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Planes vs. Nazis: Blitz on iPad

March 7th, 2012 by Bruce G · 10 Comments · WW2

It’s weird when someone directly addresses a game design question you’ve been puzzling over, but never thought would be answered. Last year, I wrote a series of articles about simulation, Gary Grigbsy’s Eagle Day, and the Battle of Britain. I started out wondering how you’d ever make a casual Euro out of something like the Battle of Britain and still keep it historical. Karl Thoroddsen, designer of a new iPad app called The Blitz, had a solution.

Make it a tower defense game.

The Blitz is actually three air war games in one, but it’s clear which one is the focus. Depicting just Kent, Sussex, and Greater London, The Blitz gives you control of a few Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons, several “sector airfields,” a bunch of radar towers, and starts throwing Luftwaffe at you. The mechanics are simple: watch German planes appear on the screen, and send your fighters to intercept them. Just swipe a path for your squadron to follow and watch it fly off to … whoops, didn’t quite intercept. Need to redirect. Oh man, there’s another raid. Gotta send another squadron out. Hey, where did that plane come from? There’s no way I can get there before he bombs the Spitfire factory. Air raid London!

That’s the kind of fast-paced defense of democracy you don’t get in a historical wargame, which makes sense because this isn’t one. In order to make this work, The Blitz discards a whole bunch of historical facts, such as that single raids didn’t permanently knock out radar stations, or that unopposed fighter sweeps didn’t destroy entire squadrons on the ground, or that two successful raids on London didn’t force England to surrender. Those are all game mechanics that make The Blitz a pretty good tower defense game, but a lousy historical wargame. Which was probably the tradeoff Karl Thoroddsen had in mind all along.

The historical liberties are more apparent in the other two scenarios, “Defense of the Reich” and “Operation Tidal Wave.” The former is set in 1944 and pits wave after wave of Flying Fortresses and Liberators against a threadbare German defense of single-seat interceptors, twin-engine night fighters, and Me 262 jets. The target is Berlin, and, as before, two hits and you’re done. This scenario adds antiaircraft batteries, which aren’t very effective at stopping anything and thus are probably the most historically accurate thing in the whole game. Radar towers, aircraft factories, research centers, and airfields are all vulnerable to attack, but this time bombers come from all points of the compass, often simultaneously. In addition, Allied interceptors swarm the map, strafing airbases and tangling with your fighters. If Hitler had lived in this reality, the war would probably have ended much sooner.

The last scenario is the oddest, as it depicts the first, Pyrrhic American raid on the Ploesti oil fields, carried out at the limit of strategic bombing range, far beyond any hope of escort, and into the teeth of some of the strongest air defenses in Europe at that time. “Operation Tidal Wave” (the correct historical name, by the way) flips this around to where American bombers are coming out of every which place, and the Germans have few fighters and no reinforcements. It’s probably not surprising that of the hundred or so people on the leaderboard for the Blitz scenario, only seven tried out the defense of Ploesti.

The main problem with The Blitz isn’t anything inherently ahistorical — it’s that you get a lot of choices, but only a few are really interesting. The most important is whether to keep your squadrons grounded until you spot an enemy raid, or whether to fly standing patrols, given that your aircraft have limited fuel and will need to return to base. Limited warning (made worse if you lose your radar stations) keeps you guessing as to whether a raid is bombers and fighters or just unescorted bombers, although you can usually tell a fighter sweep just by the planes’ speed. Being caught on the ground by fighters is costly, and you’ll often scramble planes just to get out of the way as a fighter sweep passes, only to land once the danger is gone. No perfect answer exists, and you’ll use your warning system, some intelligence reports (broadcast as text messages) and your intuition to put up a defense. This part works.

Other parts don’t, or at least aren’t very well tuned. You can upgrade your airbases with an engineer unit (depicted as a wrench, which also fixes damage) which is supposed to improve defense and turnaround time, but this isn’t really noticeable. Aircraft gain experience by shooting down enemies, but once again, the performance improvement doesn’t appear to make much practical difference. There are research centers which periodically upgrade your planes, but — you guessed it — this is so incremental that I couldn’t tell which ones had the bonus. The aforementioned AA guns are pretty useless and are just player distractions. Factories turn out additional planes, and these are worth protecting because numbers end up being the overriding factor The Blitz. Fight too many times with a Hurricane squadron and you’ll lose the whole thing, even to a single flight of unescorted Heinkels. The design clearly focuses on patrol patterns and turn-around time rather than building super-squadrons or bases, but without the continuous tweaks and temporary advantages other tower defense games give you as you progress, it can feel like you’re actually swimming backwards.

Part of this is due to the fact that unlike a conventional tower defense game, there aren’t any waves or stages: you just keep fighting until you lose. There are two modes: campaign and survival, although it’s not clear what the difference is. The survival mode times you, while the campaign just gives you credit for finishing. After several shots at the Blitz scenario, I made it to #27 on the leaderboard, out of 107. Scores are measured in time survived, and the top one was approximately twice mine. I guess I’m lucky I didn’t have to defend England in the actual war with an actual iPad.

