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Posted on Apr 22, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Terror from the Skies: Bringing the War Home to the British. Compass Games’ Zeppelin Raider. Tabletop Game Review.

Terror from the Skies: Bringing the War Home to the British. Compass Games’ Zeppelin Raider. Tabletop Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Zeppelin Raider. Publisher: Compass Games.  Designers: Gregory M. Smith and Paul O’Grady. Price $79.00 ($59.00 sale price)

Passed inspection: Captures the experience of taking a Zeppelin into action. Catalogs the risks and dangers faced by the commander and crew of the airships.

Failed basic: Could have used a flow chart to walk through the mission steps.

World War I is remembered for the innovation and industrialization that transformed war into the mechanized meat grinder it is today. Aerial warfare emerged as a new dimension by which one could project force while avoiding the traditional obstacles of land and water. While conventional airplanes lacked the range, reliability and payload to carry the fight deep into the enemy’s territory, Germany quickly recognized the military value of the rigid airship – and the role of the Zeppelin in military service took off.

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Which brings us to Compass Games’ new release – Zeppelin Raiders. Created by Paul O’Grady, Zeppelin Raider is a solitaire game that pus the player into command of a single Zeppelin and then launches them into the hardships of the air war during World War I. What follows is the grind of repeated missions, possible change of command to newer airships with the ultimate goal being surviving the war while having been judged an effective airship commander.

Zeppelin Raiders leverages Gregory M. Smith’s excellent game engine from GMT Games “The Hunters” and most recently Compass Games “Nightfighter Ace” and “Raiders of the Deep”. It’s an inspired choice of game engine. Instead of submarines prowling the waters of the North Sea and Atlantic looking for ships, your Zeppelin soars through the skies as it conducts missions either patrolling the sea lanes or later in the war – conducting an early form of strategic bombing by targeting British cities.

The game components are first rate and up to the typical standards of Compass Games.  Opening the box, you’ll find; One counter sheet of 9/16″ unit-counters; four zeppelin display mats, six player aid cards, eight historical Kommandant Cards, One Zeppelin Patrol Mat, a log sheet pad, the rules booklet and dice.

The counters are mostly used to as markers to depict various the status of the airship – it’s position, altitude and the condition of the ships systems and crew. They are also used to depict targets on the patrol mat. If you’ve played similar games – take Compass Games ‘Nightfighter Ace’ or GMT Games ‘The Hunters’ for example – the counters are similar to how systems are depicted in those games. In ‘Zeppelin Raiders’, the counters depict the airships altitude, ballast, status of the lift cells, bombs, as well as damage to the craft’s systems and wounds the crew may have suffered.

The Zeppelin display mats depict each of the various classes of Zeppelin used by the German Navy across the span of the war, ranging from the short-range early war “M’-class through the mighty late war X-class Zeppelin. Like the submarine mat in ‘The Hunters’, the Zeppelin mat depicts all the systems and crew of that specific airship. These are double-sided cards, with one a different Zeppelin displayed on each side. So four cards equals 8 unique naval Zeppelin designs. In addition to the basic game data, you’ll also see summary data on the statistics of the real-world Zeppelin like dimensions, crew and the numbers built.

The player aid cards are the heart of the game engine. The various tables are used to generate the results of actions and random events that occur during the game turn. These range from determining the weather at the start of the mission through the results of scouting and bombing missions and the random events occur. A typical game turn has you checking several of the tables to determine the events, actions required and outcomes that define the game’s activities.

Much like Compass Game’s other product ‘Raiders of the Deep’, Zeppelin Raider includes a set of historical commander cards (referred to here as Kommandant cards). These cards provide insight into the skills, abilities and successes of the historical airship commanders. It’s also a good benchmark against which to compare your performance in the game.

The patrol mat is a graphical depiction of the North Sea and the surrounding land and sea areas. Superimposed on this depiction are a series of area boxes. These are used to regulate movement and define the location of bases and bombing mission targets. Sea zones get a generic identification letter, while the land areas typically carry the name of a base or city.

