As you know Gregory M. Smith is the king of narrative driven solo games and has done just about everything from submarines (Silent Victory, The Hunters, The Hunted, Beneath the Med), to nightfighters (Nightfighter Ace), to hypothetical bombers (Amerika Bomber) and even WWI era balloons (Zeppelin Raider) and everything in between. His resume of games reads like a “what is hot list” as everything he designs simply works. Now taking off from the success and positive reception of Amerika Bomber comes a new design where the player gets to fight off the evil German Amerika Bombers as they come to destroy our way of life in a hypothetical “what if” solo game called Defending America: Intercepting the Amerika Bombers, 1947-48 from Compass Games. I reached out to Greg and he isn’t really very busy and just sits around his deluxe home in the east eating bon bons and he agreed to talk with me about this new game. (Everything about this sentence is said tongue and cheek as Greg is a MACHINE and has worked really hard over the past few years bringing us 2-3 new solo designs each year!)
Grant: First off Greg. How has quarantine and the pandemic gone for you? Have you made much progress on your designs?
Greg: Well it’s probably been the same as for most folks who’ve decided to follow the rules….feeling a bit cooped up at first. I have to say though, I tried to make the best of it – Defending America is a direct result of the time that I had during the lockdown. At least I can say I didn’t just sit on the couch for 3 months. 🙂
Grant: What was the inspiration for your newest solitaire game Defending America? Who talked you into doing this one?
Greg: I don’t remember exactly what inspired me on this one, other than it seemed to be a natural follow-up to Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies. I did draw some inspiration from the video game Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe – in my younger days I used to hex edit the aircraft, and alter them (to include the American fighters) and we even created a mod called “Secret Weapons of the USA” which, in hindsight, would have been a pretty good name for this game.
Grant: Being a what if style design does it feel like the tether line has been untied and you feel full freedom to design a game how you want to?
Greg: There’s a certain amount of freedom that goes along with alternate history titles. Let’s face it: it didn’t really happen. Having said that, there still is a lot of historical research put into the game. All of the American interceptors are actual or experimental planes from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The German bombers are not strictly fantasy either – they are based on German designs, captured after the war. So I did have a strong historical framework to work from. The freedom to tune that framework into a game was just a lot of fun, however. I loved it! This was one of the more fun games to make, not really work at all. I guess I would compare it to when athletes say they are “in the zone” or when a writer states he was in a free-flow state of mind. It just ripped along. Perhaps it was the lack of distractions due to the quarantine. Regardless, I really enjoyed making this one. You are correct though, in that the freedom to be creative was a huge plus.
Grant: I know the game is designed as a solitaire gaming experience but what additional options for play are there?
Greg: I try to implement two-player rules in all my games, and have done so here as well, but these normally revolve around the player and a friend cooperatively operating boats or aircraft. Some players come up with their own squadron rules even (Alex, a friend from Florida, has been running a squadron based Interceptor Ace game with some friends via the internet.) People are so creative! But for Defending America I just thought, hey wouldn’t it be fun to marry it up with Amerika Bomber where the players are each playing their own game, but might end up shooting at each other and the one player intercepting the other? So that sounded like fun, and I came up with some rules to “marry” the two games. This was necessary since the games do share a lot of DNA, so to speak, but aren’t perfectly compatible when it comes to combat. So that was fun.
Grant: As you mentioned there is an option to link the game with Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies. How is this accomplished?
Greg: Mainly each player does his own thing, but the combat damage comes from the opposite game, when the players are head to head. During testing I found I had to do this as it would be a bit too easy to shoot each other down otherwise. So the American player inflicts damage with his charts, but the German player resolves it on his game’s charts. And vice versa. That’s the gist of it.
Grant: What jets are available to the player as flyable aircraft?
