BLUF – A mechanically simple wargame that builds a believable narrative of combat but is slowed by many rules.
I CAME OF AGE IN THE 1980s. At that time, I was heavily into naval wargaming and studying the latest weaponry so of course some of my favorite wargames were the Harpoon series by Larry Bond. I started out first with Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1983) but quickly moved on to Harpoon 3 from GDW (1987). I eventually joined the Navy (1989) just at the end of the Cold War; which is to say I joined a Navy in flux for although I fought in Gulf War I we still trained for the Cold War. Thus I found myself in the Vest-fjord of Norway in 1991 not long after the attempted coup in Moscow. The war I trained for, the Cold War at Sea, was ending and I (thankfully) never had a go at the Soviets.
Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019) allows wargamers to see what a “Cold War gone hot” might of been like. It focuses on NATO and the Atlantic, although the Mediterranean is also included:
Blue Water Navy covers the war at sea, air, close-ashore and low-earth orbit from the Kola Peninsula in Northern Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and West over the Atlantic Ocean to the United States and Cuba. The game models the full order of battle that could be expected in 1980’s wartime, from multi-regiment Soviet Tu-22 Backfire bombers to multiple US carrier groups. (Blue Water Navy – back of the box)
Blue Water Navy is large both in game scope and game contents. The two-piece 30″x45″ map uses areas spanning approx. 500nm to depict the battlespace from the Gulf of Mexico to the Kola Peninsula to the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Over 700 counters represent groups of ships or aircraft (although to be fair about half are markers, not units) and each turn is 2 days. Play time is rated at 1-3 hours for shorter scenarios and 8-16 hours for a campaign.
To try and make this all work, the game uses a form of the Ops-Events card-driven mechanic:
The game is card driven, with each card providing points to move or trigger special events such as ‘KGB Assassinations’ and ‘Space Shuttle’. There is also a reaction mechanic where most cards can be used in the other player’s turn to perform a spoiling event such as ‘Raid Aborts’ and ‘Friendly Fire’. (Blue Water Navy – back of the box)
To avoid the “God’s Eye” problem of wargaming, the rules feature robust detection rules:
The heart of the game is detection. Task Forces can only be attacked once detected. By contrast, land airbases can always be attacked. The race to detect opposing Task Forces begins as soon as they enter potential striking range…. (Blue Water Navy – back of the box)
Here are some of my impressions after reading the Rules Booklet and playing the first short scenario, ‘The Boomer Bastion, 1983’:
Game Mechanics & Rules
Mechanically, Blue Water Navy is not very complex. The Operations Cards and possible Actions are fairly straight-forward. Movement is very simple; even detection is logical. There is no Combat Results Table (CRT) in Blue Water Navy; combat ‘strength’ is expressed in terms of d10 rolled, with a natural 10 being highly favorable and doubles often also having a favorable effect. Modifiers are few.
That said, combat in Blue Water Navy is very procedural and, although the core mechanic of rolling multiple d10 is the same, every combat type is handled differently (and even within warfare types, such as air, different engagements are not always handled the same way). The use of Player Aid Cards (PAC) is absolutely essential. When coupled with the detection and reaction rules and the interaction of weapons systems (such as SAMs vs missiles or aircraft) this dramatically slows the game down.
Blue Water Navy also lacks an index (though the PAC has rules references). This can make finding essential rules a chore. For instance, the shorter scenarios use a ‘smaller’ Ops Track with different rules found in an unnumbered section at the beginning of the Scenario Book.
Gameplay in Blue Water Navy feels very organic. There is a very natural (dare I say, realistic?) feel to the flow of combat. Battles in Blue Water Navy build a narrative. In my scenario play, a US nuclear fast attack submarine (SSN) entered the Soviet Bastion hunting for Boomers (SSBN) and was intercepted by a Soviet SSN which got a shot off but missed. Now alerted, a Soviet MPA aided in the search supported by a surface ASW group. Facing off against this threat, the US SSN eventually was lost, but not before it exacted a heavy toll on the Soviet surface ASW group. This in turn set the stage for another US SSN to get into the bastion and, with Soviet ASW forces attrited, it was able to sink a Boomer. Another US SSN faced off against a Soviet SSN but lost out to the Rocket Torpedoes of the Soviet Victor III SSN.
Seapower & the State meets the Fleet-series…sorta
When it comes to Cold War navy wargames, the standard against which all others are held, even today, is certainly the 1990s Fleet-series by Victory Games. When it comes to strategic World War III at sea, I also fondly recall Seapower & the State by designer Stephen Newberg at Simulation Canada (1982). In many ways, Blue Water Navy attempts to cover the scope of Seapower & the State using Fleet-like mechanics. Interestingly, Stephen Newberg is credited as an advisor to Blue Water Navy!
I rate Blue Water Navy a qualified success in depicting World War III at sea. Blue Water Navy has the strategic coverage of World War III at sea (operations planning & events, movement, detection) but it takes an extended time to play because combat delves deeply (too deeply?) into the operational-level of warfare. The rules are generally simple but no two combats are resolved in the same manner thus slowing play. I like the game and I want to get the other short scenarios to the table. Maybe in doing so I can build up a rules-familiarity to speed play. Only then would I dare to attempt a campaign game.
Feature image – Blue Water Navy box cover (credit – self)