We detected a group of 41 German bombers and 12 escorts. Please advise !
Roger that! Can you tell us their bearing and their speed ?
Their bearing and speed ? Ah sorry, I have no idea! Who cares !
Early 1981, as Clive Sinclair’s products were flooding British households, countless British would-be programmers were rubbing their hands “I know what I should do : a game about the Battle of Britain.”
The topic was already quite popular in the USA, with for instance RAF : Battle of Britain by Discovery Games, or soon in 1983 SSI’s Fighter Command: The Battle of Britain. But the British doubled down with at least 5 games all called “Battle of Britain” from 1981 to 1986, not counting type-in games I may have missed :
- Molimerx’s Battle of Britain for TRS-80 (1981?),
- Microgame Simulations’s Battle of Britain for ZX81 and ZX Spectrum (1982),
- Maincomp’s Battle of Britain, for Vic-20 (1983),
- Personal Software Services’s Battle of Britain for ZX Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC (1985),
- Firebird’s Battle of Britain, for C64 (1986),
For today, we will cover the first one by Microgame Simulations. Microgame Simulations seems to have been the one-person company owned by Robert Erskine, a prolific programmer, among others contributor to a series of books “sixty programs for [platform]”, the platforms available being the ZX Spectrum, the Dragon 32/64 and the Commodore 64.
Battle of Britain is not a type-in though. Initially released on ZX81 in April 1982 for £5.95, it was a text-only game. Later in that year, it was re-released on ZX Spectrum with the addition of ONE visual : a map of the South-East of England. It is the version I played, the initial ZX81 version being lost.
For now, the only things appearing on the map are my 10 airbases, each fielding one squadron of 10 British planes ready to scramble. I immediately order squadron #3 to take off and head South-West. In my experience, there is very little action on the top-right of the map as the German bombers’ targets are in the top-left corner, where the Thames river is.
Soon enough, German bomber squadrons are detected. To win, I need to let fewer than 100 of those bombers reach their targets.
All enemy air wings are not necessarily detected, nor are their positions regularly updated when detected. I wait a bit for the German bombers to reach the middle of the map (presumably), then scramble all my squadrons:
I receive information about German squadron #5 : it includes 42 bombers and only 2 escorts. That’s perfect : I know I will lose 1 fighter for every enemy escort (also destroying the latter), and once all the escorts are removed the bombers are very easy prey. I immediately order my first squadron to intercept it at coordinates O-T. After a short combat, enemy squadron #5 is wiped out – in this game combats are always until total destruction of one of the two groups.
Meanwhile, enemy squadron #3, of unknown size, encounters my second squadron :
At the end of the combat, my second wing is still there, and the German squadron #3 disappeared, so I know I won that battle. Time to check the “tally” :
That’s a good start. 62 German planes removed, including 52 bombers. The Germans can have up to 495 planes in total so I made quite a dent in their reserve already.
My planes from the first and second squadrons are out of fuel from their combats, and return to their base, but I have the planes from squadron #3 patrolling their area. Still, my main worry is now in the centre, where there are 4 German groups flying close to one another, and on which I did not receive any information. It could be some tiny groups, or it could be hundreds of bombers.
I had formed more or less a line of planes from column E to column R (group #8 was out of position) but it looks like the enemy planes are all going to come through the centre, so the West of this line is probably going to be useless. It is dangerous to gather all the squadrons on the same spot : if they all engage one enemy air wing, they will annihilate it easily, but they will also all return to base after the combat, leaving a huge hole in the defence. Instead, I wheel my line, but too late ! My squadron #5 destroys German group #1 and immediately returns to base, my squadron #2 destroys German group #2 and immediately returns to base, and German groups #4 and (presumably) #9 pour in the middle !
I am in pursuit, but it is not looking good, especially since I learn that German group #9 includes 15 fighters and 10 bombers. In general I would have tried to avoid such a squadron (not enough bombers to be worth losing 15 fighters over), but right now it “protects” the German group #4.
The end is anticlimactic: a new German group #7 appeared on the map. I try to intercept it with squadron #4, but the latter is destroyed. Shortly thereafter, the survivors of British squadrons #1 and 2, having refuelled, scramble again. They engage in combat just above their airports :
They win the battle, and the game ends there : the Germans have less than 100 bombers left. Too bad for German groups #4 and #9.
Review and Rating
Battle for Normandy by Robert Erskine and Microgame Simulations, UK
First release : April 1982 on ZX81,
Tested on : ZX Spectrum Emulator
Total time tested : 2 hours
Average duration of a campaign: 20 minutes
Complexity: Easy (1/5)
Would recommend to a modern player : No
Would recommend to a designer : No
Final Rating: Totally obsolete
A. Scenario design and balancing
I am beginning for once with this category. The game is always your 9 squadrons of 10 planes, always starting from the same airbases, against a random number of enemies.
There is only one customization option in the game : how many bombers have to reach their targets (at the top of the map) to be considered a defeat. The default is 100 and makes the game very easy as you are likely to intercept enough bombers by just taking off with all your planes at the first alert. Put a lower number (say 50) and the game becomes way more interesting – the only reason I used 100 bombers is that all my runs with a lower threshold got ruined by bugs, poor UI or personal events on my side.
There is absolutely no AI, including for your own planes.
