One of the highlights of our annual trip to the WBC is meeting up with our friend Gregory M. Smith who has designed a lot of really great solitaire wargames that we have enjoyed such as Silent Victory, Nightfighter Ace and Zeppelin Raider. Each year we have spent several hours with him checking out all the new designs that he has upcoming. This year we got a chance to try out his upcoming design from Compass Games called Western Front Ace: The Great War in the Air, 1916-1918. After our return, I wanted to get some more information on this very fun and interesting entry into The Ace Series and reached out to Greg who was more than happy to share.

*All pictures of art and components used in this interview are not yet finalized and are just for playtest purposes at this point. There isn’t even a final cover created yet. In fact, most of it is created by Greg himself.

Grant: It was great to see you again at WBC last month. What is your favorite part of the event? How has WBC helped you with your designs?

Greg: I have to say, I enjoy the B-17: Queen of the Skies event the best. Spending most of the day with 80+ other people working in 6-person “combat boxes” – just a great time. Some of us have been on the same bomber squadron for 10+ years. A remarkably social experience, for a solitaire game. 🙂

I think WBC has been a tremendous help to my design work….I get to interact with LOTS of people, see what’s new, understand what they like and don’t – and there’s always somebody willing to try out my latest designs. It’s really one of the highlights of my year.

Grant: The Ace Series has really built some momentum over the past year with releases like Nightfighter Ace and the upcoming Interceptor Ace. Has that momentum allowed you to consider designing a game like Western Front Ace? Without the success of the first two in the series what was the probability of this entry happening?

Greg: I don’t think any “momentum” from Nightfighter Ace (which is on its second print run) really had an effect on this. Bill from Compass Games has given me a lot of freedom on what I want to do. I’m pretty sure I could have talked him into it regardless. 🙂 But it’s certainly nice to have that momentum.

Grant: Why did you want to do this game on WWI aircraft?

Greg: This game is actually inspired by a fan – a user on Facebook’s Solitaire Wargaming Group requested that I take the Nightfighter Ace system and apply it to World War I. I do get a lot of requests, but having played Richtofen’s War back in the day, and various other WWI flight games, I got instantly fired up by this request. I was sure I could apply my core game engine to the topic.

Grant: How did you connect with your co-designer Ian Cooper and what expertise has he brought to the table? What was his greatest contribution to the design?

Greg: Ian Cooper and I go back a ways….his game Raiders of the Deep started as a fan-based module for The Hunters. After I looked at it, I connected him with Compass Games because I knew it would be a hit.   And it has been! He loves research….and it shows in his work. Well, he was the first guy I thought of when designing Western Front Ace, and it’s been a great collaboration.

His key contribution in my mind (besides the scores of little historical details he brings up) was the concept of “Contact Patrols.” Without it, the game wouldn’t work. It’s one of those things that players won’t really think about (similar to fuel consumption in Nightfighter Ace) but was so important to get right.

Grant: What is Western Front Ace about and what do you believe is unique about the design?

Greg: Western Front Ace puts you behind the cockpit of a World War I aircraft, flying for one of 7 different nationalities. It is similar to some of my other solitaire designs, in that you progress in fame, earn awards, all of that…but it features a lot of skills the player must decide on acquiring.  The change from previous designs is the addition of dogfighting mechanics, because that is the core of action in the game. I think it is going to be unique from the standpoint of having 64 historically-researched aircraft in the game (42 player-controllable and 22 “bot” controlled recon and bomber types.)

Grant: Why does the game focus on 1916-1918? Was there no aircraft used from 1914-1916?

Greg: Well there were early aircraft, but they mainly resembled box kites with a lawnmower engine attached 🙂 Seriously, there were several reasons: the “Fokker Scourge” had come to an end, and the various types were more evenly matched.   I wanted to start the game when there was more of an equal footing (since you can play any nationality.) The other major consideration was the fact the early war aircraft, while fascinating in their own right, were not really very capable in combat. So starting in September 1916, based on input from Ian, seemed to be about the right time.

Grant: What sources did you consult for research? What was the best one in your opinion?

Greg: Unlike many of my other games, where I seem to luck out and find that one book that turns out to be “the Bible” on the topic, that wasn’t the case here. I had to consult a slew of different books, too numerous to mention, most of which had some piece of the puzzle. However, I’d have to say, without question, the most inspiring book I got ahold of was Flying Fury: Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps by James McCudden, V.C. Greenhill Books, 1987.   Despite the dated prose, this first-hand account by one of Britain’s top aces was just an eye-opener. It really gave you a feeling for what these pilots went through.

