AT FIRST GLANCE, Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 by designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood (published by GMT Games, 2015) looks like an old side-scroll video game. My first reaction years ago when I saw the game was, “That can’t be a serious wargame!”
How wrong I was.
The entire Wing Leader series focuses not on the intricacies of air-to-air combat but on the larger dynamics of air combat. If you want to see how a P-51 can turn against an Me-262 you will be much better off trying out the Fighting Wings series from J.D. Webster. Wing Leader is a maybe better described as a grand tactical view of air warfare. The most important lesson one learns from Wing Leader is not its not just airplanes that fight, but more importantly the aircrews in the planes.
My recent weekend play of Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 reminded me of this lesson. I played Scenario V03 Stalingrad Airlift where two flights of German He-111 bombers escorted by a flight of Me-109F-4 fighters are trying to deliver supplies to Stalingrad. Opposing them are two Soviet squadrons of Yak-1 interceptors. By the measure of most air combat games this should be a cake-walk for the Soviets; after all they have 18 interceptors against a measly four German fighters and eight sluggish bombers!
In Wing Leader it’s not that easy. In this case, the Germans have at least one Veteran flight and an Experte (Ace) to assign. The Soviet squadrons are inexperienced; Green in game terms. The Soviets do have an advantage with early warning and ground control (GCI – Ground Controlled Intercept) but there is also a dense cloud layer at low altitude. In this play the Me-109 flight was given both the Veteran and Experte.
The He-111’s started just above the cloud layer with the escorting flight a bit higher and between them. The Soviet squadrons started one ahead and one behind the German stream. The leading Soviet squadron got a Tally on the lead bombers and dove to attack. The escorting fighters reacted late (Late Reaction) and a fur ball developed between the bombers, fighters, and interceptors. Immediately, the difference in crew quality showed through as the German fighters mauled the Soviet interceptors and the bombers scooted away. Though they tried to pursue, the Germans engaged in a Dogfight and kept the interceptors busy.
Meanwhile, the trailing Soviet squadron, guided by GCI, bounced the trailing bombers. Poor shooting by the interceptors yielded no damage to the bombers but the intercepting squadron became Disrupted; that is, unorganized. The bombers dove for the clouds below (Note: Technically the bombers were not allowed to dive per rule 18.104.22.168 Transport. Oh well, a rules learning point!). The interceptors attempted to follow behind and engage again. They finally caught up to the bombers, but in the attack they caused no damage and instead lost cohesion and broke. Dropping to the deck, they raced for home.
The dogfighting interceptors did no better. In the Turning fight the Soviet Yak-1 pilots, now likely green with fear like their Green experience, were disrupted again and also broke. Like their brethren below, they left the fight and turned for home.
So just how did four German Me-109s hold off an entire squadron of 18 Yak-1s? At the dogfight altitude the Me-109 has only a slight edge in combat. The real telling factor was the experience and skill level of the pilots. The four Veteran Me-109s with that Experte just shot up the Yaks. The Green pilots got in one or two shots then broke for home.
Cohension Checks, Disruption, and Broken Squadrons are probably the most important rules in Wing Leader. The real test of combat is not how many guns you have or how tight you turn, but the ability for a flight or squadron to stay and fight, or just run away. Wing Leader reminds us that it’s actually not the hardware of war that makes the difference, it’s the people.
In this game, the numerically-superior Soviets were simply outclassed by the fewer, yet more experienced, German aircrews. Using that advantage, the Germans were able to get supplies though, their true objective. The Germans didn’t need to shoot down Soviet aircraft (though it helps) but get the bombers across the skies. The really neat part is that Wing Leader allows one to explore this “squishier” side of aerial combat in an easy-to-understand model that delivers the experience without having to learn how to fly an airplane. This is partly why I rate Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 and the companion Wing Leader: Supremacy 1943-1945 amongst the top 10 games in my collection (that’s the top 1.5% of my collection).
If you really want to understand why air battles are fought and not just the technical how, one can’t go wrong with Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader series.
Featured image courtesy boardgamegeek.com