Rocky Reads for #Wargame – From Submarine 2nd Edition (Avalon Hill, 1981) to Star Fleet Battles (@ADBinc_Amarillo, 1979) with The Enemy Below by Cdr. D.A. Rayner (Henry Holt & Company, 1957)

I recently pulled my copy of the novel The Enemy Below by Commander D. A. Rayner off my bookshelf for rereading. I am fortunate to have a first edition, second printing hardcover version (sans dust jacket) from 1957 published by Henry Holt and Company. This book was originally my father’s and although the dust jacket is gone the interior flaps of the jacket were preserved in the front of the book. Growing up, I think I read the book before I saw the 1957 movie on syndicated TV. As good as the movie is, I am very much in the camp of “book over movie” critics.

Action Stations!

When I started wargaming, one of the earliest games I acquired was Submarine designed by Steve Peek from the Avalon Hill Game Company. My copy is a 1981 Second Edition which I bought brand new soon after release. Even today, I recall sitting down and learning the rules to Submarine with The Enemy Below at my side. Back then, and even today, I judge the “realism” of Submarine on the basis of how well it can recreate situations in The Enemy Below. The book is ripe for a wargame setting as communicated on the dust jacket:

Then, for forty merciless hours, it was depth charge vs. torpedo, destroyer vs. submarine, crew vs. crew, and, ultimately, Captain vs. Kapitan. Attack after attack, the stratagems of the two masters cancelled each other out. Each hour the U-121 drew closer to its rendezvous and, sensing the fact, the Captain radioed for reinforcements. But before the Cecilie or fleet destroyers could influence the outcome, the absolute battle between absolute equals was played out to a startling conclusion….

The Enemy Below, Dust Jacket

Compare this to the introduction for Submarine:

One of the few remaining campaigns of World War II yet to be covered on a tactical level has been the submarine war against commerce shipping and naval fleets. It was a war of no fronts; of hit and run tactics; a one-on-one duel reminiscent of the air war of World War I, complete with aces and acts of chivalry. But it was also fought with no holds barred, a struggle in which a second’s hesitation or lapse in concentration meant the difference between death and survival….

Submarine is a tactical recreation of the submarine war. A player assumes the role of either a submarine or escort captain. He can launch torpedoes at convoys or combat ships or hunt down submarines with depth charge runs.

Submarine, 1.0 Introduction

Looking at those words, is there any real wonder how one could not link The Enemy Below and Submarine together?

Pop History?

In retrospect, I sorta laugh at myself when I think about how I judge Submarine. After all, I studied to be a historian so I should be looking at any wargame critically from a historical perspective, not through the lens of popular culture. It’s akin to gamers today who play the videogame Call of Duty and praise it for being “realistic.” Then again, The Enemy Below is popular not for being a techno-thriller (ala The Hunt for Red October) but for being a deeply human story. Which makes me admire The Enemy Below even more; the book simultaneously captures the human and technical with a proper balance between the two of them. When I play Submarine, it is the influence of The Enemy Below that helps me remember the human side battle which barely gets a nod in the game system (see rule 49.0 Crew Quality).

Interestingly, I have a second submarine-themed wargame designed during this era. Up Scope! Tactical Submarine Warfare in the 20th Century was designed by Joe Balkoski for SPI in 1977. I’ve owned this game since the early 1980s but have never played it (and only rarely opened it) in part because the Designer’s Notes make reference to it being a counterpart to Air War (SPI, 1977) and placing realism over playability. With regards to The Enemy Below, Up Scope! has even less human connection. That design approach, and lack of connection to the book, can explain why Up Scope! rarely (or never) hit my gaming table over the years.

The Enemy Below…the Stars

I also must thank The Enemy Below for its influence on another wargame from my early years. In 1966 the Star Trek original TV series Season 1 episode “Balance of Terror” featured the USS Enterprise hunting a Romulan Bird of Prey equipped with a cloaking device. It’s easy to see how the writers for this episode adapted The Enemy Below story. Romulan warships equipped with cloaking devices appear in the wargame Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979) which uses Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) as canon for the setting. I spent many, many hours of my youth playing Star Fleet Battles and always enjoyed the challenge of hunting a Romulan under cloak.

Playing in the Big League – or not – Little Navies in Game of the Week 7th Fleet (Victory Games, 1987)

My Game of the Week theme is South China Sea. Having looked at Battle Stations (Simulations Canada, 1984) and now 7th Fleet (Victory Games, 1987) I wanted to play out a South China Sea scenario. Looking for a bit of historical inspiration, I studied the Johnson Reef Skirmish (14 March 1988) which is right in the time period represented in 7th Fleet. I postulated the skirmish continues and grows into a bigger confrontation. I could take advantage of the PLAN counters in the game.

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The PLAN in 7th Fleet

This battle could play out on a small corner of the south map. This would save space and allow me to explore interaction of Air, Surface, and Submarine units in a low density environment.

But then I looked at the countermix, especially Vietnam. In 7th Fleet, Vietnam simply has no fleet! The Vietnamese People’s Air Force makes an appearance using older MiG-21 fighters. But the small Vietnamese fleet is nowhere to be found! This is because at the time the VPN had only lightly armed transports – ┬ánegligible forces by the standard of 7th Fleet. Indeed, the “smallest” unit in 7th Fleet appears to be flotilla of several small ships (like older destroyers or corvettes) or a patrol squadron of patrol ships/combatants. Lightly armed transports? Forget about it!

So I am back to the (scenario) drawing board and thinking about another scenario. Now I know I have to “up the scale.” Given that the PRC was getting friendlier with the US during this period, maybe try PLAN versus Soviet Union? At the time, the Udaloy and Sovremennyy-class destroyers were just entering the Soviet fleet. Let’s see…a Soviet Task Group (Udaloy, Sovremennyy, Dubna replenishment ship) enroute to a friendship port call in Vietnam gets sideways with the PLAN…including a newer Han-class SSN? Could the Soviets also have a submarine (Foxtrot or Tango?) shadowing them to help “delouse” from those pesky American submarines?

Hmmm….