RogerBW's Blog

Fire on the Waters 10 February 2014

I've been looking around for a WWII naval combat system that felt right to me, and I think I've found it.

I started seriously looking at naval wargame systems a little over three years ago, when for reasons related to my Second World War role-playing campaign I found an urge to refight the naval battle off Malaya with slight variations: for reasons related to player character activity, HMS Hood had survived her duel with Bismarck, and (according to the historical plan) would be present to lend assistance. I didn't expect this to make a huge difference, but wanted to know how much. Further, Force Z would encounter the Japanese naval forces protecting the invasion fleet before they were found by air attack.

This is a medium to large battle (seven ships on one side, 37 on the other, though the latter come in piecemeal and many of them are quite small), and the first system that came to hand was Mongoose's Victory at Sea (based on the system first published in A Call to Arms, a Babylon 5 starship combat game). It got the job done, but felt unsatisfying; the level of detail was too low. Only one hit in twelve will do anything more than "hit point" damage; those critical hits are usually fairly major, but while one's waiting for them there's just a long slow decay of points without any real feel for what's going on. Well, Victory at Sea is often regard as a "gateway game" to get SF wargamers interested in the historical stuff.

I've heard good things about General Quarters and Seekrieg 5, but lots of money is involved in getting hold of them. Seekrieg 4 is free, but again uses abstract damage boxes, and its presentation (PDFs of images of typewritten pages) is offputting.

I'd been thinking about writing a system of my own, but the amount of necessary research was putting me off.

When searching for free wargames rules (partly, I admit, in the hope of finding some game mechanics I could pinch for Tin Soldier), I came across Fire on the Waters. I can't see any sign of activity since 2012, and most of the material is rather older, but everything's still available: rules, ship records, and lots of scenarios.

There's no provision for submarines (something this game shares with Victory at Sea), and air power is dealt with in the supplemental game Fire from the Skies. That's mostly played at 40x the scale in a slightly more abstract style, but the rules can be used to add air attacks on ships to the base game.

I've now had a chance to play out a basic scenario (the Battle of the River Plate) and I rather like it. The rules are often unclearly written, and I'll probably put together an edition of my own simply to keep things unambiguous, but in play the game feels sensible and enjoyable. Movement is plotted and simultaneous; gunfire is resolved in multiple stages, which allows for some key modifiers missing in other games I've played. It's not just the effects of turning on one's ability to shoot accurately, which Victory at Sea simply ignores; it's things like a penalty for each different sort of gun, or each extra ship, firing at a single target, because having multiple shells hitting the water at the same time makes it harder to work out which are your own and thus how the shot should be corrected.

The gunfire phase is easy enough mechanically, though. Pick your ship's target and roll a single d10 to see whether the salvo is more or less in the right place. (Just one roll for all guns from a single ship, though the target number varies with gun size and range.) If you pass that, start adding up modifiers for gun type, speed, turning, and so on, ending up with a single attack value for each set of guns (usually one per ship). Cross-reference with number of mounts and roll a percentile die, and you've got the number of hits. Then there's more die rolling to determine hit location for each shell, which sets the amount of armour it's got to get through to do damage. Yes, each ship has its own hit location table! The ship records take up about a page each, which seems fair enough at this level of detail. The custom hit location table is one of the things I was planning to do with my own hypothetical game, so it was encouraging to see it already done for me here.

The damaged location usually has a direct and immediate effect: a magazine may catch fire, hits to boilers and engine rooms reduce the ship's speed, as do flooded areas, and so on. This is the thing I particularly like: nothing merely crosses off abstract hit points. Flotation points come closest, and they're lost as a result of specific named compartments being flooded. Every time a shell hits, you can say where on the ship it did hit and what effect it had. For some games that'll be too much detail; to my simulationist mind it's rather pleasing.

Yes, I suppose there's a lot of luck, but with enough die rolling the probabilities should eventually even out. I'm not entirely happy with my understanding of the torpedo rules yet (one of the files suggests moving an actual torpedo counter towards the target, while another has an intriguing zone-based mechanic) but as a gunfire game it's been reasonably quick to play and good fun. I will definitely be giving this game further attention. I'm not sure that that Force Z scenario would be sensible for this level of complexity, though.

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