#ThreatTuesday – Planning the PLA Navy

Courtesy BGG

Being a Navy guy, I have long played naval wargames. For modern tactical naval combat nothing beats Harpoon in my book. I started way back with Harpoon II in 1983. The current version is Harpoon 4 first published by Clash of Arms in 1997 and now by Admiralty Trilogy Games.

Courtesy BGG

I am also a fan of the Asia-Pacific theater, having spent way too many years in the Western Pacific. The Harpoon system does have a “sourcebook” for the Pacific Rim in the expansion Sea of Dragons, but it was published way back in 1997!

With the news that China is set to launch it’s first indigenously built carrier any day now, I got to thinking about how one would update at least the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) order of battle information in Sea of Dragons. Fortunately for wargamers, there are several excellent publicly available sources to help!

Courtesy ONI

The first is from the Office of Naval Intelligence. In 2015, ONI published The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century. In addition to the publication itself, ONI also has provided useful graphics and videos and maps on their website. This should be every wargamer’s first stop when looking at the modern PLA Navy.

But today is 2017, and the Chinese have not been resting on their laurels since ONI printed their book. In another stroke of luck, gamers can look to Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress is updated several times a year and is one of the best running estimates of the threat. It is a very useful publication for bringing the ONI 2015 report forward to today.

I would also point the wargamer to Andrew Erickson’s excellent website. Dr. Erickson is on the faculty of the Naval War College, China Maritime Studies Institute. He specializes in using Chinese-language sources to study the PLA Navy and is a prolific speaker and author on the topic.

Between these three sources one should be able to update Sea of Dragons and get a better sense of what the PLA Navy would look like in a tactical naval game like Harpoon 4. One probably also will need to purchase back issues of The Naval SITREP magazine from the Admiralty Trilogy Group on a site such as Wargame Vault to get many ship characteristics.

#WargameWednesday – Dawn of the Battleship (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2016)

Dawn of the Battleship: Tactical Naval Warfare 1890-1904; by Chris Carlson, Forward by Dr. Norman Friedman, edited by Larry Bond, published by The Admiralty Trilogy Group, ©2016.

Courtesy BoardGameGeek

Dawn of the Battleship (DotB) is the first Admiralty Trilogy rules system that I have bought since the end of the Admiralty Trilogy Group (ATG) relationship with Clash of Arms in 2015. The end of that publishing relationship led to the Admiralty Trilogy Group (ATG) expanding into digital publishing using WargameVault.

According to the publisher’s blurb:

Dawn of the Battleship simulates naval warfare from 1890 up to 1904, just before technology began to quickly change in the years leading up to WW I. During this period, there were no all-big-gun battleships, aircraft, gun directors, or radios. In the 1890’s, 1,500 yards was considered effective range, and 3,000 yards was long range. If you’ve played other naval games, you’ll have to get in real close if you want to hit.

DotB covers an often overlooked period of naval warfare. During this time there were few conflicts where the navies of the day seemingly factored in. Looking at my copy of Helmut Pemsel’s A History of War at Sea (Naval Institute Press, 1975) between 1890 and 1904 the (few) naval events of interest include:

  • April 1891 Chilean Revolutionary War (torpedo-boat sinks armored ship)
  • April 1894 Brazilian Civi War (torpedo-boat sinks sea-going turret ship)
  • 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War (includes the major fleet action at the Battle of the Yalu 17 Sep 1894)
  • 1898 Spanish American War (including the very lopsided US victories at Manila Bay and the Battle of Santiago)

Given the simple technology of the day, one would expect DotB to be a simplified version of the World War I-era Fear God & Dread Nought or Second World War Command at Sea rules. On one hand this is true, while on the other DotB clearly shows ATG’s commitment to being “an accurate simulation of over a century of naval warfare.”

One criticism I often hear of the Admiralty Trilogy series of games is that they are too complex. A good example is over at The Miniatures Page where poster Yellow Admiral responds to a DotB review request with “The delay is probably because the 3 people who like playing the Command at Sea system are still working their way through the last game of Fear God & Dread Nought that they started in 2015…. :-)” Personally, I find the system no more onerous than other miniature rules; the longest part is prep time and actual play goes relatively quickly. That said, there is a learning curve (steep in places) and a good referee/player needs to be well organized in advance to keep the game flow going. The Admiralty Trilogy is not a good “pick-up” game – it is best enjoyed with experience. Ages ago I did a comparison of nine different naval rules systems playing the same scenario. Admittedly, the Admiralty Trilogy game was almost the longest to prep and play (30 min prep/90 min play) although two others were close. However, the Admiralty Trilogy game was by far the most “realistic.”

