Friday, April 14, 2017

Three Modern Naval Rule Sets: impressions and overviews

I've three commercial sets of rules, all of which I think have merit, and over which I've been giving a lot of thought as to how to proceed with gaming some of my interests in the near future.

1. Naval Thunder: Clash of Dreadnoughts [WWI] & Battleship Row [WWII]

both are from Steel Dreadnought Games

2. Great War at SeaAvalanche Press WWI
Second World War at SeaAvalanche Press WWII

3. General Quarters 3 [WWII] & Fleet Action Imminent [WWI]
both are from Old Dominion Game Works Naval

Some first thoughts, for those of you new to modern Naval Gaming:
  1. Naval Warfare is highly technological - think WWII but ONLY tanks!
  2. This means that "historical" in context means totally respecting the differences in ships and gear that MAKE the tactics, or at least force them.
  3. It's really time-consuming and a labor of love to plow through all the details and math...let someone else with lots of time do it for you!
  4. Naval warfare is no more "line them up and blow stuff up" than any other type of wargaming is, or at least should be. However, it does have unique characteristics.
  5. Interestingly, Space Warfare is basically naval wargaming. Some more or less realistic than others. However, since it is a "notional" [military term] or "speculative" [literary term] world / universe, it is extremely important that the sci-fi universe closely copy the friction of technology prevalent in real naval wargaming, or it's just dull!
  6. ALL naval wargaming [and space warfare] is inherently strategic in nature, but not all land wargaming is.
  7. There is terrain in naval gaming but not all of it is land! There's also minefields, submarines and motor torpedo boats [all of which function to deprive admirals of movement, just like generals], but most especially there is weather!
So my warning is...don't think you can throw together a set of good naval wargame rules by yourself. It's a genre that really needs you to spend time in it. So commercial rules are - for most of us - far more essential than any land warfare period. The only related genre I think would be airplane combat, again, almost entirely dependent on technological differences to provide friction that makes for an interesting game, and what I don't know about flying and weather...well, it could sink a battleship!

So if you line up your armies of whatever period on a nearly empty table, slaughter away and then say it is dull, repetitive or lacks tactical finesse, that's the same thing as putting the fleets on the table without land, weather or other menaces to big ships, and then saying it is nothing but a dull exercise in gunnery - it may well be, but whose fault is it, anyway??

All this to say that if you love tanks, and wish the infantry would just go away, you will probably love naval gaming!

Impressions and overview of the rules.

The Naval Thunder series has certainly made quite the impression. Many say that it has put the fun back into naval gaming. It is cleanly written, with traditional mechanisms and easily "felt" mechanics that run along the "shoot, hit, penetrate armor, do damage, hope for critical" that many gamers love about naval warfare. It keeps all the additional stuff in the optional rules, from smoke to crew quality. The rules are easy to understand and altho the style is conversational it's not very distracting. That said, I personally prefer when the rule itself, that I actually need to play, is separated by bullet points or italics or something, and is easily found apart from the conversation and explanation.

Our first foray into it was a reply of the battle of Komandorsky Islands. It was pretty quick to pick up, but our use of the special rule for smoke exposed that some of the straightforwardness and simplicity that leaves the rules accessible and likable is at the expense of nuance and friction that can make some scenarios unplayable. In our battle, I quickly realized that I could use my destroyers to lay smoke and by turning at the end of the move hard back behind their own smoke, prevent even my own destroyers laying the smoke from being fired upon. While I'm sure that could have been done, it was awful easy to figure out and do, and rendered the IJN completely impotent, which it wasn't in the real battle. We needed a good hard wind, and some mechanism to prevent my ships from doing - exactly - what I wanted them to do.

While I think that it can certainly be dealt with using the odd special or scenario rule, and also that these rules are easy to tweak due to their simplicity, I have a problem with a basic mechanism being a "trump card" in any player's pocket.

