By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Great War at Sea is a battleship game.
I designed Great War at Sea (which is the name of the series, not the individual game) to make sure that other aspects of First World War-era naval operations would be present (cruiser raids, minefields, submarines) but the real purpose was to bring fleets of battleships together so they could fight.
The game plays pretty simply: the operational map covers the area where the campaign took place, and is divided into an offset pattern of square zones. You move fleets across this area, having written down their course beforehand (how far before depends on their mission; some missions are planned totally in advance, others give more leeway to react to the enemy). It’s not much of a bookkeeping burden, since you only have a few fleets in play.
Those fleets are comprised of ships. When fleets collide, play moves to the tactical map. There, your ships maneuver and fire at the enemy with guns and torpedoes. You do this by rolling dice, a 6 equals a hit. But that hit may not do any damage, depending on the type of weapon firing and the armor of the target ship. Or is could do a great deal; there are damage tables to be consulted.
We’ve published Great War at Sea games for 20 years now, and they’ve stood the test of time as both historical models and fun games to play. The centerpiece of the series is Jutland. If you’re going to publish a battleship game, you’re going to need to include the greatest clash of battleships. Forty-four dreadnought battleships and 14 battle cruisers, plus a huge array of smaller craft, met in the North Sea in late May 1916. The Battle of Jutland would be the most-studied naval battle in history: more books have been published about this battle than any other.
So we can’t have a Great War at Sea series without a Jutland game, and Jutland, the game, is most definitely the centerpiece of this popular and very long-lived series. And there’s a whole lot more in the box than just Jutland, the battle.
During the design process for the game, I considered separate games set in the North Sea and Baltic, but decided that they should be together in one package since a number of German warships saw action in both theaters. I’m not sure I’d make that decision again, because it resulted in a very large game.
Jutland, the game, is thus really two games in one package. There’s a map stretching from Ireland to St. Petersburg that covers both the North Sea and the Baltic and some of the waters around the British Isles. All of the major ports, and most of the minor ones, are there. The key choke point comes in the Danish Straits, known as the Great Belt and the Little Belt. In most scenarios the Danes have laid thick minefields that, together with Danish neutrality, render the route between the seas impassable to warring fleets (the Germans, via the Kiel Canal, can avoid this problem)..
That splits the scenarios between those taking place in the Baltic, and those set in the North Sea. There are a tiny handful of scenarios in which fleets must try to navigate between the two theaters. Of the 51 scenarios, 44 of them are operational scenarios (where you move fleets on the map of the North Sea and Baltic, then move to the Tactical Map when contact is made) and just seven are battle scenarios (taking place just on the Tactical Map).
Jutland’s design pre-dates my conversion to the beauty and wisdom of the battle scenario, both as a fun instrument of play and as a story-telling device. The game could definitely benefit from more of these (as though 51 scenarios were not enough) and I do plan to remedy that in the near future. But that’s for another time; today we look at what the game already has – and it has a lot.
The Baltic Sea sees 17 of the game’s 44 operational scenarios, most of them clustered into a few periods of intense activity. The Baltic scenarios are not very large; the German High Seas Fleet rarely ventured into the Baltic in any force, but it greatly outgunned the Russian Baltic Fleet. As a result, the Russians usually kept their battleships at their protected anchorages in Helsinki or Reval on the Gulf of Finland, and only sent their cruisers out into the Baltic itself.
The bulk of the action takes place in the North Sea, built around the famous actions: the battles of Jutland and Dogger Bank. Those have both operational and battle scenarios. And there are the important but lesser-known operations as well: Helgoland Bight, the Gorleston, Scarborough and Lowestoft Raids and the High Seas Fleet’s last sortie. And smaller missions as well: mine-laying, commerce raiding and so on involving only cruisers and smaller ships.
Most of the scenarios involve the British Grand Fleet deploying overwhelming force at its bases in the northern part of the North Sea: Scapa Flow, Rosyth and Cromarty Firth. The German High Seas Fleet comes out of their base at Wilhelmshaven and taunts them, attempting to catch part of the Grand Fleet away from the rest and annihilate it before the main fleet can save them. That resulted in some near-misses but only two battles, neither of which had the result for which the Germans hoped.
Numbers and firepower, and often speed as well, are on the side of the British. German ships carry a lighter armament for the most part, but are usually much tougher to sink than those of their enemies. The Russians on the whole balance their weaker firepower with shoddy construction and low speed – the Tsar did not get a good return on his investments.
We stuffed Jutland with playing pieces: five sheets’ worth, with 490 “long” ones and 420 square ones. All of the ships that took part in the historical scenarios are represented (it would be kind of hard to play them otherwise) and there are a lot more: ships begun but never completed, and some planned but not built. The British, Germans and Russians are fully represented, but so are the minor powers located around the North Sea and Baltic: the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Denmark.
There are also squadrons present from France (armored cruisers that served in the England Channel) and the United States (one squadron of battleships joined the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, another went to Ireland to intercept German battle cruisers breaking out into the Atlantic). Australia’s contribution – one battle cruiser and four light cruisers – appears in its own color scheme.
We also managed to include some of the less glamorous vessels that took part in the Great War at Sea: the British have the monitors that shelled the Flanders coast while the Germans have the torpedo boats that tried to break through British defenses to sink them. Everyone has the ancient ships mobilized and sent to sea, like the old German coast-defense ships and obsolete British armored cruisers.
Jutland’s been popular enough to have sold out of its original, Terry Strickland cover (there are a few left at this writing) on a traditional rigid box. We’ve switched over to our new-style sleeved box, with a new cover, but the insides are all the same. You’ll like them.
Click here to order Jutland 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. Leopold enjoys the occasional dog biscuit.