25 March 2020
The historical aerial combat game has flown to new heights since its release 15 years ago, earning a passionate following of players eager to hop in the cockpit of a WWI dogfighter. Co-creator Andrea Angiolino reveals how a wargaming success got off the ground
Historical wargames are a thriving subsection of the tabletop gaming hobby, with players recreating battles from ancient times to modern conflicts. And within the wargaming community, there’s a niche of passionate players who refight the aerial action of the World Wars, from fighter skirmishes to mass bombing campaigns.
For the most part, these games are intimidatingly complicated, attempting to replicate the tactics and manoeuvres of air combat through complex systems of rules. But 2004’s Wings of War aimed to distil the fast-paced and frantic core of plane battles into a quicker, more accessible package. In the years since, it’s been re-released as Wings of Glory and ,along the way, has cultivated an incredibly enthusiastic community of fans around the globe.
Prepare for Take-off
Andrea Angiolino has been playing games for as long as he can remember. A lifelong resident of the city of Rome, he recalls not only the games he played as a child, but the ones he invented for himself.
“Board games, card games and paper and pencil games have always been a part of my life,” he says. “But I also used to play on the floor with plastic toy soldiers in a kind of wargame using my palms and fingers to move and tossing coins to resolve combats.
“In the spring of 1980 I started playing real simulations – both board games and tabletop wargames. I also got into roleplaying games. My first designs were additional modules for Warhammer campaigns, then I developed full games out of them and started publishing them, starting with Wyvern Hunters, a fantasy air combat game.”
While Angiolino’s early design efforts focused on fantasy settings, he also had a passion for aviation history.
“I have a soft spot for old planes,” he explains. “I have been a modeller, building 1/72 planes since the times of old Revell and Airfix kits. As a teenager I also contributed to founding an association dedicated to recovering and restoring old planes.
“When I started designing games, air combat was a natural theme for me. So in the early ‘90s I designed a classical simulation wargame about air war on the Italian front for the youth magazine of the Italian Air Force Ministry, and I also published a choose-your-own-adventure book on Italian torpedo bombers. They were both designed with Gregory Alegi, a friend who introduced me to wargames and RPGs and who is a famed aviation historian. This besides a couple of fantasy air wargames, Wyvern Hunters and a game called Knights of the Air.”
Along the way, Angiolino encountered a fellow gamer who shared many of his interests. Pier Giorgio Paglia was another Dungeons & Dragons fan, and the pair played regularly in the same group. As well as their roleplaying sessions, they played a host of historical wargames simulating aerial combat. Perhaps inevitably, they soon found themselves planning one of their own.
“Pier Giorgio and I played many air wargames like Richthofen’s War, Aces High, Air Force, Wings, Dawn Patrol, Blue Max, Luftwaffe and Battle of Britain,” Angiolino explains. “They were usually quite demanding simulations. Blue Max was a first step toward simplification, but it still had turns composed of ten different phases and with quite a lot of bookkeeping with paper and pencil. Among the games of that time, Alfred Leonardi’s Ace of Aces was the most elegant – easy to learn, easy to manage, but still with the feeling that you were flying a certain model of plane as opposed to another.
“Wings of War was born with the aim of doing something similarly easy. We wanted it to be broader in scope than Ace of Aces: easy to play with more than two people, with many different models of planes and several kinds of missions from recon to bombing to trench strafing.”
The two worked to develop their ideas, and eventually they arrived at the ruleset for Wings of War. Set during the First World War, the era of biplanes and daring ace pilots, it strove to be easy for inexperienced players to pick up and understand, combining aspects of historical wargames with elements more familiar to board and card game players.
It used sets of cards to represent different types of aircraft, all with their own strengths and abilities, and challenged players to outmanoeuvre and destroy their rivals. Key to its appeal was the simplicity of its movement system, which rejected the painstaking positioning of many battle games in favour of a slick card-driven approach. Players laid movement cards directly onto the table, creating a line denoting their planes’ paths. Once the movement cards were in place, they simply moved their planes to the end point, eliminating the need to measure distances or work out precise turning angles.