The log sheet is just that – a log of your missions where you can record your mission activities and your success or failure across time. The log starts with August 1914, though the game recommends starting ‘standard’ play in May of 1915.

Lastly, there’s the rule book. This is a pretty standard presentation of the rules governing the play of the game. The good news is that it follows the format of its predecessors in terms of presenting the rules in a logical progression of how they are used in the game. There’s a lot of rules around the ballast, fuel and venting of gas cells, but these are all part of the core flight operations of the Zeppelin and add a lot of character and flavor to the game.

Bringing the game to the table, I found that the game did a great job of capturing the feel of the period. The mechanics do work. It’s easy to forget that the Zeppelin at the time was a state-of-the-art technology that pushed the envelope in terms of technology and tactics. Zeppelin Raider captures the frustration of a cutting-edge technology that was not quite ready for prime time. Stuff breaks. A lot. Core systems like your gasoline engines need constant attention. The hydrogen gas cells are prone to leaking and are easily damaged.

As the airship commander, you’ll be spending a lot of time focused on managing the interplay between ballast, fuel, and hydrogen. All three being finite supplies, which when adding in the bomb load and the weather effects will have you sweating a change in the weather, just like your historical counterparts.  At first, I was surprised how often my airships experienced an engine failure. It’s almost a given that on any single patrol, you’ll have at least one engine fail for a least a little while. It had me asking what’s it take to build a dependable engine? Unlike airplanes, the Zeppelin engines were required to run non-stop for almost a day or more at a time. It really was asking a lot of the early engines to perform at that level. Reading Robinson’s ‘The Zeppelin in Combat’, you’ll find that yes, system failures – including engines – were common throughout the war. Some of it was the extreme altitude which would cause systems to freeze up from the cold and crew performance to drop from frostbite and altitude sickness. Radios would fail when needed the most. Hydrogen gas was constantly being lost from leaks and damage from enemy fire.

The game nicely models the patrol and bombing mission processes.  Compared to the challenges of just keeping your airship aloft, actually scouting and bombing are pretty straight-forward activities. The threat of encountering enemy aircraft is every present. While your defensive armament increases throughout the war, the abilities of the Entente aircraft also grow better and better. While in the early war you can outclimb the slow, ungainly Schneider floatplanes, by late war you’ll have a much harder time trying to avoid the Sopwith Camels or Felixstowe flying boats.

The bombing sub-routine does a great job of defining the difficulties in carrying the war to the British cities. Assuming you can navigate successfully to the target area, you then allocate your bombs to the identified target…and then you roll again to see if what you thought was the target was actually that target or something else. It’s a great concept that accurately depicts the uncertainty and error made by the historical Zeppelin crews. You think you just emptied your bomb racks on the Bank of England? Well bad news, it turns out you just leveled a church! Conversely, you may had had a mediocre target instead become a critical target like the Admiralty building.

Of course, bombing is only half the fun, the other half is surviving the barrage of anti-aircraft file and potential defending aircraft. One bad roll here (or even two rolls!) can ruin your game as your Zeppelin pinned by searchlights and is then ripped apart by shrapnel and machine gun fire. You’ll have to carefully weigh the tradeoffs of attacking from altitude to avoid the flak that will also decrease your bombing accuracy. The Zeppelin may get through, but there is no guarantee that it will get back to base!

The patrol mat is a big leap forward from the patrol tracks in the earlier submarine games. A gripe I’d had with the earlier submarine games was that your patrol took place in a geographic vacuum. It was a challenge to reconcile the patrol spaces with an actual space in the world or a map. That’s no longer the case. The patrol mat clearly puts your position into a geographic context. If I have a gripe, I’d like to have seem the generic zone labels (‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’) replaced with a geographic descriptor like ‘Heligoland’, Dogger Bank North lightship and the like. Doing so would have helped set the stage a little more than just the generic map zones. But make no mistake – the patrol mat is a huge step forward in adding to the narrative with a sense of space.