Grant: This game is pretty interesting as it allows players to play as either the Central Powers or as the Entente nations. How is this possible? What breakthrough allowed this to happen?

Greg: Well, it wasn’t a breakthrough so much as I had this “aha” moment early on, when I realized the static trench lines in WWI would allow me to have the aerodromes on both sides, and it would be possible to do it. So I added the Germans, French, Americans, Belgians (per Facebook request) and Italians…and well, adding new nationalities became like eating Lay’s potato chips. I just couldn’t stop!

Grant: How many aircraft are included in the game? Which are your favorite and why?

Greg: As mentioned above, there’s 64 in the game, but the player can only fly 42 of them. 22 of them are recon and light bomber types (aka, “targets.”) However, just because a plane is player-usable doesn’t mean it won’t be an encounter. As far as my favorite, I’d have to say I’m somewhat partial to the Sopwith Pup. It’s a nice early plane, although it lacks a bit in firepower with just a single machinegun.  Here’s the listing for player-flyable aircraft:

Allied Powers

British: F.E.8; Airco DH.2; Sopwith 1 ½ Strutter; Sopwith Triplane (RNAS only); Sopwith Pup; Sopwith Camel; Sopwith Dolphin; Sopwith Snipe; Bristol F2A; Bristol F2B; Airco DH.5; S.E. 5; S.E. 5A; B.E. 12, Nieuport 17.

French: Nieuport 17; Nieuport 21; Nieuport 23; Nieuport 24bis; Nieuport 27; Nieuport 28; Spad S.VII; Spad S.XII; Spad S.XIII.

Belgian: Nieuport 11; Nieuport 23; Spad S.VII; Spad S.XIII; Hanriot HD.1; Sopwith 1½ Strutter; Sopwith Camel.

US: Nieuport 17; Nieuport 21; Nieuport 23; Nieuport 24bis; Nieuport 27; Nieuport 28; Spad S.VII; Spad S.XIII; Sopwith Camel.

Italian: Nieuport 11; Spad S.VII; Spad S.XIII; Hanriot HD.1.

Central Powers

German: Halberstadt D.II; Albatros D.I; Albatros D.II; Albatros D.III; Albatros D.Va; Pfalz D.III; Pfalz D.IIIa; Pfalz D.XII; Fokker D.III; Fokker Dr.I Triplane; Fokker D.VII; Fokker D.VIII.

Austro-Hungarian: Hansa-Brandenburg D.I; Aviatik D.I; Phönix D.I; Albatros D.I; Albatros D.II; Albatros D.III.

Grant: Are the planes delicate or can they take a beating and keep flying? How hard is it for pilots to survive till Armistice in 1918?

Greg: Survive to the Armistice? I have a hell of a time surviving to make “ace” status, LOL. Seriously, it’s tough. Probably the biggest issue is the lack of parachutes (yes, they existed, but other than German pilots in October of 1918, their use was forbidden by the idiot commanders who thought the pilots would be too eager to bail out at the first sign of trouble.) But the craft are reasonable fragile, and although a lot of rounds end up harmlessly travelling through canvas, it doesn’t take much to shoot somebody down. Players will really need to keep their current damage in mind when deciding to continue on a patrol or not after contact.

This also points out that the purchase of skills is probably more important in this game than others I have designed with that system. While in Nightfighter Ace you can afford to sit on a few points to build up enough to buy an “expensive” skill, in Western Front Ace, you probably need to buy a one-point skill right away.

Grant: What can occur during a Contact Patrol? How are encountered determined and what type of encounters are most common?

Greg: Encounters occur randomly, with differing probabilities based on where you currently are located (Friendly lines, Enemy lines, or over No Man’s Land.) A Contact Patrol is merely a patrol in which the player has a good possibility of contact. In reality, pilots flew every day, sometimes several times a day, but most of these patrols ended up uneventful. The brilliance of the Contact Patrol system is the game just doesn’t bother with those: we assume you fly them, but nothing happens, so we don’t bother tracking or recording them.   What matters is those few patrols a month when something -does- happen.

Grant: What random events are included for Contact Patrols?

Greg: Well, it’s my usual assortment of good and horrible things 🙂 but the new twist comes from the Historical Ace cards.   Similar to Nightfighter Ace, there are 24 “ace” cards included representing many of the top Aces of WWI (from 7 different nationalities.) You can play as them, and try to “better” their historical performance.   The new twist, however, is a side benefit from having the player able to play for both sides – you can, as a random event, run into one of these “aces” and have to dogfight them. So, if playing an Austro-Hungarian, you might end up fighting against Francesco Barraca, the top Italian Ace. Or as British, you might end up fighting against Udet, Voss, or even Richthofen. I thought it was a nice touch.

