History to #Wargame – A “historical” scenario of Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War, 1898 (@compassgamesllc, 2020)

FOR MY CORNATINE SUNDAY AFTERNOON SOLO GAME I put my newly-arrived copy of Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War, 1898 (Compass Games, 2020) back on the table. This time I decided to play the “historical” scenario with no Extra Time  (campaign is played for the standard six turns) and no Extra Warships for the Spanish (although they get the battleship Pelayo which they historically didn’t).

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I adopted a “Caribbean Fleet-in-Being” strategy for the Spanish. My thinking was the Spanish should move their ships to Caribbean ports and threaten American Squadrons. For the Americans I adopted a Blockade strategy. Within the limits of Dawn of Empire, both approaches approximate history. However, that’s where the history ended and the alternate past of Dawn of Empire began.

This play of Dawn of Empire I focused in on Orders and specifically payed much closer attention to what orders can follow what. The “order of Orders” is very important and creates many interesting strategic choices. For instance, a Blockade order can only be followed by a Coal order, unless you have too many units coaling in which case the Coal becomes an Anchor. Overall the impact is that squadrons really are only effective / available every other turn (maybe even every third or fourth turn if using Transit). My first time playing I didn’t catch the nuance that a Raid MUST be followed by a Transit which in turn is followed by a 2nd Transit, Coal, or Anchor. So before you send that Raid out you better think about what you also need that squadron to do in the future. What you do NOW has a huge impact on what you can do THEN – and you must plan accordingly.

This play of Dawn of Empire I also paid much closer attention to the Port Attack Resolution and experimented with port attacks using both Raid (every other unit in squadron combats against the Port Attack & Defense values) versus Blockade (every third unit in squadron combats against the Port Mine Factor & Defense). A subtle, yet impactful difference.

My play of Dawn of Empire ended in an American Automatic Victory at the end of Turn 5. The Americans lost a battleship, two monitors, and a cruiser in fleet battles during the war. The major battle was on Turn 5 (mid-late June) where the bulk of the Spanish fleet was lost in a major battle south of Cuba in the North Yucatan Basin area. The crazy thing is the battle should not have happened; the smaller American squadron was on Blockade of Cienfuegos and the large Spanish squadron was sailing for Havana under Transit orders. There was only a 33% chance of meeting…but the odds fell that way. This battle was all the more surprising because in the first round Admiral Sampson, aboard the American battleship Indiana at the time, was forced to leave the engagement when Indiana was Disabled. Although leaderless and outnumbered, the Americans outlasted the Spanish and secured the victory not only in the battle but in the war.

That said, the Americans were not happy with the results of a late Blockade of Havana where the harbor defenses almost sunk the battleships Oregon and Iowa. Had the war continued, the Americans would of been hard-pressed to repair the combined 8x Damage to both ships in any sort of a timely manner. The closest port is Key West, but it can only repair 1x Damage per turn. Mobile Bay is a bit better with a Repair Ability of 2. Hampton Roads is the best with a Repair Ability of 4 but the damaged ships would take four or five turns to get there. Another possibility was to send them to Key West, do enough repairs to get a better speed, then go to Hampton Roads. No matter the choice, the time necessary was huge. Oh yeah, you also want to sail them as Independent units, not Squadrons, to avoid being intercepted. Planning, planning, planning!

This play convinced me that the Optional Rules in Dawn of Empire really are necessary to get anything near a balanced game. Rule 11.J Extra Warships is basically a given and adding 11.I The Germans should be interesting. For a bit of added realism (with little rules overhead) I also want to experiment with 11.B Alternate Delayed Repairs (slower damage recovery), 11.C Maintenance (assigned damage), and 11.H Restricting Disabled Ships (if unable to reach a friendly port then scuttle and lost).

Dawn of Empire is not really a historical game. I am not sure if it really can recreate the true historical situation given there is no land warfare component to the game. Instead, Dawn of Empire delivers a near-pure Mahanian view of the Spanish-American Naval War in the Atlantic – in a very fun and easy-to-learn and play manner.

Wargame Wednesday – Remember the Main(e) Problems and Innovation

Courtesy BGG

The latest entry in the Great War at Sea (GWAS) series from Avalanche Press is Remember the Maine. The game covers the naval battles of the Spanish-American War of 1898. For a retail of $59.99 the buyer gets a boxed game with a 34×22-inch map of the central Caribbean, standard GWAS tactical map, 100 “long” double-sized and 80 standard-sized pieces. , all of them laser-cut and mounted.

The game is a republication of the earlier Great War at Sea: 1898, The Spanish American War which I rated on Boardgame Geek in 2006 (or earlier) as with a score of 7.5 and the comment “One of the best GWAS games.” Alas, my copy is in storage right now so I cannot do a straight-up comparison between the two versions.

Courtesy BGG

Seven years later I have to question myself. I will be the first to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with the GWAS series; love the subject matter but (sorta) hate how Avalanche Press has packaged the product over time. Remember the Maine is no different. The game has parts I dislike sprinkled in with parts I appreciate.

Out-of-the-Box Impression

The first item I noticed when opening the box is that it is plain with just a thin cardstock slipcover for packaging. I recognize that this is for economic reasons but I can’t help but feel that this package style will not wear well on the shelf.

