Over the past several months, I have done multiple interviews with Gregory M. Smith. These interviews have included Nightfighter Ace: Air Defense Over Germany, 1943-1944from Compass Games and Beneath the Med: Italian Submarines at War, 1940-1943from GMT Games. He designs the best solitaire wargames in the business with titles such as Silent Victory, The Hunters and The Hunted also to his credit. He has been doing some topics that are really interesting to me, such as his new upcoming title called Zeppelin Raider: Imperial German Naval Airships. I once again reached out to him for an interview and he was more than willing to put the effort in to answer my many, many, many…..many questions. Thanks Gregory for indulging me and for these great games.
*Please keep in mind that the artwork and other pictures showing counters and boards used in this interview are not yet finalized and are only for playtest purposes at this point. Also, as the game is still in development and details with the game may still change prior to publication.
Grant: Where did you get the idea to design a game around German Zeppelins in World War I? What was the disposition of the Imperial German Navy at the time?
Gregory: Well, Captain Paul O’Grady (Royal Australian Navy) thought that The Hunters system could apply….and so the idea was born. Paul worked with me previously on Silent Victory and I have, in fact, met him – he was in the United States attending the Naval War College as an exchange officer. So I was very fortunate in that regard. I only regret we weren’t able to spend more time together face to face, he’s a stand up guy and I was not shocked when I found out he was promoted to full Captain.
Grant: Why did the two of you feel The Hunters system would work for this medium and this period? What challenges were there in retrofitting the system for dirigibles?
Gregory: Paul thought it was a good fit because you have a weapons system with a reasonably small crew that is acting semi-independently against an enemy. I agreed. However, having said that, easier said than done. There are some significant differences to account for when trying to encompass the dynamics of lighter-than-air combat. Probably the largest problem was dealing with all of the lift issues.
Grant: What was the list of your sources used on the subject and what book would you recommend for us to get up to speed on the subject?
Gregory: I always try to research a subject as thoroughly as possible when designing a game, and when lucky, I find a book that ends up being that one amazing reference, that turns into “The Bible” for the particular topic. In this case, it was The Zeppelin in Combat: A History of the German Naval Airship Division 1912-1918. (Douglas H. Robinson, Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1994.) Not only does it contain full technical details on all the models of Zeppelins, bases, and their fates, but it is an extremely readable operational history as well. Without question, this was the best book I found. It is pretty much a “must read” for anybody with an interest on the subject.
Grant: What did you feel was most important to model in the design regarding Zeppelins?
Gregory: I realized early on the game had to focus on lift.
Grant: What amount of abstraction is used in the design and why?
Gregory: My decision to abstract the gas cells in the game was important, and worked very well. In reality, Zeppelins had a LOT of gas cells….sometimes as many as 18. This would be very tedious for the players to deal with, I felt, so making each one in the game equal to 3 in reality brought this number to a manageable level. It still allows for a reasonably accurate representation of lift, as the cells take reductions by 1/3 per event. (from leaking, damage, or gas expansion.)
The mission timing is also a bit of an abstraction, but again, one that works extremely well. Zeppelin operations were heavily impacted by weather (as one might imagine) and I found that they averaged about 3 missions a month. In real life, these might have happened in the same week…or have been spread out due to weather cancellations. So instead of having a set time period per turn, so to speak, the players just run 3 missions per month. I just assume they occur when they could have occurred due to weather. It works well as an approximation and allows for the “proper” amount of missions to be conducted.
Grant: What is unique about the implementation of your solo system in this design?
Gregory: Probably nothing, other than you are riding into combat on a half-million cubic feet of flammable gas 🙂 I have taken elements of different games, though, and brought them in as appropriate. For example, I borrowed the Prestige system from Nightfighter Ace because it made a lot of sense to include here.
Grant: What is the Sequence of Play?
Gregory: The Sequence of Play is as follows:
1. Travel one area. Adjust altitude as desired.
2. Check for random mechanical failure (WW1 internal combustion engines, wireless sets, and the gas cells were notoriously unreliable).
