Thank to @Ardwulf for parting with this item. Ardie…you let your fear of Harpoon get the best of you here because this is NOT a complicated near-simulation like Harpoon purports to be….
In the late 1980’s I was, in many ways, a hard-core wargamer. I relished playing complex wargames. I was a Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979) fanatic and when the then-new Star Fleet Battles Captain’s Edition Basic Set released in 1900 I grabbed it up. For air combat games I enjoyed the Fighting Wings series from JD Webster, in particular his modern Air Superiority title from GDW in 1987. For naval combat I was all about Harpoon. I started out with the Adventure Games edition of Harpoon II in 1983 and in 1987 jumped to the new GDW edition informally called Harpoon III but more simply known as Harpoon.
In 1989 I finished college and joined the US Navy. Between training, something called DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM, and a few years stationed overseas my first few years of the 1990’s were taken up by concerns other than wargaming. So the truth to the matter is I missed Harpoon Captain’s Edition when it was first released in 1990.
By the mid-1990’s the Soviet Union had fallen and was already a fading memory. I vaguely remember browsing through a game store (Compleat Strategist in Virginia?) and looking at Harpoon Captain’s Edition: Exciting Modern Naval Battle Game. To be honest, a wargame about the Cold War Gone Hot in the North Atlantic at that time seemed so quaint. Furthermore, the game didn’t even look like Harpoon. I mean, the box art looked like the Harpoon series but when the cover also says “Easy to Learn – Fun to Play” and “Start Playing in 30 Minutes,” well, that was just NOT the real Harpoon I wanted to play!
Welcome to the arena of modern naval combat! In this game you will become a naval commander, in charge of guided-missile ships, nuclear submarines, and jet aircraft. While warfare between naval vessels and aircraft can be a complicated and technical business, the critical tactical decisions are made by captains and admirals who do not generally study a radar or sonar display themselves. They receive the distilled results of all the technical, data-gathering assets at their disposal and make decisions accordingly.
Harpoon Captain’s Edition provides a clear and concise description of modern naval warfare. The game places you int he same position as a ship’s captain or the admiral commanding a task force. Many details have been kept out of the game to allow the players to concentrate on command decisions, but the overall capabilities of various sensors and weapon systems are still presented accurately.
To make it easy to learn the rules, they are broken up into separate sections. Each section begins with a description of one aspect of modern naval warfare. Section one covers surface naval vessels; section two covers detection of enemy vessels; section three deals with submarines; an sections four and five add aircraft to the game. In each section, specific rules are presented that translate that aspect of warfare into game terms. After several rules have been presented, you will be directed to play a scenario which uses and illustrates those rules.
The scenarios themselves are all contained in the Captain’s Briefing. Each scenario lists all the information necessary for play, such as forces available to each side and starting positions. The Captain’s Briefing also includes discussions of various modern weapon systems and a number of advanced rules.Harpoon Captain’s Edition, Rule Book p. 1
The above is pulled from the beginning of the rule book and pretty much tell you everything about the game. Harpoon Captain’s Edition is a relatively low complexity wargame that’s supposed to be simple to learn and fun to play. It’s also supposed to teach, as designer Larry Bond tells us:
The Captain’s Edition of Harpoon is supposed to be fast, simple, fun to play, and it is all of those things. But it also includes all the fundamental principles of modern naval warfare, so as you play, you can learn a great deal about how ships, subs and aircraft fight today.Harpoon Captain’s Edition, Designer’s Notes
So how well does Harpoon Captain’s Edition actually live up to what Mr. Bond claims?
A Training Aid for Education?
Harpoon Captain’s Edition packs alot into what is actually a relatively small package. The 17″x22″ map covers the G-I-UK Gap and nearby seas using 1″ hexes. There are 300 counters though most are markers and will not regularly be used on the map. The rules and briefing books are each 16 pages. All the ships and aircraft appear on 54 cards. Each player is also given a card for keeping track of bases and a combat reference chart to keep behind a screen so the other player cannot see your allocations. There is a roster pad to keep track of hits and ammo expenditure. There are also ten little plastic aircraft that don’t look like any kind of maritime patrol aircraft active in the US or Soviet inventory (but they were probably cheap to put in the box). In many ways this wargame looks like a training aid packaged for a ship’s wardroom.
