April 15, 2024

5 Questions With… Dave Townsend, Designer

Marc M, 20 March 2024

Dave Townsend’s Wings for the Baron is a different title among a wealth of WWI aviation games. Instead of pitting aircraft against aircraft, it sets German aircraft manufacturers against each other in competition for contracts to build aircraft for the war.

The game has been around since 2008 and over the years has caught the interest of gamer enthusiasts of the period and the notice of Over the Front, a WWI aviation history magazine. But, the game is out of print and those willing to sell their copies value it pretty highly. The good news is that Wings for the Baron is now on P500 with GMT Games in a deluxe edition for 1 to 6 players. Recently, Dave agreed to field a few questions about his game for us.

What lead you to the create Wings for the Baron?

Thanks to Snoopy I’d had a background awareness of World War I aviation even as a little kid: “Curse you, Red Baron!” Then when I got into wargaming in my teens, Richthofen’s War and Ace of Aces lured me deeper into the topic.

Many years later I played an obscure magazine game called Bombs Away!, a game of strategic air warfare in World War II. It was an interesting application, as there aren’t too many air warfare games at that level. Recalling my earlier interest in WWI aviation, the thought occurred to me that it might be interesting to try the same type of design in the other World War. Thus was born…

…not Wings for the Baron, but Above the Trenches, a game of WWI aviation at the strategic level. It emphasizes technological development and the reconnaissance planes which were really the point of aviation, despite the usual emphasis on dogfighting. I made a couple of game prototypes and some folks were nice enough to playtest them. But I was never happy with how Above the Trenches worked.

Frustrated, I decided to take a break from that game, and started working on what is now Wings for the Baron. It was originally called Flugzeugwerke, by the way, a title which I think has its own charm. But the new title is much more marketable. And pronounceable.

Dave Townsend holding game cards with Wings for the Baron second edition set up in front of him.
Wings for the Baron designer Dave Townsend with the second edition of his game

click images to enlarge

 

If someone isn’t familiar with the game, they might expect it to be a WWI aerial combat game. But it’s a game that focuses on aircraft development and manufacturing. How did you come to that approach?


Doing background research for Above the Trenches, I was struck by the quarterly fighter competitions that the Germans held during World War I. Those competitions gave the opportunity for manufacturers to show off their new designs and for pilots to put those prototypes through their paces. The explicit competition between the manufacturers, complete with bribery and political favoritism, seemed like an interesting basis for a game. The manufacturers each had their ups and downs, which would make the game more interesting.

The idea was original, at least to my knowledge, which was also a plus. Aerial combat games are a lot of fun, but there are so many of them, at every level of detail. Just now looking at the shelf next to my desk, I count eight of them… and there are more still that I don’t own. I don’t think I’d have much to add in that area. My game let me use the same historical period, but taken in a different direction.

Three game cards fanned out below a stack of cards.
Game cards for Wings for the Baron second edition

 

What was the journey like to go from self-publishing the first edition to Victory Point Games and now to P500 with GMT?

It’s been an interesting road, to say the least.

When I got the design to where I thought it was done, I contacted some publishers. I sent off a few playtest kits but didn’t get any bites. One publisher suggested that I change the theme. While some abstraction like scientific research (a cure for cancer, maybe?) would probably be a more marketable topic, I wasn’t interested in changing the theme. The game mechanics were developed from the history, and if I were doing a different topic, I’d use different mechanics. Plus I didn’t want to replace my Richthofen ace counter with some fictional research scientist.

With that avenue blocked, I decided to self-publish it. I couldn’t afford real cards or diecut counters, so the first edition was definitely “some assembly required”! Despite that, it sold surprisingly well.

The manual, player boards, counter sheets and card sheets for Wings for the Baron first edition.
The some-assembly-required components of Wings for the Baron first edition

 

One day out of the blue I got an email about the game from Alan Emrich, then part of Victory Point Games. I had submitted a playtest version to VPG maybe a year or two earlier which had generated an initial bit of interest. But after a few weeks, communication from VPG had petered out. So I figured there wasn’t any interest there. However Alan had been going through their files, came across my playtest copy from that earlier time, and got excited about the game. We worked out a deal, with me providing some input and Alan and his team refining the game and adding the Recon and Bomber aspects. That work resulted in the second edition.

