Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Seekrieg Fourth Edition - review

This is another review in the Once and Future Rules series, of wargame rules that are out of print, but that got a lot of play at one time (at least, in the clubs and groups I played in since the early 1980s).

I should preface this review by stating that I was very much interested in Naval Wargaming from early days.  While in high school, while I was threading my way through medieval wargaming and miniatures in general (and playing lots of boardgames, of the Avalon Hill and SPI varieties), I was luck enough to have at the local library, copies of the Barry Carter, Paul Dunn, and Paul Hague books that introduced naval wargaming.  I never (back then) saw the Featherstone one.  I also was a big fan of War at Sea from Avalon Hill.  In high school, I wrote my own set of WW2 naval wargame rules based on War at Sea, and a little book on the ships of WW2 (which gave speeds and ranges), and the Hague book.  It was great fun, and we played on a ping pong table.  But, as rules go, they were awful.  And we didn't have miniatures - we used paper cutouts of photocopies of silhouettes.  But it was a start down the road of Naval Wargming.  I wrote a history of the hobby for the Old Dominion Military Society blog.

This is a review of the fourth edition of Seekrieg, which was released in 1981 (I first came to the game, and played it, in the late springtime of 1984).  Seekrieg (the original) was printed in 1975, and went through a lot of revision, very quickly, to get to 1981.  These are a set of comprehensive naval battle rules, including rules covering ships and technologies from approximately 1890 up until the end of WW2 (1945).  The game has rules covering almost all tactical operations in surface engagements for that time period, plus air operations, and strategic games (map campaigns, searching, etc).  Written by Richard Sartore and Jack Joyner, they were published by Sartore.  The game was recreated/updated in 2004, as Seekrieg 5, which is still available for purchase.  Seekrieg 4 is available, graciously, for free download (a bunch of files, as you'll appreciate from below), on the Seekrieg website.


The set of the rules that I own is the second printing, which came out in 1984.  At the time, they were released in a handsome dark blue linen covered box, with a line drawing of a battleship on the front cover, and it contained two hole punched books, and a sheaf of charts on cardstock.  The two books were (1) the rulebook, and (2) the ship data book.  The ship data book covered the ships for the period in question (1890-1945) for the world's navies, but did not cover variants or conjectured ships that were either never laid down, or never launched.  There was supposed to be a volume 2 of the ship data book, covering such alternative vessels, but to my knowledge it was never produced.

The Box, picture from Boardgame Geek

Before I get into the various subsystems of the game, let me say up front that I played a lot of Seekrieg.  Lots of surface actions, campaigns, tournaments - both as a player and as a referee.  It is a very satisfying game, for the naval gamer that thrives on detail - which is de rigueur for rulesets of the 1980s.  But, internally, the rules themselves presented a bit of a conundrum (in design philosophy), which I will cover in my remarks at the end of the review.

The many charts included in the game

Scale
1 model ship represents one actual ship (this applies to boats, submarines, ships, etc).  Aircraft are frequently marked by a single marker for a squadron of planes.   Torpedoes are marked by a single marker for a salvo.  The surface scale of the table doesn't matter, however as all ranges in the game are given in (thousands of) yards, and speeds are given in knots.  With a turn/time scale of 2 minutes to a turn, and  the suggested surface scale of 2" to 1000 yards, that means 2 knots of speed is 1/4".  So a ship moving a stately 12kts, will cover a total of 1.5" in a turn.  A speedier vessel moving at 30kts, will be moving at 3.75".  Movement measuring sticks, marked out in knots, proved invaluable.

Turn Sequence
The turn sequence for Seekrieg is very simple - all movement and firing is simultaneous.  It is suggested that the physical moving of the miniatures on the tabletop be alternated each turn, to see who goes first, but since this has (usually) only minor impact on the decisions an opponent will make that turn, it doesn't matter too much.

