Saturday 7 January 2023

Naval Wargames

Another trip down memory lane this week. I remember, a long time ago reading this work. Just vaguely; I was not and am not particularly interested in World War 1 and World War 2 naval wargaming, but some people are, and more power to their elbow.

I have been reading this particular tome:

Carter, B. J., Naval Wargames: World War I and World War II, Newton Abbot, David & Charles, 1975.

As I said, I remember this one from being a lad. I suppose it is a book of its time, listing the possible sources of model ships, discussing scratch-building ships, and then constructing some rules for naval wargaming. Included are air and submarine rules, so they do aim at being comprehensive. Rules, of whatever age, always have some fascination, if only to examine what is kept in and what is abstracted away, and what sort of compromises are necessary.

Carter’s rules use a squared grid with the advantages and problems that that entails. In this case, movement is along the edges of the square, it seems, so at least one problem of a square grid is compromised over. Still, the grid does mean that ship speeds are reduced to a number of squares, although we also get some alternate long and shorter moves (two squares one move, three the next at 16-19 knots, for example) which must get a little confusing.

Ranges are calculated without using diagonals, so ranges are calculated using ‘knights moves’. Damage is via attrition, it seems, with each ship being given a sinking rate. Nasty explosions are not included, so far as I can tell; ships are pounded to pieces. Fair enough.

Interestingly, some actions using the rules are included. One is the escort of a convoy down the Adriatic coast from Pola to Cattaro. The escorts are a mix of Austro-Hungarian and German warships and some Austrian submarines. Their opponents are some Italian naval vessels and a British squadron.

The game, which lands up with an Austro-Hungarian victory, is quite interesting. Not because it is a particularly interesting era of naval warfare, although it might be, but because it is more or less a campaign game, with hidden movement, U-boats, and minefields. To cut a several-page story short, the Austro-Hungarian convoy makes it to Cattaro, while the damaged Italians withdraw to Bari.

Aside from the fact that this sort of submarine activity forms part of the backdrop to The Sound of Music, and that it is an interesting narrative, the distinction between a naval wargame and a naval wargame campaign is blurred. The sheer scale and scope of naval wargames automatically push them toward the campaign, even if only a single action is really envisaged.

The second game report is a hunt for a Japanese heavy cruiser commerce raider in the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean in the Spring of 1942. The raider is being sought by several groups of allied warships. This game brings out the need for air reconnaissance in WW2 naval wargaming. Many years ago, when building Airfix warship kits, I wondered why so many of the cruisers and above had seaplanes aboard. Now I know.

Again, this game, while, it seems, it was played in one session as with the convoy escort, has the hallmarks of a campaign game. Eventually, the raider was pounded to bits, although not without meting out a fair bit of damage to her pursuers. Again, this looks a bit more like a campaign than a single battle to me, although the difference is a bit moot.

Next along is an idea for a campaign, set in the Far East in 1918 and involving naval and land forces from China, Korea, Japan, and Russia. This is a fictitious campaign, of course, but interesting. The land activity is very abstract, but the game does include fuel usage and differing port facilities. The Sino-Korean alliance has an advantage in ground troops, and the Russo-Japanese an advantage in naval units. It is quite an interesting set-up for a limited-scope but ongoing campaign.

Overall, this is an interesting book, at least to revisit after <mumble> years. The ideas are still good, although I imagine that there are many other tactical rules of varying complexity that the wargamer can try. The other difference relates to available ship models. If your main possible scale is 1:1200, then your wargaming models are going to be that scale. Of course, this means significant compromise on the ground scale, ranges, and movement. Now, I think there are extensive ranges of models in 1:3000, 1:4800, and 1:6000, which allows for a rather better match (visually, at least) between model and table scales. Not perfect, I will allow, but better.

The smaller the scale, the larger the scope, of course, and modern naval warfare brings in, as I have noted, some considerable issues of range and reconnaissance. In fact, after about 1942, the number of shooting matches between ships in sight of each other was limited, and it does seem to me that much of the Pacific War, at least, could be fought out as a map game without models at all. But, as wargamers, we do like our model representations of soldiers, ships, and aircraft.

The more recent warfare gets, the more complicated and technological it becomes. Perhaps this is why I see rather less Twentieth Century naval wargaming around than might be expected. Mind you, I recall playing Seastrike in the 1980s, and that was both fearsomely technological, had enormous ship counters and practically no maneuvering room, and largely came down to who could drop a missile on the enemy headquarters first.

Perhaps there is no really happy medium in modern naval warfare. The scales and timings are both long and short. After all, the naval rules suggest moves of minutes, if not hours, gunnery strikes in terms of rounds per minute, and air strikes should really be times in seconds. Ranges face similar sorts of problems, and it seems really hard to square all of these circles and still have a good game. But maybe I am simply unaware of more recent developments.


  1. I think that the idea of battle = campaign is a really good one here (I have encountered something similar in air wargaming, which I have done rather more of); if one thinks of the 'mission' as the campaign which then breaks into a quicker 'battle sequence' to conduct the bits when firing is intense and then breaks back into the 'mission' sequence. This puts a premium on making very quick/very fun mini-games to do the shooty bits. I have had some success with modern RPGs the same way (it is the only way to make firefights last anything like as long as they do IRL, and thus the only way to make things like 'alarms' and 'calling for assistance' matter when the mini-games have actoin rounds in the range of 3-10 seconds.

  2. I agree. The idea is similar to role-playing, whereby you have lots of time covered by a bit of a narrative, interspersed with sections of intense action. I normal wargaming we cover it over with averaging rates of movement and fire, etc, but in naval and air wargames that starts to look a little ragged.
    I have a sneaking suspicion that most combat consists of people staying in safe places and not doing much, interspersed with intense and frightening activity. In older times I suspect most battle action consisted of standing around and trying to look dangerous without committing to doing anything, except, perhaps, lobbing the occasional javelin in the general direction of the enemy.