Fleets: Imperial Russia
In the Second Great War alternative-history setting, the action begins with Russian aggression against Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States. It’s a revived Russian Empire, saved from dissolution and civil war by Woodrow Wilson’s December 1916 negotiated peace settlement. Tsar Alexei and his advisors have little gratitude, and seek to overturn the treaty’s provisions through military action.
None of that actually happened. It’s a background story that drives our Second Great War at Sea game expansions (and one stand-alone game). Fleshing out that background story makes the game play more fun - that’s true in just about any game - and that’s what we’re doing with Fleets of the Second Great War: Imperial Russia.
The Second Great War includes a boxed expansion set (The Cruel Sea), a stand-alone boxed game (Tropic of Capricorn) and several expansion books (Swedish Steel, Sword of the Sea, Austria’s Fleet and Tropical Storm) plus a couple of background books (The Second Great War and Fleets: Imperial Germany).
When we began the Second Great War setting, I didn’t want to just re-make Second World War at Sea games with different-colored pieces. The Second Great War has a full-realized story behind it: the politics, the economics, the societal structures of this different world. It’s one without Nazis, but it still has destructive political forces eager to overturn the peaceful international order in the pursuit of their own power.
Thanks to Wilson’s Peace, Imperial Russia has survived the Great War. While civil unrest and economic depression followed, there was no Revolution or Civil War. Nicholas II abdicated soon after signing the peace, to take the blame for the loss of Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic provinces, Finland and parts of the Caucasus. Alexei has overcome his hemophilia, but the stress of wartime leadership will eventually spell his death. His sister Tatiana, taking the throne in 1942, is a far more capable leader and even more determined to see a victorious end to the war.
Fleets: Imperial Russia is a sequel to Fleets: Imperial Germany. It’s an in-depth look at the ships that make up the Russian Navy of four different fleets: in the Arctic Ocean, Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Pacific Ocean. As in Fleets: Imperial Germany, there’s a chapter devoted to each ship type, with their design history, deployment, technical data and schematic diagrams. It’s intended to be our own version of real-world ship guides like Jane’s or Conway’s, except these ships (for the most part) never actually existed. The books help make our counterfactuals seem a little more real, and make the games based on them that much more fun to play.
The Russian Navy isn’t the largest of the Second Great War; the British, German, American and Japanese fleets are all bigger and more powerful. But it does have a prominent place in forcing the action, as the war begins with Russia on the offensive.
As an alternative history, the Second Great War is grounded in actual history as far as possible. The events are extrapolated from those that actually occurred - for example, Woodrow Wilson really did try to forge a negotiated peace in November 1916 and almost pulled it off. The Russian Empire is experiencing rapid economic growth, as was the case before the interruption of the Great War. Its conservative rulers are unhappy with the territorial losses of Wilson’s Peace and determined to bring the borderlands back under Tsarist rule.
Like its rivals, the Imperial Russian Navy retained its dreadnought battleships and battle cruisers as the basis for its expansion. The Baltic and Black Sea Fleets each had a quartet of new Russian-built dreadnoughts either in service or under construction, and construction had started on four battle cruisers for the Baltic Fleet but then been abandoned during the war. The Arctic Flotilla hadn’t expanded beyond a handful of minor warships, while the once-powerful Pacific Fleet had never recovered from the devastating outcome of the Russo-Japanese War.
That’s not all the Russians have to work with. The Imperial German Navy of the Second Great War includes the projected ships we included in the Great War at Sea expansion books Jutland 1919 and High Seas Fleet, and that’s the case with the Russians, too. The new acquisitions proposed by Baltic Fleet commander Nikolai von Essen in 1914 and included in our Jutland: Baltic Sea expansion are included in the Second Great War as well.
Most of those are dispatched to Vladivostok to form the core of a revived Pacific Fleet facing the Japanese, along with the Borodino-class battle cruisers. The Baltic Fleet retains two battle cruisers and two large dreadnoughts from the fleet expansion program, along with an older dreadnought converted into a helicopter assault ship.
The Baltic and Black Sea Fleet have a handful of older refurbished ships, but most of the vessels in all four fleets are of new construction. Since Imperial Russia came to an end in 1917 in our actual history, most of these designs are based on Soviet-era proposals with adjustments to reign in the Stalin-pleasing gigantism of the Red Navy’s naval architects. Like the Soviets, the Imperial Russian Navy relied heavy on Italian design assistance and that provides a logical framework to posit the ships they would have built had the Empire survived the Revolution.
Russian ship design is also mission-driven. The four fleets have unique tasks handed them by geography and Tsar Alexei’s ambitions. The Baltic Fleet is penned into the Gulf of Finland, and its immediate mission is to break through the minefields and coastal fortifications to challenge the Germans and Swedes in the central Baltic. It therefore has plenty of mine warfare and amphibious assault ships, and heavy ships to support them.
The Black Sea Fleet likewise is penned in by the Turkish fortifications of the Bosphorus. It also has a generous allotment of amphibious warfare ships (helicopter-capable assault ships, landing ships, and vessels to support them with heavy guns), but needs balance to counter the Turkish fleet buildup of the pre-war years - though many of the Turkish vessels are German cast-offs.
The Arctic Fleet is built around fast battleships and battle cruisers, to interfere with German trade across the North Atlantic by filtering through the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gaps to attack the convoys and separate merchantmen. The Pacific Fleet represents Tsar Alexei’s refusal to abandon any part of his Empire; its task is to defend the Maritime Province from Japanese invasion and threaten Japan’s northern flank as an aid to his French allies.
You don’t need this book to enjoy the Second Great War at Sea; it’s filled with scenarios designed for maximum battleship action. You can fight those battleship battles without even looking at the story that sets them up. You can play historical wargames that way, too, and plenty of people have plenty of fun doing just that.
But some of you are in this for the story - whether it’s the story of history, or its alternatives. You enjoy reading the background, looking at the maps and pieces, thinking about the battles that happened and those that could have happened. It’s an immersive hobby for you, and you don’t even have to play the games to have fun with them.
This book’s made just for you.
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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.