3. Conduct bombing or scouting routines as appropriate.
4. Roll for encounters. This can be bad if you encounter an aircraft at your altitude.
5. Resolve encounters. Roll to repair damage if present.
6. Repeat until your Zeppelin has returned to base.
Grant: What are the different types of airships available? How do they differ in their handling, armor and armaments? Can you share a few of the Zeppelin cards with us?
Gregory: I was amazed, when doing the research, at the immense effort the German Navy put into airships. They had over 80, from 3 different manufacturers, in over 15 classes. To keep the game manageable, I decided to focus on the main Zeppelin classes (8 in the game.) There were a handful from Schuette-Lanz, Parseval, and Gross-Basenach, but they were not really anywhere near as numerous as the Zeppelin airships.
The classes of Zeppelin had many changes, but mainly differ in their bombload and maximum altitude. As the war progressed, they kept getting larger with the ability to carry a greater payload at a higher altitude. It actually was a bit of an arms race, as they had to keep going higher to avoid the British aircraft. The British kept improving the ceiling of their aircraft in an attempt to catch them, and eventually did.
Grant: What are the different types of missions available for Kommandants? How are mission types determined each time you play?
Gregory: The two types of missions are scouting (over the North Sea) and bombing (over England.) There is a special mission to Africa but that will be discussed later. Missions are determined randomly based on what time in the war you are at.
Here is a look at the Mission Assignment Chart that is used to determine the missions using 2d6.
Grant: Take us through the process of loading the Zeppelin. What are the different elements you must load and what decisions are associated with this step?
Gregory: Basically, you’ve got to decide on your bomb load and ballast. You can adjust these a bit, based on the time of year (you get more lift in the winter months.) You can also choose to bring less crew along, but this will affect your ability to repair damage while aloft.
Grant: What are the possible results of poor choices in the loadout?
Gregory: There’s a trade-off to be made – do you want a chance to inflict maximum damage, at the cost of reduced repair costs? Do you risk not having enough ballast to get home?
Grant: What type of random encounters will Zeppelins encounter and how do they have to confront them?
Gregory: The random encounters involve British aircraft, and hopefully, you are above their altitude. If not, you have to fight them (if you have machineguns). Even at sea, there are floatplanes to worry about. Aircraft are probably the #1 most dangerous situation for a Zeppelin to deal with.
Grant: What happens in the post flight sequence? How is damage repaired? Why do you have to sacrifice missions during this step and what does this represent?
Gregory: Damage is considered to be fully repaired upon landing, but obviously, the more damage you sustained, the longer it would take to repair, and this causes mission loss. Other post-flight events include checking for awards, possibly upgrading to a newer model of Zeppelin, and checking for crew advancements.
Grant: Talk about altitude management and why is this critical to mission success?
Gregory: There’s a modern book called Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering by Shaw and it talks about a maxim: “Altitude is Life.” This was also true back in World War I, insomuch that a low Zeppelin was generally a dead Zeppelin. Not only do you have to husband your ballast, you have to decide when to cross altitude bands which causes you to vent gas due to expansion.
Grant: How does damage from missions effect the ability of the Zeppelin to fly? Can this turn deadly if too much damage is sustained?
Gregory: Well if your entire ship in flames sounds deadly, then yes 🙂 Curiously enough, many times AA fire would just puncture gas cells, and some Zeppelins actually crashed without burning due to a loss of lift. Multiple gas cell punctures, while not immediately fatal, can turn that way. Losing all your engines is another road to disaster, as you end up floating with the wind, and possibly into enemy held territory or off the map.
Grant: How does a good Kommandant avoid damage?
Gregory: You’ve got to stay as high as possible while still retaining enough ballast for emergencies. Bombing is less accurate from higher up, though, so there’s a trade-off to be made there.
Grant: How does the crew get managed and how are they wounded or killed? What effects can less crew have on the Zeppelin?
Gregory: The crew are tracked by 4 specialists and several “generic” crew markers, similar to other games I have done. You have an XO, Flight Engineer, Navigator, and of course, the Kommandant. The specialists can improve over time and give bonuses to flight operations. The generic crew are mainly used for in-flight repairs to the gas cells and the engines – so taking less along is a risk you have to decide to make.
