Friday, August 14, 2009

Atlantic Navies, an Admiralty series game

Wargames should provide entertainment and can be educational, but only a select few are so detailed that they can be used as analytical tools. Larry Bond's Admiralty series of naval wargames are among he elite of that group.

This is not too denigrate their playability, because they can be played, but they are simulations first and foremost. Little care is devoted to considerations such as play balance, clever design techniques or splashy graphics. Most procedures are straightforward and literal. Nearly every random element is reduced to some percentile dice chance of occurring and the presentation of information is functional, not pretty.

What it lacks in attractiveness, however, a Bond game more than makes up for in comprehensiveness. While pricey, with a MSRP of $125, Atlantic Navies is better compared to one of those naval data tomes you find in big city library than a typical game. The game's box art claim that it contains "the most complete and accurate information on the World War II navies of Germany, Great Britain and France to be found anywhere." I see no reason to doubt this.

One advantage of Bond's prosaic approach is that his ship data is usable with any other set of rules so long as those rules provide conversion factors.

The box contains the latest, 4th edition of the Command at Sea and four counter sheets making it completely playable even if it's your initial purchase int he game system. The counter sheets contain enough ships to depict nearly the entire OB of the French, Commonwealth and German navies in game form. In addition there's the US Navy fleet that invaded Casablanca and the Italian fleet that fought at Sparviento, as well as a couple of Norwegian gunboats, so there are ship counters provided to play nearly every scenario provided, with the odd oversight of a handful of Siamese naval vessels. Besides the large ship counters there are aircraft counters provided for the French and British, with a few American and Germans planes as well. These are necessarily not a comprehensive selection but seemed designed to allow enough aircraft to play most of the provided scenarios.

The British have appeared several times before in the series (this is Vol. VII). so the 110-page "Home Fleet" book is mostly a chance to consolidate all the British data in one place and update it with the latest research. Except for a one-page sidebar summary of the Royal Navy in World War II, the whole book is made up of data annexes.

The second book in the set is called "Gruppe Nord" and it's an excellent 124-page single reference for the German Navy in World War II. It includes, of course, the expected data annexes, but the small German Navy isn't even close to filling the book so there's all sorts of other good stuff in there. There are four informative sidebars, but the majority of the book is made up of scenarios. The scenarios include all the well-know battles, such as the River Plate, the Bismarck saga, the Norwegian campaign and the Battle of North Cape. But it also includes a number of lesser-know battles including raiders vs. armed merchant cruisers and a night action of light forces.

The final book, La Guerre Navale, covers the ill-starred French Navy. While large and capable, the French Navy could do little to stave off national defeat in the mostly land war against Germany and the fleet's main use was to win better surrender terms than France's utter defeat would have otherwise warranted. The Germans had an incentive to keep the French navy out of British hands, which unduly harsh peace terms might have provoked.

So the French Navy spent most of the war on the sidelines. Indeed, its three biggest naval battles involved fighting against its former Allies and its own countrymen.

There was the tragic Operation Catapult, where the British fleet attacked the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir with heavy loss of French life and the equally tragic battle of Dakar where the Vichy French fought off a landing by Free French troops and their British support. Somewhat less tragic, but still unfortunate was the Vichy resistance at Casablanca against he US Navy, which also resulted in significant casualties to both sides. All three are scenarios here.

Happier scenarios consider several what-if options involving the French fighting on in the Allied service and making an appearance at North Cape or Sparviento instead of the British as well as several other what-ifs. One truly obscure scenario depicts the French navy's most unambiguous victory of World War II as a small French squadron wiped out the Siamese navy at Koh-Chang.

Still, coming up with plausible scenarios for the French navy in World War II isn't easy and the balance of the book is made of no less than 8 sidebars about various aspects of the French navy's war, including it's sad end at Toulon with most of the fleet scuttled.

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