Great War at Sea:
Thoughts on Gunnery

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
July 2014

When I bamboozled Jim Stear into developing our naval games, I hoped to be able to get the games and books produced at a reasonable pace but figured I’d still have to write and design them. Instead, in one of the key elements of the revival of Avalanche Press, Jim provided all of our naval series with a desperately-needed injection of energy and a whole shipload of design innovation.

In designing the game that became Great War at Sea (and eventually spawned other game series), I laid down what became the backbone of each: “roll a six, get a hit.” I actually wanted that to be “roll a 10, get a hit,” but that game was sold without dice and the publisher believed that few wargamers had plentiful 10-sided dice on hand, and would become enraged. Knowing how enraged wargamers can become without an excuse, I certainly didn’t want to give them one, so I went with six-sided dice.

There are six possible outcomes when one rolls a six-sided die. This profound mathematical fact is the underlying driver of Great War at Sea’s combat system. While many games (of all types) employ “die roll modifiers” to help model all sorts of differences, there’s not a lot of leeway with just one six-sided die. The slightest possible modifier (hit on a 5 or 6 instead of just a 6) doubles your chances of getting a hit. That’s a lot, and there are few circumstances which call for that drastic a change in probabilities. Great War at Sea does actually have a provision for that; certain ships that displayed gunnery excellence get a hit on a 5 or 6 instead of just a 6. I’ve always thought that a little excessive, but I put that rule in from the very start and it’s survived now for a quarter-century.

There are many other circumstances that might warrant making it a little harder for some ships to score a gunnery hit and a little easier for others. You can make it easier to get a hit (though probably too much so) by changing the requirement to rolling a 5 or 6 instead of just a 6. But the mathematics of the six-sided die just don’t allow for making it harder to get a hit; since you only hit on one chance out of six, even the smallest reduction means you’ll never hit anything at all. Or at least the math didn’t work until Jim Stear came along.

With Remember the Maine, Jim added a new concept to Great War at Sea: the “confirmation” die roll. Sometimes, it’s a little harder for some ships to hit their enemies: poor crew training, sloppy maintenance, over-aged equipment and so forth. When those ships get a hit, the player rolls another die to “confirm” it. So you roll a 6, get a hit, but then have to roll again and get a 4 through 6 or the hit is ignored.

I wasn’t really sure about the rule the first time I saw it, as it seemed a needless complication. Slowly, the design brilliance dawned on me: the confirmation die roll provided the “granularity” that was missing in the simple “roll a 6, get a hit” game system. Jim used it again in Russo-Japanese War and other games as well. But it also applies to a pair of concepts I wanted to include in Great War at Sea from the start, but could not since my limited brain could not come up with a simple, brilliant concept like “just roll the die one more time.”

Treat these as optional rules; use them if you like them, don’t use them if you don’t.

Deliberate Fire
By firing very slowly and taking their time to lay each shot as precisely as possible, gunnery officers could increase the probability of obtaining a hit – but at the cost of greatly reducing their ship’s volume of fire.

A player may declare “deliberate fire” for any of his or her ships; this applies to all of the ship’s gunnery (primary, secondary and tertiary) but need not apply to all the ships in a fleet or group (some can fire deliberately, others not). Reduce the ship’s gunnery factors by half, rounding fractions down for primary gunnery of 3 or less and rounding up for all others (so a ship with a gunnery of “1” doesn’t get to fire it at all). A hit is obtained from deliberate fire on a result of 5 or 6. On a result of 4, roll again; the hit is confirmed on a second result of 5 or 6 and ignored on a result of 1 through 4.

Mathematically speaking, deliberate fire is a little bit better of a gamble for most ships (have to have that “round down” in there to limit pre-dreadnoughts). It all depends on how lucky you feel: you have a better chance of getting at least one hit, but the maximum number of hits possible is greatly reduced.

Rapid Fire
In contrast, a ship could fire at the maximum speed at which its gun crews could load and fire, hoping that sheer volume would make up for the lack of careful aim. It also expended ammunition very quickly; the German battle cruiser Seydlitz did so deliberately at the Battle of Jutland to empty her magazines before a raging fire reached them.

A player may declare “rapid fire” for any of his or her ships; this applies to all of the ship’s gunnery (primary, secondary and tertiary) but need not apply to all the ships in a fleet or group (some can fire deliberately, others not). Double the ship’s gunnery factors. A hit is obtained from rapid fire on a result of 6. Roll again for every such hit; the hit is confirmed on a second result of 4 through 6 and ignored on a result of 1 through 3.

Each time a ship uses rapid fire, after gunnery is resolved the owning player rolls one die. On a result of 1, the ship is out of ammunition and may not fire again during the current battle. It may replenish its ammunition at a friendly port using the same procedure (and any special scenario restrictions) as torpedoes and fuel.

Mathematically speaking, rapid fire is a wash. Your odds of getting a hit are about the same. But, you have the chance – a small one, but a chance nonetheless – to score many more hits than would ever be possible at a normal rate of fire. If the dice gods love you, this is the way to go.

Try out these options! Order a Great War at Sea game right now.

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.