When life squeezes your bandwidth to a sliver, things tend to fall off the to-do list. So updates to this blog have turned out to be less frequent than I'd hoped.
One of the things that is keeping me so busy is content production for Wing Leader. What I hadn't appreciated until recently is how scenarios don't so much flow out of the game design but drive it. It seemed at first as if this was an example of the tail wagging the dog, but I've come to realise that the game is the scenarios, and that the game mechanics are the wrapper around them.
As a result of this epiphany I've had to prioritise scenario production. So much of the production hangs off it, in particular the precious spots for counters on the countersheets and cards for the ADC sheets. It has become impossible to progress until I have a draft of all the scenarios in the bag.
I have specified a 28 page scenario book. By my reckoning 24 or 25 of those pages should be scenarios. Given that a couple of scenarios are two-page mini-monsters,that gives us some 22-23 scenarios in all.
Now that's a heck of a lot of content to be played and tested. Any more than that and I think the quality might be stretched thin. I want to get a good 9+ months of testing done on these scenarios before we publish.
Of course, there's more to scenario production than just putting together an orbat and then testing for balance. Balancing is in some ways the last part of the process. Discovering what makes a scenario unique and where it fits within the canon of scenarios is as important, if not moreso.
I most creative media, I find the hardest bit is that difficult first draft. Everything after that is editing (and sometimes a complete redrafting). In terms of time and effort editing takes up the lion's share of time, but in my experience the initial draft--getting that idea down on paper--is the most stressful part.
To give you an indicator of how I intend to go forward, here's a process I outlined to my testers this week just gone:
Just to clarify the next steps:
(1) Get first draft of all 24+ scenarios ready by early/mid August.
(2) Scenario Audit I. This is simply a look at all the scenarios to see if we cover all the bases and whether there are any gaps that need to be filled. Some weaker scenarios may get dropped at this stage for stronger ones. For example: 'Scratch One Flat Top' is in jeopardy because it doesn't offer a lot of difference from 'Rain On the Water'.
The product of this audit should be a minimum 24 scenarios. I'd like this done well before the end of August.
(3) Scenario Audit II. I go through all the scenarios to determine the assets required. These are:
i. The ADCs needed ii. The counters needed iii. The counters broken down by colour scheme (i.e. supporting desert/trop/winter schemes where necessary)
The product of this should be a list of all ADCs and counters needed. I can then check these against capacity. Frankly, I'm expecting the assets, particularly squadron counters, to be really squeezed. There's a danger that some things, such as tropical/winter variants of certain aircraft, may fall by the wayside.
(4) Scenario Review and Revision. This is a look at every single scenario, asking these questions:
a. Do the scenarios as a body of work use all or most of the game rules? b. Do the scenarios as a body of work describe a learning curve from the core rules to advanced usership? c. Why does this scenario deserve to be in the box? d. How does this scenario differ from other scenarios? e. Is there anything we can do to ensure this scenario substantially differs in experience from other scenarios? f. Is there anything we can do to enhance the gameplay experience of this scenario? g. In this scenario is there anything we can do to stretch the game system/victory conditions/set-up in interesting ways?
Notice that this review will NOT substantially tackle balance. Rather it looks at the quality of the experience. I'd like to get this done some time in September.
(5) Organise beta test. This will aim to bring fresh eyes on to the game. From this point onward the focus on scenarios will shift more to balancing. Though this doesn't preclude adapting scenarios to make them more unique or interesting. I'd hoped to be at this stage around now but it looks like we will slip into the autumn before we have everything ready for the test.
You'll notice here that this process is in part designed to take us to the point where the game is ready for beta testing. Right now, getting the scenarios squared away is a vital step.
Putting the game mechanics together I very much wanted to have a very simple sequenece of play. This sucka needs to play fast and a no-nonsense approach is required.
The sequence of play can be broken down simply into tallying followed by movement and then combat. However, the full sequence is as follows:
Tally Phase. Squadrons attempt to tally enemies. Unalert squadrons become alerted if warned by radio. Wing Leaders issue attack orders.
