Ode to SWWAS
By Kristin Ann High
December 2016

The boss comments: I don't think I've ever commented on a Daily Content contribution before, but this one sort of cried out for it. It started as an e-mail rant from Kristin that I read and thought, "%&#$@, she understands it!" So I asked her to expand it into this commentary. Because she has it right — there's an awful lot of analysis that goes into such a “simple” game, and I've never really been able to explain just what it entails.

When SOPAC was new, some of the playtesters grew upset that more games weren't pouring out in rapidfire succession. They asked me to spring for a copy of Conway's All the World's Ships, since that obviously was the only source needed to generate ship ratings and they would gladly take care of that.

That’s not how it works. Each rating measures a weapon system in its complete effect, and there is no secret algorithm of “hard” numbers. Kristin nailed it. I’m so pleased to present this ode, someday I might even let her in on the tale behind the name of her favorite scenario. . . .

—Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.

A great wargame produces consistent results grounded in the historical record, while allowing a reasonable probability for extraordinary results. A great wargame's design supports scenarios that model the challenges, uncertainties, and difficulties experienced by the historical participants. That is the definition of "realism," whether the game covers infantry combat at the level of individual soldiers or naval clashes between fleets of warships.

In my opinion, Second World War at Sea (SWWAS) is a great wargame. The individual games and supplements in the series [1] present their subjects in the context of place and time. The multiple scenarios in each game are built upon a consistent Victory Points system carefully matched to the operational focus of the series. Many scenarios include special Victory Conditions that impose external imperatives upon the players, giving weight to the dictates of policy or the meddling of higher command echelons.

Each game also has special rules that embody the peculiarities of place and circumstance inherent in the regional conflicts of a global war. Taken together, the Victory Points system and special rules force players to deal with operational realities and the impact of high-level policy decisions, neither of which are under their control.

Therein lies the muscle of SWWAS, in the unseen design and development work that produce a basic game engine strong enough to carry forward a coherent approach to naval operations through eight games, in theatres as different as the North Sea and the Indian Ocean, while remaining flexible enough to permit the modeling of conditions of place and circumstance unique to divergent theatres.

Dual Systems

Although it is an operational-level wargame, SWWAS is structured to encompass tactical combat and propagate the results of that combat into the scenario. The clash of ships and planes directly effects the outcome of the scenario, even when what is desired is the avoidance of such a clash. The tactical aspect of SWWAS attracts the lion's share of player input, and elicits the greatest gnashing of player teeth; yet in this area the rock-solid foundations upon which SWWAS rests pay the greatest dividends.

The successful integration of tactical combat into an operational wargame is no simple task, and most operational games simply avoid the attempt. Many games that make the attempt focus on detailed tactical combat, with a set of arbitrary rules to create “campaign games” as a means of propagating the results of tactical combats. [2] A few attempt to model tactical combat at an operational scale, and provide a strategic context overlaid on the whole.

There are problems in both approaches. Due to the massive scale involved, attempts to model the combat of an entire operation at the tactical level results in an equally massive game. Such games require complex rules and a significant bookkeeping overhead for the players. Although this approach has much to commend it, many of the games which embody it are simply unplayable in a single adult lifetime, regardless of how beautifully designed.

An arbitrary “campaign game” is not a model of operational realities — it is a series of tactical combats related to one another only by the continuity of each player’s forces. Victory in the “campaign game” is usually determined by the accumulation of Victory Points deriving from achieving tactical objectives.

What often happens, then, is an ad hoc marriage of two different games — one to handle the operational level, and another to handle the tactical battles that result. This is little better than a superficial “campaign game,” as the integration between the two is not nearly robust enough to produce coherent results.

SWWAS embodies an alternative approach, that of keeping the focus of tactical combat on operational effects. This necessarily means that the tactical game is oriented towards the operational game, rather than vice versa. This is key to SWWAS' strength and flexibility, and another testament to the solid design and development work of the series.


A Crunchy Conceit

A while back the term “crunchy” was employed in a Daily Content article. The term, as I infer from its usage, embodies a long-standing conceit; the greater the amount of visible technological detail attending an individual unit, the greater the “realism” of the game, and therefore the more accurate its portrayal. By implication, a more realistic game is a more accurate game, and therefore a better game.

The reciprocal implication — that games which do not embrace this granularity are not as realistic, and therefore not as accurate — infers a direct relationship between complexity and quality. The inference is specious, because complexity of game play and complexity of the game model are not directly related, as anyone who has struggled through badly-written rules will admit.

I use conceit deliberately, because the plain fact is that all wargames employ abstraction in the interest of playability. The key is to match the level of abstraction to the scale employed in the game model. A tactical-level game has a narrow focus, with a fine scale of unit size, time, and distance. An operational-level game has a wider focus, with a coarser scale of unit size, time, and distance. Scale, however, is not the same as the abstraction.