Dawn of the Battleship is actually three products; the rulebook ($12), a Player’s Handbook ($3), and a scenario book (Monroe’s Legacy) ($16). The rulebook starts off with an excellent forward by respected naval historian Dr. Norman Friedman. Combined with the introduction Naval Technology 1880-1904 (p. 8) the core issues facing naval officers and nations are succinctly laid out. As always, ATG delivers an excellent history lesson. The rules themselves are not very different from the other Admiralty Trilogy series, a real testament to the ATG commitment to a harmonization process using a common game structure.

Chapter Two – Game Mechanics covers preparing for the game (filling out Ship Reference Sheets) the Turn Sequence and Command and Control. DotB uses two turn scales, Intermediate (30 min) and Tactical (3 min). Command and Control is actually a collection of optional rules for communications such as Visual Signals, Communications Procedures, and Fog of War. None of the communications rules are required for play, but all enhance the realism of the simulation.

Chapter Three – Ship Movement uses the “Three Minute Rule” as its foundation. Unlike many games, turning is not with a movement gauge but by looking up the Ship Turning Distance – or “advance.” I have heard that some gamers don’t like this approach, but it is the one ATG choses. Again, once you get used to it it becomes second-nature.

Chapter Four – Detection is another chapter I often hear criticized. The Admiralty Trilogy uses a visual detection model where they factor in many variables. Personally, I like this extra chrome. What many seem to overlook is that it doesn’t have to be used. I think many players miss the part where the designer writes:

If the players wish to forgo the visual detection die roll, just use the 50% detection sighting range as the detection threshold. This won’t generally affect daylight battles that much, however, it will place smaller units at a considerable disadvantage at night. (p. 4-4)

There is also an optional rules for Sighting in Intermediate Turns which also skips the rolls  and “speeds play considerably” though again it is “not recommended for night engagements.” (p. 4-4)

The major “difference” from other games in the series is in Chapter Five – Combat and the use of Gunnery Standard 0, tailored hit chances and modifiers to account for gunnery combat in this era, and new torpedo attack tables (again accounting for this era). There are also rules to account for the Light Battery and torpedoes. This chapter also includes rules for Coastal Defenses, including Coastal Defense Fortresses with Fixed Batteries of Mortars and even Shore-Based Torpedo Batteries or Field Artillery Batteries. Controlled Minefields and Mining Casemates are also included.

Chapter Six – Ship Damage Results is another chapter where I hear complaints. The Admiralty Trilogy uses two damage models; a progressive hit-point damage system and a Critical Hit system. Of the two, the Critical Hit is the most important. Progressive damage, be it flooding or fire, is also modeled and important to the survival (or destruction) of a ship. For these processes the model can get complicated, but once again familiarity breeds speed.

Chapter Seven – Attacks Against Land Targets and Chapter Eight – Mine Warfare add dimensions of naval combat that get so often overlooked in the battles of World War I or the Second World War and all-but-forgotten in the modern era of Harpoon 4.

If I have one complaint, it is the format of the product though even here I am torn. The books are laid out in the traditional print format that ATG used when being published hardcopy by Clash of Arms. This is usually a two- or three-column across setup using a rather dense print. On a full-size page (8.5″x11″) this works fine. On a tablet not so much – the text becomes too fine and small. WargameVault does offer a Print-on-Demand (PoD) option but I have not pulled the trigger on that expense.

A second complaint stems from the first; ATG page references still use their older printed page reference system. For instance, ATG numbers different sections/chapters individually. Thus, Chapter One – Introduction, starts on page 1-1 and ends on page 1-3. This equates to pages 10 and 12 of the pdf copy.  In my pdf copy, I cannot search for page 1-3 (I think headers are non-searchable). I am not sure what advice to give ATG on how to solve this problem; in the move to digital publishing a different reference scheme seems appropriate, but at the same time the present scheme supports the print version.

To help the player or referee get organized for play, the Player’s Handbook extracts many of the tables needed during the game. That said, there are still many smaller rules and modifiers that get buried in the dense text of the rulebook. For instance, buried in the second column on page 6-2 are penetration modifiers for shells against face-hardened armor. These modifiers are not carried over to the Player’s Handbook. A more thorough scrub of the rules is necessary to extract many important modifiers.

