Review: Great War at Sea: Volume I – The Mediterranean

Many weeks ago, colleague Jim Cobb presented a survey on all the computer games concerning World War I naval combat. As the centennial of that tragic war continues, I thought I would do likewise for cardboard tabletop wargaming as well. The only difference is this will not be a survey, but a review of one product – Avalanche Press’ (AP) Great War at Sea (GWS) series. Why? Well there are a couple of reasons, the first being there simply isn’t a lot out there in counter gaming land. Unlike miniatures where the Dreadnought era remains very popular (because carrier fights and sea launched cruise missiles need the Georgia Dome as a board), later periods of naval history seem more in demand. Otherwise only classics like Avalon Hill’s Jutland or SPIs Dreadnought (still one of the most powerful box covers ever IMHO) come to mind.

AP was started in 1994 by Mike Bennighoff and Brian Knipple, and the former remains president of the company. Bennighoff has a PhD in History from Emory University and has previously worked as a semi-pro football coach and professional gravel shoveler (seriously, not making this up). Wonderfully eccentric, he included the GWS counter for the Russian cruiser Borodino for play in AP’s Napoleonic Borodino 1812 game (Nikolai Tesla and a time warp or something like that). GWS is perhaps his most enduring work given the series racked up Origins Awards in 1998 and 1999, not to mention at least 14 spin-off games and expansions.

And the best news? The games are still available today from AP; some revamped with new graphics and updated rules, others completely overhauled, brand new additions to the line and more planned. Mike did something right and here’s my take.

Fleet Munitions

For this review I will be specifically looking at the first edition of the first game in the series, Great War at Sea, Volume I – The Mediterranean. Just be advised that later products may be a bit more complex with some rules changes hither, thither and yon.

The game comes in an attractive box with a differently designed front cover depending on the edition you pick up. Inside the box are an 8 page rules book (yes, ONLY 8 pages), a 24 page scenario book, a two piece 22 x 38 inch strategic map (dividing into counter size offset squares), a 17 x 22 inch tactical map (also squares, but later hexes), various supporting paper work (combat charts, vessel data sheets, fleet composition sheets, player log sheets) and finally 280 half inch and 180 one inch counters. The maps are well designed, colorful and have all necessary charts conveniently printed along the edges.

Nevertheless, it is the counters that really give the game its zippy personality. The half inch variety include normal status markers and the like, but also counters representing flotillas of ships of destroyer size or less, merchant vessels, aircraft and also airships to include Zeppelins. The larger counters represent large, single ships such as battleships. They are color coded by nationality (white for Austria, green for Russia) and not only include a flag in the upper left corner, but – be still my heart – the correct historical naval jack (white with blue St Andrew’s cross for Russia) as well. Ship names appear in an appropriate script, Fraktur for Germans for example, and include data on the ship’s class, speed, primary guns, secondary guns and tertiary guns and whether the vessel carries torpedoes. In the center is a top down view of the ship in question, and this is not a generic symbol, but a full color schematic of each and every ship in the game. In other words, if you have the HMS Impossible which historically sported some odd turret arrangement allowing fire cross ship between the conning tower and the captain’s potted palms (thanks Irad Hardy), then that is what the image shows. One Brien Miller did all this, and his efforts back in 1996 are still highly competitive today.

Fleet Operations

GWS is actually two games in one, the first being an operational or strategic game where the appropriate map is used to move fleet counters around until they find something to use those highly polished 15 inch guns on. Each game turn represents four hours actual time and each square is 32 statute miles across, while operational scenarios can last anywhere from 20 – 60 turns.

In general each operational scenario will assign a type of mission to each side which will define the parameters on what each player can do. Normally, only by issuing an Abort order may a player deviate from his mission, but this is a dicey proposition as movement must be then plotted for the rest of the game to the nearest port and thus risk losing the game. The missions are Transport, Escort, Intercept, Raid, Minelaying and in certain circumstances Pursuit. For Intercept and Raids, movement must be plotted two turns in advance, and for the other missions, for the entire game at the beginning.

Movement for ships and fleets is usually one or two spaces per turn, but if this seems slow and ponderous, it is not. Remember that with counters representing fleets there won’t be a lot of stuff to move on the board, and so game turns tend to fly until contact is made. Said contact occurs and 15 inchers bellow when enemy and friendly counters enter the same space on the operational map at the same time, or when an enemy counter passes thru a space a friendly fleet has entered and departed already. In this case, a die roll is made on the Search Table and the results will let the antagonists know if play can continue or shooting starts.

I’m not sure I understand exactly how or why this system works so well, particularly with mission types as a control measure, but in the many games I’ve played there is little chance of combat NOT occurring.

“You may fire when ready, Johan?”

Tactical or fleet combat occurs when contact is made on the operational map as noted above, or simply when playing one of the numerous battle scenarios included in the game for a quick or learning match. There seem to be a lot of steps in this process, but remember in most cases there will be few counters on the tactical board and each step moves quickly. Don’t be fooled!

A die roll will determine which side, Central Powers or Entente, will have the initiative and gain the privilege of setting up his forces second, but moving first. The other player deploys his counters face down in the three central squares or hexes with no more than eight ships per. The player with the initiative then deploys his forces face down at the limit of sighting range, which is normally four spaces in daylight, or two at night. In certain circumstances, a Surprise Sighting may occur during daylight and the range is three spaces. Movement is limited to one adjacent area per impulse for all forces, with each space measuring 8 KM across.

Impulse is the key word here, because the entire combat is only a turn long, but this turn contains up to 20 so called “Impulses.” To simplify, the player with the initiative moves all his units first, then both players conduct gunnery and torpedo combat simultaneously if within range, then afterwards the non-initiative player moves all his vessels one area. This process is repeated four times, the only difference being which pieces can move each time. The first two times ships with speeds of 2 or 2 + move, the third ships with speeds of 1, 2 or 2+ move with the final impulse for all ships, both sides, even those marked as slow.

During the gunnery and torpedo impulses, the die is rolled and results are applied. At a range of three it takes a six to hit, at lesser ranges a five or six will do the job. If a hit is taken, a die roll will tell what kind of damage is inflicted, and if defined as a Critical Hit, a third table is consulted to determine what resulting catastrophe occurs. As damage is taken, the player checks off boxes for each ship by category, keeping track of hull hits, hits on gun turrets and so on. For example, the Austrian Battleship Franz Josef has 13 hull boxes, and a die roll of three for a successful torpedo attack claims two, reducing it to 11. When all 13 are gone, it’s time to see how many Austrian sailors know how to tread water.

There is a bit of chrome here and there, such as the impact of plunging fire which does NOT impact any Russian battleships or HMS Queen Elizabeth. Otherwise, that’s pretty much it, very miniatures like but without all the complexity of different tables for different gun sizes or other algebra.

Striking the colors

GWS gets my vote for best of breed, but not only because it’s about the only thing out there, but because it’s simply a top notch system that is accurate and easy to play. Now add to that scenarios of battles or operations that never happened between belligerents that never fought (but could have) and ships proposed but never constructed. Yet again add to that a line of games where individual offerings do similar, a la the Origins winning game USN Plan Orange covering the secret plan to defeat Japan with battleship to battleship combat. Right now the GWS line has six boxed games and seven expansion modules, to include a complete flip of GWS The Med into an ultimate edition ($99.00) that includes conflicts prior to and after WWI. Can you say the Russian Revolution at sea? If you can it might be time for a relook at a tabletop line that has withstood the test of time, and well deservedly so at that.