Grant: How does wind and weather effect the flight of the Zeppelins? How is weather determined and what if anything can Kommandants do to deal well with the weather?
Gregory: Weather, as I’ve stated, had a huge impact on Zeppelin operations. I read many reports of Zeppelins actually not even being able to make any headway into the wind on missions. The weather is randomly selected at the start of the mission (obviously, it has to be good enough to even start) but may change during operations. The heavier the rain, the more lift you lose, as the water weight actually gets quite significant over the length of a 500+ foot airship. There is not really much a Kommandant can do about the weather, other than calculate his fuel and ensure he can get home. He should also decide about aborting if things get too rough.
Grant: How is fuel management handled and why is fuel your most valuable resource?
Gregory: Not sure I’d say it was the most valuable resource, but it might be. If you don’t have enough to get back to base, you’re drifting with the wind, and that’s invariably very bad. Fuel is burned a half-box per area entered, more against the wind, and may be lost due to damage from AA fire or aircraft machineguns. Although it can serve as ballast in a pinch, you’ve got to be able to get home. Fortunately, damage aside, most Zeppelin classes had good range.
Grant: What about mission sequencing and the limitations of ships in the game?
Gregory: Well, the early Zeppelins did have some range issues, and the bombing of London didn’t start until 1915 with the “P” class, so I decided to start the game there, with the missions including bombing and scouting at that time. I have optionally included the “M” class for those players who want to fly in 1914, but the missions are strictly scouting at that time.
Grant: How did you balance realism with complexity for missions? What do you feel you sacrificed on your design if anything?
Gregory: If anything, I’ve probably sacrificed a bit of simplicity in this design. I mean, you don’t need a degree in aerodynamics to play it, but it was very obvious when I started it that the game needed to revolve around lift. Lift and balance are a huge part of real Zeppelin operations, so I decided I wanted to include all of those elements (to include dynamic lift and gas venting due to altitude expansion.) At one point I also considered including balance issues (you have to keep the ship on an even keel, so to speak) but decided for simplicity’s sake you’d obviously drop the proper ballast, or vent the right gas, to keep her even. So it was really just more complexity for no real reason, and I removed it.
Grant: How does the Bombing Routine work? What technical elements did you want to include to make the experience as real as possible?
Gregory: Zeppelins did their bombing on the darkest nights, for safety’s sake, and navigation was haphazard at best. It was quite interesting to read all the reports from the Zeppelins as they tried to get their bearings over London or whatever the target city was. So I knew I needed to include a navigation routine. After dropping, you may find out you thought you were bombing the Foreign Office but you really hit a church. Another interesting part of bombing was the use of parachute flares (which had a two-fold use: finding your bearings, and blinding AA gunners.) So I included that as well.
Grant: Can you show us pictures of the Bombing to Hit Chart and the Bomb Damage Chart? What was your methodology behind the creation of these charts?
Gregory: The bombing routine is interesting as you get your best results from lower altitudes….which puts you at the greatest risk. With the bomb damage chart, I wanted to show the cumulative effect of incendiaries (especially on flammable targets such as textile warehouses, etc.) which is factored in. To be honest, you aren’t going to be doing a whole lot of damage, except in a few rare cases. That’s the historical reality. Historians have concluded the main effect of the entire Zeppelin campaign was the fact that it tied up a lot of British resources. Many squadrons of aircraft, AA units, and soldiers were sidetracked from the Western Front to deal with the threat.
Grant: What happens if you miss your target? Are there any consequences for collateral damage from poor targeting?
Gregory: You can actually lose Prestige points for bombing churches by accident, but hopefully this won’t happen often. If you’re just plowing up some farmer’s field, the only real negative consequence is possibly a failed mission for not doing any real bomb damage.
Grant: How does Anti-Aircraft for work?
Gregory: You receive AA fire by attacking or closing with AA-capable ships, and after bombing. It is more or less dangerous depending on your altitude and whether you blinded them with a parachute flare or not.
