Enemy Coast Ahead is a solitaire game from GMT that was designed by Jerry White. It covers the planing and execution of operation Chastise, carried out by the RAF; more commonly known as The Dambusters Raid. Players methodically plan out every aspect of the Raid from start to finish, or can cherry pick certain aspects only in the scenario book. It tells a great story and it provides a compelling game experience, as well as being a beautiful product. Jerry White is also currently finishing up the follow up Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid, which is currently on the GMT p500 page.
Jerry was gracious enough to answer some questions about both games and give us an insight into what goes into the Enemy Coast Ahead series.
Alexander: Tell us all a little bit about yourself, who is Jerry White, and how did you get into the board game design scene?
Jerry: I studied architectural design at the University of Arizona, and after graduation I worked as an architect in Wisconsin and then in the San Francisco Bay Area, before going to grad school to get a doctorate in architecture history from Berkeley. (I should have just studied history from the start. But I had no idea you could make a living doing that. I know…pretty dumb.)
I haven’t practiced architecture for a zillion years, but my design training is still here. Design is design, regardless of what you’re designing. Maybe in that regard I am one of the few professionally trained designers in wargaming? Not sure that wins me a prize. But I approach game design in the same way I approach architectural design, concept comes first. In a building, the concept derives from the site and the program (the building’s intended function), and the design solution marries the two in an organic way. In wargame design, history and game play have to be brought together organically too.
Looking back now I suppose I started off as a game designer, not an architect. I was ten years old. My Dad gave me Victory in the Pacific by Avalon Hill, and I played that game so much the board split in two. Numbers on some counters are now so scuffed they’re impossible to read. Before I was eleven I used that game to design the Battle of Gettysburg (my true love is for the American Civil War). It didn’t work quite right because I couldn’t figure out how to get the armies to move. (Remember, I was using the Victory in the Pacific system. I know…not the smartest kid on the jungle gym.)
You can imagine my astonishment when my father brought home Avalon Hill’s game on Gettysburg. Woah – hexagons and movement factors!
I’ve been reading history books and playing history games since those days. Until I went to college. That’s when I fell in love with architecture, and then with my wife (don’t tell her which I put first), and between the two of them gaming flew out the window.
Alexander: Enemy Coast Ahead tackles the unique ‘dambusters’ raid of Operation Chastise. Walk us through the decision making process to pick this particular topic as the subject of a board game?
Jerry: Enemy Coast Ahead can be blamed on Mark Aasted. I met him at Hanford, in the scenic central valley of the Golden State of California. GMT Games has its warehouses there and hosts a bi-annual gaming weekend in the main warehouse itself. Pretty cool. Can’t remember what game we were playing but it was some random multi-player and Mark kept making bad jokes all night long. Turned out we lived in the same town and oh goody, this joker thought it’d be neat to meet up some time and play games back home. Well, he turned out to be okay (mostly). Actually, he turned out to be a really good designer. He’s got tons of game designs in varying states of completion. When he retires we’ll all be playing them. We gradually became best of friends drawn together by a common fascination for history, military conflict, the second world war, and most of all, game design. Not just games – game design. An animal unto itself.
How did Enemy Coast Ahead come about? I think it was 2010 or maybe 2011. There I was minding my own business walking my sixteen year old American Foxhound, when I received an email from Mark. He regularly pesters me with emails about designs he’s working on, or other related and often random topics.
“What about the dambuster raid?” he said. “Why hasn’t anybody done a game on that? Wouldn’t that make a good game?”
The clouds parted, scrolls unfurled, angels sang…and Shazaam!
Three months later I had notes. A couple months later I had a really bad prototype. A year later I had another really bad prototype. I brought it to Hanford but I didn’t have the guts to show it to Gene Billingsley, GMT Games’ head honcho and the master of ceremonies. I was afraid he would think it sucked. It did of course, and I knew it, but I didn’t want to hear it. I kept developing it until I had the confidence to show it to him. Can’t remember how long that was. I finally got the design to a stable point, and scrounging up the necessary courage, I got him to sit down and look at it. After an hour he yawned and said, “Is it ready?” I said, “More or less.” And there you have it, ECA’s glorious birth.
Alexander: What were some of the hardest aspects of the campaign to model within a game, and how did you overcome those challenges?
Jerry: What I really got jazzed about with Enemy Coast Ahead was the prospect of using the solitaire format to create a simulation. The solitaire format is a very different creature compared to the two player format. I don’t like most solitaire games because the designer usually takes a two player game, or a situation conducive to a two player game, and transforms one player into a robot. In other words, the A.I. in the game simulates a player making decisions as a player would, rather than using it to simulate something else. Military situations always involve a multitude of actors, so a two player game has to boil down that multitude so that each player represents a complexity of actors structured by a chain of command. Often that chain was not strong, especially under the stress and strain of events, but a player’s omniscient point of view creates a monolith that belies the complexity of historical reality. That monolith might be “the British player” or a “German player,” or whatever two “sides” the game organizes the situation by. The solitaire format is an opportunity to destabilize that monolith, as well as complicating a player’s omniscient point of view.
