Designer/Publisher Preview

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2018

If Great War at Sea is the series that built Avalanche Press, then Jutland is its finest construction. A dozen years after its initial release, I’m still a little awed by it; this is a game that met or exceeded all of my expectations as both designer and publisher. That doesn’t happen very often.

Designing the game took a lot of work, but the work itself was very well-defined. Great War at Sea is a long-established game system with a mature rulebook, which was written with the battle of Jutland in mind. The same geographic factors that hemmed in the German High Seas Fleet also neatly frame the game map as covering the North and Baltic Seas. The map actually extends a little to the west to allow you to sail around Ireland and to bring the French Channel ports onto the map, but the real play areas are the two nearly-landlocked seas.

That makes the scenarios very nicely contained: there’s no meaningful “edge of the world” where fleets can sail off into oblivion (they can steam off the northern edge, but there’s almost never any reason to go there). Geography keeps everyone in the field of play without any special rules. The Baltic Sea is pretty narrow without a lot of room in which to hide; it can be surprisingly difficult to find your enemies in the North Sea, which is just large enough to allow sneaky maneuvers but small enough for comfortable play.

While there’s just one operational map, the North and Baltic Seas are distinct areas both on the map and in terms of play. The entire map is only in play in a small handful of scenarios; most of the time the action takes place in one sea or the other.

Great War at Sea games feature two types of scenarios: battle scenarios and operational scenarios. Battle scenarios take place only on the tactical map, and let players get right into the action (that is, start shooting at each other). Operational scenarios start on the operational map, and fleets move across it in search of one another or to carry out their assigned missions (which may not always include seeking out the enemy). When opposing fleets collide, a battle scenario breaks out.

For a long time, I’ve assumed that players prefer operational scenarios and weighted my own game designs in that direction. Lately I’ve come to doubt that; perhaps the battle scenarios deserve more love. Jutland reflects that prejudice: of the 51 scenarios, seven are battle scenarios. These are a mix of historical actions (like Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and two from the main event, the Battle of Jutland) and a couple of hypotheticals. The other 44 are operational scenarios, usually set in either the North Sea or the Baltic, though there are a handful that use both halves of the operational map.

There’s the gigantic Jutland scenario of course, but many others as well. When the full fleets are at sea, the German goal has to be isolating and destroying part of the Grand Fleet before the rest can intervene. It’s a difficult task but not impossible, thanks to British deployment of some squadrons on the Scottish coast rather than at the main fleet base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands (there wasn’t much “there” there at Scapa Flow during the Great War, and basing some squadrons at better-equipped ports made a certain amount of sense – unless the Germans caught them alone). The Germans are badly outnumbered otherwise, and have to treat the Grand Fleet with the utmost respect.

Besides the careful game of fleets, in the North Sea there are minelaying missions, some limited commerce raiding (there wasn’t much commerce flowing through war zones this intense), coastal bombardments, a carrier raid on German zeppelin sheds and bombardments of the English coast. The Baltic Sea features much smaller fleets, as the Russians would not risk their dreadnought squadron beyond their thick protective minefields and the Germans rarely sent theirs to the East. But the “small war” of cruiser raids and mine warfare is intense.

The three Great Powers (Britain, Germany, Russia) are joined by the Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Americans and Dutch with small fleets, and the Finns and Estonians with tiny ones. The Swedes see the most action, with action against the Norwegians, Russians and Germans – all hypothetical, but some of these came very close to reality (the Russian fleet commander in 1914 decided the Swedes would fight alongside the Central Powers and set out to attack them first – only a direct order from the Tsar pulled him back).

Following the Great War at Sea standard, the pieces show cruisers and larger ships (including monitors and coast defense ships) on inch-ling pieces with a top-down view of the ship in question. Smaller vessels (destroyers, torpedo boats, minesweepers and the like) occupy half-inch square pieces, with the really small ships sharing a piece. The flip side is a generic blue-gray showing just a generic silhouette, for a little fog of war when fleets first meet. There are a lot of pieces – Jutland is by far the largest game in the series.

We’ve devoted a great deal of Daily Content to Jutland, and this includes several pieces that I think are among my best work that’s on this site. I really like the piece on the end of the British 1st Cruiser Squadron at Jutland and the one on the armored cruiser Blücher. Along with the history we’ve also got a number of play-aids.

Lately, we’ve supported the game with more book supplements as well: High Seas Fleet, Jutland 1919 and Prizes of War, while Zeppelins was probably the greatest game add-on in the history of game add-ons (if there is such a history).

Now that the game’s been out a few years, there’s not a whole lot I’d want to change. While the game has 51 scenarios, they’re presented as just that – 51 of them, one after the next in chronological order. And they’re good, but each stands alone. As with some of the other older games, I’d rather they had a narrative tying them together, and a conclusion for each to bulk up the historical background and, where appropriate, lead into the next scenario. And even though the game has 51 scenarios, I don’t think it has enough – series developer Jim Stear, who wasn’t around when Jutland was produced, believes that every ship included in a naval game must appear in at least one scenario.

If the only regret I can find is that I wish we’d done more of it, I have to be pleased with Great War at Sea: Jutland. And I think you will be, too.

Click here to order Great War at Sea: Jutland!

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.