Movement Phase. Squadrons move. Jettison bomb loads and drop tanks during movement. Escorts react to enemies moving into the same squares as bombers. Resolve barrage flak attacks.
Combat Phase. Resolve direct fire flak. Resolve bombing attacks. Resolve air combat. Jettison bomb loads and drop tanks following combat.
Administration Phase. Squadrons roll to escape. Place Escort markers on eligible squadrons. Change vectors for squadrons under GCI control. Roll flak surprise check. Place flak barrage counters.
End Turn. The turn ends. Proceed to the Tally Phase of a new game turn.
It’s a pretty short sequence of play. However, the SoP hides an important element of the sequencing, which is the order of movement.
In essence, the initiative goes to the squadron that moves last, so the sequencing favours some aircraft over others. Bombers move before fighters. However, fighter squadrons obey some important initiative rules. Firstly, unalerted fighters move before alerted ones, granting alerted aircraft the initiative. But then squadrons are sorted from low to high, from slowest to fastest, so the squadrons with a height and speed advantage will move after lower, slower units.
Finally, there’s an uber-rule to rule them all, which is that tallying a target commits a unit to moving immediately after. So if a bomber moves, any interceptors chasing that bomber move immediately. If those interceptors are in turn tallied, this can kick off a chain reaction of movement.
Initiative, then, ultimately goes to the unengaged fighters rather than the engaged ones.
Apologies for going quiet for a week. I have been such a busy bunny. Too busy, you might say.
My last post on the design focussed on how we mitigate the ‘god’s eye view’ by imposing mission behaviours on squadrons. For example, a formations of fighters performing a sweep will generally keep truckin’ until they run into some bad guys, at which point they get to move freely.
Now I want to talk about situational awareness, a tricksy thing to model in a game that does not have umpires, double-blind movement, decoy units and so forth.
Situational awareness features highly in fighter pilot reports and memoirs. The VIII Fighter Command ’Long Reach’ report is full of stuff about ensuring surprise by employing positional advantages (such as the Sun) in order to get the drop on an enemy. Interestingly, given the level of command being polled in the report (generally USAAF squadron or group leaders) it seems as if achieving genuine surprise on an enemy was not easy, if only because at this level there were so many eyes keeping lookout. So, the Sun comes up numerous times as the way in which surprise can be sprung. (Cloud is not mentioned except as a means of escape and evasion. It doesn’t seem as if it was as useful offensively.)
An observation that often comes up in discussions of air combat is that most shot-down pilots didn’t even see their attacker. However, this might not be tactical surprise so much as that their focus was elsewhere in the air battle. A pilot gunning for an enemy might not be watching his back. This is one reason why praise for wingmen features so heavily in the ‘Long Reach’ report. Keeping enemies off the back of a shooter was an essential part of the element-level teamwork.
Many dogfight games spend a lot of effort tracking which aircraft have been spotted. (Or ‘tallied’, to use the jargon.) When you get to large battles featuring many squadrons, tracking all this stuff is simply impractical. So in order to keep the game mechanics simple I have crashed three concepts into each other.
The first is the business of tallying, of physically sighting and tracking an enemy.
The second is the decision to actually engage an enemy. This is sort of a morale factor. Squadrons might hesitate or not engage at all.
The third is a squadron’s focus once it commits to the attack.
Potentially, this is an unholy mess of different concepts, some of them only slightly related to situational awareness. However, they serve me well. Essentially, I don’t have to track every other squadron flying in the game. I only have to track which squadrons have committed to attack an enemy.
The tally die roll, which is a mash-up of both the sighting roll and morale check, governs whether the squadron can make an attack. Tallies happen automatically if attacked; the attacker pulling attention to itself, as it were.
