Sunday, June 1, 2008

Harpoon4 -- review

There's usually a tension in wargames between the demands of a successful "game" (an entertaining and competitive contest) and a "simulation" (an authentic reflection of real life). The art of wargames design largely revolves around striking a balance between these demands.

Every so often, however, a designer boldly abandons any pretense of striking such a balance and pushes his design to the edges of the possible. Commonly the decision lands on the "game" side, and there's no shortage of war-themed games that pay little attention to real-life constraints. Harpoon4 is the rare design that goes the other way, unabashedly seeking to be the most realistic possible treatment of a very complex subject, modern naval warfare. What concessions it makes to playability are almost always framed in the practical limitations of manual procedures, not in any notions of fairness or competitiveness.

The games has been this way since its very first edition back in 1981 and has remained true to that mission consistently, even has the design has been refined over the years based on more research, years of playing experience and the growing experience of the design team.

Abstractions are kept to a minimum. With the exception of damage points, which are computed by a formula to come up with a game-specific value, nearly every other measurement and number is based on a real unit of measure such as kilometers or nautical miles, minutes and hours, knots and rates of fire, and percent-based chances of occurrence. Players can -- and are encouraged to -- do their own research to plug in the numbers needed to create a scenario, very much in the tradition of naval miniatures games since their origins with Fletcher Pratt's rules in the 1930s.

Because it's in the naval miniatures wargame tradition, Harpoon 4 is less of a board game than a system for modeling battles. While it's possible to play it solitaire or two-player in very limited ways, enjoying the full panoply of possibilities presented by the rules requires one of the players to act as the game organizer or referee. That player creates the scenario and the success of the game depends in large measure on how much work and care the referee puts into it. The more prep work the better the game experience. Indeed, the referee is really the only person who needs to know the rules.

The key thing in modern naval warfare is the detection of the opposing force and the importance of getting in the first effective blow. Unlike early 20th-century battleships, modern warships have little ability to accept damage and keep fighting and modern weapons are far more powerful than earlier weapons.

After the referee has set the initial situation it's up the opposing players to organize their forces, plan strategy, give them standing orders and their courses. Often these decisions, made before the battle begins, will determine how it turns out.

Once the game starts the referee will generally track the movements and activities of all the moving parts until one side or the other detects something. Unlike traditional wargames, which usually have turns of set length, the referee will usually "telescope" the time in order to speed play. Many hours of game time may be resolved in a few minutes of real time if little is happening or the opposing forces are out of range. By the same token, the high-speed action of actual combat, broken down into 30-second increments, may take considerably more time than that to actually play out.

There's hardly any real-life situation that the rules don't handle, although some types of operations such as amphibious landings, underway replenishment, land combat or mine warfare are usually handled "off-map" by the ref. In fact, there are often far more elements in the game being handled by the ref than the players such as neutral shipping, other services and perhaps other task forces. For example, in a scenario where the players are controlling surface ships it may be better to let the ref handle any subs present because the poor sub player will otherwise never have anyone to talk to (if you're being realistic).

While Harpoon4 has structure and plenty of rules, most of that structure can be and should be invisible to the players. Ideally the player feels like he's truly in command of his ship, getting the sort of information from sensors and intel that his real counterpart would get and issuing the kinds of orders the actual commander would without the distraction of dealing with artificiality's of "factors" "phases" or "CRTs".

Under the direction of a skilled gamemaster, Harpoon4 can create a truly immersive game narrative that is hard to match.

The game itself, really has the field all to itself. When it first came out, back in 1981, there was similarly detailed modern naval rules set called Warship Commander or something along those lines, that was weighed down with abstract, yet complicated, subsystems. Harpoon quickly established itself as the No.1 modern naval wargame rules has never been seriously challenged. It achieved a certain amount of fame because of its association with Tom Clancy and The Hunt for Red October. Clancy used the game to help his novel achieve its authenticity. Harpoon design Larry Bond and Clancy then collaborated in Red Storm Rising, a hugely ambitious and very successful novelization of a potential World War III. Most of the combat action in the novel had been wargamed out using Harpoon. Bond later went on to a successful career on his own as a techno-thriller novelist. Clancy's later novels featured more cloak-and-dagger action than combat, but Harpoon/Bond was still reportedly consulted on occasion.

Bond and Harpoon also had an influence in the naval community. I doubt many naval officers serving over the last three decades were unfamiliar with the game, even if they're not gamers. Former Reagan-era Secretary of the Navy John Lehmen even wrote the foreword to the High Tide expansion and British Adm. Sir John "Sandy" Woodward, the naval commander in the Falklands War, wrote the foreword to the Harpoon4 rules. That's pretty high-speed for a civilian wargame.

The various editions of Harpoon have always had serviceable, if not spectacular graphics. The most recent, Clash of Arms edition, comes in a bookcase-style box, looseleaf-style rules, some die-cut counters for some ships, aircraft, missiles and markers and a data annex. Players may want to use miniature warship models for the visual effect, but frankly, so much of the action happens in the ephemeral realm of electronic warfare and across such enormous distances that maps and die-cut counters serve just as well most of the time.

Gamers primarily interested in competitive tests of skill will find little to interest them in Harpoon4. Needless to say there's even less of interest here for euro-style gamers. Harpoon4 is intensely detailed, treats nearly every possible facet of naval warfare exhaustively and requires mastery of more than 100 pages of rules in small type.

But for anyone interested in modern naval warfare and gaming out what might really happen if naval and air forces find themselves in battle, there is no unclassified substitute. I rather doubt that any classified wargame would provide better overall insight, although classified information might sometimes fill-in some unknown detail. But even classified naval wargames are limited by the knowledge intel provides and there's a good chance that some significant information is simply unknowable. The Soviet spy ring led by Walker would have had an impact if there had been a war in the 1980s, for one example. The Soviets had a super-high speed (200 knots!) nuclear-armed defensive torpedo aboard their subs that we had no idea existed. Think about how that changes things.

1 comment:

  1. And for those without live opponents, there have been a long series of computerized Harpoon products. The current civilian versions are published by Matrix Games while the profesional military version is published by the game developer, Advanced Gaming Systems Inc. More information on all of those at