The programmed learning approach uses 15 scenarios:
- Scenarios 1 & 2 use Surface Ships and Surface to Surface Missiles
- Scenario 3 adds Naval Gunfire
- Scenario 4 adds Detection
- Scenario 5 adds Dummy Units
- Scenarios 6/7/8 adds Submarines
- Scenarios 9/10/11/12 adds Patrol Aircraft
- Scenarios 13/14/15 adds Tactical Aircraft
The first few scenarios play very fast…20 minutes or less in some cases. The later, more complex scenarios going on for as long as 21 turns (7 days), can take up to 2 hours to play. I actually played through all 15 scenarios (plus one Advanced Scenario) in a dual-hatted solo mode in about six hours of actual play time.
Each turn is very simple in execution. Players begin by assigning their ships or submarines to Task Forces. Each Task Force moves when their movement chit is drawn during the turn. At that point, the player decides on a speed and radar status. While moving, Task Forces can be attacked (if detected).
In surface to surface missile (SSM) combat, defenders use long range SAMs, short range SAMS, and point defense weapons to defend in layers. The game mechanics emphasize the need to “rollback” defenses; indeed, the whole idea of “Rollback” is given a major sidebar discussion on page 7.
Submarines are treated much like surface ships except of course you use Sonar to detect them and ASW to attack. Submarines can attack using SSM or torpedoes.
Patrol aircraft remain on the map continuously but move when their chit is pulled. They are most useful for detection though they also have an attack capability.
Tactical aircraft are weapons that are fired when needed; they do not have a movement chit. Tactical aircraft do have a radius (or range) from their base. When attacked, aircraft may be aborted or even shot down by defenses. Unlike ships or submarines, aircraft have no ammo limits. Fighters can also be assigned different missions like Combat Air Patrol (CAP) which acts as a “fourth layer” of defense. However, if not enough fighters are available they might only be able to act as Deck Launched Interceptors which still attack but at the same time as the long range SAMs.
Combat factors represent the number of d6 rolled. The simple Game Reference Chart tells you the results.
Fast, Simple, Fun
Here is how my first combat in Scenario 3 played out. A US Task Force consisting of a single Arleigh Burke destroyer and two O.H. Perry frigates each screening a single merchant ship had to travel from Scotland to Keflavik, Iceland. Opposing their transit is a Soviet Task Force consisting of a single Sovremennyy destroyer and two Krivak-class frigates. The US Task Force moves under EMCON (EMissions CONtrol – radars off). To avoid being struck at range the Soviets also move in EMCON. The result is both task forces meet in the same hex (60 miles across) just off the Faroe Islands.
The Soviets move first and enter the same hex as the American Task Force. The visual search needs a 1-2 to detect the Americans…and they do. The Soviets initiate the attack with 8 factors of SSM from the Sovremennyy allocating 4 SSM to each merchant.
- Long Range SAM Fire: The US Arleigh Burke defends the entire Task Force with 10 factors of Long Range SAM. That’s 10d6 with 1-3 a miss, 4-5 a single hit, and 6 a double hit. The roll is below average with only 4 hits…4 SSM (2 against each merchant) continue inbound.
- Short Range SAM Fire: Each OH Perry has a single SSM they can use to defend themselves or the ship they are screening. The first Perry misses, the second downs a single inbound SSM.
- Point Defense: Although all the US warships have point defense weapons, they can only be used to defend their own ship and not another.
- Merchant Attack 1: Two Soviet SSM attack; each rolls 1d6 with 1-2 Miss, 3-5 a single hit, and 6 a double hit. The rolls are 3 and 6 – three hits which sinks the merchant.
- Merchant Attack 2: A single SSM attacks. A roll of 6 (!) is a double hit which cripples the merchant; at 2/3 damage the merchant is reduced to a speed of 1 (sitting duck).
The Advanced Rules in Harpoon Captain’s Edition are actually very few. Each adds a bit of chrome but with minimal rules overhead. The real gem of the Harpoon Captain’s Edition design is the Advanced Scenarios. In an advance scenario, players randomly draw a Mission Chit that assigns them one of nine missions. Each Mission provides some background, the objective for the player, and a “mission budget” to buy forces. Each “asset point” can buy one flight of four aircraft or purchase ships based on their hull value (usually 1-2 points). Some ships are High-Cost (like the Kirov or Arleigh Burke classes which costs double. Here was the first random match up I played:
- NATO Mission 6 – “Major surface forces will be entering the North Sea soon to conduct operations against Severomorsk. Your mission is to prepare the way by engaging and destroying enemy naval and aviation assets. Objective: Destroy at least six asset points worth of enemy forces, and destroy at least two more enemy asset points that you lose yourself. In addition, prevent the Soviets from achieving their objective. Force: 25 points.”
