Wargame Wednesday – Remember the Main(e) Problems and Innovation

Courtesy BGG

The latest entry in the Great War at Sea (GWAS) series from Avalanche Press is Remember the Maine. The game covers the naval battles of the Spanish-American War of 1898. For a retail of $59.99 the buyer gets a boxed game with a 34×22-inch map of the central Caribbean, standard GWAS tactical map, 100 “long” double-sized and 80 standard-sized pieces. , all of them laser-cut and mounted.

The game is a republication of the earlier Great War at Sea: 1898, The Spanish American War which I rated on Boardgame Geek in 2006 (or earlier) as with a score of 7.5 and the comment “One of the best GWAS games.” Alas, my copy is in storage right now so I cannot do a straight-up comparison between the two versions.

Courtesy BGG

Seven years later I have to question myself. I will be the first to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with the GWAS series; love the subject matter but (sorta) hate how Avalanche Press has packaged the product over time. Remember the Maine is no different. The game has parts I dislike sprinkled in with parts I appreciate.

Out-of-the-Box Impression

The first item I noticed when opening the box is that it is plain with just a thin cardstock slipcover for packaging. I recognize that this is for economic reasons but I can’t help but feel that this package style will not wear well on the shelf.

The counters are the newer laser cut process. Like other games done with laser cut, there are scorch marks on front and back. In this case – given the game covers the age of dirty, early coal ships – the scorch marks tend to add a bit of style to the counters. The internet has tips on cleaning the counters; use a kleenex or the like to rub the soot off (evocative of the era for if you DON’T clean the counters your fingers will be VERY dirty). I guess wargamers will have to get use to cleaning counters in the future rather than clipping corners (ah, the advances of technology)!

What I don’t like is the burnt smell that permeates the whole box. I would set the countersheet outside to air out but it is so thin I think it will fly away at first half-hearted breeze. According to complaints on internet forums, laser cut counters also tend to not stay on the tree though my copy apparently was not too roughly handled since no counters came out until I lifted the sheet from the box.Compared to other counters in the GWAS series, the ones in Remember the Maine are also very dull in appearance (no shiny counters here).

Whereas the counters are dull the map is shiny; yet another reversal of the usual Avalanche Press approach to packaging games. I find the shiny finish detracting as it makes it harder for my eyes to see the map with any glare. I also find the color selection difficult; the red text for Spanish ports is almost impossible for me to read except under the best light (causing the most glare).

RTM
Murphy’s Law in Remember the Maine

There is a version of Murphy’s Laws of Combat which states, “All battles are fought at the junction of two or more map sheets.” Remember the Maine apparently has taken this adage to heart and placed several names and locations at the junction of the map sheets. I find this very unattractive as the maps already don’t line up quite right and require a bit of overlap. At first I thought the spreading of ports or names across multiple sheets was to facilitate their use in smaller scenarios but looking through the scenario book this does not appear to be the case. Indeed, based on the Operational Scenarios presented, one could get away with a two-sheet map running geographically from the northwest to the southeast covering the area from Miami to Bridgetown. Of course, this would not be in keeping with the usual “up is North” approach in GWAS mapping but I have to wonder what the impact on the cost of the game might have been.

The Rules

Avalanche Press must have a bazillion copies of the GWAS standard rules around because this game shipped with the year 2000 edition – again. As a result, the scenario rules have grown to 64 pages, of which 2 are intro, 6 are Special Rules, 44 are Scenarios, 2 are Optional Rules, and 10 are Ship Data Sheets.

Many of the Special Rules are actually errata or updated rules for the Standard Rules. Rules like Fast and Slow Ships (5.11) are now standard. Why Avalanche Press doesn’t redo the Standard Rules is beyond my understanding.

