My old mate Bill Madison, designer of the odd game such as Dawn of the Rising Sun — the Russo-Japanese War (and one of my favourites I must admit) and self confessed tragic of the history of the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1905 (see the Russo-Japanese War Research Society) has turned his hand to writing rules for one of my favourite periods of naval warfare — the pre-Dreadnought period.
Fleet Admiral – Volume 1 Naval Warfare – 1890-1924 is a set of naval wargame rules designed specifically for that period starting about 15 years before the appearance of HMS Dreadnought and running to 1924, when aircraft started to play more of a role in naval warfare other than perhaps as interested observers and spotters. At the start of this period, admirals envisaged ship combats based around a range of 4,000 yards ship-to-ship and by the end of this period, lessons had been learned and big ship guns were opening fire at ranges hitherto thought impracticable.
The rules are divided into a number of broad sections – based on general principles; an example game outlining the various rule mechanisms; specific rule sections covering things such as movement, firing, torpedos, damage and such; and finally a section of tables and charts for use during the game.
The rules themselves adopt a couple of principles that we have generally moved away from. For example, recent rules have adopted the “I go, you go” method of movement (or variations on that) and cumulative damage points affecting flotation, speed and the ability to fight. These simplifications have kept games moving quickly but lose some of the flavour of these queens of the seas battling like the behemoths they were against each other, where a ship can heroically carry on fighting even when pounded to little better than flotsam.
The game scale used is either 1″ or 1cm being equal to 1,000 yards and makes the simplifying assumption that a nautical mile is 2,000 yards or 1,829 metres1. This scale gives a sea area for the standard wargames table (6’x4′) of around 860 square nautical miles, and a greater area of course for those gamers fortunate enough to have a larger area available.
Fleet Admiral also adopts a variable time scale of three minutes for surface moves and one minute per turn for aerial moves. Simultaneous movement is written into the rules and governed by both sides writing movement and firing orders at the start of each move. This may seem a reversion to the practices of the past but it does add the refreshing dimension of trying to second guess your opponent, an ability admirals of the past either possessed and successfully managed to find themselves in better tactical positions than their opponents or missed.
I like this slight, added complication, enabling as it does, for one to do the unexpected and not necessarily to be ground down by all your moves being shadowed by the second player to move.
The ships of the time are split into broad bands based on their size. This is a simple way to work out detection and movement but given the amount of smoke generated by the average coal-burning vessel of the time, I would have thought that apart from heavy fogs, the enemy ships were located where there was a big cloud of coal smoke. Admittedly whether or not they were battleships or destroyers was not so clear until the distance had been closed somewhat.
Vessels are further defined by:
- length (useful for torpedo attacks and gunnery resolution)
- whether they carried ASDIC, hydrophones, anti-submarine weapons
- the number of their main and secondary gun directors
- aircraft carried
- main and secondary battery
- conning tower
- vitals (important for protected cruisers who tended not to have belt armour but rather armour around the vital areas of the vessel – magazine etc)
- main, secondary and tertiary batteries
- light batteries
- anti aircraft
- torpedos (whether deck mounted, hull above waterline or hull below waterline)
As mentioned there is a variable move time and so the sequence of play is 1 or 3 minutes in length and follows the general order of writing orders for movement and/or firing with movement occurring simultaneously; combat; detection; reactive fire phase (for recently detected vessels); and damage control.
The rules are explained by an example game (a well known World War 1 battle) which is the next best thing to having someone who knows the rules play with you. They are well cross-referenced.
There is also some degrees of specific period flavour or change. For example, from 1910 onwards ships may engage multiple targets with different batteries depending on the number of directors that are carried. Generally more directors give more accuracy.
There are extensive rules for torpedos and I particularly liked the section “Torpedo Tactics 101”. This outlined different “phases” of torpedo work by Torpedo Boats, Torpedo Boat Destroyers and Destroyers. The phases are:
- “Strikes” — where the other to attack is given;
- “Threats” — where the presence of a large number of torpedo vessels prevented the enemy closing the range — or of the threat becoming accepted, turning it into a strike; and
- “Melees” — where there is a confused close range encounter with combatants trying to strike each other whilst dodge the other sides launched torpedos.
Hits on vessels, whether by torpedo or gunfire, affect different areas of the vessels and have a different effect. For example, a hit on the bow will reduce the speed of a vessel by 1 knot (3 knots of the gun causing the hit was an 8″ or larger gun). A hit on the vessel may destroy a light battery (reducing that fire-power) or main magazine and so on. Hits on previously destroyed areas cause no further damage but may generate more fires.
One other thing I liked was torpedo hits of vessels with tumblehomes will cause those ships to sink faster — look up the effects of waterplanes2 to see why 🙂
The rules also make allowances for those infernal flying machines, both aircraft and airships and the weapons designed over the period to deal with them. Also dealt with are submarines and various anti-submarine weapons such as depth charges3, paravanes, anti-submarine mortars, ASDIC etc.
A series of optional rules also adds further variety and deals with weather effects; the time of year and location (visibility issues); smoke and wind; communications, tactical and otherwise by lamps or flags; mines; and some optional rules from the play-testers.
The rules themselves and the example game take up the first 41 pages; pages 42-52 are some scenarios (Asan and Yalu from 1894; Port Arthur, Yellow Sea and Tsushima from 1904; and Cape Sarych, Dogger Bank and the battle cruisers at Jutland from World War 1 amongst others). The remainder of the book has game tables, aircraft details, airship details, weapon details, blank order sheets and ship information cards.
The ship information cards that need to be completed before the start of battle will require the gamer to have access to Conway’s or Jane’s or the Internet to find the ship information necessary (speed, armour, armament etc).
I played a little test battle on the floor the other night (I haven’t got a wargames table here and double bed was not usable at the time) and the game played well. It was just a couple of pre-dreadnought battleships. It was harder to represent simultaneous movement by myself but it was easy enough playing a scenario from the point where the ships had spotted each other and in the best traditions of navies worldwide, had engaged.
I am not sure whether I would try and play out the full Battle of Jutland as a single wargame with these rules (memo to self – paint those fleets) however that battle tended to break down into a number of separate engagements anyway.
I can thoroughly recommend these rules as an alternative way of looking at the naval battles of the 1890 to 1924 period in 2014. I also like the fact that these rules specifically consider those pre-dreadnought battleships from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.
Bill is working on a companion set to take naval warfare through the Second World War.
1. Well, it’s not 2,000 yards but rather was supposed to be 1 minute of arc along any of the earth’s meridians. By modern agreement and convention, the calculation of that value now is agreed at 1,852 metres or 6,076 feet (2,025 yards). It is a simplifying assumption Bill makes but it works.
2. The horizontal plane which passes through a floating ship on a level with the waterline:
3. They are depth charges Bill … not depth chargers 🙂