Sword of the Sea:
Our Second Great War alternative-history setting is an ambitious project to tell the story of a war that never happened, and a version of reality that never existed, through a series of games, game expansions and splatbooks. It’s been done before in the role-playing publishing world, which is where we stole the idea, but never with a wargame series.
The conceit is pretty simple: in late 1916, Woodrow Wilson tried to negotiate an end to the First World War. He failed. In our alternative history, he succeeded. The great empires of Eastern Europe - Imperial Germany, Imperial Russia, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey - survive to fight again a generation later. The new war, the Second Great War, begins with Russia, France and Italy attempting to overturn Wilson’s Peace with an attack on the Central Powers in August 1940.
War comes to the Ottoman Empire a little later than that, when Russia’s Tsar Alexei orders an ill-considered winter attack on his southern neighbor to relieve the stalemate on the main front. The latest Russo-Ottoman War opens in January 1941, where Sword of the Sea picks up the story of the Mediterranean War (the story of the August - December segment is told in the book Austria’s Fleet).
Sword of the Sea is the companion book to Austria’s Fleet, and both of them are Second Great War at Sea expansion books for Second World War at Sea: La Regia Marina. We’ve neglected both of these titles in Daily Content, which is a little surprising since they’re both favorite projects. They’ve been designed side-by-side, so they’re really two halves of one very large book, with Sword of the Sea picking up the story right after the conclusion of Austria’s Fleet.
The story here is the Second Great War on the eastern half of the La Regia Marina map. The Ottoman Turkish fleet faces enemies all around, chiefly the Imperial Russian Black Sea Fleet to the north. The Russians have minor allies in Romania, with a small fleet, and Greece, with a somewhat larger but still minor navy. The Turks get a little help (only a little) from the tiny Imperial Bulgarian Navy.
While most of the major Turkish surface ships are German cast-offs, there is a core of modern heavy ships to balance the big Russian battleships, in individual capability if not in the same numbers. The book also includes the technical details of the Turkish, Greek, Romanian and Bulgarian additions, in the same format as Fleets: Imperial Russia (like we did with Tropical Storm).
Like other Second Great War campaigns, it’s a battleship war, and there’s not a lot of room to hide on the Black Sea or the Aegean. The Russians are trying to push their way through the Turkish Straits, and that’s an existential threat to Grand Vizier Mustafa Kemal’s revived empire. The Turks also face the impudent Greeks on their other flank; eventually they’ll have French and British threats to handle as well.
The Russian fleet is powerful, with a core of fourteen battleships, most of them large, fast and well-armed. The amphibious forces have three old battleships converted into assault ships and a pair of helicopter carriers, but the Black Sea Fleet requires fewer attendant vessels like cruisers and destroyers than other Russian fleets, given the tight confines of the Black Sea.
The Romanians aren’t a whole lot of help, not that the Russians need much more. The Bulgarians offer even less. The Central Powers side of the naval war is going to be carried by the Ottoman Turkish Navy, which starts with the tremendous advantage of a central position from which the fleet can enter the Aegean or the Black Sea, while their enemies have to fight separate campaigns.
At first glance, the Turks should be in good shape against the Russians, with a matching fourteen heavy ships: ten battleships and four battle cruisers (a fifth battle cruiser is stationed in the Red Sea). But except for a trio of modern battleships designed in Germany and built in Turkey as part of Kemal’s drive to develop local industry, the Turkish ships are on the whole older, slower and smaller than their Russian counterparts - in some cases, very much outclassed by the ships from the Tsar’s Navy. The Turks do have near-parity in cruisers and destroyers, and a strong submarine arm.
The Turkish side is going to have to play with some subtlety, knowing that the Russians have to come to them. The Turks are on the strategic defensive, and they do have their fast wing of battle cruisers to threaten Russian troop convoys and coastal trade. The world of the Second Great War does not have the same high-performance aircraft of our own history, which makes it a little easier for ships to sneak across open water.
The Russians need to support their land forces in the Balkans and on the Caucasus front, but the real prize is Constantinople and the Turkish Straits. For centuries Russian rulers have considered it their destiny to redeem Tsargrad from the Turks; more recently, they’ve lusted for the trade and military implications of secure access between their Black Sea ports and the Mediterranean Sea. The Black Sea Fleet was built for this one mission; the Turkish fleet was built or acquired to foil it.
Like most of the Second Great War, Sword of the Sea is crafted to encourage large-scale battleship action. As I’ve written before, if you’re going to make up some history, make it up so that it suits your purposes. I enjoy really writing the Second Great War at Sea stuff, and Sword of the Sea was a particularly fun project. Second Great War at Sea is a popular series because of its story line (well, mostly because it has a story line at all), and I suspect gamers are going to like having a lengthier, meatier story line with Sword of the Sea following up the Austria’s Fleet story.
And if they don’t care, well, the Black Sea is really small (only about 15 percent more surface area than the Caspian Sea, where our tiny Caspian Princes game takes place) which means that it’s really hard for the battleship fleets to avoid each other. If you break out the pieces and the map, you’re going to have battles, lots of battles, with lots of battleships.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold fears helicopters.