For the Scenario Book the rules format is also inconsistent. For instance, the Special Rules and Optional Rules (not listed in the TOC) all have periods at the end of headers (i.e. “Leaders.“) whereas the scenarios don’t (such as “Victory Conditions“).  This tells me that these two parts were likely written by at least two different people and it appears nobody truly consolidated the effort. Finally, how hard is it to NOT use “Central Powers” or “Allies” in the Remember the Maine scenario book? Once said (like on p. 3) that “The terms “Allied” and “Central Powers” in the system rulebook should be read as “American” and “Spanish” respectively”  is stated why does EVERY scenario start with Central Powers (Spanish) Forces and Allied (American) Forces?

I believe Avalanche Press can present the rules in a leaner, easier to understand fashion if they attacked their fetish with repetition. For instance, the scenario Special Rule for Fleet Limits is used in all thirteen Operational Scenarios, yet the rules appears in EVERY scenario. Why not make a Special Rule that is written once? In Battle Scenarios the Special Rule for General Chase appears in at least 23 of the 32 battle scenarios. Again, why make this an explicit Special Rule for all these scenarios when you could have one Special Rule and then NOT implement it by exception?

The Optional Rules are also a bit of an enigma to me. There is a Special Rule for Gunnery Range (7.6) that appears on p. 5 yet the identical rule repeats in the Optional Rules on p. 52. Again it looks like the Optional Rules were created by the scenario author(s) whereas the Special Rules update the Standard Rules. The lack of merging content signals to me a broken editorial process which creates doubt in my mind for the company as a whole.

Innovative Small Ship Battles

Reading the above one may think I absolutely HATE this game. There was one part of did find innovative and that is the small ship battles. Eight of the Battle Scenarios focus on battles among the smallest ships. This allows one to play out tactical battles at a smaller scale than the dreadnought-focused standard rules. I like this way of highlighting the role of the smaller ships that often fall below the usual GWAS combat threshold.

I also like the range of scenarios included. The 13 Operational Scenarios and 32 Battle Scenarios cover five general periods; the “Disaster of ’98,” the “Blockade of Cuba,” “La Isla de Cuba,” The Far East and Distant Seas,” and “La Armada.” I appreciate this variety of scenarios as it showcases the wide range of missions and historical or alternative battles in this war.

All in One Package

Finally, I must say that I appreciate that Avalanche Press is honoring their commitment to make each game stand-alone without dependency on other games of the series. In the first edition of this game, of the 22 scenarios only 15 were playable using the box components. To play the other 7 required ownership of other games in the series.

Taking the Bad with the Good

Ultimately I am torn on my judgement of Remember the Maine. It certainly is better than its predecessor in terms of content (more scenarios, completely playable out of the box, innovative small ship battle system) but the component and rules quality make me hesitant to fully endorse this product. I think this is a better effort than the recent Avalanche Press scenario books for the GWAS series, but there is definitely room for improvement.

Wargame Wednesday – Haze (Confederate) Gray and Underway

I admit it; I have a love-hate relationship with Avalanche Press and their Great War at Sea (GWAS) series. Love the operational-level of naval warfare, maps and counters; hate their tactical game and loads of boring scenarios.

I also love the Alternative History aspect of GWAS. I have much fun fighting cardboard wars that could-of-been but never-were. Plan Orange is of course my favorite, but over the many years Avalanche has given us MANY more expansions.

Courtesy BGG

One of the latest expansions is Confederate States Navy: A Great War at Sea Scenario Book. CSN postulates, like author Harry Turtledove in his Great War series, that the South somehow doesn’t lose the Civil War and survives into the 20th Century. The focus here is on the Navy.

CSN -like much of the GWAS series-is a battleship lovers dream. This Confederate Navy of 1917 gets no less than 25 dreadnoughts, pre-dreadnoughts, and big cruisers or battlecruisers. They even have a small carrier and early naval aviation. There are MANY scenarios in here including 12 Battle Scenarios (ugh) and 18 operational scenarios (better) including an awesome (but large) scenario where an Union American Navy Expeditionary Force tries to link up with the German Navy in the North Sea while a Royal Navy reinforced by the South opposes them.

