The Flare Path: Infinite Horace R.I.P.

Glen Frank’s B-17: Queen of the Skies has been mesmerising board wargamers for more than thirty years. A recreation of the USAF’s early Flying Fortress forays over Europe intended for solitaire play, it breaks one of the golden rules of strategy game design by depriving its players of almost all agency. You don’t think your way through a multi-mission B17QotS tour, you dice your way through. The approach shouldn’t work yet does. It succeeds because the tumbling bones invariably weave exciting stories, and the sense of powerlessness is actually chillingly appropriate. Although crew skill and teamwork improved the chances of a B-17 getting back to Blighty in late 1942, they guaranteed absolutely nothing.

Thanks to VASSAL and the now widely distributed original rulebook, any wargamer with the patience to navigate its labyrinth of colour-coded tables, can orchestrate their own B17QotS campaign relatively easily. In my latest bid for a War Bond tour (survive 25 missions and, like Memphis Belle and her crew, you get to go back to the States) I’ve been biting my nails while ‘Infinite Horace’ and his pilots and gunners braved flak and fighters over occupied Europe. The nailbiting ended yesterday in a manner that I think warrants a Flare Path.

This is the story of Infinite Horace’s eleventh and final combat mission.

With the exception of radio operator J. Rossignol – a replacement for R. Cobbett killed by an Me 109 during Mission 8, a raid on Rouen – the ten-strong crew that clambers aboard the heavily patched Infinite Horace on the morning of Nov 27th, 1942 is identical to the crew that clambered aboard the brand new Infinite Horace on October 7th, 1942.

In the weeks that have passed since that literal baptism of fire over Abbeville, Capt. Walker’s band of sheepskin-sheathed air warriors have faced death on numerous occasions. A. O’Connor (starboard waist gunner) G. Smith (navigator/cheek gunner) and A. Meer (co-pilot) have all been wounded in the line of duty, and beside the nine bomb icons painted on his nose (Mission 4 was aborted due to a heating failure) Horace now proudly wears six fighter silhouettes.

Today Horace must travel further than he’s ever travelled before. The railyard at Rennes is in ‘Zone 5’ just beyond the limits of friendly fighter support.

Any nervousness is quickly dispelled by impressive gunnery over the Channel. A lone screen-penetrating Focke-Wulf (two other Fw 190s were driven off by escorts) is plucked from the blue by ball turret gunner B. Caldwell. Brendy is now Horace’s top scorer with three kills.

Towering thunderheads hide the Cotentin Peninsula making for a bumpy, bandit-free transit of Zone 3. In Zone 4 escort fighters keep two Fw 190s at bay. A third bandit abandons his attacks in the teeth of accurate defensive fire from port waist gunner P. ‘Pip’ Warr.

Things only start going wrong – badly wrong – in Zone 5.

Moments after Horace wing-waggles goodbye to his little friends, he’s set upon by three waves of Luftwaffe thugs. The first, comprising two Fw 190s, an Me 109 and an Me 110, attack from 12 o’clock, 1.30 and 6 simultaneously. While I’m busy wounding the Zerstörer with my twin tail guns  (unnerved it peels away) bombardier Adam is frantically peppering a descending Fw 190 with his nose Browning.

His aim is good but the diving bandit’s is better. Infinite Horace shivers as shells shatter his transparent nose and ravage his rear fuselage. Graham, manning one of the cheek guns, is killed instantly. Adam is seriously wounded. At the back of the plane a punctured Pip subsides onto a mound of warm brass, as a lightly wounded Alice hurls lead and curses at the departing angel of death.

My God.

And there’s still two more waves to come.

Wave 2 is even more formidable than the first. Five swastika-emblazoned cloud cleavers beeline for the blood-spattered Horace while the surviving turret gunners attempt, unsuccessfully, to deter them. The nose is mercilessly raked for a second time, shells destroying the Norden bombsight and bomb release panel. Bullet holes march across the port wing and – oh no – enter the flight deck.

I stare in disbelief at the six that means Captain Walker is no more. The six that means the lightly wounded co-pilot Captain Meer must take over.

The next dice flurry brings yet more bad news. An Fw 190 high on the starboard beam scores hits as does one approaching from the port side and one snapping at our tail. Jim in his radio nook is grievously wounded (no more signals from Tölva?). The rudder is damaged. I’m bleeding. Control cables in the tail are u/s. The oxygen system is kaput. There’s a fire amidships… Infinite Horace is awash with claret and calamity.

