Gary Grigsby is one of the best-known names in computer wargaming - he created a whole slew of great games for SSI, like Pacific War, Russian Front, Carrier Strike, and the Steel Panthers series. One game, U.S.A.A.F., was a day-by-day blow-by-blow strategic simulation of running the bombing campaign over the Third Reich in World War II from 1943 to 1945. U.S.A.A.F. was a great game, and so when Grigsby and Steel Panthers cocreator Keith Brors signed with Talonsoft to develop new wargames, the topic of doing a remake of sorts for U.S.A.A.F. inevitably came up. The result is Battle of Britain, an interesting design of the vital air campaign over England in 1940. Like all Grigsby games, Battle of Britain doles out plenty of detail but leaves much room for improvement.
The game premise is simple enough: You have control of your respective country's air force (Britain or Germany) during a set time period. This means that you will designate where the squadrons are based, what targets or patrol areas they will cover, and when they fly. Battle of Britain offers several types of campaigns, ranging from single-day affairs to ones that can last a week, a month, or several months. Two different time periods, the historical battle starting in August 1940 and a hypothetical German strategic bombing campaign in 1941, are also offered.
The campaign objectives for each side are quite different. The British player must defend the country against bombing attacks but at the same time manage and protect his precious RAF squadrons from decimation due to combat, aircraft loss, and fatigue. The German player on the other hand must bomb the British player into submission and diminish the RAF any chance he gets. While the British player must manage his squadrons efficiently, the German player must manage his bombing campaign down to a fine detail - though the AI can improvise and help out somewhat in the planning. Beginners should try out the one-day and one-week scenarios from the British side in learning the game, though these scenarios do tend to lean toward the Germans in the victory-conditions area.
The bulk of the game takes place over a map of the United Kingdom and northwestern Europe, showing a nice geographic look of the terrain, with symbols depicting various airfields, towns, factories, electrical stations, and so forth, as well as animated icons for the aircraft and raid sightings. Each side starts the day in a preplanning mode, moving around squadrons or doing some basic management. The German player does all the planning for the day in this stage, while the British player, depending on his strategy, may elect to do not much of anything. The day then evolves in phased real time - that is, in game terms, on a minute-by-minute basis. At any point you may pause and give further orders, so there is no advantage in being fast on the click. Of course, the disadvantage is that there is a lot of clicking.
The problem lies in the fact that, as in many other Grigsby designs, the interface, while at least looking somewhat manageable, is not particularly user friendly. Certain pieces of information are only available in certain functions or modes, causing you to cancel an action - say, the intercepting raids function - just to find out which squadron a nearby group of friendly aircraft happens to be in. Other functions bring up windows that blot out the map almost entirely, blocking out pertinent strategic information. When the map gets messy and full of plane icons (which happens quite a lot), it can be hell trying to sort through the different layers and stacks of planes, which can become all the more annoying when you forget something and can't access the stack from a game function.
To be sure, Battle of Britain is brimming with detail. All the available British and German squadrons are in the game, along with literally thousands of pilots and statistics to boot. Aircraft have a number of real-world and arbitrary attributes assigned to them (unfortunately, there's little explanation as to how the attributes came about) and range from the common Hurricane and Bf-109e aircraft to the more notable Bf-110c and rare Defiant aircraft. It's all there, if you want to sort through it, though it does have a bit of role-playing appeal to it, fine tuning your squadrons and watching out for potential aces.
Again, the British player must balance when and where he will attack the invading German aircraft - should attempts be made at all the raids, or are the morning raids a diversion, or are they planning for something bigger later in the day? Should the squadrons be "on alert" and stay put, or should there be active patrols that fatigue the pilots? The German player can experiment with concentrating on certain areas, wiping out the RAF, or attacking piecemeal. The British player gets points for shooting down German aircraft - extra points for bombers - and the German player is awarded points for shooting down RAF planes and for bombing targets, the more the merrier. This play balance in the longer campaigns, and the management of your forces, is what Battle of Britain simulates best, though at times it can get tedious. When thousands of planes are in the air, even the minute phases can get really slow, a problem made worse by the hundreds of air-combat reports.
Word to the wise: Turn off the video option before you even start a game. Battle of Britain plays tiny videos of war film, mostly gun camera footage, during significant events, which seems to be about half the air battles. This can make the game crawl at an annoyingly slow pace, not to mention the little sprites of the planes crashing and the battle sounds that can get equally annoying. Turn off the music too, though turning it off from the main menu doesn't seem to work very well, as the game appears to forget it ever happened once you get into a campaign.
Battle of Britain works rather well in the play-by-e-mail setting, where the British player sets up first for the day, then the German player plans the attack. Since he does little else, the British player plays out the turn, and the German player can replay the day's events when he gets it back. Then the process begins anew the next day. The game also includes a TCP/IP option..
That brings this review to a final point: Battle of Britain requires some time, effort, and patience, even if you do turn off all the frivolities. Some computing power couldn't hurt either. Battle of Britain appeals to the wargaming die-hard rather than the general player - the interface and sheer micromanagement problems will turn off many casual gamers, but fans of Grigsby may feel right at home. The shipped version of the game comes with several bugs that hamper both sides (RAF aircraft could not be destroyed on the ground, while Germany could easily cripple Britain by concentrating on the power facilities only but couldn't shuttle squadrons to different airfields), so make sure you get the patch. The manual does a pretty good job of explaining the game, so even if you hate manuals, you should probably give it a read at least once.
All that being said, Battle of Britain can be an interesting and involved game to play. It is not for the weakhearted, because understanding the game system with all its details is paramount if you ever want to win. Let's hope the next game, the true successor to U.S.A.A.F., entitled Bombing the Reich, will streamline the interface a bit and allow for at least a better graphics resolution (which seems to be stuck at 640x480). Once you get around the interface problems and learn the system (and some hotkeys along the way), the game can be quite enjoyable, if time consuming. But the daunting task of learning it will once again be the game's biggest drawback.