Considering the iconic status of Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin’s airships, the historiography of their military activities is surprisingly thin, particularly for airships belonging to powers other than Germany or the United States. And most of what does exist is concerned with the German zeppelin attacks against British cities rather than the airships’ naval missions.
So writing Great War at Sea: Zeppelins presented the sort of challenge I like: poring through dusty old tomes to find historical information and weighing its meaning, rather than playing video games and transmuting them into boardgame format, authenticity be damned. There’s a place for the latter, probably a fairly large place. At Avalanche Press we strive for the former; while it’s pretty silly to think of a wargame as a “work of history,” that doesn’t mean it can’t reflect actual research and analysis. And that was the goal with Great War at Sea: Zeppelins.
While we’ve improved our craft enormously in the decade since Great War at Sea: Zeppelins took form, I still look back on it as my favorite of the books we’ve published. Those nuggets of unusual history pried out of the dusty tomes please me, but the real reason I like the book is because it has giant airship pieces.
The large pieces we use for Rome at War games to represent legions, phalanxes and barbarian war bands just happen to fit in the hexes on the Naval Tactical Map used in Great War at Sea games (there’s not a lot of space left over, but they do just barely fit). They give a nice, large canvas to decorate with lovely airship artwork, much more detailed than what we can fit on our standard naval game playing pieces.
Nice as they look, the pieces add a lot more to game play beyond just the sheer fun of playing with them as they bring additional capabilities to the airships (much of which will become standard in Mediterranean: Ultimate Edition and subsequent Great War at Sea games). The earliest iterations of Great War at Sea gave airships very little to do except scout; Great War at Sea is first and foremost a battleship game and I kept that firmly in mind.
But airships are fun and cool, and Zeppelins brings them the focus they should have had all along. They’re no longer generically the same; each class is now rated for speed and endurance. They can defend themselves from enemy aircraft (but not very well), are rated for their toughness (some are actually harder to shoot down than others) and some of them can drop bombs. The Advanced Zeppelin Leader rules give airships additional missions (Scout, Ground Attack, Naval Strike, Escort, Transport, Shadow) and they can also assist minesweepers sweeping mines. Airships can also ram each other; not likely, but I love that fact that it can happen.
There’s also a wide variety of airships. Most of the new pieces included in Zeppelins are zeppelins, understandably so given Imperial Germany’s lead in airship development. There are both Navy and Army zeppelins; the Army eventually gave up on lighter-than-air flight and transferred their airships to the Navy. Of the 88 super-sized airship pieces in the Zeppelins set, 52 of them are from the Imperial German Navy and five more belong to the Army.
But we went far beyond the Imperial German Naval Airship Service. The Royal Italian Navy has nine large semi-rigid airships, while the British have 11 in a mix of rigid and semi-rigid types. There are five Austro-Hungarian airships, three from the U.S. Navy and one each from Russia, France and the U.S. Army.
Few of these flying gasbags are as capable as those of the Germans (except for those that were originally German, either purchased by their new owners or taken as war reparations). The British airships are the next best, with the Italians well behind. The U.S. Navy’s airships are quite capable, but none of them are American-designed and -built.
Along with the wonderful giant pieces in many colors and the crunchy rules for their use, Zeppelins is filled with the stories of these airships. Some of those weren’t easy to come by, but we have the stories of the German Army’s airship program, whose ships mostly conducted missions over land but at times impacted naval operations.
Austria-Hungary began an airship program before the war, but had only small ships lacking the range to conduct useful scouting for the fleet even in the close waters of the Adriatic. They added a more capable airship when they captured a crashed Italian semi-rigid airship, and looked to buy a pair of modern airships from the Germans – a deal never completed, but we have the pieces in our book.
Britain’s airship program is mostly remembered today, quite unfairly, for a pair of spectacular disasters – the crashes of the R38 in 1921 and R101 in 1930. Yet Britain ended the war with a large and vibrant airship industry, with multiple firms producing craft that, if not as advanced as those of the Zeppelin works, still performed better than any other competitor.
Italy also had a well-developed program, but one concentrating on semi-rigid craft (a rigid airship has a frame, usually metal but sometimes wood, supporting its shape while a non-rigid airship has its shape maintained by gas pressure. A semi-rigid is a compromise, with a metal or wood keel along the bottom of the envelope and sometimes a framework around the lower part of the gas envelope, but most of the envelope’s shape is provided by gas pressure). These had much less range and lifting power than the big German-built or -inspired airships, but were adequate for scouting over the Adriatic Sea (where the Austrians shot down several). The U.S. Army’s big airship Roma was purchased from Italian builders, and an Italian firm also built the airship SR.1 for the British.
If I had to do it over again – and I did have that option, but decided Zeppelins is a solid product as it stands – I’d keep most of the book intact. I love the huge pieces, the Advanced Zeppelin Leader rules add a perfect amount of wonderful (and historically accurate) weirdness, and I’m very pleased with the obscure operational histories of Austrian, Italian and other airships that I uncovered for the book.
Zeppelins is modeled in many ways on the role-playing books we had stopped producing not long before we published it, as a supplement that adds ways to play existing games but is not by any means a game in itself. At the time, I believed I knew all that could be known about game design and publishing. And granted, I knew a lot then, but the past few years have shown that this was but a tiny slice of what there is to know. Were I to do Zeppelins over again, or do another airship supplement, I wouldn’t try to add game scenarios at all, but rather a series of campaign games where players manage their airship assets over a series of related scenarios, among other things. Done right, that could be even more fun.
Zeppelins adds plenty of fun all on its own: giant airship pieces!
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.