Sunday, January 24, 2010

Battle Report: The Battle of Phung-Chen, 1904

"Samovar ships are missing, Your Excellency!"

"God Preserve the Tsar!"
(...because the Navy can't.)

We had our first Russo-Japanese naval wargame today, and it ended with the Russian Fleet in tatters, howls of dismay from St. Petersburg, and disaffected Russian sailors plotting revolution and the creation of a Socialist Utopia.  Meanwhile, Japanese officers and men busy themselves deciding which particular cask of fine sake or shochu to imbibe in celebration.

The rules played reasonably quickly once everyone had a few turns experience under their belts (and once everyone could be kept sitting around the table and concentrating on the game without getting too distracted with hobby talk; this was the first time I had run a game for nigh on for 20 years now, and I had forgotten just how much it can be like herding cats at times!).

This was the first time anyone (including myself) had tried the rules, but overall I think they worked quite well, and it certainly had the feel of a fleet action.  We were using a simple set of naval rules for the Russo-Japanese War by Mike Adams that are available freely for downloading here.  These are based on DBA, and are a modification of a similar set of rules that appeared in an old article in Wargames Illustrated.

These are not for single-ship, Hood vs. Bismarck-like  duels.  They were designed for manoeuvring squadrons and fleets rather than concentrating on individual ships, so battleships are just that- battleships, and ships are classified into generic types rather than being given any individual specific characteristics. 

The scenario had called for four separate squadrons coming in from converging points of the compass,  but due to the shape of the piece of blue cloth I was using for a playing surface, we ended up having to play using a long- but far too narrow- table.  Given that the gunnery ranges were up to a max of 24", this had ships blazing away at each other by turn two.

To cut a long story short (and saving the Russian command from too much undue embarrassment), the Japanese battleship squadron managed- less by design and more as a result of serendipity, what with the table being too narrow- to end up  bisecting the table and crossing the "T" of both the Russian Pacific squadron coming at them on their port side,  and the armoured cruisers of the Vladivostok squadron heading directly to meet it coming in from the starboard side!  Talk about a target-rich environment.

The game went very much in favour of the Japanese right from the beginning, with the Pacific squadron's flagship- the Petropavlovsk under Makaroff- being blown to fragments, taking it's admiral down with it (-1 to all CP rolls).  Tough cookies, made all that much tougher when the next ship taken out happened to be the Peresviet- the 2inC's ship, imposing a further CP penalty on the entire squadron.  Ouch.

The game effectively came to an end when a shell from the Hatsuse managed to detonate the Czarevitch's magazine.  "Blowed up reeel good!", which meant that the Pacific squadron- having now lost more than 25% of its battleships- was sent scurrying back to Port Arthur.  In doing so, it left the Vladivostok squadron to the tender mercies of the Japanese main battle line in front of it, as well as to Kamimura's force of modern armoured cruisers and obsolete battleships to the rear, following hard on the Russian cruisers' heels.

Banzai! Russian armoured cruiser sandwich as a snack to go with our sake tonight, boys!

The crowning insult was when a 12" shell plunged into the innards of the protected cruiser Bogatyr, which was bringing up the rear of the Vladivostok Squadron.  No more Bogatyr.  Credit for this sinking went to, of all things, the Chin Yen.  This was an obsolete battleship- a war prize taken by the Japanese from the Chinese the previous century- with pitiful guns and woeful speed. Oh, the shame...

The only Japanese losses were a destroyer and the light cruiser Niitaka, which were scouting for the Japanese main battle line and took a pummelling from the Pacific Squadron's guns for their pains.


I think this is a period and a set of rules we will come back to, as it was easy to pick up, doesn't bog down in too much detail when using a lot of ships,  and we were able to reach a conclusion in three hours (it would have been much less if we had been familiar with the rules).

With hindsight the scenario was too ambitious; I should have set up two separate games or made do with fewer ships per command, but towards the end of the game everyone seemed to have gotten the hang of the rules and things were moving pretty smoothly.  But it definitely should have been played on a wider table.  That, or I should have or reduced gun range and movement  accordingly, but to me, that would have been a less attractive option.

One of the good things about the rules was, I felt, the generic treatment of ship classes.  This meant that players unfamiliar with the period and ships didn't have to be frustrated with or worry about the strengths and weaknesses of individual vessels in their fleet.

Again, the focus is on commanding fleets and squadrons; maintaining fleet/squadron integrity,  using small vessels to scout out the enemy or to screen the battle line, and to concentrate on manoeuvring your ships into position where they can deliver the most effective fire.   And all the while trying to minimize the risk of receiving any overwhelming return fire from the enemy fleet.  All this is what admirals and flag officers are supposed to do.