In order to fully enjoy this book you need a near-complete collection of all the GWAS games and supplements – good if you got them but bad if you don’t. I also think Avalanche Press’ experiment with laser cut counters needs to be rethought. The thickness is too thin, the colors dull, and the back appears burnt!

See the Brown Burns at the Edges? (Courtesy BGG)

GET IT if you area  GWAS collector.

PASS if you aren’t.

Session Report – GWAS Pacific Crossroads 25 Jun 2011

Operational Situation

US convoys enroute to Guam are being escorted by two battleships. The Japanese fleet leaves Saipan and Truk simultaneously while US battle cruisers from Guam race to support. In the early afternoon of the second day, the two fleets come together. For the Japanese they must sink the valuable American merchants; the Americans realize the best chance they have is to engage the Japanese quickly and keep them at bay while the merchants run for safety.

Note – The GWAS Dreadnoughts tactical rules were used for the following battle.

SPECIAL TO NY TIMES FROM REPORTER X

DATELINE: April 2, 1919, Somewhere in the Mid-Pacific, Aboard USS Alaska, Flagship Navy Escort Force

The day began clear and the ship’s captain at breakfast told us that he expected the day to remain the same. Late last night we rendezvoused with a large convoy of ships carrying vital cargo to our troops in the Philippines. The Captain warned us to keep our combat gear close as he was in wireless contact with our battle cruisers which should join us later in the day. This was important since we had also received reports from other neutral ships that the Japanese fleet was on the move.

At around 10am two ships hove into sight. After a few tense minutes signals were exchanged revealing the battle cruisers Intrepid and Bonhomme Richard. The also brought news that the Japanese fleet was just over the horizon. No sooner had the battle cruisers falling into formation then masts were sighted coming up over the horizon.

Turn 1 – The American fleet is in line astern with scout cruisers Manila, Davao, and Cebu in the lead followed by battle cruisers Intrepid and Bonhomme Richard. Astern of battle cruisers are battleships Alaska and Hawai’i along with the old armored cruiser Seattle. To starboard of the main battle line are four divisions of destroyers; to port are the gunboats Galveston and Tacoma with colliers Neptune and Orion followed by the fast transports and slow transports.

The Japanese fleet is to the south. The main battle line is lead by the battle cruisers Hiei, Haruna, Kirishima and Yoshun followed astern by the light cruisers Chikuma, Yahagi, and Hirado. To the starboard side are the gunboats Yodo and Mogami.

The scout and battle cruisers as well as our destroyers dashed ahead and met the enemy head-on. Meanwhile, the slower battleships moved to support while the valuable merchants turned south to avoid becoming entangled in the battle. Our gallant destroyers certainly earned their keep this day; we could see the plumes from torpedo strikes against the enemy hulls. Immediately, one ship stopped dead in the water and another quickly plunged beneath the waves. We listened in awe to reports of small Japanese gunboats running right up our ships and fearlessly firing torpedoes. Fortunately they all missed.

Turn 2 – The US destroyers lead the charge and pass down the port-to-port down the Japanese battle line. The first and second division fire torpedoes from around 4000 yards and score several hits on the lead Japanese battle cruisers. Hiei in the van goes DIW while the next in line, Haruna, suffers a catastrophic hit and rapidly disappears beneath the waves. The US battle cruisers are unable to fire since the scout cruisers are blocking their line of sight. The Japanese battle cruisers try vainly to swat away the smaller destroyers but only succeed in sinking a lone ship. Meanwhile, the two fearless Japanese gunboats pass starboard-to-starboard down the US battle line miraculously avoiding getting hit and loosen their torpedoes against the battle cruisers. All the torpedoes, fired from hull mounts, miss.

