Games Workshop is adding considerably to the global population of tiny plastic spaceships with Aeronautica Imperialis: Wrath of Angels. This latest version of its tactical combat game includes aircraft piloted by both Space Marines and Eldar — but how does it stack up against its biggest competitors? Polygon put an early copy on the table to find out.
The dogfighting genre has been dominated for the last 10 years by Star Wars X-Wing. Drop into your local game store and you’ll likely find an entire wall covered with a selection of its beautiful pre-painted miniatures. After a second edition reboot, the nearly decade-old franchise is still quite popular, but it’s not without its shortcomings.
Star Wars X-Wing is, for all intents and purposes, the hero shooter of dogfighting games. Every ship on the table has its optimal variation, usually built around stunt weapons or elite pilots who can break the rules in the most interesting ways. With three to six ships on the table, it’s an absolute blast. Scale that up beyond just a handful of models, however, and you end up with something truly chaotic — like a 64-player version of Overwatch.
Aeronautica Imperialis, on the other hand, presents its ships as much more work-a-day vessels. They’ve got some tricks up their sleeves, to be sure, but not in the form of exotic mines or Force-sensitive pilots. To fly them you’ll actually need a fair bit of skill to keep from crashing.
Even though Aeronautica Imperialis models terrestrial aircraft — not spaceships — the game is still much more dynamic than X-Wing. That’s because ships aren’t locked to a two-dimensional plane. There are five levels of altitude in the game, and players must be within a few levels of each other to land a hit.
Additionally, Aeronautica Imperialis simulates using a throttle to speed up or slow down your aircraft. Each of the different ships in the game has a set throttle number, meaning that it can only accelerate or decelerate so much every turn. Ships also have a maximum and a minimum speed. Go too fast and you’ll break up mid-flight — go too slow and you’ll stall and potentially auger in.
The use of a simulated throttle and altitude reminds me quite a bit of Battlestar Galactica: Starship Battles, an out-of-print gem published in 2018 by Ares Games. That game also simulated both momentum and inertia, allowing players to fly in one direction while facing in another. Aeronautica Imperialis abstracts that concept quite a bit, relying instead on a set of eight “ace maneuvers” that ships can pull off each turn. The wrinkle is that not all these ships share the same ace maneuvers, setting up a highly asymmetrical little wargame. This also gives each of the game’s factions their own thematic feel.
As a result of its rules complexity, Aeronautica Imperialis is a crunchy little miniatures game. But because it lacks the exotic powers of a game like X-Wing, there’s no uber-abilies to throw off the balance or steal the objective at the last moment. That allows it to scale incredibly well. You can have a fun, fast game with just a handful of ships in under 45 minutes. Alternately, you can fill a table with four players, get a dozen or more ships on each side, and spend the whole afternoon going at it. The abstracted rules also make it easy to pick up and play with a new faction without much practice.
Wrath of Angels comes with 11 aircraft, including two different models for each of its two different factions. The Adeptus Astartes come equipped with the venerable Xiphon interceptor and the massive Storm Eagle transport gunship, both of which are built like flying tanks. Meanwhile the Asuryani Eldar get the Nightwing fighter and the Phoenix bomber, both of which can literally fly circles around the stodgy Space Marines.
Overall, the quality of the models inside the box is impressive. There are multiple options for building three of the four, and the Nightwing models even feature movable wings that fold back to represent their silhouette while in supersonic flight. The models will even stay firmly attached to their bases without any glue, meaning you can bank them left and right during gameplay to demonstrate their attitude in flight. Also, after spending weeks working on a single vehicle for the full-scale version of Warhammer 40,000, it’s a real treat to spend roughly the same amount of time and end up with two full squadrons of tiny ships instead.
If you’re looking for a new 40K franchise to get invested in, or just want to spend a little time assembling and painting some satisfying little miniatures, Aeronautica Imperialis: Wrath of Angels comes highly recommended. You can also find slightly older sets of the game, with similar rules and different factions to get started with. Aeronautica Imperialis: Wings of Vengeance includes Astra Militarum and Ork factions, while Aeronautica Imperialis: Skies of Fire features Astra Militarum and T’au.
Aeronautica Imperialis: Wrath of Angels was reviewed with a retail version provided by Games Workshop. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.