303 squadron was the most effective unit in the Battle of Britain. Of note, it was made up entirely of Polish pilots displaced by the German war machine. Many books have been written about this famous unit and its exploits. Several movies have been released as well. I’d advise you stick to the literature and avoid the films.
303 Squadron from designer Michał Kohmann is the first major board game title to cover the subject. It’s an absolutely beautiful release from publisher Hobbity.eu and distributed in North America by Ares Games. Stunning is not an adjective I’d affix to many board games, but here it’s perfectly appropriate. However, once you cut through the clouds and make your way beyond the extraordinary board and wonderful visual design, you’re just as likely to bail out as keep your hands on the stick. As a piece of culture, sadly it’s more comparable to those films on the topic than the books.
This is terribly unfortunate. 303 Squadron was one of my most anticipated titles this year, and it feels a catastrophe.
The bulk of the issues reside in the rulebook. It’s a translated effort from its native Polish and the result is a mess. It’s a struggle to understand core concepts, such as how Maneuver tokens work, and it will leave you befuddled when you put mind to board and actually begin your defense of Britain.
“Yeah, so? Nothing new.”
I know it. Many games have pitiful rules manuals. It’s endemic to the hobby and I usually don’t hold it against the game. But this is actually much worse than your standard shoddiness. This is more akin to Myth or Skull Tales than Space Hulk: Death Angel.
I’m focusing on this contusion because it’s so severe. I’d wager a healthy sum that it’s impossible to play this game as intended straight from the text. This is a serious offer. There are essential clarifications and outright missing rules explained on the forums at megasite Board Game Geek.
Even worse, the proposition is made more difficult due to odd exceptions and unintuitive system quirks. Usually, an enterprising cardboarder can make their way through a tough text with intuition and logic. Not so, here.
I’m going to present a couple of examples so you don’t think I’m blowing smoke.
First, those previously mentioned Maneuver tokens.
The whole game is anchored to a central combat system that is relatively lean and clever. When attacking enemy aircraft, you roll a couple of dice and then assign them each to a card over two separate rounds. The pacing here is satisfying as it gives a feeling of multiple passes on the opponent, as if you’re partaking in an aerial joust. It also limits the influence of randomness, as you roll your action dice first and then select which cards to play, rolling with the punches as it were.
It’s intellectually engaging. Cards are multi-use, so you will weigh using one in combat versus saving it to boost your movement or negate enemy counterattacks. The symbols rolled are paired with an icon that appears on each card to trigger bonus effects. This includes simple things like scoring extra damage for each Evasion and Hit symbol you achieve, as well as more interesting options such as moving out of the space once combat is over.
Maneuver tokens are ugly though.
Not physically, of course, as everything is gorgeous in this game. But the text seems to struggle with differentiating between the physical tokens you procure and the symbol on the card. For some reason, it likes to call the Maneuver icon on the card a “token”.
Furthermore, Maneuvers are systemically flawed. Conceptually, they represent you outflying your target, pushing them off their flight path in a delaying effort, or gaining the upper hand and enabling you to more easily escape from the engagement. That works, and it’s an interesting tradeoff as you have to balance placing these tokens on enemy bombers in order to stall them from reaching their targets, versus choosing cards that are geared towards direct damage.
But instead of spending the symbols immediately, you can save them for a turn. But you can only save three although they’re not very useful. Or you can use the icon to trigger the event text if it refers sets with Maneuver symbols. Other icons, Hits and Evades, aren’t spent in this way and provide their native bonus in addition to the card effect, but Maneuvers are their own special case.
Also, the dice and card icons you played in the first round of combat carry over to the second round. This offers neat synergies and links smartly to a couple of interesting tactical decision points. However, Maneuver icons on cards are not counted in the second round, but ones on dice are. Again, this doesn’t apply to Hits and Evades. Another awkward exception for a game with a rather light rules density.
There are other inconsistencies. Symbol sets are referenced in two different sub-systems. I just mentioned how you can spend two symbols to trigger card effects during combat. The second way is in supporting another combatant in your space.
Support conceptually is engaging; it allows for communication when you’re not active and has you physically spending resources – cards in this instance – to help your brothers in arms. But Support, oddly, requires you make sets of three symbols. This could have been unified, compressing it to two icons to match combat cards. Yes, it would have required reducing the overall quantity of Support symbols in the card pool but you could do so and maintain a similar ratio. Perhaps this inconsistent set usage is a lesser issue, but it’s emblematic of the overall poor calibration of the inner workings.
