11 September 2018
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the sound of Spitfires. There’s something about the throaty, mechanical rumble of Britain’s most iconic aeroplane that I just find infinitely pleasing to listen to. It’s a simple pleasure. If Blood Red Skies had a noise, it would be the sound of a Spitfire.
This is an aerial combat game that, like the noise of an engine, just feels good. The starter set includes six Spitfires and an equal number of their opposing German Messerschmitts that are deployed on a battlefield and duke it out; the included scenarios offer up a variety of objectives, from simple reconnaissance to escorting bigger bombers, but a basic win comes from shooting down enough planes or otherwise earning victory point-like ‘boom chits’ that represent one side’s dominance over the other. These chits can be netted by simply landing a hit without causing damage, helping to avoid the dice-driven combat growing stale and frustrating; standard matches wrap up in well under an hour, and feel as breathless as the historical dogfights they portray.
Propelling this sense of speed is Blood Red Skies’ masterstroke. Its diddly plastic planes – which come unpainted, unlike X-Wing and Wings of Glory, but cost a fraction of the price – are mounted on bases that tilt back and forth to signify three levels of ‘advantage’. Advantage can be decreased voluntarily to perform advanced actions and doubles as hit points (disadvantaged planes can be shot down), injecting a sense of risk-reward to outmanoeuvring enemy pilots or diving to cross the skies quicker.
Abstracting altitude, position, damage levels and more into a single visual cue is a brilliant touch, making the slick ruleset effortless to execute and every battle look cinematic – closing in on a plane with its nose already pointed at the floor is an exciting moment, especially when combined with the simple but effective rules for tailing.
The snappy gameplay loop of shoot-move-action is deepened by the action deck, a customisable set of extra abilities and events that complements each player’s selection of planes. (The packed-in expansion adds more customisation with ace pilots.) Cards can be selected both based on the planes used and the time period of the scenario, balancing variety and historical realism in a way that stops the accessible core feeling shallow or throwaway. Blood Red Skies is far from a simulation game, but there’s a clear reverence for the reality of World War II aerial combat throughout.
That said, this streamlining comes at a cost. Some of the rules feel under-explained, with enough room for players to need to fill the gaps themselves. With a bit of tightening up, Blood Red Skies could be a strong contender for an involving tournament and spectator game – at the moment, it’s just a little too loose for anything but casual play. That’s not helped by the components in the box, which include a measuring tool that’s too often awkward and inaccurate, especially when the models get tight. Similarly, the decision to make the bases circular feels like a deliberate decision to distinguish it from the rectangular bases of X-Wing and Wings of Glory, but has the side effect of making the quartered firing arcs less clear without corners to measure from. They also make removing the pilot skill discs harder without risking damage to the cardboard tokens – not exactly an indicator of a game built to last.
But you know what? None of that really mattered a smidge while I was actually playing Blood Red Skies, because I was just having such a fun time watching my squadrons zip through clouds, around anti-air defences and unleash bursts of machine-gun fire on enemy pilots who would similarly dance around, whizzing between the tips of wings to try and zero in. With a little fine-tuning, this could be a game that takes miniatures aerial combat to new heights. For now, it’s just a really good time. Like I said, simple pleasures.
It’ll take a little bit of tweaking to get to a tournament level, but if you’re looking for a wickedly quick and exciting aerial combat game to play at home, Blood Red Skies will lift you off the ground with its seriously slick gameplay.
Designer: Andy Chambers
Artist: Warlord Games team
Time: 45 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming.
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Were you one of the many who purchased the Tabletop Gaming Advent Calendar 2021 and received Blood Red Skies as one of your advent days gifts? Make sure to check out the 2022 advent calendar to make sure you don't miss out!