#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.

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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 Retrospective – My 1980’s Skirmish Wargames

As part of my RPG Retrospective, I looked at the game Commando by SPI published in 1979. I found it interesting that Commando is considered both a wargame and an RPG.

Looking through my collection, I found several other near-contemporary skirmish combat games from the early- to mid-1980’s. These games are Close Assault (Yaquinto, 1983), Firepower (Avalon Hill, 1984), and Ranger (Omega Games, 1984). Now Close Assault and Firepower are literally the same game just covering different time periods (World War II for Close Assault, post-1965 for Firepower). Ranger is more a simulation than a game; it plays like a tactical training aid for the military.

What I Thought About Them Back Then – Super-tactical, or skirmish-scale combat was not the preferred scale for my wargaming group. We were heavy into tactical battles, be it land (Panzer-series from Yaquinto), sea (Harpoon), air (the Battleline version of Dauntless), or space (Star Fleet Battles by Task Force Games). I had Close Assault/Firepower and later Ranger because we thought they could be used as an adjunct combat system for our Traveller RPG adventures. It never panned out that way though.

What I Think of Them Now – Each of these games still stand the test of time. Close Assault/Firepower are a bit more chart-heavy than more modern games, and the combat system still has a strong I-go/U-go feel to it, but it still feels like a good simulation (and fun wargame). Ranger is an interesting creation, and could serve as a great story/adventure engine for an RPG.

Threat Tuesday – Un’er’s New Missile

NorK Missile Launch, June 2015
NorK AntiShip Missile Launch, June 2015

The world’s favorite naughty boy, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, showed off a some new naval toys this weekend. He watched a firepower demonstration where a “new” antiship cruise missile, which some in the press call the “KN-01”, was launched. The missile looks to be a near-copy of conventional Russian designs. If one looks close, you can see a radar reflector set up on the target (gotta make sure you get a hit for the big guy or you’ll end up a dead guy yourself).

For Harpoon 4 players, just use a Russian Kh-35 and see what it gets you!

Threat Tuesday – Liaoning

AFP/Getty Images

China is now officially an aircraft carrier-operating navy with the commissioning of Liaoning on 25 Sept 2012. Though much has been written, I direct you to Andrew Erickson’s column in the Wall Street Journal, “Introducing the ‘Liaoning’: China’s New Aircraft Carrier and What it Means.”

Courtesy Killer Apps/Foreign Policy

Andrew (and many others) point out that the Chinese have yet to meet a major milestone; landing aircraft on the deck. Just one day after being commissioned, photos appeared on the ‘net that may indicate that landings have already happened (see “Who left skidmarks on the flight deck of China’s new aircraft carrier?“)

But does China really need an aircraft carrier? Yet elsewhere in Foreign Policy is an argument entitled “Shipping Out: Are Aircraft Carriers Becoming Obsolete? I will be the first to say that the arguments put forth are very simple and the author shows little real understanding of naval matters; not to mention apparent ignorance of anti-ship ballistic missiles. For a far better analysis of the Chinese naval threat I recommend the latest edition of  Ronald O’Rourke’s Congressional Research Service report China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress. On the issues of China’s aircraft carriers, the report points out:

Although aircraft carriers might have some value for China in Taiwan-related conflict scenarios, they are not considered critical for Chinese operations in such scenarios, because Taiwan is within range of land-based Chinese aircraft. Consequently, most observers believe that China is acquiring carriers primarily for their value in other kinds of operations that are more distant from China’s shores, and to symbolize China’s status as a major world power. DOD states that “Given the fact that Taiwan can be reached by land-based aviation, China’s aircraft carrier program would offer very limited value in a Taiwan scenario and would require additional naval resources for protection. However, it would enable China to extend its naval air capabilities elsewhere.” (p. 20-21)

Regardless of the threat, it will be fun to play out a wargame scenario using Liaoning. Indeed, the Oct 2011 issue of The Naval SITREP from Clash of Arms featured a Harpoon scenario “The Wisdom of Shi Lang” (Shi Lang being what the west originally thought the carrier would be named).

Threat Tuesday – Mighty Midgets for the Short Guy in Pyongyang

OR so says the Chosun Ilbo:

South Korean patrol boats and corvettes are able to detect a mere 30 percent of submarines at a time when North Korea is increasing the frequency of submarine infiltration drills.

The article continues in typical Korean fashion; many statistics with little background. The problem with so many of the Korean numbers is there is no real basis or understanding the measurement. What is an “exercise?” Are they counting individual subs or days? For instance, if you have two subs out for two days, is it 2 exercises (2x subs), 4 exercises (2x subs x2 days) or what.

There is also a bit of intel “I’m telling you now so you can’t blame me latter” going on here:

This year’s submarine exercises in the West Sea were reportedly concentrated between June and August. “There’s a likelihood that the North will seek a chance for provocation as a lot of North Korean and Chinese fishing boats are busy in the West Sea during the blue crab harvest season” that began in early September, Shin said.

Take a look at the geography and oceanography of the Northwest Islands some time. Makes for a very interesting Harpoon scenario!

The definition of a midget submarine is also interesting. The NorKs have apparently been developing semi-submersible craft with torpedoes. This is part of the detection challenge the article alludes to.

Courtesy NOSINT.blogspot.com

Threat Tuesday – Confrontation at Sea

The official Chinese military website Jiefangjun Bao Online on 24 August published this picture of the Type 022 Houbei-class fast attack missile boat. The text that accompanies the picture – besides being written in poor English – does provide fodder for a wargame scenario.

“The confrontation drill organized by a guided-missile speedboat detachment of the PLA Navy under complicated electro-magnetic conditions was in full swing on August 22, 2011. Hardly did the mine-sweeping ships of the Red Side intrude into the mine matrix set up by the Blue Side when they suffered electronic disturbance caused by the latter. Then the four new-type guided-missile speedboats of the Red Side rapidly conducted electronic counter-attack by way of roundabout communication, camouflaged intelligence and radio deception which led to the failure of the Blue Side’s audio-visual equipment before launching fierce fire attack.”

Let’s break this down into some scenario-specific items:

  • “The confrontation drill organized by a guided-missile speedboat detachment of the PLA Navy….” – other photos show a large formation of at least 10 boats so a detachment of that size is reasonable
  • “Hardly did the mine-sweeping ships of the Red Side intrude into the mine matrix set up by the Blue Side when they suffered electronic disturbance caused by the latter.” – this is an anti-access scenario where the Blue Side is trying to sweep a minefield while the Red Side is trying disrupt that mission
  • “Then the four new-type guided-missile speedboats of the Red Side rapidly conducted electronic counter-attack by way of roundabout communication, camouflaged intelligence and radio deception” – so even though the larger group of 10 boats was shown they operate in smaller units of possibly four boats; the reference to “roundabout communications” may indicate a use of other targeting data (shore-based?) and the “camouflaged intelligence and radio deception” may reference an ECM/ECCM or EMCON environment
  • “[W]hich led to the failure of the Blue Side’s audio-visual equipment before launching fierce fire attack.” – the reference to AV equipment seemingly implies only a concern with the visual or near-visual (IR?) spectrum but the overall tone of the article definitely leaves one concerned about operations in a heavy ECM/ECCM environment.

So what we have is a scenario where the Blue Side is attempting to sweep a Red minefield which is being defended by 10 missile boats operating two to three smaller detachments supported by shore-based targeting in a heavy ECM/ECCM environment. Who will win? Sounds like a good Harpoon scenario in the making!