Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Blame it on Biggles

I can’t remember when I read my first Biggles book but I think I was about 10 or 11 years old. Who is Biggles, you may ask? Major James Bigglesworth, better known in flying circles as "Biggles", is a fictional pilot and adventurer created by W.E.Johns. The first collection of Biggles stories appeared in 1932 and there have been almost 100 books detailing his adventures and exploits.

I’ve only read about a dozen Biggles books but the ones that really captured my imagination were the stories of his time as a World War One (WWI) flying ace. This led to a fascination with the planes, pilots and air combat of WWI ever since. As a kid, I built many a plastic 1/72 scale model of these aircraft and hung them from the ceiling above my bed. As I lay awake at night I could imagine them in a vicious dogfight. I could almost hear the roar of their engines as they dived and climbed, and the harsh staccato of machine gun bullets ripping through the air.

Over the years I’ve read and collected many books on the subject of WWI air combat. I’m amazed at the rapid pace of development of aircraft technology during the early years of the 20th century. In 1903 the Wright brothers flew the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard. Just over ten years later powered aircraft would be used as weapons of war, armed with machine guns, rockets and bombs.

My interest in WWI air combat led to a search for games on this topic. Two games I have bought were Dawn Patrol by TSR and Richthofen’s War by Avalon Hill. After playing them I found that both games were not really what I was looking for. Although some parts were interesting, overall I found them a bit slow, fiddly, complex and, let’s face it, not that much fun. I pretty much gave up on finding a fun, fast and enjoyable WWI air combat game.

That is, until I found Blue Max by GDW (Game Designer Workshop). Blue Max has everything I was looking for. It is fast, fun and simple. It is played on a hex map and each plane has it’s own manoeuvre schedule. This schedule shows what sort of manoeuvres the plane can make. For a particular manoeuvre it will show your plane’s starting hex as well as the plane’s finishing hex. Movement is done simultaneously with each player writing down a manoeuvre code. Then all manoeuvre codes are revealed and the planes are moved. Movement is that simple.

Combat is even easier. If an enemy plane is within 3 hexes straight ahead of you, you automatically shoot at it. You then roll a six-sided die, modified by such things as aircraft stability, distance to target and speed, to see how much damage you do. Each aircraft has a certain number of damage boxes for particular parts of the plane such as engine, wings, fuselage and tail. Generally, your aircraft is destroyed when all the damage boxes of a certain part of the plane are crossed off.

You can even play Blue Max for free online at You Play It. There is also a game called Canvas Eagles, which is based on Blue Max but a bit more detailed. You can download it for free from the Canvas Eagles site. I've mostly played Blue Max online and enjoyed myself so much that I bought a number of 1/300 scale miniature WWI planes to play with the 1995 Blue Max Miniatures Rules I own. I’ll post some pictures of these miniatures soon.

Here are the three Biggles books that started it all for me. They are 'Biggles of the Camel Squadron', 'Biggles of 266' and 'Biggles - Pioneer Air Fighter'. I still have them, and surprisingly, after all these years, they are still a good read.

No comments: