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Filip W.
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Fire in the Sky: Drat, sunk again!

Photo courtesy of Mark Watson

If you ever wonder why the Japanese lost WW2 you only have to play Fire in the Sky once to realize that the Americans rolled better. Actually that's as far from the truth as can be, both in real life and in this fast, easy, realistic and intensely Gonna-break-you-with-a-hammer-if-you-don't-roll-a-six-right-now game.

It's hard to convey the sense of tension in Fire in the Sky. The game is in no way highly random and yet each die roll counts. You want to make that roll, that single, please-dear-Lord-let-my-sub-pass-through-this-net-of-destroyers-and-hit-that-carrier- with-this-stupid-never-to-explode-magnetic-torpedo roll. You want it more than anything else in the world, more than winning the lottery, more than a scared six year old wants mom to come in with milk and cookies.

And then you roll… A SIX! WooHoo, carrier on its way to the bottom, gloating rights! Now please, dear Lord, please let me just stall this bad, bad, bad, marine division for a single turn, only that, please roll a six and I'll never gloat again.

Now imagine that for six hours straight and you get the feeling of how it is to play Fire in the Sky – unlike in other WW2 games there is not a single action that isn't crucial to the outcome of the war. This is because your resources, the men, ships and transport points you need to win are in so short supply that if it isn't crucial you won't commit your forces.

Components

By this time you've probably figured out that there aren't that many components in Fire in the Sky. Compared to, say, ASL or Guderian's Blitzkrieg this is true. Compared to your average Eurogame you've got hordes of battleships, swarms of destroyers and a few, rare gems of aircraft carriers.

The chits are oversized, almost on par with Carcassonne tiles, and feel great to handle. The hexes are oversized too, so you don't have any troubles cramming those five let's-shell-the-Gilberts-until-the-highest-point-is-below-sea-level taskforces into them.

Graphics are outstanding and done with a feel of historic accuracy and the hint of a smile. How else do you explain the official "Loser" marker whose only function is to remind the players who has the bragging rights at the moment?

You even get enough dice (five per player). The only complaint is the map. Printed on stock paper it has a tendency to curl at the folds, creating a rather choppy sea. But don't imagine counters sliding this way or that; their size guarantees that even if you roll a die into it, a stack it won't veer too far off course.

Photo courtesy of Brian Morris

Gameplay

The premise is as simple as it is historic: the American player is caught with his pants down, letting the Japanese player paddle his butt at Pearl while simultaneously walking all over the American, UK and Dutch Pacific holdings. Japanese player wins, everybody goes home.

Well, not quite, even if it can feel that way for the allied player on the first turns. Each nation is constrained by their ability to transport troops and ship. This means that you can have loads of forces stuck in Pearl or Kure (the Japanese equivalent) because you don't have enough transport points to order them out.

As the Japanese player you got one more resource: oil. No oil and your ships will limp around from base to base offering themselves with gravy and mashed potatoes to the US dive bombers.

The US player has no such problems; the Texas oil fields spew forth all the black gold he needs, the ungrateful bastard (I like playing the Jap, does that show?). On the other hand the US has Roosevelt, who prioritizes the war in Europe, and doesn't have enough transport points to make more than needle sticks against the Japanese assaults. Or he can concentrate his forces for one big punch each turn – but if that fails the US is toast. They can even be forced to come crawling to the negotiation table and end the war if the Japanese do well enough in the early months. Don't count on that though; the Jap would need to capture the Singapore area as well as the Dutch East Indies and Australia in 1941 or early 1942 and that's as likely as free aircraft carriers falling from the sky. But it sure feels possible.

Each turn is built up around three phases: deployment, battle, more deployment. In other words, you get your forces into positions where they can strike (using transport points), attack (using oil for the Japanese or completely free for the allies) plant your flags and reinforce your new holdings.

If it only was that easy! As in real life your enemy gets to react to your attacks – presuming he's placed his ships in range. And if you use the optional hidden task forces rules then you're truly playing in the dark: is that a stack a diversionary strike by US destroyers or the main carrier task force? As if Fire in the Sky wasn't tense enough already…

Photo courtesy of Adam Starkweather

This back and forth, lose and take goes on for sixteen turns or until one party surrenders which, on a week night, is more likely to happen – Fire in the Sky is a long game and so tense that you'll routinely find yourself wondering why it's 2 am already. Because Fire in the Sky doesn't feel long; there's never any down time at all. Actually that's not true, there's plenty of down time but you want to se what your opponent does, you need to se, you must se or your carriers will rest with YARRRGH Davy Jones. Sorry, wrong game.

