I have been playing one version or another of designer J.D. Webster’s air combat wargames since I picked up Air Superiority (GDW, 1987) in the mid-1980s. Through the
years decades that followed I religiously acquired both his modern-war Airpower series and World War II-era Fighting Wings series of games. When I saw the 2020 Kickstarter campaign for a deluxe reprint of Buffalo Wings (originally from ATO Magazine in 2010) I jumped at it. In early 2021 Against the Odds, publishers of the wargame magazine Against the Odds: A Journal of History and Simulation fulfilled their Kickstarter campaign for Buffalo Wings 2 – The Deluxe Reprint. Putting the latest game on the table reminds me that even complex wargames that take a bit of learning can be really fun.
J.D. Webster’s air combat wargames tend to be some of the more “simulationist” titles in my collection. That is, much of the game’s rules and strategy complexity derives from game mechanics that attempt to recreate a somewhat realistic model of flight. At first glance, the use of a spreadsheet-like Flight Log with Horizontal and Vertical Flight Points (HFP/VFP) and Acceleration and Deceleration points found on page-sized Aircraft Data Cards (ADC) or using multiple tables on Player Aid cards looks daunting. There certainly is a learning curve to this wargame design.
Buffalo Wings, both the original and latest version, are purposely composed to be a “simplified” version of the full Fighting Wings rules system. The idea was to present a streamlined version of the game without all the chrome and added complexity of the full rules. The package is designed to be an affordable introduction to the series with the right rules, just enough counters, and a map to get you going. In many ways, Buffalo Wings is intended as an introductory game that is still fully integratabtle with the larger series.
Fresh from the Factory
I supported the Kickstarter campaign for Buffalo Wings 2 at the Pilot level. This entitled me to a special edition of Against the Odds Magazine (Nr. 29) with one copy of the wargame Buffalo Wings 2 with all Stretch Goals. Although the game superficially looks to be a reprint of the 2010 edition, there was actually many “upgrades” accomplished through the Kickstarter campaign. The ones that matter the most to me are the revised Second Edition Rules of Play which are laid out in an easier-to-digest fashion and add rules for ground attacks (though I am happy to see they are a simpler portion of the full rules). The new counter art is nice and the new maps not only have variety and look spectacular but also physically match the maps found in the latest full Fighting Wings release, Wings of the Motherland (Clash of Arms, 2019). Actually, the full component list for Buffalo Wings 2 is:
- Against the Odds: A Journal of History and Simulation; Issue Nr. 29 (full-color, 34 pages)
- Buffalo Wings: Second Edition Rules of Play (full-color, 20 pages)
- Buffalo Wings: Second Edition Expansion Rules (B&W with color covers, 14 pages)
- 12x full-page, B&W Aircraft Data Cards
- 2x Player Aids printed double-sided on cardstock
- 3x double-sided 22″x34″ map sheets including Buffalo Wings Ground Terrain + Blue Sky and Winter Map + Kronstadt Map (I got two of these?)
- 280 counters (1/2″) – Corner rounding recommended
- Postcard wargame Rattenkrieg: Assault on the Tracktor Factory (Turning Point Simulations, 2010)
- Two-page advertisement from Against the Odds.
Right away, Buffalo Wings 2 wins on the price-to-value scale; for $37 plus shipping this product actually gives you a bit more physical content than the latest C3i Magazine (Nr 34, $36 with nearly identical page count and counters but only one single-sided 22″x34″ map).
Back in the Saddle
Like I already mentioned, Buffalo Wings is one of the more mechanically complex games in my collection. Learning how to play literally means first learning how to fly. I am happy to report that the revised rules make that quite easy and the training scenarios allow one to get going in the game rather quickly. Yes, I had the advantage of previous familiarity with the game but I still followed the new rule book to ensure I didn’t accidentally allow any “bad habits” to redevelop.
I played the second Training Scenario of Buffalo Wings 2 twice in a row. In this scenario, a Soviet I-153 biplane (very nimble but slow) is directed by a simple Bot to fly in a random pattern. The player flies a single Finnish Brewster 239 fighter that tries to shoot down the biplane. The player gains one Victory Point each turn they take a shot at greater than 1-2 odds; the Soviet Bot earns 1 VP each turn the Finnish player gets no worthy shot. The Finnish player tries to have more points than the Soviets at the end of 15 turns, or simply shoot down the I-153.
My first run-thru was a real disaster. Mechanically I was able to execute the flight rules but tactically I failed to put my aircraft into the right positions to gain VP with any consistency. Indeed, in the 15 turns I only scored 3 VP! Fortunately, the game played out quickly so I reset and tried again.
And it clicked.
Now that I was (re)familiar with the “how to fly” of Buffalo Wings 2, I was able to concentrate more on the “how to fight.” I quickly got on the tail of the I-153 and took a 1-1 odds shot that scored some damage. I then worked my way to a proper tailing shot at 5-1 odds and SHOT IT DOWN on turn 5.
There Will Always Be Critics
Wargamers love to complain, and Buffalo Wings 2 is a perfect lightning rod for criticism from some in our community. There is a part of our wargame community that roundly condemns Buffalo Wings and the entire Fighting Wings series for being too complex. Their major complaint often focuses on the “fact” that each turn represents 4-seconds of time, and playing out a full 15-turn game, or “one-minute of scale time” is simply too time consuming. They are especially critical of larger scenarios since the time required to fly and fight goes up significantly with more aircraft on the table.
When talking purely in terms of playing time I am forced to agree with some of the criticism of Buffalo Wings. Even when playing out my 15-turn/1-scale minute training game it took nearly an hour – the first time. My second game that only lasted five turns took about 15 minutes start to finish. I ruefully note that my short game is actually another criticism; one can spend lots of time getting ready to play a game of Buffalo Wings only to have the game end “abruptly” because somebody gets shot down early and ends the game.
I understand many of the critics of the Fighting Wings system. At the same time I wonder if those critics are playing the game when they are not supposed to. I see Buffalo Wings 2 as a wargame very similar to the actual Brewster Buffalo fighter – a design commonly viewed as “deficient” but when in the right hands and used smartly actually proved to be a highly effective weapon. So I have to ask, are you as a player more like the British in Southeast Asia at the beginning of World War II fighting a Brewster Buffalo in a less-than-hospitable climate that only reinforces weaknesses or the Finnish Air Force using the fighter in an environment that accentuates its strengths?
If a Buffalo Wings 2 player only wants to “dogfight” and not learn the details of “how to fly” then they are probably better served by playing a computer-based flight combat simulator. If somebody is looking for a wargame that explains “why” the aircraft are in the fight, or how they got to the fight, or even what the fight really means beyond shooting down an individual airplane, they are probably better served by playing one of designer Lee Brimmicombe-Woods Wing Leader series of games from GMT Games.
But if you are more like me and sometimes enjoy savoring a manual tabletop wargame that delivers a sense of knifefighting in aerial combat, then you will most likely enjoy Buffalo Wings 2. I certainly do. Which is why I am looking forward to the next game in the Fighting Wings series; Tiger Wings: WWII Tactical Air Combat Over East Asia. Now I’ll get to see the “bad” Buffalo and in the process gain a better understanding of the aircraft!