Over the past thirty years, many historical wargames have come and gone, and quite a few have been forgotten, as well. There have been a few big sellers that have enjoyed great and lasting popularity, becoming “classics” in their own right, and deservedly so. There are a few other games that may have never enjoyed widespread notice or runaway sales, but which have nonetheless endured due to a particularly devoted following. The DAWN PATROL® game (originally entitled FIGHT IN THE SKIES) is certainly one of those. In fact, not only is the game still played despite being out of print for almost ten years (a situation that will hopefully be rectified with a new 8th Edition to be published in the future), but it also boasts its own club! The FIGHT IN THE SKIES Society, with over 100 members, dates back to 1969 — and its player magazine, the AERODROME (now a quarterly), has published more than 120 issues since that time. What is it about this amazing wargame that accounts for this remarkable record and the loyalty of its small but devoted following? As the game’s creator, I was asked to address this question and discuss the history of the game for the readers of MARS, and I hope you will find my story to be both interesting as well as illuminating.
Not every game is born of some great inspiration, but this one was. The 1966 release of the motion picture “The Blue Max”, starring George Peppard, James Mason, Jeremy Kemp, Ursula Andress and Karl Michael Vogler was the impetus. This stirring movie and its incredible aerial combat scenes made quite an impression on this fifteen year old boy who also enjoyed wargames, and it wasn’t long before I was experimenting with some rules for a game that would feature the planes of World War I. The first playing pieces were 1/72 scale plastic models made by Revell, Airfix and Renwal — the Fokkers, SPADs, Sopwiths and whatever else I and my friends could find at local hobby shops in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area. The playing “board” was the square-tiled basement floor of my parents’ home. The rules were developed and recorded as we went along, making adjustments and changes with the input of the players. It was grassroots gaming in its purest form, and it was great fun — so much so that we spent the better part of two summers playing the game, creating fictional pilot personalities, and enjoying exciting dogfights while crouched over the plastic models, pushing them across the floor and yes, even crunching one or two under our feet from time to time!
The International Federation of Wargaming (IFW) was a leading national club for gamers in the mid-1960’s, and among its many activities was the creation of a game design forum to encourage fledgling game designs — a laudable goal, since the only major publisher at that time, the Avalon Hill Company, released just one or two new games a year. The prime mover behind this effort, called the Wargame Inventors Guild (WGIG) was none other than Gary Gygax, an imaginative sort who had some game ideas of his own — the most famous of which turned out to be the legendary DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® game which he co-authored with Dave Arneson in the years that followed with the founding of the TSR company. Gary, having seen this new game called FIGHT IN THE SKIES played at the GEN CON® game convention (of which he was also the founder and original organizer) in 1968, encouraged me to produce a set of rules under the auspices of the WGIG. The first three editions were done that way, hand produced in quantities of 25, 50 and finally 100 copies, with photocopied rules, a handful of playing charts, and some crudely printed maneuver cards. Players were required to make their own playing pieces and to create their own square grid, but no one seemed to mind too much in those days! It was a crude and small beginning, but the game started to catch on, and began to attract some notice among players and publishers, especially when Gary Gygax recommended it to Don Lowry, who was starting his own game publishing business called Guidon Games. The first professionally-published version of FIGHT IN THE SKIES, the 4th Edition, was published by Guidon in 1972 in a print run of 1,000 copies.