Then there was a shakeup at VPG and the new owners didn’t seem too interested in the game. I thought that was that. But a dedicated fan, Steve Bradford, really wanted to see the game back in circulation. He’s been a tireless proponent, and instrumental in getting the game in front of the folks at GMT, who were kind enough to recently add it to their P500 list.

It’s exciting to have the opportunity to smooth out some of the rough spots of the previous versions. In addition to rules tweaking, the GMT edition is adding another manufacturer to allow six players, and improved artwork and components.

It won’t get published though until it gets enough pre-orders, and it’s not there yet as I write this. If your readers would like to help, here is where they’ll find it.

 

It seems like part of the fun of the game is that the players are acting on technology, economy, the state of the war and the progress of competing companies all at once. How difficult was it to balance all of these factors into the game design?

I let history be my guide there, though I stretched things where needed so as to make a good game. The biggest concession to playability was equalizing all of the players. Historically, Albatros was huge compared to the other manufacturers. But it’s a better game when the players have equal abilities, so in the game everybody begins on the same footing. We did introduce a special ability for each manufacturer, though, as a nod to the history. For instance, Albatros starts with more factories.

The war morale mechanics are important to try to mitigate end-of-the-world effects, a pet peeve of mine. Many games have a fixed number of turns, so you know when the end is nigh and can plan accordingly. But wars aren’t like that. The participants might have some inkling that the end is near, but no certainty as to exactly when it’s all over. In WWI, the Allies were making plans for 1919 even after the armistice. As in history, so in the game. You can tell when the end is nearing, but you usually won’t know the exact turn.

The tech tree was a core part of the design from the beginning, probably inspired by all those hours playing Sid Meier’s Civilization. The technologies are based on the characteristics of the historical airplanes, of course. It took some playtesting to get the balance right for the pace of development, which tied into the game end mechanics. While it’s sometimes possible to develop a fully kitted-out design before the war ends, it shouldn’t happen often.

The players themselves see to the competition between companies. But I threw in the Allies’ technological development as well to spur the players a bit, and to provide some more unpredictability about the war’s end.

The inflation track, contract information, player board and playing cards for Wings for the Baron second edition.
The second edition of Wings for the Baron set up for a player

 

What are you working on for the future?

At some point I’d like to get back to Above the Trenches, which at this point has turned into a bucket list project.

But at the moment I’m finishing up Oligarchs, a game where the players take the role of oligarchs in a slightly-fictionalized country, trying to keep Dear Leader happy while accumulating yachts, paramours, and real estate. Like Wings for the Baron, it’s not much like anything else on the market that I’m aware of. It’s a bit like a mix of poker and Junta, though the mechanics are very different. It’s been a hit with my playtesters and I hope I can find a publisher for it. If not, I’ll probably go the self-publish route again.

On the back burner I’ve got a game on Elizabethan drama called Immortal Bard which I’d like to see published someday as well. It’s a simple card game where the players score points by creating plays, assembling a plot beginning, middle and end. There’s a bit of humor from mixing and matching the parts from the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and so on. Your play might be “A Prince…goes mad…and conquers Asia”, combining Hamlet, King Lear, and Tamburlane. Quotes from the plays add some period flavor and help publicize some of the less well-known playwrights of the period.

Past that, who knows?

Thanks to Dave for joining us!

 

GMT Games' promotional banner
Promotional web banner from GMT Games

 


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One thought on “5 Questions With… Dave Townsend, Designer

  1. Given my experience with Wings for the Baron I would love to be on your playtest list for Oligarchs. If you’re interested in one more, let me know please! I can PnP a copy if you like.

    I refer to Wings for the Baron as “the best game you’re not playing” and I’ve got a raft of converts that weren’t interested because “it’s about war”. We’ve played dozens of times and recorded two podcast episodes on it. Just a great play. Glad to see it’s getting another run.

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