The game is clearly still under development, as evidenced by the fact that there is a grayed-out Midway scenario in the list, described as “work continues.” If you click on the feedback button on the app’s start screen, you should mention that the leaderboards, achievements, and endgame stats all need work. How many bombers did I shoot down? How many fighters? What was my highest-scoring squadron? Why aren’t there more achievements than just finishing each campaign, especially since I’m not likely to do that anytime soon?

The Battle of Britain scenario has a two-player option if both people are sitting at the same iPad, in which the German player chooses raid composition and targets, but this is clearly a solo tower defense game, and any improvement is going to come from tweaking those elements, not fussing with a two-player mode almost no one will play. Since the game costs 99 cents, it would probably take less time to just pay a buck and check it out than read a thousand words about me having checked it out. In that case, consider this a form of extended feedback. Just paste it into the Feedback box and hit “Send.”


10 Comments so far ↓

  • Karl (Developer)

    Thanks for the write up! I’ll certainly take your feedback to heart and incorporate them in future (free) updates.

    Here are a few points to help wargamers to settle into the game:

    The game supports Pause-Move. So you can press pause and yet continue issuing orders that will be played out when you unpause.

    The engineers when upgrading improve performance and hitpoints by around 20%. So for example when engineers have upgraded the Spitfire factory it will have 20% more hitpoints and will produce spend 20% less time manufacturing a new fighter squadron.

    The AA artillery units available in the two Luftwaffe campaign are fairly inaccurate but when massed together (3-4 units) they pack enough power to turn away an attacking bomber squadron. The trick is knowing where to place them.

    Squadrons gain experience (indicated as stars) and after a certain number of “kills” they’ll garner 3 stars on their marker and those squadrons deliver double the firepower of a normal squadron and can take double the damage as well.

    Although meant as a casual wargame the games units still have fairly realistic comparative statistics behind them. Not only in regards to speed and durability but also production time and turn-around time.

    Thanks again for the review!

  • simao

    great to see the developer at first post. sounds interesting, unfortunately your quip about 99c came right at the end. i laughed

  • Bruce

    Hey Karl, thanks for posting. I did get that the upgrades do incrementally improve airfields and units, my point was just that at the current levels they are not worth it, since your engineer eventually gets used up and I’ve found it far more valuable to save it for repairing damaged bases, since if those bases get hit again they’re destroyed forever. Likewise, I did notice the squadrons gaining experience/stars, but since those units die so often, it didn’t really have much effect on my strategy. Having squadrons involved in multiple combats is often unavoidable, as they can be destroyed by an unescorted bomber when damaged and if you intercept two bombers, you can shoot down the first but the second destroys you without you being able to disengage. Hence my comment about tuning the rewards to make decisions more meaningful.

  • Karl (Developer)

    Bruce, Let me start by saying that I very much appreciate your feedback. It can only help me to make the game better and thus more enjoyable for the players.

    The engineer is infinite and invulnerable so you can use him again and again. Also every building can be upgraded three times up to a maximum of around double hit points/production/radar range etc. You might have hit a upon a “glitch” where you can’t upgrade the same building twice in a row without moving the engineer unit slightly away from the building first. Also the game needs to handle upgrade notifications better for example by informing the player what exactly the upgrade was.

    The difficulty in disengaging squadrons is something that I intend to fix. What happens is that when a fighter squadron starts attacking enemy aircraft they “lock” on the target which is sometimes not what the player wants. You can though command it to move in the opposite direction to the enemy aircraft and it will usually disengage (after one or two attempts!). You are correct, this needs to be fixed though.

    In regards to keeping veteran squadrons alive what I do personally is to use the Pause/Move mechanism liberally. Keep them in reserve until you can identify the Bf109 escort squadrons and then slam the fighters “Big Wing” style into the bombers.

    Finally here is a development screenshot from the forthcoming Midway campaign which will add carriers, destroyers and weather effects:


  • David Brake

    Hey could you post up the link to The Blitz? A search under Apps in the App store doesn’t find it for me.

  • David Brake

    Ah perhaps iTunes was ‘censoring’ the search because it knows I don’t have an iPad only an iPod touch. Karl, I don’t suppose you’re considering an Android port?

  • Karl (Developer)

    No, I think I’ll stick to the iPad. Developing game is a hobby of mine so I unfortunately don’t have the time to develop for two platforms.

  • Bruce

    I really can’t see this working on an iPod or iPhone or Android phone anyway – it really need the screen space of an iPad. On a phone-sized screen this would be unplayable.

    Karl, thanks again for the clarification – the engineer has unlimited engineering? That’s good to know. And you were right – it was because I had to move the engineer off, then move him back on the target.

  • David Brake

    Bruce the Google Nexus I have has a 1280×720 resolution (higher than the ipads 1 and 2) but fits into your pocket (just about). I found the iPhone’s screen physically too small but for me the Nexus and other phones like it hit the sweet spot – you can carry them around everywhere easily and play real games (if only there were more to play on it).