Greg: I’ll just list all sixteen aircraft (several of them are prop aircraft, or prop/jet mix):
- P-80, P-80B Shooting Stars
• XP-61, XP-67, XP-81, XP-83
• F-86 Sabre, F-89A Scorpion
• F8F-1, F8F-1B Bearcats
• FJ-1 Fury, FH-1 Phantom
• F7F-3 Tigercat
• F2H-1, F2H-2 Banshee
Grant: What type of research did you do to craft the specs and performance for these experimental jets?
Greg: My primary source for the American interceptors was The American Fighter by Angelucci and Bowers. If you recall in our last video interview, I couldn’t stop babbling about how cool this book was for me. 🙂
Grant: I do remember that and saw your reference stack in the background. What were the parameters you used to frame this jet experimentation by the Americans after losing World War II?
Greg: I had to apply what I felt were reasonable assumptions as to which jets would be available in the time frame of the game, which is 1947-48. Some extrapolation was required, I felt, because research and development during wartime happens in a compressed fashion, compared to peacetime. So I didn’t feel I had to be precisely constrained by the historical availability dates of these early jets. So let’s look at the Northrop F-89A Scorpion as an example. Historically, the project started in March of 1945. The first deliveries of operational F-89As did not occur until 1950 in real life. Given that in my alternate universe, World War II was still raging, I felt it was reasonable that it could have been delivered in 1948, and so I have it as a late game jet that a player can upgrade to. Most of the aircraft in the game are available by their historical dates, but for a few I did adjust it a bit, sensing that the urgency of the war would have speeded those dates up.
Grant: What jets are your personal favorites and why?
Greg: I’m kind of fond of the P-80B Shooting Star – probably because it’s historical and I used to fly them in computer games. I do prefer the B for the speed, of course. The same reasoning applies to the F-86 Sabre – historical, good firepower, fast….it’s just overall a great aircraft. Finally, I really like the Banshees but for a dumb reason. They just look so bad-ass. 🙂
Grant: Can you share a few of the aircraft mats with us and discuss the benefits and weaknesses of each?
Greg: Let’s talk about two different experimental aircraft, the Boeing XF8B-1 and the XP-67 Moonbat. First, the XF8B-1.Twin prop, single engine. It’s been described as one of the best prop planes ever designed – had the war continued in the Pacific, it is very possible this would have seen production. Decent firepower with 6 x .50 caliber machine guns, and the optional version has 6 x 20mm cannon, which is superb firepower. Speed of 21 is very high for a prop, but probably not high enough to give a defensive edge, depending (in the game you disregard 1 random hit if you are 5 speed higher than the target bomber.) Although it only has one engine, it’s a tough radial, so that’s good. Very nice aircraft.
The XP-67, on the other hand, has some issues – but what firepower! Six .50 cals AND six 20mm cannon, with an option for six 37mm cannon to replace the 20mm cannon. In game terms, that’s pretty devastating firepower. Plus it looks really cool 🙂 But, sadly, it’s one of the slowest aircraft on the US side of the game, at speed 20. It does have twin engines, but they are inline, meaning they can’t take as much damage as a radial. It does have very good endurance, though.
Grant: I know the narrative is focused on the pilot with skills and awards. Any new skills added to the game?
Greg: The skills are pretty much the same as from Interceptor Ace. Some of them had to be “tweaked” in order to make sense with the Defending America combat charts and routines, which are different.
Grant: What are the available awards for pilots? What is the most difficult to earn?
Greg: Army Commendation Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, Air Medal, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Medal of Honor. Obviously the Medal of Honor is the most difficult to get – but not impossible. There are several methods to win it, one of which is by shooting down a German bomber laden with an Atomic Bomb.
Grant: What is the purpose of the new technology track? What technologies can be developed and what benefit do they provide?
Greg: In solitaire games, forcing decisions on the player is always good, so I’ve provided the players input into what new technologies should be prioritized by the smart guys in the lab coats. 🙂 Several of the technologies are defensive (improved rafts, improved fuel tanks) one is offensive (advanced ground radars to help you with contacts) and one is to advance the availability date of late game aircraft, so you can fly them sooner. Each month you focus your research and hope you get some results.