We stood in awe on the bridge wing and watched the seemingly fearless Japanese press on with their attack. They too turned to the south and our battle cruisers followed. We also watched the two Japanese gunboats continue right past us and drive on towards our nearly defenseless merchantmen. I could hear the wireless calling out for the scout cruisers to turn and go to defend the merchants. We took some shots at the Japanese gunboats as they passed us but the little ships proved to be too hard to hit. Fortunately, our own gunboats engaged the oncoming Japanese ships and one quickly went under in a hail of small shells. Meanwhile, our battle cruisers continued to duke it out with the two remaining Japanese battle cruisers. Our fire must have been good since we saw a fire erupt on the new Japanese leader. Our little destroyers scored yet another victory by sinking the hapless Japanese battle cruiser that had first been halted by our gallant torpedomen.

Turn 3 – The American third and fourth destroyer divisions finish off the stationary Haruna. Yoshun is hit and a fire started. Intrepid suffers damage to her tertiary battery but no other damage. Yodo and Mogami motor past the American battle line and make haste towards the merchants but fire from Galveston and Tacoma sinks Yodo.

After seeing the punishment taken, we were amazed when the Japanese fleet refused to turn away. Obviously sensing that the real prize were the merchant loaded with men and equipment, the Japanese commander moved to close the distance with the vulnerable tubs. Fortunately for the merchant seamen, Alaska and Hawai’i stood in the way!

Turn 4 – Gunboat Mogami gets in amongst the convoy but her gunnery proves poor as she is unable to sink any ships. Galveston and Tacoma try to get close to sink her while the scout cruisers continue to race back from the main battle line to lend support. The scout cruisers are still unable to engage due to the short range of their tertiary battery. Meanwhile, the two remaining Japanese battle cruisers, Yoshun and Teibo, try to slip past the American battle line but the two American battleships and two battle cruisers steam an mere 4000yds to the port side and exchange fire. Unbeknownst to the Americans, a fire aboard Yoshun threatens her magazines and her captain is forced to flood his magazines effectively rendering his ship impotent and unable to fire. Seeing the hopeless situation, and noting his light cruisers are still unengaged, he orders a turn to the south in order to disengage.

At only a few thousand yards we watched our shells slam into the enemy ship. Obviously having enough and realizing the futility of continuing against four American dreadnoughts, the Japanese captain turned away. Once we were sure the enemy light cruisers were not going to make a final charge, we also turned towards our merchant convoy to dispatch the last pesky Japanese gunboat that was racing amongst our vital ships. What a glorious day for the US Navy! The Japanese fleet has two less battle cruisers and most assuredly a new appreciation for American firepower!

Turn 5 – The two remaining Japanese battle cruisers turn away with the American ships taking a few parting shots but scoring no hits of significance. The American commander declines to pursue, noting the Japanese light cruisers with their torpedoes coming up and feeling the pressure to protect the convoy. The American scout cruisers with the assistance of the gunboats dispatch the lone Japanese gunboat after a melee amongst the merchants.

Post Battle Analysis

The American attack with the destroyers was far more effective than it should have been. In the first attack, three of 12 factors struck (25%) which is far above historic expected rates. In part this was because so many extra factors were used given the Dreadnoughts tactical rules being played. The American commander initially used the scout cruisers incorrectly; given the lack of firepower (tertiary batteries only) he should of held the scout cruisers back to protect the merchantmen. It was really only poor shooting on the part of the gunboat Mogami that saved the merchants as the Japanese wolf raced through the merchant columns. It is also interesting to note that Yoshun was rendered combat ineffective by fires and not hits by the enemy; she lost her ammunition before all her primary guns were destroyed but still had five of eight hull left (though she also suffered flooding). If the slug fest had continued for another turn, it is likely Yoshun would have been sunk. As it was, the special rule Better Part of Valor saved that ship.

Wargaming 21 Jun 2011: Pacific Crossroads Part I

Courtesy BGG

Set up on the table today is Avalanche Press Great War at Sea Pacific Crossroads.

