The Habsburg Fleet:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
While I always knew there was a chance I’d get to create a new edition of Second Great War at Sea: The Habsburg Fleet, I never suspected it would come so quickly. But we sold out of the pieces we used in the first edition much faster than expected, paving the way for a rebooting of the Second Great War alternative history.
The essentials of the story remain unchanged: in late 1916, Germany accepts Woodrow Wilson’s offer to mediate peace (something that nearly happened), allowing Eastern Europe’s four great empires (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Ottoman Turkey) to survive and wage war again a generation later. The revived Austrian Empire and its fleet face the navies of the fascist states, France and Italy, later augmented by Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet.
New Edition, New Stuff
Re-using a pre-existing sheet of pieces proved a design challenge in the first edition of The Habsburg Fleet. I had already wanted to take the story away from the technology of the “real” world, which meant that some pieces were simply left unused (the Austrian jet fighters) and others kind of shoe-horned into the scenarios because they were there.
To do things right this time, I worked on multiple games at once so I could be sure that the playing pieces I wanted in The Habsburg Fleet would be available in the right places, chiefly the La Regia Marina boxed game and the Sword of the Sea expansion book. For example, the Italian 1929 program battle cruisers and French large destroyers that appeared in the first edition of The Habsburg Fleet have shifted over to La Regia Marina, and all of the Turkish pieces are now in Sword of the Sea (plus many more).
That stretched my powers of concentration, which are never very good, but did make it much easier to keep track of what pieces were needed. Some of the pieces from the old set were not carried over, like the large Austrian aircraft carriers and the helicopter cruisers.
In exchange, we get a lot of new toys: helicopter-carrying destroyers, Austrian battle cruisers, the 1929 and 1940 Italian battleship designs, another French battle cruiser, and the Royal Montenegrin Navy, because some things are just necessary. And many additional airships, too. There are 100 “long” ship pieces and 80 “small” ones reflecting the technology of the Second Great War: biplanes, helicopters and autogyros for the most part. As much as possible, the aircraft represent planes and other craft that actually flew or at least were designed.
We had a pretty good story in the first edition, I thought, but it was constrained by the mix of available pieces to a large extent: most of the British ships in the old Bomb Alley game had been given roles in the scenarios for The Kaiser’s Navy, and the French did not have a complete fleet in Bomb Alley (in particular, most of their destroyers did not appear in that game).
Those problems disappear now that the book draws on La Regia Marina instead (it’s not compatible with Bomb Alley). La Regia Marina has 77 “long” French pieces where Bomb Alley had but 20; we will not have a truncated story for lack of Frenchmen. There are many more Brits as well, since the scenario set of La Regia Marina extends well into 1943 now (Bomb Alley ended in August 1942). And for that matter more Italians (78 in Bomb Alley, 146 in La Regia Marina - it has that name for a reason). So there’s a whole lot more with which to work even before adding extras in The Habsburg Fleet.
The story’s outline remains pretty much the same, but the scenarios have had to change a good bit to accommodate not only the changed base game, but also the change in technology. Austria fights initially against Italy and France, though the two fascist allies share a deep distrust and rarely cooperate operationally. First Turkey is drawn into the war, and then Britain, with the rapid Turkish capture of the intact Suez Canal making the strategic situation radically different from that of our own history. With Sword of the Sea and the Red Sea book added the Central Powers will have a true central position, able to shuttle their forces between the Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea, but the Allies have the ability (and numbers) to disrupt their easy use of it.
The Habsburg Fleet is only concerned with the Mediterranean part of that equation, and there’s plenty going on there. The Italians wish to threaten Austria’s Adriatic seaboard and support their tiny client state in Montenegro. The Austrians want to interfere with oil convoys heading from Libya to mainland Italy; this is the fuel that drives the fascist war machines of both Italy and France and the Habsburg fleet can strike a powerful blow for the Central Powers by cutting this artery.
Once the Turks have taken the Suez Canal, the British will not simply fold up their tents and leave the rest of Egypt to Ottoman occupation. But with Suez in enemy hands, reinforcements and supplies will have to come to Alexandria across the length of the Mediterranean Sea. So in addition to Italian convoy traffic heading north and south, there is British convoy traffic heading east and west which the Austrians need to interrupt from their base at Corfu and later from Suda Bay on the island of Crete.
Air power played a huge role in the first edition’s scenarios, as it did in the actual naval war in the Mediterranean. Aircraft have far less striking power in the rebooted Second Great War story arc: if you want to interfere with enemy movements, you’re going to have to do so with the guns and torpedoes of your warships and submarines.
A Battleship War
Alternative history allows you to shape events in a fashion that makes for interesting game play. And so in the Second Great War at Sea, the battleship remains a dominant weapons system. The advances in naval aviation during the last two years of World War One – early aircraft carriers, warships carrying seaplanes, aircraft-borne torpedoes - instead took over a decade to come to fruition in peacetime.
The five major fleets contesting the Mediterranean all depend on their battleships for striking power: the First Great War did not last long enough for aircraft carrier developments to come to pass, and the Great Depression did far less economic damage than in our own sadder world. I’m of the historical opinion that sees the Great Depression as an outgrowth of the Great War; hence, less war equals less depression. Less depression equals more tax money equals more battleships.
When designing naval games in the past I’ve strongly favored operational scenarios over battle scenarios. In the games based on historical campaigns there are usually two to three operations (ships steaming forth from their bases with violent intent) for every actual battle. Curiously, that ratio holds true across most theaters and across both World Wars. Without really thinking about it, I kept that ratio when designing alternate history games/supplements. It’s much harder to design a good operational scenario than a good battle scenario, and I guess I felt more virtuous by tackling more of the harder work.
Nick Rider’s odes to SWWAS battle scenarios have convinced me, though: the battle scenarios are really fun to play. And what’s the sense of crafting an alternate history of a battleship-centered war without plenty of scenarios that use them? So The Habsburg Fleet goes heavier on battle scenarios than we’ve done in most past products, to get those battleships into action.
A Long Story
The brisk sales of our Second Great War series guidebook show that fans are highly interested in this telling of a history that never happened, and I really like the way The Habsburg Fleet and the other books fit into a coherent story arc. It’s a story conceived to maximize what many players like in Second World War at Sea games – battleships in action – but it all fits together into one whole. Putting that together has been enormous fun, and I think you’ll like the results.
Don’t wait to put the rebuilt The Habsburg Fleet on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it at a discount!
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 noble dog, Leopold. Leopold cites bank fraud as the root cause of the Great Depression.