#WargameWednesday – Using Captain Hughes’ Fleet Tactics to consider a modern naval #wargame: Part 3 – Task Force (SPI, 1981)

(Part 3 of my series of what I think makes a good modern naval wargame)

To help evaluate modern naval wargames I am comparing various games to the writings of Capt. Wayne Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.). Capt. Hughes recently died, which led me to reread his classic Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Second Edition)*. In chapter 7 of that edition, Hughes writes of The Great Trends & Constants:

  • Maneuver
  • Firepower & Counterforce
  • Scouting & Anti-Scouting
  • Command & Control (C2) and C2 Countermeasures (C2CM)

Capt. Hughes also writes on ‘What a Navy is for.’

A navy’s purposes deal with the movement and delivery of goods and services at sea; in contrast, an army’s purpose is to purchase and possess real estate. Thus a navy is in the links business, while the army is in the nodes business. Seen that way, a navy performs one or more of four functions and no others: At sea, it (1) assures that our own goods and services are safe, and (2) that an enemy’s are not. From the sea, it (3) guarantees safe delivery of goods and services ashore, and (4) prevents delivery ashore by an enemy navy. – Hughes, p. 9

Task Force: Naval Tactics and Operations in the 1980’s

This post I will look at Task Force: Naval Tactics and Operations in the 1980’s (SPI, 1981). Task force is an interesting game in that it is depicts both the operational and tactical-levels of naval warfare at it was understood in the early 1980’s.

The box side of Task Force proclaims:

Task Force examines on an operational/tactical level a hypothetical naval confrontation between Soviet, NATO, and other forces in three major ocean-going routes of the world. Ships must search out enemy fleets and then attack them with missiles, gunnery, or, in the advanced game, aircraft.

IMG_0559Turning to the designer’s Notes hints at some explanation for how the game evolved but, frankly, it’s incomplete:

Task Force has a long and checkered history. Originally designed as a purely tactical naval game covering both the contemporary period and the Second World War, the game underwent several facelifts over the past two and a half years and, in fact, few elements present in the game as published are leftovers from the designer’s original ideas.

BLUF – Task Force: Naval Tactics and Operations in the 1980’s (SPI, 1981) is an operational game emphasizing Scouting & Anti-scouting combined with a tactical combat system emphasizing surface-to-surface missile Firepower and Counterforce.

Why Fight?

Nowhere in the Task Force rules does the designer explicitly state “why” the various hypothetical naval battles are taking place. To divine the designer’s viewpoint, one must interpret the Victory Conditions. Victory in Task Force comes from standard and special Victory Conditions. In all scenarios Victory Points are awarded for the elimination of enemy ships (standard). Scenarios may also have special Victory Points. Of the eleven included scenarios, five use the Standard Victory Conditions only. Five of the remaining six scenarios award special VP for the movement of freighters into specific megahexes. Thus, without explicitly stating so, designer/developer Joe Balkoski appears to at least recognize that sea control for the “safe delivery of goods or services ashore” is a vital mission of the navy.


“Through maneuver the elements of a force attain positions over time.” – Hughes, p. 177

“Maneuver is tactical speed and agility” – Hughes, p. 179

“The fundamental tactical position is no longer defined by the geometric relationship of the opposing formations, but by an operational element: the early detection of the enemy.” Guiseppe Fioravanzo as quoted in Hughes, p. 179.

Maneuver in Task Force takes place on two levels. At the operational-level, platforms maneuver across the operational map with few restrictions aside from weather for ships and aircraft and ocean depth for submarines. Given the scale of the game (both time and distance) ships don’t ‘dash about’ the map. On the tactical level, several combat types use the Tactical Display which is, quite literarily, the formation of the group when in combat. Interestingly, movement on the Tactical Display is limited to surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) in SSM Combat, submarines in Torpedo Combat, and aircraft when flying Strike Missions. Gunnery and Anti-submarine (ASW) Combat are abstracted and do not use the Tactical Display.


