Saturday 14 January 2023

Naval Wargaming

I bet you think I am repeating myself. Naval wargames last week, naval wargaming this week. Aside from trying to reduce further the number of readers of the blog, you might be forgiven for wondering what is going on here. The answer is, of course, another wander down the odd recesses of memory lane, or at least, my memory lane. As you might have noticed, it has some very odd recesses.

Anyway, today’s memory is a bit more recent than some of the others:

Hague, P., Naval Wargaming: From Ancient Galleys to Modern U-Boats, Yeovil, PSL, 1992.

This one is in fact another memory cruncher. I had to resort to a search engine to tackle my puzzlement, but I did manage to resolve it. This was, in fact, Mr Hague’s second book on naval wargaming, the first, which I also vaguely recall, was titled Sea Battles in Miniature, published, it seems, in 1980. I have not managed to find a copy of that work at a price I am willing to pay for it.

Rather cutely, this has a publisher’s tag thing on the front cover, announcing that the book is ‘An essential manual for the hobby’. Well, maybe. It is certainly an interesting book, although how modern U-boats are might be the subject of a question in the history of technology.

There are the inevitable introduction, hints for the beginner and then a few pages on available models. This is short, which is merciful because of all the ideas contained in older wargame books, the lists of models, manufacturers and distributors are the first to go out of date. Mind you, some recent books commit the same error by putting web links in, which are even more ephemeral than bricks and mortar makers of model toys.

I do think, however, that the idea of cardboard cut-out ships might have legs (sorry – water wings, of course). After all, there are plenty of silhouettes and deck-plans available of modern warships, and there are increasing ranges of paper soldiers around, so why not. Rather than a silhouette, however, I would go for a deck plan, partly because it is a lot easier to cut out, and partly because it makes it easier to use aircraft. The idea at the back of my mind is to print out a load of aircraft on a piece of acetate sheet and cut them out, so they can really fly over a ship.

Anyway, I digress, albeit modestly. The rest of the book consists of rule sets for various different eras. The first is the age of the trireme, with a discussion of the diekplus and the periplus. These always cause a bit of head-scratching with me, as I am by no means sure they really took place that often, a bit like my scepticism about the caracole in the Sixteenth Century. These might be ideal manoeuvrers from the point of view of an armchair admiral, but achieving them must have been a lot more difficult. The kyklos, which I know is reported in Thucydides, is more possible, but again, to attack from it like the Athenians did must have been a challenge.

Anyway, after explaining that big galley models are a thing of the past for him (as opposed to the earlier book, which I believe had about 6 galleys in the reported action), this goes for larger quantities and a hex-based board. Larger, here, means about eighteen 1:1200 galleys a side. The recording is still on a ship by ship basis of damage and orders, which must have bogged things down a little, but ramming, oar-raking and boarding are all included.

Moving on there are rules for the ship-of-the-line ear, which extends from the Renaissance to the Napoleonic Wars. The rules are specified more for the later Seventeenth Century and the reported action is from the Nine Years War, at a rough guess. It shows the difficulties of sailing ships on lee shores, as the English fleet is embayed in Drumcloggy Bay. Again the ships are balsa wood and paper sails, and look impressive. However, modern wargamers have a plethora of models available.

Next along are the dreadnoughts, 1906 – 1941 (-ish), along with improvements in gunnery before the First World War. The chapter includes how gunnery worked, and how deployment was supposed to work, and how it really did at Jutland. I suppose a difficulty here is the relative paucity of large ship to ship battles in the period. Aside from Jutland, most of the rest consisted of Royal Navy ships eventually pounding German battleships and battlecruisers to bits. I generalise wildly, of course, but some imagination seems to be required to justify all that investment in models of Graf Spee and Bismark.

The rules are fairly straightforward, although they do use a pack of playing cards to assess damage of shell hits. The cards have a fifth suit, as well, called blobs, which must make life a bit interesting, if you can see that the next card is a blob and know that the centreline of your ship has just been hit. Still, so far as I am a judge the rules seem to be workable.

The aircraft carrier is next, and here we do get a step up in complexity, now that we have to worry about a third dimension. Hague suggests some straightforward ideas for using aircraft, such as ignoring differences in range and endurance. Also he acknowledges the importance of aerial reconnaissance. He suggests making 1:3000 scale aircraft out of piano wire and plastic card, or a flight of 1:4800 aircraft using clear plastic and painting on wings and a fuselage. It would need a steadier hand than I have. After the rules Hague makes a plea for naval wargamers to be less callous, or engage in campaigns so they do not let the planes just ditch after an extreme range strike.

Finally, we get to U-boats. I confess to not being an expert on U-boats, and unsure whether they tended to strike from the surface or from submerged positions. Possibly it varied. Hidden movement is, of course, required for this, and the various sorts of delivery system for depth charges are discussed. Again, without trying it out it all seems to work, even the idea of using bent pins stuck through bits of card to indicate periscopes.

I rather like these older books on wargaming, I confess. They have a bit of a simplicity to them, and a practicality, which perhaps some more recent books lack. The marketplace is now crowded with war and wargame related material, of course, and that might make a difference too. But most of the authors I have recently read argue that compromise is necessary to create a playable game, and I am not going to argue. True realism in a wargame is not something any of us would really want, I think.


  1. I thought the first book in particular was brilliant - probably my favourite wargaming book ever. The author has a great blend of knowledge, enthusiasm, practicality and humour. His approach always seemed realistically achievable, but for me it still holds up well against more complex modern approaches; it certainly influenced me. I have always wondered who the author is (or was) and what happened to him.

    1. Yes, as I recall both books are very good. I think the first one is also the one which comments that naval wargames really cry out for a campaign context rather than single battles of no particular point. But good books, certainly.