Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Victory at Sea session -- 1940 battlecruiser clash

The first encounter of battlewagons in World War II came on April 9, 1940, during the initial stages of the Norway campaign. Shortly before 4 a.m. the HMS Renown (6x 15-inch guns) ran into the German Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, (9 x 11-inch guns each) in bad weather off the Norwegian coast.

This encounter is one of the given scenarios in Mongoose Publishing's Victory at Sea simple naval miniatures battle rules. With just three ships it seemed like a good introduction to the game to bring to the local game shop, where Game Store Tony is always willing to try out something new.

The initial setup given in the rulebook is shown below and right off the bat I saw I'd have to make at east one adjustment and rule that despite the bad weather the radar-less HMS Renown could still see the German ships at Extreme Range. I felt this change was justified by the historical fact that the Renown opened the action by firing on the Germans first and by the game consideration that strictly following the rule would make the scenario unplayable as the British ship would never be able to fire if the Germans followed a strategy of running away.

With that change, we started playing. I took the HMS Renown while Game Store Tony commanded the Gneisenau and another store denizen took the Scharnhorst. One reason why Game Store Tony is always a tough opponent is that he has a very commendable focus of the victory Conditions. While many players would be sore tempted to turn the two German capital ships towards the Renown and force a showdown, Tony noted that he could also win by withdrawing off the left map edge. He, as squadron commander, ordered that both ships should turn hard port and make for the board edge and stuck to that plan despite events that might have shaken the resolve of others.
The course of the battle therefore followed a more or less historical result. The leading Scharnhorst turned to port and made a beeline for the edge, using Flank Speed often, unmolested by the Renown. The Scharnhorst's return fire was negligible. The Flank Speed threw off its aim and it had just one turret to bear and so hits were few and those few failed to penetrate the armor of the Renown. So the battle was really a duel between the Renown and the Gneisenau.
That duel for a while looked to go against the German ship. While most of the time the Renown had only four guns bearing, the range was long and bad weather all hindered the British chances of hitting, those 15-inch shells that did hit were quite damaging and a couple of critical hits reduced the German ship's speed dangerously. Meanwhile the German return fire was spare and did little damage when they did hit home. In total the Renown took four points of damage, or just over 10%. In contrast the Gneisenau limped off with 14 points of hull damage and 23 dead crew factors for damage levels of 40% and 33% respectively, as well as 33% off its maximum speed. But the Gneisenau did limp off the map and escape, and so the Germans won the scenario. This was mostly due to successful damage control by the Gneisenau's crew, which was able to restore enough lost sped to make it off the map before the ship took a crippling level of damage.

Everyone enjoyed the scenario and it only too about an hour to play
This battle also appears as a scenario in Atlantic Navies, the Command at Sea series game from Clash of Arms and it's interesting to compare this game's more detailed treatment with the Victory at Sea scenario. Here's the initial situation according to Atlantic Navies:

The first thing to note is that the historical British force also included a bunch of destroyers. The very bad weather precluded them from taking a meaningful part in the battle, however, so ignoring them seems to be a reasonable design decision.

On the other hand the initial configuration of the capital ship's is also radically different between the two. Given its attention to detail, Atlantic Navies seems to be the more reliable source and the initial deployment shown even matches the VaS scenario description better because it notes that "During a break in the weather, the (German) battlecruisers were sighted by HMS Renown, which closed the range and opened fire as soon as she was able." This sequence of events isn't really possible with the VaS as written while it does match the Atlantic Navies setup (which includes a rule that visibility is one table better to the East (in the direction of the German ships) which accounts for the Renown sighting the Germans first. Note also that Atlantic Navies has the two forces on reciprocal courses while the VaS scenario shows them on parallel courses.

The point of this is that scenario designers for simpler wargames have to play close attention to the scenario parameters in order to avoid the blunder where a scenario becomes unplayable as written. Whereas a detailed game like Atlantic Navies can expect that its internal procedures will account for the important factors that affected a battle and it will wpork out naturally a simpler game such as Victory at Sea doesn't have that back up. Unless a sceanrio special rule is used the British fleet can't enagge the German fleet before it escapes. In addition, the scenrio seems to have satrted the two fleets much too far apart, which again defeats the scenario's design.

While a veteran gamer can be expected to make the adjustments required, the idea of a simpler wargame is to be accessible to new and inexperienced players who may be thrown for loop when confronted by a flawed scenario, so for this reason I don't think the presentation of this scenario was successful. A btter setup would be for the two German ships to be setup reversed, heading toward sthe "bottom" of the sceanrio map and the distance between them and the Renown should be reduced to the maximum sighting range of 30 inches and should start with the British attack phase. (In other words, both sides have already moved for the turn and the British won the inititative. The Germans, being surprised, don't get a shot.). Thes mininal changes would bring the scenario closer to the actual event.

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