“Firepower is the capacity to destroy an enemy’s ability to apply force.” Hughes, p. 175

“At sea the essence of tactical success has been the first application of effective offensive force.” – Hughes, p. 206

“Another recurring tendency, perhaps common enough to be called a constant, is to overestimate the effectiveness of weapons before a war.” -Hughes, p. 207

“In modern battle, ships and aircraft will be lost at an agonizing rate. but we observe no trend toward greater destructiveness; we see a continuation of naval combat’s decisive and destructive nature. – Hughes, p. 208.

Ships and submarines in Task Force are rated in combat by ASW, Anti-Air (AA)Gunnery/Torpedo, and SSM Value. The ASW or AA Value may have an asterisk representing Area coverage; that is, an ability to reach some distance beyond the same or adjacent arc on the Tactical Display. Indeed, the Tactical Display (TD) is the heart of the tactical-level game of Task Force.

The SSM Value on ships is a bit more complicated but that is expected as SSM Combat is the heart of the tactical battle game. As rule 16.12 explains:

An SSM Value consists of a letter followed by a number. The letter is the type of SSM carried (see 16.13) and the number is its Simultaneous Launch Capability (SLC) – that is, the maximum number of SSMs that may be fired by the ship in a single  SSM Combat action.

SSMs in turn are given a rating of Range and Accuracy. Aircraft are very similar to SSMs in that for Strike Missions they can use Air-to-Surface Missiles (ASM) or bombs. I find it interesting to see the designer’s interpretation of Strike Missions notes in 24.55:

a. Air-to-Surface Missile (ASM): This type of attack is safer, but less accurate than bombing (24.56).

b. Bombing: This type of attack is more dangerous than ASM’s, but also more accurate (24.57).

Optional rules in Task Force include Mid-Course Guidance for SSMs and Long-Range ASM Attacks as well as Rocket-Assisted Projectiles for Gunnery Combat and the special Tomahawk SSM. I’ll also call your attention to the fact there are no rules for nuclear munitions in Task Force.


“Counterforce is the capacity to reduce the effect of delivered firepower.” – Hughes, p. 175

“While the success of defense against firepower has waxed and waned and at present is on the wane, the importance of diluting or destroying enemy offensive firepower continues.” – Hughes, p. 208.

“The prominent trend in defense is away from survivability through armor, compartmentation, bulk, and damage control. and toward cover, deception, and dispersion.” – Hughes, p. 186

Important to understanding these discussions is the way a fleet tactician looks at defensive force. Defensive systems collectively act like a filter (not a wall, or Maginot Line) that extracts a certain number of incoming aircraft or missiles. As it is able, a hull absorbs hits and allows a warship to conduct curtailed offensive operations.” – Hughes, p. 192

Counterforce in Task Force comes down to three forms:

  • Formation (location on Tactical Display)
  • Jamming
  • Defensive Firepower

The first element of Counterforce is the formation a group is in when attacked. The first step in resolving combat on the Tactical Display is for the defender to deploy their force onto the display. In SSM Combat the attacker then declares their Wave Plan. Aircraft on Strike Mission enter the TD similar to SSMs. Even submarines using Torpedo Combat start at the edge of the TD. As the attackers move through the TD they are confronted by various defenders.

At this point the second layer of Counterforce comes into play. This second layer is a combination of Combat Air Patrol (CAP), AA fire, and Jamming. Defenders are limited to engaging threats in a single Arc (thus the importance of the formation setup) although Area weapons can be used in adjacent Arcs. If an attacker makes it thru the second layer of defense a final layer, or close defense, can be called upon.

All ships have a Jamming Value. In SSM Combat, a ship can attempt to jam SSMs which can eliminate missiles before they attack. For Strike Missions, aircraft can use jamming offensively to improve their attack chances while ships use jamming to improve their defense. Jamming even gets an optional rule for the US Navy in the form of the Design-to-Price Electronic Warfare System (DPEWS) which is called out as the “SOQ-132.” In reality, this systems would enter service as the SLQ-132.


