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Pilot Games


Duel in the Dark
As Delivered

Long Review: The first I heard of Duel in the Dark was when one of my many internet friends Michael (Koz) Koznarsky of Historical Miniature Gamer magazine mentioned that he'd just played this really fun game, and provided a link to the manufacturer's website. Being a keen student of WW2 air combat, particularly the night fighting, I of course followed the link and had a look at the site (here, at Duel in the Dark). A couple of days later Koz mentioned that Friedemann, the designer, would love a European review. Of course I volunteered, established contact and, in due course, received a review copy of the game.
Of course, the first thing you'd like to know is "what do I get for my hard-earned money?" Well, the package is a square box, just over 30cm a side (pictured above), containing all the components-
  1. the rules
  2. a plastic bag containing the aircraft stands
  3. a plastic bag containing four wooden counters
  4. a deck of weather cards
  5. a deck of compass cards
  6. a paper containing instructions for assembling the counters and the insert
  7. two thick cards with instructions for calculating Victory Points
  8. three pages of counters, printed on thick card
  9. a six-page folded stylized map of Northern Europe, with a printed hex overlay

The map is, of course, one of the more important features of the game, and is printed in suitably dark colours, highlighting the "night" part of the game. The major (target) cities each shows a recognisable landmark, and several of the hexes also have airfields indicated on them. Each hex is nmbered, and there is a row of numbered circles for each hex on the right side of the map. On the rear of the map is a nice painting showing the stages of a bombing attack. The perspective is from a ground-level view, and shows falling bombs, aircraft, barrage balloons and, of course, flak, along with a German/English explanation of all the items depicted.
The aircraft fit onto the supplied stands via a small hole in their centre, which is also how the clouds and thunderstorm pieces are attached. The overall effect is quite impressive, and could probably only be improved by using actual model aircraft (something I'm sure that many gamers will actually do anyway).
So, to the game itself. The first player assumes the role of a British bomber squadron, while the other is the German defender, who must "kill" as many bombers as possible. The game can take place over several rounds, or players switch sides on a scenario, playing it again to see who scores more points. A victory point counter is placed in the middle of a scoring track on the right side of the board. This counter moves from the British side to the German side (depending on who scores points); a British VP gain means the Germans automatically lose one and vice versa.

The game is almost two games rolled into one, with two distinct "phases"- a set-up (I call it "psych-out") phase in which the players must try to out-think each other, and an actual game phase.
There are several steps in setting up the game for each night of bombing. This is a kind of "psych out" phase, in which the German and British players try to outwit each other in the placement of their resources and plotting of targets. The actual bombing raid is carried out in a separate series of steps.
The phases are:
  1. The German player chooses at which airports he wants to place his four fighter squadrons. He also places
  2. The British player then picks a weather card and places the clouds, thunderstorms and fog. This also determines the season, phase of the moon and wind direction, all of which affect game-play.
  3. The British player then picks a target city and calculates a route to and from the city and plots this route using his fourteen (or less, if he wants to) compass cards. Players with a poor memory (like me) may actually like to write down the actual target city somewhere.
  4. In the next step, the German player places his ground defenses- he has 40 double-sided counters, all of which he can use, with no restriction on how many can be placed in any hex. These counters consist of eight different defenses. Each (obviously) has different effects.
    1. Each flak token gives the German player one point if the bomber moves into its' space.
    2. Searchlights give one bonus point to each flak counter in the same hex as the bomber, and a bonus point if German fighters are in the same hex if a bomber comes through.
    3. Radar counts for one bonus point per fighter if in the same hex as a bomber.
    4. A smoke screen subtracts one VP from a bomber's total when bombing that city and forces a Mosquito to drop two extra bombs in order to destroy anything in that hex.
    5. A fire department takes one off the bomber's total when bombing that city. They can be moved up to two hexes into an adjacent city.
    6. A balloon barrier gives the German player one point for each bomb dropped in that hex, unless the target is the balloon itself.
    7. Civil bunkers subtract two from a bomber's total VP when bombing the city they are in, and cannot be destroyed by the Mosquito.
    8. A fuel truck allows two German fighters to land at the same airport, so are pretty useful.
    Of course these counters can be rearranged between nights (as in real life), except for civil defense bunkers- these must remain where they are initially placed in a game.
  5. In the final step of this part of the game, the British player chooses the airports in Britain from which his bomber and fighter squadrons begin their mission and determines at what height the planes will fly.
This completes the set-up and "psych-out" phase.

In the actual game-play (the "duel" part of the title) consists of three basic steps that are repeated until the British bomber has completed the entire pre-programmed route and has landed in Britain again.
  1. The British Mosquito moves, either one or two hexes. The British player decides whether he wants to fly high or low- if he decides to fly "low", it can drop up to six counters (either markers or bombs) that either destroy airports and defenses in a hex, or "mark" a target city for the bomber.
  2. The German player then moves his four fighters, each of which can move only one hex and change their height by one level per turn (burning up two units of fuel per change). If flying against the wind, an extra unit of fuel is used, and one less unit is used if flying with the wind. When flying with the wind it is possible to fly an additional hex instead. If a German fighter ends its turn in the same hex as the Mosquito, the British player scores one point for each fighter. The Mosquito's altitude relevant to the German fighter and weather conditions apply certain modifiers to the VP score.
    German fighters must land at an airport when they run out of fuel. Any that fail to land before using up all their fuel are considered shot down and give the British player VPs. The British player gains additional VPs if the German fighters land at or take off from a bombed airport, or from one where the Mosquito is patrolling will also give VPs to the British player.
  3. The British player's next pre-programmed compass card is then shown. The British bomber then moves into the next hex as per the direction on the compass card.
    VPs are then awarded to the German player. These are determined by the weather of the hex the Bomber occupies, whether or not a German fighter is there and what defense tokens are there.
    If the hex contains a city and it is the one the British player has targeted, VPs are awarded to the British player, along with additional points for any markers dropped by the Mosquito.

