Black Sea Fleets:
The Rebuilding

We published Second World War at Sea: Black Sea Fleets in early 2008, when we still did a lot of printing in the People’s Republic of China. It sold pretty well, but because of the logistics of printing there at the time, we ended up with a lot of sheets of playing pieces. A lot of them, so we’ve got plenty of pieces for a new second edition.

Black Sea Fleets’ first edition was an expansion book for our old, out-of-print Bomb Alley game, focused on the fleets and air forces of the Black Sea powers: the Soviet Union, Romania and Turkey. Bomb Alley included the Black Sea basin on its map, but only a handful of Romanian and Soviet destroyers among its playing pieces. Black Sea Fleets was pretty popular, but when Bomb Alley went out of print we allowed Black Sea Fleets to follow.

Black Sea Fleets pre-dates my conversion to the story-arc pattern of game design. As a result, I was always somehow dissatisfied with it, but couldn’t really identify what I didn’t like. Each individual element was fine, and some of them were really good. But nothing really tied them together; each scenario stood on its own, including those based on hypothetical situations.

The new Black Sea Fleets Second Edition tosses out that model in favor of the new narrative-driven scenario set like our more recent offerings (The Habsburg Fleet, Triple Alliance). It’s not an alternative history book, so there’s not one over-arching story to serve. Instead the organization is more like that of Great War at Sea: High Seas Fleet, looking at different time frames and situations with a historical background essay followed by a series of interlocking operational and battle scenarios to continue the story in game form.

Bomb Alley is gone forever, but we have a new game on the Mediterranean campaign called Second World War at Sea: La Regia Marina. The new edition of Black Sea Fleets is an expansion for this game, and only for this game (you won’t need pieces or maps from any other Second World War at Sea game). It has the same pieces as the first edition – we have plenty of them in storage.

Black Sea Fleets is closer in concept to our Sea of Iron boxed game set in the Baltic, as a historical study of what happened and what might have happened in the Black Sea naval campaign of World War II. While we cover the “what happened” part, as with the Baltic Sea campaign the Black Sea lacks many surface naval actions – the very heart of Second World War at Sea game play.

So we provide them, based on what might have happened, and in some sections including fleets that did not participate in the historical campaign (the Turkish Navy) and augmented versions of those that did (the Romanian Navy and the Soviet Black Sea Fleet). It’s not a fantasy game; you won’t get orc-cooties from playing these scenarios, we promise.

In the historical campaign, the Axis is vastly outgunned in terms of surface ships: four Romanian destroyers, one of them hampered by defective engines, face off against a Soviet surface fleet with a battleship, a quintet of cruisers and several dozen destroyers. That disparity limited the activities of the Romanian flotilla and the Axis side relied on airpower to influence events at sea, with mixed success.

Things get more interesting when you add ships planned by the Black Sea powers, but never actually built (or in this case, purchased from foreign shipyards). Romania picks up a pair of Italian-designed armored cruisers, two Italian-designed scout cruisers and a second quartet of destroyers from the same source. Thanks to oil revenues, Romania had hard currency in the years before the Second World War and was very willing to spend it on modern arms – but the marketplace could not supply all the desired weapons as larger nations prepared for war and either embargoed exports or bought up all production.

The scenario set with the new and improved Romanian fleet changes the strategic situation profoundly. In the actual campaign, the Romanians were chiefly concerned with protecting coastal traffic from the big Romanian port at Constanta down the western coast of the Black Sea to Istanbul and the Turkish Straits. This new Italian-built fleet, with its very fast but lightly-protected cruisers, is clearly intended to take the war into Soviet waters rather than serve as convoy escorts. And in the scenarios, that’s what they do: steam into the central and eastern Black Sea in search of Soviet transport traffic and in support of Axis land operations. They’re still out-gunned by the Soviets, but they can make a fight of it particularly with strong air support (which may or may not arrive – as in the Mediterranean theater, the German air force is not always willing to undertake missions in support of its nominal allies).

Turkey’s fleet – the historical one, though it saw no action in the Second World War – is built around the aging and partially modernized battle cruiser Yavuz, the former German Goeben. She’s supported by a pair of decrepit pre-Great War protected cruisers and a couple of ancient gunboats, also veterans of the Great War. The only modern units are four Italian-built destroyers, export versions of the Folgore class.

The scenario set with that fleet sees the Turks in better relative position against the Soviets than the Romanians, and they do possess a somewhat more potent air force in relative terms (though still no match for the Red Air Force). They are out-gunned all the same, but at least Yavuz has the speed to flee from the Soviet battleship and is more powerful than the Soviet cruisers – just as in the last war.

That dynamic changes with the additional Turkish ships projected but not actually built: a battleship of the modern King George V class, a pair of Edinburgh-class light cruisers and four destroyers of the Demirhisar class, export versions of the British I-class. Those last ships were actually built but seized by the Royal Navy upon completion; one would have thought the Turks had learned their lesson about British shipyards in 1914.

The new Turkish battleship is easily the most powerful warship on the Black Sea, and will rule the night. By day, the Red Air Force holds the upper hand – but like that of the Germans, it shows up when it feels like it. But the Black Sea Fleet does eventually receive a super-battleship, the badly-constructed but awesomely-armed Sovetskaya Ukraina. This massive ship is superior to anything in European waters, matched (on paper, at least) only by the huge American and Japanese battleships for size and firepower. The Turks and Romanians must fear her, the German Air Force (which becomes far more interested in sinking such a prestige target) not so much.

As re-worked, Black Sea Fleets becomes the type of historical study-with-game-pieces I’d like to see us continue to make. If the Mediterranean is a bathtub, then the Black Sea is a teapot: it’s hard to miss the enemy on this small sea. This book will add a lot of play value to La Regia Marina.

Don’t wait to put Black Sea Fleets on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it!

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.