The Second Great War:
When we launched our Second Great War story arc of alternative-history game supplements, I don’t think I truly appreciated the creative opportunities developer Jim Stear had opened. It’s the chance to create a whole world, and it has been an enormously fun process.
The Second Great War sourcebook is the series bible for the Second Great War alternative history: it lays out this world that never was with its different politics, technology and economics. And of course a very different military history.
We’d covered some of this background before in a series of three Second Great War at Sea books (The Kaiser’s Navy, The Habsburg Fleet and Royal Netherlands Navy) but writing a comprehensive background book provided the chance to bring all of those bits and pieces into one coherent whole. It also let me smooth those together, and make a few changes to the story. Hopefully they’re pretty subtle. Well, most of them. Some are pretty obvious.
Second Great War at Sea needed more battleships. This is true of every wargame and wargame series. I also wanted hostility between the United States and Great Britain to help drive the story line. And so those come together with a brief conflict, and much greater naval arms race, between the two Anglo-Saxon super powers.
Trade rivalries play a role, but the putative flashpoint is Ireland; with peace coming to Europe at the close of December 1916, the British Army can deploy many tens of thousands of troops to Ireland to crush the independence movement. With the United States having remained neutral in the Great War, Britain is not seen as a comrade-in-arms. American sympathy for Ireland is even greater than was the case historically, and Irish-Americans in particular support the cause with arms, cash and volunteers. The King’s government is not amused.
That in turn leads to an even hotter naval arms race, with Britain and the United States pursuing large naval programs. Kaiser Wilhelm II cannot allow the Royal Navy to build up without an answer, and Germany starts laying down new dreadnoughts as well. The renewed naval programs are also seen as viable job-creating vehicles during demobilization.
That provided one key excuse I had sought: an opportunity to provide modernized versions of the ships from the Jutland 1919 book, like the follow-on class to the Queen Elizabeths and the German L1 (a fast battleship version of the Baden class) or L2 (an enlarged Baden with ten main guns, a unique design with three “triple-stacked” super-firing turrets aft). Because we need more battleships.
An arms limitation treaty eventually puts the damper on both the Anglo-American conflict and the naval buildup, but not until the fleets have expanded.
With Germany not carrying a massive reparations debt or the resulting devastation of hyperinflation, the Great Depression is much more of an American phenomenon than was the case in the world we know. With powerful economies in Germany and Russia pumping out gross national products in the same league as that of the United States, the world can find other economic engines to pull it through a period of American insanity featuring an imbecilic tariff war (via the Smoot-Hawley Act) and the racist (and unconstitutional) madness of the Mexican Repatriation program (these things, by the way, really happened and were just as damaging and stupid in 1929).
The United States remains an economic powerhouse, but without the same relative advantages as in our historical world. With strong economic ties to Imperial Germany, open hostility toward Britain and quiet hostility toward the anti-democratic regimes in France, Italy and Russia, her entry into the war is only a matter of time. And then our friend Arrigo Velicogna will get to steam Iowa and Yamato into battle together.
The original vision of the Second Great War posited an approach to technology little different from that of the actual 1940, since we were re-using pieces either already printed (Royal Netherlands Navy, The Habsburg Fleet) or already laid out (The Kaiser’s Navy) that cleaved very close to the standard Second World War at Sea pieces. Many of the aircraft types, for example, were identical to those from other games.
We added aircraft-carrying zeppelins to the three earlier books, but that wasn’t enough for me; I wanted to take the setting even more into a dieselpunk direction, for a couple of reasons. First off, aircraft-carrying zeppelins, like autogyros and helicopters, are simply cool. Next, I didn’t want the Second Great War books/games to simply be copies of the standard historical Second World War at Sea games with different-colored pieces: an alternative-history game should do something weird, fun and cool. Finally, we have our Long War setting (the one with Plan Z) with all sorts of advanced ships and science (like early jets and missiles) and I wanted the two alternative histories to be clearly distinct from one another.
Beyond that, I also want Second Great War at Sea to emphasize battleship combat. Fixed-wing aircraft are mostly useful for short-range scouting and airships for longer-range missions. Helicopters and autogyros are excellent anti-submarine warfare platforms. But the great battleships are unlikely to be done in by swarms of enemy bombers as happened to Prince of Wales and Musashi.
So we have airships, helicopters and biplanes, and not nearly as many of them. That also frees up more space on the counter sheets for “long” ship pieces, and therefore more battleships and the smaller ships that escort them.
And regarding all those battleships: while the history may be cobbled together from alternative facts (though the book works hard to lay out the plausibility of events that result in this history), the ships are as “real” as we can make them. They may not have been built or even laid down, but we’ve used actual warship designs wherever possible (and extrapolated from common design practice where it’s not).
The course of our fake history hasn’t changed much from the events detailed in the first three Second Great War at Sea books. The Central Powers are aligned with Brazil and later the United States and Japan against the Allied Powers of Britain, a very powerful Imperial Russia, the European fascist states and Argentina. It is, even more than the actual Second World War, a global conflict.
There is widespread fighting in Africa, between German colonies and those of her neighbors, and of course in the waters offshore. Iran is aligned with the Allied Powers, opening a long front on the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire and a naval front in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. There is also war in South America, between Brazil on one side and Argentina and Chile on the other.
The Second Great War is first and foremost a Second World War at Sea setting, and those additional theaters give us the excuse to extend the range of operational maps to areas where the historical games would never venture, like the western half of the Indian Ocean from Dubai to Durban, the Caribbean or the Gulf of Guinea.
We crafted the Second Great War setting as the background for a series of alternative-history naval game scenarios, and that remains its primary purpose. While a fully-developed background has been fun to create, it also assures that the scenarios in the books and games have a coherent story line flowing through them, which in turn makes them more fun to play.
This sort of project has never been done in wargames to my knowledge; I think a long-defunct publisher did a series of “near future” World War III boxed games back in the 1980’s but I don’t believe they fleshed out the background. The Second Great War is going to be unique, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
You can order The Second Great War right here.
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.