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Monday, April 24, 2017

First Playtest: Avalanche Games "Great War at Sea"

"Remember the Maine and to 'H-E-double toothpick' with Spain!"
Image result for uss maine
inquiry did little to determine cause of Maine's explosion or defuse diplomatic tensions...

I've been realizing and emphasizing that the critical shaping factors in a naval scenario are really strategic - fleet battles were rarely fought solely for tactical reasons. So when, where and how a fleet action is fought is most likely to historically be a combination of strategic reasons [gaining a port, protecting an invasion convoy] and specific local reasons [refueling issues, the weather]. 

It should be noted, however, that there's a contingent of gamers playing small boat coastal warfare often in 1/600 - this is perhaps the skirmish gaming of naval warfare. I also play "skirmish WWII destroyer actions" so far all historical ones in 1/700. These of course are more likely to be structured by tactical issues, especially the relative qualities of the gear.

With this thought in mind, it has been of great interest to me to discover the Avalanche Press series of naval boardgames, "Great War at Sea" [pre-dreadnoughts and WWI] and "Second World War at Sea" [WWII]. I bought a used copy of the box game 1898 at a reasonable price on eBay a while ago, and finally got around to the initial playtest today. 

Bottom Line Up Front:
The Avalanche Press approach is a great start in naval gaming for anyone. It has:

  1. medium cost [about $50-100, game includes hundreds of ship counters], 
  2. provides everything needed for full-spectrum naval operations in strategic context [including airpower, mines, convoys, maps, scenarios, campaigns, etc],
  3. and also offers quick, fun ways to play a one-off "let's drop dice and sink ships" game
  4. The AP:GWaS approach has two combat systems; Basic and Advanced; 
    • The Basic is mapless - it could easily be played via email. 
    • The Advanced uses a tactical hex map and is best played live.
  5. This system means that there's lots of ways to resolve campaign play. Players can play easily by email and resolve a battle using the Basic Combat rules if they don't have time to get together live or the battle isn't very important. This is important given the time restrictions most of us have due to over-scheduling / over-commitment. 
  6. The only aspect partially sacrificed is detailed technical play; abstraction level is higher than General Quarters 3.3, and -about- the same as Naval Thunder: Clash of Dreadnoughts. Each game has the core GWaS rules, common to them all [and of course there's "Second World War at Sea" which does the same for WWII].
  7. This game is played on hexes / squares as a board game. However, I believe the system can be adapted without too much pain onto the table with miniatures. The main problem will be that the hex distance is pretty large, so detailed movement of ships isn't included in the rules - at all. On the other hand, aside from using miniatures, you don't HAVE to switch it to the table unless you want that freedom of movement and more friction.

Acquiring new copies of a game in the series is easy, if in print, HERE
Acquiring less expensive copies of used and out of print Avalanche Press games is not too difficult on eBay or at Board Game Geek, altho you have to be patient and stalk the game you want, usually. As there are many versions, both historical and speculative, there's plenty of gaming out there for the cost-conscious gamer.

1898 covers the Spanish-American War and therefore uses the Great War at Sea core rules, with just a few period-specific changes. It includes counters and stats for all US and Spanish ships, and a few ships for alternative scenarios. Of course, you can include ships from other pre-dreadnought games, and freely mix them in as speculative historical events, what-ifs, etc, since there are point values for all the ships.

Box Front Cover

Box Back Cover - shows strategic map of S. Floriday past Cuba

However, the strategic map only covers the Caribbean, not the Philippines...

so you'd need one of the other games that has a map of the Southwest Pacific - there's one in the 2WWaS "Strike South" game, which I have, and I believe one or two other games:

Map uses 32 mile squares, ingeniously offset to solve the "diagonal movement problem".

The Core rules are used in each of the two game systems as the basis for all the games in the systems, whether WWII or the era preceding, either Dreadnought or pre-Dreadnought:

As can be seen, all key aspects of strategic naval war are covered.

Each game also comes with a scenario booklet, giving rules changes and then a series of Battle Scenarios [one-off games, strictly combat]

The Playtest
1898, like all the games in the series, offers three ways to play - a quick Basic Combat rules battle with no map, an Advanced Combat rules battle with the tactical map, or campaign scenarios using the strategic theater maps, that may result in tactical battles between ships or fleets. 

For the first time out, I opted for the Basic Combat rules playing the Battle of Manila Bay. My goal was to use the Rules as Written or RAW, as much as possible, and just note any changes I'd make later. I have to say, it was a little disorienting to realize that I didn't even need the tactical map! Said map is hard board in my version of 1898, and looks like this:

The players sit at right and left, each having the necessary tables facing them to resolve torpedo damage rolls, gunnery damage rolls, and critical damage rolls. The entire playing area - the BIG hex - equals one strategic map square [each map square being 32 miles, or 64,000 yards at 2,000 yards per nautical mile]. Each small hex is 8,000 yards [4 nautical miles] and the bix HEX playing area is notionally 8 hexes wide, not counting the center hex.

Anyway, the tables were still useful, so I layed the ships out on it above the three tables, moving them around as needed to help me remember which ships was firing where, etc. The big ship counters are for bigger ships, the small counters are for smaller ships.

The game is easily played with a single line of data per ship. The information is Victory Points, Ram bow, Primary / Secondary / Tertiary guns, Torpedoes, Move rate, hull boxes, and fuel available [only needed for the strategic map movement in an operational scenario]. I spent a few minutes copying out of the pamphlet and putting it into WORD for easy use:

In the Basic Combat system, the most important aspect is Range, which is always Long or Short . Primary and Secondary Batteries fire at both Ranges, while Torpedoes and Tertiary batteries can only fire at Short [it was unclear if torpedoes were resolved at 0 or 1 hex range, for which there are different modifiers, but I interpreted it to mean 0 for playtest - in the future, I'll make a couple decisions on it and adjust accordingly]. Ergo, fleets with an advantage in P or S batteries want to keep the range Long, while those with an advantage in Torpedoes or T batteries want to get into Short Range. 