Movement
As mentioned above, the movement is in knots per turn.  There are rates of acceleration and deceleration given, as well as rates of turning for ships (defined below).  The speed of all vessels is listed in a ship listing in the volume of ship data.  For maneuvering, a ship is allowed to turn up to 180 degrees in a turn.  Alternatively, if a ship has slowed to 0kts, it can then move in reverse.  But when a ship is actually turning, it has it's total allowable move (for it's allowable speed for this turn) divided up into legs, that will include turns of 45 degrees.  So if a ship wants to turn a total of 90 degrees, it's move will be divided up into 3 legs.  Move one leg; turn 45 degrees; move the second leg; turn another 45 degrees; and move the third leg.  Simple, and it does not require turning gauges, etc.  On chart B there is a nice set of movement measuring sticks for the suggested scale (of 2" = 1000 yards).

Target Bearing

Spotting and line of sight
Line of sight is a simple affair of a line between the firing ship and the target ship.  If another vessel is in between the two, it only blocks if it is as large, or larger, than the target ship.  This is determined by looking at the standard measure in the game reflecting vessel size - DP.

DP stands for Damage Points, and is calculated by multiplying the basic tonnage of a vessel by 0.033.  This is the total number of Damage Points that a ship has, once those are destroyed (by gunfire or torpedoes, for instance) then the ship is destroyed (possibly sinking).

Weather
There are (based on different sea zones around the world) a set of weather tables on chart B.  These will modify the distance at which you can spot another vessel.  This is based on the DP of the target vessel, the DP of the spotting vessel and is detailed on chart C. The reason that the spotting vessel size is involved, is because it is a general indicator as to how high up above the surface of the sea the spotting control center is located - it makes a difference, when you are trying to spot an enemy vessel at the limits of the horizon (based on the curvature of the earth).  All this is reduced to a simple spotter vs. spotting table on chart C, and gives the max visibility in thousands of yards (which then translates into inches on the tabletop).

Hit Determination
Here we get to one of the more interesting sequences of Seekrieg, at least for me (since I am a surface gunnery fan of Naval Warfare - torpedoes and aircraft are fussy things, and I prefer cordite and big shells).  First, it must be determined which of the firing ships' guns may fire.  This is based on the mounting of the gun (what kind of turret, or casemate, it is mounted in) and whether or not those guns can come to bear on the target.  This is based on the real life type of turrets, and also the era they are from.  Wing turrets from WW1 (an ill-conceived design concept) are not as flexible as center line turrets from WW1 or WW2.  Arcs of fire are printed on chart J2.  There are a lot of tables in Seekrieg, a list of them is below.  In a particular game, you will not use nearly all of them, but there are some that you will consult again and again.  Chart J2 is something you will consult once or twice when you are first using a new type of vessel, and then you will remember the arc of fire for that vessel's turrets, or mark them down.

Chart H1 - basic "to hit" - for landlubbers and other sad dogs

Now that the bearing guns are known, next (from the ship details in the ship description volume) consult what type of gun it is, what type of shells can fire, what type of fire control system the firing ship has, the range, rate of fire for the type of gun, and whether or not the target is close enough to allow rapid fire.  Once you have all those details (they are presented, all together, in the ship information block), you can begin consulting the firing tables.

Chart H2 - Advanced "To Hit" - for old salts and rum cullies

There are three types of hit determination in Seekrieg.  Basic, Advanced, and Range Estimation.  The group I played with almost always (like 99%+) used the Advanced method.  This incorporated the most historical details, but assumed that things like range estimation and salvo adjustment was being done by the fire control center, and gun crews of the vessels.  Some players (notably those of the older style games like Fred Jane's rules, Seapower III, and others) liked playing with range estimation, where you actually estimated the number of inches between you and your target.  Pshah, I say.  Fine for those who like it, but not my cup of tea.

The Advanced Hit Table was chart H2.  Basic hit table is chart H1. Best to ignore it, it is for those who are weak, and do not like strong coffee.  However, for the sake of completeness, it is described here.  Range estimation, for those members of religious orders that prefer to purge the soul through pain, can be found on chart H3.