If a tally roll results in a tally on an enemy, it is now committed to that target and no other. The squadron is free to move, but cannot attack anyone else. It’s a declaration of intent and also prevents players exploiting their ‘god’s eye’ viewpoint. The focus on enemies also leaves the squadron more open to being surprised, because its attention is elsewhere. The decision to commit has ramifications.
There’s some justification for this to be found in many sources, not least ‘Long Reach’. A common theme is how pair of formations (the two flights in a section or the two sections in a squadron) would be arranged to provide cover for the other. So that if one member of the pair committed to the attack, the other could back them up if they were in turn attacked. The game should encourage these sorts of tactics.
A few odds and ends while I’m talking about production rather than design.
As mentioned in my last post, I have a lot of content still to make and to test. So at some stage I shall be raising the Bat-Signal and asking for beta testers to come aboard and help test the game and scenarios. By this point I’d hope the focus will be on scenarios, but I’ve no doubt we’ll winkle out plenty of rules issues.
Please don’t mail me about joining the test team yet, as I need to get my house in order first. My coming focus is on a June rules release with updated flak rules based on recent playtest discussions. I also want to get a few more scenarios drafted and pushed into test. I shall raise the signal at some point over the summer.
For those who come on board with testing, they’ll either have to make up their own physical test kits from the materials provided (it’s all print-and-play right now) or they can use Al Cannamore’s wonderful VASSAL module. Al always does me proud with his VASSAL efforts on my games.
Finally, someone asked in comments about the scope of the game. I covered some of the scenario stuff in the last post, but I thought I’d throw in the current list of aircraft so you can see what will come in the box. Note that this is not a final list and is subject to change. There are a few slots empty because of the way in which we are changing the ADC format.
Japan A6M2 Zero G4M1 Betty Ki-21 Sally D3A Val B5N Kate Ki-43 Hayabusa
Germany Bf 109E Bf 109F-2 Bf 109F-4 Bf 110C Do 17Z Fw 190A-2 He 111H Ju88A Ju87B/ Ju87D
Britain Blenheim I / Blenheim IV Gladiator II Hurricane I Hurricane IIC Spitfire I Spitfire Vb Boston III
Taking a break from my walk through the Wing Leader game design, I wanted to address those folks who have already pre-ordered and tell you where we are with the game at the moment.
Game System. The game system and rules are pretty much complete and in test. The core air combat mechanics are tested and in solid shape, but will no doubt be tweaked as we go forward. There are a few rules that haven’t really been tested enough, such as Lufberies, as well as many of the late war rules that will feature in the second game. I’ve no doubt we’ll be fiddling with these further before we are done.
On that subject, you’ve probably gathered that the rulebook will feature a few rules that will be redundant in this first game but will feature in the sequels. I’m trying to be as forward-thinking as I can. It’s important that I don’t discover a problem in future games that wasn’t considered in earlier rule editions. This is one reason why I have already produced aircraft data cards for many of the late war aircraft, including jets and rockets.
We are now starting to do some serious testing of the bombing mechanics. They are holding up fairly well so far, but we are considering some modifications to the flak rules, so as to better distinguish between barrage and predicted fire and to improve the flak deconfliction mechanics.
Other than this, the system is done and much of the focus will now be on the rules drafting and proofing.
