Great (Big) War at Sea – A Board Gaming Life Series Review

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 by Paul Comben

There is an issue with naval board wargames that really does not apply to many other areas of the hobby. You can have some big beast of a Gettysburg game, or of Waterloo, or of Borodino; you can advance through the steppes of 1941 Russia with dozens of divisions; return to Cannae or Gaugamela with arms stretching to reach the extremities of your paper battlefield, but you might still have less administrative hassle, drag on gameplay, and threat of that precious weekend coming to a close far too quickly, than if you embark on grey seas to fight battles with the floating custodians of great matter and moment.

What do we do with Gettysburg regiments, Waterloo battalions, ancient cohorts or panzer spearheads? Well, we flip them, put a status marker or two on them, or under them, and then proceed to the next unit. Meanwhile, the naval gamer, even with a system as apparently accessible as Flying Colors, will find that the story of his or her average ship counter is constantly being enlarged upon by the application of marker after marker – the sails are full of holes, the hull is full of holes, the guns are loaded this way, or that way, there is a fire on board, the crew is ailing, the ship has gone the wrong way against the wind…it has been remarked upon, photographed, sometimes admired and often lamented, but the truth is those ships can end up more covered in chits and emblems than I would need permissions to swan around the MI5 building or look at David Cameron’s magazine rack.


Naval counters, and thus near anything approaching a tactical level in naval gaming, simply requires far more story to be told than the counter itself can convey. It goes to one extreme in a series like Flying Colors; and it goes well off the scale with something like Fear God and Dreadnought, or Close Action. It hardly matters whether we are talking about ships with rigging and cannon, or turrets and turbines, these are complicated beasts, with the consideration of how they move, fight, get damaged and sink bringing into play all sorts of considerations between the insensate material and the men on board. And when you start thinking seriously about what can legitimately be presented as the combat profile of any one ship, the permutations of damage and general status become immense. I am certain Jutland has been fought by players using Fear God and Dreadnought, and someone must have approached Trafalgar using Close Action; but one other thing I am certain of is that none of these intrepid gamers ever finished their battle, looked at the clock, saw it was not quite time for lunch, and so decided to set up something else for the afternoon. “Suitable for Teams” is something to look out for – and in that borderland between naval boardgames and minis, it is something you will see pretty often.

So where does the Great War at Sea fit into all this? Well, thanks to those who have molded this series over quite a number of years, it has tried to keep very much on the manageable side of things – most of the fighting forces are represented by individual ship counters if they would be seen as legitimate individual fighting units within the scope of the game – so everything from battleships down to light cruisers gets an individual counter, whilst destroyers and torpedo boats etc., which invariably fought as a swarming mass, get appropriate flotilla-type counters. And yes, this is very much a two level and inevitably therefore, two speed system. Battle groups which might represent anything from a few ships to a whole fleet of dreadnoughts, are manoeuvred by marker on the operational map of whatever part of the world’s seas/oceans any given title is set in; and then, when forces clash, the component parts of your group marker are placed on a battlefield map (basically a plain hex grid battle “arena”), and you then move to a battle procedure with the emphasis of moving the game on in a feasible way.


But this is to move the review on a bit too far at this stage, since we must first introduce the series properly. In this regard, it should probably be stated that Great War at Sea is a bit of a misnomer. It may not have been for a while; it might not have been during the publication and play of some of the earlier titles in the series, but it certainly is a misnomer now.

