#Wargame #FirstImpression – War at Sea goes 1898 in Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Atlantic Naval War, 1898 (@compassgamesllc, 2020)

A fresh take on an under-gamed naval war. Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War, 1898 delivers an uncomplicated, ahistorical version of war at sea in 1898 with luxurious components and just enough period chrome rules to evoke the era. Built off a proven game engine, one should expect the rules to be polished, but instead it suffers from a rulebook that is annoying inconsistent.

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Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Atlantic Naval War, 1898. Designed by Stephen Newberg. Published by Compass Games, 2020. Complexity – Medium-Low. Time Scale – 1 Turn = 11 Days. Map Scale: Strategic Areas of Varied Sizes. Unit Scale – Individual Warships. Number of Players – 2. Solitaire Suitability – Medium. Average Time to Play – 2-3 hours.

War at Sea Goes 19th Century

Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Atlantic Naval War, 1898 (Compass Games, 2020) doesn’t try to hide its heritage. In the Introduction, designer Stephen Newberg acknowledges that the game, “…owes its original inspiration to War at Sea, designed and published by John Edwards of Jedko and developed later by Don Greenwood for publication by The Avalon Hill Game Company….” That said, Mr. Newberg goes on to state:

Dawn of Empire borrows a number of concepts from this earlier game as a starting point, such as area movement, individual capital ships, battle line resolution, and rolling sixes to hit. It then diverges in other areas to reflect the Spanish-American War situation.

All of this makes Dawn of Empire both familiar to older Grognard wargamers while remaining fresh for a new generation of players.

Rigging the (Game) Ship

Component-wise, Dawn of Empire comes with a nicely-sized 22”x34” mounted mapboard, 216 5/8” counters, two (2) Player Aid Cards, one Battle Mat, the Rulebook, and four dice. All the components are physically of top quality; indeed, this game looks like a luxurious Eurogame in terms of physical production standards.

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The mapboard for Dawn of Empire is of a mounted split-fold design. Mine came out of the box with just a hint of warping but after sitting out for one night it laid fine. The board covers from the US Atlantic and Gulf Coasts across the Caribbean into the Atlantic. Compass Games chose to use a matte-finish on the board which, while certainly reducing glare, also has a bad habit of showing scuff marks. Oh yeah, it looks like there was a layout error too. In the Search Matrix Box there is some extraneous text oriented the wrong way. To be honest though it took me two days to notice it.

I don’t own War at Sea (Jedko, 1975) or its successors but I do own Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977), a very close cousin. One issue I have with Victory in the Pacific that Dawn of Empire doesn’t fix is the lack of holding boxes on the map. It’s not like there is not enough map area, just look at the large land area along the edge in the US or at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. A missed opportunity.

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The counters in Dawn of Empire are very nice. Here, Compass Games elected to use what I term Eurogame-style counters; thick and rounded off the sheet. This results in a higher degree of wastage on the sheet but the counters are beautiful to play with immediately after punching.

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The rulebook for Dawn of Empire is the game’s weakest point. Like so many rulebooks these days, it needed another set of eyes and one more pass to work out some of the layout issues. Most noticeably, the last sentence of 7.3 Combat Resolution is lost under the graphic at the top of the page. Unfortunately, this small layout mistake is far from the only issue.

In an example of a simple rule that turns out to be more complicated than it should be, even the seating rule for Dawn of Empire makes me pause. Looking at the map, the continental US is along the north and west edges whereas the Spanish start in the Caribbean and Atlantic to the south and east. However, rule 9.6 Set Up directs, “The Spanish player should sit on the West side of the map while the US player sits on the opposite side, looking in from the continental US and Gulf of Mexico.” I think this is a simple East-West confusion but how can I be sure? Further, the recommended seating places the players along the short edge of the map. From a strictly ergonomic point of view, would it not make sense to be seated along the long edges of the board with less reach needed? Sure, one side has to read upside down but….

The rulebook for Dawn of Empire also lacks a consistency of styling which makes understanding it difficult in places. For instance, occasionally red text is used. However, it is difficult to discern if the red text is intended to highlight a key rule or an easily overlooked rule or to distinguish a design comment. I can’t tell because the red text is used for all three!