“Scouts deliver tactical information about the enemy’s position, movements, vulnerabilities, strengths, and, in the best of worlds, intentions.” – Hughes, p. 175

“The goal is scouting is to help get weapons within range and aim them.” -Hughes, p. 193

“It seems pedestrian to say that scouting has always been an important constant of war. Perhaps the way to put it is this: winners have outscouted the enemy in detection, in tracking, and in targeting. At sea better scouting – more than maneuver, as much as weapons range, and oftentimes as much as anything else – has determined who would attack not merely effectively, but who would attack decisively first.” – Hughes, p. 212

Whereas the Tactical Display is the heart of the tactical game of Task Force, Scouting and Anti-Scouting is the heart of the operational-level game. I am glad to see designer Joe Balkoski in his Notes actually channeling CAPT Hughes:

A confrontation between two opposing forces on the seas resolves around the salient feature of military intelligence; he who first obtains information concerning the accurate composition and whereabouts of the enemy while concealing his own presence will probably win the battle. The US Navy dictum, “shoot first – shoot enough,” is certainly a theme that is understood in the Task Force game system.

However, this policy is far easier to fulfill in theory than in actual practice. In the truly vast expanses of an ocean, an individual ship is utterly minuscule. Especially in the present day, very few ships have the capability to perform very many functions and, as a result, locating and tracking them is extremely difficult. Furthermore, closing the range to attack them is even harder. Of course, this severely limited intelligence is multiplied tenfold when dealing with enemy submarines sailing far beneath the waves.

…Thus, Task Force is a game of limited intelligence between players, simulating short, sharp engagements with relatively few ships over vast geographic distances…. Players will always have at least some idea where enemy forces are at the start of a scenario. Their true task is to attempt to pinpoint these locations more specifically and attack – all while remaining undetected themselves. Tactically, the most important considerations that will face the players during each Game-Turn are the modes in which each of their task forces and subrons will operate. Essentially, the start of each scenario will see opposing groups stalking each other like clumsy boxers. During this period, it will be far more important to know roughly where the enemy is rather than immediately pinpointing him and recognizing his exact force structure. Thus, task forces will operate in EMCON mode – preventing the revelation of their own positions through emissions detection, but permitting the employment of helicopters for visual searching, as well as allowing the use of passive detection against enemy subrons. Similarly, at the start of each scenario, subrons will usually operate in deep mode. Although their movement will be restricted and their weapons useless, such subrons will be difficult to detect and yet will still remain a highly potent passive search platform.

As the scenario progresses, more and more specific intelligence concerning the enemy will become a necessity. Locations will have to become exact, tracking more constant, and knowledge of enemy force structure more clear. Only with such information can an attack become effective and devastating to the enemy. Numerous limited attacks against undefined enemy forces will never be as effective as one gigantic, all-or-nothing strike against a recognizable and desirable target.

Hunting down the enemy in this fashion will usually only be possible through active search or – less frequently – intensive helicopter search. Active searches are effective but highly dangerous – they automatically reveal the position of the searching force, indicating that it will most likely be pounced upon by any enemy force in the vicinity that survive a friendly surface-to-surface missile, torpedo, or gunnery attack.

Task Force uses a double-blind map to create a ‘limited intelligence’ game. Both players have identical maps but are not allowed to view their opponent’s board. Ships that compose a group are never placed directly on a map – they go on each player’s Group Display.

IMG_0562Before a unit can search, players must decide on a Mode. For Task Forces the choice is to operate in normal or EMCON mode. A subron must operate either shallow or deep. The choice made has a significant impact on Scouting and Anti-Scouting.

