Last night at our regular Thursday night throwdown (the event F:AT’s own FRANKLIN COBB visited last week) one of my gaming buddies who is a 27th degree initiate in the Gathering of Friends turned up with a preproduction copy of Z-Man Games’ forthcoming DUEL IN THE DARK, designed by first-timer Friedemann De Pedro and due to be released sometime later this year. Apparently, they give these advance copies of games out at the Gathering like they do fortune cookies down at Imperial Lucky Magic Dragon Happy China Buddha Wok no. 3 but since I’m not on the list, I was thrilled to take advantage of this rare opportunity to get in an advance play of a game that I was already fairly curious about. I actually thought the copy was a finished production- it had full artwork, logos, and typesetting and for all intents and purposes looked ready for the retail shelf. The cardboard planes, clouds, and thunderstorms perched on their acrylic stands to indicate altitude looked better and more stylish than many games currently in production and I have to say that this game, even at an early stage, looks fantastic. The planes, clouds, and other airborne pieces float above a nighttime map of
The RAF’s nighttime raids over Germany during the later years of World War 2 is not a very common theme even among more traditional wargames and it is one that is by default unheard of in Eurogames altogether. It’s an intriguing set-up for what is ultimately a very abstracted operational-level strategic bombing campaign not fundamentally dissimilar to much more complex games like DOWNTOWN, RAF, or HORNET LEADER. DUEL IN THE DARK presents an assymetrical situation for 2 players (with a solitaire option) in which the British player is tasked with planning a bombing run to strike a target city in Germany with the deeper and therefore more dangerous destinations in Deutschland yielding greater reward. Both ingress and egress must be plotted via compass cards and variable weather, indicated by the presence of clouds, thunderstorms, or fog, becomes a strategic consideration. A Mosquito escort is provided that can intercept fighters, drop spotting rounds, and perform low-level bombing of ground defenses. The German player plays the defensive game and gets to place 40 tokens around
With all this talk of weather, altitude, ground defense, ingress and egress it all sounds very detailed- which it is in a way, given that factors such as the phase of the moon makes it either easier or more difficult to attack incoming bombers in full or partial moonlight- but the level of abstraction toes a dangerous line between specificity and meaninglessness. The systems which give the game a lot of atmosphere, like the ability to change altitude and the variable weather are really very simple and won’t cause you to go consulting charts or trying to figure out if any exceptions apply. The British mission is represented by one bomber, the escort is one fighter. Material losses are not measured in numbers of planes lost or by damage percentages but as simple victory points on a differential scale. If German fighters enter the hex with the Mosquito escort, the British player gets a VP. When German fighters intercept the bombing mission (typically by correctly guessing or deducing where it will move in its next turn), VPs are earned based on an abstract number of losses incurred based on the relative “difficulty” in attacking the squadron. Therefore, low-flying fighters attacking higher level bombers in a clouded hex will net less points than higher-flying fighters attacking low-level bombers in a clear hex in full moonlight. This mechanic characterizes the entire game- if a target is made harder to hit by altitude, weather, searchlights (they blind the bombadiers!), or smoke it “loses” less VPs to its attacker. There’s no die rolls or other “checks” in the system at all and it really only possible to “lose” units if the German player decides to ditch planes rather than refuel them.
At first, I thought that the game was going to be too abstract and without drama given that other than the initial weather draw there is absolutely no luck or random chance whatsoever in the game and all information- except for the British flight plan- is open. I was also apprehensive that the lack of material loss would result in an absence of any tangible risk or high-stakes gambling since there seems to be nothing to lose. Yet the game creates a real sense of atmosphere and several very neat mechanics (like the way the German fighters have a “range” that has to be balanced with fuel consumption and the necessity to land at airstrips to refuel- while also trying to interdict the bombing mission) provide a lot of really interesting choices. The British player can use the Mosquito to either cover the bombers’ move (thus incurring hits on intercepting German fighters) or to bluff, luring fighters away from the bombers’ actual path. The German player also has to contend with the fact that the bombing targets- particularly the more risky, long-range ones- are going to net the British player a lot of points, so the impetus to attack early and often is there and a lot of the really tense decisions take into consideration the amount of risk and possible reciprocal loss incurred by dogfighting and the ever-present specter of fuel expenditure. When all is said and done the VP system, albeit abstract, does a fairly excellent job of depicting a sense of relative success or failure of the British mission and the German defense- even without depicting actual loss.
DUEL IN THE DARK is a very unconventional game in every respect and as I stated previously it, more than titles like FRIEDRICH or WALLENSTEIN, blurs the distinction between game idioms to a great degree and I think it demonstrates a greater degree of ingenuity and creativity than anything the “name” Euro designers have been able to muster for the last decade. Additionally, it’s pretty rare to see a fairly heavy 2 player Euro-style game, let alone one with a rich, immersive theme. I am worried somewhat that Mr. DePedro’s design, however brilliant it may be in distilling some of the concepts and ideas of extremely complex wargames into a very accessible, playable package, might have trouble finding an audience. It is fundamentally a detailed conflict simulation with a wargame theme so the Euro crowd might balk. It’s not roughneck enough for the Ameritrash contingent and it definitely falls more into the Euro camp in terms of abstraction despite a good degree of theme/mechanic integration. Yet wargamers might admonish the lack of specific historic detail and the smaller range of variables. That being said, games like MEMOIR ’44 have straddled similar lines and found great success so the potential is definitely there for crossover appeal and I could easily see the DUEL IN THE DARK system applied to other air campaigns. I hope that DUEL OF THE DARK does well for Z-Man Games and Mr. DePedro because it shows us that Eurogames doesn’t have to be stuck in the rut of meaningless themes, abstraction, passive player interaction, and worn out mechanics that it’s been in for years now, and that genuinely innovative, compelling, and very fun games are still possible within the Euro design paradigm. I’m very excited about the game and it’s a definite purchase for me when it releases.