be used with this system are 1/285th, 1/300th, 1/432nd, or 1/600th. These miniatures are available from many manufacturers.
Black Cross/Blue Sky is a deceptively simple and fun game. You have the ingenious Flight Stand and counter use which eliminates all of the paperwork that you find in other aerial board games. Looking at the box, the game can appear to be overwhelming. However, don’t let it overpower you into thinking that it’s a complex game. The true subtlety of this game lies in eliminating all the paperwork and presenting you with a game that flows and allows you to concentrate on strategy and tactics with a certain amount of realism, not writing down directions. Black Cross/Blue Sky should be nominated for the 2011 Charles Roberts Award. So, if you take the time to pick up this game, be sure you make the time to play it. You won’t be disappointed.
For more information about Black Cross/Blue Sky check out Blue Sky Game Works’ Web site: http://www.blueskygameworks.com/