Horn of Africa:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Long ago, I read about the brief naval campaign waged on the Red Sea between Italian and British forces, as part of the campaign in East Africa. I designed a game on that campaign (and have another one coming out from Avalanche Press) and included the naval operations because they were yet another little-known event. I like portraying little-known events in games; it makes me feel like I’m earning those letters at the end of the byline up there below this piece’s header.
So eventually I became determined to craft a Second World War at Sea game based on this little campaign. Initially I wanted to place it in our Golden Journal (the irregular free variants publication we put out for the Gold Club that serves pretty much the playground for my strange ideas), but it didn’t take long to realize that it was much too large for that format but would make a fine little boxed game.
Horn of Africa, the result of all that effort, is a fine little game and one that pleases me greatly. Geography tends to force the little game’s action, which I like in a SWWAS game, and there was very little airpower present, another aspect of the situation that I like a lot. Plus there is just the “doomed outpost” theme which I find attractive.
As shaped by developer Jim Stear, Horn of Africa has surprising depth for its small size. The map’s one of the smallest in our naval games, covering the Red Sea from the port of Suez on down to the Gulf of Aden and out into the Indian Ocean. And the action’s pretty easy to force in the narrow waters of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The artwork is simply outstanding; Guy Riessen has made his mark with the Panzer Grenadier series but I may like his naval game maps even more.
The counter mix is also the smallest, with 40 “long” ship pieces and 60 square ones. But that was plenty for all the ships of the British Red Sea Force and the Italian Red Sea Flotilla, plus some extras. Horn of Africa has the silky-smooth pieces we’ve been using for a while now, die-cut with a new process that deploys minimal physical force so you don’t have those atrocious sunken craters smashed into one side of the playing piece. Gamers like their pretty game pieces, and this process keeps them pretty. The print process is very crisp, forcing us to upgrade ship art every time we use it as small flaws that never would have shown up under the old methods are now pretty obvious.
And on the counter sheet, we were even able to include some extras. The Italians get the pair of Leone class destroyers projected but never built, the armored cruiser San Marco as rebuilt for coast-defense duty like her sister San Giorgio, two examples of the Ansaldo-designed “pocket battleship” proposal and two of the Ansaldo-designed floatplane cruiser. Plus my personal favorite, the pre-dreadnought Regina Elena as rebuilt. Plus you get the older warships that made up the Red Sea Flotilla during the Abyssinian Crisis of the mid-1930’s.
On the Allied side, there are fewer odd additions to the Red Sea Force, but they are just about the coolest “what if” ships in the Second World War at Sea franchise: the battle cruiser Tiger and the battleship Iron Duke, as rebuilt in the 1930’s. The actual Red Sea Force is built around a core of light cruisers and destroyers, with occasional help from a heavy cruiser and the constant presence of several anti-submarine sloops. There’s also a Greek armored cruiser.
The core of this game is its scenario set, and Jim Stear did a fantastic job assembling these. There are 25 of them, 10 battle scenarios and 15 operational scenarios. They cover all of the actual battles and operations that took place in the region: Italian attacks on convoys, the slow and painful journey of the stricken battleship Royal Sovereign, the invasion of Somaliland (Italian and British), the British carrier raids, Troop Convoy WS.5B.
They also look at operations that might have taken place, but did not. There’s a look at the possible British intervention against the Italian invaders of Ethiopia/Abyssinia. And several scenarios based on the very simple proposition: what if Benito Mussolini warned his military leaders before declaring war on the Allies, instead of making an impulsive decision based on his delusions of superior strategic ability, thereby allowing them to stockpile fuel and other supplies in places like Massawa on the Red Sea?
And then there are the weird ships scenarios. It is a hallmark of Jim Stear’s work that every piece present in a game must be used in at least one scenario, and so it is with this game as well. The cool Italian cruisers designed but never built see action raiding Allied convoys, and the famed Great War veterans Tiger and Iron Duke that were never re-built are there to protect them.
All of that great stuff is packaged in our Playbook format. As far as I know this is the only attempt anyone has ever made to portray the Red Sea campaigns in wargame format, and if that odd topic appeals to you, you’ll really like this little game.
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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.