The counters are the newer laser cut process. Like other games done with laser cut, there are scorch marks on front and back. In this case – given the game covers the age of dirty, early coal ships – the scorch marks tend to add a bit of style to the counters. The internet has tips on cleaning the counters; use a kleenex or the like to rub the soot off (evocative of the era for if you DON’T clean the counters your fingers will be VERY dirty). I guess wargamers will have to get use to cleaning counters in the future rather than clipping corners (ah, the advances of technology)!

What I don’t like is the burnt smell that permeates the whole box. I would set the countersheet outside to air out but it is so thin I think it will fly away at first half-hearted breeze. According to complaints on internet forums, laser cut counters also tend to not stay on the tree though my copy apparently was not too roughly handled since no counters came out until I lifted the sheet from the box.Compared to other counters in the GWAS series, the ones in Remember the Maine are also very dull in appearance (no shiny counters here).

Whereas the counters are dull the map is shiny; yet another reversal of the usual Avalanche Press approach to packaging games. I find the shiny finish detracting as it makes it harder for my eyes to see the map with any glare. I also find the color selection difficult; the red text for Spanish ports is almost impossible for me to read except under the best light (causing the most glare).

RTM
Murphy’s Law in Remember the Maine

There is a version of Murphy’s Laws of Combat which states, “All battles are fought at the junction of two or more map sheets.” Remember the Maine apparently has taken this adage to heart and placed several names and locations at the junction of the map sheets. I find this very unattractive as the maps already don’t line up quite right and require a bit of overlap. At first I thought the spreading of ports or names across multiple sheets was to facilitate their use in smaller scenarios but looking through the scenario book this does not appear to be the case. Indeed, based on the Operational Scenarios presented, one could get away with a two-sheet map running geographically from the northwest to the southeast covering the area from Miami to Bridgetown. Of course, this would not be in keeping with the usual “up is North” approach in GWAS mapping but I have to wonder what the impact on the cost of the game might have been.

The Rules

Avalanche Press must have a bazillion copies of the GWAS standard rules around because this game shipped with the year 2000 edition – again. As a result, the scenario rules have grown to 64 pages, of which 2 are intro, 6 are Special Rules, 44 are Scenarios, 2 are Optional Rules, and 10 are Ship Data Sheets.

Many of the Special Rules are actually errata or updated rules for the Standard Rules. Rules like Fast and Slow Ships (5.11) are now standard. Why Avalanche Press doesn’t redo the Standard Rules is beyond my understanding.

For the Scenario Book the rules format is also inconsistent. For instance, the Special Rules and Optional Rules (not listed in the TOC) all have periods at the end of headers (i.e. “Leaders.“) whereas the scenarios don’t (such as “Victory Conditions“).  This tells me that these two parts were likely written by at least two different people and it appears nobody truly consolidated the effort. Finally, how hard is it to NOT use “Central Powers” or “Allies” in the Remember the Maine scenario book? Once said (like on p. 3) that “The terms “Allied” and “Central Powers” in the system rulebook should be read as “American” and “Spanish” respectively”  is stated why does EVERY scenario start with Central Powers (Spanish) Forces and Allied (American) Forces?

I believe Avalanche Press can present the rules in a leaner, easier to understand fashion if they attacked their fetish with repetition. For instance, the scenario Special Rule for Fleet Limits is used in all thirteen Operational Scenarios, yet the rules appears in EVERY scenario. Why not make a Special Rule that is written once? In Battle Scenarios the Special Rule for General Chase appears in at least 23 of the 32 battle scenarios. Again, why make this an explicit Special Rule for all these scenarios when you could have one Special Rule and then NOT implement it by exception?

The Optional Rules are also a bit of an enigma to me. There is a Special Rule for Gunnery Range (7.6) that appears on p. 5 yet the identical rule repeats in the Optional Rules on p. 52. Again it looks like the Optional Rules were created by the scenario author(s) whereas the Special Rules update the Standard Rules. The lack of merging content signals to me a broken editorial process which creates doubt in my mind for the company as a whole.

Innovative Small Ship Battles

Reading the above one may think I absolutely HATE this game. There was one part of did find innovative and that is the small ship battles. Eight of the Battle Scenarios focus on battles among the smallest ships. This allows one to play out tactical battles at a smaller scale than the dreadnought-focused standard rules. I like this way of highlighting the role of the smaller ships that often fall below the usual GWAS combat threshold.

I also like the range of scenarios included. The 13 Operational Scenarios and 32 Battle Scenarios cover five general periods; the “Disaster of ’98,” the “Blockade of Cuba,” “La Isla de Cuba,” The Far East and Distant Seas,” and “La Armada.” I appreciate this variety of scenarios as it showcases the wide range of missions and historical or alternative battles in this war.

All in One Package

Finally, I must say that I appreciate that Avalanche Press is honoring their commitment to make each game stand-alone without dependency on other games of the series. In the first edition of this game, of the 22 scenarios only 15 were playable using the box components. To play the other 7 required ownership of other games in the series.

Taking the Bad with the Good

Ultimately I am torn on my judgement of Remember the Maine. It certainly is better than its predecessor in terms of content (more scenarios, completely playable out of the box, innovative small ship battle system) but the component and rules quality make me hesitant to fully endorse this product. I think this is a better effort than the recent Avalanche Press scenario books for the GWAS series, but there is definitely room for improvement.