Monday, June 2, 2008

Naval what-ifs

Avalanche Press' Great War At Sea series (and the sister series Second World War At Sea) are notable for the large number of scenarios included. There are, literally, several hundred scenarios between them.

This marks a significant break from naval wargames published in the "golden age" of SPI/AH games in the 0s-80s. Typically they included just a historical battle. The classic Midway has just one scenario, as did the original edition of Jutland, although the second edition of Jutland added a couple of others. Games covering the South Pacific battles around the Solomons usually depicted all the historical carrier battles, but that's it.

This is rather remarkable, in hindsight, because naval miniatures wargamers there's been a very long tradition of creating various "what-if" battles and not just sticking to historical fights.

Naval battles are, compared to land battles, very rare. Nearly every war will involve a lot of fighting on land. Even before the 20th Century and the rise of continuous combat, land battles were much more common than naval actions. There are at least four dozen full-scale Napoleonic land battles, where fleets met just a few times in comparable fights. Many wars see hardly any naval warfare at all.

But even wars with a large naval component usually see a lot more land fighting. Huge armies of British and French grappled with their German foes on a daily basis in the Great War. But actual naval battles between the Germans and their enemies added up to maybe a dozen or so, depending upon how generous a definition of battle you use.

There are many reasons for why naval battles are rare, but probably the most significant is the enormous cost of warships and the difficulty of replacing losses, especially in capital units. As many countries have demonstrated, it's possible to raise a large army in a relatively short period of time. Indeed, it's normal for most of the people who serve in a war to have enlisted after the start of the war, unless it's an unusually brief conflict. In contrast, aside from light ships, it's rare for a Navy to end a war larger than it started. Even in those exceptional cases where a major navy grows in wartime, it's usually based on a pre-war building program. The enormous World War II U.S. Navy's large ships were all started before the war and most of the major units started after the beginning of the war were never finished.

So every admiral is well aware that any loss he suffers is likely a permanent one for his nation, making admirals notoriously cautious about committing their biggest ships to battle.

Wargamers, of course, have no such qualms, but the historical reticence of admirals means that there really aren't too many naval battles to model.

Avalanche Press ignore the limits of history to provide wargamers with so many scenarios that one is highly unlikely to ever play all of them. With the notable exception of U.S. Navy Plan Orange, which has an atypically sparse seven scenarios and the unique Cruiser Warfare. the rest of the line has a dozen or more each, most of which are hypothetical to some degree or another. And U.S. Navy Plan Orange, along with the plan Gold , Red and Black games, is wholly hypothetical.

But even Jutland and the Mediterranean games, which are firmly grounded in well-researched history, are mostly made up of battles that didn't happen. In many cases these are battles that almost happened. It wasn't uncommon for fleets to steam and yet fail to make contact. Many others postulate some significant departures from actual events, often to include ships that were planned but not built. Not a few of the scenarios are fanciful, imagining that a power such as Turkey might actually be able to afford and man a battleship squadron or that the United States and Austro-Hungary might fight a naval campaign off the U.S. coast.

Liberated from the constraints of history, AP has given naval gamers an entire line of games and supplements and helped usher is what may truly be the "golden age" for naval gamers, if not wargames as a whole. There's still plenty of history and near history for players for whom some of APs more extreme flights of fancy might be too much. A Canadian battleline bombarding Virginia Beach ( Operational Sc. 9 - in U.S. Navy Plan Red) does require leaping a pretty big chasm for the suspension of disbelief.

In defense of this kind of scenario, however, there's this to consider. For Jellicoe or Scheer, the historical Jutland was an unprecedented event. They didn't know how it might turn out or what the possibilities were. The power of hindsight means that any gamer replicating Jutland has a very unrealistic level of knowledge about the battle. Recapturing some of the uncertainty faced by Jellicoe is actually easier in a hypothetical battle, especially one based on an unprecedented situation. Drawing up plans for a campaign that never was such as an Austro-Hungarian war with America (Dreadnoughts scenario book, Imperial and Royal Warship Projects section, scenario one "Plan Black, Austrian Style, April 1924) may be a much better test of admiralship than refighting Jutland for the umpteenth time.

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