U.S. Navy Plan
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
As a staunch #FreeUAB activist, it pains me to have a game in our lineup with “Crimson” in its title. If you don’t get the reference, it’s probably too convoluted and Alabama-centric to explain. Just understand that the name of our “U.S. Navy Plan Crimson” game disturbs me deeply.
Other than its name, I have to like what I see. U.S. Navy
Plan Crimson surely has the strangest setting of any we’ve ever published – something we play up in our marketing for it – yet it’s proven surprisingly popular. The game, designed by Milan Becvar, is part of our Great War at Sea series. When Milan submitted it, I told him we couldn’t publish it as a regular boxed game and he didn’t care – he just wanted to share his bizarre vision with the rest of the world. So we issued it as a download, and people liked it. Then we issued it in a boxed edition, and people like it some more. People are strange.
This strange premise I keep mentioning is a war between Canada and the United States in the early 1920’s. That by itself is not so odd: both sides made plans to fight such a conflict, with the American side drawing up pretty detailed plans including invasions by land and sea and the use of poison gas. The Canadians had far less involved thinking going on their side; they probably counted on those bilingual road signs confusing the invaders. Having been jailed by Canadian border guards (twice, both times in Windsor, Ontario), I’ve got no problem contemplating war with Canada. I’m just not sure how many others feel the same way.
The premise is where Milan’s history departs from all semblance of reality. In his story (a thoroughly developed story, I should add), the United States and Canada have built large fleets of “lake battleships,” pretty much shallow-draft pre-dreadnoughts with usually four and sometimes six heavy guns. There are also a few lake cruisers, some lake destroyers and a whole swarm of lake torpedo boats. There are no lake aircraft carriers but we keep getting requests for them so I guess we’ll have to add some in a Golden Journal (though why you’d need an aircraft carrier on a lake is . . . never mind).
Yet it’s not just thrown together in a mash of insomnia-induced ramblings. Milan has given a lot of thought to factors like American and Canadian social, industrial and economic development, the weather conditions prevalent over the lakes, their hydrography and their history as a zone of conflict. It’s a fully developed setting with its own logic and back story: there are rules for lake ice, artillery attacks on ships transiting canals, shore batteries, blockships and more. Developer Jim Stear gave the game the polish it needed, refining the scenarios and slimming down the huge fleets of lake battleships to manageable size: in the original submission, each side’s vessels probably accounted for more steel than the entire U.S. Navy ocean-going fleet.
The oddness of the premise is game’s greatest strength: it allows players to take their minds off the “reality” and focus just on the game itself. As the series’ original designer, I’m pretty pleased to see that the rules work so well in a setting stripped of the usual room to maneuver. Some game engines only really work for very specific situations and I had suspected this was true for Great War at Sea, but the system works fine even in such restricted waters.
When these fleets go to “sea,” there’s not a whole lot of room for subtlety. On a good day you can see all the way across the lakes, at least the lower ones. There’s not much space to hide from your enemies – you’re going to have to go out there and fight them.
And that’s where Milan has crafted a really fun game, because the strategy is very different from the typical Great War at Sea game. You will make contact with the enemy. You have to make sure you do so on your terms, which calls for some careful game play.
The five Great Lakes (just five; as far as I know Milan has not written a variant allowing you to steam up to Lake Winnipeg on a newly-built canal but it would not surprise me if he did) are divided into separate bodies of water for the most part. You can steam directly between Lakes Michigan and Huron through the narrow Strait of Mackinac, but otherwise you can only shift your ships between the lakes via rivers or canals. And oh my, there are canals. All the “real” ones and a few more besides, that let you shift your forces secretly from lake to lake through your own territory.
The fleets cover several classes of lake battleship for each side, becoming steadily more sophisticated (that’s a nice way to say, “odd”) as the years progress. The early ships are very similar to ocean-going pre-dreadnoughts, with four 12-inch guns mounted in turrets fore and aft. But then they more powerful, and since they can’t really have a deeper draft, there’s a limit to their size and firepower. The most recent American ships carry seven 14-inch guns in five turrets, while their Canadian counterparts have six 13.5-inch guns in a pair of triple turrets. The Canadians also have a sort-of lake battle cruiser, a lake battleship design that emphasizes speed over armament.
And there are airplanes. With every possible enemy target only minutes away by air, aircraft are much more useful in this game than any other Great War at Sea title. They’re not dominant by any means, these being early ‘20’s airplanes, but they do have plenty of chances to influence the action.
So while I still find the premise odd and the title offensive, I’m glad we published this game (even if it does have a ship named Bloor). It’s popular for good reason, and lets you relax and have fun. And that’s exactly what this stuff is supposed to do.
Don’t wait to put Plan Crimson on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before anyone else!
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.