#Wargame Wednesday – Recreationist vs Strategist in The Great War at Sea: The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905 (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1999)

After playing The Great War at Sea: U.S.N. Plan Orange (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1998) for my 2019 Origins Award Challenge I decided to jump right into the next winner on my list; The Great War at Sea: The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905 – The Naval War for the Far East (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1999). Like U.S.N. Plan Orange before it, The Russo-Japanese War (RJW) won the Origins Award for Best Historic Board Game.

First off, I find it very interesting that a set of series rules designed for World War I (aka the Great War) was awarded twice in a row for designs outside of that war. U.S.N. Plan Orange took the game series from World War I into a 1930 campaign while RJW stepped backwards into the late 19th-century. At the time, I saw this as a very positive attribute of the GWAS system; today I am less sure.

Strategists & Recreationists

Bruce Geryk (@SpaceRumsfeld on Twitter) recently wrote his thoughts on Mark Herman’s Empire of the Sun (GMT Games, 2004+). Bruce writes about games for “Historical Strategists” versus “Historical Recreationists.” Bruce explains:

I attribute this to the difference in wargamers between what I call “historical recreationists” and “historical strategists.” Historical recreationists are very uncomfortable leaving out events that occurred because there is a certain determinism to their interpretation, or some imaginative verisimilitude that is violated when major events don’t happen. Historical strategists are fine with historical divergence as long as the decision space is the same as it was historically. quartertothree.com, 14 Mar 2018

So I asked myself, “Is RJW a game for strategists or recreationists?” More so, is the GWAS system aimed at strategists or recreationists? Thanks to the framing construct Bruce gives us, I think I have my answer.

RJW and GWAS are firmly recreationists games. In RJW, victory in Battle Scenarios is invariably expressed in terms of ships sunk. A few reward “crossing the map” but even when doing so it is unclear why this was important. Operational Scenarios are even worse, with dictated victory point accumulation directing the action. RJW firmly casts the player in the role of executing a plan (recreationist), not developing one (strategist). In the Great War at Sea system it is near-impossible to see Commander’s Intent*, only the orders.


* Commander’s Intent

The commander’s intent describes the desired end state. It is a concise expression of the purpose of the operation and must be understood two echelons below the issuing commander. . . It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. It is not a summary of the concept of the operation. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on the desired end state. Its utility is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept of operations no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end. (FM 100-5 Military Operations, US Army, June 1993)


The RJW Model

In order to depict the Russo-Japanese War, the GWAS system needed a few tweaks. The vast majority of the changes in the game system involved the tactical combat game. The two new numbered Special Rules included in RJW both focus on tactical combat. Rule 19.0 Effectiveness helps portray technology and training while 20.0 Tactical Map Overlays introduce “terrain” on the tactical map. Beyond that, the only other rule changes that significantly impact the operational game are:

  • Plotting (5.11) – To reflect the lack of wireless communications for the Russian Navy plotting for Intercept and Raid fleets is done three turns, not two, in advance.
  • Balloon reconnaissance – Found in the Amphibious Landings (11.5) section due to poor layout are rules for towed balloons; hard to find rule but very useful!

As I have said before, I have mixed feelings about the tactical combat system; I despise it as a poor depiction of combat while, on the other hand, when playing an operational scenario I appreciate the speed at which combat can be resolved to keep the game moving along. In the end though, the addition of rules and changes in the tactical combat portion of the game fail to impress me as I really desire to explore the operational game.

Rules Confusion

RJW was also the first time I really noticed that Avalanche Press could not handle writing rules. The Scenario Book for RJW is titled, “The Great War at Sea Vol. IV: The Russo-Japanese Naval War Scenario Book.” Being the fourth game in the GWAS series, I expected this book to be compatible with the previous ones. In GWAS, the Special Rules contain new rules, changed rules, and clarified rules. Unfortunately, what rule is what is not clear. The Special Rules for RJW continue the rules numbering from the basic series rule book but without respect for other games in the series. Thus, rule 19.0 in RJW is Effectiveness whereas rule 19.0 in U.S.N. Plan Orange is Air Operations. How confusing!

The rules numbering scheme would not have bothered me if RJW was a complete game. Alas, in RJW Avalanche Press introduced a bothersome trait; the need to own other games in the series. Most egregiously, they throw it in your face up front. Operational Scenario 1: Early Tensions 12-18 January 1904 requires the operational map from Great War at Sea Volume I: The Mediterranean. No map, no play!

Gaming the Russo-Japanese War

In their introduction to the Naval Institute Press/Naval War College Press edition of Sir Julian S. Corbett’s Maritime Operations in the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905, John B. Hattendorf and Paul S. Schurman write:

Corbett’s study of the war between Russia and Japan, written only a decade after the events, contains useful material for the present. He examines in some detail the technical developments of the time that were influential in the war: namely, torpedo attacks, tactical maneuvers, speed and range of battleships, armament, and communications. These aspects are largely of the ‘period piece’ variety, but understanding their interplay nonetheless retains our interest. It is the balance between tactics and strategy that will engage the reflective reader, who may find relationships between then and now that could serve as a basis for a modern war game. (p. xv)

….

Thus, Corbett pointed out the pros and cons of ‘limited war’ by showing that what actually happened was not the only feature of the campaign to warrant assessment. He also pointed out the narrow margin on which Japan operated, a margin that the Russians might have exploited, but did not. It is on this level of combined-operations problems, and the possible variations of combined-operations responses, that this book is most instructive. (p. xvi)

I am glad Sir Julian Corbett’s book is instructive, because the modern (or 1999) war game version in The Great War at Sea Volume IV: The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905 – The Naval War for the Far East is less so. RJW is not bad as a recreation of the battles of the Russo-Japanese War, but as a game of the operations of the war it is far less satisfying. The game may satisfy recreationists, but a strategist wargamer will find it much harder to explore the situation.

I admit that maybe I am asking too much of the game. Both RJW and U.S.N. Plan Orange are slices of a larger, strategic conflict. Maybe I am being too harsh; instead I should accept RJW for what it is and enjoy it, right?


Feature image BoardGameGeek.com

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