Part of the reason I flagged this article is that Tomcats and my air combat wargaming have long gone hand in hand. The first modern air combat wargame I owned was the TSR edition of Air War: Modern Tactical Air Combat (1983). The cover featured, of course, an F-14 Tomcat.
Not an air combat game, but in 1986 I picked up Target: Libya, a magazine game in Strategy & Tactics No. 109 based pretty much on the Tomcat cover only.
The second modern air combat wargame I acquired was Air Superiority from GDW in 1987 featuring…a Tomcat on the cover!
Even my favorite naval combat wargame, Harpoon, got into the Tomcat “game” with the cover of Harpoon: Battles of the Third World War – Modern Naval Warfare Scenarios from GDW in 1987.
My love affair with Tomcats was not limited to just wargames. One of the earliest Squadron/Signal Publications books to enter my collection was F-14 Tomcat in Action: Squadron/Signal Publications Aircraft No. 32 by Lou Drendel (1977).
Who can forget the incredible flying scene in the movie The Final Countdown (1980) where Tomcats and “Zeros” tangle!
In 1986 the designer of Harpoon, Larry Bond, was credited as co-author with Tom Clancy for his bestselling novel Red Storm Rising. Although we don’t “see” any Tomcats in the book, we read all about them, especially in the chapter “Dance of the Vampires” which we now know was plotted with the assistance of Harpoon.
In 1986 we also get the original Top Gun movie and all that Tomcat love…
The cover of what may be the best-ever coffee table aviation photo book by C.J. Heatley III (what a great aviator name) is The Cutting Edge (Charlottesville: Thomasson, Grant & Howell, 1986) and has…Tomcats.
My Osprey Publishing book collection even has a Tomcat entry with Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat: Osprey Combat Aircraft 49 by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop (2004). There is LOTS of good wargame scenario fodder in this book!
For this winter, I have a 1/144th scale plastic model from Trumpeter to build.
Part of my love affair for Tomcats also comes from my two cruises with Dale ‘Snort’ Snodgrass. Although he was not my squadron skipper, he was a legend in the Naval Aviation community that we all respected. His death in 2021 was as sad as it was unexpected.
While the Tomcat-cover wargames are not the only air combat games in my collection, they are the most memorable. Now that I think about it, the cover of Birds of Prey: Air Combat in the Jet Age (Ad Astra, 2008) features an F-15 Eagle. Maybe that cover, as much as the difficult rules, explains why I don’t enjoy BoP?
I can remember watching Back to the Future in a movie theater. As a matter of fact, I was working in that movie theater as an Assistant Manager/Projectionist so I actually saw it opening day and many times after. The RockyMountainNavy Boys have also seen the movie thanks to the magic of DVD/Blu-Ray/streaming and they like the story too. All of which makes bringing the boardgame Back to the Future: Back in Time (Funko Games, 2020) to the gaming table easier since the title appeals to all of us and we already know so much about the theme behind the game. Which is important because Back to the Future: Back in Time is totally built around translating theme into game play.
A Back to Theme Game
Back to the Future: Back in Time is a cooperative boardgame for 2-4 players where the players can play Marty McFly, Doc Brown, Jennifer Parker, or Einstein the Dog. Winning the game requires accomplishing two goals: acquiring all the parts for the Delorean Time Machine and moving it to a ready location while at the same time ensuring the Love Meter is positive so Lorraine and George are in love at the end of the game. Failing one, or both, goals is defeat. The game can also end if the Love Meter stays negative too long and the McFly Photo fades away. This occurs thanks to the bully Biff.
Game play in Back to the Future: Back in Time is incredibly simple. Every turn the turn track is advanced and any actions on the track are resolved from top to bottom. This can be removing a part of the McFly Photo or placing a new Trouble on the board or movement. Each player will then use their character’s Powers which are different die to move and resolve Challenges. Each player also has a Special Power that is unique to them and may be used once per turn. Challenges are resolved by rolling different die: Courage, Speed, Knowledge, and Love. Each die is unique in that it usually has 1x “1 Type” side, 1 x “2 Type” side, 2x Wild sides, and 2x Biffs. The particular Challenge or Opportunity / Trouble Card will tell you the minimum die types that must be rolled, but a player can exhaust their Powers to roll other die, even different types (since there is a 1:3 chance of a Wild). There is a “push your luck” element in rolling where die can be rerolled as long as they are not Biffs. Biff results lock the die (no rerolling) and move Biff towards George or Lorraine. If Biff in in a space with either of the two lovebirds the Love Meter goes down.