All the rules in the series have excellent listings of ships and other info needed to play the game, as well as point values to help balance scenarios. I give these rules a solid "B" for their ability to make anyone a fan of naval gaming.

The Avalanche Press series has been a huge presence for many many years in the boardgaming industry. The series is huge, with 30-40 games and supplements in the two naval lines, not all of which are in print but most of which are available in the after market industry. All the core games come in boxes with lovely maps showing a strategic theater of operations and a tactical map upon which to fight out actions in more detail. They also come with basic and advanced tactical ship fighting rules, and thorough advanced rules from minelaying to airships to flotillas to name it!

Game play resolved - very realistically - with fleets being given missions for which they then plot out their movement. Sometimes they have to plot out their entire foray at sea including the return to port! This strategic mission gives players a larger context in which to put their tactical fighting, and REALLY enhances the experience. The fleets then act out their movements, and when they get close enough have a chance to encounter one another and switch to the tactical map to blast away.

I have to admit I have not yet tried out these rules, nor followed through on plans to adapt them to tabletop miniature gaming. However, I am _slavering_ to do so! At the moment, I've 1898 [a pre-dreadnought game about the Spanish-American naval war], a few of the Jutland series games [WWI] and one WWII game, "Strike South". All look very manageable and are virtually an education in naval wargaming at all levels.

I have a lot of confidence in these rules due to their longevity, the thousands and thousands of copies sold, the clarity of the writing, the presentation of both the big strategic picture and a manageable presentation of the tactical fighting, and the breadth of situational rules that enhance the gaming experience. All the ships have detailed logs, as well as lovely top-down-view counters of the ships [altho they all show the ships to be the same length on the counter, from BB to CL, sort of a Wizards of the Coast scale problem]. The typical boxed game has hundreds of ships and their info handy on the counter and on sheets. 

[EDIT: this means you can wait on getting and painting up ship miniatures; the counters will not only do just fine but have all the info you need most printed right on them - they are 1"x1/2" for capital ships, and 1/2"x1/2" for small ships, however, this has to be balanced against the cost of these lovely games, which can go from $50-100 for a box, and $20-50 for book or bag presentation].

I'm giving these a solid "A-" for the full presentation of naval warfare in a manageable fashion, if without the tactical nuance that some players love. Most of the -minus- has to do with the cost - you can easily get several of the more playable naval games for $10-15, and if you go 1/4800 or 1/6000 escape for under $50 depending on the size of your fleets. OTOH, miniature naval rules usually don't have the tremendous breadth of a game like "Jutland" which has like 60 scenarios, every capital ship represented, and covers the English Channel to the Baltic.

Finally, near and dear to my heart, and played many, many times, is the "General Quarters 3" WWII game, and its companion "Fleet Action Imminent". Not for the faint of heart, yet not overwhelming in detail, this game really is an education in tactical naval fighting. You will learn all you gear, and you will learn it well, or you cannot hope to win a naval action in this game except through the errors of your opponents and the random favor of the dice. This was the game my pal offered after our speedbump with Naval Thunder: Battleship Row. I thought he was nuts! However, he really really really wanted to try it, so I gave it a real effort, and read the rules. Eventually, I found myself sucked in, sort of like reading a well-written astronomical think it won't be interesting, or that it will be overwhelming, but eventually you find yourself devoting more and more time on it, and it is actually worth the time!

I was hooked, altho, interestingly, my pal moved on. I then read the rules a few more times, GM'd more games, read a lot of memoirs and decided that Guadalcanal was the perfect, ferocious naval encounter of the modern era. Rarely have so many expensive ships been so harshly used by so many admirals in such a short period of time! It's sort of like fighting about 7-8 battles of the Nile with a few Trafalgars thrown in. It's genuinely horrifying to watch destroyers clash with cruisers and battleships at point blank range, and to realize that you are now so close that you cannot evade a mildly competent torpedo attack.

