Saturday, February 5, 2011


In my Sackson-fired enthusiasm last week I erred in thinking the next game on my list was his classic Acquire—that will have to wait until next week. It is, in fact, Aces of Aces’ turn.

Ace of Aces is one of the first games I remember reading about in GAMES Magazine, which means I must have bought it in the spring or summer of 1980. I distinctly remember my first encounter with GAMES. I was having lunch with my family at one of the Hungarian restaurants that at that time dominated the stretch of Bloor Street between Spadina and Bathurst. (There is now only one left, the others having made way mainly for sushi places.)

We were eating at either the “Continental” or “Korona”; my father’s preference shifted from one to the other according to some unknown formula. After having done my filial duty with the schnitzel, cole slaw, and rice I asked (as I invariably did) whether I could go window shopping at Book City, which was a few doors down from there. I would have been a little more than twelve years old.

On the magazine rack was an arresting cover, almost entirely blank, with a blue GAMES logo at the top. “World’s First Invisible 3-D Cover!” in announced. Intrigued, I picked it off the stands and opened the gatefold cover. A picture of a jester popping out of a jack-in-the-box holding a sign saying “April Fool!” greeted my eyes.

I had, in modern parlance, been punk’d. Flipping through the magazine, I saw an insert of fun and interesting looking puzzles, game reviews, something about a Hidden Contest...I was hooked.

It has been more than (astonishing!) 30 years since that day, and I have derived a huge amount of pleasure—and read about a lot of board games—in the pages of GAMES ever since. I read about Magic: The Gathering in 1993 when Wizards of the Coast was a tiny start-up. I read about an intriguing wave of German board games (led by “Die Siedlers von Catan”) making their entry into North America in 1995. I bought Puerto Rico on the strength of a cover article in 2000. And although the quality of the puzzles and game reviews has decreased over time, I still usually buy the year-end GAMES 100 issue, if only to see which games “they” think are the best of the year.

But back to 1980 for a moment.

In one of those early game reviews, there was a picture of two squat brown paperbacks, each open to a page showing cockpit views with cryptic symbols along the bottom. Ace of Aces purported to be a game of aerial combat which you could play just with the books. One book was for the Allies, the other for the Germans. Each numbered page represented a particular spatial relationship between two planes—each book showing that plane’s point of view. Players pick their manoeuvres simultaneously, and through an ingenious mechanism the players both end up on a different page—again, the same page in each book, but representing where the planes are after the pilots’ machinations. In the Basic Game, if the page shows you firing at the other plane, you’ve hit and scored damage—each plane can take 6 points before spiralling out of the sky. You may also end up tailing the other plane, in which case the other player has to tell you the general direction of their next move before you decide what to do next.

Mr Gameways Ark once lived here
The brief review was so enchanting, and the design so original, I knew I had to get it. I forget where I bought it (it may well have been the legendary Mr. Gameways Ark which was soon to close) and upon bringing it home I found I was not disappointed. The game came with Advanced and Campaign rules which were fascinating to read but involved keeping track of things like altitude and ammo, which somehow took away from the elegance of the basic design. I never felt very tempted to try them. Besides, I would have needed other people to play with and, as usual, I had no one to play it with. I did play many games solitaire, playing both planes, flicking through both books and gradually appreciating what a gargantuan task it must have been for the designer to map out which page led to which according to which manoeuvre was chosen.

The original Ace of Aces was actually the first in a series, modelling the Handy Rotary aircraft of 1916 – 1917. Other books in the series came out, for Early models (very slow), Late models (very fast) and even a Balloon Buster game which pitted an aircraft against an armed Observation Balloon. I have managed to find a Balloon Buster set, but haven’t played it.

Of course, Aces of Aces came out just as computers were about to make such games obsolete. Today, there are dozens of real-time flight sims which take care of all the details and are far more realistic and immersive than anything Ace of Aces has to offer.

And yet...and yet. Last Thursday evening I sat down with a friend, explained the basic game in about 3 minutes, and we were off, twisting and curling around our imagined skies, me in my Fokker Triplane and he in his Sopwith Camel. I got some early knocks in and shouted in my cod German “Have at you, Britisher!”, but the plucky Tommy kept at it. He tailed me, I tailed him. And wouldn’t you know it, we ended up on page 20, blasting away at each other at close range, both planes shooting each other out of the sky simultaneously, a thrillingly fitting end to a ten-minute dogfight.

And not a single pixel got hurt in the process.



  1. Your image of the former location of Mr. Gameway's Ark is incorrect. It was on the northeast corner of Charles and Yonge. Here's a link looking directly at the building which now has a Starbuck and McDonalds.,-79.386148&spn=0.001484,0.002411&t=m&z=19&layer=c&cbll=43.668688,-79.386393&panoid=OKNMHOHCNmNFnQ0HI3aOlA&cbp=12,68.55,,0,0

  2. "Today, there are dozens of real-time flight sims which take care of all the details and are far more realistic and immersive than anything Ace of Aces has to offer.."

    The thing is, computer games are NOT more realistic. I know because I've made realism mods for computer games like Red Baron and Red Baron 2. There's nothing I did with that game that couldn't be done with some simple house rules for Ace of Aces, and computer games tend to have hard-coded rules that can't be modified. Boardgames don't have that problem.

    As for more immersive, maybe you're right, but there's a lot to be said for using one's imagination. Then there's the issue of cost. Computers are expensive, books are not.

    Another factor is very telling. A computer game like Red Baron 2, now considered obsolete, can be found retailing at $10.00 in the local Gamestop bargain bin. Copies of Ace of Aces still sell for upwards of $50 (the price of a brand new computer game) on eBay. Clearly, for a game rendered 'obsolete' in the era of the computer simulation, Ace of Aces is holding its value very well, even 30 years after it was first published.