Eagle Day: one more time with Churchill’s “few”

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Leisure reading about history makes me want to play wargames. This is what makes wargamers “wargamers,” as has been definitively proven in at least one scholarly journal article somewhere. I’m sure of it. Michael Korda’s With Wings Like Eagles, a fast-reading, intelligent history of the Battle of Britain published in 2009, got me thinking that I’d like to, you know, play some kind of Battle of Britain simulation. That’s how it always works. But which one? SPI’s Battle Over Britain? Haha, no. That’s what you think this is, right? Another excuse to explain why boardgames are better than computer wargames, and that everything totally sucks in computer game land? I’m sorry if I seem that predictable. But I did really want to get historically involved with the subject matter in some way, and thanks to my previous search through boxes of old games looking for Rails Across America, I knew exactly where my old Talonsoft games were. So pulling out Gary Grigsby’s Battle of Britain* wasn’t hard.

After the jump, what my RPG experience over Europe taught me about the Battle of Britain

It’s a surprisingly engaging game, if you can get past the fact that it’s almost impossible to get a sense for how many planes you have available, or how effective your squadrons are, or where a particular pilot is, and you can’t effectively give these units orders without clicking five times per individual mission. It’s very frustrating, and I seem to recall that when I reviewed this for Games Domain back in 1999, I had a lot more tolerance for repetitive clicking than I do now. Plus, there really hadn’t been a simulation like this before, and the very idea that you could play a computer game about the Battle of Britain that actually kind of simulated the Battle of Britain was, to me, a sort of culmination of (at that time) something like twenty years of game playing.

And you know what? After reading Michael Korda’s book, it sure does seem like the RAF and Luftwaffe both had a hard time figuring out a lot of things.

I’ve spent some time recently playing this game called Stone Age, which unfortunately is not a historically accurate simulation of Operation Stone Age, the Red Army offensive in 1942 to retake the high Caucasus. I just made that last part up, but you get the idea. It’s a themed Eurogame about putting your guys on exactly the correct resources to get some things and keeping your opponent(s) from getting some other things. Any resemblance to an actual Stone Age is completely coincidental. But the game itself is quite good.

One of the reasons that the game is so good is that there are multiple ways to win. As I said about Caylus many years ago, the tension between these different strategies and the way they unfold during your play time is one of the most important things about the game. In Stone Age, you can harvest resources and build huts, collect tech-like advances which become exponentially valuable as they accumulate, and grab multiplier cards to increase the value of your workers, farms, and tools, even as you have to balance growth and support. The lack of a single way to win, other than “get more points than the other guy”, is what keeps different avenues of play open.

I’m trying to imagine a way that a Battle of Britain game could have more than a single way to win. The whole point of the battle was to destroy the Royal Air Force so that the Luftwaffe could protect a cross-channel invasion of England (Operation Sealion). End of story. If you look at a map of England from 1940, or even a cardboard facsimile from 1986 with a bunch of lines and symbols and cardboard markers on it, it’s pretty obvious what you need to do to achieve this, at least after you read the rules and find out that it doesn’t make sense to bomb industrial targets: attack the airfields and destroy as many fighters as possible. Since all the main airfields are in the south to contest an invasion, that’s where you should attack. And attack. And keep attacking.

That doesn’t make the game very replayable, if you’re playing it for competitive interest. The Eurogame solution to this would be to simply make other victory conditions possible, but I can’t really see Hitler calling up Churchill and saying, “Okay, it’s the end of September and we successfully bombed Ipswich which was our secret objective while shooting down more fighters than we lost and keeping our bomber losses under 3:2, so surrender now please”.

But Battle of Britain, bless its little digital heart, tries. Part of this is based on historical factors that might have made sense at the time, but were shown to be miscalculations, misunderstandings, or just plain wrong.

There are three ways to earn points in the game: air superiority, industry, and terror. Shooting down enemy aircraft and damaging airfield communications and service areas (as opposed to runways) scores air superiority points. This is what the Battle of Britain was all about, and the reason an optimally played game about it has little replay value.

Damaging factories scores industry points. This makes sense for aircraft factories only, since Britain was not effectively blockaded and industrial damage that didn’t limit fighter production was unlikely to have any effect on the short timescale necessary for Sealion. And bombing urban areas scores terror points. It’s this last category which I find most problematic.

Steven Bungay’s The Most Dangerous Enemy, written a decade ago and probably the definitive English language account of the battle (my opinion), points out that while the idea of terror bombing in hindsight was a terrible idea, it took trying it out to learn that lesson.

We live in a world today in which we know that not only London can take it, but that Berlin and Tokyo and Leningrad and Hanoi and every other city subjected to bombardment from the air can take it. In the 1930s there was a widespread belief that civilians subject to air attack would panic.

Furthermore, due to political factors that are well beyond the scope of this article and most definitely the game itself, this panic could, in a fever of wishful thinking, have ushered in a ceasefire with Germany. Bungay elaborates.

It was possible that at any time if they began to lose the air war, the peace lobby in the British government would gain the upper hand and negotiate. Air power was still an unknown factor. After Warsaw was bombed, the Poles capitulated. After Rotterdam was bombed the Dutch capitulated. The threat of bombing helped the French to make up their minds to evacuate Paris. Might not the bombing of London create such unrest that the government would be forced to come round?

Of course, Warsaw, Rotterdam, and Paris were in danger of capture by land, which is something London never was. They capitulated because the Polish and Dutch and French armies had already been defeated. Bungay is simply providing context for contemporary beliefs. But from a gaming standpoint, it’s a classic example of being hamstrung by historical realities that proved to be erroneous. Fortunately, there’s a whole other aspect of Battle of Britain that changes the equation.