Grant: Is there a technology tree that builds on itself or can players buy whatever they want?
Greg: It’s not a “tree” like, say, Sid Meier’s Civilization series of computer games. It’s not even vertical – it’s horizontal. There’s only a handful of advances – each one is researched independently of the others.
Grant: How do the players “pay” for these technology advancements?
Greg: Each month the player gets a research point to apply as he sees fit, into an area. Any area with a current rating of “1” or more rolls 1d6 and must roll equal to or lower than the current level to gain the tech. So, over the months, you can spread out your research points for a low chance at several advances, or you can focus them on one area until you achieve it.
Grant: Where did this idea come from?
Greg: Well, I first used it in Amerika Bomber – I was probably inspired by Civilization 4 or possibly X-Com. To be honest, I wanted a way for players to influence their fate. If you really, really, really hate dying to fuel tank fires, then work on that research. It makes sense, actually, and it’s thematic, and it’s fun, so it seemed like a no-brainer to include.
Grant: And how has it changed the gaming experience?
Greg: Again, I’d say it’s been great. People who play “narrative-generator” style solitaire games often complain “they’re just along for the ride – it’s all dice-rolling.” I’d like to say that’s not really true with how the genre has evolved.
Grant: Do you feel that this type of technology development could be included in all your future solo games?
Greg: All of them? Hard to say, but I’d feel probably not. Let’s look way back to The Hunters. It’s historical, strongly so. Allowing players to research homing torpedoes or schnorchels in 1940 might be a bit much, I’d argue. However, given the previously mentioned “freedom” that the alternate history background has given me, it was a perfect fit here.
Grant: How many land bases are there for players to be assigned to?
Greg: Just two, Andrews AAF on the coast, and Wright-Patterson a bit inland. Those two, however, really just represent any of a multitude of bases on United States soil.
Grant: How does carrier based aircraft differ from land based?
Greg: Well, apart from the obvious “they have to land on the carrier” it gives them a bit of an advantage when it comes time to stop the Atomic Bomb missions against the United States in 1948. The carriers can move closer to the Azores, and launch interceptions earlier, giving a better chance to stop the one bomber carrying the Bomb. I felt that, like the United States did in the Pacific, once Atomic Bombs became available, they wouldn’t ever launch a mission with more than 1 Atomic Bomb in the raid. They’d be too scarce for that. So, shooting down the right bomber is somewhat of a “needle in a haystack” operation, but remember, there are other aircraft in your squadron.
Grant: What bases offer the most action and what ones are more quiet?
Greg: Any of the carriers have the highest chances of intercept, although Andrews is fine, too. Wright-Patterson is at somewhat of a disadvantage, being inland a bit.
Grant: What role do the Tench Class submarines play in the game?
Greg: If you’re shot down over the water, you’re going to die of exposure, bottom line, if you aren’t quickly rescued. So, as was done in the Pacific, the submarines are there to play “lifeguard” duty. This procedure is abstracted – there aren’t any submarine markers to move around.
Grant: How have you streamlined fighter combat routines to facilitate ease of play?
Greg: The combat routines for interceptors vs. bombers isn’t all that different from Amerika Bomber – just in reverse. What was a big change was the interceptor versus escort combat. It became apparent to me that the combat routines from Interceptor Ace just wouldn’t work, not the least of the problems being I didn’t have a card deck and didn’t want to use one. But then I realized we are dealing with early jets, mostly, and due to their high speeds, a lot of the dogfighting would revolve around gaining angles on the enemy fighter, and really not that much shooting. So I came up with a simplified fighter combat system for the game to reflect the high speeds and the maneuvering.
Grant: Has this change been a good one in your eyes? Why did you feel the need to modify it?
