#Coronatine #Wargame Thoughts – Why to fight in Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (@compassgamesllc, 2019)

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. – Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Second Edition, Annapolis (Naval Institute Press), p. 9

ALL TOO OFTEN WHEN WE GROGNARDS PLAY WARGAMES, we focus on the ‘how’ of the fight and forget ‘the why.’ My history of playing naval wargames shows this to be very true for myself. My first naval wargames were Wooden Ships & Iron Men (Avalon Hill, 1974) and Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1983). Both of these game are very tactical; in each you are often fighting an individual platform (or groups of platforms) executing a specific mission or task. This makes it very easy to get focused on ‘how’ a platform fights but not necessarily understanding ‘why’ the ship/sub/plane is there. Operational-level wargames, like the venerable Fleet-series from Victory Games in the 1980s, do a bit better of a job by forcing you to combine platforms to execute missions. But at the end of the day the real reason for a navy does not always come thru. In true wargamer form, the battles are often fought out to the last with no objective other than the complete an utter destruction of the enemy. Fun (in a way) but not very informative.

Thus, I was surprised at Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019).  The game is another in the recent renaissance of ‘Cold War Gone Hot’ wargames, this time focusing on the naval war in the North Atlantic, Arctic, Mediterranean, and Baltic. As the ad copy says:

Blue Water Navy covers the war at sea, air, close-ashore and low-earth orbit from the Kola Peninsula in Northern Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and West over the Atlantic Ocean to the United States and Cuba. The game models the full order of battle that could be expected in 1980’s wartime, from multi-regiment Soviet Tu-22 Backfire bombers to multiple US carrier groups.

I posted some thoughts on Blue Water Navy before. At that time, I focused in on the ‘how’ to play the game. With my extra Coronatine-time I pulled the game out again for a deeper dive into the system. I happily discovered another layer of the game that I had missed; one that makes Blue Water Navy a great example of ‘why’ navies fight. It is so obvious. I mean, designer Stuart Tonge put it in the Introduction, “Always remember the game is about the convoys – if they get through, NATO wins the war.”

Of the 32 numbered major rules in the book, the two most important for this discussion are 18.0 Amphibious Landings & NATO Troop Delivery and 20.0 War & Invasion Tracks. Indeed, buried within 20.0 is the actual victory condition for the Campaign Game:

Hammer and Sickles: This shows when the game is won. To win the Soviet player must be able to count four hammer and sickle symbols on War Tracks overrun by Soviet armies.

“But wait,” you say. “I thought Blue Water Navy is a naval wargame! What is this talk of Soviet armies?” The truth is no matter what you do in Blue Water Navy, as a player you are trying to move the Invasion Marker along the War Tracks.

Blue Water Navy Invasion Tracks (North to South): Norwegian, Danish, Europe North and Europe South. Hammer & Sickles for the win!

The Soviet player advances along the Norway and Denmark Invasion Track by putting Troops ashore using Amphibious Landings. NATO can strike Soviet troops to stall the advance. One advance is cancelled for every three hits scored by NATO. This means NATO needs to project power ashore, in this case using airpower or cruise missiles to slow the Soviet advance.


The North and South War Track both represent the invasion of Europe. The North Invasion Track is the classic Central Germany front and the South Invasion Track is the route through Yugoslavia to Italy. Every turn the Soviets advance one box westward. On the North War Track, NATO can cancel the advance by expending Supplies or Partial Supplies. These ‘supplies’ can only be delivered by NATO Convoys to Western Europe ports. On the South War Track, the advance is cancelled by hits by NATO, much like the Norway or Denmark War Track.

Rule 28.0 NATO Losses also forces the NATO player to think about what he is fighting with. A Convoy Massacre (destruction of a Convoy) earns one NATO loss point. Another point is lost for a carrier damaged (2 if sunk). If the carrier is lost north of the SOSUS line it’s another loss point. If the NATO loss marker ever reaches six points, it’s worth one  Hammer and Sickle of the four needed to win for the Soviet player.

From my NORTHSTAR ’92 cruise above the SOSUS line. Nice to know if sunk I would’ve been worth an extra NATO loss point!

There are several other rules that have an outsized impact on the number of Hammer and Sickle. Rule 22.1 First Strike Points (FSP’s) , “…represents the nuclear posturing of both sides. If the Soviets can maintain a credible First Strike capability, the Politburo…will feel able to take aggressive actions such as using nuclear weapons or assassinating high-value targets.” FSP’s play directly into 27.0 Soviet Stability which tracks the political climate in Moscow. If the Soviets trend toward instability, the advances may be slowed, more ‘supplies’ arrive, and at worst they lose a Hammer and Sickle. Oh yes, less you think nuclear weapons are a quick route to victory, once the genie is out of the bottle and Battlefield Nuclear Weapons are used those Hammer and Sickle spaces on the Invasion Tracks with more than one are reduced to a single symbol.


The Rule Book for Blue Water Navy is 56 pages. Realistically speaking, 52 pages are ‘how’ to fight the war but there are four essential ‘why’ to fight pages. That is part of the lesson here; the fight is complex even when the reason or objective is simple. All those rules for ships and submarines and different aircraft exist for a few simple reasons. Going back to Captain Hughes’ words at the beginning of this post, Blue Water Navy very clearly illustrates that the role of the navy in war is, 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.

Postscript Note: Bit worrisome that in this day of return to near-peer competition the ability of the US Navy to protect the movement of forces across the Atlantic is doubtful. See Navy Drills Atlantic Convoy Ops for First Time Since Cold War in Defender-Europe 20. I particularly note this quote, “The Navy is exercising a contested cross-Atlantic convoy operation for the first time since the end of the Cold War, using a carrier strike group to pave the way for sealift ships with a cruiser escort to bring the Army ground equipment for the Defender-Europe 20 exercise.” First time since the Cold War? First time since 1986? Looks like the USN needs to find a way to play the 1:1 scale version of Blue Water Navy more often.

#WargameWednesday – Using Captain Hughes’ Fleet Tactics to consider a modern naval #wargame: Part 2 – Warship Commander (Enola Games, 1979)

(Second installment in my series of “What is a ‘good’ modern naval wargame?”)

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:

  • Movement
  • Visual Sighting
  • Gunfire Against Ships
  • Damage
  • Damage Control
  • Communications & Data Link
  • Torpedoes
  • 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.

67482The 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.

Take Command?

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:

  1. Two forces
  2. Defensive power in soft and hard-kill defenses thought of as a filter that subtracts incoming weapons
  3. Neither side can deliver weapons or be fully ready to defend without scouting information
  4. Scouting information may come from active search or passive intercept
  5. The content of scouting information is expressed in terms of Detection,Tracking, and Targeting
  6. Scouting performance is a function of the electronic emission control of the active side
  7. Passive scouting performance is a function of enemy EMCON choices
  8. Net delivered firepower as a function of range reduces the defender’s offensive and defensive combat capability after an attack is delivered
  9. Each unit that is mobile may move and carry along its firepower potential
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. Surviving forces may reattack after accounting for damage from hits, aircraft lost, and missiles expended (Adopted from Hughes, p. 295-296).