The game is designed for either two players (one playing the German defenders, the other the British attackers. There is also an option for playing solo, with the single player taking the role of the Germans and the British routes being determined by random compass card draws.
The game is played for a number of pre-determined bombing raids (each of which counts as a night). The winner is (obviously) the player who finishes a whole game with the most victory points in total.
Playing time is between 30 minutes and an hour per "night". My first game (one mission) took about an hour as I was reading through and assembling the bits as needed (solo). The second game was somewhat faster, and I now do a long mission (i.e. to the far side of the board) in an hour, or a short mission on just over 30 minutes. I also got help from a non-gamer in this review, and the first game took about an hour as I had to explain the rules along the way, with the subsequent two games taking about 45 minutes each.
Effectively, the game is all about bluffing. The British player must bluff about their target (use the Mosquito for this), and try to entice the Germans into making rash decisions that will use up fuel and cause the German fighters to crash, thus allowing the British bombers to successfully bomb the target and return home with little or no damage. If the Germans can correctly guess where the British are going, they'll win most of the time. If the British manage to out-bluff the Germans and make them use up their fuel, they win.
Of course, that's not all. It's also about resource management. The Germans have to manage their fighter fuel and fuel trucks at the airports in order to keep their planes fuelled and not crash. It comes down to placing resources (fighters and ground defences) on the board in such a way that the British has to move his bomber into an occupied hex. The German player scores VPs for this.
The British have (once they have made their initial decisions) very little to choose in the game. The Mosquito, though, is very powerful in that it can be used to either blow up defenses (thus negating German VPs) and marking the target (gaining bonus points for the British player) or using the Mosquito as bait and thus drawing the German fighters away from the real target.

What do I think of the game? Well, I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable and fun game with loads of re-play value, as did my opponent. Will I play again? Definitely. Will I get the expansions? Yes, once I'm completely familiar with the rules in the box. Does it give a good feel for the period and level of conflict? Absolutely- it gives that "desperate" feel of having to do something without getting bogged down in micromanagement, which could so easily have happened in the design.
This is probably the least "warlike" wargame I have ever played. Even though you "shoot down" bombers and "bomb targets" or "run out of fuel", no markers are removed from play- something I implicitly associate with wargames. The markers (which, in the case of aircraft, represent a whole squadron), simply continue in play and VPs are awarded as required by the circumstances. This feature makes this game absolutely a "game", without being a "wargame". Combat has almost been abstracted out of the game. The thrill is not so much in the combat as in the trying to outsmart your opponent- trying to "force" combat (and thus gain VPs by making sure all the odds are in your favour). The three main ways of scoring VPs are:
  1. The German player scores VPs when the British bombers enter a hex containing German fighters or ground defenses
  2. The British player scores VPs when a German fighter enter the hex where the British fighter is
  3. the British player scores VPs when the British bombers reach their target city
Basically, this means the German player is trying to shoot down British bombers, while the British player is trying to drop his bombs on the correct target city while avoiding the German defences. The fact that this forces a fairly realistic attitude on the players is great. In a "standard" wargame you soon end up with the situation where the losing player can, after a few turns, see that he's losing, and probably not do anything about it. Because of Duel in the Dark's different mechanics, however, the "losing" player could potentially still win right up to the moment the British bomber lands.

The advanced rules (which I must admit I've only tried once so far) make the game even more challenging. The advanced rules include options like:
  • The weather can change, moving the clouds and storms around. After such a change, if the original target city is obscured by clouds, the British bombers may change their target.
  • The British bomber route can be reprogrammed after a bombing. This shows the knowledge of German ground defenses gained on the outbound journey.
  • Medal counters can be earned during a mission. These counters can be used to change VPs earned or to affect other game mechanics, such as additional bombs or target markers for the British or to reduce the fuel used by the German fighters.

    Probably the only negative points about the game I've found so far are:
    The cardboard insert is too big when assembled as indicated- either shortening the internal "ribs" or making the box by 10mm or so deeper would have solved this.
    The box had a strong smell when I opened it initially. This has decreased and is now not a problem anymore. I have read elsewhere that this may have been due to the glue used by the manufacturer in assembly of the parts.
    When reading through, it's easy to tell that the rules were not translated by a native English speaker. The translations are all technically accurate, but occasionally a little "foreign" grammar shows up. This isn't a problem, as the rules are fairly clearly written, and there is not much room for misinterpretation (I must admit that being able to read the German rules too is a bonus). I did notice a couple of missing rules in the English section of the book.

    Overall I have to say that I enjoyed the game tremendously (as did my opponent), and will be playing this fairly often for a while. One aspect that really stands out is that it doesn't take forever to play (unlike my previous experience with boardgame wargames), and that a "mini-campaign" can be played in an evening. The fact that this is more "game" than "wargame" is also a plus, as it will allow me to introduce some of my friends to wargaming without forcing them into a "kill" mentality.

    Period:       WW2.
    Scale:        Boardgame using counters, but feel free to dig out your old 1:300 'planes!
    Basing:      N/A, although each aeroplane counter is mounted on a clear base.
    Contents:   28-page paper booklet with colour cover. The book contains the rules, as well as a fully illustrated demo of play.
Historical Accuracy: Average.
Sources: Review copy donated by Friedemann de Pedro.
Designer: Pilot Games.
Other reviews for this company: See the reviews:

Assorted additional images of a game in progress

(not my own, but rather supplied by Koz, a fellow gamer who introduced me to the game).

Game Set Up

Game In Progress

Over the North Sea

Over Hamburg

Over Munich

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