Introduction to Dawn Patrol
By Game Designer & FITS Society Head Mike Carr
Over the past fifty years, many historical wargames have come and gone, and quite a few have been forgotten, as well. Over the decades, 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 since the mid-1980s (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 178 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?
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 me, at that time a fifteen year old boy who also enjoyed wargames. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if there was a game that gave you the feel of a World War I dogfight, with brave pilots in their fragile biplanes dueling in the skies over the Western Front? It was the desire to replicate that “feel” of a fight in the skies that drove the desire for a game that would be true to history as well as challenging and fun.
It wasn’t long before I was experimenting with rules for a game that would feature the fighter 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 of Minnesota. 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 over and over.
To add to the fun, players created fictional pilot personalities for each aircraft type and attempted to survive 12 or more air battles to achieve experienced status or shoot down 5 or more enemy planes to earn the title of Ace. Either accomplishment conferred extra abilities to those pilots in shooting at or tailing enemy planes – which was the genesis of level advancement, a concept that subsequently became an integral part of every role playing game. Through it all, we enjoyed exciting dogfights while crouched over the plastic models we had assembled and painted, 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 into the 1970s. 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 Game Company in Baltimore, 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.
Gary, having seen this new game called FIGHT IN THE SKIES played as the first event at the inaugural GEN CON® game convention (of which he was 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. Don Lowry, who was also an artist, provided much of the artwork and designed the cardboard-mounted aircraft playing pieces, as well as the box cover. A subsequent print run was produced without the box, packaged in a large envelope.
Another of the activities of the IFW was the creation of “societies” — special interest groups created around particular games. Since 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. A number of play-by-mail (or PBM) games were conducted in the society’s early years, but the results were mixed due to the inherent problems of the chain movement system. Although a number of games were completed over periods lasting up to two years, others suffered setbacks when moves were lost in the mail or simply languished when any one player failed to forward the movement sheets to the next in line.
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 now 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 $15 per calendar year (note: dependent on geographic location), and back issues of the AERODROME (issues #88 through #178) are US $3.00 each or just $2.00 each if a dozen or more are purchased. Inquiries regarding payments should be directed to the Treasurer of the Society, Jeff Patyk, using this link: Contact the Treasurer. New members are always welcomed.
In the mid-1970’s, the game’s early proponent, Gary Gygax, embarked on a new venture, the formation of Tactical Studies Rules — a partnership that soon became TSR Hobbies, Inc. and ultimately 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 testimony 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 vertical red 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 for several years. Fortunately, DAWN PATROL games are seen fairly regularly at used game outlets, convention auctions and can be found online, so obtaining a copy 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.
The DAWN PATROL game and the FITS Society both took a great leap forward with the development of a custom-designed platform for playing the game online. Society member Rick Johnson, an avid and longtime player whose career is in computer game design, created an outstanding interactive system specifically for the FITS Society. This superbly-designed platform allows players to log in from wherever they are and participate in a live, real time game as if they were all in the same room. Rick’s online system has been universally praised by its players and deservedly so. As a result, the FITS Society conducts online games at 7 pm Central Time every Sunday and Monday evening, plus additional games and special campaigns that feature continuing operations for the Allied and German teams.
The online system is easy to use and getting started is simple. Players simply access the online web site, so there’s nothing to download other than the Teamspeak communications program that allows players to converse during the game using a headset with an attached microphone. To participate in online DAWN PATROL, request a gaming account (this is a separate account from this website) using this link: Request Online Dawn Patrol Gaming Account.
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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, though a typical mission will last from 45 to 90 minutes for four to six participants. Games with five or seven players are as simple to set up and play as any other.
Secondly, every game of DAWN PATROL is different, providing endless variety. Various scenarios can be created as desired, or game situations can be randomly determined using the setup charts included with the game or the more recent Master Scenario Chart and Random Aircraft Charts in current use.
Many variable elements determine every scenario, thus creating an infinite number of possible starting situations: Those variables include:
|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 their own fictional pilot personalities to represent the airmen assigned to each type of plane for every nationality. Newly-created pilots are given a name and assigned to a particular aircraft. When that aircraft comes up for a player to fly, he takes that pilot and starts as a rookie, with certain disadvantages.
As the pilot survives missions, he gains experience and additional abilities, attempting to reach experienced status (12 or more missions) or becoming an Ace (5 or more enemy planes shot down). Every time a multiple of 12 missions / 5 victories is achieved, the pilot advances 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. 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.
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 aircraft characteristics come into play through the “Special Characteristics” optional rule, and a host of interesting outcomes occur with 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 makes 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 (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin each spring, and Saint Paul, Minnesota each fall), plus occasional team and wingman tournaments. In addition, the society runs a full slate of games at the GEN CON game convention in Indianapolis each August, as well as the biannual Society Open Tournament or invitational Masters Game, both of which feature a silver trophy. These 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 upcoming 8th Edition of the DAWN PATROL game is currently in the works, and new rules and charts are being formulated and tested. Over the last forty 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 to join the FIGHT IN THE SKIES Society. If anyone has questions about the game or desires further information, they should contact me, the designer using this link: Contact the Game Designer.
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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