The dambuster raid is a lousy subject for a two player game because there is very little for a second player to do or think about. That raid was predicated on surprise and stealth, and treating it as a two player simulation would remove the most interesting and important aspect of that military event. By making it a solitaire game, I had the opportunity to foreground secrecy in the game experience. It allowed that game to be about surprising the Germans with an attack, and as the game unfolds, the player learns whether surprise was successful, or just partially successful, or a complete disaster. Had there been a player-opponent, how would I have gotten that player to “not know” he was about to be attacked? The very premise of the situation would have to be absent in the gaming experience, and that would have not done the event justice. It could have been a game, but it would have made for a terrible simulation.
I really think solitaire games as a sub-genre can be re-imagined by designers, and taken advantage of for their unique characteristics. There is so much that can be done with them, and one of my motives for publishing was to show what a different kind of solitaire game might look like. When you take away that other player, you fill the void with a story.
Alexander: For the bombing runs you opted to use a Chit-Pulling/exchange system. Why did you chose this mechanic and what does it offer than other systems might not?
Jerry: The Approach and Release Sequence, a process that happens when a Lancaster is in front of the target, came about by working through considerations of probability, cost, and story. The Approach chits are organized into two groups, one for speed the other for altitude, the two important concerns for RAF crews as they approached their target. Chits allowed for an easy way to control probability while allowing the player to understand how probability is changing. If you pull a speed chit that tells you your Lancaster’s velocity is too fast, the chances of pulling one closer to the ideal speed is now more likely if you draw again. That can simulate the pilot attempting to make an adjustment as the bomber careens towards the dam wall. It also quietly encourages the player to make another adjustment in the hopes of getting it right, or close enough to right.
Pulling chits is a way of creating randomness (I guess that’s obvious), and can be compared to drawing cards or rolling dice. These three comprise a basic repertoire. Dice are often coupled with the time honored CRT, or Combat Results Table. Every time you roll dice and refer to a CRT, no matter how many times you roll those dice, the CRT does not change, and thus, probability does not change. You have to use modifiers to change probability, and that means adding more rules. In contrast, probability does not remain stable when you draw a card from a deck, unless you ask the player to shuffle every time a card is drawn (and that would be insane). As each card is drawn and then placed in the discard pile, the probability is likely to change for subsequent card draws. I thought of using cards, because their size allows for other things to go on the cards which would have made for even more narrative, but cards are expensive. I was keen to limit the price of the game as much as possible. The same effect of shaping probability can be achieved with chit-pulling, but only if chits are drawn from a cup and kept out of that cup. If you put all of the chits back in, after drawing them, it’s like rolling dice. That is, you can get the same result a zillion times in a row, but not if you ask the player to keep one or more chits out of the cup. That action modifies probability for the next chit pull, which is a great tool for the designer.
Maybe that’s more answer than you wanted, but every decision is intertwined with other design decisions, concerns, and goals.
Alexander: Narrative is an extremely important part of solo games like Enemy Coast Ahead, how do you go about making a board game that also has depth from a story perspective?
Jerry: I’m glad you feel there is depth. That is gratifying. Depth of story comes from detail, although too much detail in a game can be horrible. Enemy Coast Ahead is complex, but that complexity was needed to overcome limited replay value. Originally the game was very short, and the release of ordnance against the target was handled with a quick toss of the dice.
I changed all that long before I showed it to Gene, because alpha testers were unanimous in telling me that it was anti-climactic. Mark Aasted in particular was adamant that there needed to be drama and suspense at the end, and it took me a while to realize he was right. I really don’t like overly complex games because they can be exhausting to play, but the consequence is that the immersive quality is heightened because it is easy for the player to “see” what is happening. That’s pretty cool, but it wasn’t a design goal initially, it came about as a means to counter the limited scope of the game, to expand that scope not by adding more missions, but by telling more story about the one mission depicted by the game.
That’s where the debriefing charts came about. At the end of each scenario, instead of telling the player “you won” or “you lost,” the outcomes are intended to contextualize the event in some way. Small scenarios only give a hint of that context. For example, there may be a note about empty chairs in the mess hall (because some crews did not survive). But the campaign game, Scenario 10, parses debriefing for each stakeholder, allowing context to ripple out into unexpected places. Did your mission inspire Winston Churchill to include it in his speech to the U.S. Congress, for example, thus triggering a standing ovation? It also was a way of sneaking in historical tidbits that flesh out the story of the military event. I think it helps blur the line between what is military and what is culture, a line that in reality is actually quite blurred.
I don’t expect purchasers of ECA to play every scenario, and I am not surprised if some folks buy it but never play it. That’s the fate of many complex games, but that does not mean failure. Some folks are collectors, but I think many folks, like me, can extract value from our purchase even if we never play the game. The debriefing charts and the set-up narratives in the Scenario Booklet can be perused independently of game play, and the many design notes in the rules also contribute to evoking the story. My goal was to present the “player” with the story of that night in May, and although full immersion won’t happen without actually playing, especially if you don’t play Scenario 10, but it can still happen to a lesser degree even without playing the game. I don’t think ECA is unique in that. Offering the non-player purchaser value was a design goal.