The basic (chart H1) to hit method takes into account a positive or negative value for each of seven different categories of modifiers.
  1. Target Size
  2. Bearing from Target (this is determined using the overlay on Chart F - which is a basic overlay on the target, and the bearing from your firing ship to the target will tell you which bearing you have)
  3. Fire Control System (a basic modifier based on the era of the ship)
  4. Radar Assisted Fire Control (only for certain navies, and only from 1939 on)
  5. Change of Target (if you change targets, you get a -10)
  6. Range to Target (close is good, far is bad)
  7. Speed of Target

Add up all those modifiers and you get a basic hit number.  The advanced to hit method (chart H2) works much in the same way, but there are 14 categories, and they have much more detail incorporated into them.
  1. Target Size
  2. Bearing from Target (3 categories, instead of 2)
  3. Is the Firing Ship under Fire?
  4. Over Concentration (too many similar shells from different ships on the target)
  5. Fire Control System (not only the era, but also the type of Fire Control)
  6. Radar Assisted Fire Control
  7. Range to Target
  8. Change of Target
  9. Speed of Target
  10. Spotter Aircraft (is your spotter up, and sending you targeting information?)
  11. Evasive Maneuvers
  12. Sea State (from weather)
  13. Smoke Screens
  14. Visibility (again, from weather, but also morning, evening, nighttime)
When we played, both players typically had a calculator in front of them, and would punch in the numbers from each category that applied (again, they could be positive or negative), and would result in a hit number.

We're just starting.

How many Shells
Once you have your hit number, determine how many tubes you have that are firing.  For instance, a broadside from the main guns on the Bismarck would mean that all eight of the main guns (which are 15.0"/47 guns - or in terms of Seekrieg, it is a type D1 gun) could come to bear and fire on a target.  Each gun has a rate of fire of 6 (maximum), but that will be based on range (for, you see, the game only allows you to fire as fast as your fire control teams can see the shells drop, and then adjust fire accordingly), and the max range of the big guns on the Bismarck is 39,600 yards, or a total of 79" on the tabletop.  All this information is easy to read in the ship information block, and a player would copy it all to a log sheet before a game, so all the data is in one place, and easy to look up during the game.

From the range (to see if rapid fire is allowed), and the type of gun, you have a maximum rate of fire.  Say, for the Bismarck, at a decent range of maybe 20,000 yards (well within the maximum range of the big 15" guns), we consult chart G3, and see that the maximum rate of fire is 3 (even though the guns could theoretically fire at a rate of 6 shells every 2 minutes, the range limits that to 3 shells each so that fire control could observe the fall of the shells, and adjust fire accordingly).  So, multiplying eight guns, times 3 shells, means we are determining a hit chance for a salvo of 24 shells.

Looking at chart I, we see that across the top of the chart we find a column corresponding to the hit number we calculated from chart H2 (or H1 for basic, or H3 for range estimation), and then look down the left side of the chart to find the number of shells fired.  The table only goes up to 10 shells, so we will have to consult it a number of times.  For each time consulting the chart, roll the percentile dice once, and it will tell you if (for that part of the salvo) if 1 or more shells hit the target.  At this point, we know that some shells have actually hit the target (or not).

Ship Data Block - the actual data block is at the bottom


Damage Determination
The next part of determining the hit results is in rolling to determine hit location - this is a simple percentile dice roll on chart G1.  This is based on whether or not the shot was short range (less than half maximum for the gun) or long range.  A roll will determine whether the ship was hit at the:
Deck
Sidebelt
Con
Turret
Superstructure

If the target was an aircraft carrier, then the hit locations could be:
Flight Deck
Hangar
Con
Island
Sidebelt

In both cases, there is a chance of getting a Dud (a shell that did not explode against the target).

Now, we look up the Shell type.  This is found on chart G2, and could be Armor Piercing Capped (APC), Semi Armor Piercing (SAP), Common Rounds (COM), or High Explosive (HE).  This would be allowed to different navies/ships at different eras (historical data).  From that chart, you would get a multiplier to the Penetration Factor, Damage Factor (if you do not penetrate), Damage Factor (if you do penetrate - much higher, of course), and the Probability Chance of a Critical Damage.  Also, there is a chance for Pass Through.  This last represents, against a ship with thin armor, the chance that the shell passes clean through the target vessel without exploding.