Scenarios. With the game system in good shape, much of my focus now is on content, specifically the scenarios. We currently have 16 scenarios in test—or 17 pages of scenarios out of a 28 page scenario book. My playtesters have been helping construct scenarios, with Andrew Brazier, Al Cannamore, Andy Parsons and Gordon Christie all chipping in. Here’s the current list:
Penny Packets - Aug 40, England, RAF vs. Luftwaffe
Haway the Lads! - Aug 40, England, RAF vs. Luftwaffe
Let's Go and Surround Them! - Aug 40, England, RAF vs. Luftwaffe
Wings Over England - Sept 40, England, RAF vs. Luftwaffe
Here Come the Last Fifty Spitfires! - Sept 40, England, RAF vs. Luftwaffe
Like Arrows Against Gladiators - Feb 41, Greece, RAF vs. Regia Aeronautica
Nemesis - Apr 41, Greece, RAF vs. Luftwaffe
Send in the Clowns - Apr 41, France, RAF vs. Luftwaffe
Shark Attack - Dec 41, Libya, RAF vs. Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe
Tyger, Tyger - Dec 41, China, AVG vs. IJA
Circus, Circus - Jan 42, France, RAF vs. Luftwaffe
Scratch One Flat Top! - May 42, Coral Sea, USN vs. IJN
The Rain Upon the Sea - May 42, Coral Sea, USN vs. IJN
Hey Rube! - May 42, Coral Sea, USN vs. IJN
The Day of Jubilee - Aug 42, Dieppe, RAF vs. Luftwaffe (monster scenario)
Cactus Thorns - Sep 42, Guadalcanal, USN/USMC vs. IJN
What you’ll notice here are the gaps in this list. We are currently missing scenarios for Malta (though I’m looking at a proposal for that), Midway, Santa Cruz and the Eastern Front. I’d like at least one more North Africa scenario, probably covering the Alamein period. I’m waiting on another Al Cannamore scenario for China, which will feature IJA Oscars. Basically, I need at least another ten pages of scenarios. I expect one of my Midway scenarios to be a mini-monster that will require at least two pages.
Aircraft Data Cards. I have generated data for almost all the aircraft needed for the scenarios. I’m trying to ensure there’s at least one scenario, and preferably two, for each ADC. The next step is to redesign the layout for the cards, to resolve the final layout. I need a better way to format the special abilities. I also want to be able to include variant information on the cards, which may make a few types a little cramped. So the Blenheim card will need to incorporate the Blenheim I and IV; the Wildcat card the F4F-3 as well as the F4F-4 with its added firepower.
Counter Art. The biggest art job is the aircraft counter art. There’s a lot still to do and this will be a slow process, not least because there are so many aircraft and so many variant art schemes. If there’s ever a bottleneck in the project it will be the art. However, the result should be some of the lushest counter art you have ever seen.
Sorry that I’ve been silent running this past week. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes at the moment, as you will soon see. More on that in the next couple of days.
Picking up from last time, one of the problems we face with any tactical air game, and Wing Leader is no exception, is that of the ‘god’s eye view’. The players can see more than their cardboard squadrons can and this knowledge distorts the decision-making.
One way to resolve this is through mechanics that handle situational awareness. Of this, I’ll have more in a future post.
Another method is to regulate squadron behaviour. Make them behave according to their role in the battle. For example, a bomber squadron is unlikely to deviate from its flightpath to the target. If we put that squadron on rails, it won’t do anything untoward. A mechanism we can use here is to define the squadron’s Mission.
Those of you who have played my Vietnam game Downtown will have been here before. In that title I had a lot of different missions that defined a flight’s role, so that Escorts behaved different from SEAD behaved different from Strike aircraft and so on. Certain behaviours were expected and other prohibited.
In Wing Leader we do something similar, though considerably streamlined. All squadrons and flights are assigned to one of four types of mission: Bombing, Sweep, Escort and Intercept. The first three apply to raider forces, the last one to the defenders.
Bombing. Well, the behaviour for the bombing mission is obvious: bombers bomb. They fly to the target, drop bombs and skedaddle back home. The devil is in the detail.
In the game the bombers are largely on autopilot. They drone across the map toward their target. However, we have to reflect real-world behaviours. For example, on approaching their target the bombers may let down altitude gradually to reach their bombing height. Another thing they may do is circle for a while before they attack, particularly if they are trying to coordinate attacks from different directions.
When it comes to the attack itself bomber behaviour becomes even more idiosyncratic. I’ll go into this more when we describe the bombing mechanics, but clearly level bombing, dive bombing and torpedo attacks have their own behaviours associated with them.
