In our January edition of Wargame Watch, we highlighted a new pre-order game from Compass Games called Nightfighter Ace: Air Defense Over Germany, 1943-1944 designed by Gregory M. Smith. Yes that Greg Smith, who has designed such great solitaire games as Silent Victory: US Submarines in the Pacific, 1944-1945, The Hunters: German U-Boats at War, 1939-1943 and The Hunted: Twilight of the U-Boats, 1943-1945. I love games covering the airwar during World War II and this is a fantastic looking solitaire treatment of the German side of nightfighting during 1943-1944 as they fought off the relentless bombing efforts of British Bomber Command. This game looks very intriguing as it focuses on the narrative of the pilots and their crews and gives them options for promotions, medals, new skills and the ability to use new and improved nightfighters as they grow in skill and prestige. This game looks awesome, so I reached out to Greg who was more than willing to share his thoughts on the game with us.
Grant: Thanks for agreeing to our interview and taking time out of your very busy schedule. Who is Greg Smith? What do you do for a living? How did you get into board game design?
Greg: I’m a retired Major from the US Army, with 20 years of active duty including two combat tours in Iraq. I actually worked for HPS Simulations doing computer wargames in the 1990s and early 2000s, which is how I got into the game design business. One of my main series I assisted with there was the Panzer Campaign series. I left HPS to go back to Iraq, and when I returned, I thought it might be fun to try the paper design side of the industry. Currently game design is my day job, so I consider myself lucky in that regard.
Grant: How did you come to partner up with Joe Gandara on this design? Have you worked together in the past? What special skills does he have that have made the process smoother?
Greg: Joe Gandara is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel. He and I met at Consimworld Expo many years ago, and he actually assisted with The Hunters during its development. We got together a few times and ran some tests of the early versions of Nightfighter Ace and I felt he added enough content to the development that he deserved to be on the credits. Joe and I, for whatever strange reason, seem to have one of those special relationships where we understand and trust each other’s views and listen to each other. It’s just been synergistic working with him…and fun. He’s been a wargamer forever, as have I, so when he tells me something’s amiss, I tend to listen.
Grant: What is your design philosophy? How do you go about integrating theme into your games?
Greg: Well, my primary design philosophy is simple: It’s got to be playable. To me, a game is a success if 98% of the copies you see have counters with worn and rounded edges. Something that’s super pretty and never gets played because it’s too tedious….well, what’s the point in that? A good game design, in my mind, can condense a situation, focus on what’s important, and abstract out details that matter, but the player shouldn’t have to mess with. Notice I didn’t say ignore them….but abstract them out logically. Another really important part of design, I feel, is historical accuracy. Players deserve it, and really that’s how theme is best integrated into the game. Finally, and obviously, players should have to make as many decisions as possible, and hopefully, some of them are agonizing. 🙂
“To me, a game is a success if 98% of the copies you see have counters with worn and rounded edges. Something that’s super pretty and never gets played because it’s too tedious….well, what’s the point in that?”
Grant: What is most important to include in a solitaire tactical level game covering the air war over Europe in World War II?
Greg: Not sure I can answer this, but notice, Nightfighter Ace is only about nightfighting during 1943-44. So, perhaps the answer is, “limit the scope of the game to what is logical to portray.” If this was a solitaire game about all air combat in WW2 in Europe it would be insane. I think the important thing, though, to try to answer the spirit of the question, is to make the player feel like he’s up in the air defending Germany and he has to make decisions that will affect his life and his crew’s lives.
Grant: What inspired you to design Nightfighter Ace? Were there any other published games you used as inspiration?
Greg: The inspiration for Nightfighter Ace came from a computer game I did for HPS Simulations back in the 2000s called Defending the Reich. I have always been interested in night fighting, and done a ton of research. So I thought a paper game would be a fun project. “Defending” did reasonably well, and got good reviews. One reviewer ripped me on the title, but hey, “Bombing the Reich” was already taken. Oh well!
Grant: I understand the game is focused around the pilot and his narrative. How do you accomplish this in the design?
Greg: Well, much like The Hunters, there is a certain RPG aspect to the game. Your pilot can receive medals, promotions, injuries, etc. As his prestige increases, he earns certain perks. You do actually tend to get attached to them after a few missions. I’ve always liked the aspect of having the player care about what happens.
Grant: How is Prestige affected? How does this increased Prestige benefit the pilot?
Greg: I came up with the concept of “Prestige” and “Prestige points” after trying to implement a way for pilots to gain access to the more advanced night fighters. Having read a lot of night fighter books and having done a lot of research, it became clear that the latest version of nightfighter, be it a He219 or Ju88C-6b, was not handed over to some rookie right out of flight school. So, despite being an abstract concept, I feel it works amazingly well in replicating this process.
In the game, as a pilot gets more kills, more awards, etc., his Prestige level rises. Higher levels of Prestige are required to “unlock” game access to the more advanced nightfighters. So, I took the 32 different models and ranked them. Some have a Prestige rating of “0”, meaning a beginning pilot can use them. The highest ratings are “9” for some of the advanced models of He219 “Uhu.” Of course, the aircraft also has to be available. You aren’t allowed to fly something that hasn’t been produced yet.