“This was one of the main goals of the project,” Angiolino says. “It means that players can choose a few cards and then use them to move. In a typical hex-based simulation game, players would plan their turns on sheets of paper, then check a certain number of movement points and turn in different directions according to very specific diagrams. Our approach was far more easy.
“It also helped create immersion and fun. On a hex-grid map, you play thinking something like: ‘If I switch to the other hex row without turning I’ll cover the hexes where he will move if he turns 60 degrees left before spending his last movement point.’ With our arrows on cards, you don’t think in such an abstract way. Instead you think: ‘If I do a sideslip to the right I will hopefully get him.’ It’s far closer to a real pilot’s frame of mind.”
While their design aimed to present an accessible form of air combat, the two were still keen to represent the historical detail of the period, with different aircraft behaving in very different ways depending on their speed, nimbleness and the power of their guns.
“We did a lot of deep research to work out how to represent different planes in the game,” Angiolino says. “We had the great advice of Gregory Alegi and Paolo Varriale, friends and world-renowned experts. Our illustrator Vincenzo Auletta is also a professional in the field, working for museums and specialised publications, so he helped us too in evaluating performances and armaments of specific aircraft.”
Wings of War also sought to convey some of the tactical elements of the era with optional rules to represent planes flying at different altitudes.
“Altitude was an advantage in combat,” says Angiolino, “so it was used by the most agile fighters to dominate lower planes. In the game you can gain an advantage by firing from above, or zoom down to help extinguish flames. You can stay above the maximum range of machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. It was easy to lose altitude and hard to gain it, so dogfights spiralled down toward the ground. And the same happens in our game.”
In another nod to historical accuracy, the game kept information about damage dealt to enemy planes secret. Whenever players scored a hit, they represented the effects by playing facedown damage cards on the affected plane. Cards showed varying numbers of damage points, leaving players never quite sure whether an opposing unit was close to destruction, or still capable of unleashing a sudden and deadly counterattack.
“I think it’s pretty realistic that a pilot doesn’t know precisely how badly the opponent is damaged,” Angiolino explains. “He can see holes in the fuselage and wings, but can’t evaluate exactly whether vital parts of the enemy plane are hit and how long will they resist further punishment. In the game you can see how many damage cards you have dealt to an enemy, but not the precise number of damage points. Tactically, it is interesting because it gives some fog of war when you have to decide whether to pursue one plane or another.
“Again, it also helps you to feel like a real pilot. You aren’t thinking: ‘It’s better to shoot at that one; with its two points missing I should kill it even with a single card.’
“In game terms, not knowing the damage dealt also prevents the fun being spoiled. If you do a perfect move, you can inflict three cards of damage to your opponent, or even six if you get in at short range. But maybe some or even all of them are are zeros, and this is realistic – many planes went back safely to their base pierced by dozens of bullets.”
Angiolino adds that, while the core of the game is built around ease of play, it was important to him and Paglia to allow experienced wargamers to incorporate more complex details into the experience. The result was a modular system with additional rules that players could add as and when they wanted.
“This game was born in 2002, when people were already used to video games,” he explains. “Nowadays, most people don’t read a manual before playing a video game. Besides, in the ‘80s party games like Trivial Pursuit, Taboo and Pictionary became popular, and they relied on half a page of rules.
“Because of all this, for recent generations a game with a few pages of rules can be considered complex. We wanted to do a game that could bring the joy of simulations to everyone, outside the niche of wargamers. So we needed to make a very simple game to learn. But we tried to overcome the usual dilemma between easiness and details. We aimed for both, not wanting to lose accuracy for playability’s sake. The solution is what I called ‘hidden complexity’. Many details are handled by the materials – for example with the length and shape of the arrows on the cards available to each plane, not by players through rules, points, charts and tables.