These factors are then used as multipliers for the numbers found on charts R1 or R2.  These are the Range/Penetration/Damage chart.  Chart R1 is the average penetration chart, which averages (based on range, and types of shell fall) both the Vertical (or plunging) fire and Horizontal fire.  Chart R2 gives the specific penetration values for either, based on which type of fire you are doing (plunging or horizontal).  Guess which table we used - of course!  R2.  Using penetration averaging was considered a sign of weakness, and anyone suggesting it was driven from the Naval Wargaming tribe.

The chart also gave the basic damage factor.  These numbers would be multiplied by the factors that were looked up on chart G2, based on the type of shell fired.   So you would end up with an Actual penetration value.  Then, based on your hit location, and the armor of the target ship at that hit location (from the ship information block), you would know if your shells actually penetrated, or only impacted on the surface.  In either case, you would use the appropriate damage multiplier times the basic damage value of the shell, and you would know how much DP to subtract from the target vessel for each shell.  You would do this (hit location, and penetration/damage calculation for each shell that hits the target).

Each shell would have a chance for a Critical Damage.  These would be rolled up based on chart N1 (for basic surface vessels) or N2 (for aircraft carriers), to see what the particular critical hit you scored, was.  Then you would look that up in the table, and find out that you (for instance) shot off a searchlight, or (for instance) flooded a magazine, or (for instance) destroyed a whole turret or gun mount.  This was where the interesting parts of damage came into play.

Damaging Ships
Subtracting DP from a ship has the effect of slowly degrading it's performance.  The ship information tells you, for each subsystem (speed, reflecting the engine rooms, and each type of gun or torpedo tube), how many you lose for each multiple of DP that the ship takes.  For instance.  The Bismarck has a total of 1,386 DP.  Once those are gone, the ship is ineffective, or sinking.  However, for each of the eight 15" guns, one is lost for every 173 DP that the ship takes.  Also, every 92 DP the ship takes means the ship's speed is reduced (from a maximum of 30kts) down by 2kts.  So as the ship takes damage, it loses (proportionately) guns and speed.

There are rules for fires, damage control, and several other aspects of the ship taking damage.

Extra Rules
There is a whole section on Air Operations, which I won't cover here.  But it is to the same level of detail as we see above in gunfire.  Also Torpedoes.  And there are rules for Evasive Maneuvers, Smoke Screens, loss of Radar, and other situations.  It is possible for a ship's crew to fail morale and surrender or leave the vessel.

Thoughts
Naval wargaming is often a mathematical affair.  This is good, and it appeals to certain players quite a bit.  Seekrieg certainly satisfies in this area.  As you can see, there is a great deal of detail that goes into determining if a hit is scored, how many shells strike, where they strike, the damage they do (based on shell type, hardness of armor, hit location, class of target vessel, etc etc etc).  This is a great system, and very detailed.

I mentioned earlier, there is (to me) a conundrum in Seekrieg.  And that is, that some areas are very well detailed, and some are glossed over.  In the rulebook it freely admits that different fire control systems should have been detailed separately, but this is beyond the scope of the game.  Really?  A factor for fire control couldn't be listed for each ship class?  This seems like a trivial thing, and could be based on historical performance of the ships as much as the other researched datum for each vessel was based on.

Similarly, the simple (but effective) DP system for determining damage to ships.  No modifier for different types of defensive structure and architecture?  A compartmented hull built in 1935 sinks at the same rate as a hull built in 1890?  Again, this is something that would add some great detail to the amount of research that was done, but could have been (like fire control) a modifier base don era.

In the end, the lack of these things does not matter, for the game plays well, gives good results, and satisfies the naval historian/wargamer who wants to know the difference in behavior between different ship classes, and how best he can make the operational decisions to operate a ship or squadron against the enemy.  For it's day Seekrieg was a fantastic ruleset, and it still has many fans.  I love it, but I don't know who I would get to play it these days.

This is the first set of Naval rules I am reviewing as part of this series, and I played the game a lot in the 1980s.  Probably my last frequent play of the game was in 1989 or so, after playing it a lot over a period of 5-6 years - totaling a few dozen games each year, maybe more (and campaigns, and tournaments).  But I changed over, during that time, to another system (that I will also review) - General Quarters.  I will draw comparisons between the two styles of game, when I write that review.
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