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Eddie Harmon

WWI BIPLANE COMBAT:
MORE THAN JUST DOGFIGHTING
IN 'BLOODY APRIL' 1917 CAMPAIGN

See our Red Baron section

For veteran metro game master Ed Harmon, the fascination with World War I air combat includes even more than the amazing aircraft, pilots, and dogfighting tactics of that period. He is currently playtesting an ambitious air campaign with a spectrum of gamers from baby boomers in their forties and fifties to younger gamers in their twenties. "Basically what I've done is to take the popular Red Baron tactical combat rules (Bill Koff, Emperor's Press, 1992) and add my own take on the ferocious British air offensive in 'Bloody April' 1917 over German territory. Although the skillful German aces were able to shoot down hundreds of planes, the British just kept sending up mission after mission, in an attempt to dominate the air and influence the ground battles. German calls would come in on the field telephone about more British raids and the German air staff would have to decide which to intercept with their limited assets and which to let through. So the British and German Air Marshals have a lot of decisions to make before any planes even appear on the gaming table!" As a British player, each person flies various historical versions of both the two engined two man B.E.2 observer aircraft and pursuit planes such as the Nieuport 17, and the Spad (British version with one gun each) as well as British fighter types. Missions include artillery spotting, bombing, photo reconnaissance, balloon busting and trench strafing. Sometimes the larger planes are escorted by fighters, and sometimes not. Different versions of the B.E.2 (2a-2e) include ring mounts for better fire arcs, dual controls, more guns, Vickers rather than Lewis guns, etc. But generally the British have to take these lightly armed and less maneuverable "flying schoolbuses" and single mindedly head for the target, while the Germans bore in for the kill. Its British pluck versus German skill; timing and diversion versus the Hun in the Sun! For the German fliers in their Albatrosses, Fokker Triplanes, and other fighter models, the game is hunting. "Baron" Peter "von" Stein, leader of the defending Jastas says "We've got two guns on each plane versus the British one, more aces, and can choose our entrance points after we see where the British are coming in. Those are big advantages. You'd think it would be easy for us. But so far, its been pretty even. Its interesting to watch the British players invent formation flying under the same conditions when it was being done historically back in the Great War." Sometimes British innovations even surprise the game master. Says Ed: "The BE.2 is not a fighter aircraft--the observer even has to waste a turn just moving the single Lewis gun from one side to the other, and when he's shooting he can't be spotting, taking pictures, or whatever. Yet the British have tried some creative tricks, even under these limitations. They're completely mad, of course." Each player, whether experienced with the system or not, takes a turn as mission/squadron commander. Usually each squadron fields three planes at a time, although every plane is flown by a different player. Players may not communicate with each other regarding tactics during the battles themselves. The small scale biplane models, beautifully painted, fly on graduated flight poles over a table surface marked to indicate trenches, AA guns, roads, and other features. All of the players enjoy putting in their two cents during the playtesting, and there have been some great discussions about the period, the rules, tactics, etc., which sometimes extend during dinner and drinks afterwards. One "restricted participation" playtest is held each month; at least one open practice session for all comers is run each month as well. If you are interested in watching or playing in the campaign, come visit us at Metropolitan's clubhouse and join in the fun. For an introduction to the period, Ed recommends the well detailed but little known war movie Aces High, which features many British actors from Malcolm McDowell ("A Clockwork Orange," "Star Trek Generations") to Simon Ward ("Young Winston"). Tally Ho, chaps!