Saturday, 17 December 2022

Sea Battle Games

I have moaned here before about the lack of naval wargaming and wondered about why that may be. Mind you, I have noticed that there is even less air wargaming around, unless one includes ground attack in that category. So I have taken a trip down memory, or in this case, very vague memory, lane, and come up with one of the early books on naval wargaming:

Dunn, P., Sea Battle Games, Hemel Hempstead, MPA, 1970.

I remember this book vaguely from the public library when I was a lad. The cover is striking, showing an exploding ship. This slightly belies the claim that wargame books and rules covers rarely show casualties, the only exception being Charles Grant’s Battle! Anyway, I digress.

The book proceeds more or less as you would expect for the period. There is some background and then some scoping. In this case, there is more or less an apology for not covering, for example, the Armada. This comes with some quite astute (or waspish, depending on your point of view) comments about Victorian historical writing, observing that ‘The historic truth of the Spanish Armada is, alas, far removed from the popular Victorian legend.’ (p.12). Quite so.

Anyway, the scoping comments are quite astute, at least in my opinion. Dunn advocates the use of campaigns. Battles for their own sake land up with rather silly (and certainly unhistorical) activities, such as damaged battleships charging the enemy. He describes the stand-alone action as a ‘blast battle’.

The book itself covers rules for Napoleonic wargames, ironclads (1860-70). The next chapter is a bit of an oddity in this non-expert's eyes, in that it is about pre-Dreadnought gunnery. I imagine that it goes together sufficiently well to permit small actions in the 1880-1940 or so era, when ship-to-ship gunnery combat was, at least theoretically the way actions were settled.

Next up, before the World War Two rules, there is a chapter on Map Campaigns, with three categories: self-contained, where the campaign and action is entirely map based; semi-secret campaigns; completely secret campaigns. The differences are mostly about how much information is revealed to the enemy (and the need for an umpire, of course). The rules are fairly straightforward, fortunately, and they seem to be sensible. The diagrams showing various wargamers’ activities are something you might either love or hate, such as bald Albert, smooth Sam, and bearded umpire Jonathan. The fact that they all wear jackets and Sam, at least, a tie, gives them a certain period charm.

Anyway, World War Two rules follow, and they have all the problems and solutions (including fudges and workarounds) that we already know. Given a scale ship of 1:1200, the ship's speed is translated directly from knots to inches, which means you have to have a fairly large playing area. Gun ranges too are rather scary, suggesting 91 inches for an eighteen-inch salvo. That is probably bigger than my entire wargame ‘room’. Still, Dunn does suggest reducing the range by half or three-quarters. He also notes that while the speed scale is correct for one minute, the damage from gunnery is probably more likely correct for twenty minutes. Compromise is in the air.

Still, torpedo, submarine, and air rules are included, so the rules do not suffer from a lack of comprehensiveness. As with many naval rules I have seen, they rely on both dice and card drawing for resolving gunnery. I have not, of course, seen all that many rule sets, particularly more recent ones, so I cannot comment on other ways of resolution. Still, the limits of wargaming were often identified by pioneer writers, and many of the problems they throw up remain unresolved.

Chapter 9 is ‘The Hypothetical World War Game’, which is fascinating. It is, basically, a campaign set in an imaginary world. Given that heavy bomber range is nearly half the world map, it is not a particularly large world, and steaming off the right-hand side of the map leads you to reappear on the left, it is certainly a world. There are rules for generating the naval forces, air squadrons, and army groups. Resources are limited to steel and oil. The former limits ship repair and construction, and the latter the range of the ships.

The result is an interesting mix of naval activity (the map is mostly islands) and interaction with air and land elements. Doing the latter ‘properly’, of course, makes the whole lot a load more complex and in a context of a naval wargame book beyond its scope. This is a bit of a shame because, well, the epitome of wargaming is surely those operations or wars where all three (or both, in earlier ages) were involved.

Still, the last chapter discusses wargaming in earlier ages, taking 1470 (firearms on warships) as the start date. There are some suggestions on wargaming the Armada, with observations about the differences between Spanish and English gunnery and their strengths and weaknesses. There are a couple of paragraphs on Lepanto and then on Henry VIII’s navy.

Obviously, a book of this age shows it in some aspects. The comments about models are, obviously out of date. The contemporary wargamer has a bewildering choice of scales for naval wargaming, from 1:6000 up. If I ever did get around to Twentieth Century wargaming that is the naval scale I would go for. As I mentioned a long time ago the compression of the ground scale in the Twentieth Century just gets huge, and the only way to deal with it is to reduce the anomalies by shrinking to models. Alternatively, especially with the carrier battles of the later Pacific War, you could manage with a pure map game.

Still, it was worth reading again, after many years of vaguely remembering it. As with any wargame book, there is some useful stuff in it, some things to make the wargamer think, and some parts which make you wonder whether the topic was really carried out in that way. I am not to judge, but the enthusiasm of books of this age is not to be doubted.


  1. I am amazed at your assertion that there is very little Air or Naval gaming around. In the US we have a fair amount - every convention has several such participation games which wouldn't be the case if clubs weren't playing a fair amount. Of course these two genres will not be as popular as Napoleonic, ACW, and WWII land actions are - but still very active!

  2. Great post Mr P. I was thinking about the scales and thought 1:6000 would be easy to play and I then realised that even at that scale you need a couple of pingpong tables to do a cruiser battle where the ground scale matches the models.

    1. Thank you. Yes, the scale does become a problem. I recall looking at the map outside the Imperial War Museum which has a couple of guns from the Belfast, I think. Most of London was in easy range, at least. As many of these older books emphasise, compromise is necessary. A Matilda tank in 6 mm scale would shoot two meters. An 18" gun at would shoot into the neighbour's garden, and probably further. Distortion is inevitable. Ho hum.