Gunnery in Great War at Sea:
A Designer's Perspective
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In the early days of 119694_avalanche Press, before we discovered the marketing force that is Daily Content, we used to include Designer's Notes in some of our games. Most fans don't appear to care much about them one way or the other, but a few like to know why a game designer made certain decisions in crafting the model underlying the game or some other tidbits about the design process.
I've never liked writing them, mostly because of two reasons. Sometimes, there's very little time between finishing the game and having to turn in designer's notes about it, so there's no perspective about it. I know what I did but I'm not always able to explain just why I did so. And sometimes, the game was finished (from the designer's standpoint) months or even years before, and I just don't remember enough to write about why I did things in a certain way; sometimes I don't even recall what I did, much less why. And there's a third reason. I just find ramblings by game designers, including my own, to be self-indulgent crap — I've been a much happier creative since listening to Doug McNair's lessons on the abnegation of ego. Yet somehow I've always managed to dig deep and find The Ego within to overcome that revulsion.
So anyway, I included Designer's Notes in most of the Great War at Sea games, but wrote them as filler — if a scenario book came in at 15 pages, I padded it to 16 with a page of designer's notes (booklets get printed in multiples of four pages). If it came out to 16 or 24 or 48 or whatever, there were no notes. These almost always were just some stream of consciousness babbling about what ships and battles I chose to include in the game.
What I didn't usually discuss were actual decisions in crafting the game rules, but lately these have been on my mind for a number of reasons. Designing the scenarios for our supplement Great White Fleet had me pondering the place of armored cruisers and later-generation pre-dreadnought battleships in the Great War at Sea system. In particular, my attention focused on the British Minotaur class, the last armored cruisers built for the Royal Navy.
These were fine ships of sound design, made obsolete by the launch of the first battle cruisers even before they were completed — two battle cruisers were in commission before the last armored cruiser, HMS Defence, raised her pennant. They were completed as designed, and there seems to have been little discussion of modifying them to carry heavier guns as the Germans considered re-working their own Blücher.
And so I pondered a Daily Content piece giving the three Minotaurs single 12-inch guns in place of their dual 9.2-inch turrets. I can't find any evidence of an actual plan for this, but some back-of-the envelope calculations show that they and their barbettes and magazines would have fit there (though engine issues would have remained). And there things ran into a design issue with the Great War at Sea series rules and ship rating scale.
Pre-dreadnought battleships, with four 12-inch guns, usually receive a primary gunnery rating of 3. The Royal Navy had studied large-caliber single mountings and found them to have a significant edge in rate of fire, so it would be reasonable to give this fictional Improved Minotaur a primary rating of 2.
A pair of 12-inch guns would have represented a significant leap in fighting power for these cruisers, though they still could in no way stand up to a true battle cruiser armed with eight or more 11- or 12-inch guns. But in game terms the improvement would be much less: Minotaur already rated a 1 primary gunnery factor for her four 9.2-inch guns.
When I first designed the game that would become the Great War at Sea series, I'd recently completed a project that never saw publication. Working for a long-dead game company, I designed a naval game for their massive series of World War II campaign games. It had already been laid down long before that warships in that game system had three gunnery factors: primary, secondary and tertiary. That concept was probably still stuck in my limited brain, and it never occurred to me to seek finer nuance in Great War at Sea gunnery. And I didn't want a lot of nuance; I wanted a game that remained playable by drunken people. The system worked well with its symmetrical approach: three types of gunnery facing three types of armor.
Ship designers of the early 20th century cooperated to a large extent. Many warships had some combination of very big guns to deal with enemy battleships, medium-sized ones to fire at enemy cruisers, and small ones to fend off torpedo boats and destroyers. The bulk of the ships to be rated had either 12-inch guns, 6-inch guns or 4-inch guns, or very similar calibers, so those were pretty easy.
The problem came with the handful of ships bearing "in-between" weapons from about 8-inch to 10-inch. Ship designers in the years leading up to the Russo-Japanese War figured that the much higher rate of fire these guns could deliver would make up for their lighter shell weight, and a number of battleships soon to be known as "semi dreadnoughts" appeared with the standard four heavy guns plus a large number of slightly lighter weapons.
While impressive on paper, in practice the arrangement soon showed problems — gunnery officers could not separate the shell splashes of the two types of guns, even when some navies employed colored dyes in their shells. The semi-dreadnought era lasted only a couple of years, with examples planned by Germany and built by Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia, the United States and Japan.
The Japanese Satsuma class were the first ships armed solely with big guns to be ordered, and the American South Carolina class were the first such to be designed. Britain's Dreadnought symbolized a new era of battleship construction, but the trend had already begun well before her launch. No nation built a second class of semi-dreadnoughts.
Since there weren't very many such ships to consider, I increased their primary gunnery factor by one, but by the time we did Jutland I'd reconsidered and instead gave the British Lord Nelson class a greatly improved secondary battery and would do the same with other semi-dreadnoughts if the chance arose. Despite their large number of guns, these ships were rolling a proportionately smaller number of dice than ships with a lighter armament. This put them at an unwarranted disadvantage against enemy cruisers or smaller vessels.
Armored cruisers are another issue, as they often carried guns of somewhere between 8- and 10-inch caliber as their main armament. I gave most of these ships a nominal 1 for primary gunnery, but that usually meant that their secondary factors were reduced to compensate. So Minotaur, the cause of all this excess thought, already had one primary factor she really didn't deserve.
However, it all works out very nicely if we insert another gunnery classification into the mix. With tens of thousands of Great War at Sea games sold after 13 years in print, we're not about to go back and re-make the games to this new standard. But it does make for a nice Daily Content variant, complete with some new counters and ship data with which to try them out.
New Rule: Intermediate Guns
Variant playing pieces have four gunnery factors rather than the usual three. The new pieces are rated for primary-intermediate-secondary-tertiary factors. On the gunnery damage table, a result of 4 damages an intermediate gunnery box (rather than secondary). Insert intermediate gunnery boxes into the referred pain sequence between primary and secondary boxes.
Intermediate guns damage all areas protected by light or no armor, just like secondary guns. If an intermediate gun obtains a hit on an area protected by heavy armor, the player resolving gunnery combat rolls another die. On a result of 4 through 6, the hit penetrates and inflicts damage normally. On a result of 1 through 3 it's ignored just like a secondary hit. If an intermediate gun causes critical damage (8.7), it's treated just like a hit from a primary gun.
There is no excess damage (8.3) for a hit inflicted by an intermediate gun. Intermediate gunnery hits do not inflict extra damage for lunging fire (8.8).
You can download the new counters here.
You can download the new ship data sheet here.
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