The rules do provide some variation between opposing fleets; there are modifications for training, seaworthiness, and leadership.  The only one we used was the +1 combat factor for Japanese superior fire control.  That proved pretty brutal, and I am glad I didn't penalize the Russians with a minus factor for leadership or inferior coal, as that would have been a real rout.  Next time the Japanese don't get so many ships, or else they have been at sea on blockade duty too long so as their speed is penalized due to fouling of the hulls.

Destroyers were pretty ineffective- true historically too- but I realized that they could be very useful when ships are immobilized.  As they alone get a +2 CF  against stationary targets, they could be very effective at taking out cripples while the main battle fleet engages new targets.  We didn't have so many Dead-in-the-Waters though. Those critical hits that did take place were mostly the dreaded double sixes- exploding magazines!

Some suggested alterations to the rules;

1)  We were a little confused as to how destroyers were meant to be handled.  According to the rules, destroyers are defined as "a collection of small torpedo-armed vessels".  We were using four or five boats to a stand rather than individually basing these very small models, as was the intention of the original rules published in WI.

This worked fine on the tabletop, but does a flotilla count it's CF of 1 as a flotilla, or as each individual boat in the flotilla?  We decided that a flotilla would attack with a CF of 1 per vessel to a max of CF 4, and that each time a destroyer was sent to the bottom- they are considered sunk upon receiving any critical hit- the attack strength would be reduced by a -1 accordingly.  We really didn't have much opportunity to test this out, but we'll give it a try next time.
2)  It was agreed that there should have been some kind of modifier for target size.  Battleships were just having much too much damn fun!

Lighter, faster-moving targets are generally more agile and harder to hit.  So in cases when larger ships are firing at vessels which are of a lower rank in the pecking order, I would propose a -1 modifier for every step difference between vessel category when firing at medium or long range.

So for example, if a battleship is firing on an armoured cruiser at medium range, it would receive a firing modifier of -1 as an AC is one step down from a BB.  If the same battleship was to engage a light cruiser at the same distance,  it would then receive a -2 modifier, and so on.

Note that this wouldn't apply to engagements at short range.  Nor would it apply to secondary batteries engaging light cruisers and torpedo vessels, as these would be quick-firing guns able to range in on a target and reload relatively quickly. 


    All in all it was a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to another game some time in the future. This time with minefields!  And I promise to get all the names put on the ship bases!

    Do you have any pics, Giovanni?


    PS- Wouldn't it be great if we could do a game like this on board the Mikasa one day?


    1. Great battle report! Although I prefer my ships to be of the vacuum sailing breed it's basically all the same and I really do love naval battles.

    2. It was a fun meeting!
      I apologize for passing command of the Vladivostok command to Giovanni but I had to leave earlier that day, because I had promised my wife a nice dinner at Tonino.
      In a minor comment, the DBN rules dont represent very good the effects of crossing the T. I had crossed the T of the Kamimuras squadron and was firing with 4 Armored cruiser against a single Japanese cruiser. The effect was merely 3 hits that were easily repaired to the cost of initiative points by the beginning of the Japanese turn. In reality that kind of concentration of firepower would have crippled if not destroyed any ship.
      Is there any other rules set we could try next time?

    3. I can't recall what you and Dai may each have rolled before adding the modifiers, but I would say a lot would have depended on the dice-rolling!

      Broadsides get a +1, which adds one to the CF. I suppose it may be possible to add +2 if it is a broadside at close range, but that would make the Japanese Navy as lethal on the table as Starfleet command.

      It is important to bear in mind that in the days before radar, guns were sighted individually on target through the smoke and shell splashes. Gunnery really wasn't overwhelmingly accurate, and shouldn't be overly devasting for the most part.

      As you may well know, it was lessons learned during the R-J War that led to the developments that DID make gunnery all that more effective- all big-gun armament, centralized fire control, etc.

      Crossing the enemy's "T" means that you have imposed your will on your opponent, and have forced him to react and lose the tactical initiative. It doesn't necessarily mean a whole fleet of sunken ships.

      Regarding hits; they do disappear automatically at the end of the turn, yes. But ships cannot fire that turn unless they expend a CP pip. Criticals on the other hand always require a CP pip to repair.

      Any of those hits could have been converted to a critical depending on the dice rolling. But that is the element of chance. And the effect of any critical can be nasty when you want to carry out a complex maneuver, repair damage to a couple of ships, and realize you have just rolled a "1" for your CP! Once squadrons start to fall apart due to damage and CP's are in short supply- as Brian's Russians were finding- then it gets difficult enough.

