Monday, August 14, 2023

Wargame Design: Thinking about Naval and Space


As many of you know, I actually "cut-my-teeth" in game design on Naval wargames.  My first big project was a wet-Navy game set in the Warhammer 40K universe.  Or course, this also evolved into other Naval-esque games like Castles in the Sky.  Therefore, I am always interested in the topic of Naval and by extension Space wargaming.  

Naval Military History has been a low-level interest of mine since college.  There I took some Naval ROTC courses on the topic, even though I was not in the ROTC.  It was strange being a civilian in that class and getting a snapshot into that world.  Talk about a fish-out-of-water!  I took these classes due to my focus on pre-WWI Diplomatic History where the Naval Arms race between the Great Powers, specifically Germany and Britain; was a key part.  Therefore I needed to understand that aspect better. 

Of course, Naval Military History goes back a long ways, all the way back to some of the first recorded battles between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples.  Like all warfare, it has gone through a number of evolutions and the strategies, tactics, and key elements over the centuries.  It is closely tied to its own hostile environment.  Changes in technology often drive these changes in Naval Military Strategy.  In addition, "Modern" Naval Military History also takes action in the air, below the surface, and even in space!  Therefore, it is even more complex the closer you get to modern times.   

Aquanautica Imperialis

The Challenge of Naval Games
Naval wargames (and their close cousin Space wargaming) have a unique place amongst wargames.  Unlike Land-based games, Naval wargames operate in a relatively "static" landscape and one that is naturally hostile to human life.  In addition, they are heavily dominated by the technology humans need to survive in these environments.  If this technology is lost, the humans involved in the activity are lost.  I.e. if your ship is lost.... you likely die! 

Where Are All the Battles At? 
One of the major challenges in this genre is that there is a lot less action in this space!  There are literally hundreds and thousands of land-based battles.  Many of them are rather well-documented.  However, the same can not be said of Naval games.  There is a much smaller number of Naval engagements we can look to for guidance.  

The main driver of this "lack of action" is simple.  Ships cost a lot and are not easy to build.  Therefore, the loss of these resources is a big challenge to replace.  The easier it is to replace them, the more likely to have conflicts between them.  As and example, in the Greek period the Trireme was difficult to build but we read about huge fleets being built within 6 months to a year.  In this period there are also frequent battles at sea.  On the other side, WWI Dreadnoughts were a huge challenge to build and there was only really one major engagement between Dreadnoughts in WWI.    

Therefore, as a Naval Wargame Designer you have to work much more with "Theory" and less with actual historical examples.  If we look to Space combat, this problem is exponentially harder!  Designers are forced to think about how things are supposed to work, or might work, or theoretically work instead of seeing how they actually worked in combat.  

Trireme vs Trireme Ancient Naval

Re-fighting World War Two
The challenge of Naval Wargaming outlined above is why we keep re-fighting World War II especially the Pacific.  To put it simply, that is where the action is!  The Battle of Tsushima Straits 1905 through to Battle of Cape Engano in 1944 is where we see well-documented battles, and even here the number of engagements is rather limited.  However, it is the most encounters we have details about.  Therefore, it makes sense that this is the dominant space for Naval wargaming.  

In addition, these WWII re-fights have led to how we think about "Space" combat as well.  Space combat frequently has all the hallmarks of WWII combat such as the same ship classes, similar tactics, and fleet organization.  Much of our space combat games are just re-fighting WWII Naval except using different minis.  

Few Naval Powers 
Historically speaking, there were not a lot of nations that have the resources to build Naval vessels and therefore that limits the pool of adversaries you can pull from.  You rarely get a situation where an alliance of different nations using a variety of ship assets engage an opposed alliance.  Perhaps during the Age of Sail or the Ancient Greeks is the closest thing we see anything like that.  Typically, it is one dominant power versus a much weaker power, and that makes for uninteresting and not engaging games.

Let's think about trying to build a Modern Naval game for a moment.  You have a handful of nations with active and meaningful Naval warfare capabilities; the United States, Japan, the UK, France, and China.  There are others with varying degrees of Naval power but those are the "biggest" players.  4 out of 5 of those are in an alliance and very unlikely to "engage" with each other.  Our most recent Naval engagements are Asymmetrical in nature and Asymetrical games are even harder to pull-off than even engagements.

A similar state of affairs applies as you look back into history as well.  I am sure there are great games that can be played regarding a British ship or two bombarding and silencing some forts along the North African coast.  I am not sure that game needs to be a miniature based wargame.  

