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Friday 9 September 2022

Friday Filler: The Top Gun Strategy Game

The last time there was a board game based on the 1986 film, Top Gun, it was Top Gun: The Game of Modern Fighter Combat, published by FASA, also in 1986. It was a game of aerial combat which took the players from Pensacola: Flight School to Miramar: Top Gun School and pitched them into simulated battles between the fighters from the USA, the USSR, and other world powers of the late Cold war period. It even included rules for incorporating the game into FASA’s BattleTech universe and allowed players to field atmospheric fighters against aerospace fighters, although the technologies between the two differ greatly. The Top Gun Strategy Game is the second board game based on the 1986 film and it is a very different beast.

The Top Gun Strategy Game is designed by Prospero Hall, the collaborative game design studio responsible for games such as Horrified and Jaws. Both of which are fantastically thematic designs and highly playable adaptations of their source material. Published by Mixlore, the Top Gun Strategy Game is designed to be played two to four players, aged ten and up. It draws directly upon the film itself, but does not send the players into direct combat—only mock combat—and employs the same two-stage game play as seen in Jaws. The players take the roles of Team Maverick/Goose and Team Iceman/Slider, pilot and WSO or Weapons System Operator, respectively. In the first half of the game, the ‘Volleyball Phase’, the two teams face off against each other on the volleyball court. The team that beats the other gains self-confidence or intimidates the team, which grants them an advantage in the ‘Hop Phase’ when the two teams engage in an aerial dogfight in an attempt to acquire valuable target lock on their opponent and so secure a swift victory. The game play will switch back and forth between the ‘Volleyball Phase’ and the ‘Hop Phase’ until one team scores sufficient points to win.

The components for the ‘Volleyball Phase’ consist of nineteen Volleyball cards, a Volleyball token, and a Volleyball Net, the latter two items in thick card. The Volleyball cards are divided into two identical sets, the same for each team, a pink set for Maverick and Goose, and a blue set for Iceman and Slider. Each set is laid out face down as a three-by-three grid on each side of the Volleyball Net and consists of five card types. When revealed, the Set card and the Bump cards allow the player with control of the ball to move it orthogonally to another card and reveal it. This can be one of his own cards or his rival’s across the net. The Set card allows the ball to be moved one space and the Bump card one or two spaces. The Spike card enables the controlling player to place the ball on one of his opponent’s cards which is still face down. The aim for each team is to find and reveal its opponent’s Whiff cards. When this happens, the team who reveals this, can draw Pilot Tiles or WSO Cards which will provide an advantage in the ‘Hop Phase’. Each team has three Whiff cards and once a team has revealed all three of its opposing team, it wins the volleyball match. The winning team decides who will play as the Attacker and the Defender in the ‘Hop Phase’.

In addition, there is a fifth card type, the Bump Save card. Each team can use it once to prevent a face-down card from being revealed. It is instead used as a Bump. Overall, the ‘Volleyball Phase’ plays quickly and easily, and has the feel of a volleyball game.

The components for the ‘Hop Phase’ are more complex. Each team has a Cockpit Shield, a set of Pilot Tiles and WSO cards, and a plane. In addition, there is a Hop Board, six Hop Scenario cards, a set of Waypoint Tokens, Target Lock Tokens, green Pilot Tiles, green WSO cards, and a set of four dice. The Cockpit Shields are used to keep each Team’s decision hidden, whilst the Pilot Tiles are used to determine a plane’s movement. Each Pilot Tile consists of two joined hexes, one indicating the plane’s starting position and finishing position and direction, as a potential change of elevation. Each plane slots into a stand on which its elevation can be adjusted to one of four positions. Each WSO card shows a hex grid at the centre of which is marked a plane. In front of it are several numbered ‘Target lock Attack Hexes’, whilst behind it are several ‘Countermeasure Defence Hexes’, again numbered. Each WSO card in a team’s hand can only be played once unless the Retrieve card is played, which returns all played cards to a team’s hand, but prevents them from attacking or defending that turn. The Hop Board shows a seven by eight grid of hexes of the skies near TOPGUN, the Naval Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar. The Waypoint Tokens are placed on the Hop Board on spaces marked on the Hop Scenario cards. These are double-sided and as well as hexes indicating where the Waypoint Tokens are placed, each Hop Scenario card gives the starting position and elevation for each plane. The four dice are marked with blanks and Target Lock icons and are rolled when attempting a target lock. The green WSO cards and the green Pilot Tiles show different ‘Target lock Attack Hexes’ and ‘Countermeasure Defence Hexes’ and manoeuvres to the standard ones which each team starts play with.

