How many wargames do you know get a mention in a major mainstream publication, like Forbes? In August of 2020, the ‘new’ Harpoon V naval miniatures wargame from Admiralty Trilogy Games got just such an article. So what makes Harpoon V so special?
Way back in 1982 I was a wee middle schooler who had started wargaming just a few years before. The major titles in my collection were the Panzer/88/Armor series by James Day from Yaquinto Publishing and Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979). That same year, the United Kingdom and Argentina fought the Falklands War. The extensive media coverage fascinated me to no end, and not long after I found a copy of a miniatures wargame called Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1983) and its supplement Resolution 502. What immediately struck me about Harpoon II was that the game was more a simulation than, well, a game.
The next year I read the book Hunt for Red October by author Tom Clancy. I immediately started to recreate the scenes of Red October in Harpoon II. In 1986 I read Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and again was struck by the bug to recreate the scenes using Harpoon. Just a year later, Harpoon 3rd Edition (GDW, 1987) hit the shelves and I eagerly bought the base game and all the expansions. I continued to follow (reinvesting every time) when the title shifted to Clash of Arms as they published Harpoon 4 (1997). So it should come as no surprise that I am once again investing in the latest version, Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2020).
What keeps me coming back? Well, the Harpoon series is less a game and more a simulation. Look at how the current publisher describes Harpoon V:
Harpoon is the flagship of the Admiralty Trilogy Group’s games. First published in 1980, it has undergone several major revisions, with the last, Harpoon 4.1, being printed in the late 1990s. Although the system has remained fairly stable, naval technology has continued advancing, and there have been further developments in the game systems as more information has been acquired. It is planned plan to issue a new edition, Harpoon 5, sometime in the near future consolidating this knowledge and standardizing Harpoon with the other products.
The era of modern naval combat began on October 21, 1967 when Egyptian missile boats launched four Soviet made Styx surface-to-surface missiles and sank the Israeli destroyer Elath at a range of 13.5 nautical miles. The face of naval warfare changed forever!
Harpoon 5 handles all aspects of modern maritime combat: surface, sub-surface, and air. Harpoon 5 is a system of detailed but comprehensible rules covering the many facets of modern naval actions. Consistent rating systems and evaluations of the capabilities of modern naval vessels, aircraft, submarines, and helicopters make it possible to achieve realistic results when simulating known situations, by extension Harpoon 5 also achieves realistic results with hypothetical scenarios.
Harpoon 5 can answer questions like:
Are carriers powerhouses or sitting ducks?
Can transatlantic convoys survive in a modern wartime environment?
In the cat-and-mouse games between US and Russian submarines, which is better?
As much as Harpoon V is a simulation, I have to give kudos to the design team to trying to make the game more ‘playable’ without losing ‘realism.’ The key to this balance is in the ratings system of platforms, weapons, and equipment that takes into account different technological eras. A simple “Generation’ rating for many weapons and combat systems (such as radars) accounts for how ‘smart’ they are. Thus, one can see the difference between a 500 lbs. bomb as it transforms from a ‘dumb’ unguided bomb in Vietnam to a laser-guided version in the Gulf War to a ‘smart’ GPS-guided munition of today. Or how it is much easier to spoof a Former Soviet Union air search radar on an exported missile boat in the 1980’s than it is to detect a modern Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) surface search radar.
Critics of the Harpoon series often cry the game is unplayable. Well, I challenge them to consider if they are judging the series as a war game or a simulation wargame. I argue that Harpoon, being more a simulation, by necessity uses a more complex model that requires more player manipulation. Many time in wargames, the model is simplified or heavily abstracted in the name of playability. There is nothing wrong with that as long as the ‘abstraction’ is done purposefully. The Harpoon series, because it leans more heavily into the simulation than gaming aspects of the design, can seem chart-heavy. I agree with many critics who say the game can be made more ‘playable’ if in a computer version, much like Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (CMANO). That said, I like the player manipulation of the model, even if it costs me some playability. Besides, I don’t have an awesome gaming computer to run all the great graphics of those other games; indeed, my MacBook struggles even when running Table Top Simulator! That’s OK; I use the many nice counters from my Clash of Arms Harpoon 4. More recently, I have looked at investing in Paper Forge printable standees like their Modern US Navy Cruisers set.
I will also admit that I look at Harpoon V as more a ‘professional’ wargame than a recreational one. No, I do not work in a DoD wargaming organization but even I use Harpoon for what-if exploration of current issues. As a matter of fact, Persian Incursion (Clash of Arms, 2010) is literally air strike Harpoon with a political game bolted on. That is the power of Harpoon!
Then there is the investment. The base rules are available from wargamevault.com for $20. However, to really play one needs to buy the data annexes. The first four, America’s Navy, Russia’s Navy, American’s Aircraft, and Russia’s Aircraft are available in pdf form for $16…each. That collection is great for replaying the Cold War but, let’s face it, the real match-up most modern naval gamers want to play out today is the US versus China. So, ATG, when is that data annex going to be available?