Strategy games don't always have to be grand and sweeping. Sometimes they work best when they're small and focused, with skirmishes replacing enormous battles and characters taking the place of faceless units.
Sid Meier's Ace Patrol lets you get down to the nitty gritty of aerial combat. You're never in control of more than four planes, the battlefield is never big enough to get lost on, and each of your pilots is a human being with medals, skills, and special moves earned through combat.
From that simple template the game weaves a majestic dance of vulnerable airborne death machines. You'll soar, you'll swoop, you'll blast dastardly foes out of the sky, and you'll be enthralled for every second.
Bogey on my tail
The game is all about dogfights in the First World War. You take control of a squadron of pilots and fly in a series of sorties. Missions vary from one-on-one duels in the sky to cunning bombing raids and attacks on supply routes.
To begin with, your pilots are rookies in less than impressive planes. You know a few moves, but you're far from the trained plane-downer that you're destined to become. Each turn you can select one move for each of your pilots to perform.
These moves are represented by arrows on the hexagonal grid you fly over. You can bank, fly straight ahead, dive, or climb, and different movement options are open to you depending on where in the sky you are.
Fly too close to the ground and your options are limited. Bank too hard in one turn and the G-forces mean you're going to have fewer options in the next turn. When a green arrow appears, you can make an attack.
You always know which attack option is going to cause the most damage, but there's a good chance that swooping in to hit the enemy fighters hard is going to leave you open to an easy counter-strike. And you're balancing all of these options and choices every single turn.
The more you play, the more options you have. Better pilots can execute spins, loops, and skids to try and get the edge over their adversaries, and you can upgrade their planes to make them tougher, faster, and meaner.
You can use clouds as cover, darting in to lose the enemy before manoeuvring yourself into a better position and darting out again to attack. Gun emplacements will shoot at enemy planes that get too close, but sometimes you'll have to risk darting into their firing emplacements to get the kill you need.
If your planes get shot down then your pilots can be taken prisoner or end up in hospital for five missions or more, and planes that take more than 50 percent damage in a skirmish need to be repaired, meaning you can't select them for the next fight.
And all the while you're weaving through the sky, waiting for that perfect moment to execute the pincer move you know is going to leave you with an open shot. You start to understand the thrill and madness of taking to the air in a contraption that's little more than a big kite with an engine and a seat.
The noble art of war
Sid Meier's Ace Patrol is a beautifully constructed game of strategy. Its turn-based mechanisms make it feel like a boardgame. You're constantly positioning your pieces, trying to outfox your opponent and steal in for a perfect kill.
There's pass-the-handset multiplayer that sees you taking on friends in a randomly determined skirmish, but right now the networked multiplayer isn't working, which is a great shame.
Online problems aside, Sid Meier's Ace Patrol is a brilliant and engaging game of wits and destruction that will have you growing a fabulous moustache and wearing flying goggles in no time.
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