To play, a Hop Scenario card is selected, and the Hop Board set according to its layout. Each team chooses two Pilot Tiles and a WSO card. The Pilot Tiles are played, the defending team moving first, followed by the attacking team. This will result in a change of position and potentially, elevation. The WSO cards are revealed and if a defending plane falls within the ‘Target lock Attack Hexes’ marked on the WSO card, the attacking team rolls a number of dice equal to the number on hex that the targeted plane is in. The number of dice can be reduced if the attacking plane is in the ‘Countermeasure Defence Hexes’ marked on the defending team’s WSO card. Being at a higher elevation will grant an extra die, or lose a die if at a lower elevation. If a Target Lock symbol on any of the dice is rolled, Target Lock is achieved, and the attacking receives a Target Lock token.

Play continues like this from turn to turn until one team achieves a Target Lock, the defending team has collected three of the Waypoint tokens, or either team manages to achieve the ‘Flipping the Bird’ manoeuvre as per the film. Once achieved, the ‘Hop Phase’ is over. At this point, if a team has scored a total of twelve or more points from achieving Target Locks and/or collecting Waypoint Tokens, it has won the game. If not, play switches back to the ‘Volleyball Phase’, then to the ‘Hop Phase’, and so on until one team wins.

Physically, the Top Gun Strategy Game reflects it low price. The cards are a bit thin and do need to be sleeved if the game is be played more than a few times. The Volleyball Net is difficult to set up and to be honest does not add that much to the game anyway. The planes and their stands with their poles for changing elevation are decently produced and although slightly fiddly to use, do add a lot to the game and give it a sense of space. The rules are easy to read and understand. One last issue is the choice of colours. Pink and blue neon. Which do give the game a singular look.

The Top Gun Strategy Game is two games in one. The ‘Volleyball Phase’ is a short, primarily luck-based mini-game whose game play will quickly pale in comparison to the complexities and options in the ‘Hop Phase’. It also does not really work as a game for more than two players as there are not enough decisions to be made in playing it, whereas the ‘Hop Phase’ actually works better with four players rather than two. With two players on each team, one can be the pilot and one the Weapons System Operator, responsible each turn for selecting the Pilot Tiles and WSO card respectively. This forces them to work together as shown in the film as attacker and defender attempt to out manoeuvre each other and line up the Target Lock needed to win each ‘Hop Phase’. The Waypoint Tokens add a tactical element too, as the defending plane races through them to collect them and the attacking plane chases, attempting to stop it from collecting too many whilst the remaining Waypoint Tokens predict where the defending plane might be headed.

The Top Gun Strategy Game is an odd game. An aerial combat game combined with a volleyball game and done in neon colours like the cover to an eighties’ computer game. Nor is it a ‘strategy’ game, but rather one that is tactical and that really only in the dogfights. The ‘Volleyball Phase’ does not add all that much to the play of the ‘Hop Phase’ and actually having to go back, set it up again and replay it soon becomes a chore, especially if there are four players, because it leaves a player on each team with little to really do. It is possible to alternate, but it does not really matter that much in what is a random phase anyway. Thankfully, the ‘Hop Phase’ offers actual decisions and a little deduction to work out the best Pilot Tiles and WSO card to use, and whilst the Hop Scenario cards add some variety in terms of set-up, it is not that much.

Ultimately, the Top Gun Strategy Game is a game for the fan of the film who does not mind playing the odd board game. For the regular board game player, there is not enough depth to the game to really want to replay it more than once or twice and it is certainly too light a game for devotees of aerial combat games. Prospero Hall has designed some excellent games, matching up mechanics with theme to create some excellent emulations of the films they draw from, but the Top Gun Strategy Game is not one of them. The best of the Prospero Hall designs do two things. One is to engage the players in the story of the film or source material, the second is to enable them to play and make that story their own, but the Top Gun Strategy Game only just achieves the first and never manages the second. If you feel the need for speed, then the Top Gun Strategy Game might be all you need, but there are definitely better and more fun air combat games available that do not require you to simulate a game of volleyball.

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