Grant: What type of skills can be earned and improved? Please give us a few examples.
Greg: Player and crew skills seemed to me to be the perfect way to increase the RPG aspect of the game…your crew actually improves over time. This makes sense, but you have to live long enough for your experience to make a difference. Skills that can be earned include: Gunnery, Aim, Schraege Musik Gunnery, Expert (for each major airframe type, such as Bf110), Bomber Stream, Radar Operation, ACM, Situational Awareness, Navigation, Weapons Maintenance, Electronics Maintenance, Parachuting (hehehe) and Landing. As you gain experience, you choose which skills to focus on, and earn. All of the skills confer some type of game advantage, some larger, some smaller, some related to survival, some to offense. They have different costs accordingly. Choose wisely 🙂
Grant: What is the overall objective of the game? How does a player plan out missions?
Greg: I’m not sure I can answer this, I think the overall objective might be different for different players. Technically, the objective is to shoot down the most British bombers possible, which gives you different levels of victory per the rules. I’m sure some players may have the objective to survive instead. 😉 Missions are not planned out by the players, per se…they are reacting to incoming raids and hopefully aren’t spoofed too badly that half their fuel is gone before they catch up to it.
Grant: I understand there are 32 nightfighter models available to pilot. What are the major types and how do they differ?
Greg: There are 32 different models in 4 different main “families.” These are: Bf110 series (10 subtypes), Ju-88 series (5 subtypes), He219 series (10 subtypes, believe it or not), and the Dornier family (6 subtypes), and for grins, the Ta154 A-1. These have all been painstakingly researched (and, as an historical aside, the book Warplanes of the Third Reich by William Green was invaluable here and differ in many regards…mainly weapons suite, electronics, crew, etc.
Grant: Talk about the seven possible major geographic base “Groups”? What sources were used to ensure historical accuracy?
Greg: This “Grouping” is actually a game construct to make the system actually playable. Take for example Berlin, the three major airfields in that area are Stendal, Parchim, and Werneuchen. In game terms, an interception coming from any of those fields is going to use about the same amount of fuel. The Dutch Bases Melsbroek, Schipol, Deelen, St. Trond, Twenthe, Leeuwarden, Venlo, and Gilze-Rijen are lumped together as the “Dutch Bases” Group. Yes, there’s 8 different airfields there, but they’re all close enough together that for fuel purposes, they are the same. It’s actually the system that made the fuel consumption playable, and I’m very happy with it. And it makes sense. Notice players ARE actually assigned to a specific base, but they burn fuel according to their Group, the Dutch Group, the Berlin Group, the France Group, etc.
Grant: How does a pilot move between these different bases? Can they earn promotions to more active bases to be closer to the action?
Greg: In the game, the pilot starts at a random base by die roll (or if the player chooses to ignore this, he can decide.) It takes an expenditure of 2 Prestige points to change bases.
Grant: I see that pilots and Groups have lots of customization options. How have players reacted to this level of detail? How does it assist in the narrative creation?
Greg: Test players so far have really enjoyed to be able to choose their skills, and gave good feedback…we found out early on some were a bit too easy to obtain for what they did. My goal, really, was to make historical results reasonably probable. So we had to tweak the skills a bit. But I think the narrative in this game will be strong. Players will find themselves returning seriously wounded with a shot up plane that has 1 engine left and will be praying before that landing die-roll. Those types of situations should make for a really good solitaire experience.
“But I think the narrative in this game will be strong. Players will find themselves returning seriously wounded with a shot up plane that has 1 engine left and will be praying before that landing die-roll. Those types of situations should make for a really good solitaire experience.”
Grant: What weapon system customization options are there? Are there different type of ammo rounds that can be used?
Greg: The weapons are “customized” between the different models. For example, the BF110G-4d/R3 has 30mm Mk108 and 20mm MG151/20 firing forward, with MG81Z firing defensively. The Bf110G-4c/R3 is basically the same plane, but doesn’t have the FuG227 “Flensberg” homing device so it gets a different card. The Bf110F4 has 4 cannon and 4 MG forward, but the F4-a has 4/2 with a “Schraege Musik” pair of cannon as well. Anyway, the point is, the different weapons layouts are accounted for. Players, however, need to decide how they are going to focus their training. Do they want to improve with their forward firing weapons? Or do they want to become a “Schraege Musik” upwards-firing cannon specialist?
Grant: What are the Ace cards like? Can you show us some examples and describe what they are good at?
Greg: Ace cards allow you to try and replicate the career of any of the top 40 German Nightfighter aces that were alive in this period. It gives you his starting situation as of August 1943 and various historical and biographical data, to include his starting and final tallies. See below as an example. (Notice – this is not final art….just a draft card for you to see.)
Grant: How does the game play out and what is the Sequence of Play?
