U.S. Navy Plan Crimson
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I designed the Great War at Sea game system with the idea that it could cover all theaters of First World War naval combat, and over the years we’ve pretty much done that. We’ve even covered wars that never happened. I never intended it to cover a war that never happened on the Great Lakes.
That’s the theme of U.S. Navy Plan Crimson: war on the Great Lakes, taking place in the years after the First World War. Canadian and American fleets fight it out on all five of the Great Lakes (it’s kind of tough for the Canadians to break through into Lake Michigan, but they manage).
The United States had a plan for war with Britain, known as Plan Red, with a subset of plans for war with Canada, called Plan Crimson. And the plans did have a naval component, calling for amphibious landings to take Nova Scotia and deny Halifax to the Royal Navy as a base. American forces would occupy all of Canada, and the 1924 version of the plan expressly stated that once Canada had been taken, the United States was not giving it back.
The American plans – the British and Canadians appear to have had no equivalent of their own – didn’t include naval action on the Great Lakes. The lakes had seen a great deal of naval action during the War of 1812, and then been demilitarized by treaty in 1818 (four tiny gunboats could be maintained on the Great Lakes, which included for treaty purposes Lake Champlain).
In Milan Becvar’s fevered imagination, the treaty did not prevent a militarized, well-defended border from developing across North America. On land, it bristles with fortifications manned by large permanent garrisons. Instead of friendship, the border is a place of hostility, where even lost joggers are imprisoned for weeks by the belligerent Americans. At “sea,” the lakes are guarded by powerful armored fleets. In place of commerce and recreation, warships vigilantly patrol the waters.
When first proposed, the idea seemed too strange even for me, the designer of Land Cruisers and Survival of the Witless. But Milan turned in his design draft and did not care what we did with it. That got my attention; Milan just wanted his weird game design to get in front of people by any means necessary. I knew it would cause some of the old-guard wargamers to harrumph, and that vision sort of attracted me to it, too.
As submitted, it was gigantic, with huge fleets of “lake battleships” covering the lakes with floating steel (there really were enough of them to stretch all the way across the lakes). It had some huge number of scenarios, and scads of special rules (not only did you have lots of canals to steam through, you could dig more of them; I’m not sure how he overlooked including a counter for Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel).
For publication, we cut that down considerably. There’s still a lot of game in the package. U.S. Navy Plan Crimson has 230 pieces, all of them die-cut and silky-smooth. Fifty of them are double-sized ship pieces, and the other 180 standard-sized pieces for smaller ships (a lot of destroyers and torpedo boats skim across the lakes), airplanes and fleet markers.
U.S. Navy Plan Crimson comes in our Playbook format: everything you need to play is inside the book (except dice). The rules are the standard Great War at Sea series rules, updated and re-edited, with long-standing special rules folded into the main body. They’ve also been re-written to apply only to Plan Crimson (since they’re bound in the Plan Crimson book), the same way we did with U.S. Navy Plan Red.
Even so, there are a lot of special rules you won’t find in other Great War at Sea games. The Great Lakes are huge by lake standards, but make for very tiny seas. And reach of them is separated from the others by rivers or narrow straits. Lake Ontario can only be accessed by canal (somehow, Milan left out rules for running your battleships over Niagara Falls).
That makes for five separate theaters of war, and none of them offer much space to hide. Add in the aircraft available to help search, and the swarms of light craft, and all of that makes battle pretty much certain. There are 34 scenarios, a dozen of them battle scenarios and 22 operational scenarios. They’re spread over a period from 1900 to 1921, which means that you won’t be using all 36 lake battleships at once
The scenario set gives a broad view of potential American-Canadian clashes, rather than focusing tightly on a single story as we’ve done in our more recent naval game releases. That would be difficult to achieve here, since there are so many separate theaters of war involved (though somehow, the designer left out flotillas for Lake Champlain and Lake Winnipeg).
The fleet totals give the edge to the Americans, who have 20 lake battleships, six cruisers and four monitors. The Canadians counter with 16 lake battleships, two cruisers and two monitors. The Canadians aren’t always outnumbered, since not all of the boats are on the water at the same time - since this is a lake war, not an ocean war, all of those battleships are properly called “boats,” which would sound strange in any other context.
While Milan laid out the basics of the lake warships, I got to draw them. In trying to minimize draft, the boats have unusual layouts (plus, I didn’t want to just copy blue-water pre-dreadnought designs and I might have gotten into the whole spirit of the theme). The Canadians get a pair of lake battle cruisers, and they have a battleship named Bloor, which sounds like something Dejah Thoris would command on Barsoom. The monitors are standard designs (the American Arkansas class, for example, gets four new, lake-bound members while the Canadians have two up-gunned versions of the monitor Glatton) and the cruisers are fairly conventional.
As strange as the setting may be, the game itself is a great deal of fun – it’s pretty hard to avoid contact with the enemy, and you get to fight with fleets of odd ships. It’s designed to be played, to let you immerse yourself in this world that never was and fight its battles. Plan Crimson is a unique game, unlike any other wargame you’ve played. Remember the fun? This one is fun.
You can order Plan Crimson right here.
Please allow an additional six weeks for delivery.
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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.