Another interesting variation on the bomber, which features in the mid- and late-war, is the fighter-bomber. The bomb-armed fighter—didn’t really get under way until 1940 and wasn’t perfected until 1942. However, specialist single—engined bombers proved so vulnerable in combat that using a high-performance aircraft to haul ordnance made more sense. In game terms the fighter-bomber is a bomber with more options once it has disposed of its load, though it is still committed to the basic plan of getting in and gitting out from the target.
Sweep. The fighter sweep or Freie Jagd was the most popular offensive mission for fighters. The basic notion was to launch into enemy airspace and look for trouble. An interesting feature of the sweep is that it often took place beyond the reach of ground control, making it vulnerable to an enemy that was tracking the sweep. Like the bombers, sweep fighters are usually on autopilot until they spot an enemy, at which point they are free to manoeuvre.
Sweep can also represent some forms of very extended escort, such as top cover, that may be too far away to intervene should the bombers be attacked.
Escort. Escort cover represents various forms of escort cover, including close and extended escort. The escort pretty much has to drone along, tethered to the bombers. However, their superpower is that they can intervene should an enemy fighter squadron get too close. They are positioned to get in the way. We’ll cover escort reaction in a future post, but you get the idea.
Intercept. The defender gets to try and intercept raiders. How he does this depends on whether he has ground control or not. Without ground control, the interceptor is pretty much aimed in a straight line towards a spot in the sky and hopes he’ll find some enemies when he gets there. If he made a wrong call as to the destination he might find the raid has passed and there’s not a lot he can do.
With ground control the defender gets more regular updates and so can correct their movement as they go. Of course, the ground control might not always be reliable (a dice roll determines this) and so updates may not be forthcoming.
A variation of the Intercept is the Combat Air Patrol, which commits the fighter unit to maintaining a limit patrol of a location until it picks up an enemy or otherwise ordered to go elsewhere.
I began this blog series with a look at what air combat was before looking at some of the inputs that went into the combat model. Now let’s start to piece some of this stuff together.
The basic units of manoeuvre in this game are the squadron and the flight. The size of these may vary but I define a flight as being between two and six aircraft, and a squadron between 7 and 12.
This can place the game at odds with air force organisations. An RAF squadron of 12 aircraft is equivalent to a Luftwaffe Staffel of 8 or an IJN Chutai of 9. Full strength USAAF squadrons come out to around two game squadrons. A USN division is a flight, as is a USN section.
For me, these differences are somewhere down in the weeds. The key thing is that these are basic building blocks of fire and manoeuvre. The size difference manifests itself in terms of the brittleness of the unit. I measure casualties in individual aircraft, and so a Rotte of two ‘planes will come apart with fewer losses than a Schwarm of four. We rate flights and squadrons by the number of losses required to destroy them, to distinguish between the various forms of organisation.
A feature of units is that they can sometimes split into subunits. In game terms we allow squadrons to split into flights. This is another product of doctrine, since only those air forces organised to be tactically flexible could do this.
Splitting up units is an important ability, because as discussed in a previous post, there’s a chess-like quality to large-scale air combat. A flight may be more brittle than a squadron, but it has a decent chance of nullifying that squadron and breaking it apart. An force of inferior size with the ability to split into smaller units can engage and dismantle a much larger force. This was an advantage the Germans possessed at the start of the war but lost by the end, while the Allies later learned and benefitted from it. Interestingly, it was this flexibility that may have led many RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain to believe that they were outnumbered in otherwise even fights. It was, as they say today, a ‘force multiplier’.
The concept of formations breaking up is key to the combat system. Though we measure combat results in terms of individual aircraft lost, we also measure unit cohesion. As units enter combat they will become disrupted and break up. A broken squadron becomes an expanding bubble of aeroplanes heading for home. There is no rallying in air warfare (it happened rarely), so once you break an enemy unit, it is no longer useful in battle.
It’s possible, in the game, for squadrons to band together into wings. As the game is called Wing Leader, this is something of an interesting subject for us.