The third wave should finish us off. Luck and some determined gunnery from Alex Wiltshire in the top turret, ensures it does not but can’t save us from the steadily thickening flak bursts. As we drop out of formation and turn for home, shards of razor-sharp shrapnel finish-off Adam and render the tail turret and its inhabitant (me) useless.

Scenting blood, four Me 109s pounce on the straggling, savaged Horace as he attempts to flee Zone 5. The only defensive armaments able to engage the sky wolves as they close are Alice’s waist MG and Alex’s top turret. Alex nails one, but it’s a fast-forgotten victory. The lunging Messerschmitts fatally perforate the prostrate Pip, kibosh Brendy’s ball turret, mangle the port aileron and elevator, and cause superficial damage just about everywhere else.

Somehow through all this the wounded Alec manages to keep Infinite Horace in the air. We survive some half-hearted harassment in Zone 4, Alex adding a third Me 109 to his career tally. We weather storm clouds in Zone 3 and, with help from friendly fighters, an interception over the Channel. A few turns after the living hell that was Rennes and Zone 5, poor, mauled Horace rustles the ancient oaks that sentinel RAF Archbury’s southern edge and, with a squeal of rubber and a puff of smoke, alights for the very last time.

There’s a shell hole where the first two letters of Infinite Horace’s name used to be. ‘Irreparably damaged’ he won’t fly again. What happens to the five fliers that survived his final mission (Sadly, Jim died of his wounds shortly after we got back) is up to me. As I’ve already severely compromised Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s ability to deliver top-notch games writing, I’m really not sure I should risk completely devastating the site by using Alec, Alice, Brendan, and Alex on future B17QotS jaunts. Any volunteers for my next tour? Infinite Horace II currently needs a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, engineer, radio operator, ball turret gunner and two waist gunners.

*       *       *

This way to the foxer

From this site

46 Comments

  1. Shiloh says:

    Count me in, Flt Sgt Stone. My grandfather flew Lancs for real in the war, but I’ll happily swap British hardware for American, so if you care to move cockpit-wards a wee bit, I’ve always fancied having a go at being a tail-end Charlie.

    • vyshka says:

      I’m pretty sure there is a variant somewhere for flying Lancasters. There also is a variant for flying out of Italy later in the war as well.

  2. damaki says:

    It looks and feels so much like The Hunters andSilent Victory. Both are dicey, tight solitaire games, but even with so much randomness, these games make you feel the impacts of your decisions. These are cardboard solitary games, but you really feel the tension when deep charges are thrown and you (mentally) zigzag through them, mostly by sheer luck.
    It could surely be simulated on a computer, but IMHO it would either feel empty or overly complicated.

    • Anvilfolk says:

      I’ve got Silent Victory, but I couldn’t get a connection with the crew… Only the captain is named, IIRC, and none of the others really get any rolls that you can associate with them to create stories worth remembering.

      Sub damage also didn’t feel as detailed or lively, so it was hard for me to create an attachment to the sub as well.

      I wanted a physical copy of a game like B17, but was rather disappointed, unfortunately 😔

      • damaki says:

        I felt the same about the crew; they are a bunch of nobodies.
        But not about the sub damage. While it is not especially detailed, having a partially damage sub forces you to work around its limitations, it felt distressing.

      • Jason Lefkowitz says:

        It’s possible to track down physical copies of B-17: Queen of the Skies via eBay — I picked up one myself that way a few years back. New-in-box copies can be pricey, but if you’re willing to live with a used copy, prices aren’t that bad; IIRC I got mine for around USD$25.

    • Behrditz says:

      If you had to suggest one of those, which would it be and why (in comparison to the other.) I have a lot of sub video games, but a solo board game might be nice. I like tactile things.

  3. JFS says:

    Martin Kramer reporting for duty at whichever position is needed. Well maybe I’m not engineer material :)

    Also, a great foxer! Keep it up!

  4. Gothnak says:

    My Grandad was a conscientious objector (got into a decent amount of trouble for that at the time), so i’d be happy to be the navigator or radio ops, technically trying to ensure we get home ok rather than doing the killing.

  5. Lord Byte says:

    Ensign Jonathan Delahaye, I’ll be your ball gunner!

  6. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    My great uncle was a navigator on Lancasters (including some time in 617 sqn no less!) so sign me up for that spot.

  7. Premium User Badge

    bsplines says:

    I am actually an aerospace engineer, though I am afraid my (limited) practical experience is more geared towards jet engines.