Monroe’s Legacy is the real history lesson of DotB. The 103 pages include nearly 30 scenarios (many hypothetical) and the Data Annexes for this era.

In the end I am glad I bought DotB. If one is an Admiralty Trilogy player the entire three-book collection is a must-buy. If you are not an Admiralty Trilogy player but want to explore naval combat in this era with your own favorite rules system, Monroe’s Legacy is probably a good investment.

#WargameWednesday “The Great Pacific War”

The Great Pacific War 1940-1944 by Don Baumgartner (Self Published, ISBN 9781493580569); Middletown, DE; Printed 15 May 2016.

As a long-time fan of the Admiralty Trilogy series of naval wargames, I religiously read The Naval SITREP. Issue #50 (April 2016) included a small half-page review of The Great Pacific War 1940-1944. Though not very well marketed as such, this is definitely an alternate history book. For a naval wargamer, it can be a sourcebook for scenarios or campaign inspiration.

The major historical point of departure is the death of Hitler during the Munich Crisis of 1939. Upon his death, the path towards war in Europe halts, allowing the author to explore a “what if” situation where the British Empire and Japan instead clash in the Far East. The story of these titanic naval battles are laid out in the book and each battle can easily be converted into a tactical scenario and gamed out.

Style-wise, the book could use a good editor and I encourage the author to get help laying the book out properly. Font selection should be reviewed because in my copy, all the 10’s digits are rendered as the letter “I” meaning we get “I4” guns. The maps could also use some work for they lack consistency in appearance or even orientation. Finally, tables and photos could use layout help.

Alternate history is hard. It is very easy to take historical reality, file off some serial numbers, rearrange letters, and say you have an alternate history (I’m looking at you, Mr. Turtledove. Naming the tank commander Morrel instead of Rommel? Really!) The problem in this book is that not enough changes. The author takes historical battles, moves them to to a different location (though often not that far from the original) and drops in a different set of combatants. Without needing to look too close between the lines, one can find the battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and night actions around The Slot off Guadalcanal. The result are battles not unlike what historically happened, but with the British generally substituted for the Americans.

It is easy to find a copy of Royal Navy Strategy in the Far East 1919-1939: Preparing for War Against Japan by Andrew Field (I used my public library privileges to search online databases and get my copy). Field lays out how the British thought they were going to fight, not how the Americans and Japanese eventually duked it out. There is enough difference between Field and Baumgartner that I (reluctantly) have to say that The Great Pacific War missed a golden opportunity. The British view of naval airpower was different than the US or Japan (for instance, see Geoffrey Till, “Adopting the aircraft carrier: The British, American, and Japanese case studies” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period). Exploring those differences are what I find really intriguing and the stuff that makes for interesting games. Unfortunately, Baumgartner’s  The Great Pacific War does not delve down into this form of “what if.”

Is The Great Pacific War worth purchasing? For a serious naval wargamer its probably worth it, if for no other reason than scenario inspiration. The background and orders of battle would make good material for a convention game. But if one really wants to explore the “what if” of the British and Japanese fighting it out at sea, it may be better to look elsewhere.

Wargame Wednesday – Command at Sea Pacific Showdown

Admiralty Trilogy by Clash of Arms

If you are a naval wargamer you have to admit that you always have wanted to see who would win, the mighty American Montana-class battleship or the Japanese Fujimoto Dream Battleship. Thanks to Clash of Arms and their Admiralty Trilogy Command at Sea we have both the game system and now new data annexes to battle with.

In 2011 Clash of Arms has published both American Fleets: Command at Sea Vol. VIII and Emperor’s Fleet: Command at Sea Vol. IX. Both products are not stand-alone games but rather data annexes for ships, planes, weapons and electronics for use in Command at Sea. Both books are around 100 pages of content (American a bit more; Emperor’s a bit less). Of the two I prefer the cover art on Emperor’s Fleet better. American Fleets is pure data with no commentary whereas Emperor’s Fleet adds just one short sidebar commentary on Kaiten.

Courtesy Clash of Arms

The data annexes are the heart of both books and these products not only show ships that were or could of been, but also traces the progression of weapons and electronics fitted. Sailing West Virginia before Pearl Harbor is a much different ship than the refitted one at the end of the war and here you can see those differences and game them.

If you are a Command at Sea player you will want these data annexes to get the latest stats. If you are a historical gamer, these books are still worth collecting if for no other reason than the complete ship histories presented.