Gary Grigsby is a designer well known to computer wargamers. His contributions to the genre include classics like War in Russia, U.S.A.A.F., and Pacific War. Earlier this year, TalonSoft released Grigsby's Battle of Britain, which can best be described as a dry run for its follow-up 12 O'Clock High, a monstrous simulation of the entire air war over Europe from 1943-45. Not a flight simulation, 12 O'Clock High is a strategy game in which you fight for control of the European skies one day at a time. While the concept has tremendous appeal, the execution unfortunately ends up falling short of being a truly good game.
The map covers a huge area of Western, Central, and Southern Europe. Even Allied airbases in North Africa are present. That's because the game attempts to simulate all aspects of the bombing campaign against Germany, including raids to cripple the Reich's oil production. The British night-bombing campaign is also represented, and the Allies will even find the need to divert resources to tactical bombing to support the invasions of France and Italy. As such, 12 O'Clock High is a significant expansion in scope from Battle of Britain and will go far toward satisfying those who claimed the earlier game did not give them enough to do.
All the squadrons that took part in the historical battle are also represented in the game, down to individual aircraft, often with historically accurate pilot names. These pilots gain experience, suffer fatigue, and accumulate kills as the game moves along, which gives 12 O'Clock High an epic feel. Scattered across the map are airfields and various types of strategic targets that the Allies must knock out and the Germans must defend. Victory is achieved by the Allies by scoring points for knocking out crucial industries, destroying German aircraft, and inflicting damage on German civilian areas.
12 O'Clock High plays very differently depending on whether you're playing as the Germans or as the Allies. The game is in pseudo-real time but is separated into two phases, planning and reaction. As the Allied player, you use the planning phase to allocate your bombers to raids and to choose targets, assign escorts, set altitudes, plot mission paths, and so forth. A complex planning phase may take you several hours as you try to carefully coordinate multiple raids with one another. Game time does not advance during the planning phase, and the Allied player may take as much time as necessary.
The possibilities for the Allies in the planning phase are quite varied, and there are many variables to take into account. One innovation introduced in Battle of Britain was the need to fly reconnaissance missions to evaluate the damage inflicted by previous raids, which took the concept of fog of war to a new level. 12 O'Clock High adds an abstract simulation of the ground war; it moves the front line in accordance with the current phase of the Allied ground offensive. Raids must be timed so as not to give German fighter defenses a chance to recover. Decoy raids must be planned to prevent the Germans from concentrating on the main Allied strikes. Fighter escorts must be arranged so as to give bombers the maximum possible cover. As such, the planning phase allows for richly complicated strategic play.
The reaction phase follows the planning phase and takes place in real time. Once the planes are launched, it's the German player's turn to scramble his fighters and try to meet the threat posed by the Allied bombers. As the Germans, you will find yourself guessing which Allied raids are after important targets and which ones should be let through to conserve resources for later interceptions. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues is the heart of the gameplay in 12 O'Clock High and can be quite tense.12 O'Clock High has a vast scope that will appeal to wargamers who like to see every aspect of a wargame's subject matter being simulated. The game even takes into account tactical bomber strikes in France and Italy in support of the Allied invasions. Some targets, such as U-boat pens and V-weapon sites, will have to be attacked for political reasons. And because of the need to support the ground war, the Allied commander will sometimes find that he does not have the freedom to use all of his resources as he sees fit. But the resources he has are vast, which leads to a wide range of possibilities for prosecuting the air war. Even the night-bombing offensive by British Bomber Command is included.
However, the game suffers from several serious flaws. One of them is simply its length. While there are a variety of scenarios, the full campaign game is 700 turns long. Because days with a heavy bombing schedule will take hours to play through, it is entirely possible that even if you played the game every night of the week, a full campaign would still take almost two years to complete. While it's nice to have the ability to play through an entire air war, it would have been better to make a game design that let you do so in a reasonable amount of time.
The game's structure is also a problem. The Allied player can literally take a nap during the reaction phase because there is absolutely nothing he can do after his raids are launched, whereas the German player must use this time to respond to the attack. As a result, the game is best played by e-mail, so that the Allied player can plan his turn and send it to the German player, who executes the turn. It's then sent back to the Allied player, who can view the reaction phase at his leisure. Such is one of the only cases where a game with a real-time component is effectively and preferably playable by e-mail.
12 O'Clock High's biggest problem is its interface. Battle of Britain had what can be described as a DOS interface masquerading as a Windows game, and it should have been substantially improved for 12 O'Clock High. While it has received minor adjustments, the game still suffers from an interface that requires far too many mouse-clicks to perform an action. Setting up a single raid is a tiresome series of clicks that very much resembles paging through a bunch of DOS directories one at a time. Unfortunately, 12 O'Clock High requires that you repeatedly invest significant mechanical effort for even the most rudimentary functions.
In keeping with its encyclopedic scope, 12 O'Clock High includes a detailed manual that could nevertheless have benefited from a bit more explanation and better organization. Half of the manual is devoted to historical background material, which is interesting, but that space could have been better spent on more precise explanations of the actual game mechanics. Because the manual is fairly vague regarding how the game resolves various details such as combat and bombing damage, players without substantial historical background knowledge will find it necessary to experiment extensively before they can effectively play the game.
12 O'Clock High is a meticulously researched wargame that unfortunately doesn't add up. It has scope, historical fidelity, and vast amounts of detail. At times, it can be enjoyable. But whether it's because of the abysmal interface or the interminable length, 12 O'Clock High never engenders that sense that drives you to want to return to a game every evening or whenever you have a spare moment. Instead, 12 O'Clock High feels like a giant database that needs to be accessed and run through its paces. While experienced wargamers will probably find the means to enjoy it anyway, most others could stand to spend their money elsewhere.