More than creating a realistic simulation, designer Tetsuya Nakamura (if there is a Japanese WW2 version of Reiner Knizia, he's it) has managed to capture the feel of the war: each engagement is crucial, each battle totters on the edge of a propeller blade, on the faulty Monday-morning fuse of an unexploded bomb. Each strike must succeed, each defensive action must delay the enemy and each carrier lost is enough to make admirals commit hara-kiri.

You know that the allies are going to win eventually, even though the possibility of a quick and total victory is a glorious but rapidly vanishing mirage for the Japanese. The only question is: are they going to do it forcefully enough to crush the Japanese or will they dither and let the Japanese government off the hook with a peace treaty? In the game this is represented by the victory points the Japanese gathers (in the beginning) and the US player retakes at high cost (from the mid game onwards). If the Japanese manage to hold out long enough for them to have positive victory points when the game's over they win. If not the US player wins. Simple as that – unless the Jap manages to gain twenty or more victory points in which case he wins immediately. Not likely…

Ok, there's a lot more to Fire in the Sky than this. I've barely even mentioned the fact that the Japanese's big armies are completely unwieldy on the islands or that the US's antique battleships are good for nothing but shelling the Gilberts and Wake. Or that you can, theoretically, invade Pearl (yeah, right). Or that when the first US AA cruiser comes into play the Japanese curse enough to fuel their ships on rage alone. Or that the useless Dutch, sitting in exile in London, complaining and never returning once their pitiful forces are off the map, can actually tilt the battle in the early turns. Or that you have a stack of aircraft carriers as thick as your thumb waiting beside the board and you can't get them into play because they're nothing but blueprints in some naval engineers office. Argh, so much to do, so little time.

And that's the heart of Fire in the Sky.

The Japanese march on Singapore. Photo courtesy of Roy Levien

Conclusion

If you've read this far you're probably assuming that Fire in the Sky is a solid ten. If I were a teenager with endless time on my hands, geeky friends, understanding parents and no homework that would be true. Hell, I'd give it an eleven.

But I'm not, I'm a responsible adult waiting for my too far off retirement when I'll be able to play board games with impunity. Thus Fire in the Sky is a luxury, like fine chocolate or holidays in Egypt, that you can afford only once in a while. Even so, it is my highest ranked wargame.

If you're into wargaming then Fire in the Sky is the game for you
– not only is it unbelievably good (I'm not making it up, this review is an understatement) it's fast enough to, almost, cram into a weeknight. If you're interested in historical depth, or are a teacher looking for a game to get your students enthusiastic about WW2 history, then this is the game for you. If you love tense, long games and don’t mind complexity then this is a game for you. Even if you're looking for a step up from Memoir '44 or Axis, this game might be for you. But if you're a die hard Euro fan or a person who considers two hours to be long for a game then stay away, you won't like it.

****************
Personal rating at time of writing: 8 / 10

Pros:
Tense
Well made
Historically accurate
Tense
Even and well balanced
Really tense

Cons:
Long (although short for a large scale wargame)

Facts:
2 players
~6 hours game time

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Colin Hunter
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great review, I must get this to the table.
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Tom H
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Love it!!
 
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Mustafa Ünlü
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filwi wrote:
Fire in the Sky: Drat, sunk again!

If it only was that easy! As in real life your enemy gets to react to your attacks – presuming he's placed his ships in range. And if you use the optional hidden task forces rules then you're truly playing in the dark: is that a stack a diversionary strike by Japanese destroyers or the main carrier task force? As if Fire in the Sky wasn't tense enough already…



Great review. Just a minor correction. The hidden TF optional rule (18.1.4) only gives the Allies this ability in the form of seven(!) TF and Fleet markers. The Japanese do not get any TF markers. The only marker they get, Tokyo Express, (18.2.2) is a combat advantage. The rule specifically states that even the Tokyo Express marker does not allow for hidden forces.
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Filip W.
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Thanks, I'll correct it in the text!
 
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Aik Yong Heng
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fantastic review!
 
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Barry Kendall
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Very good review.