Grant: What innovation have you made in regard to sorties and how they work?

Greg: I wouldn’t say there’s much innovation – you roll randomly to get one of several mission types (Offensive Patrol, Defensive Patrol, Line Patrol, Escort, Balloon Attack.) However, what was somewhat innovative was the introduction of “Major Ground Offensives.” These involve strafing and are dangerous, but do give extra experience as a reward, so I think the players will enjoy them.   Basically, MGO markers are placed on the map in their historical locations for the correct time they occurred. As an example, the game starts with both the Somme and Verdun as active MGO locations. What I really like about them is they tie the air war to what is happening on the ground and the war overall, and gives a good historical perspective to what is happening besides just air operations.

Grant: How does aerial combat between two fighters or scouts work? Where did this idea come from?

Greg: I have to mention (since Ian Cooper beat it into my head) that in World War I, the proper term for a fighter IS a “scout.”   But, as I’ve mentioned several times, I was inspired by the original Down In Flames combat system. The key was to make it feel like you were in a dogfight, with decisions to make as the pilot, but keep it reasonably simple and playable. It really works nicely – the player has to decide to perform a “standard maneuver” or use a “one time” skill maneuver, or draw a card and trust his luck.

Grant: What does the dogfighting add to the play experience?

Greg: I’d have to say it adds a lot, it is the heart of the game. I am confident most players will enjoy it, since the testers have.

Grant: Can you please show us some of the aircraft mats and tell us their advantages?

Greg: Sure. Here are two contemporary aircraft – a Sopwith Pup, and a Fokker D.III. The Fokker’s main advantage here is firepower…those twin machineguns put him on the 5 chart.

The Pup is just as fast, but the rotary engine gives him a turning advantage, which can win the dogfight (assuming his engine doesn’t get hit.) Please realize these are just my prototype cards, also. The final cards will look much nicer I am sure.

Grant: How does the game play out and what is the Sequence of Play?

Greg: The player checks for Major Ground Offensives, removing outdated ones and placing new ones if required. The player checks for Contact Patrols for the month.  After rolling for a mission, he has to perform that mission to get credit for awards, promotions, and experience points. He repeats the process for each Contact Patrol in the month. After making Ace, he must decide to have a wingman or to fly “Solitary Hunting” (which can be dangerous if you run into a group of enemy, but can be lucrative if you ambush a reconnaissance plane or light bomber.)

At the end of each mission, should he choose, he can request a new sector to fly from and/or purchase new skills if he has sufficient points. He can also upgrade to newer aircraft, which become available over time. There’s a bit more, but that’s the gist of it.

Grant: Any changes with the Combat Cards and how they work? What are the differences in result types?

Greg: The top and bottom sections of the cards are reasonably similar to Nightfighter Ace – the more firepower you have, the more random hits you inflict, and the bottom is for defensive fire from aircraft that have observers (rear gunners.)   However, the center section is new – it is used during dogfights defensively. The defensive section has two parts. It is either a defensive maneuver of some type that you are performing, or alternately, you can use the Wingman section to have him come assist you. This is assuming you have a wingman, of course. One new result on the cards is a direct crew injury in addition to random hits.

Grant: What different types of ammo are available? What rules govern their use?

Greg: There’s just one type of machinegun ammo, unless you are on a Balloon-busting mission, in which case you get loaded with incendiary rounds. You aren’t allowed, in that case, to target enemy aircraft, just the balloon. Crazy as it sounds, it’s related to the St. Petersburg Declaration of 1868 and the Hague Convention of 1907. Of course, you can defend yourself, but you can’t go after some 2-seater bomber enroute to the balloon. I’m pretty sure there’s not a lot of games out there that reference those restrictions.  🙂

Grant: How does pilot fatigue work?

Greg: Fatigue is an optional rule, and it’s meant to simulate the pressure placed on pilots flying day after day. It slowly accumulates and begins to have a negative effect on your dogfighting abilities until you get some rest to reduce it.

Grant: What awards are available to the different countries? What is the most obscure and how did you find out about it?

Greg: There are 41 different awards a player can earn, depending on the nationality (and, for Germans, place of birth.) Probably the most obscure ones are the War Merit Crosses from the Principality of Lippe and the Grand Duchy of Baden.  The coolest sounding one, I think, is the Order of the Red Eagle, 3rd Class, with Crown and Swords. Gotta hand it to those Prussians, they know how to name awards 🙂 Basically I did internet research for most of these, and it took a lot longer than I thought it would, because some of them were, as you mentioned, somewhat obscure. This was another “Lay’s Potato Chip” moment for me in the game. I was originally just going to have 3-4 per nation. But, once I started adding them…..I just couldn’t stop.

