Friday, July 25, 2014

Why historical naval wargaming???

It seems like an obvious question.  It's of interest to me since I didn't have an answer for it myself.  I'd enjoyed my battered copy of "Wooden Ships and Iron Men" when a young lad [God bless those old Avalon Hill men!] and over time been affected by speculative fiction [aka "science fiction"] so actually got interested in gaming Star Wars space battles, initially.

While I was working on that project, I got dragged into playtesting another gamer's "enthusiasm du jour" which was modern naval wargaming.  Specifically WWII, in this instance, and we tried "Naval Thunder - Rise of the Battleship" with mixed results.  This made me dubious, as historical reading didn't validate my abuse of the game to my advantage as a US player.  However, my pal persisted and we then went to GQ3, and played Savo Island at least twice, maybe three times.  And that's when the lights went on for me.

The bottom line for naval wargaming, is that naval warfare is VERY technical.  If you aren't faced with the same issues as the commanders at the time, you are just doing "beer'n pretzals" which is totally fine, really.  Far as I'm concerned, a good game of The Sword and the Flame beats most other games any day!  But naval gaming...well, it DEMANDS a commitment to the technical issues, or well, you really aren't gaming that war at sea.

What I liked about GQ3, is that it presented the technical issues in a way that was palatable, and also workable, while informing the gamer about the issues involved.  So not only were the rules playable "as is" with the Rules As Written - RAW - but I felt more free to "tweak" for a scenario b/c I understood what the original design compromises were btw playability and reality.

I was hooked.

I read memoir after memoir from the perfect WWII campaign, the Solomons in '42-43.  I read the USN's own analysis of their many setbacks, I read Hara's "Japanese Destroyer Commander", it was great stuff.  I got my own 1/2400 miniatures [Panzerschiffe] and ran a number of games at a local club.  I was tolerated for my enthusiasm and no one complained when I switched scale to 1/700 and focus to destroyer actions.  My favorite resource:

If anything, the games got more popular.  I did intense, close studies of a number of DD v. DD encounters at night, and ran at least a dozen battles in the Solomons.  Loved it all - ships, scenarios, everything.

Naval battles.  They pretty much rest on the edge of a knife - stray a little, and all will be lost. Victory goes to the side that is most technically proficient, first.  Second, it goes to the bold. So you can make up for _some_ technical deficiencies with sheer guts.  

Naval gaming.  Basically, you have to give the players a time and place where the technical factors are close enough that tactics and guts are enough to win the fight - I also think it helps if _historically_ the sides were committed to engage one another.  So the Solomons are perfect - IJN training and ships v. USN tech and ships.  The USN is green but aggressive, arrogant  and brave, and they have radar [which they're just beginning to understand].  The IJN is experienced and smart, with intense night training and advanced optics, plus an understanding of their slight edge that can give them victory and willing to risk it for a win. 

Later in the war, the radar advantage gives the Allies such an edge that gaming scenarios are wipeouts or feel forced ["12 conditions need to be just right for the IJN to engage and hope for success" type of thing].  But the Solomons saw intense major and minor naval battles.  The only other WWII campaign that seems close is the Mediterranean in 1940-2, where the Axis was committed to supply Rommel, and the British held on for dear life.

But now, 2014 has brought on a new period to my gaming horizon - WWI.  Initially, the "problem" came up when some gamer junkie posted his lovely ships from War Times Journal at  Instantly, my long-time desire to collect a couple fleets of pre-dreads was inflamed.  WTJ has it down - perfectly - with their rapid-prototyped plastics.
However, after lots of thought and polling the local gamers, I had to go with WWI as it's the 100th anniversary AND it is the ultimate B5 - "Big Boats Bashing Big Boats" era.  

Yes, the commanders and governments were usually too chicken to risk their very expensive toys, but WWI has some real appeal for the naval gamer.  Neither planes nor mines dominated the battlesea as they would in WWII, yet you get to use HUGE battleships.  Is it as good as the pre-dread?  I think not.  The planes, mines and torpedoes were weaker in the pre-dread era, so if you want B5 and don't care about the scale of the boat, go for pre-dreads.  But if you want an intense knife-edge conflict, it's harder to find something as perfect as the North Sea, 1914.

Then WTJ came out with WWI printed plastics, and I knew I had to go with 1/2400 WWI.  
The reasons:
  1. Intense battleship encounters,
  2. Lots of historical scenarios,
  3. difference but parity btw the Germans and Brits,
  4. Lots of opportunities for others to jump in - cheap with Panzerschiffe, pricey with GHQ,
  5. for me, the perfect balance of detail, price and assembly ease with WTJ ships.
  6. Campaign-arama with Avalanche Press games, especially "Jutland", "Mediterranean", and "Cruiser Warfare".
So here we are, with 1/2400 WWII, 1/700 WWII destroyer actions, and now 1/2400 WWI Battleship Battles, all looming over the horizon.  It happens so quickly...

And what about sci-fi spaceship battles??  One thing I've realized, is that the circumstances of historical tension ARE the underlying perfection to a naval game.  One can't just make up the intricate variables that make a specific period perfect, like Solomons 1942-3, or the Med 1941, or the North Sea 1914-15, etc.  And people who write space games utterly fail to get that.  It's not enough to write a great set of space battle rules, you have to INVENT technological differences and variety that are balanced and interesting to game.  Why bother?  Just play history, if you really get it.  No one writes fiction as good as real life, and game designers at best do a poor imitation of WWI and WWII naval wargaming in outer space.

Anyone want to buy some Star Wars fleets?  I've got what you're looking for!


  1. A very good start to your blog - I am hoping for many more posts!

  2. Thanks! I am hoping to post each step to help others along this same observation of the 100th anniversary, "We Shall Remember Them".