Everybody loves a good fight, and in the late 1970s if you wanted to game out a ‘modern’ tactical fight at sea one set of rules available was Warship Commander: 1967-1987 Present Day Tactical Naval Combat (Enola Games, 1979). More properly, this is a set of minatures rules (1:3000 scale recommended) than a boardgame. But is Warship Commander a good set of rules for ‘modern’ naval combat? My answer is variable; if you are looking for a ‘realistic’ depiction of tactical naval combat – at least as it was understood in the unclassified world – then Warship Commander is a very good game. However, if you are looking for a streamlined, playable wargame that plays briskly then this is NOT the game you want.
Is it a Range Dependent Model?
Far below is the summary of what Captain Hughes’ A Range Dependent Model of Modern Naval Combat is. Warship Commander certainly has all the 12 elements of the model. The real question for me is not, ‘Does it satisfy the model,’ as much as it is, ‘HOW does it satisfy the model?”
The short answer is, ‘it’s complicated.”
- Complicated because the product is more simulation than game
- Complicated because the rules are dense and complex
- Complicated because the game is a product of its time – caught at the start of a digital revolution in publishing, a revolution in digital weaponry, and a revolution in ‘open source’ public awareness of military weaponry.
Simulation or Game?
Here is how designer Ken Smigelski describes Warship Commander in the Introduction:
Warship Commander is a set of rules for recreating present day naval actions using military miniatures or cardboard counters. The rules can be used with military miniatures of any scale, although we recommend the new 1:3000 scale models. The game is designed to be played by two players or teams. Regardless of the number of players, Warship Commander is a thoroughly playable, highly detailed, and exceptionally realistic game.
Well, I’m going to give him the ‘highly detailed’ and ‘exceptionally realistic’ but I will argue about playable. Ken continues:
Warship Commander is the culmination of three years of research into the weapons, tactics, and battle damage of World War II as well as in depth research into present day naval weapons and tactics. It is a highly detailed and unique game, and is unlike any other naval game ever produced. Most of the game’s mechanics will be unfamiliar to the veteran naval wargamer as they are to the novice.
Luckily, the designer gives us a bit of insight into his sources used. What strikes me the most about the sources listed are these two (cited as they appear):
- Seatag: A Sea Control Tactical Analysis Game (Naval War College)
- An Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Game, Croyle (Naval War College)
So…the designer (or folks helping the designer – none are credited) were familiar with tactical naval games from the Naval War College. Looking at Warship Commander in this light, it is no stretch-of-the-imagination to see this game as a commercial version of the rules used by the Naval War College. Maybe not an outright copy, but heavily influenced at least? It certainly appears the legacy of the rules come from the simulations of the Naval War College. Indeed, looking at the introduction the designer makes the point that this to play the game well, an understanding of modern naval warfare is a prerequisite:
We recommend that all players read this section before reading the rules, as it will provide the information needed to thoroughly understand the rules. In order to play Warship Commander well, a player will need to throughly understand modern naval warfare, not just memorize a series of rules.
“…thoroughly playable, highly detailed, and exceptionally realistic….”
Warship Commander is a manual wargame. I don’t recall a calculator being called for but having some way to track all the modifiers when resolving a situation is essential. The game is also chart-heavy. Indeed, in the 68-page core book the introduction and background takes up the first eight pages, the rules to page 42, and the rest is tables and charts (~26 pages worth). Players need a deck of playing cards, decimal dice (d10) and d6 to resolve the various sub-routines.
I probably should mention at this point that Warship Commander is not all-encompassing when it comes to the various domains of naval warfare. Warship Commander has rules for:
- Visual Sighting
- Gunfire Against Ships
- Damage Control
- Communications & Data Link
- Electronic Warfare
- Surface to Surface Missiles (SSMs)
Movement thru Torpedoes takes up about 14 pages. Electronic Warfare takes up the next eight pages and SSMs use the next 10. In effect, EW and SSMs take up over half the rules! If you want to add aircraft and submarines, you are going to need Sea Command: Present Day Naval-Air and Anti-Submarine Warfare (The Supplement to Warship Commander) from Enola Games in 1980.
Just how complicated is the game? I was going to add the SSM Attack Example from Sea Command (there is no comprehensive example provided in Warship Commander) but as I started typing I realized it looks to be around 3000 words long. That’s 3000 words (roughly double the size of this post) to resolve a single eight-Harpoon salvo against a Soviet Krivak-class destroyer fired from a range of 15 nm. If you actually get done reading the whole example (it’s over two double-column pages in the book) you easily understand the degree of complexity in the rules and why I, contrary to the designer’s claim, am loathe to agree that the game is ‘throughly playable.’
A Revolutionary Game?