      I've tried a good number of R-J naval rules over the years, and I have to say that I find this set is one of the better ones I've tried. I have a some other sets at home, but many of these aren't necessarily designed for larger fleet actions.

      I have one set which I quite like, and which goes into a lot of detail. But it is best played with fewer ships, and I fear it would really bog down when played by a lot of people unfamiliar with the rules, and it would have taken a lot of time to resolve combat- time we don't often have.

      Another set is a variation on the same basic DBA system. It goes into more detail but again at the expense of simplicity. I'd be inclined not to use it untested with a group as large as ours was on Saturday.

      Anyway, I believe any set of playable rules makes some compromises and results in some anomolies. But I'd be inclined to give these another try, maybe tweaking some things here and there- and seeing what everyone else thinks- before just switching rules and having us all go back to the bottom of the learning curve.

    4. The way the broadsides are treated is exactly my point. In pre-dreadnought era ships, very few big guns were mounted on turrets, while most of the firing power was distributed on the broadside. Now, if you cross the T of a formation it means that the leading ship of the opponent has only his frontal turret to defend while its been exposed to the broadsides of all attacking ships. In the current set of rules, only one ships rolls a dice while the rest of the fleet is added as a +1 modifier and in addition to that, you are only permitted to have only 2 ships as supporting although you have all your fleets broadsides in range. Now if all ships are of the same class, lets say armored Cruisers for example, then the attacker has only a total +3 advantage against the defender (+1 for broadside and +2 from the supporting fleet). If you roll a 2 and the defender rolls a 5 means that the whole fleets broadside attack missed and the defender punched a hole through the attackers T with the frontal turret guns only!
      A perfect example of what happens if someone crosses the T of the enemy can be seen in the Battle of Jutland. The British squadron of battleships crossed the T of the Germans causing crippling damage to the lead ship of the German line SMS Koning and forcing the Germans to retreat in order not to be obliterated by overwhelming gun power. Koning was able to escape too with heavy damage, but she had to be brought in a dry-dock for 2 months to be repaired before she saw action again.
      In the DBN rules if you dont move that ship all that damage would disappear automatically by next round.

    5. I kind of see your point but you are talking about warships that where at least 40 years youger than the R-J war vessels. And hey at the end of the day I think the rules are just the means through which you play with toy soldiers! I'd rather play a video game or command a ship if I wanted mor realism!!

      I think for the time being we could play with these rules and with these models that to be honest are truning me on pretty much!

      I think that perhaps, we can try different games in different periods anyway.

      I guess you are comparing A&A to DBN too much as tehy are completely different games. I think A&A is a quite good eventhough sometimes it is very abstract, and has a lot of special rules and variants, when DBN is a bit more realistic and has less special rules, so you can pretty much control the game while you play.

      Also I think DBN is more suited for scenario play, where combat might not be the main objective of the game.

      Anyway next month we can still talk and see what we like best.

      When I will have managed to ge the room I will let you guys know.

      By the way I discovered that if we register as a group we might have some advantages from teh city council, I will try to get more details soon.



    6. By all means, my argument didn't start in order to compare A&A with DBN and I hope thats not the impression I am giving.
      These are 2 different games, representing 2 different periods of time that also have vast difference in the way Naval warfare was fought.

      In fact I actually enjoined the way DBN rules worked to represent naval maneuvering of fleets arranged in squadrons.

      My only problem is that I dont like the auto-repair part of the rules, because I find it totally unrealistic and because it also drags a game too long.

      Ideally, if there was a set of rules that provides the moving flexibility of DBN but is a bit more strict in the way hits are dealt and damage is repaired, I would probably be a passionate supporter of them.Thats why I was asking Robert if there is a different set of rules we could follow.

      The panzershiffe models looked great for their scale and I have to admit I was even tempted to buy a set of WWI dreadnoughts and start working on a project of simulating the battle of Jutland. :)

      (What actually caught my eye in their home page was their own set of rules and thats something I want to take a better look in the near future.)

      Unfortunately that will have to wait till spring at least because now simply I dont have the time to start painting and basing ships.

      Changing the subject a bit now,
      Like I said at your house too, we will probably be able to use one of the lounges in my Lab at the University. No one uses them over the weekend and theres hardly anyone around we would annoy nor time till we are able to use them. We could practically stay over there all night and sleep on the sofas.
      I ll take pics of the space I am talking about and send them to you by mail.

    7. Wait... the Russians lost? :-)