The Problem of Scale      
Finally, when dealing with Naval (and even more so Space) there is a problem of scale.  A ships guns in the "modern" period since 1905 can reach across the table.  A ship's speed is much slower.  Therefore, Maneuver is limited at the scales available on a tabletop.  If you closely follow the details, ships might move 2 spaces, while their guns can cross the table!  Therefore, there is no maneuver, just rolling shooting and checking for damage.  To me that is a very boring game with no tactics, and I know that is not the case for actual Naval theory and strategy.  The scale of the games, the size of the minis, and the relationship to the area of the battle is challenging for tabletop gaming. 

Sci-fi Submarines in Battle for the Depths

Fix These Issues!
You can see that creating a tabletop miniature wargame in the Naval realm is a pretty big challenge.  There are a lot of reasons why this is a tough niche to fill.  Therefore, it requires a game designer to think about how they want to approach the Naval (and Space) wargaming space. As we look ahead, let's take a look at how others have resolved these issues and how I have been thinking about it as well. 

Historical Battles and the Designer's Triangle
You may recall the concept of the Designer's Triangle.  Basically, the triangle has three sides, with Narrative, Simulationist, and Gamist on each corner.  The closer you get to one corner, the further away you move from the other two.  

The lack of Historical Battles in naval wargames is really only a problem if your game leans into the Simulationist side of the triangle.  In such a situation, you are focusing more on (re)creating reality and leaning into what actually happened in past battles is helpful.  However, there are two other sides of the triangle you could lean into as well where the lack of Historical battles is not a problem at all.  

A great example of this is Castles in the Sky.  There are many parts that are trying to lean into naval warfare from 1905 to 1918.  However, you may have noticed that the game is actually about flying battleships in WWI, not actual naval combat.  Therefore, the game made some deliberate choices to lean into the Gamist or Narrativist side of the triangle instead of leaning so far to the Simulationist side. 

To build a game of Naval combat, you do not need to lean into "real world" examples or even real-world Naval theory.  Your game can create its own universe and reality to play in.  

Re-Fighting WWII but with Focus! 
The first way we can avoid the traditional habit of just "re-fighting WWII" is to do it with Focus!  Instead of the traditional focus on the "big battles" you could look at a different aspect of the war.  Some classic examples are submarine warfare, convoy escorts, PT boats, mine sweeping, commerce raiding, etc.  

Here the classis example is Cruel Seas by Warlord Games.  Yes, it is set in the familiar WWII setting.  However, the focus is not in the traditional Naval sphere, but a more focused look at smaller-scale PT boats in action.  This changes the dynamics of the game a lot from the "traditional" Naval wargame.  Speed and Maneuver plays a greater role in the game.

This same concept could also apply to space.  Evil Monkeigh on the Delta Vector blog does this frequently.  What if we applied this same Focus to Space games as well?  Instead of fighter combat or the battlewagons, what if we looked at gunships in an asteroid belt?  Instead of thinking of spaceships as battleships, what if we though of them as submarines?  What if submarines acted like fighter planes?  You can still look to historical examples, but with a different focus than what one expects.  This is a great way to create a unique Hook to a game, while avoiding the trap of Innovation being Over-rated.     

Re-fighting World War II?  How about Trireme's Instead! 
Of course, instead of re-fighting WWII, you can also go out and decide to do something really different.  For example, after the Battle of Lissa in 1886, there was a debate in Naval circles about what was the most effective tactics for the near-term?  Gunnery or Ramming?  At the time, the Naval world was going through a transition between wooden ships, iron coated hulls, sails to steam engines, and other innovations.  Armor was out-pacing the ability of gunnery and it was a time of transition.  What would have happened if gunnery continued to lag?  How would the Naval world have changed?  

There are a lot of "niche" periods of Naval warfare in history you could follow or form the basis of your world.  There are also a lot of "themes" you could apply to your Naval combat, in space too.  Think of Dropfleet Commander.  This is a space game but it focuses specifically on landing troops on objectives.  Everything else is secondary.  Historically, this has been a scenario in Space Naval games but this game takes that one step closer and makes it the Hook.  

Another great example of avoiding World War II as the baseline is A Billion Suns.  Here the victory conditions of the game are completely changed so the focus is on completing contracts as a space consultant.  This is nothing like WWII!  

Black Seas from Warlord Games

A Few Good Naval Powers
As mentioned in the Historical Battles section, this only matters if you are leaning into Simulationist on the Designer's Triangle.  However, if you are leaning into Gamist or Narrativist, this doesn't matter.  You can use the tried and true method of Imagi-nations to create the factions you need for your game.  