The wing has had a troubled history and it’s hard from the historical accounts and memoirs to get a clear view of the wing’s effectiveness. There are a few writers who suggest that wings never worked, often pointing towards Bader’s use of the Big Wing in the Battle of Britain. But the problem with Bader’s wing is not that it didn’t work, but rather that it was hard to get it into a fight because of the time it took to assemble. Once in combat the press of numbers told and though Bader’s wing rarely reached the German formations, when it did it usually managed to biff its way through the escort to the bombers—something that was hard for individual squadrons to do.
Of course the Luftwaffe sometimes deployed in Gruppen (and sometimes even Geschwader strength) and it was not unknown for two or three Staffeln to operate together in the Escort Cover or Sweep role. Later, the Allies caught up and began using bigger formations during the Circus and Rodeo operations. It looks as if the RAF found wings of three squadrons or larger to be unwieldy to assemble and operate together. Two squadron wings appear to have been far easier to manage. A full-strength USAAF squadron was around the size of one of these small wings, though didn't always operate in these numbers.
The most interesting of the big formations is the German Gefechtsverband, a roughly Geschwader-size group of 100-120 fighters designed to take on heavy bomber formations late in the war. The concept was to assemble Gruppe-sized formations of light and heavy fighters, with the light fighters (Bf 109Gs) providing cover for Sturmgruppen of heavy fighters, including the Fw 190-A8 R8 Sturmbock armoured fighter.
This is the very stuff of a Wing Leader scenario: some 9+ units of German fighters tackling big B-17 boxes of 6 counters, supported by escorts up to the size of a fighter group. The effectiveness of the Gefechtsverbande seems to have varied. These big formations appear to have delivered some strong blows, but there’s rumblings in the post-war debriefs and memoirs suggesting that they were not really effective or efficient. Like Bader’s Big Wings these were unwieldy entities to assemble and manoeuvre. And they could be broken up by American sweeps before they got to the bombers.
In game terms the wing is an assembly of squadrons flying in formation. A wing leader has some limited ability to command the wing while it remains cohesive. For example, he could feed individual squadrons into a fight or direct them toward a detected threat. But once a wing’s squadrons have been committed, it ceases to be a coherent organisation.
This ability to manage wings is in part bounded by the radio net, comms being vital to the enterprise. Interestingly, the Japanese at various times lacked radios (sometimes by choice), making their battle management harder. A lack of radios also seems to have affected cohesion even down to Squadron and Flight level, and contributed to the brittleness of formations in some fights.
In the next post we’ll take a look at missions and how they affect squadron behaviour.
I’ve finished my discussion of the pillars used for rating the outcomes of combat. But before I move on to looking at the game more closely, there are a few odds and ends to clear up.
The pillars I’ve described don’t capture all the capabilities of aircraft. Many aircraft have abilities that need listing separately. Here is a sampling of these special abilities:
Bombsight. Bombing is an important part of the game and accuracy is aided by bombsights. Use of a 2d6 system to resolve bombing attacks means that I have had to boil down bombsight ratings to a handful of values. In some cases this means rating sights of different performance as being in the same category. The sights supported in the game are:
* Telescopic (Though this also includes gunsights.) * Vector * Gyrostabilised Tachometric (This mainly describes the Norden sight, though I classify halfway-houses such as SABs under this category.)
Bombs. This describes the weight of bombs carried, at a rate of 1 point of bombs per 50 kg. So an aircraft capable of hauling 1,000 lb of ordnance will have 9 points of bombs. At present it is not settled whether I rate aircraft based on their maximum loads or typical loads, though it’s likely to be the latter where I can find the info.
Special Ordnance. At present, special notes need to be made of aircraft that use torpedoes and air to ground rockets. Torpedoes receive a rating based on effectiveness, so as to distinguish between Japan’s excellent Type 91 fish and the awful (at least in its early incarnation) American Mk.13. Rockets have a value based on their throw weight and accuracy, which means that Soviet rockets tended to come across as fairly feeble (which they were).
