Blue Max

A board game for two to many players by Phil Hall, published in 1983 by GDW
These comments copyright 2000 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated July 5, 2000

NOTE! Possible point of confusion: this review is about Blue Max by GDW (Game Designers Workshop). There was a magazine game called The Blue Max on the same subject, but it's a supplement to Aces High from 3W, a much more complex game not to my tastes at all.

Long ago, when I was in junior high school, I read a narrative history of WWI fighter pilots called They Fought for the Sky by Quentin Reynolds. I found it to be fascinating and exciting. Consequently, whenever a game on WWI air combat came out, I had to try it: I've played Fight in the Skies (Dawn Patrol), Ace of Aces, Hostile Aircraft, Aces High, Wings, Aerodrome, Knights of the Air, Red Baron, Richthofen's War, Dogfight - and probably others! The only one I still play today is Blue Max by GDW. It fits my favorite game design formula perfectly: for only 10% of the complexity of a more detailed simulation, it returns 90% of the realism.


Blue Max comes with the most beautiful cardboard counters of any game I own. The pictures of the planes are stunning. The rest of the components don't quite match up to the planes, but aren't bad - at least in the first edition. The second edition cheapened most of the components, and only the counters remain the same.

You get 60 airplane counters which represent 17 different airplane types from 1914 to 1918, allowing for multiple planes of the same type per side. You also get 66 other counters - some are informational, but over half are damage chits. In addition there is a pad of maneuver schedules and player record sheets, and all charts needed to play the game. The map doesn't show any terrain at all (it's just blue hexes), but consequently shows of the plane drawings that much better.

Maneuver Schedules

As wargames go, Blue Max is very low complexity, one of the lowest complexity wargames I own, in fact. And my tastes run from low to moderate complexity, so that's saying something. But despite its simplicity, it works very well. The main reason it works is due to the maneuver schedules. Realistically figuring out the course of an airplane would be very difficult if the designer hadn't done it all for you in advance. He's then presented the information so simply and graphically that anyone can understand and implement it.

Each plane type has its own maneuver schedule. This is a 7.5" by 9.5" (19x24 cm) piece of cardstock with a number of illustrations on it. Each illustration shows a potential move for the plane in question. The move is actually drawn out for you, so it's very easy to comprehend. I'll show you some crude ASCII illustrations to give you an idea of what it looks like, but be aware that this won't look half as good at what you get with the game:

                       __/  \
        __            /  \__/
       /  \__         \__/
       \__/  \        /  \
          \__/        \__/
          /  \        /  \
          \__/        \__/

          14L2        20R3

Both of these maneuvers would actually have two pieces of information I can't reproduce in this medium: in the bottom hex in each case, there would be a "start" figure for the plane, showing it facing the hex directly above it. In the topmost hex of each figure would be a plane silhouette also, pointing in these cases to the top left and top right hexsides, respectively. This shows the final position and facing of the plane after its move.

Each turn you secretly record a maneuver for your plane(s). When everyone has written orders, they're revealed and all planes are moved in any order. Only when all planes have moved may you resolve firing - if you have someone in your sights at that time.

The first number of the maneuver is simply an identifier: all planes will have maneuver 14, and it will be called that on each sheet. Not all planes are capable of maneuver 20, however - it takes some power in your engine to move that far, and early-war planes might not be that powerful.

The letter in the middle will be L, S, or R - for Left, Straight, or Right. This is important not only for recording purposes (there is also a 14R2, for example - the same maneuver, but to the right), but also for tailing purposes, covered below.

The final number is fuel consumption for the turn. This might not be the same for all planes. For example, the French Nieuport 28 has a maneuver 14L2, shown above, meaning you check off two fuel boxes to make this maneuver. But for the German Halberstadt CLIIa, the same maneuver is called a 14L3. That is, it takes three fuel points to accomplish the same maneuver.

Certain planes will have more maneuver illustrations than others, meaning they're more maneuverable, and probably more powerful. The 1918 Spad XIII has 38 different maneuvers it can make, for example, while the 1914 Nieuport 17 can only make 26. You should try to pick aircraft from the same year when deciding on a battle - there's a handy chart detailing when the planes were released - or you can create some interesting battles with three or four weaker planes against two superior ones, for example.

By the way, this listing of all possible maneuvers for each type of plane allowed the designer to do some interesting differentiation without having to introduce special rules. The Sopwith Camel's famous engine torque meant it turned very easily to the right, but was harder to turn to the left. Blue Max shows this by simply adding a maneuver to the right that is lacking to the left! Brilliant and easy - no special rule needed, which some more complicated games introduce.

There are three types of maneuvers: normal, restricted, and non-repeatable. The vast majority are normal maneuvers: the only restrictions on these are that you have enough fuel to perform the maneuver, and that the fuel consumption number vary by no more than 1 from the previous turn's maneuver. That is, if I choose a maneuver with a fuel number of "2" this turn, I can only pick one with a "1", "2", or "3" next turn - I can't jump to "4".

