Bismarck Playbook Edition:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Since we first debuted Second World War at Sea: Bismarck, it’s consistently been one of our most popular titles. It’s perhaps the most recognizable topic (though Midway might give it a run) in our best-selling game series.
We gave it a Second Edition not long ago, with 45 scenarios (17 operational scenarios, that take place on the North Atlantic operational map, and 28 battle scenarios, that take place on the Tactical Map). I’m still really pleased with this game: it’s the blend of history and game play that I’m trying to achieve with everything we do here, to use the game scenarios as part of the narrative that tells the story. That way you can play right along. The Playbook Edition moves the game to different packaging, but it’s otherwise the same as the Second Edition.
Bismarck’s progression from edition to edition is a prime example of what we’re trying to do here at Avalanche Press. The first edition was a pretty standard wargame of its time, at least the way we made them: it had fourteen scenarios, nine operational and five battle scenarios. They were, for the most part, big and long scenarios, each covering the entire operation from the time ships left port to their return (or possible return, in the case of Bismarck).
In a very long scenario, there are a great many opportunities for the players to choose a different course (both literally and figuratively) than their historical counterparts. That’s interesting and fun, of course, but it means that the tense moments from the actual operation usually won’t happen: Sir Frederic Wake-Walker declining to attack Bismarck with the stricken Prince of Wales while naval dilettante Prime Minister Winston Churchill raged at what he called cowardice. Sir James Somerville – similarly accused of cowardice by Churchill a year earlier for failing to immolate his out-numbered force – trying to place the aged battle cruiser Renown across Bismarck’s path.
The Second and Playbook Editions still have long scenarios so you can play out the full operation as you would have directed (or as you would have reacted), but also shorter ones that pick up the action at crucial decision points. So you can play out the entire chase of the Bismarck, or you can re-create the tense moments when she encountered the British at the Denmark Strait or in her final run toward the safety of German-occupied France.
The Second and Playbook Editions also fill in smaller, lesser-known operations by the Germans, and the British response to them. That provides some smaller scenarios that don’t take as long to play, which adds to the game’s potential for repeated play. These also help flesh out the story, and make a few things clear that a book or article can’t illustrate in quite the same way.
For one thing, given the fragile nature of the German warships’ sophisticated machinery, they really couldn’t have kept up a much faster operational tempo. They did about as well as they were going to do. And that wasn’t very well: there just aren’t that many sorties by German surface raiders, and given the commitment of resources to keep them at sea, their results – even factoring in the disruption to British shipping patterns – show precious little return for the effort.
Part of that’s because of the other reality made very clear in the game: the German Navy was not built for this sort of campaign. It’s a jumble of ships built without strategic guidance, with most of them constructed to meet political rather than military goals. The ships range from the commerce-raiding armored cruisers built to test the limits of the Versailles Treaty, to heavy cruisers and battleships built because the Anglo-German Accord of 1935 allowed them, to light cruisers built as little more than training ships. It’s not even fit to contest the North Sea, much less discomfort the British in the North Atlantic.
Except . . . the North Atlantic is very large, and there are only so many routes across it. The German raiders have space in which to hide, and the British convoys have to cross those waters. The Royal Navy is far more powerful than the German fleet, most of which is usually laid up for maintenance work. But they are spread very thin, and the Germans are trying to find those spaces.
Each operational scenario also, in the Second and Playbook Editions, has at least one battle scenario accompanying it, based on a battle that arose from the operation, or could have. 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. These are the battles the admirals, captains and crews on the spot expected to fight. And the ones they actually fought, which were no more or less probable until they happened.
Bismarck includes a large and wonderful set of playing pieces: the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, her never-completed sister Peter Strasser, Bismarck’s sister ship Tirpitz. A full roster of U.S. Navy ships from the Central Atlantic Neutrality Patrol, and plenty of additional British vessels, 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.
And now everyone can prettify their copies with those giant-sized battleship and battle cruiser pieces from Golden Journal No. 31: Deluxe Bismarck. And extend the scenario set with the Franco-centric Force de Raid Campaign Study.
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 eight decades’ 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.
So we also get to play with 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 is an extraordinary game, one I’m glad we’ve been able to keep in print. We’ve expanded it with not one but two huge alternative-history expansions (Plan Z and The Cruel Sea). It’s an absolute must-have.
You can order Bismarck Playbook Edition right here.
You can order Bismarck: Force de Raid right here.
Bismarck (Playbook edition)
Bismarck: Force de Raid
Journal No. 31: Deluxe Bismarck
Retail Price: $112.97
Package Price: $90
Gold Club Price: $72
You can order Triple Bismarck right here.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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