Whether it is Active/Active ASW or Helicopter/Helicopter ASW or Task Force/Subron Passive all Search Actions are resolved in a somewhat similar manner. The searcher declares a megahex to be searched and a Search Value. The searching player then rolls a single die in view of both players and can declare aloud a modification based on the Surveillance Level. The player being searched applies secret modifiers based on the type of search, Mode or even EW equipment. The modified result is translated into a Search Report of Precise, Accurate, Approximate, or False. Of course, the searching player does not know what the quality of the report is!

Satellites, spying, and code-breaking are represented in the abstracted Surveillance Level. The Surveillance Level is set by the scenario. Other abstracted concepts include Long-Range Patrol Missions and Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS).

Once a Task Force or subron is found, it doesn’t automatically stay that way. Groups that were had Precise or Accurate Search Reports are tracked. However, at the conclusion of the next Movement action, the tracked group is announced and the track removed. Thus, it is important for the tracking player to note where the units were last located and plan their next search accordingly.


“Antiscouts destroy, disrupt, or slow enemy scouts.” – Hughes, p. 175

“As the destructiveness and range of weapons grew, the means of surviving enemy attacks diminished and emphasis shifted to reducing the enemy’s scouting effectiveness.” – Hughes, p. 197

“Antiscouting by cover, deception, and evasion would now aim at limiting detection, tracking, or targeting.” – Hughes, p. 197

The concept of Anti-Scouting in Task Force is illustrated through through the Mode. Depending on the Mode chosen (normal or EMCON / shallow or deep), groups are either automatically detected by their emissions or have secret modifiers on the search.


“Command decides what is needed from forces and control transforms needs into action. These are processes. C2 systems are defined, perhaps a bit artificially, as the equipment and organizations by which the processes are performed.” – Hughes, p. 176

“A tactical commander uses C2 to allocate his forces for four activities: firepower delivery, counterforce delivery, scouting, and anti-scouting.” – Hughes, p. 176

“A modern tactical commander will expend relatively less of his energy on planning for and delivering firepower, and relatively more on planning and executing his scouting efforts and forestalling that of the enemy with antiscouting and C2 countermeasures.” – Hughes, p. 201-202.

If there is one area in Task Force that I think the designer missed it is Command & Control. C2 in Task Force takes two forms; group organization and personal. Group organization is very straight forward and nothing special. On the other hand, Task Force makes Leaders available to players. Leaders have a Command Value which modifies the die roll used to determine the number of actions available to a group. Rear Admirals have a Command Value of 2, Commodores 1, and Captains 0. In effect, Command Value represents staff planning, although I note that it is based purely on the command level of the staff and not any other factor. More interestingly, there is an optional rule for Commanders who possess a Command Value of negative 1. What does Joe Balkowski have against navy commanders?

C2CM (Command & Control Countermeasures)

“Command and control countermeasures (C2CM) are steps to limit the enemy’s ability to decide (command) and disseminate decisions (control). – Hughes, p. 176

C2CM in Task Force appears in only a single rule; Command-Control Loss. This Random Event results in a loss of actions available to a single group.

Final Verdict

The combination of a double-blind map and the search rules makes the operational-level game of Task Force one of the better representations of Scouting & Anti-Scouting I have found in a modern naval wargame. This from a design that was originally a pure tactical naval game. But what does the designer say the game was trying to achieve? Again, the Notes provide some insight:

Thus, Task Force should simply be regarded as information – illustrated not with words, but with counters, maps, and hexes.  This information is accurate (hopefully) and presented in a manner such that even the layman with little knowledge of maritime affairs can understand what navies are, what they are intended to do, and how they might go about doing it. Therefore, Task Force is basically meant to be an enjoyable game for passing leisure hours, while at the same time assessing a very real and very dangerous – although little understood – situation in the contemporary world.

From this perspective, Task Force absolutely hits the nail on the head.

* The book is now in a Third Edition which I need to order the next time it’s on sale.

1 thought on “#WargameWednesday – Using Captain Hughes’ Fleet Tactics to consider a modern naval #wargame: Part 3 – Task Force (SPI, 1981)

  1. Great review- a very comprehensive breakdownn.



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