Alexander: Enemy Coast Ahead – The Doolittle Raid is a sequel that you’re currently working on and is available via p500 from GMT. What are some of the biggest mechanical differences that players will have to pick up compared to ECA?
Jerry: In the dambuster raid, the bombers were stationed at a base on land, but the Doolittle Raiders flew off the deck of an aircraft carrier as it steamed into harm’s way. That necessitates a Naval Segment, and in turn, that means asking the player to worry about ships. There is a Naval Map with Sea Areas, weather, and Sea Hazards. There is also a Task Force Layout where the player must arrange cruisers, destroyers, oilers, around his aircraft carriers. There is a slim chance of an attack by enemy submarines or aircraft, which is played out on that Layout, although the player’s decisions, especially during planning, influence that probability. As you can see, there are more hats for the player to wear.
Alexander: How would you describe the type of story that The Doolittle Raid tells [or at least can tell]? What kind of an experience should players be expecting to have?
Jerry: Unlike the dambuster raid where the game has a simple return to base mechanic, the Doolittle Raid has much to tell after the bombers land, and even the attempt to find a safe place to land is a story that was absent in the first game. When playing Scenario 10, planning will involve arranging for landings, and that may mean the player will coax Stalin to allow bombers to land in Vladivostok, or maybe the player faces unexpected opposition from China’s leader. The game’s story ripples out to include political considerations of this kind. At the end of the game, the player must get his bombers and crews to safety, and the parameters of that game within the game are established by the player during planning. There is a lot of story right there, not to mention finding out if the naval task force managed to return to Pearl Harbor without incident.
While the aftermath of the mission is more elaborately handled in the Doolittle Raid, the action over the target is not recreated with such slow motion detail as it is in the dambuster raid. There is less drama there than there is in trying to get your aircraft and crews to safety. There is greater potential for variety over the target, however, since it is possible to arrive either at night or during the day. Because of that, I took the target maps off the big map sheet and put them on their own 8.5 x 11 displays, each with a night side and a day side. If attacking during the day you will use one set of target hazards, but if attacking at night you will use the night set. No extra night rules to remember, you just have to remember to use the right components. I think that will help tell the story as well, and it certainly makes the game easier to play.
Alexander: What unique speed bumps have you come across in trying to recreate The Doolittle Raid, and do justice to the particular challenges the command, ground crews, and airmen faced?
Jerry: I’m happy to say that the speed bumps have been few and far between. Having established the basic system with the dambuster raid, this follow-up came together almost by itself. It’s been easy, and that makes me nervous.
Knowing how much detail to give to fuel and weather has been tricky. Those factors were absent in the first game, but here, decisions about fuel and the vagaries of wind and weather were important enough to foreground as central game features (in the dambuster game they are invisible, incorporated into the parameters of the design). Some aficionados will probably want more detail, but c’est la vie.
Alexander: With the success of the Enemy Coast Ahead series [I’m calling it that, even though it’s only two games so far!] Do you have plans to expand the series in the future, or do you have other design projects that you’d like to pursue that you can tell us about?
Jerry: I did not design ECA with the idea of a series in mind, but as I was nearing the end of that first project I started to think about other events that could be represented by its system. The Doolittle Raid was the first that came to mind, and the first raid on the oil refineries on the outskirts of Ploiesti also came to mind. As I read up on Ploiesti, I slowly developed notes for a two player game dealing with the long campaign to knock out Romania’s refineries from 1943 until the Soviets captured them in 1944, which will probably be on GMT’s P500 early next year. It has elements lifted from ECA but adapted to a two player game.
The next ECA game will probably be the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. That’s a fascinating subject with great potential for a very interesting planning segment where secrecy is vital. Only a solitaire treatment can really deliver the tension that Admiral Nagumo felt as his task force approached the target. It will be a solitaire game from the Japanese perspective, and will have a more elaborate planning segment than the Doolittle Raid.
Another project is up for preorder on GMT’s website, called Skies Above the Reich: Breaking the Combat Box. It has nothing to do with ECA although it too is a solitaire game. If you’ve played the old Avalon Hill classic, B-17: Queen of the Skies, you may get a kick out of this game because it reverses the player’s role and expands the scope of play. Mark Aasted is helping me with it.
The player has command of a staffel of Luftwaffe fighters and must attack not merely a single B-17, but a formation of them. His objective is to destroy as many as he can and the best way to do that is to knock some of them out of the formation so he can pounce on them one by one. Where ECA is complex, Skies Above the Reich is simple. It’s organized as a campaign game where a series of missions are played and the immersive quality is achieved by the player keeping track of the pilots in his staffel. Some may become aces, some will be wounded, and some will not survive. You can play a short campaign of only six missions, or if you are a glutton, you can play the entire war, hoping to keep your staffel intact. Short campaigns can be extended, so the range of play is flexible, which I think will have a positive effect on the game’s replay value.