#Wargame Wednesday – Origins Challenge and the challenge of interwar innovation in Great War at Sea: U.S.N. Plan Orange (Avalanche Press Ltd.,1998)

I keep working my way through my Origins Award Winners challenge in 2019. The latest game in my queue is The Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Orange (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1998). This game won the Origins Award in 1998 for Best Historic Board Game. As a naval wargamer, Plan Orange covers something of a Holy Grail theme for me. Who doesn’t enjoy one of the greatest “what ifs” of history? This title allows you to explore what could of been if the US and Japan had clashed in the 1930s. When this game came out I immediately scooped it up and played the heck out of it!

But…

…my problem today is that as much as I love the theme of U.S.N. Plan Orange, the Great War at Sea (GWaS) system has increasingly disappointed me over time. In the late 1990’s, the Great War at Sea and its World War II counterpart Second World War at Sea (SWWaS) seemed to be the model for depicting an operational-level naval campaign in the early to mid-20th century. Although I viewed the game as innovative in it’s day, with age I am not so sure the game is as innovative as I remember nor models the reality of innovation during the interwar period to my liking.

Design Pedigree

Part of being a grognard for 40 years now is that I pay more attention to the design of a game. When I look at GWaS against other games in my collection I now see how GWaS melds several previous design concepts into a single package. Aircraft operations are like that used in Flat Top (Battleline, 1977). The simple battle resolution and searching is in many ways a refinement of that seen in Flat Top and Bismarck Second Edition (Avalon Hill, 1980). Plotting operations are strikingly similar to that found in Fifth Frontier War (GDW, 1981). I find it conceivable that in 1998 the Origins Awards judges found this marriage of theme with these melded mechanics interesting enough and accomplished in a sufficiently meritorious manner to garner an award. This is not to say that GWaS is a cheap copycat; just that the state of the art in wargame design has come a long way since 1998 and this game series is firmly rooted in the (even then) past.

Interwar Advancements

The book Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Editors Williamson Murray & Allan R. Millett, Cambridge University Press, 1996) focuses on several interwar innovations including amphibious warfare, aircraft carriers, submarines, and radio and radar. In GWaS, amphibious warfare is treated in very little detail with rule 11.5 Unloading. Aircraft carriers are introduced in the Special Rule 19.0 Air Operations and 20.0 Air Combat. Submarines get another Special Rule, 22.0 Submarine Flotillas. The innovation that is missing is radio and radar.


Is is important for this discussion to take note of several other relevant rules. In the Great War at Sea series, rules 5.1 Plotting and 5.2 Missions represent the command and control of the fleet. To illustrate command and control limitations of World War I, players must plot ahead a certain number of turns based on the mission of a fleet:

  • Transport / Bombardment / Minelaying / Minesweeping missions are plotted at the beginning of the game for the ENTIRE scenario. The only way to change the mission is to Abort which states that, starting two turns ahead (16 hours), the fleet must move by the shortest available route and best speed to a friendly port. Once it reaches a friendly port, a new mission and new set of orders can be plotted.
  • Intercept / Raid missions are plotted two turns (16 hours) in advance. Only warships and colliers/oilers may be assigned Intercept or Raid missions.

Allan R. Millett argues in his “Patterns of Military Innovation” essay that, “Radio communications, communications intercept, cryptography, and radar probably represent the most dramatic, technological changes from one world war to the next”(Murray & Millett, p. 345). The U.S. Navy didn’t express any interest in radar until 1930 (Murray & Millett, p. 289) so it falls outside the realm of U.S.N. Plan Orange. Besides, the real change in radar was in the battle between ships, not searching for fleets in the broad ocean.

Albert Nofi in his book To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 (Naval War College Press, 2010), points out that as early as Fleet Problem I in 1923 communications was identified as an area of concern (Nofi, p. 54). By Fleet Problem V in 1925 signals intelligence (SIGINT) was used to actively redirect forces:

Late on the 10th (2010-2030) several Blue submarines managed to spot elements of the Black Fleet. Shortly afterward, S-11 (SS-116) “fired” four torpedoes at some Black battleships. All four were ruled to have missed, and S-11 was promptly attacked and sunk by Black destroyers. Blue signals intelligence intercepted Black’s communications regarding this skirmish, and shortly after midnight the Blue Main Body altered course to intercept. (Nofi, p. 75)

The ability to quickly redirect the “Main Body” seems to be captured in the GWaS rules for replotting of Intercept or Raiding fleets though the game imposes a 16 hour delay – four times longer than that demonstrated at sea in 1925. But what about the ability to redirect other fleets (like an amphibious invasion force) around “known” enemy locations? By rules 5.1 and 5.2 the only way to “redirect” an fleet with a transport mission is to Abort. This may make sense in World War I, but by 1930 in Plan Orange is it still a proper implementation of the rule? I also note the same rules are used in the Second World War at Sea-series rules….

The use of tactical signals intelligence (SIGINT) was also changing. The U.S. Navy was learning to use SIGINT in ways far beyond how Jellicoe used intelligence in World War I when often, “The Admiralty, as usual, knew the Germans were at sea but did not at first know their objective” (Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, Naval Institute Press, 1994, p. 313). For the U.S. Navy, SIGINT was used to good effect in Fleet Problem VIII in 1928:

Blue was able to secure fixes on the Orange light cruisers on several occasions, and adjusted its movements accordingly. Orange managed to use intercepts to break Blue’s code, but was unable to determine Blue’s course. (Nofi, p. 103)

The search and contact rules in GWaS do not take tactical SIGINT into account in any manner. Should it? To better reflect history maybe it should. Nofi tells us the advancements in cryptography and communications security were very important. In his analysis of “patterns” in the Fleet Problems between 1921-1941, Nofi specifically calls out cryptography and communications security by pointing out:

As a result of notable failures in communications security during Fleet Problems IX (1929), X (1930), and XI (1931), more secure procedures were introduced and tougher ciphers developed. This helped exercise the skills and enhance the experience of American cryptographers, laying the foundation for the enormously successful U.S. Navy cryptographically efforts against Japan during World War II. (Nofi, p. 293).

Plus Side – “Game in a Box”

One factor that is in U.S.N. Plan Orange’s favor is that it is a complete game in the box. Unlike later Avalanche Press GWaS boxed releases which are literally expansions that require ownership of multiple other titles to play, U.S.N. Plan Orange is self-contained. All components needed to play are included. This stand-alone ability makes the game attractive to own as a one-off title and allows players to explore the theme within the GWaS system without further (costly) investment.

To Play or Not to Play

The “complete game is a box” is a good reason for me to keep U.S.N. Plan Orange in my collection. Sure, I don’t play it as often as other games, but when I do it I can pull one box off the shelf and play it. When considering interwar innovations, I grudgingly admit that Plan Orange captures enough of the interwar innovations to keep me playing. One easy change may be to change the delay for replotting to one turn for Intercept/Raids and two turns for all other missions. Certainly I wish it did more, but then again, no game is a perfect model.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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