Transforming an event or characteristic — say the impact of an USN Mk.16 14-inch APC shell (event) on the armour plate protecting the top of “A” turret on Yamato (characteristic) — into a calculation involving projectile impact velocity, projectile mass, projectile impact obliquity, probability of projectile deformation when striking, and the resulting probability of penetration, set against a comparative table of the strength of Yamato's turret top armour plate, creates an abstraction.

Merely shifting the burden of effecting the abstraction onto the players does not make a game more accurate, nor increase the game's realism — the only certainty is that adjudicating a single combat is complex, time-consuming, and routinely dull. The odd hit may spice up play for a half-hour while the interaction of shell and armour plate are worked out, but when that torturous process has completed, the mind-numbing routine of adjudicating the individual fire of multiple rifles continues.

Likewise, simply because a game does not make all the details of its combat abstraction visible to the players does not necessarily make the game less accurate, nor decrease its realism.

What is key is the integrity of the game abstraction across all facets of the game. This is particularly difficult to maintain when the scale shifts, as it does in SWWAS when play moves from the operational map to the tactical board. Much of the work of SWWAS' game mechanics — the design elements which control the interaction between players and the game, and are the basis of the rules of play — is devoted to the integration of tactical combat within the operational focus of the game abstraction. Thus players can fight furious surface battles on the tactical map arising out of the collision of task forces on the operational map, and then return to that map when they have finished.


Abstraction is Detail

The robust elegance of SWWAS' game abstraction is not readily apparent to most players, and proclaiming the result of one's painstaking research to be “consistent with the game design” is hardly the sort of pronouncement to bring an awed hush to one's audience.

Moreover, when one is working with weapon systems employed in or on surface ships or aircraft, the very complexity of the warcraft themselves exert a subtle pull to “drill down” into specifics. With the Internet awash in reprinted data from seemingly-authoritative sources, it is a deceptively simple matter to write out a dissertation on the “technical superiority” of that USN 14-inch Mk.16 APC shell, and then proceed to an argument that compares the number of Mk.7 14-inch rifles on USN battleships to the number of 14-inch/45-calibre M.VII rifles firing the Mk.VIIB APC shell in British battleships. Then, with technical data in hand, one sets about creating gunfire ratings based on the “tons of steel per salvo” (or “. . . per minute”).

This is a trap too many authors — particularly revisionists with an axe to grind — fall readily into. The legendary power of battleships like Yamato or Bismarck have their genesis in this narrow technological view of basic specifications — tonnage and rifle bore, the thickness of the main belt, and so on. Too many amateur historians quote blueprint statistics as if they were combat data — Yamato could open fire at X thousands of yards range with X tons of steel “raining” down in the X minutes before New Jersey's 16-inch/50-calibre rifles drew in range, and so on.

The problem with this approach in respect to SWWAS — skipping the legion of problems with using the Internet as a reliable source — is that one cannot reduce complex ratings like gunnery factors to a simple comparisons of rifles, either by number or bore, nor by size or weight of shell.

SWWAS ratings are not so easily reduced. The shell is only the sharp end of a very complex weapon system, involving the number and arrangement of rifles on the ship, the gun mounts, turret design, shell handling and magazine arrangements, director control (including range or range-and-bearing RDF input) systems, the ship's stability in a seaway, and an estimation of the actual performance of the armament in war, taken from action reports and official histories.

This is the most critical point, and we often lose sight of it when we “drill down” into technical detail. All ships, whether on, under or above the sea, are a compromise between three fundamental, competing elements — firepower, protection, and propulsion. Wargames which treat each facet of firepower and protection obsessively, but treat propulsion with much greater simplicity, are designed upon an insupportable central conceit. Accuracy for a wargame is about shells and armour, and therefore a game with intricate and minute rules governing every aspect of fire and armour that the designer can conceive is inherently more accurate than one which abstracts these factors.

Certainly, a thorough understanding of the technological aspects of a particular subject is necessary to design a wargame, and depending upon the game this may require more or less intensive study. Some factors have more weight, some less. For example, the British and Americans benefit from excellent fire control thanks to having RDF input on range and bearing (and later, RDF input on fall of shot), but the Japanese benefit from superb night training, including the use of floatplanes at night using coloured flares.


Holistic Analysis

The fact that SWWAS reduces the main battery to a number of gunnery factors does not necessarily mean that SWWAS does not rest upon a detailed analysis of that main battery; it means, rather, that a ship's gunnery factors must be viewed as encompassing the whole of her main battery, from shell handling procedures to weight and strength of the rifle shell to shell dispersion and accuracy over range.

I like, support, and have contributed to Avalanche Press Daily Content's approach — incorporating optional rules that improve the tactical and operational game models (as well as articles adding more extensive historical context to the games). I believe player input to be mostly boon [3], and the Daily Content approach to dealing with it inspired (and to date, unique). Even when the basis for a set of optional rules is highly technical, the rules which result often fit smoothly into the game abstraction.