Game designer Greg Smith has been quick in addressing questions arising about the game. He has published a short errata document cataloging all the know issues. Most of these are minor and are either mis-printed counters or chart data that does not align with the rules. I did find the clarification that you don’t need to return to your starting base helpful as I had a fuel tank hit that cut down on my range. (Reading the historical accounts, ships would often head for the nearest base in an emergency – even if it was an Army airship base.) One thing I would have liked to have see in the game was a game turn flow chart to walk you through the mechanics of a mission. As it was, I was constantly flipping between the rulebook and the charts. In the end, I sketched out a flow chart with the table references and things moved right along for me.

Zeppelin Raiders is a fun game. You’ll definitely feel the tension of attempting to survive each mission while succeeding well enough to bring fame to yourself and the naval air service. The scouting missions, while providing a focus for your activities often leave you feeling disconnected from the greater naval war at sea. You never get a sense that your successful patrol reports lead the High Seas Fleet into a successful action or precipitates a Jutland type battle that Scheer hoped the Zeppelins could initiate with their scouting reports. You might get lucky and spot ‘The Grand Fleet’, but that’s about the extent of your engagement.

And on those overflights of the North Sea, it would be nice if you could occasionally get air support from the naval air stations along the coast. While not an issue during the early war period, the opportunity to have some W.29 or W.12 floatplanes as escorts for even a turn would welcome relief as the skies start to fill up with Sopwith Camel and Felixstowe flying boats. (It may be that this is abstracted out into the lower chances of their being an aerial encounter to begin with, but it’s absence detracts from that sense of being one cog in the larger German war effort.)

The game recommends starting in May 1915 and I think that’s a good call. Having started with August 1914, the monotony of naval scouting patrols tied to the relatively short range of the M-class airship does not lead to very engaging game play. After five or six missions, you’ll understand the mechanics of a patrol and the risk of losing your airship and crew starts to outweigh the benefits of the opportunities to build up the crew experience and prestige. The sameness of the scouting patrols becomes a grind you have to get through to reach a Zeppelin that can carry the war to the British people.

Regardless of the 1914 scenario grind, Zeppelin Raiders is an excellent solitaire game. Just like the Hunters submarine series, you’ll act as the captain of your vessel pursuing your mission. The game engine is driven through a series of charts and die rolls. While not a decision chart bot in the classic sense, it’s much like a bot, but you’ll get a lot if decision making power as to whether to proceed with the mission and where to steer the airship. This is not like B-17 Queen of the Skies, where you can feel like you are along for the ride! You need to constantly evaluate if you think the airship can accomplish the mission, or if you should pack it in and return to base.

In a case of role-reversal, this solitaire game includes rules for making it a two-player game. Zeppelin Raider includes a duplicate set of counters to support two player mode. This plays the same as the solitaire mode, with the players competing with each other to see who can do the most bomb damage without getting shot down, killed or captured.  Beyond that, gamers can bring together multiple copies of Zeppelin Raiders together and compete in tournament play either to cause the most bomb damage, or just see who can survive the longest.

Zeppelin Raider has a lot going for it. It covers a topic you rarely see (other games such as ‘Zeppelin’ dates back to ’93 and ‘Luft Schiff’ was originally published back in ’96). The game gives good insight into the challenges of taking these state-of-the-art technological marvels into action. Much like the other games derived from ‘The Hunters’, Zeppelin Raider creates a workman like narrative of your activities. Over the course of multiple missions, you’ll tell the tale of your character and their exploits in the aerial service.

Is Zeppelin Raider the game for you?  Do you really want a game where you get to command a Zeppelin? Then buy this game!  Do you want to explore the naval air war from the point of view of the German airship commander? Then buy this game!  Are you are a fan of Greg Smith’s ‘The Hunters’ game system? If these are topics that will catch your interest, then go snag a copy of Zeppelin Raiders and take to the skies in pursuit of victory.

Armchair General Score: % 93

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  5

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a Product Owner in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

Zeppelin Raider Box Cover
Rule book cover
P class on bombing mission
M class Zeppelin mat
M Class on patrol

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