Cruiser Warfare is different than every other game in the Great War at Sea series, yet still should be familiar to long-time players.
The game is based on the world-wide naval situation first months of the First World War, as Germany’s far-flung cruisers tried to inflict as much damage on Allied commerce as they could before their inevitable destruction or isolation in a colonial or neutral port. The best-known of these forces was the East Asia Cruiser Squadron commanded by Maximilian Graf von Spee and based at the German-controlled port of Tsingtao in northern China. But other, individual cruisers displayed the Imperial German banner in Africa, the Caribbean, Mexico and South America.
Britain’s Royal Navy deployed far more cruisers across the Empire, both to show the flag and to counter the German deployments. And they could call on their Japanese allies and their powerful fleet, which had no European commitments to take away its most powerful warships. Other powers deployed smaller squadrons: France, Russia, Austria-Hungary and even Italy. Some of these decrepit old ships had little military value; the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth and the small flotilla of German high-seas gunboats stationed at Tsingtao could only be used to help defend the base from Japanese attack.
Just before the outbreak of war, Spee took his squadron into the Pacific islands ruled by Germany, disappearing from British and Allied notice. The German cruiser captains stationed at other colonies likewise left port. The British had some idea of where the Germans might be, but little hard information, and were additionally hamstrung by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s amateurish attempts to meddle with operational deployments from his office in London.
That’s the situation at the start of Cruiser Warfare. The Central Powers player has one reasonably powerful force somewhere in the Pacific, and a handful of individual cruisers scattered all around the globe. The Allied player has many more ships, but doesn’t know where the Germans might strike next. The Central Powers player hopes to destroy enemy merchant shipping and, if things go really, really well, bring his or her ships and crews back to Germany for a triumphal return.
The game’s played on a map of the entire world – a unique feature for the Great War at Sea series. In every other game, the action takes place on an operational map of the theater in question, divided into offset squares. The world of Cruiser Warfare is divided into 66 sea areas, each of them rated for merchant density, the likelihood of storms, and the presence of coal stocks. Fleets move between areas; the Central Powers can search for merchants, while the Allies can search for the Central Powers. Everyone needs coal to keep moving, and there are only so many places where the Central Powers can refuel (the Allies can get more black diamonds just about anywhere).
Storms hit randomly, though some areas are more likely to see poor weather than are others (there’s a reason the map has 66 areas). In addition to searching for lone merchants, the Central Powers also can attack the huge prizes steaming slowly across the globe – very large Imperial Convoys, carrying troops (usually) from one far-flung location to another. Allowing the East Asia Squadron to get among a couple dozen helpless troop transports would be a war-altering disaster that the Allied player cannot allow. The Central Powers player can win the game without locating such a convoy, but shooting one up definitely aids his or her chances of victory.
The game turns into the familiar Great War at Sea when contact is made between warships. Battles are resolved on the good old Great War at Sea Tactical Map, using the same rules as the standard game (modified slightly to remove references to ships and weapons not present in this game). You get to move your ships and fire at the enemy with guns and torpedoes, and sometimes run aground.
Or you can just play out the battles: there are ten Battle Scenarios that take place only on the Tactical Map, including historical battles like the Falklands and Coronel as well as some others that never actually happened, but could have, and make for good gameplay. These resolve pretty quickly – almost all of the ships in Cruiser Warfare are, indeed, cruisers – and give you lots of play options.
There are also options for the strategic game. Germany’s cruiser commanders were given multiple war plans, depending on what combination of enemies they would be called upon to face. Graf Spee and his staff hoped for Plan B, in which Britain (and by extension, Japan) remained neutral and he only had to face the French and Russians. In game terms things are completely reversed: the Germans can hunt down enemy warships with a good hope of success, but there are far fewer defenseless merchants to be harvested and no Imperial Convoys crossing the oceans.
Plus you get additional warship options. The Germans might have their finest armored cruiser, Blücher, or the East Asia Squadron’s long-time flagship Fürst Bismarck, still under repair in August 1914. The Royal Navy might decide to detach battle cruisers to help hunt down the enemy squadron, or the powerful First Cruiser Squadron of four late-model armored cruisers. The High Seas Fleet could follow through on plans to send a battle cruiser of their own into the Atlantic to provide a diversion for Graf Spee’s hotly-pursued ships. Or the Germans could build another overseas base at Dar es Salaam in Tanganyika, and support it with a full-sized cruiser squadron instead of a single ship. The Netherlands could become involved in the Great War. The French could beef up their naval forces in Indochina. It’s enough to keep the game from ever growing stale.
We packaged Cruiser Warfare in our Playbook format: if comes with everything you need to play (except dice), all inside a book. In the new printing, all of the ship pieces have brand-new artwork. You get the world-wide map, the tactical map, rules, scenarios, charts (most of those are on the map) and full-color organizational displays. It’s a complete Great War at Sea game, and a fine one at that.
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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 way too many books, games and articles on historical subjects. A few of them did not suck.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold approves of this message.