Restricted maneuvers are separated from normal ones by a line, and may only be done after moving straight ahead the turn before. Non-repeatable maneuvers, which include stalls and Immelmanns, are shown in square brackets. You must do a normal maneuver the turn after choosing a non-repeatable maneuver.

Order of Play

To start play, pick your starting forces and prepare a player record sheet for each plane in the battle. You can play multiple players per side, if you wish, each player flying one plane - it makes for a fun game. Or a single player can play more than one plane, so long as he has separate order sheets for each. An order sheet shows the amount of fuel available, how many hits in each of the wings and the body, engine, and tail the plane can take, how many machine guns it has, and its stability. (These aspects are different for most plane types, and detailed in a chart with the game.) The rest of the sheet allows you to record your maneuver each turn, and make notes about the interesting things that can happen in a dogfight ...

Each turn, players first determine if anyone is tailing another plane. In WWI airplanes, which moved pretty slowly compared to later planes, you could watch the tail rudder pretty easily to tell which way a plane was turning - if you were in a tailing position. In this game, there are chits with identical backs, but the fronts marked L, S, and R. If your plane is tailing mine, I give you the chit showing the middle letter of the maneuver I've chosen. You may not show it to any of your teammates, and you don't know which maneuver I've chosen, but you have a little information before you have to write your order.

Once tailing chits are passed out, everyone writes their orders. Place a "finished" marker on your plane when done so everyone will know when to execute the moves. (The finished marker is also a clever tool for verifying your move: it shows a silhouette of plane, which you leave in your starting space, with your exact facing, when you move out. This allows you to prove your move is correct when challenged by a player whose plane you're about to gun down ...)

Next, everyone checks off fuel consumed for the turn. This is quite important in this game - I've had a plane run out of fuel in about half the games I play, showing it's carefully calculated to be an issue in the game. Once you've run out of fuel, you can only glide and are limited to the three most basic one-hex maneuvers as you try to head back and escape off your edge of the board ... (Fortunately, WWI planes glide very well. There are even recorded cases of planes landing intact with dead or missing pilots!)

Then moves are revealed and everyone moves their plane. It doesn't matter what order you do this - you can't change your chosen maneuver at this point, so the planes will end up the same whether I move mine first or last.

Once all planes have been moved, it's combat time! After that comes damage allocation, attempt to clear jammed guns, check for newly jammed guns, and resolve damage if a plane is on fire.


Planes can only fire straight ahead in this game, one to three hexes. (Exception: two of the planes have rear observers with swivel-mounted machine guns which can fire in arc to the rear.) Obviously, combat will depend on how well you can maneuver your plane relative to your opponent's. If you can guess correctly what he'll do, and counter it with the right maneuver, you can get a deadly hail of bullets heading into his plane. At least that's the plan ...

Once you do have someone in your sights, you have two tables to check. The first tells you how much fire strength you can bring to bear, and then you roll a die and cross-reference the result with the correct fire strength column on the second table.

Fire strength is affected by range, plane stability, burst of fire (a longer burst gives more fire strength but risks jamming your guns), attacker's speed, defender's speed (stalled or not), number of guns, angle of deflection, if you "acquired the target" (fired at the same plane last turn), and if you're tailing them. This sounds complicated, but it's not - in fact, it's very simple. You just look at the chart and work your way from the top to the bottom, adding or subtracting when a condition is met. When you reach the bottom of the chart, you know the fire strength number for the attack.

Then you roll a d6 and check the fire strength column of the next table. The result will be either a complete miss (only at very low fire strength), or a number and color of damage chits the defender must draw. That's it.


The defender draws damage chits from a bag or mug. There are 36 double-sided chits - one side is red, the other blue (blue hits are milder in effect). You simply read the appropriate side as directed by the fire strength resolution chart. (Example: if you get a damage result of 2B&1R, you draw two chits and read the blue sides, then draw one more chit and read the red side.) Twenty-four of the chits are simply damage, showing a damaged part (wing, fuselage, engine, etc.) and how much damage to apply. A plane record sheet has a number of boxes for each area - just check them off secretly as you take damage, only revealing damage when an area is destroyed.

Twelve of the chits show special damage. These range from the fairly mild "Rudder jammed - left maneuvers only for the next X turns," to the startling "Pilot Killed." The fun part of the game here is that the defender does not have to reveal what the damage was - simply record the damage or make a note, or whatever. Only if the plane starts emitting smoke or flames, or crashes to the ground do you reveal what happened. So you may have a jammed rudder and can't turn to the right for a while, but your opponents probably won't know it. How well can you bluff until you've unjammed it?

The Campaign Game

There are other rules to cover things I've mentioned above: jamming and unjamming guns, extinguishing fire or smoke, etc., but they're fairly simple, logical, and straightforward. The only other rules worth mentioning are the Campaign rules.

Rules are given for a campaign game, where you can use the same pilot from game to game, gaining experience points. Once you've reached a certain level of experience, you can gain special abilities. Nine special abilities are detailed: five gunnery ones and four piloting ones. (You may have a maximum of five abilities, however, assuming you survive that long.)