The most important challenge is probably the Love Challenge. If George and Lorraine are in the same space, the player can attempt a Love Challenge to move the Love Meter in a positive direction. Of course, Biff wants to get in the way and drives the Love Meter down if he is in a space with Lorraine or George (or both). Players can also fight Biff and try to “knock him down” which counteracts Biff actions.
Different player counts in Back to the Future: Back in Time change the game length. A 4-player game is 20 turns, the 3-player game 18 turns, and the 2-player game 14 turns. Regardless of the play length, the time to get everything taken care of is short and players will always feel the stress of the clock.
Like so many cooperative games, in Back to the Future: Back in Time players try to gain a menu of Powers to accomplish the goals together. Recognizing what a player can do best and working together to accomplish the goals before time runs out is the heart of the game, just like race against time Marty and Doc faced in the movie.
The components of Back to the Future: Back in Time are mostly of nice quality. I say “mostly” because I am suspect about the durability of the movers. My Jennifer Parker mover is already bent (she is literally “leaning in”) and the legs are so small that adjusting it threatens to break them off totally.
I also question the real utility of the Clock Tower dice tower. Yeah, it looks good on the map (giving the otherwise plain 2-D board a third dimension beyond the movers) but I generally don’t like rolling die on the game board as it could upset the game state. So do I move the Clock Tower to me and roll off board? Why? I think this is a case where “bling” got ahead of functionality.
As a long time wargamer, I was also struck by the packaging of Back to the Future: Back in Time. I’m already use to Prospero Hall games being delivered in a non shrink-wrapped box with four little tape tabs. In Back to the Future: Back in Time all the cardboard bits come separated from their print sheet. This is great for a family game as it is playable literally out-of-the-box.
“This is heavy”
Marty’s favorite line in the movie Back to the Future has nothing to do with the boardgame Back to the Future: Back in Time. Gameplay is easy and uncomplicated. This is a good family-weight game that even younger (but not the youngest) family members can learn. The game is a solid entry for game night when a cooperative game is wanted but Pandemic is to too close to reality.
Strom turned his attention from his mapping instruments and looked over at the panels that Ga’de, his co-pilot and fellow Scout, was now studying intently. The optical array had picked up something and flashed an alert. Whatever it was, it was unidentified for the moment.
“It’s small and cool,” Ga’de reported. “Maybe 5 dTons in size. Why is it in a retrograde orbit?”
“Yeah,” Strom thought out loud. “It’s coming straight at us.”
Ga’de glanced away from his instruments and over at Strom. His brow was furrowed. “They’re attacking?”
Strom was thinking out loud. “Since we got here, the western continent has not liked our presence. They’re the most vocal about the ‘danger’ of ‘outer space aliens’. They’ve made announcements that they are willing to fight to keep us out.”
Ga’de harrumphed. “What imbeciles. They just can’t accept that they’re not alone in the universe and somebody else made it to the stars before them. We offer them technology and they reject us because we threaten their ”culture’. Why can’t they see that we offer them the future?”
Inwardly, Strom agreed but talking about it was not the solution right now. “Can we get any sort of ID on it?” he asked.
Ga’de turned back at his instruments. “Hard to tell, optics seem to show something winged. Do they have manned small craft?”
On a small screen next to his station Strom consulted the few files they had on the planet so far. In a previous expedition they had raided what passed for a library on this planet and acquired an “Encyclopedia” but it was a physical paper document. It had taken a while to scan it into the computer and the cross-references were poor. Imagine that; a planet so backwards they didn’t even have the SmartNet yet!
“Yes, they are working on a crewed launch capability using capsules. But the only thing shown here is crude ballistic missiles, nothing more than TL5 at the best. Wings…that’s different,” Strom trailed off.
“Do we maneuver?” There was a nervous edge in Ga’de’s voice.
Strom considered. “We’re higher tech. And we have to finish this mapping mission. Besides, we can’t let them think they can push us around.” He paused for just a moment. “No. We maintain course.”
Optics continued tracking the black winged object. A bit nervous now, Strom nudged the thrusters a bit to slightly change their vector; a few moments later the black winged object adjusted too.
“That’s not right,” Strom thought. “It means it’s guided…by a hu-man?
The range was closing rapidly. The approach looked like it was going to be close.
Somewhat belatedly, Strom stirred into action. “Ga’de, get to the turret, fast.”
Ga’de got up and raced from the control cabin. The winged craft kept closing.
Strom watched his panel as the turret indicator light came on. His heart sank when Gade made his first call.
“Damn systems rebooting! Something about an urgent update!”