Grant: There was a change that you considered while at WBC after showing Dan Pancaldi with No Enemies Here the game. What was it and what is the story behind this change?

Greg: Dan Pacaldi and I had a great time playing Western Front Ace at WBC. Of course he had to be an Italian pilot 🙂 During his fight, he had knocked out the A-H pilot’s engine, and he asked about “just letting him go…you know, gallantry.” Well, I hadn’t previously considered this for the game, but was aware of it historically – so Dan gets the credit for the optional “Gallantry” rule. Thanks Dan!

Grant: What are the Ace cards like and what aces are represented? Can you show us some examples and describe what they are good at?

Greg: There are 24 “Ace” pilot cards representing many of the top aces of WWI, with all nationalities represented by at least two. Here are the cards for Guynemer, Baracca, and Richthofen. They are pretty dangerous if you have the bad luck to run into them.

Grant: Each nation has a good luck charm. What are these and how much fun did you have researching this aspect?

Greg: The best part of game design, in my mind, is doing this type of research, and learning about things you had no idea existed. It was a lot of fun – learning about Italian wolves, to German pigs, to American lucky rabbit’s feet (OK I did know about that one) to touching wood for the British. But yes, it was fun! I also learned about the Japanese lucky cat (but that was ones for a different game.)

Grant: What is the timeline on the release?

Greg: I’m not even going to pretend I know. The game is done, the design is stable (as evidenced by WBC testing) and other than Dan Pancaldi’s “Gallantry” rule listed above, I have no desire to tinker with it anymore.  It’s ready! However, having said all that, my first artist had a scheduling issue and so I’m waiting for an artist to be assigned.   Once that’s done, we’re off to the races – but there is a LOT of art in this game (which is my fault, for including so many different aircraft.) I’m thinking early next year is realistic, but really, just a guess at this point. It all depends on the artwork and that can take time.

Grant: What has been the response of your playtesters?

Greg: They have made great suggestions along the way, but the bottom line is, they’ve all really enjoyed it. Having a really positive response from the testers is very gratifying, as it means I was on the right track. Of course, the important thing is to listen to the testers and evaluate their comments and implement changes as needed. But I gladly did that with this design.

Grant: What do you think the design does really well?

Greg: I think it represents the difficulty in surviving long term as a WWI pilot on the Western Front. Let’s face it: most of them didn’t. Now, if you can survive long enough to make ace, and earn some combat skills, the game system begins to shift more in your favor. And so I think the players will have a decent amount of careers where they die before even making ace….but then they’ll have that one guy that survives long enough to pick up skills and hopefully will be able to make a deep run with him.

Grant: What have been some of the changes through the play test process? Please give a few specific examples.

Greg: Well, there were too many cards that gave an “all damage avoided” result and I toned that down, based on tester complaints. The dogfights “feel” about right now – although the “bullet to the head” is still possible. I also reduced defensive fire from the observer’s guns, based on input that the attacking aircraft could be coming from a “dead zone” for all or some of the attack, which made sense. And of course, Dan Pancaldi’s suggestion of “Gallantry” is my third specific example.

Grant: What else are you working on?

A quick picture of Greg’s work pile while at WBC. You will see Beneath the Med to the left and a new upcoming game called Imperial Tide which uses the same system used in Pacific Tide but to simulate World War I.

Greg: I’ve got a few projects cooking. Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies should be coming out soon, we’re actually close to wrapping that up. The artist, Bruce Yearian, was just awesome to work with. Then there’s Beneath the Med my Italian WWII submarine game, which is a GMT title. Sensuikan is the working title of my Japanese submarine game (might as well do them too!) I have been toying around with the idea of a game on Gotha bombers over England in WWI, we’ll see. Finally, I got to meet Jeremy White (Skies Above the Reich, Enemy Coast Ahead) at Consimworld Expo this year, and we hit it off pretty well.  I proposed we collaborate on something – and he thought that sounded fun. So we’ll see, we’re still kicking around ideas. But I hope that we can make that happen in the next few years, he’s a great guy and a heck of a designer. But I’d be honored to work with him so I hope we can make it go.

Alexander had an opportunity to play Western Front Ace while at WBC for a a few sorties only. Yes that is a World War II era flak tower their on the left. It doesn’t do AA fire but is used as a dice tower. Pretty sweet! 

As always Greg you have provided us with a great window into the design showing us the great care you took with the details…and we all know it’s in the details! Thanks for all your hard work on this game and the others that you have coming up. We look forward to talking with you about all of them in good time.