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Another issue I have with the rulebook for Dawn of Empire concerns the placement of certain rules. I don’t understand why the game set up instructions are found at 9.6 Set Up under the major rule 9.0 Area Control and Victory Points. I personally feel it would be better situation at the end of 3.0 Components and before 4.0 Sequence of Play

Sometimes the most basic of rules in Dawn of Empire are needlessly complicated by the use of alternate terminology. An example of this is Defense Strength and Damage. Rule 3.41 Ship Units calls the relevant factor “Defense.” The counter guide printed on the map uses the term “Defense Strength.” When you get to 7.0 Combat you have to make the jump from Defense/Defense Strength to “Damage.” The result is needlessly complicated and clumsy rules like 7.32 Results that introduces yet another term, “Defense Value” (note also the use of red text):

Roll again for each 6 hit and the result of the roll is the number of damage points taken by the target, including for any units which received both hit and disabled results. Put damage markers on each damaged unit to represent the amount of damage taken. Similarly mark each disabled unit with a disabled marker for return to a friendly Port at the end of the current round of combat. Units that accumulate damage greater than their defense value are sunk and should be noted to be removed at the end of the current round of combat.

Given the provenance of the game, one might think the rules in Dawn of Empire are tightly conceived. Alas, the rules are far from being so. I am not sure if it’s just format errors or oversight, but some of the rules just don’t make sense as written. For example, the Combat Phase of the Sequence of Play in both the rulebook and on the Player Aid Card clearly states:

The resolution of combat within each area follows this sequence:

  1. Search Resolution Segment
  2. Port Attack Resolution Segment
  3. Battle Line Resolution Segment
  4. Disengagement Resolution Segment

However, rule 7.5 Port Attack Resolution states, “When opposing squadrons…are still in the area after (my emphasis) any other combat has concluded for the turn, they must make a Port Attack.” Additionally, a close reading of Turn 1 of the Detailed Sample of Play indicates the Port Attack Resolution comes AFTER all other combat. SO WHY IS THE RULEBOOK AND PLAYER AID CARD SO WRONG?

Familiar Yet Original

Mechanically, Dawn of Empire derives much of its game system from War at Sea. Players will find familiar phases like New Forces (Reinforcements), Movement, Combat, Area Control and Victory Points, and Repairs. For those familiar with the War at Sea family learning Dawn of Empire should be that much easier.

But Dawn of Empire is not a straight rehash of War at Sea. Designer Stephen Newberg tries to capture essential themes of naval warfare at the end of the 19th century without excessive rules overhead. Mr. Newberg explains his design goals in his Design Notes:

As with my prior extension of the War at Sea family of design concepts to cover the Age of Sail, this design pushes the basic ideas a good deal. Fuel considerations were, at this point in naval history, a hugely important and the logistics of keeping fleets going with constant supplies of coal had not not yet been fully worked out. Half a dozen year later in the Russo-Japanese War, a lot of these kinks were gone and coaling much less of a constraint. By the time of the Great War, another decade on, all of the major powers had solved the logistics involved and systems were in place to make keeping fueled a much less central consideration.

Additionally, Spanish-American War era fleets had gotten smaller as the Age of Sail closed, but had not really started their growth into the huge groupings of warships that would typify the First World War. As a result, searching for and, after finding, coming to grips with opposing squadrons or warships was not yet as systematized or reliable as it would become heading into the Great War.

Two [sic] reflect these two really large breaks with the general concepts of War at Sea family ideas, new systems had to be developed. Specifically, these are the Orders systems and the iterations  of these orders with search and then engagement. Both of these new structures take some getting used to. In effect, they produce a form of sequencing where the players must think ahead, turn wise, to make sure they have the maximum possible units in the right places at the right times and with the right orders to have the best chance of both finding and then fighting the opposing forces.

Order at Sea

Dawn of Empire sets itself apart from other War at Sea games by the use of an Orders Phase. In this phase at the start of every turn both players secretly assign orders to squadrons (stacks) of warships. Each order (Anchor, Blockade, Coal, Patrol, Raid, Sortie, or Transit) limits not only what the squadron can do in that turn, but also has a significant impact on the potential for combat. Individual ships also have orders, but are limited to a lesser selection. Certain orders must also be followed by other orders, meaning what you do this turn matters into the future. The orders also have a major impact on the chances of meeting in combat for even when opposing squadrons are in the same area they don’t automatically find each other. Depending on their orders, the chances of meeting vary greatly. Few meetings are automatic; at best you might have a 2-in-3 chance of meeting, but often the chances are more like 1-in-2 or even 1-in-3. These easy rules capture the essence of naval combat at the end of the 19th century.

