Monday, July 6, 2009

Naval wargaming's Big Three

More than most genres of gaming, naval wargaming's development has been dominated by a small number of designers. Three individuals, in particular, really stand out as giants in the hobby -- Fred T. Jane, Fletcher Pratt and Larry Bond.

All three share some characteristics. They were talented writers who have a long list of published works in both fiction and non-fiction. All three were self-taught naval enthusiasts who became noted experts on naval affairs. Of the three, only Bond served as a naval officer, and he didn't make a career at it. And all three were largely motivated by a drive to understand the naval balance of their own day.

The first of these individuals was Fred T. Jane, whose 1898 All the World's Fighting Ships was really what later wargame designers would call a "data annex" for his set of wargame rules, simply called the Naval War Game. Jane was one of the first popular authors to point out the importance of technical points such as armor thickness and placement and power plant horsepower, not to mention coal capacity as vital in naval affairs. Jane's naval wargame didn't become a big mass-market success, but his data annex crew into an annual series of publications that's still the standard reference today. Jane was born in 1865, just as the Ironclad era was beginning and died in the middle of World War I. His active era covered the dawn of the modern warship era, with the 1898 Jane's appearing fortuitously during the Spanish-American War.

Fletcher Pratt was born in 1897, a year before that war, and lived to see the dawn of the nuclear Navy, passing in 1956. Pratt's active era in wargame design was on the cusp of World War II, with his Naval Wargame rules being published in 1940. They earned considerable notice for correctly predicting that the German pocket battleship Graf Spee was, in fact, not a match for three British cruisers -- in contrast to the conventional wisdom. Pratt's wargame was the standard for naval gamers for a generation, with dog-eared copies becoming cherished possessions among naval gamers. One of my first gaming experiences was playing with modified Fletcher Pratt rules on the deck of the Battleship Massachusetts in 1970.

But even by then there were stirrings among hobbyists that Fletcher Pratt's rules were getting long in the tooth and alternative designs were beginning to appear. Naturally the area where Pratt's rules were most lacking was dealing with naval developments since World War II.

So Larry Bond's Harpoon rules, appearing on 1980, filled a real void. While not the first modern-era naval rules to appear, Harpoon was the best, combining realism with playability and being flexible enough to evolve as naval technology continued to develop. Bond, born in 1952, was a child of the Cold War and served a tour as a surface warfare line officer aboard a destroyer. His rules are not parochial, though, and treat every dimension of naval warfare, air, surface, underwater and electronic. Bond's Harpoon rules are so comprehensive that he really has no competitor on modern topics, although he has long been moving into earlier eras as well. As a matter of fact his latest project is harmonizing his rules sets, currently divided into three eras (dreadnought, WWII and modern) into one comprehensive set covering all naval warfare since the beginning of the 20th Century -- indeed, right back to the era covered by Fred T. Jane's original rules. And so naval gaming comes full circle: Jane, Pratt, Bond and back to Jane.


  1. The same Fletcher Pratt who wrote fantastic science fiction?

  2. Yes, the same one. Evidently he and his long-time science fiction collaborator L. Sprague de Camp met through wargaming.