Strom strapped himself in as he started throwing switches. “Strap in, we’re gonna burn!”
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Strom saw on the optics the winged beast release a smaller object that flared briefly and accelerated quickly towards his saucer. He saw out of the corner of his eye a warning from the radiation detector. He heard Ga’de cursing the Gods in the turret.
He reoriented the ship and punched the M-Drive. As Strom was slammed back in his chair by the acceleration he thought about his mission. The Quorum had sent them here to expand the frontiers of their small empire. Surely, this lesser-developed planet, just at the cusp of spaceflight, would welcome them. After all, they were a highly compatible species as secretive missions before had shown. Some of the specimens captured were still alive and helping the Quorum even now. Sure, some had resisted, but they were the exception, right?
The small missile flared again but brightly this time. It changed course to intercept Strom’s saucer. Before he could manuever again the small object exploded with a blinding flash of light. As the expanding atomic fireball rapidly washed over his saucer, Strom thought that, surely, their superior technology would save them. Surely….
Deep inside a bunker buried under a mountain, the General watched intently as the stream of information from SIDS, the Space Intruder Detection System, reported the nuclear detonation in orbit above. The Eastern Pact would be upset by the large EMP event above their continent, but setting them back while destroying the alien intruders was but a small price to pay for saving the planet.
The General glanced to his right at the two ‘Agents’ dressed in identical black suits. They kinda looked like that a-hole J. Edgar’s men, but something was not quite right. The older one had never smiled. The younger one kinda fidgeted until the older one glared at him then he too stood by emotionless. They didn’t even laugh at his spark plug joke. Shaking his head ever so slightly, the General swore under his breath that he would never understand why they wore sunglasses this deep inside the mountain.
Sighing, the General spoke up, “Control, take us to DEFCON 5. Ops, make sure all reports are are captured for Project Blue Book. Comms, get me a channel.”
My relationship to the Star Wars franchise is complicated these days. On one hand I came-of-age with the original trilogy of Star Wars movies, and on the other hand came to hate what the franchise turned into after the first three movies. This complicated relationship tends to carry over into any gaming that involves the franchise; I like games that I can relate to the original trilogy but others I tend to sour on. Thus, Star Wars: Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2016) should be solidly in my wheelhouse…and it is. Being a few years old and based on a very popular IP, plenty has been said about the game. Even so, it is actually new to me this month. Here is my attempt at a reluctant Star Wars fanboy look at the game.
What is Star Wars: Rebellion?
Star Wars: Rebellion is two games in one. In one game, the Galactic Empire player must track down and destroy the Rebel Alliance by finding and destroying its secret base. This is accomplished through area control and intelligence. At the same time, the Imperial player builds a massive military to control the various systems, even developing and deploying superweapons like the Death Star. The Rebel Alliance player must play a cat & mouse(droid?) game to keep their Reputation ahead of time. If the Game Turn Marker ever reaches the Reputation Marker the game ends – and only if the Secret Rebel Base has not been found the Rebel Alliance wins.
Making a Rebellion
On one level, Star Wars: Rebellion is a super Axis & Allies-type of game. Both sides manage an economy to build forces that is financed by different systems they control through Loyalty or Subjugation. But that game, one of fancy weapons and grunt soldiers, is actually secondary to the real game.
The real story in Star Wars: Rebellion, like the original trilogy it is based on, is the actions of Leaders. Both sides have leaders with different abilities who every turn can be sent on Missions to enhance your cause. Every leader has a set of skills and tactical abilities. From Mon Mothma with 1x Logistics, 3x Diplomacy skills but no Tactical Abilities at all to Emperor Palapatine with 2x Intel, 3x Diplomacy skills and Space Tactics 3 / Ground Tactics 2 Tactical Abilities, each Leader is different and brings their unique collection of powers to their cause. Players use their Leaders to execute Missions that can either advance their cause or “complicate” their opponent’s plans. Sometimes, player don’t want to send Leaders on Missions, instead holding them back to use to move forces (Activate a System) or to oppose other Leaders.
It’s a Big Galaxy
The interaction of the economy and Leaders in Star Wars: Rebellion is both it’s thematic strength and game play weakness. Thematically it is brilliant; Leaders and forces (including superweapons) move across the board seeding or stamping out rebellion, play whack-a-mole with rebel bases, and try to turn opponents to their side. The Rebel Alliance tries to build Loyalty to their cause amongst planets, while the Empire also builds loyalty, or simply subjugates a planet and rapes its resources. The broad sweep of rebellion, from small beginnings to galaxy-wide, can be played out on the board.