“This is great, in my opinion, because players can learn the game quickly and play in a few minutes. They can involve their kids, their spouses, their parents and non-gamer friends, but still with the feeling of being an air ace of that specific year flying on that specific plane and engaging on that specific mission. And if they want even more historical and technical details, they can add rules for the aspects that they most care about: aiming and special damage, tailing and altitude, experienced ace pilots, and ground fire.”
Wings of War’s blend of accessibility and realism earned it a loyal community of fans, and over the years it saw a number of changes. The biggest were a change of name to Wings of Glory and the introduction of miniature aircraft in the place of its original cards.
“Ten years or so ago there were problems with the previous publisher,” Angiolino says. “We considered several alternative publishers, from huge to small, and eventually we chose to go with the newborn Ares Games – we were actually their first project. Changing the name was the quickest way to start again with them without any burden from the past.
“I still love the simplicity of the card game and how it can be easily carried around. I found it elegant to have a real tabletop wargame, but made just out of cards and a little ruler.
“Then players started putting miniatures on top of the cards, even before we started producing our range. The visual effect was terrific. Since we had a dozen foreign editions in the meantime, our publisher felt that he could afford to risk the money to make moulds and produce minis. This worked very well attracting far more people. Miniatures are fascinating when they are well-done, and ours have been designed and produced with no attempt to save money.”
The game’s success has seen an ever-expanding line of new planes released for players to incorporate into their battles and, in addition to its original First World War setting, it has branched out to incorporate aerial action from World War II.
“The Second World War game is similar but more nervous, more continuous,” Angiolino says. “With far quicker planes than in World War I, the sequence of the turns is designed so that pilots are always one card late in reacting to what they can see. Speeds varied more, so we have manoeuvre cards of different size. There is also much more variety in armaments.”
plane & simple
While the original game focuses on historical combat, the system has branched out in more fantastical directions. In 2017 its publisher Ares launched spin-off Tripods & Triplanes, which pitted the most elite pilots of the early 20th century against invading Martian forces from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
“The proposal came from Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello, famed authors of many board games and RPGs,” Angiolino says. “Their games Lex Arcana, War of the Ring and The One Ring are known all over the world. We worked together for years on this project and the results are pretty interesting.
“The game is totally asymmetric: agile but fragile planes face slow but very powerful tripods, and the Martians have trouble managing energy and reacting to the aeroplanes that fly around them. It is also a very fun setting; we can play both with history and with a well-known sci-fi novel, giving our own version of its story. So we can even make humorous quotes, as with [Russian flying ace] Alexander Kazakov’s special manoeuvre against a tripod’s leg – a crossover between his historical attempt to rip an enemy’s wings with an anchor dangling from his Morane-Saulnier and Luke Skywalker’s action tripping an AT-AT’s legs with a rope in the Battle of Hoth.”
Angiolino has also explored more recent sci-fi territory with Battlestar Galactica: Starship Battles. Developed in partnership with Andrea Mainini, it lets players recreate the desperate battles between humans and the Cylon antagonists from either the original ‘70s TV series, or the 2000s reboot. He continues to work on Wings of Glory, with plans for new planes as well as campaign packs which link missions together into connected stories.
Ultimately, though, he attributes much of the game’s success to the enthusiasm of its fans, many of whom have released their own house rules and battle scenarios online.
“Having a community of fans is essential,” he says. “Wings of War would still be a little card game if it weren’t for them, or more probably one of the many discontinued titles that are released every year and forgotten after a short while. Fans made our game rich and lively. They play it in their game shops, in schools, in libraries, in air museums and in every event they can, game-related or not, promoting it and recruiting new players.
“This is a great joy for us. The game is no longer our own, it has a life of its own. And it gives happiness to so many people.”
Words by Owen Duffy
This feature originally appeared in issue 32 of Tabletop Gaming Magazine. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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