The Wine-Dark Sea:
History & Scenarios, Part Two
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When I first started designing games, I had the good fortune to stumble upon a mentor, Jack Greene of Quarterdeck Games. Jack laid out a challenge: to design an operational game set on the Black Sea in the First World War, to be compatible with a Quarterdeck game that included tactical scenarios from the campaign.
That Black Sea game never appeared under the Quarterdeck banner, but it did eventually appear from another publisher and my work and thinking became the basis for the Great War at Sea game series. And so with Great War at Sea: The Wine-Dark Sea (formerly titled Mediterranean Ultimate Edition), we return the game system to its roots. Since it was designed for the Black Sea campaign, it works particularly well there.
The naval campaign on the Black Sea is one of the lesser-known events of the First World War, much less of all military history, and I suppose it’s fitting that I started game design with a game set there. I’ve lately moved away from such obscure topics, but the scenario set with its historical story arc is just too good to leave out (though perhaps I’ll regret not giving it its own separate book).
The Black Sea is a self-contained theater. The Turks and Germans are down at the lower left corner with a base at Constantinople; they have a few minor ports on the Anatolian coast but nowhere else to re-arm, re-fuel or seek repairs. The Russians are right across the water at Sevastopol, a heavily fortified base in a central location dominating the Black Sea basin, with some large commercial ports also at their disposal like Odessa and Novorossisk.
The Turkish fleet is pretty much worthless, with only a pair of protected cruisers, two torpedo gunboats and four German-built destroyers having any fighting value. They also have two elderly pre-pre-dreadnought battleships with the speed of a trash barge, a reconditioned ironclad and a handful of small torpedo boats.
It’s the two German ships that give the Central Powers the ability to wage war at sea: the famous battle cruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau. Goeben’s builders, Blohm & Voss of Hamburg, stuck the Imperial Navy with a lemon, a ship always in need of some sort of machinery repair. But when she’s mission-capable, the Russians have nothing to match her speed and until their dreadnoughts finally come into service, nothing to match her protection and firepower. Likewise, they have no cruisers capable of pacing Breslau, though like other German light cruisers of the war’s first years she’s lacking in firepower for her size.
In the war’s first year, the Russian Black Sea Fleet relies on a squadron of five pre-dreadnought battleships. They’re slow, and the two oldest are positively ancient mariners that should have been retired before the war’s beginning. But their gunnery is excellent, and the Russians have developed very effective gunnery control from the squadron flagship rather than each ship firing on its own.
Over the next year, the Russians pick up two dreadnought battleships, though they lose one to an internal explosion almost exactly one year later. That changes the dynamics, as the Russians now have individual ships able to sink Goeben on their own. A third such ship appears in 1917, but by then the naval campaign on the Black Sea was over.
It wouldn’t be an Avalanche Press naval game without a few ships that never actually made it to sea, at least not under their original flags. The Turks can play with their “stolen dreadnoughts,” the pair of battleships built in Britain and commandeered by the Royal Navy before the Ottoman fleet could take delivery. Plus, they have the pair of scout cruisers ordered in Britain and never completed. Together with the six modern destroyers ordered in France and never built, they have the core of a modern, powerful surface fleet to challenge the Russians.
For their part, the Russians have that third dreadnought that never made it into action, and the fourth improved dreadnought that would never be completed. Together with the four big, fast light cruisers of the “Admiral” class and the many Novik-type destroyers, they too have the makings of a modern, powerful surface fleet to fend off the Turkish-German challenge.
We included a great many Black Sea scenarios in the old Mediterranean game (23 operational scenarios and three battle scenarios, or a little more than a third of the game’s total). At the time, no one had dared to publish a game with so many scenarios (probably because no one had been crazy enough to design one) so we just presented them in simple chronological order, with no context.
The Wine-Dark Sea follows the pattern we laid down in our more recent games, with historical text interwoven with the scenarios so they tell the story of the campaign. The Black Sea scenarios are actually pretty good (they should be, given their long history), but they definitely lack battle scenarios so I added those along with a few more operational scenarios (most, but not all, of them to make better use of those never-completed/purchased ships like Imperator Nikolai I or Sultan Osman I).
And then all of the scenarios are tied together with the background text and their own introduction and aftermath segments. The Black Sea was a very active theater of war, and that makes for a fine story. With a larger scenario set than most games from other publishers, the Black Sea chapter would stand on its own very well as its own game (as it once did). But instead you get it as part of the larger package, with two of the other chapters (SMS Goeben and the Adriatic) likewise of a depth that could carry a separate game all on their own.
After 25 years of Avalanche Press, it’s clear to me that this is the last time I’ll revisit this topic. There won’t be a chance to do it over and get it right that time. This is our best and final shot, and it’s a very fine one.
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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 needs no revisions.