Yes, first and foremost, and certainly one assumes in the minds of many players, this is a series about naval events, real and hypothetical, occurring at some point between 1914 and 1918. However, even in the main titles of the series, scenarios were wont to wander out of these time parameters, and in fairly recent times the series has in fact strayed into the post Great War world, and also to before it. The shifts have not been vast, but it should be pointed out that the series now covers a period from the Spanish-American War through to the might–have-beens of naval tension between the US and France/Britain during the 1920s. Most games in the series are stand-alone titles, but there are also a number of expansion booklets that require a sometimes daunting collection of previous bits and pieces to be played – and sometimes those bits need to come from the partner Second World War series.1904suvor_v

It all depends what you want in terms of coverage, and what you really want from the series. The entirely obvious starting point in terms of “star quality” has surely got to be the Jutland game – which covers far more than that event, as there are scenarios for just about anything that did, could, or might have occurred upon the northern waters of the Great War period. There are not only British and German ships, but everything from the Russians down to the Dutch and Swedes. While there is obvious legitimacy in being able to recreate serious naval possibilities in the Baltic, I for one think it is superfluous window dressing to include odd bits of fantasy involving small fleets of rather nondescript or non-existent nations fighting battles and campaigns which were never going to happen.

I personally consider the Jutland game to have been adequately and properly fleshed out with the tensions in the North Sea and the actual Great War Baltic, and the game in that state offers plenty of scope for planning things your own way with actual historical fleets in a huge number of historically-based scenarios. Beyond that, there have been occasions when eyes have proved bigger than bellies, such as with the Plan Red offering, where the US and British fleets come to blows in the 1920s (not remotely unrealistic as a concept) but the contents of the box were not what was hoped for, with the map stretching but sparsely along the American eastern seaboard, and the ships on offer being rather few in number. For me, the game rather lost its historical grounding at this point, and the ability to enter this alternate reality was certainly affected by the sense that the game was short of what it should have had as a fully fleshed-out piece.

Of course, with a series that has so many parts, there is always going to be a chance that quality and character will vary, and as we will see, there is plenty of good stuff to indulge in – and that before we even get to what makes this series an attractive option for those who want to fight legitimate naval campaigns in a way that will not wear out your endurance. So, let us proceed to look at what the series presently and most conspicuously consists of in broad chronological order of historical setting.

Remember the MaineMaine_cover_250

One of the most recent offerings, but the first in terms of setting. Whether you opt for this depends on what your feelings are regarding fighting battles with ships many people will never have heard of. To the designers’ merit, they have done more than simply apply some paltry ratings to some antique ships – there are rams and provision for ships with low freeboard, (sails!), which each help remind us that we are still in a sort of transient era between the last tactical vestiges of an earlier period of naval warfare, and what is to come less than ten years later when the world first sees HMS Dreadnought. This game offers up-close fighting – far closer than just about every other title in the range. It also offers considerably more pure battle scenarios than many of the other games, where the battle scenarios are very much a quick gaming fix readily outweighed by the abundance of operational settings.Maine_Maine

Unfortunately, in both this game and the one that chronologically follows after, Russo-Japanese War, we are on the receiving end of AP’s efforts to produce new counter cutting/presentation techniques – and neither effort is an unqualified success. RtM has ship counters which readily drop out of the sheets, but frankly every one of them looks like it was stowed too close to the furnaces. They are covered in scorch marks, and while some people say they like the effect, I do not. And as an aside to this, unless counter sheets are going to be sealed in plastic film as Legion Wargames practice, I see precious little merit in receiving a box full of jumbled and displaced counters – as I did with the PG Saipan game.

The problem was rather different with Russo-Japanese war, where the counters had some form of coating on them, which may well have been there to avoid the incendiary effects of the cutting, but did make the counters rather difficult to read (they look slightly blurred); and in addition to that, they were very difficult to remove from the sheets and then separate – a bit like trying to break up a thick bar of chocolate that has been sitting in the freezer.

Russo-Japanese WarRuss-Jap_300

I should probably point out here that these games are all about the navies and naval assets – so if you are thinking about the land aspects of events like the Russo-Japanese war, look elsewhere. As the series moves deeper into the Twentieth Century, you will see a growing presence of submarines and aircraft…and airships, but the fighting on land goes beyond the scope of these designs.