I eventually settled on running 1/700 destroyer encounters I entitled "DDD - Deadly Destroyer Destruction" or something. I gave each player one ship, organized their squadrons historically, and gave each team three options for the approach, at night, into the "sea of battle". This meant there were nine possibilities in a scenario, so I could re-use them any time. Gamers loved it, and this has been my most-requested game to host.

The downside is that I never really convinced anyone else to read the rules. This meant I slowly became hoarse as we played a 4-5 hour game and I explained the detailed rule QRS and even the cheat sheets I made to speed things along. Even the ship diagrams and gunnery chart required some effort to understand. Once you got onto them, you realized how well they were thought out and play went pretty smoothly. Occasional oopsies on the GMs part were taken with good [enough] grace and we got through with quite a lot of fun.

Overall, these are the best set of manageable rules for tactical naval fights. I think they are a bit much for more than 1-2 ships a player, and even then I "slaved" the second ship behind the other one so that it was a mindless drone, giving the player the chance to keep playing even if one ship was lost.

We fought Savo Island, Cape Esperance, 2-3 Solomon Seas, and Kolombangara multiple times. Having invested many hours [and dollars] preparing the charts and QRS packets in color, I found it made a lot of sense to repeat most of the battles several times, perhaps with a little twist here and there, all based upon historical options. For some more details:
Savo Island AAR
Remember the 13th November!
Neither of which has pics of the actual ships on table, altho there are maps and other tools I use to throw the game. My excuse is that I still had a flip-fone, and kept forgetting to bring my digital camera with me. Mea culpa! My blogging has gotten a lot more colorful, but naval gamers aren't quite as interested in flashy looks as long as the charts are detailed, so maybe it's ok anyway.

There are a few campaign supplements for GQ3 / FAI. "Sudden Storm" is a speculative naval campaign for a 1937 naval confrontation between the US and Japan. Ergo it is more Battle line o' Battleships oriented. "The Solomon's Campaign" is a campaign for actions around Guadalcanal, using a decision-tree approach with minimal book keeping that brings battles into Ironbottom Sound, with the land and carrier actions abstracted. "North Sea Campaign" is the famous naval situation between Germany and Britain in the North Sea during WWI. It uses a strategic decision model, the same decision-tree approach and a mapless search method. Both the latter are by the same author, Nathan Forney, so I assume they are quite similar.

I give these rules an "A+" for tactical fighting, and a "B" for overall picture of naval warfare simply because there are too many trees for players to see the woods, and, at least in my group, not enough continuous play and players willing to read and digest the rules to fully realize their potential and try out the many interesting advanced rules like air, sub, mines, and more. Thus far, it's been too much! But I'll definitely be running some games of this again, carefully limiting the presentation of a new aspect, like minelaying or air/sub attacks. I think these work well at the 1 player 1 ship level, and the 1/700 ships are a pleasure to look at, as well as do the modeling for. Tamiya especially has a number of options, and I encourage players to look into the modeling forums to buy them used from modelers who've given up on building the kit - sometimes you can by kits for 10% of retail if you buy in bulk.

I hope this evaluation of the rules is useful, and leads you to look into them more.

As for me, I think I am needed something that plays fast and easy, yet has a lot of the big picture readily available. For the moment, that means I'm going to be trying out Avalanche Press as a boardgame, with thoughts on how to put it on the table along the way. For WWI especially, I am eager to have big clashes between 12-20 capital ships a side, and each player controlling a squadron of about 4 ships. This means that it has to be relatively easy to fight at a tactical level so that enhanced aspects like command, formations, terrain and such are all able to be easily delved into.

This means that, much like the Starfire II games I've played and shown here, you'll be seeing some boardgame batreps. However, I'll still work on presenting the games to my son, so the One-Hour Wargames: Modern Naval will continue its merry development!

I still may run a 1 player 1 ship game or two of WWI or WWII using GQ3, it just depends on how time and audience works out. Rest assured, this time you'll have plenty of pics as I do have a smartfone now!

I plan to follow up with some demos and AARs with the rules as I experiment a bit with them.

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