J.D. Webster Interview: Designing Air Combat Games
J.D. Webster is the designer of the Fighting Wings series of air combat boardgames, which include Over the Reich, Achtung–Spitfire!, and Whistling Death: WWII Air Combat Over the Pacific, 1941–1945. A former Navy and airline pilot, his trademark is air combat games that attempt to model the options of three-dimensional flight. Rick Martin, who has reviewed some of Webster’s games for the Armchair General Website, recently interviewed Webster about his background and design theories.
Rick Martin: In brief, please tell us about your background and how you got into designing games?
J.D. Webster: I was first introduced to tabletop wargaming when I was 14 years old in high school. Being a history buff already I was instantly hooked into gaming as a life-long hobby. My dad was a private pilot, and he got me interested in airplanes when I was really young. Naturally, I was most interested in any games that had to do with airplanes. There were very few back in those days.
In college I attended Navy ROTC and was commissioned in 1978 as an Ensign. From there I went to flight school ending up flying A-7E Corsairs off the USS Ranger in 1983 and 1984. While I was in flying for the Navy, I realized that most of the airplane-related wargames coming out at the time were taking, what was in my opinion, the wrong design approach, being either too complex or too restrictive. Airplane motion is very fluid. I started out trying to tinker with existing games and then finally decided, I could best satisfy myself doing my own design. I never really thought my designs would end up being published.
RM: What are your favorite wargames?
JDW: Air combat games and naval wargames tend to interest me the most. I like the hardware and technology aspects of them. I also enjoy division and corps–level Russian Front games, and sometimes I like to play Ancient Greek and Roman warfare games. My main hobby focus is probably at the tactical level of play, rather than the grand-strategic level.
RM: What were the greatest challenges when you designed your first games, the jet-combat games Air Superiority and The Speed of Heat?
JDW: Picking a good game scale was tough. All aspects of the game will revolve around the selected scale, so this is the first and most important decision a designer has to make. For these games I settled on 12 seconds a game turn and one-third mile per hexagon—much larger than the scale used in SPI’s Air War. The reason I chose that scale was to best model air-to-air and air-to-ground and surface-to-air missile warfare. Dogfighting with guns at close range was not those designs’ primary focus. Of course, once I had the design roughed out, finding a publisher was very, very tough. I thank Frank Chadwick and Mark Miller at GDW for taking a chance on me.
RM: Having played the "monster game" Air War, I must say that both of your jet games are much more fun. Where do you feel the limit of realism versus playability is reached in tactical air combat games?
JDW: This is a very broad and un-answerable question. In my opinion "realism" is the wrong term. You cannot really put the gamer in the seat of a fast jet and then subject him to the G-forces, chaos and confusion of a three-dimensional maneuvering fight. All you can really do for the gamer is create the illusion of realism by the level of detail you put in the game. Successful wargame designs of any genre tend to find a comfortable balance between "details" and playability. I think Air Superiority had that balance, but Speed of Heat suffered what we call "design creep." That is, due to its popularity, players wanted more and more details (sometimes referred to as chrome) added to the game system. But the more details a gamer has to fiddle with, the more the game is slowed down in play, and there is a point of diminishing returns: too much time-consuming work and the gamer’s fun level is reduced. I think the Speed of Heat is guilty of being a hair too complex, reducing its playability. The hard-core fans won’t care, but the more detailed a game is, the harder it is to get new players into it.
A P-40 goes after some G4M "Betty" bombers, but a Ki43 "Oscar" is coming up behind him in a Whistling Death game.
RM: What influenced you to design Over the Reich and Achtung–Spitfire?
JDW: Before I flew jets, I used to love reading books on World War II fighter pilots. I could spout off the histories of all our great aces by the time I was twelve. It just took me many years to decide on how best to model World War II air combat and to decide on the proper scale. The jet games were done while I was flying jets. The World War II games were done after I had left the Navy to become an airline pilot and had more time to think about things.
RM: You seem to include more solitaire scenarios in your games that most designers do. First, a huge "thank you" for that and second, did the inclusion of solitaire play in any way influence the game design?
JDW: No, the games were never meant to be solitaire games, but air combat games must be able to model the numerous options three-dimensional flight offers in terms of maneuvering, and that makes my games necessarily complex in that regard. Complex games take time to learn, and I felt it was a good idea to use solitaire training-scenarios to allow the owner of the game to reach a proficiency with the rules where he could then teach his gaming buddies the basics. In this way, the fan base can be expanded and opponents found.
RM: Whistling Death seems to be a huge step up from the rules included in your earlier games—do you feel the design is successful? In addition, it appears you are designing a Russian Front–themed expansion to Fighting Wings, will there be many rule changes or additions in that game?
JDW: I will confess that when the first two World War II games were done, I hadn’t really figured out how best to model three-dimensional flight in a playable way, so the vertical flight rules were a bit crude in the early games. They worked, but were clunky and not accurate. However, by teaming up with some very smart and well educated wargamers (nod to my buddy Tony Valle, Ph.D in Physics, and others) we were able to really jazz the game up with a new vertical flight system that makes the player feel more like he is flying a plane than before and which is more accurate in terms of energy gain and loss. Again though, the devil is in the details and Whistling Death is a very detailed game. New players have a very hard time absorbing all the rules before playing. I believe Whistling Death was successful because it flies right. When you play, you can use actual World War II tactics for all the real reasons. The Russian Front game will introduce some new modeling for some of the combat routines, and the flight rules will be cleaned up a little (errata incorporated, etc.), but there will be no major design changes to the flight rules. They are just where I want them.
RM: Why did you revamp the combat system in Whistling Death, changing to a percentile-based "to hit" chart instead of the 1d10 system of past games?
JDW: Doing combat odds and event modeling in ten-percent chunks was just too limiting in my mind. By going over to the percentile dice we could then refine probabilities for events in one-percent increments allowing a much better modeling of events.
A Soviet SB-2 falls prey to a Brewster Buffalo in the Fighting Wings expansion Buffalo Wings.
RM: You are very active in communicating with players of your games. Where can interested gamers go to find out more about Fighting Wings and your other games?
These sites will lead you to other discussion sites and PBEM games in progress.
RM: Any thoughts about doing a World War I version of Fighting Wings?
JDW: Plenty of thought, and plenty of notes on hand—just not enough time. Too busy trying to finish up my World War II series. I still have the Italians and French to focus on.
RM: Aside from Fighting Wings, what boardgame(s)/computer game(s) do you feel have come closest to simulating air-to-air combat?
JDW: Despite the superb graphics included in many of the flight simulator games I think most have flight performance modeling issues and certainly combat modeling issues (bullets that don’t curve with gravity, over-simplified damage effects, etc.). Certainly the flight sims remain exceedingly popular. All are first-person-shooter style arcade games though, whereas most wargames, like mine, are strategy games. This is a very important distinction. My games are not about split-second pilot reaction times; rather, they are about energy management and weapons employment—big difference.
As for dogfighting tabletop wargames, certainly the most realistic out there is Tony Valle’s Birds of Prey jet air combat game, which uses real physics in its modeling. At the operational level of air combat modeling, I enjoy and respect every one of Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s designs and their offshoots. I should also mention RAF by John Butterfield as an excellent work.
RM: What is next for Fighting Wings?
JDW: The boxed game Wings of the Motherland, volume four of the Fighting Wings series. This will cover the Russian Front from 1941 to 1945 and includes 48 aircraft data cards. There will be a lot more emphasis on air-to-ground actions and tank-busting in this design than in previous ones.
RM: Any final comments?
JDW: Thank you for taking an interest in my air combat game designs. I hope you are enjoying exploring them.