Friday, 31 May 2013

Naval Thunder: Battleship Row (first impressions)

I've not done an awful lot of WW2 naval wargaming, and all of it has been using Mongoose's Victory At Sea to date. I stopped because there was something about VaS that was not quite 'right'. The last game I played was with the Hove Area Wargames Society, where we tried to use it to game a convoy scenario. After that we abandoned it.

I've been keeping an eye open for a successor system and have been reading General Quarters, but more recently downloaded a copy of Naval Thunder - Battleship Row (NTBR) from Wargames Vault. I've not had a chance to play it yet, so this really should be taken as purely first impressions on my part although I will be aiming to have a walkthrough of the Komandorski Islands scenario to familiarise myself with the system.

NTBR is designed for any scale of ships. It covers only the Japanese and US fleets in the Pacific. You will need its expansion, Bitter Rivals, if you want to game the conflict in the North Atlantic / Mediterranean, or indeed bring the Royal Navy into the Asian theatre of operations. The files include a PDF of what looks like all the major and most of the minor ship classes of both the USN and IJN in the Pacific. You will need to print out the data cards for all the ships in a scenario if you wish to play it - these are essential reference points during a game, particularly in terms of tracking firepower / torpedoes as well as damage to vessels.

I've been reading the rules on the train, and my first impressions can be summarised as follows:

Movement is relatively simple. It probably becomes more complex as ships start taking damage. Where granularity occurs in the game, it comes in the damage effects. You don't just knock damage points off ships - you also do a fair amount of detailed damage in the form of fires, listing, etc. I expect that this applies more to bigger vessels which can still operate after multiple hits - i.e. light cruisers and up - while destroyers will take one or two hits in this game and go down. Hence, most of the markers you might use in this game relate to damage effects.

Air and submarine combat is heavily abstracted. You don't even require submarine or aircraft miniatures, which is great. I felt the use of submarines in VaS simply didn't work and felt very unrealistic. Historically, there were few instances of slow-moving WW2 subs playing a role during fleet actions. NTBR abstracts submarines to attack rolls made before and after battles (the latter of more significance in campaigns). The silent service is very much on the sidelines in this game, which really focuses heavily on the capital ships.

Despite their increasing importance in WW2, aircraft are also abstracted. Flights of planes are simulated with dice pools used to attack other ships. There is no need to use aircraft miniatures. I like this. In addition, carriers, while being part of a fleet list, don't even necessarily need to be on the table. They can function like an off-table battery of artillery in a land battle, but it looks as if they will not be able to use their planes as effectively this way. We'll see how this works in practice.

There are quite a few modifiers involved in gunnery combat. I'm cautious about this, as I find too many modifiers can bog a game down. There are about a dozen + / - factors to take into consideration with gunnery in the basic game. On the upside, torpedoes are fairly straightforwards and there is an interesting mechanic that lets the player digest a whole spread or torpedoes into a couple of dice rolls.

Commanders can lose their bottle. I have found that in 20th century naval wargames, including many hours spent playing 2nd Fleet with my brother in the early 1990s, ship commanders will battle on religiously until they go down. Obviously, in a NATO scenario like that of 2nd Fleet, there is not much time that elapses between first radar contact and an ASM blowing a huge hole in the side of your vessel (e.g. HMS Sheffield in 1982), but what of WW2? In the age of sail, captains could and did surrender, striking their colours, and we've seen this numerous times when playing the likes of Fire As She Bears or Trafalgar. NTBR does include provision for a captain to lose his bottle and seek to save his ship. There is less likelihood of this if he is in line and / or in command range of his flagship. But there is still scope for a commander to break off an action. Think here of Hans Langsdorff breaking off the action at the River Plate and seeking refuge in a neutral port. It seems more realistic somehow for a captain to decide to try to save his ship rather than go down fighting, although I accept this happened a lot.

The above are really just my first impressions, and I'll have a better grasp of the game once I get some of my ships out on the table (or the floor) and start rolling some dice.

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