AFTER basically taking April off from heavy gaming, I jumped back into my 2019 Charles S Roberts Award Challenge this week with the 1987 Winner for Best Modern Era Boardgame, 7th Fleet from Victory Games. In late 2018, Compass Games announced they would be reprinting the Fleet-series. This got me thinking….
I played 7th Fleet not that long ago so this play was a bit easier since the rules were not stale in my head. This time through I asked myself why this game should be reprinted. The best answer I came up with was, “Because it does operational-level naval combat from the 1980’s so well.” 7th Fleet, and indeed the entire Fleet-series, is an excellent snapshot of what naval combat in the 1980’s at the operational level was expected to be. This is not to say it is perfect; the Fleet-series was informed by the best publicly available information. I want to focus on three issues, sea-skimming missiles, cruise missiles, and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) to help make my point.
The sea-skimming missile shot to fame (no pun intended) in the 1982 Falklands War with the Exocet anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM). As a sea-skimmer it was harder to engage because it usually flew below most weapons engagement envelopes.
In the Fleet-series, “sea-skimmers” like Exocet get their own call out in the rules and prevent the defending Area Anti-Air value from being multiplied when in defense. It is interesting to me that the only missile attribute that gets recognized is sea-skimmers. Other attributes, like speed or steep diving, were simply factored into the SSM Attack Value. This “boutique rule” (my term) makes the Fleet-series a reflection of its time. I wonder what the update is going to do; keep the sea-skimmer “exception” or go further? How should the Fleet-series handle supersonic and hypersonic ASCMs?
The other missile that gets recognized is Cruise Missiles. Rule 10.5 Cruise Missile Combat lays out the use of cruise missiles. In 7th Fleet, only the US Navy mounts cruise missiles so this is, in effect, a bonus US rule. Today, we understand that some of the very large Soviet missiles also had a land-attack capability. Another boutique rule; another limitation of the understanding from the 1980s, and another challenge to the designers and developer’s looking at a reprint.
In the Fleet-series , during the Strategic Detection Segment of the Strategic Cycle, Reconnaissance air units in an air zone can locate an enemy surface unit (or stack) or attempt to place a Strategic Detection marker on a submarine. In other words, all detection is from tactical, organic assets. The role of space-based ISR is ignored. Not that it was unknown; even the CIA took note of a Jack Anderson column in the Washington Post in February 1985 that talked about Soviet threat satellites.
To be clear, I am absolutely NOT accusing designer Joe Balkoski or Victory Games of ignoring the role of space-based ISR. Even though Jack Anderson got a scoop in 1985 the contribution of space-based sensors to ship tracking was actually highly classified at the time. For the designers to not include them in the game is understandable, and another example of how the Fleet-series is a product of its day.
All of which makes 7th Fleet and its sister-games in the Fleet-series so wonderful. To get a good taste of what people popularly thought the Cold War at Sea would look like one either read Tom Clancy or played a Fleet-series game. The game rules capture the essence of naval combat in the 1980s with few boutique rules or rules exceptions. I am fortunate enough to own the entire Fleet-series so I have little pressure to acquire any reprints. I am interested in seeing what is done with the reprints and, if there is enough differences, may look to invest.
Feature image BoardGameGeek