As I wrote above, Warship Commander was published at at time of several revolutions in the wargaming industry. The first revolution was in publishing. Slick cover aside, Warship Commander has the look and feel of a desktop publishing product. The format is very simple with few graphics. An errata sheet in Sea Command looks like it was done on an IBM Selectric typewriter and mimeographed. I have to wonder how different the game rules would be if somebody used even an early generation personal computer and word processor. (Funny aside – My father was audited by the IRS in the mid-1980s because he claimed a ‘Personal Computer’ – PC – as a business expense. The IRS told he he couldn’t claim a ‘personal’ computer for a business – but an IBM one would be OK since it was made by International BUSINESS Machines.)
The second revolution, and one that Warship Commander really tries to capture, is the revolution in digital weaponry. The designer makes it clear how important ‘The Wizard’s War” is to Warship Commander:
Modern weapons rely on electronic sensors, and electronic warfare is perhaps the most important element of modern warfare. The side that controls the electromagnetic spectrum will be the side that will win the next war at sea. All navies constantly improve their radars and similar sensors to make them more resistant to electronic countermeasures, while also improving their own electronic countermeasure devices to make them more effective against opposing radars.
Later on in his modern naval warfare primer, he writes, “Modern warfare is electronic warfare” (emphasis in original). Those eight pages of EW rules are broken down into Radar, Passive Sensors, Electronic Countermeasures (ESM), and Electronic Counter-countermeasures (ECCM) going down to detailed techniques like Deception Jamming – false target generation or Jittered PRF. Communications and data links and surface-to-surface missiles get similar, albeit not as detailed, treatment.
The third revolution was more a societal revolution being the public’s access to information. In 1980, Alvin Toffler published his book The Third Wave which introduced many to the ‘information revolution.’ I can see how Warship Commander was riding the bow-wave of the information revolution, specifically in how it was taking advantage of many information sources. I recall being a middle school student and comparing the Ship Characteristics Table in Warship Commander to the latest issue of Jane’s at the public library (not my county library, but the Denver Public Library downtown – and yes, I was a geek). Bookstores started carrying military weapon compilations like Arco’s An Illustrated Guide to Modern Warships (1980) which I poured over, again with games like Warship Commander at my side. In just a few short years the ultimate military techno-thriller, The Hunt for Red October, would be published. (I will get to the Hunt for Red October and Harpoon wargame link when I discuss that game). My point is Warship Commander came onto the scene at a time when the information available to the average gamer was exploding. As a result, the game could be judged by how ‘realistic’ is was, at least in terms of concept. Warship Commander holds up surprisingly well, and even showed some ability to ‘see’ into the future. What holds it back is the detailed rules, an issue that will be addressed by a later wargame.
If you want a ‘realistic’ depiction of tactical naval combat – at least as it was understood in the semi-professional, unclassified wargaming world of the late 1970’s, then Warship Commander is a very good game. Be warned, however, that this is a complicated game that is high on detailed processes. Warship Commander delivers a ‘realistic’ simulation of modern naval warfare in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but as a game it is overly complex. Today, I see it useful both as a example of the information and understanding of its time and what an extremely detailed model can look like (but that I don’t really want to play).
A Range Dependent Model of Modern Naval Combat
Modern tactical naval warfare involves fighting a platform, be it a surface ship, submarine, or aircraft. Capt. Wayne Hughes uses A Range Dependent Model of Modern Naval Combat, “to help a tactician relate the scouting and weapon effectiveness of his force to that of the enemy so that the net deliverable striking power of the two sides may be compared. This model indicates the circumstances that govern which side will be able to attack effectively first” (Hughes, p. 293).
Paraphrasing Capt. Hughes, the model has 12 elements:
- Two forces
- Defensive power in soft and hard-kill defenses thought of as a filter that subtracts incoming weapons
- Neither side can deliver weapons or be fully ready to defend without scouting information
- Scouting information may come from active search or passive intercept
- The content of scouting information is expressed in terms of Detection,Tracking, and Targeting
- Scouting performance is a function of the electronic emission control of the active side
- Passive scouting performance is a function of enemy EMCON choices
- Net delivered firepower as a function of range reduces the defender’s offensive and defensive combat capability after an attack is delivered
- Each unit that is mobile may move and carry along its firepower potential
- Onboard sensor move; other sensors may be in motion or fixed with the battle outcome resting on information collected and denied before the first weapons are fired
- Once enough scouting information is thought to be in hand, an attack is ordered; mounting and delivering it takes time and an enemy attack may arrive before the order is executed, rendering it null, or the enemy’s attack may arrive too late, in which case bot sides suffer
- Surviving forces may reattack after accounting for damage from hits, aircraft lost, and missiles expended (Adopted from Hughes, p. 295-296).