Combat always starts at Long Range. If both players want to close into Short Range, it happens automatically. If only one wants to, the faster fleet decides the Range. If their speeds are the same, then there's a roll-off with D6, the winner deciding. Obviously, lots of opportunities to modify the dice roll with various historical and technical factors, etc. And if the fleets are at Short Range, and both players want to open to Long Range, it happens automatically. If only one does, then they dice off. If the Range opens at Long Range, the fleets disengage, breaking contact, and the battle ends.

This is a simple, effective mechanism to present the key issue of most naval engagements - speed decides if there's a fight, and often who, when, where and often how. This isn't true of land warfare, or at least not as clearly as in naval warfare. There's a large advantage to being faster than your enemy in naval warfare - you decide if you will fight, or not.

Once the Range has been decided for this Combat Round, the Spanish player announces and resolves all his attacks, followed by the US player. Ships may attack any other ship. Ships do not seem to be able to divide their attacks, whether various batteries or torpedoes. Each factor of battery type has a d6 rolled, and there's a hit on a '6'. Two d6 are then rolled for each hit on the Gunnery Damage Table. 

There are few modifiers but they matter, like the +1 for Short Range which doubles the chance of Tertiary Batteries getting a hit [a 5-6 instead of just a 6]:

Torpedoes are fired using the Advanced rules, only, even in the Basic Combat rules. There are simple Night Action rules [-1 to gunnery dice rolls, no Long Range gunnery, either fleet may attempt to close to Short Range, I guess even if one is faster]. Obviously missing, but included in the Advanced Combat rules is armor and armor penetration.

There's lots of possibilities for a little bit of elaboration here: dicing off to see who designates their fire first, modifying the roll to establish Range, penalizing shooting if more than one ship fires at another ship, etc. One can steal some favorite rules from the Advanced Combat section, or take them from history.

In any event, time to review what happened with my re-fight of Manila Bay, using the Basic Combat rules. I had to play this three times to get a result that wasn't determined by my messing up the rules [i.e. forgetting to use torpedoes, at all!], but they were all about 5-6 rounds of Combat and 30-45 minutes. 

Fleet Comparisons. Altho the Spanish have 8-7 in ships, their ships are markedly inferior, much of the inbalance coming from the U.S.S. Olympia, which is worth as much as the other two us big ships together! The U.S. fleet has a substantial margin here, of about 18-10 batteries, and 39 to 29 Victory Points. Most importantly, the U.S. fleet has 7-2 Secondary Battery factors, and these are the only ones that can be used at Long Range [except for Primary Batteries of course, but neither side has them!]. Thus it is definitely to the advantage of the U.S. player to stay at long range. While the Spanish have a LOT more torpedo factors, most are hull mounted and useless against small ships like these.

Round 1, Long Range. Spanish miss, US knocks out a Hull on the Reina Cristina.
Round 2, Short Range [Spanish win roll-off - if the Range is Short, the Spanish won, if they lost the range is Long]. Their torpedoes miss, but they trash all the Secondary guns on the Olympia! The return fire from the Olympia and Raleigh sinks the Isla de Luzon, and the rest of the US fleet sinks the Isla de Cuba. This sinks the Spanish ships with torpedoes.
Round 3, Long Range. Spanish miss, US sinks Castilla [half the Spanish Long Range batteries are now gone, and they've no usable torpedoes, either].
Round 4, Long Range. Only Hit knocks out the Secondary battery on Reina Cristina.
Round 5, Short Range. Spanish miss all 4d6. US sinks Don Juan de Austria, hits General Lezo but it has no effect as the damage was against the torpedoes - Lezo has none.
Round 6, Short Range. Spanish miss Concord. US sinks Lezo and Velasco's only battery, a Tertiary, is destroyed. With only a couple ships and batteries intact, against nearly the entire US fleet, the Spanish have to concede.

Well, it just goes to show, that 2-1 odds doesn't result in 2-1 damage in naval wars, it results in a massacree. The huge disparity in Secondary Batteries means that the US fleet will try to keep distance, hammering the Spanish every turn. Overall, an historical result, so one can't complain. It should be noted that most of the US fleet was faster, also. If they left a few ships behind, they still could've sunk the Spanish fleet, and would've been able to consistently choose the battle on their terms, minimizing losses to nearly nothing but a long-odds critical hit.

I really liked the feel of the game! Despite there being no table maneuvering, the key issue of range was handled in an interesting way, and each side preferred one Range over the other. Overall, the Spanish really need some help here, more torpedoes, shore batteries, anything! If nothing else, a flotilla of torpedo boats would've made it more interesting for the Spanish player. Still, the game was engaging and had good feel.

Last thoughts. There's huge potential here in this game and system. While it'll take some time and effort to convert it into a tabletop game, I think the cheap price of the War Times Journal 1/3000 plastics are beckoning me in the near future! I still have to try this with the Advanced Combat System, and then the operational campaign rules. Also, with WWI fleets, just to see how they play out. These will add Primary batteries, lots of ships, and a bunch of small craft. I'm looking forward to more games, and more interesting refights of history and "what-ifs"! I can highly recommend this series as a great place to start naval gaming. I can only imagined how easy it is to do carrier operations and such with this system compared to so many others!

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