The broad sweep of rebellion is also the weakness of Star Wars: Rebellion. Players initially start out with only a few planets and Leaders. The few forces and Leaders can only do so much. The game starts out manageable, but like a real rebellion as it grows chaos imposes itself on the system. In this case, more planets leads to more economy leading to more units and planning. More Leaders leads to potentially many more missions or activated systems. It is quite easy to reach game turn 10 and have eight (or more) Leaders and five building cycles of forces on the board. At this point the time required for each turn becomes long as players have many more factors to account for in the Assignment Phase (alternating assignment of Leaders), more interactions in the Command Phase (execute Missions or Activating Systems opposed by Leaders or fighting combat as necessary) and a Refresh Phase that adds even more forces. At this point Star Wars: Rebellion becomes less Saturday Morning Serial and more Tom Clancy at his worst – too many viewpoint characters and too many gadgets.
The physical size of the game is also good/bad. One can never accuse Fantasy Flight Games of not making a good-looking game. Beyond the obvious access to the IP for artwork, the game really looks like Star Wars. Nowhere is this more evident than the ‘toy factor.” The small (and I do mean small) figures for forces are really nice. One part this is not small is the game footprint. In keeping with a game that covers a galaxy far, far away the need closer to home is a large gaming table. The game can be played on a 3’x5’ table but its a really tight squeeze if you do it. This is a game that demands the dining room table for longer hours.
There’s No “I” in Team – But There are Officers
In the RockyMountainNavy household we occasionally struggle on game night to find a title that works with three players – our usual player count. Star Wars: Rebellion has rules for a Team Game that can handle up to four players. In the Team Game each side is divided into two “commands;” the Admiral and the General. Both commands operate as a separate player following the usual Assign/Command/Refresh sequence of play but each also has different responsibilities in play. The Admiral handles recruiting, space battles, and building and deploying units. The General controls the hand of Mission Cards and has final say on assignment of Leaders to Missions. The General also fights ground battles and handles the Probes searching for the Secret Rebel Base. For the Rebel Alliance the General also handles the Objective Cards to keep the Alliance Reputation ahead of the Empire.
The Team Game is a nice split of duties, but it also adds more time to the game as decisions are now divided amongst players who must collaborate (or not). I do like the Communication rule which allows players on the same side to share information, but it must all be done in the presence of their opponents. It can be done in code or whispers, but they cannot leave the room!
Rebellion: A Star Wars Story
In the end, I have to admit that the tightly woven theme of Star Wars: Rebellion executed with this collection of game mechanics (as ponderous as they can become) actually works. Playing a game of Star Wars: Rebellion is like writing our own Star Wars saga. In one early game, Princess Leia led a mission to Incite Rebellion in a subjugated system. Grand Moff Tarkin moved to oppose her and defeated the uprising. At this point Darth Vader swept in to try and Capture Rebel Operative. Although the dice off was 4x Empire versus 2x Rebel dice, Princess Leia succeeded in avoiding capture. These dramatic moments make every game of Star Wars: Rebellion a unique story.
If only the pace of the plot moved along a bit quicker.
The RockyMountainNavy Boys are modern Star Wars fans. For myself, well, the only true Star Wars is the first movie (Star Wars), Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi (with some reluctance), and Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. Now that I have offended you, let’s talk about Star Wars boardgames, specifically Star Wars: Outer Rim (Fantasy Flight Games, 2019).
At the suggestion of RockyMountainNavy Jr., we randomly drew characters. This was to avoid a problem we had in the past where RMN Jr. always took a certain character and ran away with the game. As luck would have it, all three of us drew Bounty Hunters for our characters. This lead to several interesting situations where one player was hunting another to get their crew member. In the end, RockyMountainNavy Jr, with Bossk flying a Firespray raced to fame ahead of RMN T (Ketsu Onyo still flying his Starfighter Starter Ship) and myself (Boba Fett in an Aggressor). Unlike other games we played there was alot more player-vs-player interaction this game.
And it still fell flat.
The primary reason I think Star Wars: Outer Rim doesn’t get strong table love is that it just takes so long to play. Our 3-player game took 2 1/2 hours. We talked about the game time and agreed that the game overstayed its welcome by about 30 minutes. We don’t think we were playing slow; it’s just the game is slow by design.
That said, the RMN Boys were very interested if FFG was planing expansions for Star Wars: Outer Rim. The new The Mandalorian TV series seems rip with good content. Once we started thinking, we even wondered if Solo: A Star Wars Story would make for good content. The game is so thematic that Star Wars fans should love it. So why does FFG give it so little love?
The RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself attended the screening of Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old today. If you have not seen the movie and get the chance to do so on the big screen, DO NOT HESITATE.
The movie is getting lots of praise for its technical achievements. Taking 100 year old archival film and restoring and colorizing it is certainly notable. The use of WWI veteran interviews for the narration instead of a voiceover narrator or historian is also different. The hiring of lip readers to figure out what the soldiers are saying on the film is a true step beyond the norm. All this is impressive; but not as impressive as the story Mr. Jackson tells.
In the behind-the-scenes commentary, Mr. Jackson says he tried to make a historical documentary for the non-historian. In reality, They Shall Not Grow Old is an incredible example of letting history tell its own story. In the film, the audience comes along for the entire experience of war, from enlistment to training to mundane days to combat to going home. One sees (and hears) the soldiers go from innocence to boredom to terror to dismay. It is an incredibly powerful journey told by the people who were there and seen much like they actually saw it.
If I have one beef with the film it is that it focuses exclusively on the British Army on the Western Front. In the commentary, Mr. Jackson shows us unused footage from the war in the air, the war at sea, the homefront, and other nations that participated in the war. I tend to agree that the movie needed to be tight and focusing on one experience makes for powerful storytelling; at the same time, I feel that an opportunity was missed.
As a military veteran, I can identify with so much of what I was seeing and heard. As a historian I am delighted in the way Mr. Jackson used modern film techniques to bring the old footage to life and the attention to historical details. I think everyone should see the film and decide for themselves what it means to them. One thing I am sure of, it will be a long time, if ever, before I grow weary of They Shall Not Grow Old.
In 1984, the year Red Dawn came out, I was just entering my senior year of high school. As a wargamer, I had read many books and played many games about the Cold War. Red Dawn fit right into my world of 1984.
Amongst the many books about the Cold War I had read, General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985 stands out in my memory. I read this one over and over again because I wanted to learn how the Cold War in Europe would go hot! The other book that I remember well is War Day and the Journey Onward (Whitley Streiber & James Kunetka). War Day tells the story of America after the mushroom clouds. It came out the year after the movie The Day Afterwhich I had watched in fascination (and with a bit of fear). I kept asking myself, what would I do?
In 1983 and 1984 I also got several wargames that shaped how I viewed the Cold War. Most importantly, I got a copy of Harpoon II. H2 was my first game in the Harpoon-series of modern naval combat and is a system I still enjoy today. This was how the Cold War at Sea was going to be fought! At this same time, I started collecting (and playing) Assault-Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 which taught me modern combined arms combat. At the operational-level of war, NATO: The Next War in Europe landed on my gaming table. I also played more than a few games of Firefight (the 1984 TSR version) and even built up a collection of Supremacy (nukes and lasersats!).
Red Dawnreleased in August, 1984. This would of been just before my senior year started. I seem to remember going to see it in the first week of release. It really hit close to home because it took place in Colorado – where I was living. I saw so many of my friends in the movie it became very real in my mind.
All my Cold War mania culminated at Thanksgiving with the release of the Twilight: 2000 roleplaying game from Game Designer’s Workshop. This game, by the designer’s of my beloved Traveller RPG, put the players as members of a US military unit cut off in Europe after the Cold War Goes Hot. This RPG mixed role-playing and the military together in one package. It also allowed me to use the knowledge I had gained from books and wargames and bring it to life. Eventually, T2Kwould go so far as to link to wargames like Harpoon 3for naval combat, Last Battle: Twilight – 2000 for ground combat, and even Air Superiority for the air war.
In many ways, Powers Boothe’s character in Red Dawn, Lt Col Andrew ‘Andy’ Tanner, was the T2Kcharacter I always wanted to play. For some reason, I drew great character inspiration from this scene:
Col. Andy Tanner: [using a crude diorama, the Wolverines prepare for an assault on the Calumet Drive-In, which is now a Russo-Cuban “Re-education Camp”] All right. Four planes. Cuban bunker, Russian bunker. munitions dump, troop tents. Four machine gun bunkers. Back here by the drive-in screen are your political prisoners. We’ll cause a diversion over here… cut holes in the wire here, fire on all these machine gun positions. The B-Group comes across this area in a flanking maneuver… and when you reach this bunker, you lay down grazing fire on this defilade. I think that’s pretty simple. Anybody got any questions so far? Aardvark: What’s a “flank?” Toni: What’s a “defilade?” Robert: What’s “grazing fire?” Col. Andy Tanner: [out loud, to himself] I need a drink.