    The game sounds rather exciting as well. I ‘ll be sure to give it a go.

    • unacom says:

      You do know that you have just been volunteered to the flight engineer seat?

      • Premium User Badge

        bsplines says:

        It’s not like anything bad is going to happen, right? Right?

        On a more serious note, didn’t the bomber crews have something like a 40-45% casualty rate? I can’t imagine ever bringing myself to volunteer for something like this in WW2.

  8. Rorschach617 says:

    Ted Rorschach jumped off the back of the truck with his flying jacket tucked under his arm. Maybe he would be assigned to a new aircrew at this base. Maybe not. Rear echelon was always screwing up. He didn’t mind where he ended up, he knew that he was just more meat for the grinder.

    Which is why he took to referring to himself in the third person all the time. If he survived this war, he would go back to New York and open that Private Investigations office he dreamed about. He thought of rain, skyscrapers and dames that would do him wrong.

    tl:dr, Ted Rorschach reporting for flight duty.

  9. JB says:

    Chief Cook & Bottle Washer John “JB” Barton, reporting for duty. I’m used to piloting a big old vehicle (my everyday runabout -> link to i.imgur.com ) so I’m happy to sit up front!

    Thanks for the great article, Tim. What a great adventure that turned out to be for the RPS crew. Well, about half of them…

    I have often wondered about getting hold of a copy of B17QotS, and hadn’t even though about giving it a go via VASSAL (despite recently becoming a regular COIN gamer using VASSAL!).

    • Shiloh says:

      I’m a bit of a COIN fan myself as it happens. Have you got the LWOTAI software for Labyrinth? Makes solo play a snap on VASSAL, calculates all that minor jihad stuff etc. for you without your having to work through the flowcharts. One or two things you have to track yourself (putting ops points into reserves is one, off the top of my head), but it’s a great little piece of software.

      • JB says:

        I haven’t seen the LWOTAI software, no! We’ve been playing 4-player, but the possibility of relatively easy solo is intriguing. Thanks for the tip =)

  10. Eightball says:

    Wow, that brings back memories – not of The War of course, but of mucking around with Flying Fortress when I was too young to fully comprehend board games. If you still need another body, E. Ball is reporting for duty.

  11. Mr Bismarck says:

    There’s also a good version of this on Tabletop simulator.

  12. Someoldguy says:

    I can recall spending tense summer afternoons trying to get a crew to the magic 25. It took a lot of attempts but it made the final achievement all the sweeter.

    Looks like you’ve got enough flight crew. I’ll stick around with the ground crew and help reload the bomb bay, patch bullet holes and mop up the blood.

  13. unacom says:

    Paul “unacom” Mocanu, engineer, gunner (pretty handy with a machinegun). Hailing from the countries of the opposition. However, I´m told, many immigrants gave something back to Lady Liberty who took them in. -At your service!

  14. Snowskeeper says:

    I’m Canadian; that makes me perfect cannon fodder. Sign me up! I can do things with guns and wrenches and bits of the sky.

  15. Haplo says:

    Patrick “Haplo” Knipe at your service- you put me wherever I’m needed, boss.

  16. Shiloh says:

    Well, that was fun… just played through the first mission on VASSAL, drew the fighter airfield at St Omer out of the hat for our first raid.

    “Lucky Lou” and her plucky crew of 10 hit the target with 40% of her payload, and made it there and back without the Luftwaffe drawing a single bead on us.

    I suspect subsequent missions might not be so easy.

  17. Stugle says:

    Wow.

    I was going to say this was some of the best writing I’ve read all week, but I realize that’s not true.

    It’s the best, without further qualification. A masterly told tale with fantastic prose. And a wonderful selection of illustrations to go with it. I had a lot of fun reading this, thank you for sharing this gem.

    I see I’m way late to the meatgrinder party, but if (hah, “if”? That should be “when”) you need replacements, I’m happy to volunteer for one of the waist gunner positions. Thought about the ball turret, but simply looking at the image of one makes me claustrophobic.

    • Tim Stone says:

      Morale +1. Thanks.

    • cardboardcity says:

      Agree. Tim’s writing is always superb. I read them all even if I probably won’t play the game. Not a good “games writer,” but a good writer, period.

  18. hfm says:

    If you’re interested in QotS and you haven’t watched Stuka Joe’s playthrough YouTube series you owe it to yourself to check it out.

  19. Jason Lefkowitz says:

    Ohhh, this brings back memories! When I was a kid my best friend had this game, and both of us being little airplane nerds we played the heck out of it.