When it comes to the quality of naval leadership, throughout the series you are somewhat hovering between a mild abstraction and the simple reality that no commander in this era could do a vast amount once battle is joined. Leaders can affect contact and battle initiative, but that is it.

Needless to say, whatever else players know, or do not know, about the Russo-Japanese War, the battle of Tsushima will figure prominently. Here, it is just the one battle scenario among many scenarios covering the period of the war. The broad brush approach to battle, which is essential to preventing the whole series bogging down the moment the guns open up, does at least mean that particular situations can be tweaked with a die modifier or an easy to implement special rule. Here, the out of practice gunnery of the worn Russian fleet is simply represented by a qualifier on any hit by the Russians actually doing something.

What should be apparent with a game like this one is that a very considerable amount of effort has gone into creating the ships as counters and as data, and putting them into campaigns and battles that ring true.

Cruiser Warfare


Rather different in scope to other offerings, instead of a specific sea or ocean area linked to a theatre of war, here you move ships on an area map of the world. The forces are not large, but the situation is interesting, as it centres on the German commerce raiders of the early war period, and in particular, on the efforts of the German East Asia Squadron to hurt Allied commerce and possibly (but rather improbably) return back to Germany.

Especially in focus within this context is fuelling stocks – for while fuel carried by ships, or available to ships via colliers or port facilities do play a part in the other games, here the key aspect of Allied strategy is to hunt down the colliers and seize the German overseas possessions, and thus reduce Von Spee’s squadron to the condition described at the time by Winston Churchill – “A vase of cut flowers, beautiful to look at, but doomed to die.”


 This is one of the veterans of the series, and covers Great War events and possibilities in the Mediterranean/Black Sea theatres. Historically, the fleets here did more staring at each other than actual fighting, but in addition to events linked to the Goeben and the Dardanelles fiasco, the game does make plenty of effort to give players the hypothetical scenarios where they can get the big boys out and start thundering away. But in recognition that many a country with a fleet of these expensive battleships/status symbols did not feel that inclined that often to get the big boys out to do anything, there is provision in one of the system’s booklet expansions (Dreadnoughts) for forcing the player’s hand away from valiantly/foolishly/criminally demolishing his own fleet.

Jutland (formerly North Sea)Seydlitz

Certainly the most attractive part of the series for most gamers, this is where you will find the imposing strength of The British, the Germans, along with the Russian Baltic Fleet…and the Dutch.

When playing a full-blooded operational scenario from this game, as, in all fairness, with many others, you will get an understanding of how much bluff, tension and logistical/material considerations went into the movement of fleets set upon the settling of “considerable affairs.”

There are not that many battle scenarios in this design, but if the fleets do meet, you will be faced with the biggest battles this system can provide.

Pacific Crossroadspacific-crossroads

 Well and truly in the realms of hypothesis here, this game postulates the Japanese making a power move into the Pacific proper one war early.

And just two of the books…


This is significant in that, as well as providing a large range of hypothetical scenarios, it also contains a new set of rules for the tactical battle system – more anon.

Bay of Bengal

I mention this book in that it shows something particular about this series – we have all encountered systems which are good for things at a given scale, larger scale, smaller scale, somewhere in the middle. Here, with a set of scenarios that are small in numbers of ships but can involve large expanses of water, we see the other end of the system in contrast to doing big moves and big battles with big fleets.

The action again concentrates on the German commerce raiders, and in a number of scenarios, just one raider in a big sea with limited but more powerful Allied forces looking to hunt it down. And it all works very nicely, although this is one set of scenarios that require materials from here, there and everywhere around the system in order to play all that is on offer.

So how does it all play?

With the exception of Cruiser Warfare, all the games have an operational map divided into offset squares. Here you will manoeuvre the force elements you have available via a counter linked to the actual ships kept on an off-map display. It is largely up to the player how he/she divides and organizes their forces within the restrictions of the scenario’s order of battle and the dictates of specific mission types.