Dive Brakes. Various forms of brakes permit aircraft to perform dive bombing or steep angled attacks.
Air-to-Air Rockets. Provision is made for air-to-air rocket attacks, which had some small success against the heavy bombers.
Gyro Gunsights. The introduction of the Ferranti Mk II D gyro gunsight in 1944 was a major event that radically improved the effectiveness of Allied shooting. A British invention, it was thought to double the accuracy of RAF fighter pilots, with the result that the Americans soon equipped their aircraft with a license-built copy. The sight was less of a boon to the aces than it was to the middling sort of pilot. At the war’s end the Germans had their own gyro sight, the EZ42, in operational trials, but had not yet worked all the bugs out of it.
Other items appear as special abilities, such as advanced propulsion (jets and rockets), the ability to carry drop tanks and improved rear views to aid situational awareness.
When looking at aircrew quality, the question must be asked 'what do we mean by quality'? In my last post I explained how pilots broke down as a body of men and how I was going to rate squadrons, but what do those ratings map to in the real world?
Game terminology can be misleading. If I rate a squadron as 'Veteran' it conjures the image of a band of hard-bitten warriors with stubble and scars, their leader chomping down on a cigar. The truth may be otherwise. There was only ever one 'squadron of aces' assembled in the war, and it did not do well, though the travails of Jagdverband 44 is a tale I'll save for another time.
Look at any squadron in World War II and you'll find it boasted a diverse crew. There may have been a cadre of experienced pilots, some with kills, mingled with chumps who were likely to meet their maker the moment the unit got into a scrap. The patterns of individuals and the mix of skills were as unique as fingerprints, but we can at least be sure that units were not homogenous.
If most of the killing was done by a small cadre of pilots, a squadron's effectiveness may well rest on how those handful of individuals would perform. However, it might also rest on how the less-skilled pilots do. The middling sort in the unit might not bag high scores, but they could get a few, and they could contribute simply by not screwing up. Those journeymen fighter pilots that could be relied on to watch the others' backs and make it back in one piece were also doing their bit. They reflect the overall quality of the unit as much as the aces. As we'll soon see they were as important in their own way as the blue-eyed killers.
This still doesn't help us grasp what quality represents in a game. Is it experience? Skill? Well, yes it's these things and more besides. Two other factors need to be taken into account: Doctrine and Training.
Doctrine is key to a World War II game because good doctrine didn't emerge until a year or more of war had passed. By general agreement the Germans began the war with the most developed doctrine, which acquitted itself well in the early battles over Poland, France and Britain. This was based on flexible formations organised around the fundamental component of pairs of aircraft. Pairs could be built into larger four-ships and even bigger units. It required considerable work at formation training, but paid dividends in the form of a mutually-supporting formation that worked especially well on defence and was flexible enough to adapt to the attack.
By contrast, the British started the war with a totally inadequate doctrine, including complex attack patterns and formations based on the tight three-ship Vee formation, or vic. The vic was inefficient and required the trailing pair to expend more effort on maintaining close formation on the lead than they did on looking out for the enemy. Vics suffered badly when attacked. Interestingly, the Japanese also employed a vic, but a much looser one that was closer to the Germans in flexibility. They performed better as a consequence.
By the time the Yanks entered the war they could cherry-pick the best practices and settled on something close to the German system, which by then the British had also adopted. The Russians stuck with the vic for far too long, because of institutional blindness, pigheadedness and ideology. Commissars would punish those squadron commanders who wanted to innovate and it wasn't until Stalingrad that the German system of pairs and finger-fours began to be adopted.
Doctrine was more than the shape of formation. It also determined the nature of attack and defence. After the early air battles, when poor practices were winnowed out, airmen adopted a set of sensible principles, often with advice about attacking from positions of advantage, using altitude and the Sun. They advised to close to very close ranges before shooting, and above all keep an eye out for trouble. There's more to this stuff than I'll go into here, but everyone eventually developed a series of simple tactics that worked. The only problem was indoctrinating fighter pilots with them.