Variant: You can even agree to start a one-shot game with a little experience to make it more interesting: let each pilot begin the game with one ability, chosen in secret and not revealed until used.

This allowing for individualized pilots is a nice touch. You get to pick which ability you want, and I might not pick the same ones you do, so we can begin to differentiate in pilots as well as in planes. The only problem is that it's hard to survive long enough to get really good, but that's realistic, actually. The average life span of a WWI pilot was two weeks after reaching the front ...

Second Edition

Feh! Try to find a first edition if you can. (First edition has a very cloudy dogfight on the cover - the dominant colors are cream and tan. Second edition looks very blue, and probably says second edition on the back - I'm not sure, I sold my copy long ago.)

Second edition adds simple rules for altitude - you may have noticed I haven't mentioned altitude before this. While they're not bad rules, I don't think they improve the game all that much, to be honest - it works fine without them, and is a very direct and fun game. Altitude rules, even simple ones like these (there are only five levels), create unnecessary complications without adding much play value. You may disagree, of course - what's a plane game without altitude rules, you may ask. Well, you can try them, then. But, alas, they didn't integrate them into the rules - they just tacked them on at the end. This makes for a bumpy rules-reading experience - there are some uncomfortable gaps you have to fill in yourself later when you've read the whole rulebook. A shame - the first edition rulebook is actually quite clear.

Second edition also cheapened most of the components (fortunately not the plane pieces), and made the maneuver schedules somewhat confusing with a poorer layout. And, for reasons unclear to me, they changed some maneuver numbers on the maneuver schedules, but apparently forgot that some maneuvers are mentiond by number in the rules. If you do get second edition rules, anywhere it says "Maneuver 9" in the rules, it should, for that edition, say "Maneuver 8."

In addition, there are some typos - they left at least one maneuver off of at least one plane (Sopwith Camel), for example, and their altitude fire strength modifier is the inverse of what it should be. (The altitude modifiers should read -4, -3, -2, -1.) And, oh! Restricted Maneuvers are labelled "Non-Repeatable" on the maneuver schedules - not the same thing at all.

Hmm, I also see a note they left the Pfalz D.XII off the Aircraft Availability Chart. (Put it in June, 1918, if you have the game ...)

Bother. As far as I'm concerned the sum total of second edition is: a few more typos, slightly less clear tables, less attractive components, and unnecessary complexity in added altitude rules. Fortunately they didn't ruin any of the existing rules in first edition. Not a horrible game, by any means - just not as clean as the first edition.

But, to give them some credit: aside from the altitude rules (which really are okay despite my kvetching), second edition also added a few more campaign game rules, which can add enjoyment to the game ...

Miniatures Rules

Blue Max has also been published as a miniatures game. I own the rules, but they appear to be more complex than the board game. At least they give that impression - I haven't really even read them all the way through yet, though I've had them four years now. In short: no comment on the miniatures rules except that the presentation is a bit off-putting - I'm not really familiar enough with them to have an opinion. I have simply substituted WWI airplane miniatures for the counters, though, using the straight boardgame rules, and visually it works very well except when two planes occupy the same space ...

Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?

I don't know. I can't think of any real reason. I suppose you might prefer more complex rules. I suppose you might hate all wargames. I suppose you might simply have radically different taste from mine. Or perhaps you dislike games with simultaneous plotting of moves, prefering a more familiar "I go, you go" style. All are possible, and are the only things I can think of why you wouldn't like Blue Max.

Ah, you know, there is one thing missing from this game: scenarios. The only "scenario" is a meeting engagement. You could make it more interesting by having one team be on a photography mission, for example, and the other trying to stop them. Simply designate some spaces close to the far side of the board as photography targets (say, front-line trenches - use pennies), and one plane as carrying photographic equipment that must fly at speed 1 in a straight line over the target spaces to get good photos. He'd have fighter cover, of course ...

Likewise, strafing missions (a phrase which originated in this war), other reconnaissance missions, bombing missions, etc., could be easily set up. Or how about a rescue mission? A downed pilot has to be picked up - you'd have to use the altitude rules from second edition to land and take off, but that's actually a valid reason to introduce such rules.

Unfortunately, you'd have to make up such missions, and any specific rules concering them - or borrow rules and scenarios from other games, which do have such missions. Neither is too difficult, but their lack is a flaw of the game, to be honest.

Summing Up

I think this is a gem. I've tried lots of WWI airplane games, and this is by far the best - or, at least, the one that most closely matches my taste. I've talked a lot of people into playing it, and everyone who's tried it with me has had a blast. (However, I'm careful to give a beginner a better plane than I have as a balancing mechanism: my experience at the game versus their superior equipment.)

GDW is out of business, but you can still find copies occasionally. Even a second edition is worth getting if you can't find the first - it's not that bad a hack job, and you can make it playable from my comments above. This is a great game I've loved for 17 years now as I write this review. How many of my favorite games of this year will I still love 17 years from now? Only time will tell, and so far Blue Max is holding out very well.

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