Setting up for Operational Scenario One: To Guam and Beyond (April 1919). The situation is laid out in the Developer’s Preview:

The Mariana and Caroline Islands lay across the sea route from Hawai’i to the Philippines; any American attempt to relieve its Far Eastern colony would have to pass near these islands. The American War Plan Orange did not envision reducing the Japanese bases along the way: once the fleet had passed on its way to the Philippines, follow-up convoys would still be at risk from the Japanese bases in the former German colonies of the Central Pacific.

The American fleet must move a convoy of 12 fast transports and 15 slow transports from the eastern edge of the map to either Guam or off the west edge (convoy en route to the Philippines). The convoy is escorted by an old armored cruiser and two gunboats with two slow battleships as a far escort. At Guam in support there are two battle cruisers and three scout cruisers along with 12 destroyers. To oppose the passage the Japanese have two battle cruisers at Saipan and a more sizable fleet of two battle cruisers and three light cruisers at Truk. The American convoys literally have to pass through the middle of the Japanese fleet to achieve their objective.

As the Developer’s Commentary in the Preview notes:

The American transports don’t have the fuel capacity to make it all the way from Hawaii to Guam, and the one collier that Mike had assigned to the American convoy couldn’t refuel a whole convoy that size by itself. So I went with the aforementioned idea that the Americans had constructed a coaling station on Wake Island in anticipation of war with Japan. That would get the convoy onto the map with just two fuel boxes expended, and the remaining fuel aboard the small transports would get them to Guam but not to Philippines (any ship needs three fuel boxes to get there from Guam). Then I went with victory conditions that reward the Americans for unloading transports at Guam but reward them better for getting transports off the west edge that have at least three fuel boxes remaining. This adds an extra level of strategy to the scenario since the Americans will have to refuel their transports either at Guam or by collier if they wish to get any transports off the west edge. To help with that, I added AX11 Orion at Guam and let her have a supply mission if the American player wishes.

Of particular interest is the mix of ships used in Pacific Crossroads. The two US battleships in this scenario, Alaska and Hawaii, are actually the Argentine dreadnoughts Rivadavia and Moreno. As related in Ships of Pacific Crossroads:

American naval officers studied the ships, built in private American yards, and made plans to take them over in case they were seized for American wartime use or if Argentina defaulted on payments and the U.S. Navy was forced to purchase them to bail out the builders. . . .The names are purely speculative; if purchased/seized they would have taken the next names in the “state” sequence, probably Idaho and Mississippi, but using those (or any other “state” names) would have been very confusing for players.

The two American battlecruisers are based on the (never built) 1910 battle cruiser:

There are also two battle cruisers present, the 1910 design. . . .These carry the names of two famous American warships, Intrepid and Bonhomme Richard. They’re fast and much better-protected than the battle cruisers of other nations, but at the cost of firepower (similar to the trade-off made by German designers, and in contrast to British and Japanese thinking). . . .There’s one older armored cruiser present: Seattle was a mainstay of the U.S. Pacific Fleet for decades. There are also three new scout cruisers, examples of the 1910 scout cruiser designed alongside the 1910 battle cruiser. This ship never made it to the keel-laying stage, despite the Navy’s desperate need for new cruisers. The three examples provided in the game all bear the names of cities in the Philippines.

The Japanese also get some speculative units:

American intelligence analysts insisted that Britain had agreed to transfer eight capital ships to the Japanese at the war’s end in return for Japanese support during the war. This does not seem to have been actually contemplated, but if the Americans had gone to war in 1919 they would have expected to encounter former British warships flying the Rising Sun. And so the game includes two Inflexible-class ships in Japanese colors. . . .There are but three cruisers, those of the Chikuma class, based closely on the British Dartmouth. None of them survived into the Second World War, but they were the backbone of the modern Japanese cruiser force in the years just after the First World War.