RogerBW's Blog

Shipwreck! First Look 13 January 2015

"Modern" (i.e. post-WWII) naval warfare is surprisingly underserved by the wargaming community. There's Harpoon, of course, which I know and love, but it's a bit heavy on detail for many people. Shipwreck!, written by Martin Bourne and published in 1999 by Vandering Publications, is the "other" game, and it takes a much lighter approach.

Bourne's central contention is that modern weapon systems are nothing like as capable as other rules depict them: information comes from their manufacturers, who obviously want to talk them up, from naval lobbyists, who want them paid for, or from naval lobbyists on the other side, who want to talk up the enemy in order to justify their own budgets. Meanwhile, very few modern naval weapons have actually been fired under anything like battlefield conditions. When one looks at the extent to which, for example, high-altitude missile defence systems have utterly failed to perform even in carefully rigged demonstrations, a certain scepticism is understandable.

A horizontal space scale of about one inch to a nautical mile (roughly 1:73000) is recommended, though given that fleets are supposed to start at least 80 miles apart this may need to be compressed further on standard British tables. In vertical space, aircraft are sea-skimming, low or high; submarines are surfaced (rare), shallow, above thermocline or (if a layer is available) below thermocline.

There are two time scales: the Manoeuvre turn of about ten minutes, in which only ships, submarines and helicopters move, and the Combat turn of about one or two minutes in which only fixed-wing aircraft and missiles move. The maximum range of weapons is specified as a band: for example, a Medium range weapon can hit anything out to 25 nautical miles, while a Short range weapon can reach out to 12.

In each Manoeuvre turn, players move ships (simultaneously), attempt to detect each other's ships, and play out a series of Combat turns if any attacks are made.

All ships have basically the same speed, and on the ten-minute scale they can move essentially wherever they like in a three-nautical-mile circle. Once an enemy has been detected, they may put on full speed and move in a five-nautical-mile circle. Helicopters move up to twenty nautical miles (in theory they have limited endurance but no figures are given).

Detection is appropriately simple: each ship or helicopter that's in range of a target may attempt to detect it. Range is medium for ship-to-ship, long if non-sea-skimming aircraft are involved, one range band more for passive detection, one or two range bands more for specialised reconnaissance aircraft. There's normally a 90% chance of detection, reduced for small targets, electronic warfare, passive detection, damage, and so on. (Everything in this game runs off rolls of a single d10 at a time, with a 0 always representing failure.)

Air movement in Combat turns is abstracted: each aircraft or missile has a target, and moves one range band closer (or, for aircraft that have attacked, further away) per combat turn (meaning that it effectively slows down as it approaches). It's still plotted on the map, though, and other units in its path can engage it.

SAMs and guns engage incoming missiles, though there's a penalty to hit if multiple systems fire at the same target ("the desire to conserve ammunition"). They're rated by anti-air factor and maximum range; a roll of two less than the AA factor destroys the attacker, but a lesser success just drives it off (for a human pilot) or has no effect (for a missile). Chaff fire (generically including IR decoys) can draw a missile into the sea, or potentially to another ship, and finally the ship's EW rating (which includes consideration of size) is subtracted from the missile's chance to hit.

Gun combat is also catered for, simply with a range and an attack strength. A damage chart cross-references missile or gun size with the target's tonnage, and gives a series of numbers: for example, a Light missile against a 1000-2600-ton ship will do light damage on a 9-, heavy on 6-, crippling on 4- or sink on 1-. (Some weapons modify this, and so do some ships.) All ships have four damage boxes: Light, Light, Heavy, Crippled, and one always has to be ticked off, so a third Light damage result will count as Heavy and a fourth will Cripple.

A Lightly damaged ship loses a weapon (chosen at random) and finds it harder to detect targets. A Heavily damaged ship also loses all sensors, and comes to a stop; it cannot fire at targets beyond Short range, but it may eventually recover some capability. A Crippled ship cannot do anything, but may eventually be able to move at quarter speed, or may simply sink.

Of course submarines are dealt with. They don't have models on the table at first; rather they have assigned targets, in the manner of aircraft, and on each turn attempt to close in by one range band. Ships' and helicopters' sonar ratings allow them to try to detect submarines; all ships in a squadron add their ratings together to determine a detection total, though this is sharply reduced beyond Short range. There's no treatment of convergence zones. If it's detected, a submarine's player throws Avoidance Dice: if that fails, the submarine is placed on the table. However, it's not yet subject to attack; the sonar contact must be localised, with a slightly different mechanic but still with Avoidance Dice to counter it, and once that's done it can be shot at.

As with surface ships, submarines have to detect their targets in order to attack them. Making any attack puts the submarine on the table, though not necessarily localised. Torpedoes are resolved on the next Manoeuvre turn.

That's pretty much it, with a few special rules for abstracted CAP aircraft and attacks on land targets. There's only one scenario supplied, "Two for Tea", which pits an American Ticonderoga CGN and Coontz (Farragut) DD against a Soviet Slava CG and Sovremennyy DD. This scenario is worked through in some detail as an example of play.

Gamers may be surprised that those four ships are the only ones for which stats are supplied in the book. However, there are free ship record PDFs available from the publisher that cover US, Soviet and British ships, and working up stats for others shouldn't be too hard given access to Wikipedia. Appendices have a fairly thorough list of missile and gun systems, aircraft and submarines. Generally stats consist of two or three numbers, plus keywords for special cases (e.g. "vulnerable to EW" or "pop-up").

The sole published supplement to Shipwreck! is Freeplay '88 (2000), largely a set of scenarios. Rather than trying to simulate a war out of the author's imagination, these are based on the Teamwork '88 NATO naval exercises. There are nine scenarios, of varying complexity from an air attack on a surface group to a full-on surface battle with fifteen ships on one side, eleven on the other, and off-board air strikes to be called in.

More interesting to me is the ability to use the forces given in a campaign game, using a strategic map with fifty-mile hexes and three-hour turns, dropping to the tactical table and manoeuvre turns when units detect each other and are close enough to fight.

In summary, Shipwreck! is a fast and playable approximation where Harpoon tries to be a detailed simulation. It can cope with larger battles than would be realistically playable under Harpoon, and while it's not entirely free of fiddly bits it certainly goes to some lengths to be streamlined, as well as optimised for tabletop non-refereed play (the submarine rules in particular seem likely to work very well without a ref). It's more complex than something like Full Thrust, but not hugely so, and of course there's no ship design system to be exploited.

I intend to use it where I want to game out larger battles than Harpoon is comfortable with, and when I get gamers over to play in person.

It's not clear what the current status of this game may be: several web sites for the publisher have vanished off the net. Hardcopy is still available though eBay, for the rules and Freeplay '88. (These links change from week to week, but you should be able to find the current one.) Ship cards and errata are downloadable free via BoardGameGeek.

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