    I remember lots of emergent stories like the one above, spinning out of every game. And I also remember how chilling it was when I realized just how unlikely any crew was to survive long enough to reach the 25-mission mark — and the new, grim light that cast over the WW2 history books I liked to devour. That game taught me a more visceral lesson in what war really means than any of those books had managed to.

  20. damaki says:

    Overpriced but neat, an Amazon Kindle edition. If you got a way to remove the DRMs, you can print it yourself.

    • damaki says:

      Sorry, forget that, it is just a shady scan of the rulebook.

  21. RoboTesla says:

    My Granddad rode the ball turret in two 17s out of North Africa (War Eagle and Torrid Zone) so Sgt. E. Langlois would be happy to sign on with the remaining crew of Infinite Horace.

    PS: First time commenting, but I always look forward to The Flare Path.

  22. Arglebargle says:

    My father flew B-24s in the Pacific as pilot and co-pilot. Longer range missions, more bomb load, but nowhere near as tough as the Flying Fortress.

    His plane, ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, quickly got the reputation of being a ‘lucky’ ride, and folks with only a mission or two to go would try to hop on. They knew this for a fact, because his unit, the Long Rangers – 307th Heavy Bombardment Group, counted bullet holes in planes after every mission. The aircrew with the highest number in a month got R&R in Australia. His plane never showed a single bullet hole throughout its tenure.

  23. Leafy Twigs says:

    My immediate family was lucky enough to avoid war. Dad managed to skillfully dodge the Vietnam draft, and survived to vote for every pro-war candidate he could. A supreme irony, but one which was lost on him.

    But there’s one I’d like to put up for your consideration. My great-great Uncle served with the US Army in Northern Mexico during the Mexican War. He really didn’t like war. He really hated the army. One night, he snuck out with a couple of his buddies and went to a village behind enemy lines. Flirting with the local girls and got drunk. Some Mexican soldiers came into town to investigate the rumor of American soldiers being present. The girls apparently liked him since they took him to a barn and hid him under some hay. Soldiers came into the bar, even stuck a pitchfork into his haystack, but left empty-handed. He got back to his unit the next morning, someone yelled at him, and they all went home not too long after.

    Spent some quiet years in northern Arkansas on his farm. War came again. He reluctantly picked up his gun and joined with the Confederates. Fought at the battle of Pea Ridge. Received a permanent limp from a Union minie ball. As he would say later, “I am finished with this nonsense”, and he went back home to recuperate. After the war, he made his way to Chicago. Was a butcher until he retired, and lived to be 98. He told my great-grandmother these stories when she was small, and that’s how I know them now.

    If you need an sometimes drunken young redneck, with an occasional tendency to go AWOL when he thinks he can get away with it, and who says “Aw fuck. Not this shit again” before every mission, then please include John Ashbrook on your roster.

  24. Rituro says:

    I have no war history to speak of in real life but I will gladly offer my digital self as an RCAF cadet! If you need a full name instead of a screenname, feel free to use my Football Manager alias, “Jammal Wood”.

  25. thecaptain says:

    I was curious if there was a reprint of B17QoS in the works after reading this fine Flare Path. It turns out there’s no straight reprint, but there’s an “advanced update” called Target for Today that uses the same system and is being produced by Legion Wargames (link to boardgamegeek.com), which is currently up for preorder. For those who prefer cardboard to electronic cardboard (VASSAL/TTS), this could be up your alley.

    • worst2first says:

      Steve Dixon designed Target for Today. He has designed several other solitaire wargames including B-29 Superfortress, Hell Over Korea (an expansion for B-29), and Picket Duty (Kamikaze Attacks against US Destroyers). He has a nice selection of extras at link to stevenkdixon.com for his games and B-17 QotS including the Lancaster and B-24 variants.

  26. wodin says:

    I have a PC Emulator of B17 if anyone fancies it:)

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    Solrax says:

    Another gripping Flare Path by Tim Stone! Loved it. These make me look forward to Fridays almost as much as having the next day off!

  28. WladTapas says:

    I was already interested in the game before, but after reading this I asked around if anyone has a copy for sale. Someone’s friend did. I am about to be 55 € poorer. Well done, Tim!

    I implore everyone, do not make the mistake I did and join the Solitaire Wargames group on Facebook. It can get expensive fast.

  29. jgf1123 says:

    I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been shot, bled out, froze, or suffocated in a paper B-17. Or simply blown up in mid-air because a bullet found the bomb bay.