Rating : Terrible
Not much. Note that apparently, the ZX81 version was full-text, without even a map in the game ; instead a physical sketch map was provided with the game. As for the version I played, the only immersive thing is that you have even fewer clues about what’s happening than historically – the game happens in an alternative reality where the British had neither radars nor competent forward observers.
Rating : Terrible
C. UI, rules and outcomes.
Battle of Britain is fully played with maybe 5 keys, and despite this it is atrocious in terms of UI :
- The game does not provide you with the bearing or speed of the enemy. It does not provide you with the time of the last sighting, so your best chance is to remember the history of your session (thankfully short) to have an idea of where an enemy bomber wing is heading,
- You don’t have a real-time report of the location of your own squadrons either, it justs updates from time to time, when something happens (new sighting, combat, …),
- There is a key for your squadrons to “report” their status, but all it does is ask the squadron how many planes they have left… and even then, they will only tell you if they are not returning to base or refuelling (else they will report something along the lines of “Can’t answer, I am refuelling”). Squadrons will never tell you how much fuel they have left, or how long it will take them to refuel,
- The keys are not reactive at all. You need to hold a key (eg “s” for “scramble squadron”) for up to 2 seconds before the game reacts,
- The game is overall very, very slow. Several minutes can happen between two events that trigger a refresh of the map,
- The icing on the cake : the “q” key immediately quits the game – that’s the only reactive key. “q” happens to be next “s” on my French AZERTY keyboard. It cost me one of my “high difficulty” sessions.
Rating : Terrible. If there was something below terrible it would be that.
If you play at the default difficulty (“you lose if 100 bombers or more make it through“), the only thing you need to know is how to send your squadrons toward the German groups.
If you play with a lower threshold, that’s different, and you need to manage a few more things :
- First, the enemy bomber wings don’t all arrive at the same time, so you immediately scramble all your squadrons, the latter will eventually run out of fuel, and between the time to return to their base and the refuelling time, you will have nothing to stop the German second wave,
- In addition to this, your squadrons return home to refuel after every combat, so in addition to your “rotation” you should keep a reserve of sorts in case two German groups progress together,
- Finally, you will not have enough fighters to destroy all the enemy air groups, which means you will have to be picky about your targets. The game sometimes sends you information about the composition of an enemy wings, and all extremes are possible : unescorted groups of 30+ bombers that should be high prio targets, or 10 bombers with 15 escorts that you should probably avoid, and anything in between. Winning in higher difficulties means making sure not to engage the enemy flight groups identified as mostly fighters – easier said than done given you don’t have real-time information on where they are at a given moment.
Of course, you should also absolutely avoid German bombers coming back from their raids – attacking them is just going to be a waste of time.
Sadly, the challenge described this way looks solid, but the game does not give you the tools to effectively lead your planes :
- Information on enemy composition is very rarely received, so most of the time you attack the enemy, because for all you know it could include every single bomber the Germans have,
- There is no information on speed and bearings of enemy planes and rare updates on the enemy location, so quite often you find yourself in unexpected combat because the enemy group was not where you expected,
- incomplete information if any on the status of your own wings – when you are informed a squadron is running low on fuel it will be too late,
It feels like an incomplete design for a game. This impression is reinforced by the number of bugs. For instance in one case an enemy squadron kind of disappeared in a Bermuda triangle-like phenomenon over Canterbury : the position of the enemy air group never updated, but 20 minutes later long after all his buddies had either been shot down or had headed home it had still not reached its target, and my patrols could not find it anywhere on the map either. It ruined (or saved) another of my attempt to play the game in hard mode.
Rating : Terrible
E. Did I make interesting decisions ?
Sometimes, but most of the time I didn’t have enough information, or whatever decision I took is ruined by one of the many limitations of the game.
F. Final rating
I could only find one review for the ZX81 version in Personal Computer World (August 1982). The reviewer was disappointed by the game (value for money : 3/8), also calling the game too easy. They also misunderstood the difficulty system, as they claim that reducing the defeat threshold would not make the game any harder because “they never let any bomber pass”, not realizing that the game stops before the bombers reach London if the threshold cannot be reached.
Apart from that unique review, this Battle of Britain game passed unnoticed, though honestly I don’t believe Robert Erskine saw the game as more than a side project (or maybe a training project) on which he could monetize a bit.
I have found games I have missed for the 1980 – 1982 period, but all those games are pretty minor and not influential, just like this one really, so I will move on to 1983 next, occasionally covering games from my backlog.
Love these obscure cassette games. Nobody covers them.
Bermuda Triangle LOL.
It’s pretty amazing when we contrast a solid work like SSI’s Fighter Command with the cave paintings of similar gaming efforts coming from Europe. But they aspired to be so much more and I’m really glad that you are covering the European scene too. M. Evan Brooks hardly did at all and I expect would have dismissed most efforts out of hand.
I went to university in UK (computer science) in the mid 80’s and even then it was clear that US and Asia (including Oz/NZ) were, for the most part, far ahead of the curve on the hardware capabilities and program expectations for the average home computer.
On the other hand, the decent tape-based UK machines (Speccy, Dragon, C64, Amstrad) were affordable and the scene was thriving. Myself coming from Asia, it felt like there was a much larger Indie movement going on and made for a wonderful and exciting time to be working in the field. I’m not sure what it was like in the US, but I can’t think of any companies in Hong Kong or Singapore that were producing computer games, no real Indie scene at all…. huge piracy scene instead.