Another of the activities of the IFW was the creation of “societies” — special interest groups created around particular games. Considering how the game had started under the aegis of the IFW, it was a simple matter to start the FIGHT IN THE SKIES Society with a couple of dozen interested players in the summer of 1969. The first issue of the AERODROME appeared in June of that year, and except for a five year hiatus (from 1983 to 1987), it has been published continuously since then by a rotating cast of volunteer editors, players all. The AERODROME — then, as now — includes society news, historical articles, book reviews, game reports, convention and tournament notices, and new rules. It originally began as a typed and mimeographed newsletter, but nowadays in the age of desktop publishing, it is a remarkably professional-looking magazine. Because there is a different editor for each issue, the look and content of the magazine varies from issue to issue, and the schedule is a bit irregular, but the end result is a remarkable publication that enjoys a unique place in the history of wargame publications due to its longevity alone. Currently, membership in the FIGHT IN THE SKIES Society, which includes a subscription to the AERODROME, costs US $12 per calendar year, and back issues of the AERODROME (issues #88 through #129) are US $3.00 each. Inquiries or payments should be directed to the Treasurer of the Society, Jim Barber, at: 220 Crimson Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15237-1070 USA. New members are always welcomed.
In the mid-1970’s, the game’s early proponent, Gary Gygax, was soon to embark on a new venture, the formation of Tactical Studies Rules — a partnership that eventually became TSR, Inc. After publishing a series of rules booklets for tabletop miniatures (including a medieval title called CHAINMAIL and its fantasy supplement which was the precursor of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® game), TSR was exploring the possibility of publishing boxed games as well. One of the early such releases was the new and expanded 5th Edition of FIGHT IN THE SKIES, featuring a striking sky-blue box with artwork by aviation artist R. “Andy” Anderson, which was released in early 1976. The fledgling company was short on funds for such a major project, so more than half a dozen of the game’s loyal players floated a production loan to TSR, which was repaid on the sale of the first 1000 copies — once again, a remarkable testimonial to their love of the game and a remarkable show of support for this new publishing effort.
With the amazing growth of TSR and the runaway popularity of its DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® products, FIGHT IN THE SKIES enjoyed moderate success. A 6th Edition was published with a new box design in 1979. FIGHT IN THE SKIES continued to be a regular and popular fixture on the schedule at the GEN CON® game convention, and the “FITS” Society staged its first convention and team tournament in June of 1978 in Milwaukee, with 40 players in attendance. Those sorts of gatherings, publicized in the AERODROME, are still held several times a year in various Midwest locations and are always popular and well-attended.
In 1982, TSR decided to upgrade the game further and re-release it with more of a role-playing emphasis, giving it a new and more “saleable” title: DAWN PATROL®. With expanded rules and a new box featuring a painting by aviation artist Mike Hagel, the new version was very well received, and sales peaked at over 20,000 copies sold in 1983. Several years later, when TSR made the decision to abandon its historical games (including the SPI line purchased in the early 1980’s), the DAWN PATROL® game went out of print, though copies could still be obtained through TSR’s mail order outlet until relatively recently. Fortunately, DAWN PATROL games are seen fairly regularly at used game outlets and convention auctions, so obtaining a copy at the current time is not too difficult or costly. And the good news is that preparation for a new, expanded and deluxe 8th Edition is currently underway, with publication sometime in the next several years. New rules, additional aircraft, new charts, and other various refinements are being formulated and tested at the current time, and players are excited about what is coming as they see it step by step in the AERODROME.
So much for the history of DAWN PATROL…. what makes it so special in the minds of its players, and what elements account for its longstanding popularity among its small but incredibly devoted following? First of all, it is a team game playable by any number of players, from four on up. The best and most interesting games have from six to ten players, and generally take from one to two hours to play, though typically a game will last from 45 to 90 minutes for four to six participants. Games with an odd number of players are easy and usually relatively balanced, meaning that a game with five or seven players is as simple to set up and play as any other.