Grant: How do encounters with ships and attacks against shipping differ from bombing?
Gregory: Scouting missions were conducted over the North Sea, and the main difference is, you aren’t trying to bomb anything. You are just trying to identify ships for intelligence purposes. Although I allow the player to bomb ships (which happened rarely, but did happen) you should realize this is completely voluntary and is a risk that’s probably not worth it, especially against anything with guns. There is some extra difficulty to bombing at sea due to the fact the target is moving.
Grant: What is the process of an encounter with aircraft? Do Zeppelins stand a chance versus aircraft?
Gregory: If they’re above you, you’re in trouble. They get to shoot first. At the same altitude, you both fire. Below you, you can gain altitude to avoid them. You can survive them, especially earlier in the war, as they didn’t latch onto the fact they needed incendiary/explosive bullets until later. Due to the fact there’s no oxygen in the gas cells, it was actually difficult to catch them on fire, especially with just normal ammunition. But later in the war, with Brock/Pomeroy and RTS ammo, the aircraft were extremely dangerous to the Zeppelins. Remember the maxim, “Altitude is life.” 🙂
Grant: Frostbite is an interesting damage. How does this effect crew members?
Gregory: Frostbite was a real problem, especially with the more advanced Zeppelins that could get high enough to cause it. It causes generic crew to repair at +1 and any specialists with frostbite lose their abilities, if any, for the mission.
Grant: What about crew advancement? What skills can be improved over the course of a mission and career?
Gregory: I’ve discussed this previously, but basically, the specialist crew that become experts perform their jobs with a -1 die roll modifier. The overall crew can also improve, allowing for better scouting rolls and machinegun fire.
Grant: A hallmark of your games it the rewards and medals. What awards or medals are available? Please show some specific examples of these awards.
Gregory: It’s the usual German stuff – Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class, and the Wound Badge. Because it’s WW1, there is also the Pour le Merite (which was awarded to several Zeppelin Kommandants) and the Zeppelin Combat Badge.
Grant: How do prestige and promotions work? How do players earn new and more advanced Zeppelins?
Gregory: Prestige allows you to get reassigned to a more advanced type of Zeppelin, once they become available. This is actually a survival issue: the more advanced Zeppelins could travel at higher altitudes. This puts some pressure on the player to perform. By bombing and scouting, players may earn an upgrade marker to get a newer Zeppelin.
Grant: I notice you included Zeppelin operations in North Africa! Why the inclusion of this area outside of the game’s focus on the North Sea and England?
Gregory: It’s simple: I couldn’t resist. 🙂 The mere fact that the Germans sent a Zeppelin down to East Africa I find nothing short of amazing. What’s even more amazing is that they almost made it there. It it is a small side note to the naval Zeppelin story, but I felt an important one.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
Gregory: I think that it has condensed the main factors of Zeppelin operations in a reasonably historical, yet playable manner. I feel the player is going to have to make a lot of the same decisions an actual Zeppelin commander faced….which largely revolved around lift and ballast. I was really happy when I figured out how to include dynamic lift as well (which, as an internet know-it-all, I’m sure you realize is the lift caused by forward thrust acting on the ship’s body :))
Grant: Who will publish Zeppelin Raider and what is the timeline for it?
Gregory: This is a Compass Games release. It actually got bumped up on the production schedule a bit, and I love the artist I was assigned, so…maybe this year? I am not sure. I just make the darn things! 🙂 But the counters are mainly done, and the Zeppelin charts are almost there, so I think we’ll see it as a 2018 release.
Thanks again for your time Gregory. This game looks really unique and interesting and I love a good game that takes me to a historical period or subject that I don’t know much about so that I can learn. If you have any other questions about the design, leave them here in the comments and I will try to get answers from Gregory.
If you are interested in pre-ordering a copy of Zeppelin Raider: Imperial German Naval Airships, you can do so for the price of $50.00 from the Compass Games website at the following link: https://www.compassgames.com/preorders/zeppelin-raider-imperial-german-naval-airships.html