Thursday, April 23, 2009

A session report from the dim mists of time

In 1965 I was among the thousands of Massachusetts schoolchildren who contributed my pennies to help bring "Big Mamie," the Battleship Massachusetts, to Fall River, Mass. as a war memorial and floating museum.

Naturally Battleship Cove wasn't as polished and professional then as it is now. I remember getting a tour conducted by a man who had once served on the battleship, but large parts of the ship weren't open to the public yet in the 1960s and the organization running the exhibit was still feeling its way around on how to best display it to the public. They were in the very early stages of their Scout sleepover program, which has since become the bread-and-butter for the museum. Since then Battleship Cove has expanded into the largest collection of museum ships in the world, with a destroyer, a submarine, two PT boats and a former East German Navy missile corvette in addition to the battleship.

There are a number of aircraft, a Japanese suicide boat and thousands of models as well as historical artifacts. It's well worth a visit.

In 1971 and 1972 the battleship was also the site for a couple of early wargame conventions, which was a tremendous break for me. I was a teen wargame newbie with limited funds and here was a "national" wargame con just a dozen miles away from my house!

Sponsored by the Spartan International Competition League, one of the first national wargame organizations, the 1971 con was attended by about 100 or so wargamers. The hobby back then was wasn't big enough to have split into niche markets, so there was an eclectic mix of activities.

Among the offerings was a tournament of Avalon Hill classics, some Napoleonic miniatures and naval wargaming.

The latter was what I had come for, being first attracted to the hobby by naval wargaming. I was primarily a board wargamer, but that was driven mostly by budget considerations and my friends' lack of interest in naval gaming. I had been entertained by lively battle reports in the Alnavco Log (an early naval wargaming journal) and was excited about the chance to actually play.

At that time the standard naval wargaming rules in use were still Fletcher Pratt's pioneering set from the 1940s, although usually modified. Just starting to make their appearance were some new approaches, among them was Victory at Sea, "Realistic Naval Miniatures Rules" by A.J. Morales. I think the Battleship Massachusetts convention may have been the "national" debut of the rules, and Morales was running a tournament to show off his rules and drum up interest. I have copy No. 186.

By later standards the rules are very sketchy, little more than an outline. This was long before the era of the "rules lawyer" and players were still expected to conduct themselves with restraint and good sportsmanship and not rely on picayune points of order for an advantage.

Still, despite their brevity, the Victory at Sea rules manage to cover a lot of ground, with tactical rules for surface, anti-air and anti-submarine warfare, mines and minesweeping, smokescreens and logistics. There were strategic rules for setting up battles. The rules covered everything from the pre-dreadnought era to nuclear submarines. -- in 14 pages!

Included in the booklet were three scenarios and that is what Morales used to organize his tournament, with three single-elimination rounds.

Battle of the Denmark Straits

We started off with the Battle of the Denmark Straits, 1941, the famous confrontation between the Bismarck and the British fleet.

Through the luck of the draw I ended up with the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, which as fortunate because this was my first-ever naval wargame. I was a 16-year-old rookie and I didn't have a much of a clue. I don't remember much about my opponent except that I think he was a little older and more experienced. Things got off to a somewhat dicey start for me when I tried to split off the Prinz Eugen to deal with the shadowing British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk. My opponent said there ought to be a chance for a collision because the ship models got within a quarter-inch during the turn. I'm still not sure where he got this, as there were no collision rules in the game and realistically there shouldn't have been any chance of the two ships getting tangled up, the Prinz Eugen was faster and just making a simple starboard turn. Morales decided on the spot that his rules needed to consider the chances of a collision and ruled we should dice for for it. I still had beginner's luck and there was no collision. I don't remember what transpired between the Prinz Eugen and the British cruisers, but the German warship had a considerable range advantage and I suppose the British cruisers sheered off. They played no role in the battle.

My beginner's luck continued unabated. Within the first couple of salvos I got a critical hit on the Hood. In Victory at Sea the damage from heavy shell hits was checked with a card draw from a standard deck of cards for any additional effects. My draw was a jack of spades, which was, unbelievably, a magazine hit! The Hood blew up! I got a few more damaging hits on the Prince of Wales before time for the round expired. The Bismarck's damage was minor so I was declared the winner. Cool.