A great example of this is Dystopian Wars.  The fleets are based on real-world alt history, but has aligned them and then expanded on them.  Add in some magi-tech with Sturginium and you have yourself a unique and interesting world for the game.  They are not constrained by the real-world history that they started with.      
Scale is What You Make It
Thankfully, scale is a tool that wargamers can play with as needed.  There are a few ways to deal with this, and all of them require you to shift the point of the Designer's Triangle you want to focus on.  

1. True Scale - This is the hardest, unless you "zoom" your game out to a higher level.  In such a situation, the tactical space might encompass the entire South China Sea, or Black Sea region.  In this situation, the ship miniatures are very small or represent a task force.  Ranges are long, and movement is limited.  Detection and targeting would be emphasized and saturation of the target.  Time could also be a key element.    

Example: Harpoon

2. Narrative Scale- This assumes the positions are "abstracted" to a large degree.  The key focus is not the actual distance between the targets, but the "relative" distances.  Range bands are critical and the miniatures themselves represent the approximate location of any given vessel.  This could allow tactical combat and Maneuver.       

Example: Dystopian Wars

3. Relative Scale- The vessels and the battlespace do not matter that much to the game play.  Bigger minis mean bigger ships, longer distance represent longer distances.  However, the actual measurements or space being covered is not relevant.  The emphasis is where the ships are in relation to each other.    

Example: Battlefleet Gothic  

4. Strategic Scale- Vessels are not concerned with relative position at all.  Instead, they are either in combat or out of combat.  Ranges do not matter.  The ships are either in engagement range or not.  Combat is highly abstracted and not tactical.    

Example: Twilight Imperium

5. Emphasis Scale- In this version, the scale also does not matter.  Instead, the distances represented are abstracted so that the designer can choose where the emphasis of the rules needs to be.  If the designer wants maneuver, than ship movement and firepower distances are set in order to allow the designer to emphasize maneuver.  If they want to focus on command and control, the the ranges and distances are focused on what the Designer wants the players to experience and the game details are tailored around those needs.  

Example: Warships: Paper Ships, Steel Resolve

Castles in the Sky

Final Thoughts
When you sit down and really think about it, there is still a lot of scope for new Naval and Space wargames on the market.  This is before you even get into becoming creative with actual mechanics to emphasize the parts of the game you want the players to focus on.  To me Naval/Space wargames are a super exciting genre that is deserving of new and continued efforts.  Therefore, I spend too much time thinking about how to approach them.  

Bonus Content
I really did not want to create a whole post for this, but I have been part of a few other games recently that I wanted to share.  

I went to a Demo at the FLGS and played Warlord Games Black Seas.  I don't think I have a good enough feel of it to give a full review.  However, I controlled a single 5th rate Frigate with one allied Frigate, and against two British Frigates.  Seemed like it covered all the bases pretty well, even if I had some abysmal rolling, leaving me entangled with my foe and getting the worst of it through most of the game. 

 The host had an impressive set of French and British ships at 1/700 scale.  They were all based, painted, and rigged.  They looked great.  However, I looked at the effort and figured it was not something I would want to do!  

I did not get a strong enough feel to know what made this different from other Age of Sail games, but it felt relatively easy to learn and fast-play.  Apart from getting entangled, there felt like maneuver was a key part of the game.  The game used d10s IIRC, and had several templates for distances and the like.  I do not recall custom dice or tools that could not be replicated simply.  The basic mechanics were easy and included critical hits and the like.  You did not mark off boxes on a sheet, but you did slide a damage marker down the side of a card.  Our little Frigates took a beating and kept going, can't imagine what the big boys could take.  I felt like you could play a 1v1 ship fight or a small fleet engagement pretty easily with no change to the rules, which is a good thing.   

 You can see my French ship entangled with a British one towards the top of the battle.  Sadly, we ran out of time and could not play through to the end conditions.  However, I was heading to my break point fast! 

Overall, I would play again.  However, I would not buy in and build ships for it.  I would gladly play if my opponent brought and provided the fleets though.  I have no interest in trying to rig up this ships, even though the end result looked stunning on the table. The mechanics seemed simple enough and maneuver seemed to play a vital role without too much bean counting.    

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  2. I'm working on a space game whose 'hook' is a simplified vector-based movement system (the ship's base is the tracker/calculator). It's been a heck of a lot of fun to work on, and I've managed to get a first playtest in!