Bucket of Dice

One note on combat. Like all the War at Sea family, combat in Dawn of Empire uses the “bucket of dice” approach with a single d6 rolled for every Attack Factor (or is it Attack Strength?). Each 5 rolled is a Disabled (leave the battle) and each 6 rolled is a hit – which must be rolled again to determine damage. This is a very simple combat resolution method, but with the game only coming with four (4) dice players will have to find many more dice else they may develop Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from all the die rolling!

But I Thought the US Won Easily…

Even the most casual of students of naval history may question if the Spanish-American War can make a good subject for a balanced game. Mr. Newberg acknowledges, “In the historical events, the US Navy simply wiped the Spanish forces off the map.” He goes on to make his case for alternate history with, “The reasons for this are varied, but they were no certainty.” Dawn of Empire presents the players with a very alternate view of the history. Mr. Newberg explains:

On paper, the Spanish looked to be a very serious threat. And from a strategic standpoint, they could have been. A huge concern for the US command was the vulnerability of the Eastern seaboard of the nation to raid, particularly considering the light defensive infrastructure of the two main naval bases at Key West and Hampton Roads. The Spanish never forced the US to do more than be concerned, however, and this was a serious strategic error on their parts. In the game the Spanish player is fully able to correct this, and the US player must be on guard for it. Additionally, in the Caribbean, the Spanish did little to attempt to consolidate their forces at sea, instead concentrating in ports. This enabled the US to maintain loose blockades by rotating watchers and, when a sortie did happen, to apply full force. In the game, the Spanish player need not be so cooperative in their own destruction.

Setting Sail

For the Spanish player, the first play, and maybe even every play, of Dawn of Empire can be daunting and frustrating, but maybe also the best challenge. Unlike history, the Spanish player in Dawn of Empire does not have ships that were inadequately supplied, out of repair, and poorly manned. Historically, the Spanish fleet was vastly outgunned. Mr. Newberg tries to help by giving the Spanish their battleship Pelayo even though that ship historically was in France for a refit and not available. Using comparisons of the period, the Spanish sail 24 ships against 35 American. The disparity of guns (Attack Factors) in the game is even more lopsided, with the Americans carrying 73 against 41. This matchup is extremely ahistorical as six of the Spanish ships (11 Attack Factors) are actually extra warships that did not participate in the historical campaign (the six ships are presented as an optional rule for the players to try if they want).

Scoring in Dawn of Empire is through control of Sea Areas at the end of a turn. Different Sea Areas award different VP amounts. For the Spanish, the most lucrative Sea Areas are the US East Coast at 4VP and the Gulf of Mexico for 3VP (the American player gets 0VP for control of either area). If the Spanish player adopts the historical approach of Rear Admiral Cervera (who in Dawn of Empire is NOT the best Spanish leader) and allows themselves to be blockaded in port with occasional sorties to contest the seas, the Spanish will likely lose, and lose big. However, if the Spanish player can take advantage of their better-than-historical logistics to conduct raids and contest valuable Sea Areas while remaining mobile the outcome may not be so preordained. Interesting? Yes. Historical? Hardly…but to even try to make Dawn of Empire anything near balanced one must accept ahistorical conditions.

Battle Report

After all my harping on the rules and ahistorical setup you might think I hate this game. Well, as annoying as the rulebook might be (and honestly, its annoying but not that annoying) I was happy, if not a bit surprised, to find the gameplay very enjoyable. Dawn of Empire is not a complicated game, and the use of Orders challenges the players with good strategic choices in play. Im my first play (two-sided solo – thanks Coronatine) I tried to play the Americans closer to history but went asymmetric with the Spanish and focused on Raids from the Atlantic. The result was a clear Spanish victory. What Dawn of Empire lacks in historical grounding it makes up for in creating an interesting, even challenging, match-up.

Final Thoughts

Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War, 1898 is a fresh, very alternative view, of an under-gamed naval war depicted using a classic and proven wargame engine with a few modern tweaks. Dawn of Empire delivers an uncomplicated, rather straight-forward version of war at sea in 1898 with luxurious components and just enough period chrome rules to evoke the era. Built off a proven game engine, it adds innovative rules to capture the essence of naval combat in the late 1890’s. Unfortunately, the rulebook lacks consistency that, while playable, makes learning the game more annoying than it should be.

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