Over the weekend I was consolidating a few boxes in storage and ran across several wargame-related items.
I was never really into computer gaming but in the mid-1990’s I guess I tried by purchasing copies of Harpoon II (Three-Sixty, Inc.) and 5th Fleet (Avalon Hill). I sorta remember playing them, but mostly remember thinking that I needed a better computer as my machines were more fit for home office/word processing than gaming (alas, a problem I still deal with today; Tabletop Simulator I’m looking at you).
Going a bit further back in the wayback machine, I found an old GHQ Miniatures mailing…from Christmas 1982! At that time I was big into Star Fleet Battlesand had lots of those miniatures, and I was probably thinking about getting into World War II minis thanks to my Yaquinto Publishing games Panzer/88/Armor. A year later I would be playing Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1983) and go the modern ship minis route instead.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I find that surprising because, 1) Harpoon 4 is a set of miniatures rules – not a board game, and 2) the Harpoon series has many more vocal detractors than advocates.
Harpoon has never had a board. From the beginning it was designed for miniatures. The Clash of Arms version came with counters that one could put down on a board but that alone doesn’t make it a board game.
The Harpoon series also has many detractors. I have heard Harpoon described as “ASL for the sea.” There is a bit of some truth there as one of the issues in Harpoon has long been that speed of plays dramatically slows as the most important actions occur. I believe this occurs because for the longest time the designers of Harpoon saw the product more as a “simulation” than a “game.” Thus, realism took precedent over playability. However, that balance is in the process of changing.
Persian Incursion explores the political and military effects of an Israeli military campaign against Iran. It uses rules adapted from Harpoon 4 to resolve the military action. But its goal is to look beyond the military action by modeling the political and intelligence actions and consequences of a potential political conflict by including a card-based diplomatic/political component to the game.
Players spend Political, Intelligence and Military Points to influence allies or enemies, purchase reinforcements, execute military strikes or shape their own domestic opinion. Players choose variable starting conditions that shape scenarios, while random strategic events influence play in unexpected ways.
That said, PI took a long time to play, mostly because it took a long time to plan. Once play started, the speed of combat resolution was slow even with streamlined air-to-air combat or bombing rules changes.
Looking at the ATG presentation at Cold Wars 2010 one can see the level of detail that went into the game. But even though PI streamlined air-to-air combat, it still was not enough.
ATG is now in the process of updating Harpoon 4 to what they are calling Harpoon 4.2 (4.1 being an incremental update published in 2001). Two presentations, one at Historicon 2018 and another at Cold Wars 2019 lays out their plan.
Going beyond a simple edit and update, the ATG team wants to incorporate many new understandings of naval warfare they have uncovered. Some of these are the result of declassification of Cold War records, others are original research. The part I am most interested in is when they say, “Virtually every section of the rules will be modified, re-written to improve playability while retaining the fidelity of the earlier versions of Harpoon.”
As much as I love Harpoon (I rate Harpoon 48.25 on BGG – # 17 or in the top 3% of my collection of 700+ games and expansions) even I will admit it can use a playability scrub. I hope the focus on playability delivers a playable game that simulates modern naval warfare, not a ponderous simulation that purports to be a game.
One of the most dramatic events of that war was the attack on HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982. Using an Exocet anti-ship missile launched from a Super Étendard fighter, the Argentinians sank the Type 42 destroyer. Many times I replayed this scenario as well as the larger naval confrontation. To this day the Falklands War remains my favorite modern naval battles scenario generator.
In 1984, the year Red Dawn came out, I was just entering my senior year of high school. As a wargamer, I had read many books and played many games about the Cold War. Red Dawn fit right into my world of 1984.
Amongst the many books about the Cold War I had read, General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985 stands out in my memory. I read this one over and over again because I wanted to learn how the Cold War in Europe would go hot! The other book that I remember well is War Day and the Journey Onward (Whitley Streiber & James Kunetka). War Day tells the story of America after the mushroom clouds. It came out the year after the movie The Day Afterwhich I had watched in fascination (and with a bit of fear). I kept asking myself, what would I do?
In 1983 and 1984 I also got several wargames that shaped how I viewed the Cold War. Most importantly, I got a copy of Harpoon II. H2 was my first game in the Harpoon-series of modern naval combat and is a system I still enjoy today. This was how the Cold War at Sea was going to be fought! At this same time, I started collecting (and playing) Assault-Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 which taught me modern combined arms combat. At the operational-level of war, NATO: The Next War in Europe landed on my gaming table. I also played more than a few games of Firefight (the 1984 TSR version) and even built up a collection of Supremacy (nukes and lasersats!).
Red Dawnreleased in August, 1984. This would of been just before my senior year started. I seem to remember going to see it in the first week of release. It really hit close to home because it took place in Colorado – where I was living. I saw so many of my friends in the movie it became very real in my mind.
All my Cold War mania culminated at Thanksgiving with the release of the Twilight: 2000 roleplaying game from Game Designer’s Workshop. This game, by the designer’s of my beloved Traveller RPG, put the players as members of a US military unit cut off in Europe after the Cold War Goes Hot. This RPG mixed role-playing and the military together in one package. It also allowed me to use the knowledge I had gained from books and wargames and bring it to life. Eventually, T2Kwould go so far as to link to wargames like Harpoon 3for naval combat, Last Battle: Twilight – 2000 for ground combat, and even Air Superiority for the air war.
In many ways, Powers Boothe’s character in Red Dawn, Lt Col Andrew ‘Andy’ Tanner, was the T2Kcharacter I always wanted to play. For some reason, I drew great character inspiration from this scene:
Col. Andy Tanner: [using a crude diorama, the Wolverines prepare for an assault on the Calumet Drive-In, which is now a Russo-Cuban “Re-education Camp”] All right. Four planes. Cuban bunker, Russian bunker. munitions dump, troop tents. Four machine gun bunkers. Back here by the drive-in screen are your political prisoners. We’ll cause a diversion over here… cut holes in the wire here, fire on all these machine gun positions. The B-Group comes across this area in a flanking maneuver… and when you reach this bunker, you lay down grazing fire on this defilade. I think that’s pretty simple. Anybody got any questions so far? Aardvark: What’s a “flank?” Toni: What’s a “defilade?” Robert: What’s “grazing fire?” Col. Andy Tanner: [out loud, to himself] I need a drink.
I am also a fan of the Asia-Pacific theater, having spent way too many years in the Western Pacific. The Harpoon system does have a “sourcebook” for the Pacific Rim in the expansion Sea of Dragons, but it was published way back in 1997!
I would also point the wargamer to Andrew Erickson’s excellent website. Dr. Erickson is on the faculty of the Naval War College, China Maritime Studies Institute. He specializes in using Chinese-language sources to study the PLA Navy and is a prolific speaker and author on the topic.
Between these three sources one should be able to update Sea of Dragons and get a better sense of what the PLA Navy would look like in a tactical naval game like Harpoon 4. One probably also will need to purchase back issues of The Naval SITREP magazine from the Admiralty Trilogy Group on a site such as Wargame Vault to get many ship characteristics.