Thursday 29 July 2010

The Continued Ramblings of a Naval Wargamer

Despite the train journey debacle of yesterday I was still able to visit the club; albeit only for an hour or so. A War at Sea game was underway and Mr Kightly and French were taking on the Italians of Mr.Fox. The game was played using a variant of the non grid based set I had used some time ago and when I arrived battle had been joined between the two forces and the pile of sunken ships was already beginning to grow. Great fun was had by all – in never ceases to amaze me of the sheer joy to be had rolling great handfuls of dice! I would like to extend my thanks to both Mr Fox for stepping into the breach with his loan of the Italians and to Mr Kightly for going ahead with the action. The planned game will hopefully take place next week – trains permitting!

Seeing the game being played out as an observer (this is a novel experience in itself) it did give me cause to consider exactly to what degree a naval wargame should mirror the actual subject matter. I am not talking so much about the technical side of weaponry, armour etc – more the human aspect in terms of the usage of tactics and the morale effect.

The game was not a great advert for this consideration in that it was very much along the lines of a ‘last man standing’ knockabout – enormous fun but hugely implausible. Scenario based games with defined victory conditions are a good starting point in this respect – either historically based or using one of a number of generic types e.g. convoy escort, shore bombardment, hunt the raider etc. Ship and fleet morale is a thornier subject but I feel that such a subject is worthy of serious consideration although as yet I am not sure how best to achieve this.

One of the points that arose from the game last night was the vulnerability of destroyers. It is very easy to sink them and it is very rare that a game ends with any of these ships still afloat. Clearly this is wrong and initially I thought that perhaps the rules were to blame. I am now convinced that it is more likely to be caused by incorrect use rather than any perceived flaws in the rules. Consider the following example:

A destroyer wants to torpedo a battleship (its guns would be little or no use against such a target) so bravely steams to within torpedo range to make the attack. The battleship spots this audacious attacker and so immediately opens fire with its secondary batteries – anything from 4 to 6 inch weapons and from half a dozen or so guns. The destroyer is then surrounded by a barrage of shell splashes (no doubt deeply disconcerting to the crew) and eventually the inevitable happens and a hit is scored. A 4” or larger shell exploding in the vitals of an unarmoured ship is going to cause a lot of damage. The torpedo attack is made and as the range is long and the target is moving at 30 knots it misses. The battleship sails serenely on and the destroyer is left smoking, on fire and probably sinking.

An idealised attack perhaps, in clear daylight and assuming everything works. I would maintain that getting close to a battleship with a destroyer is a dangerous business when you consider that the broadside weight of the secondary batteries on most battleships was roughly equivalent to a light cruiser in firepower. A torpedo is a deadly weapon when used correctly – ideally so that the opposition in unaware of the attack and so cannot take any avoiding action. In game terms the safest way to attack a battleship would be at night or in poor visibility – better chances to hit and better chances to get away unscathed. Destroyers are not armoured and so are vulnerable and if used indiscriminately will suffer. Too often I have seen naval games start with a headlong charge by both side’s destroyer forces, usually leading to mutual destruction followed by the heavy units slugging it out.

This meander brings me back to the question of morale and relative values of the units in a fleet. If a fleet lost all of its destroyers what would it do? There would be no anti-submarine screen and no way of negating the opposition’s destroyers other than by shooting at them. Similarly, if a major fleet unit was badly damaged would it be forced to withdraw screened by its destroyers? The points values assigned to models in the game are a good way of matching off abilities and so are a useful mechanic. I would like to have some kind of reference to the relative worth of a vessel within the formation employed and this is very much a subjective view. I like the sudden death combat decider used in DBA and HOTT – especially the latter as it is points based.

In a rather rambling way I think that assigning a notional percentage of total points cost of the forces involved (e.g. say 33%) as a notional victory level would be a good idea. It would serve to make higher value targets a priority and conversely; the protection of ones own high value assets becomes essential. The notional percentage could be flexible, even scenario driven and could even possibly take into consideration that most controversial of topics: national characteristics. I think that using this approach in conjunction with a well written and clearly defined scenario would provide the naval gamer with a challenging command experience as the dual considerations of losses and the tactical objective will serve to focus the mind rather than the inevitable first turn rush to glory. Certainly this would encourage a degree of tactical forethought which can only be a good thing.

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