Greg Costikyan made a lot of observations on randomness in his excellent presentation for GDC 2009, and in passing mentioned B-17: Queen of the Skies, a solitaire game from Avalon Hill about flying a B-17 on bombing missions over Germany. You would choose a target, move the aircraft from zone to zone, and in each zone you’d roll for fighters, and then try to shoot them down (or at least fend them off) and get to the target, and then get back again. There were some decisions to make, but not many: you chose which guns to fire, which basically meant all the ones that could fire, and you’d move crewmembers around when they got wounded, and decide how best to man the guns. But for the most part, you just reacted to the die rolls.

I have the original home-published On Target Games version (pictured above), before Avalon Hill picked it up, and I’m going to tell you a story about it that will shock you, and here it is: when I was in high school, the play-by-mail (that’s postal mail) club of which I am still a member organized a game whereby twelve of us formed a B-17 squadron, and a gamemaster then chose a target and resolved combat against us in such a way that we were able to use our gunners to shoot at planes attacking other bombers in our squadron. B-17 is a solitaire game, but we devised house rules for formation effects on line-of-sight, range effects within the bomber formation, and everything. That is, again, by postal mail, where I assign my gunners and then I might find out the results a month later. Absolutely not kidding.

By Greg Costikyan’s standards, that’s bad gameplay. As a strategy gamer, I agree. Almost all decisions are forced upon you, and the choices you have aren’t so much choices as mandated actions. The variations in outcome are almost solely due to the random results of die rolls. Which would be a terrible strategy game design, if B-17 were a strategy game. But it’s not. It’s a historical role-playing game.

In case you were wondering how many B-17s flew in the Battle of Britain, the answer is zero. Which might also be the degree to which you think this has to do with Michael Korda’s book, or Gary Grigsby’s game. But coming back to Battle of Britain after twelve years and four paragraphs, it’s shocking how appropriate this comparison is. The whole point of B-17 was taking a crew through 25 missions, after which aviators were rotated back to the USA. Of course, as you played the game, you got attached to the characters, especially as they survived mission after mission. They racked up kills. The bombardiers got better at bombing. And when you look at Battle of Britain, it’s the same thing. Your squadrons rack up kills, get fatigued, and lose pilots (characters), all as you try to fend off the orcs. And it’s in real time, so you know it’s realistic!

In my review and subsequent game diary about War in the East, I made the point that while the game tracks a lot of details about your units, most of them aren’t required to play the game well. Battle of Britain is the exact opposite: the details are integral to the game, and mastering them is a prerequisite to playing it well. But unlike detail-obsessed Grigsby designs like War in the Pacific, those details are more than that: they’re really the game itself, and following them constitutes the pleasure of playing.

Which isn’t to say that it has to be that way. Some games take a different approach entirely. In fact, the Battle of Britain has a history of solitaire games (along the lines of B-17) because it’s easy or narratively convenient to construct the German raids as “the system” while you as the player strive to thwart them. The best one, in no contest really, is R.A.F., by West End Games (producers of Paranoia) and released in 1986.** I own it, and fortunately there is a nice VASSAL module available which will let me take screenshots of the game in progress. It occurred to me that I could just play these games in tandem. So I did.

One game I’d love to add to the mix, but don’t feel I could do justice to right now, is Rowan’s Battle of Britain, which happened to be in the same big cardboard box as Gary Grigsby’s game. Both were published by Talonsoft, but Rowan’s game is a flight sim with a dynamic campaign that you can play as the overall commander from either side almost exactly like Grigsby’s game. I haven’t played a flight sim in a long time, though. I’m not sure where my joysticks are. Or if they even work with my current setup — it has been a while since I pulled out the Thrustmaster and flight pedals. Some other time, then.

Coincidentally, talking about discoveries, two other games I found in the same box (although a different box the one above) while I was going through old games are Alan R. Moon’s Elfenroads (a game about roads) and SPI’s Highway to the Reich (a game about kind of a road). Maybe for my next diary I’ll do a comparison of those. After all, Alan Moon used to work for Avalon Hill.

I have a few game diaries written about this stuff. They’re done, so there is no danger of my being too busy to finish. They’ll be posted daily for the next week or so. If you’ve read my previous game diaries, there might be some historical quotes, and game design comments, and general off-topic wargame squirrelyness. So be warned.

In a way, I guess this will be about how great boardgames are, after all. You people are so gullible. Or I really am so predictable.

Next time: the Stone Curve in theory and practice

*I originally played (and reviewed) Battle of Britain (by Gary Grigsby and Keith Brors) back in 1999, published at that time by Talonsoft. I still have that copy, and at first that was what I pulled out when I wanted to scratch this particular Touching History(tm) itch. But in the middle of this, I got a completely new gaming computer, on which I installed Windows 7. And Battle of Britain doesn’t run under Windows 7. It won’t even install. My solution was to get a copy of Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich, Matrix Games’ combined re-release of Battle of Britain and Twelve O’Clock High (Grigsby’s spiritual successor to his classic USAAF). It runs just fine in Windows 7, and is available from Matrix for $49.99. My thanks to Matrix Games for providing me with a copy of Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich so I could write this game diary.

**Decision Games (who own the rights to most SPI titles) released a new version of R.A.F. in 2009 as RAF: The Battle of Britain 1940. This included a complete graphic update, a rules overhaul, and the inclusion of a German solitaire campaign as well as a two-player version. It is currently available from Decision Games for a list price of $75. A VASSAL module is also available. While I did break down and buy this, the original version has a lot of sentimental value to me, so I’ll stick with it for this diary.

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