Secondly, every game of DAWN PATROL is different, making for endless variety. Various scenarios can be set up as desired, or game situations can be created randomly using the several setup charts included with the game (these are being expanded even further for the new edition). Just consider the list of variable elements that go into every scenario and you will see that there are an infinite number of possible starting situations:
|Number of players on each side|
|Mix of players of each side|
|Date of combat (September 1916 through the end of the war in November 1918)|
|Location of combat (over the Allied side, German side, or “No Man’s Land”)|
|Altitude level of combat (Below 6,000′, 6,000′-12,000′, or above 12,000′)|
|Clouds (if any) and their altitude level and thickness|
|Wind speed and direction|
|Mission type (fighter vs fighter, balloon attack, escort mission, ground attack, etc.)|
|Nationalities represented (British, French, Belgian, American, or Italian vs German or Austro-Hungarian, depending upon Western or Italian front)|
|Aircraft types to be used (based on month and actual historical likelihood of use)|
|Experience level of each player’s pilot (from rookies to accomplished Aces)|
|Starting altitudes of opposing formations (with possible “surprise attacks”)|
Thirdly, each player creates and builds a roster of his own fictional pilot personalities to represent various pilots who fly each type of plane of each nationality. Newly-created pilots are given a name and assigned to a particular aircraft. When that aircraft comes up for a player to play, he takes that pilot and starts as a rookie, at certain disadvantages. If the pilot survives missions, he gains experience and additional abilities, attempting to reach experienced status (12 or more missions) or ranking as an Ace (5 or more enemy planes shot down). Every time a multiple of 12 missions/5 victories is achieved, the pilot goes up to the next level of experience. Of course, that is not easy, since the hazards are many, and being killed in combat, incapacitated, or becoming a prisoner of war will end many a pilot’s career prematurely. But there are additional rewards, not the least of which are a whole panoply of aviation medals and awards, depending upon the heroic feat or length of service of the qualifying pilot, and these fictional airmen can win the same medals as their historical counterparts if they are courageous or successful enough. These elements of role playing, and the camaraderie that grows up amongst the players with their fictional pilots (who often become valued wingmen or colorful adversaries) adds much to the enjoyment of the game. A number of dedicated player groups have started their own newsletters to chronicle the exploits of the many pilots in their group, and the air battles they have fought. Those newsletters are a testimony to the dedication of those players and their love of the game.
Fourth, the game is very playable, and often exciting. The movement mechanics are eminently simple (10 mph of speed converts to one square of movement, for instance) and this emphasis on playability makes the game “flow” well, yet provides great subtlety at times in the many nuances of movement and maneuver. Much of the desired complexity and “flavor” comes from a host of optional rules that add atmosphere and realism. For example, individual airplane characteristics come into play through the “Special Characteristics” optional rule, and there are a host of interesting elements that come up when using the “Critical Hits” option as well. Ever try to put out a burning engine at 8,000′ feet, knowing you must do so in three game turns or be forced to jump (with a mere 5% chance of surviving, if you do)? As you can imagine, that can make for some exciting moments!
Lastly, there is a society and a quarterly magazine to support each player’s interest in the game. The FIGHT IN THE SKIES Society sponsors its own mini-conventions once or twice each year (currently in Kankakee, Illinois each spring, and Saint Paul, Minnesota each summer), plus a team tournament every other year. In addition to that, the society runs a full slate of games at the GEN CON game convention in Milwaukee each August, and those games culminate in alternate years with the Society Open Tournament or the invitational Masters Game, both of which feature a silver trophy. These annual events give the game an extra dimension, allowing players to meet other enthusiasts, engage in spirited competition for prizes, and make many new friends. In the meantime, the AERODROME magazine keeps them informed of new rules, upcoming events, and the like.
The new 8th Edition of the DAWN PATROL game is currently in the works, and new rules and charts are being formulated and tested. In the last fifteen years, a considerable amount of new information on the aircraft, pilots and units of the First World War has been uncovered by various researchers. Some of that information has been very useful in making refinements, improvements and expansions of the game. Over the next several years, the results of those efforts will be playtested and fine-tuned by the members of the FIGHT IN THE SKIES Society.
As always, serious players are invited to try the game and are always welcome in the FIGHT IN THE SKIES Society. If anyone has questions about the game or desires further information, they should contact me, the designer: Mike Carr, Waterville Lake Island, 976 S. Waterville Road, Oconomowoc, WI 53066-9258 USA.
DAWN PATROL® is a trademark of M.C. Futures, Inc.
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, Inc.
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