- Soviet Mission 8 – “The war is going against the Soviet Union, and morale is sagging. An important and visible victory is required to boost the morale of troops in all theaters. Objective: Destroy the runway at Leuchars airfield or sink either the [aircraft carrier] Nimitz or [battleship] Iowa. Force: 30 points.”
An Entertaining, Educating, Training War Engine
Harpoon Captain’s Edition is definitely FAST to play. Some of the programmed scenarios are actually too fast. The real “test” of the design is the advanced scenarios that pit mission vs. mission. If the players both draw “large” missions the game will likely go the full two-hour advertised length. More realistically, the potential asymmetric match-up can lead to an “early” win. That’s not a negative for the game can be easily reset for another match!
While I initially shied away from Harpoon Captain’s Edition because I though the rules were too SIMPLE, what I discovered is actually a wargame of modern naval warfare in a design distilled into its essence. For designer’s who built their reputation on the accuracy of datasets and “realism” in how they interact, this distilled version of Harpoon is actually quite refreshing. Playing Harpoon Captain’s Edition also drove me back to rereading Dance of the Vampires (GDW) which details the scenarios designer Larry Bond and author Tom Clancy used in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising novel in 1985. I can’t help but feel some of the simplifications Bond talks about in Dance of the Vampires made their way into Harpoon Captain’s Edition.
Quite simply put, Harpoon Captain’s Edition is FUN to play. The game also teaches without preaching. Although I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about modern naval warfare tactics, I found myself applying them almost without thinking because it was the “natural” choice to make in the game. Sure, I need to sink the merchants, but first I’ll rollback some defenders before saturating the defenses with a massive SSM strike. That is, after I use my Patrol Aircraft to detect which task force is real and which is a dummy. All while avoiding the dreaded Tomcat fighters and delivering a massive Backfire bomber raid.
Harpoon Captain’s Edition is “fast, simple, fun to play” just like Mr. Bond said. That’s because it is a well-designed War Engine of modern naval warfare. The programmed training teaches you the engine in easy to bite bits. After you learn, the real challenge comes from taking on different missions, never being sure what your opponent’s mission is. That’s 81 possible mission sets but a near-infinite set of possible scenarios since each side gets to buy their forces. Even though some asymmetric match-ups are possible, the emphasis on tactics over the reputation of a weapon system leads to a balanced game. In the 16 games I played (split-personality solo) the net result was 8 American wins and 8 Soviet wins.
The combination of entertaining play and education actually places Harpoon Captain’s Edition in an interesting space of the wargame hobby. As Colonels Jeff Appleget and Robert Burks and fellow author Fred Cameron tell us in The Craft of Wargaming (Naval Institute Press, 2020), wargames come in four basic types; Entertainment, Educational, Training, and Analytic. Harpoon Captain’s Edition appears to be derived from a Training game for the US Navy designed to Educate about the fundamentals of modern naval warfare that GDW was able to send to the commercial wargame market for Entertainment. The fact that it can be used to Train or Entertain while still Educating is an impressive bit of wargame design.
Given my recent readings on the modern Chinese Navy, I have to wonder if there is potential for an updated, 21st century version Harpoon Captain’s Edition but using the PLA Navy instead of the Soviets. After all, the fundamentals of naval warfare are constant, even if technology is challenging how some of them are applied.
It took me 30 years to get my copy of Harpoon Captain’s Edition. I’m very happy because I discovered that it is far from the quaint design I expected.
4 thoughts on “#Wargame Wednesday – Harpoon Captain’s Edition (GDW, 1990) – Entertaining, Educating, and Training?”
Andy Doty had a working update to Harpoon CE he was running at various US wargames shows before the virus hit. The update had Chinese and also Indian fleets. But it seems to have been put on the back-burner by Admiralty Trilogy Group.
Too bad. ATG very involved in Trilogy Harmonization updates. A redone CE would likely get them back into board game market that they seemingly abandoned after parting with Clash of Arms. Like somebody else said a mounted boards, blocks, some mini planes & satin finished cards would make this an appealing package.
Wonderful review. I’m not much of a wargamer, so CE sounds very appealing personally. Linked to here from my old Harpoon page to add context to the Captain’s Edition entry. -W
Great post. Harpoon is on my must-play-at-some-point list of games.