I would add one word of advice for wargamers who haven't approached the rules yet:

READ THE EXTENDED EXAMPLE OF PLAY AT THE BACK OF THE RULEBOOK.

Read it BEFORE you read the rules.

Then after reading the rules, READ THE EOP AGAIN.

Grognards will have to "unlearn" some by-now-habitual assumptions about counter values and combat resolution systems to understand how to play FITS.

It's not that FITS is screwy, has poorly written rules or any such thing. Far from it.

I'd simply describe its approach as "fresh." After spending an hour or two with two other grognards at a con shortly after the game came out, reading the rules and discussing what they meant, I noticed the EOP at the back and read a bit, which resulted in the mental light coming on.

The EOP can save you a lot of time learning the game just because it shows the rules in practice in a way that clears up "interpretation hesitation" due to preconceived notions.

I think this is the best Pacific War game ever published. Gorgeous, too.
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Runs with scissors
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I have to echo Barry's comments. This game has been set up, but it hasn't been played yet, because of the different approach to the rules. The rules are good, and make sense, it's just that the mechanics are very different from other wargames. It took a while for me to move from my preconceptions on I thought things were going to work.
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Filip W.
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Barry Kendall wrote:

I think this is the best Pacific War game ever published. Gorgeous, too.

Echo that.

If you've got someone to teach it to you you'll pick it up in half an hour or so. The rules are really quite intuitive, albeit in a "different" manner. As Barry said, you'll have to unlearn some assumptions.
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Jens Hoppe
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My copy of Fire in the Sky sadly sits unplayed on my shelf, but your review has made me eager to try it now. Thanks!
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Antonio B-D
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Quote:
You want to make that roll, that single, please-dear-Lord-let-my-sub-pass-through-this-net-of-destroyers-and-hit-that-carrier- with-this-stupid-never-to-explode-magnetic-torpedo roll.


Are you talking about my campaign game of Silent War?
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Andrew C
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Excellent review - entertaining and informative.

Your love of the game really comes through. I'm moving this one up my to-be-played queue based on your review.
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Dave Langdon
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Great review, i luckily picked up a damaged box copy recently. Struggling a bit with the rules so this is definately a spur me on review.

Cheers
 
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Brad Miller
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I'd be interesting to hear from those who are saying that this is the best pacific war game, what they are comparing it to? Have you played any/all of the following: Victory in the Pacific, Empire of the Sun, or Asia Engulfed?
 
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Robert Fox
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Well, I haven't played EotS or Asia Engulfed, but I've played the Pacific Theater of Advanced Third Reich/A World at War, Victory in the Pacific, Pacific War, and even Axis and Allies: Pacific and I'd call Fire in the Sky the best of the bunch.

Although all of the games have different design goals, I felt FitS distilled the most Pacific theater flavor into the smallest size possible. I love how supply work to limit your actions in a very simple manner while still feeling "correct". It's hard to describe in words just how tight the supply rope is, even for the US early on. The glory will be had in battle, but victory will be decided in the logistics.

The one major thing missing is a hidden move/unit system that would better create the difficulty of figuring out where those danged carriers are. In this area, I'd guess Asia Engulfed would come out on top (not having played it at all). Although no game I've played in the Pacific ever felt right in this area for me. FitS does have an optional rule for this but I haven't used it as the game works great as is, and I figure it will tilt the results too far to the US side (only the US can hide their fleets).

Hopefully this helped out a bit, but I'm admittedly a FitS fan.

Robert F.



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Ted Kostek
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Great review.

Probably the key confusing point about learning the game is the difference between air steps and air points. Most other things seemed fairly straightforward.

The only other thing I'll add is that WWII in the Pacific was a war of logistics, and the game reflects that. Painfully. You need to spend serious thought planning your moves for the next turn so that on this turn you can position your guys. You need to be aware of this point. To me this feels a bit like work. Maybe with repeated plays it would get a little easier.

Finally, I love the way battles are resolved. It's like a mini-game w/i the larger game. Great fun.
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Chris Buhl
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I know I'm coming in three years later, but I just played this for the first time last weekend. Your review reminds me exactly how I felt all through the day, very well done.
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David Janik-Jones
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Every time I read this damn review it makes me weep a little inside for not yet owning a copy.
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Chris Buhl
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It was a very solid addition to my collection. The time came to sell it, but I never regretted owning it, and would still almost always be up for a game on Vassal.
 
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