The Operational Art of (Sea) War: An Analysis of Naval Warfare in TOAW4

One of the big draws of Matrix Games recent re-release of the classic computer game The Operational Art of War (TOAW, now 4th Edition) was its completely overhauled naval warfare system. Feedback indicates this was a very sound move. While TOAW emphasizes land warfare, there have been conflicts where significant naval support helped determine victory or defeat. The naval component was not the single decisive weapon of success, but it made the land forces involved that much more potent.


One case study exemplifying how the new TOAW naval platform makes this work is the Russo-Japanese War 1904 – 1905. It’s always been a big interest for me anyway, and is included in the Pre-World War I section to the tune of 80 turns where each turn represents a week of time and each hex measures 10 km across. Getting thru 80 turns was a bit much (though the AI took care of that by finding a platter for my head), but a lot of the important naval activity actually took place at the beginning of the war so that was a non-issue regardless. I took the Japanese for this game, and in a change of pace I decide to base my campaign on not doing what the Japanese did historically, to see if the game would make me pay for it. It did, and didn’t even give me change.

What the Japanese did

At 10:00 pm on 8 February 1904, the war began when Japanese Admiral Togo Heihachiro sent 10 destroyers into the harbor at Russian occupied Port Arthur. The surprise was total given most Russian officers were face down in the punch bowl at a party given by the fleet commander Admiral Oskar Stark, so the small craft unleashed 16 torpedoes and although only three actually hit something, what they hit was very painful. Tsarist victims included the cruiser Pallada, while the two best battleships in the Russian fleet, the Retvizan and Tsesarevich, were put out of action for weeks. When the Russians finally shook the cobwebs out of their heads, it was two in the morning and the Japanese withdrew under increasingly accurate fire from shore batteries.

The next morning Japanese Vice Admiral Dawa Shigato conducted a cruiser-based reconnaissance in force of the enemy harbor, returned and assured Togo that the Russian fleet was in total disarray. Thinking that one last effort would finish Stark and the lads, Togo initiated a general engagement. Shigato, normally a quite competent officer, completely misjudged the situation. The remaining Russian battleships and their supports steamed up and went out to face their oriental foe. The battle was indecisive, but it convinced Togo that the best way to achieve his operational objectives was to blockade the Russian fleet in the harbor at Port Arthur, using mines and whatever it took to keep it there or destroy it if it came out. It wasn’t the quick, decisive victory hoped for, but it worked.


Why? Because the real piece of real estate the Japanese needed to win the war was not at Port Arthur, but some distance south at the technically neutral port of Chemulpo Bay, called Inchon today, near the Korean city of Seoul. The Japanese always landed there whenever they invaded China, and 1904 was no different. In fact, the entire Port Arthur operation hoped to not only eliminate or contain the Russian fleet so it could not intervene at Chemulpo, but also distract any other Russian forces that might oppose the landing. Taking care of matters this time was Japanese Rear Admiral Ury? Sotokichi with seven heavy cruisers and eight torpedo boats, opposed by the Russian cruiser Varyag and an old gunboat named the Korietz. Ury? gave notice on 9th February for all neutral ships to leave (they did, the USS Vicksburg excepted), baiting the Russians to come fight (and they did). As a result, both Russian ships were destroyed and 2500 crack Japanese troops landed and took control of the harbor. By April 1905, the entire Japanese army had entered the theater via Chemulpo and was ready to cross the Yalu River into Russian Manchuria. The Russian naval forces at Port Arthur were never able to intervene.

And in the game…

In the TOAW 4 scenario covering this campaign, the Japanese fleet starts in the middle of the Yellow Sea, while Japanese army units save a single regiment start at home in the Japanese mainland. The coast of Korea up thru Port Arthur and beyond is edged with frozen ice hexes, impassable to naval vessels. The three exceptions are Port Arthur, Chemulpo and Mokpo way further south. If the Japanese want to invade and party with the Russians, they will have to initiate an amphibious landing at one of these three sites and the scenario pushes you towards the historical solution. Port Arthur is too heavily defended while Mokpo is so far south that rapidly advancing north to engage before the Russians reinforce and concentrate is nigh near impossible. The centrally located Chemulpo reduces that distance and its proximity to Seoul means proximity to railroads. Thus Chemulpo it is, for exactly the same reasons the Japanese landed there in 1904.