It keeps going. There’s a special Hun in the Sun ability listed on German fighters, but the rules don’t adequately explain how they work. Individual cards require clarification, such as the combat card which allows you to Support twice. One card even references a special one-time third combat round, which is of course unexplained.
I think this work perfectly illustrates that the little details, the final work of translating concepts from designer to user, producing the desired experience in graceful fashion, is the great challenge of this medium. A treacherous rulebook with inelegant processes is comparable to an album engineered with appalling production, the orchestrated soundwaves rendered incoherent through unintended static and hiss.
The funny thing is that I can’t quite let this game go. Like Myth before it, there is something about this smoking disfigured monoplane that is captivating.
First, the card play is a treat. It forms a puzzle to work through, eschewing a visceral sense for a cognitive stimulation. The theatrics of combat are left more abstract and up to the participants to divine. But it’s enthralling and the lack of immersion in violence is made up for entirely through the creeping tension at play.
303 Squadron is a difficult co-operative experience. Players will watch their hands and ammo reserves dwindle as multiple waves of enemy squadrons press forth. It feels like a tower defense affair, although uniquely positioned with an interesting setting and specific considerations that flirt with narrative verisimilitude. All of this is focused through resource management.
There is constant pressure. If you burn through too many cards or engaged too many sorties, you will need to quickly decide whether to break off your patrol and head back to the airfield to resupply or stick it out for another round and keep up the good fight. While you deliberate, the Luftwaffe bomber squadrons approach ever near. Perhaps another pilot or two in your group will remain at flight, doing what they can to deter the aggressors. Sometimes you will go down swinging, sacrificing yourself in a final moment of spectacular theatrics. This is wonderful cinematic stuff coupled with interesting tactical considerations.
I’m also enamored with the event system. This is a scenario-based game, but these missions are often disturbed by specific moments where a random event occurs. This isn’t every single round of play as is typical in these types of systems, rather it’s one or two events triggered on specific turns. These present interesting side-missions, such as new patrols to fight or allies to rescue, as opposed to simply occurrences of random environmental shifts. Unfortunately, the actual number of events included in the game is meager and you see this content repeated far too often which undercuts the novelty of its employment.
Events are also odd in that they are strongly linked to campaign play, often failing to make an impact in the single scenario format. Campaign play in this design is interesting, allowing you to embark on a small set of linked missions while carrying over your pilot pool, experience gains, and damage suffered to key locations in Britain. But the incongruence of events with standard play is an oddity. Often, you’re best off simply ignoring these events and sticking to the mission, particularly at smaller player counts or when flying solo.
Solitaire play by the way is stimulating and a worthy endeavor, however, it’s another spot which highlights the unsteady overall approach. There are several paragraphs and rules exceptions devoted to a wing-man system to boost your capabilities as a single player. It works, despite some of the rules collisions being not quite clear, but it’s simply much easier and straightforward to multi-hand two planes using the standard rules. No persnickety exceptions and about the same amount of overhead. So, what’s the point?
One of the strongest qualities of 303 Squadron is in tone.
The feel and scope of play is simply unique. It’s not quite as limited or personal as Wings of Glory, but it’s also not as sprawling as the TSR classic Battle of Britain. It maintains this thin position of capturing individual pilots accomplishing personal grandeur, while also offering an abstracted yet detailed vision of multiple waves of enemy squadrons traversing the English Channel. No other design quite sticks this niche and it’s a very satisfying, very evocative intellection.
I’m also enamored with the motif. The underlying theme of a group of cultural expatriates exercising courage and uplifting their heritage is gripping. This is reflected intelligently in the design by presenting an isolated group of two to four Hurricanes as a representation of 303 squadron, while putting you up against what feels like overwhelming odds.
You so few all alone out there among the clouds, far from country, far from land.
There’s a handsome prose to this game where theme welds to visual presentation and it’s simply warm. But I just don’t know if any of this is worth my time. I still question inconsistencies in the composition. I’m still equal parts annoyed and elated. I’m still unsure whether I’m going to bury the thing or buy the U-boat expansion.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.