Battle of the River Plate, 1939

The second round was the Battle of the River Plate, which involved the German raider Graf Spee against three British cruisers. I drew the British. This one went quickly. I remember nothing at all about my opponent except that he made the mistake of closing the range right off the bat. While armed with battlecruiser-caliber main guns, the Graf Spee was otherwise really just a slow heavy cruiser and was quickly overwhelmed by a blizzard of 8-inch and 6-inch shells from the Exeter, Ajax and Achilles. I'm not sure if the British ships were even hit.This created somewhat of a conundrum for Morales, though, as there hadn't been an even number of players in the first rounds and he had to pick the top two for the finals. I clearly had less game experience than the other guys, but I had won my two battles most decisively. I the end I faced an older dude (well, he seemed older to me, he was probably no more than 30) who seemed quite annoyed he was playing against a kid.

Battle of Coronel, 1914

My beginner's luck left me at this point, as I drew the British. This was the encounter between the German cruiser squadron led by Admiral Graf Spee (for whom the armored ship in the previous battle was named) and an intercepting British force. The Coronel scenario departed from the historical battle by adding the pre-dreadnought battleship Canopus to the British force while subtracting the useless auxiliary cruiser Oranto. Even with these changes, however, the Germans were stronger.

I overheard my opponent telling a friend of his that he planned to keep the range long (which was clearly the correct plan as he had a broadside of 12 long-range tubes against just 6 for the British squadron). It felt somehow wrong to take advantage of this inadvertent intel, so I was disinclined to close with him at first. Looking back from across the years this was kind of a silly way to feel, but that's how the kid felt.

In any case, I didn't have a clear plan on how to cope with the German firepower advantage and it didn't take long for the Germans to chew up the Good Hope and Monmouth. With the Canopus too slow to catch the untouched German armored cruisers the battle was over.

I ended the night pretty satisfied with how things turned out. I won two out of three games I played and ended up in the finals for the tournament, which I didn't feel was too bad for a kid. It was a good convention.

Despite the passage of 37 years I remember a surprising amount of what happened that day because it was my first experience with a game convention or naval miniatures gaming.

1 comment:

  1. It certainly sounded like you managed to enjoy the festivities that you could. My very 1st foray was with ALNAVCO as well, and like many another "pauper juvenile", then I was only able to afford a smaller 'Battle of the River Plate' SET to begin with. There wasn't even an "Exeter" ship available so they sent along a "Cumberland" CLASS instead. Once the 1:2400th 'scale' became available, then I bought UP what I could for WW1 vessels. The last ones that I'd been collecting were with 1:4800th as they're the best bargain of the bunch for such. It also does help to have the "General Quarters" Rules SETs for anything that we'd prefer to conduct. Then there were the TSR "Game" with standup counters on theirs, yet it also provided an enhanced "fog of war" since you needed to DETECT anything as well. Right now, then I'm gathering together MY very own designed & devised "OGRE Fleet" for uses with their 'minis' on that aspect. Those are mainly converted from hulls of actual model kits, and with others taken from certain Naval "Games" or many of the 'toy' sort that are converted into what I would like for that.

    I have fond memories of building model kits for this particular vessel of yours there, and plenty for others, while I STILL have many left unbuilt as of yet. Besides working in the Seattle shipyards upon the newest types of ships, and the "Hydroplane Races" during the summertimes here, then across 'Puget Sound' over in Bremerton sits an entire FLEET of all manner with these. I'm glad to have trod the planked deck of the "Missouri" while it were around there, or to gaze out from its vantage point upon rows for just about every kind you can imagine! In fact, I've just now reminded myself concerning the "Silver Slug" aluminum covered 'Car Ferry' that was being refurbished with the intent for this on becoming a "floating museum" piece at that! There is quite the assorted "maritime" history that I've enjoyed during my own lifetime, with mainly 'canoeing' and 'camping' for it all being the predominant means.