Transporting the Japanese army by sea was a very smooth operation in gameplay terms. If an army unit was not already located at a port, you move it there. Once there you can click thru the units in the stack and any one that has a small rail engine or ship icon, is available to embark. Just click on the icon, and the word “Embarked” appears. From that point simply trace a path with your mouse to the final destination and the AI calculates the proper route. If at the end of your journey you end up at an unoccupied port, simply click again to disembark and the unit appears in the port hex. The computer keeps track of available shipping so you don’t have to, and each turn reinforcements appear and new units portside gain the “Embark” icons automatically. Oddly enough, there were as many Japanese railway units as combat units moving into the que each turn, and as with all naval operations, the software reminds you how many phases in the turn remain so that you might continue.  It’s pretty simple, and all you need is an unoccupied port to land at.

And that’s not so simple. Given Chemulpo is the school solution, that’s where I sent my transports and sure enough, the Russian ships Varyag and Korietz are sitting there. The Japanese sent a bunch of cruisers to take down these boats, but I decided to try it with three destroyer divisions instead. Back then destroyers were very small, fragile vessels specifically designed to counter torpedo boats, and in fact were first designated “torpedo boat destroyers.” If the game had its history right, advantage Russians.

Well guess what, the game had its history right. Combat is resolved the same way as land units, but naval units have a two hex range and so bombarded the Russians from afar while they were still in port. I tried Single Attacks, Group Attacks and even Planned Attacks, but was never able to destroy the two Russian vessels, all the while my transports were backing up, just out of range, waiting to come ashore. Eventually, I had to resort to an unopposed landing down at Mokpo. Note to self, maybe try to land at both ports next time, and remember why Togo sent seven cruisers to do the job.


It wasn’t much better up at Port Arthur, and if anything, it was worse. Like Togo, I sent in some destroyers for torpedo attacks and then launched a general engagement with every battleship I could find. Results were pretty historical and the battles inconclusive. At this point, the historical Togo backed off and blockaded the place lest he run into the bazillion mines the Russians laid or came under heaver coastal battery fire. Doing so guaranteed success because, although the Japanese could not defeat the Russian fleet, neither could it leave to intervene elsewhere.

Not me. Instead I decided to go after the Russians and destroy them wholesale, and did so turn after turn. From a distance of two hexes, after clicking on the stack of ships in question, one simply places a targeting reticle on top of the enemy, chooses from two pop-ups for type of attack and casualty tolerance, then clicks again to resolve all combat. It was then I noticed two green artillery icons (with nothing to indicate they had laser range finders I might add) pop up on either side of Port Arthur and these gunners joined with their naval counterparts to hammer my fleet senseless. After 10 turns total, I had lost 2/3 of my destroyer divisions and saw two battleships and a couple of cruisers hit rock bottom (of the ocean, that is). The Emperor didn’t make Togo an admiral for being stupid, game play proved the point. History wins again, despite a snarky AI that kept suggesting Seppuku Turn 11 forward.


Quite frankly I was impressed, for a couple or three reasons. First, the AI seemed not only competitive, but historically so and really pressed home the point of why some things work and some do not in the real military world. Second, play was not only quick and flowed smoothly, but the overhaul behind it was transparent. By this I mean that all of the big changes in the naval module are under the proverbial hood, working in the background with the player completely oblivious to what is happening. He can instead concentrate on running the war. Further the detailed status charts from this number crunching provide information for the player to consider in running the way via completing a relatively small number of gameplay processes. They are not tasks that require action themselves.

But most importantly, I was very pleased with the balance, that the maritime module retained its proper emphasis within the whole and did not mutate into an overwhelming game within a game. True, a lot of the beginning of 80 turns is 90 % water oriented, but only until the Imperial Army wades ashore, relegating Togo to its proper and historical support role. The game remained a ground game with maritime support and never morphed into a purely naval game. This is fine. As spectacular as the later Japanese naval over the Russians would be, it was the often downplayed conduct of the Imperial Navy the first three months of the war that made the big difference. Well done.

You can read our full review of The Operational Art of War IV here. This game is developed and published by members of the Slitherine group with which we share an affiliation with. For more information, please see the About Us page.


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