Greg: The game follows the historical moon phases of 1943 (thank you NASA) and basically runs 2 turns per week. Therefore, each month is 8 turns. The reason it is two turns a week is based on the Bomber Command War Diaries. Major British raids averaged 2 per week during this period, so it made sense. Obviously, they weren’t always 3.5 days apart, but overall it works out great. Players check for full moon (raid might be cancelled) then a target is selected based on what month and historical targets (thank you BC War Diary). Weather may abort your interception, unless you are an ace and decide to go anyway. You check for random electronics failure then take off. You burn fuel based on where you are at cross referenced to where the raid is going. The point is, a Berlin interceptor will have more fuel to search against a Berlin raid, than he will trying to intercept a Munich raid, etc. You search, and if interception occurs, combat occurs. You may intercept multiple times assuming you have fuel and a reasonably functional aircraft. After this is all done, you then try to land.
Grant: How are the Bomber Target Mats used? What do all of the different boxes represent?
Greg: Just as you have a mat for your aircraft, showing the status of all the weapons, electronics, crew, and airframe, so do your targets. The Bomber Mat shows their status in all those areas as well…it is very possible you can shoot up a bomber but he still gets away. The Bomber Mat tracks all your damage to him, unless you’re lucky enough to down him immediately.
Grant: What are the player Aircraft Cards like? How do they aid the play of the game?
Greg: The 32 player Aircraft Cards are essential to play…it shows the complete status of your weapons, crew, electronics, and airframe while on mission.
Grant: How is the game tracked? Does it use a map? Counters?
Greg: The game is basically tracked with your Aircraft Mat (which is whatever plane you’re currently assigned to fly), the bomber (i.e., Target Mat) and with your mission log. The results of every mission are recorded on the log sheet, which covers August 1943 to July 1944.
Grant: Let’s talk about the solo A.I.. How does it make decisions? What priorities does it use to determine things like flight paths, evasive tactics and defense?
Greg: The British perform differently based on card draw from the combat deck. They will attempt to corkscrew, however, almost without exception, unless you’ve knocked out an engine or damaged enough control surfaces. I don’t think I’d really say I have an A.I. in the sense of the word you’re using. The reason the situation lends itself to solitaire play so well is the fact your enemy is somewhat locked into their attack behavior – the target is whatever city, and they’re in the bomber stream. There is certainly randomness in their response to your attack (or attempted attack, they might shoot first) and there’s certainly some historically-influenced random choice of target cities, but I’m not sure I’d glorify the system by saying it had A.I. 🙂 Having said that, however, I think the game replicates the historical situation surprisingly well. And again, this isn’t a strategic fight going on…it’s one crew, in the dark, looking for targets.
Grant: What is the A.I., or however we should refer to it, extremely good at replicating? What areas are you still tweaking?
Greg: The combat system is pretty good at replicating the possible responses from the bomber crews as I’ve researched them. (who ever thought of those big bombers doing corkscrews is beyond me). However, tweaking is long done. The game is ready.
Grant: What are you most proud of in the design?
Greg: I think I am the most proud of two areas equally. First, the historical research. Several years went into that aspect. Second, I think the fuel consumption system was just my “epiphany” moment. I actually had a hex by hex version of this game 20 years ago, with fuel tracked hex by hex, and it was…painful! When I came up with the fuel being burnt as a function of the base Group vs. the target Group, it just made sooooo much sense. Within game terms, it makes the fuel limitations meaningful WITHOUT the player having to painfully track it. Without this fuel consumption system, the game would be flat out unplayable in my mind. So I was very proud I had that “aha” moment one day and cracked that nut, finally.
Grant: What are future expansions that you have planned for the system?
Greg: Not sure I’m really thinking about any sequels, although Intruder ops in 1940 certainly comes to mind. I’ll have to think on this.
Grant: When is the game going to be ready for release?
Greg: Release….I am not sure. I’d hope toward the end of this year, but really, it mainly depends on artwork at this point. Compass Games is pretty focused and I love working with them, but again, I think it’s really beyond me to give any date that’s remotely firm.
Grant: What is next for Greg Smith?
Greg: Well, curiously enough, I have a slew of titles that I’ve got in various stages of assembly. Probably my next release through Compass Games will be Pacific Tide, which is a strategic Pacific Theater game, 1 year turns with a very unique card-driven game system. My old titles are still needing some attention, though, so there will be time spent on Silent Victory 2nd Printing and The Hunters 3rd Printing. My next release through GMT Games will be The Hunted, which is the sequel to The Hunters. Probably my most off-the-wall current project is a Zeppelin game. But yeah, enough to keep me busy. 🙂
Greg, I want to thank you for your time in doing this interview and for the great detail you have given us. I can say that I have been looking forward to this one since it was announced last year and I am eager to get it to my table. I love narrative in any wargame and this one seems to go over the top in this area, plus its about the airwar during World War II. Always a good subject!
If you are interested in pre-ordering Nightfighter Ace: Air Defense Over Germany, 1943-1944, you can reserve a copy for the price of $75.00 ($99.00 retail) on the Compass Games website at the following link: https://www.compassgames.com/preorders/nightfighter-ace.html