I have always loved naval wargaming. I mean, just look at my Twitter handle -@Mountain_Navy. My favorite rule sets, The Admiralty Trilogy series from The Admiralty Trilogy Group, tend to be more “simulations” than “games.” However, there are two games in my collection that I don’t give enough love to. Simulations Canada’s Line of Battle (and companion Battleship) are playable games that model an important aspect of naval warfare in their era. The games may be lighter, but the insights they deliver are deep. What they do need though is a graphical refresh.
To fill time on a rainy Saturday afternoon I pulled out Simulations Canada’s Line of Battle (Second Edition) designed by Stephen Newberg and published by Omega Games in 2006. This game is a revised and updated version of Line of Battle (First Edition) published by Simulations Canada in 1986. The game is a tactical simulation of naval combat between capital ships in the period of 1914-1924. Counters represent individual capital ships or groups of 3-8 escorts, each hex is 1,000 yds across, and each turn in six minutes of time.
This is a classic hex & counter wargame, with a four-part paper map (nice ocean color) and 420 very small 1/2″ counters. The counters are choke-full of information – too much information for my older grognard eyes to see. The rulebook is written in a bullet/subbullet-style – not that bad to read but there are no rule numbers nor index. The voice used also seems to assume the player has a familiarity with wargames and even states, “these games are necessarily complex.” Although the rulebook is 46 pages the actual rules are covered in about 22 pages and of those five are Optional Rules.
The Sequence of Play is a very straight-forward series of Phases; Weather – Plotting (Optional) – Movement – Combat – Command. The most interesting parts of the game are the combat model and Fleet Fatigue and Fleet Demoralization rules.
In the Designer’s Notes Mr. Newberg lays out the core concept he is trying to model, the Immune Zone:
To me the key to this period of battleship development was the meeting of armor and long range gunfire in the concept of the Immune Zone. This zone is roughly represented in these games by the medium range defense value. The idea is that there is a range combination for each armor suite against each possible attacking gun type where the deck armor will defeat a shell that is plunging while the side armor will defeat a shell on a flatter trajectory. Of course, this means that this range is going to vary for the target ship with each different gun and shell type fired at it. This idea, and representing it without a ton of mathematics to resolve each firing and defending combination, is the heart of this design. The solution is not perfect; nothing is, but it works out well a vast majority of the time.
Main Gun Combat is resolved using a two-step process. Ships first use Ranging Fire to try and find the range of the target. Once found, combat switches to Straddling Fire where hits and damage can happen. Both are resolved using a single d6. For Ranging Fire, a single d6 is rolled against the Current Fire Control Value – a simple assessment of the quality of the fire control system, and if the result is the range band to target or less the fire becomes Straddling Fire. Straddling Fire in turn uses a single d6 roll added to the firing unit’s gunfire strength. If the result is greater than target ship’s Defense Value at that range band, it is a hit. Damage is another single d6 roll on a damage table broken out by target type. Possible damage includes Fire Control, Gunnery, Movement, and Flooding. Certain hits call for another roll on the Explosion Table.
I found it easier to just roll a three-die set (Green-Black-Red) for each Straddling Fire; the green die is for the gunfire value additive and if that result gives a hit use the black die for damage and the red die if an explosion is called for.
In my retroplay scenario, I gamed Scenario XII: Action in the Indian Ocean (Hypothetical) where an Overseas Squadron of the German High Seas Fleet meets two French battleships in 1914.
A careful study of the counters amply demonstrates the Immune Zone concept the designer is looking to model. Although hard to see (unless I used my magnifying glass) the French battleships can shoot further (Short 1-6 hexes / Medium 7-19 / Long 20-25) than the Germans (Short 1-4 hexes / Medium 5-12 / Long 13-16). The French have a problem though firing at Medium range because the best they can muster is a gunfire value of 18-23 (17+d6) which will not penetrate the German Defense Value of 28. Indeed, the best range for the French would be to keep it at their Long range (20-25 hexes) with is totally beyond the range of the Germans guns yet will deliver a gunfire value of 7-12 against a defense value of only 5. Of course, it is also the range where it is hardest to convert Ranging Fire to Straddling Fire. In this scenario, the French are rated Below Average which gives them a negative modifier on the Ranging Table. At Long range they need to roll a 6 on a d6 to convert Ranging Fire to Straddling Fire.
The Germans on the other hand want to keep the French at Medium range, but since their guns are shorter range they need to close the distance. A good range for the Germans in this scenario is 7-12 hexes; Medium range that delivers a gunfire value of 23-28 against a French defense of 25 – a 50% chance of a damaging hit. All while being immune to French fire!
Taken together, the French need to stay beyond the German Immune Zone while the Germans need to dive into the French Immune Zone and get closer to be somewhat effective. This struggle of ranges and penetration is not forced upon the players by any rule but by an analysis of the values and probability and can be resolved in a short series of die rolls.
Two other rules I found interesting are actually Optional Rules and deal with morale. I cannot think of any other tactical naval combat game beyond Simulations Canada’s Line of Battle or Battleship that have morale rules. The first rule is Fleet Fatigue; that is, the number of turns the fleet fires or is fired upon before they lose effectiveness or even become demoralized. Fatigue can be recovered by not firing or being fired upon. If the fatigue level falls too far, the fleet is less effective and if it falls too far they must roll for Fleet Demoralization. Other conditions, like having 50% of the original battleships damaged or one-in-five battleships sunk may also trigger Fleet Demoralization. A demoralized fleet must withdraw by the most expeditious route. These simple rules capture not just morale but other factors such as training, readiness, and leadership in a very simple fashion. They also tend to make these games a bit more realistic and avoids many “fight to the death” situations.
At the end of the Designer’s Notes, Mr. Newberg states:
I find myself still, after a large number of years, particularly pleased with this pair of games. The design managed to display the core concepts cleanly, and leave the players able to concentrate on tactics , rather than process, and they have aged well. To my knowledge, they are still the only tactical board game representations of this scale to get the concepts to work out properly.
This is no small boast, but I have to admit Mr. Newberg delivered with Simulations Canada’s Line of Battle. If there is room for improvement, it is in presentation. The counters are too small and overloaded with information, the rulebook could probably be rewritten into a much more approachable style, and the play aid cards desperately need rework to be more graphically intuitive. These changes are all hallmarks of more modern games. Simulations Canada’s Line of Battle has the right heart (the Immune Zone concept) and game play is already streamlined; with a little graphical TLC this could be a great “modern” boardgame too!