By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
It’s been a dozen years since we released Second World War at Sea: Bismarck, and over that time we’ve sold thousands and thousands of copies. And we still have the makings of thousands more – we printed the maps and pieces in China – but we’re going to make some major revisions to the scenario book for a new Second Edition.
That’s been made necessary by the new Second World War at Sea series rules; Bismarck like the other older series games needs a new Special Rules section to match up with the new rulebook. While we could provide that with an insert and keep using the old scenario book (we have a great many of them in storage), it’s an opportunity to give the scenario set a complete overhaul so that’s what we’re going to do.
All of the Second World War at Sea games will get minor updates as they come back into print with Second Edition rules sets, mostly replacing the old black-and-white airbase and aircraft carrier cards with similar ones on a color background. They play exactly the same way, but the pictures make it more fun.
As an older game, Bismarck represents my view of historical wargames a dozen years ago. It’s a fine game, but its scenarios are fairly disjointed, each of them standing alone. They don’t fit together to tell a story, and they hew very close to historical events: four of the five battle scenarios, for example, represent surface actions that actually took place, and the fifth is one that was probably more likely than not. Likewise, eight of the nine operational scenarios actually took place, and the ninth was only cancelled at the last minute (after the Allies had deployed to meet the raiders).
The subject instead really cries out for the story-arc treatment we’ve been giving scenario-based games for a little while now: a series of scenarios that unfold over the course of the campaign, showing how it developed or, in the case of naval campaigns, might have developed. Bismarck is short on the “might have” aspect.
That’s not the same as alternative history; we have plenty of venues to explore the wider variables that could have resulted in a different world. Bismarck’s Second Edition is made necessary in large part because of alternative-history expansion sets like Plan Z and The Cruel Sea, which require ownership of Bismarck. What Bismarck needs is a better look at how the operations themselves could have unfolded, and how the participants expected that they might unfold.
That means making full use of the large and wonderful set of playing pieces already available in the game. The aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, for example, shows up in just one scenario as an optional add-on; her never-completed sister Peter Strasser is there among the pieces, but is never used at all. The maximum German surface force – both battleships (Bismarck and Tirpitz) and both battle cruisers (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) can be assembled, but only in the Rhine Exercise scenario (you know, the “Sink the Bismarck” thing) and only if you throw in every Axis option.
The list goes on; there’s a large roster of U.S. Navy ships that don’t see a whole lot of love, and a number of British vessels that also only appear in the scenario options, if at all. None of these were chosen at random: they’re all in there because there was a possibility, and in some cases a probability, that they would be involved in carrying out or opposing a German surface-raiding operation in the North Atlantic.
All of those probabilities need to be described in scenario format in order to tell the full story of what happened in the North Atlantic in the 1939-42 timeframe; to focus only on what happened doesn’t explain why the participants acted as they did – in the moment, they can only react to what might happen, not what you and I with the benefit of 75-plus years’ hindsight know actually happened. All of us live in the moment, and in that moment, our “reality” consists of a myriad of possibilities. So to tell the story of the campaign, it’s important to show what could have happened. This isn’t alternative history; it’s a study of the mindset of the participants.
In the new scenario set, we have scenarios for the full German battle fleet sortieing into the North Atlantic to disrupt British maritime communications, and for carrier-based raiding. The Germans also get to play with actual Luftwaffe cooperation: bringing fighter protection to the French Atlantic ports, allowing the German fleet to make full use of them. On the Allied side, there’s that huge American fleet just waiting to be used, and a great many more British battleships and cruisers that could have been drawn from other theaters to patrol the North Atlantic (and did so, briefly, to earn inclusion in the game).
Bismarck’s design also pre-dates my full appreciation of the naval battle scenario, both as an instrument of historical story-telling and as a quick way to have fun with the game. An operational scenario takes a while to play, and it might never result in any surface combat at all – in many scenarios, at least one side is purposefully trying to avoid contact and battle. No actual commander wants a “fair fight”; the idea is to either fight with overwhelming force on your side, or not fight at all. That makes for wise strategy, but not a lot of fun game play.
So the new scenario set includes a battle scenario, and usually more than one, for each of the operational scenarios. Bismarck’s mix of pieces includes 20 battleships and seven battle cruisers, and now those 27 heavy ships get to see plenty of hot battleship action on the Tactical Map. If you’re going to name a game after history’s most famous battleship (even if she was a loser), then you need to deliver some battleship battles. We have them now.
Bismarck’s first edition was a very good game; we’ve just learned how to make games in this series even better during the years that have passed since we introduced it. It needs a second edition to stand alongside the newer games like La Regia Marina or Midway Deluxe Edition.
Click here to order Bismarck Second Edition.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.