The grand narrative of the air wars of World War II was one of ascendancy for the Allies and decline for the Axis. This is not just in machines, but in the men who flew them. The Luftwaffe and Japan started with some of the most highly trained fighter pilots of the war, but around the mid-war point lost that advantage and diminished in skill. By contrast, the British and Americans began the war with, at best, middling forces, and ended the war as an incredibly skilled fighter arm that ground their opponents into dust.
How they did this was because of a superior training establishment. The training commands were where the air war was won and lost.
Now, I don't know where you stand on the 'great men of history' thing, but I'm deeply suspicious of it. Narratives may dwell on the exploits of the aces but it's my belief that the rank-and-file win wars. In the last post I mentioned that 4% of fighter pilots achieved 40% of kills, which sounds impressive, as if the blue-eyed boys were shouldering the burden of combat. However, the rest of the kills, the majority, relied on the middling sort of pilots. Without these an air force was sunk.
This is just what happened to the Luftwaffe. If you recall from the last post, after a certain point the top aces were more or less invincible. Many if not most of them survived into the late war, and though some went for a Burton, a lot fought on to the bitter end. By that end the Luftwaffe was more or less two air forces: one of the great aces and the other of ill-trained novices. The statistics were frightening. By July 1944 the bulk of available pilots had between 8 and 30 days' combat service, a pitiful total. Despite the best aces in the world, who went up to fight day after day, the middle of the service had been hollowed out, and because of it the Luftwaffe fighter arm was crushed.
The failure of the Luftwaffe, and also of Japan's air forces, was the inability to turn out pilots of sufficient quality to make up losses. Once the reserves had been eaten up by combat, quality declined. The success of the Allies was in creating a training establishment so lavish that there was, if anything, an oversupply of pilots. By 1944, a pilot entering a frontline squadron for the first time might have as much as two years of service.
For the Germans, the inflection point was in the summer of 1942. This was when training hours began to be cut, and increasingly resources for training, such as fuel for aircraft, began to tighten, which only increased the death spiral of the service. Not just hours either, but parts of the course. The fighter pilot of the late war had no instrument flying experience and precious little training in formation flying. It's notable that of the 107 German aces to score 100+ victories, only 8 joined their squadrons after mid-1942.
At the start of the war, new German pilots received around 240 hours of training, with maybe 80 hours in operational types. By July 1944 they were getting barely 120 hours, and just 20 on operational types. Compare this with the Americans, who by mid-1944 were getting 400 hours of flying, with just under 200 hours on operational aircraft. Is it any wonder that while the aces ground out victories, the rest of the German air force went up and they died and died.
The key to the Allied victory was in getting pilots past their critical first missions, to the point where they had a decent chance of survival. Realistic training, given by veterans, backed by solid doctrine and plenty of flying hours gave the Western Allies the edge. It does not matter that the Allies had no 100+ veterans. They beat the crap out of the Germans without them.
Translating this into game terms is to look at air forces in terms of their overall training level. Veterans are not just ruff-tuff warriors, but men with ample training and good doctrine. In early-war scenarios, such as the Battle of France, you are likely to see all Luftwaffe squadrons as Veteran. However, as casualties kick in and replacements appear, we see that change.
By the Battle of Britain, maybe only two-thirds of the squadrons are Veteran, and the remainder are Trained. Following mid-1942 we start to see Green squadrons appear as a proportion of the countermix, until in late 1944 they are mostly Green units, leavened with some Experte counters. Of course by this time, the Americans and British they are fighting against are pretty much all Veteran, notching up remarkable kill ratios.
And so it goes. . .
You can perform a similar exercise for the Japanese, who begin the Coral Sea operation with their First Team of superb Veterans, but who reach their own inflection point in 1943 and end at the Battle of the Philippine Sea as a wrecked force of Green aircrew.
Here then, is the basis on which the aircrew quality system is founded.