The counter-argument, however, is not without strengths. SWWAS is an operational-level wargame, not a set of tactical-level miniatures rules. When one starts equating technologies with capabilities, the focus shifts to tactical effects, and ultimately, the demand for balancing realities. A corvette escorting is equipped with the Hedgehog spigot mortar, so the A/S roll is made at “+1”; but one of the U-boats is equipped with homing torpedoes, so the submarine attack roll is also made at “+1,” unless the corvette or U-Boat is sunk, in which case the modifier is not applied, unless ... and so on.

Ultimately, this sort of technological brawling — sea lawyering, if you will — becomes an end in itself, and what was once a simple but powerful combat model becomes unrecognizable amid the tangle of tables, charts, special rules, special cases of special rules, and massive OBs listing each ship's equipment at any given time; in short, a nightmare.

The key, I believe is to understand clearly that SWWAS ratings do not directly correlate to any particular weapon, armour plate, or ton of fuel bunkerage. However sexy one's favourite weapon may be, take the time to consider carefully its impact on operations in the time, place, and circumstance of the game to which you want to add it.

This is not to say that SWWAS is perfect. The steady addition of new games has been accompanied by refinements and revisions to the rules, and numerous Daily Content articles have added optional rules stressing particular aspects of the naval war from 1939 to 1945.

The risk of focusing on technologies — for example, the introduction of spigot mortars to supplement depth charges — brings with it an inherent danger of seeing these technologies as requiring new rules, new ratings, and new charts. An historical discussion of the development of the ahead-thrown A/S weapons — Hedgehog [4], Squid, and Limbo — does not need to change any rules in SWWAS to be an interesting Daily Content article.

And if one decides that the introduction of Hedgehog was, indeed, so revolutionary as to require a change in the SWWAS rules for A/S, than that rule change should be matched to the operational effect of the ahead-thrown A/S weapons on the battle between escorts and submarines, separate from all other factors.

A different approach would be to modify the A/S roll as from a certain date, when the combination of improved ASDIC, ahead-thrown A/S weapons, centimetric RDF, and more numerous escorts meant that the U-boats could no longer hope to simply “wait it out,” or use the ASDIC “black out” and the cover of exploding depth-charges to take incremental evasive action toward escaping.

Even then, one must keep in mind the effect on the probabilities of adding “+1” to a die roll employing 2d6.


And I Saw Beauty . . .

The real beauty of SWWAS is that it is an eminently playable game. Even the complex scenarios covering the vast movement of naval forces in the Mediterranean in Bomb Alley, or the lengthy convoy scenarios of Bismarck, can be played to conclusion, and more than once. This means that I can fight out "Come In Rangoon" from Eastern Fleet a dozen times, trying different stratagems as Allied or Axis player, to see the effect.

"Come In Rangoon" is particularly effective as an example, because the historical facts — the Allied loss of Burma — cannot be changed; yet the Allied player can win the scenario within that historical context. By pushing the troops convoy through to Rangoon, Burma, loading troops (abstracted as Cargo Points), and running like a bunny for the nearest Allied port, the Allied player can amass enough VPs to win.

In fact, the Japanese player cannot win without either interfering with the convoy, or seeking battle with the Royal Navy. Yet by moving north to disrupt the troopship convoy, the Japanese player exposes the cruiser battle group to attack by Royal Navy carrier aircraft and, worse, risks a collision with HMS Warspite and a pair of County-class 8-inch cruisers.

The dangers of too-aggressive tactics on either hand are nicely balanced by the price of too much caution. Nothing ruins a cruiser's day like being pounded to pieces by 15" naval rifles, while the loss of Warspite to Japanese surface ship torpedoes represents a catastrophe of the first rank. Still, the Japanese must disrupt the evacuation of Rangoon, while landing their occupation forces on Sumatra, and the Royal Navy must discourage the Japanese cruiser battlegroup, without being drawn too far away from Ceylon.

And that's a great wargame.


[1] That is: SOPAC, Midway, Bomb Alley, Eastern Fleet, Leyte Gulf, Strike South, Bismarck, and Arctic Convoy; plus Distant Oceans, East of Suez and Black Sea Fleets.

And I emphatically and specifically include SOPAC in that count! Without SOPAC, there is no SWWAS; and besides, I like SOPAC. I particularly like the “beachhead” counters, and we supplement them with “construction” markers as additional targets for naval bombardment. In Eastern Fleet, we use “airfield” markers for airfields not on the map. Like the “Flight” markers, they are not absolutely necessary, but they add a great deal to the problems of commanders (how large is the airstrike, how do I protect the highly vulnerable beachhead full of supplies . . . ).

[2] For some reason, the folks who tear their hair out over the details of the 7.92mm Mauser rifle round and the .303" Enfield rifle round — and who would have an apoplectic fit over the "imprecision" of my analogy — always demand a “campaign game”. I've never really understood this, except in a role-playing context (air games are well-suited to the role-playing style, as players generally want to fly fighters in dogfights, rather than destroy bridges or wreck trains). But it is nearly as universal as their complaints over the results.

[3] Of course, I don't have to deal with them.

[4] I believe Hedgehog was called Mousetrap on American vessels. Since I'm not actually writing an article on ahead-thrown A/S weapons, I'll try and leave it at that.

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