Greg: Absolutely. I think the change was really required by the fact we’ve got these early jets going after each other, as opposed to the more intricate dogfighting of the prop era.
Grant: Can we see the map that shows all the target cities? How has this map changed from the one used in Amerika Bomber?
Greg: Mainly the map has changed by the new sequence of play and the addition of the airfields and CV staging areas. Other than that, it’s pretty much the Amerika Bomber map in reverse.
Grant: I love the cover. I feel like the game should come with a free download of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA song! Where did this inspiration come from?
Greg: Well, I was lucky in that Bruce Yearian, my artist for Amerika Bomber was also free during the lockdown, and he came up with a concept. I threw it up on Facebook, got a few ideas, and we modified it a bit. I really think it pays homage to the game Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe and that pleases me quite a bit. 🙂
Grant: What mood does the cover art set for the game?
Greg: I think it sets the perfect mood….there you are, in the cockpit of an interceptor, about to defend America and our way of life.
Grant: What was the greatest challenge in the design you had to overcome?
Greg: It’s a reasonably simple game, and while I strongly believe there’s nothing wrong with that (in some sense, that’s a big plus, really) I wanted to have more decisions for the players. I was kind of struggling there, as I felt the research track was good, but not enough. So I had a brainstorm one day about including “Flight School” and it really makes for some fun decisions to start off your career.
Grant: What is Flight School and how does it set the tone for the game at the start?
Greg: Flight School came about one day when I was thinking of the process that pilots go through, and how I just represented that by starting the player off with an experience point to account for all that training. Somehow I crossed the mental bridge of “hey, I could HAVE Flight School to start the game.” Really, any time decisions need to be made in a solitaire game, that is a good thing. And this was a “2-for1” because it also adds to the narrative element as you can customize your training and gain differing benefits. I had a lot of fun with designing Flight School, but the goal was to keep it simple, yet relevant.
A little more about this. Flight School is the process by which the player starts the game. He’s going to be a pilot defending America from the German bombers, so it seemed only logical to expand on this as the training and physical elements would have been important. The player will roll on various charts for things like Gunnery training, parachute training, landing training, etc. Depending on how the rolls come out, they’ll gain certain minor game benefits. The interesting part is the decision made on how to spend this spare time – they can only spend it in one category (studying, physical training, or “carousing.”) This decision by the player will have an impact on performance later in the game, and possibly their survival. Each area has a different benefit.
Grant: What changes have come about through play testing?
Greg: Fred Elsesser, my lead tester, insisted on having the Marines. That caused a lot of work and some adjusting but I was able to fit them in. So that was a reasonably major addition, although not really a change per se. The main changes post testing involved the X-aircraft – how to unlock alternate weapons configurations and how to convert them to production status (in X-status, if you lose one, it’s gone for the rest of the game. In production status, you can get a replacement)
Grant: What do you feel the game design excels at?
Greg: Well, I think it excels at giving players a good look at post-WWII aircraft that the United States had, and were thinking about. Historically, it’s a fascinating period in aircraft development and there’s really not much coverage for it in games. And it’s just good clean shoot ’em up fun. Finally, you get to play good guys for once! 🙂
Grant: What new subjects are you contemplating for this system?
Greg: Yikes. You didn’t tell me there would be HARD questions 🙂 Never say never….I can see possibly adapting the Amerika Bomber/Defending America system to Linebacker over Vietnam, perhaps. That would be interesting. B-36 Peacekeepers in an alternate history setting might be fun too. We’ll see 🙂
As always Greg we appreciate your time and efforts in bringing these fascinating subjects to us in playable forma dn for answering my endless list of questions about the design process. Our readers really do appreciate these inside looks and I also do as it gears me up for the fun that I know I will have playing the games.
If you are interested in Defending America: Intercepting the Amerika Bombers, 1947-48 you can pre-order a copy for $52.00 from the Compass Games website at the following link: https://www.compassgames.com/defending-america-intercepting-amerika-bombers.html