Missions help give a character to the scenario, and prevent forces simply wandering around the map with no sense of definition or purpose. There are eight mission types, from minesweeping and minelaying, to intercept, raid, bombard, escort, transport and abort. Missions allow or forbid certain types of move, including pre-plotting, and some must be led by a naval leader – particularly raid.

If we think of a typical operational scenario from the Jutland game, it is not difficult to picture the German player looking to raid with his battle cruisers whilst the rest of the fleet trails at a decent distance. Of course, there is plenty of scope for bluff, and with submarines and mines in the mix, the German player will be looking to ambush elements of the Grand Fleet any way they can.

Getting to battle is by means of establishing contact, and the first premise for that is that the opposing forces were in the same sea zone(s) at some point in the same turn. Contact is then resolved by die result, with modifiers for factors such as a leader being present, weather, size of forces, type of mission etc. etc. It must be stressed that the opposing players will see nothing on the operational map save that a force marker is present – contact is the only way to tell the story of what is actually there.

If contact is made, battle will ensue. There is a basic battle system, which is only a step or two up from War at Sea. However, for just about any taste, or unless time is especially pressing, players will dispense with that in favour of the playing out of battle in rounds on the battle display.

Although this is a broad brush system in many respects (in the treatment of armour and the resolution of hits) individual ships are rather highly detailed. Most of this pertains to how they will fight and endure damage, but there is also the provision of individual ship fuel provision, including whether the ship in question is using coal or oil.1904Mikasa

When people fall out of love with this system, or fail to get interested in the first place, it is largely due to how combat works out. Ships are stacked up to their limit in the display, they move a hex in sequence according to their speed rating, they get several chances to fire, and when the multiple step combat round is concluded, including some more movement for some ships, you check to see if another round will be fought.

It all moves rather quickly, and it seems to put some people ill at ease with what they are doing. For a start, this is a bucket of dice system – you roll dice equal to the ship’s firepower rating for the armament that is firing (primary, secondary, tertiary), with any 6 signifying a hit. Then, for each hit, you roll to see what it affected. Armour is a simple matter of type – Heavy, Light and No Armour. Hits from primary guns will go through anything, secondary guns will do nothing through Heavy armour, and tertiary guns can only affect unarmoured sections. In a big battle, you do get a lot of rolling, but on the other hand, you are not trying to shave off this or that percentage modifier, looking at graphs, reading things off charts, and thus losing your chance to win or lose a war in an afternoon. There is some finessing here and there, such as critical hits and battle cruiser explosions (guess whose battle cruisers), but along with an equally simple torpedo system, that is essentially it for the main pulse of battle.jutland-painting

Yes, it is simple, and some would claim simplistic, but I endorse the design ethos behind this combat mechanism. The moment you start adding more, the system drags; and too much drag, and the facility of the game as approachable and reasonable in result will begin to suffer. And it is not as if the game has simplified the great ships to the point of nameless counters. The top down views of the ships are highly detailed, and suffer only in that everything is depicted the same size, from super dreadnoughts to light cruisers. But the information on the ships, when not covered in glaze or encroached on by laser burn marks, is clear, and the accompanying damage/ship characteristic logs for each nation’s overall OOB are more detailed than the newcomer might expect. Take, for example, Jellicoe’s flagship, Iron Duke. Utterly typical in depiction to most everything else individually represented in the Jutland game, there are the armoured boxes for her primary guns, for her less armoured secondary batteries, notes of her her torpedo armament, her speed rating, more boxes for her armoured hull, and for her fuel type and capacity – actually, that last one is done in circles. So while we are throwing our dice bucket around, it actually pertains to a profile of this and of many other ships which contains far more detail than, for example, the old and rightfully revered Jutland from Avalon Hill, and this with the added bonus that you are not going to have to clear the furniture out of the lounge to set the game up.konigfiring

Having said all that, there are still those more detailed battle rules in the Dreadnoughts booklet, which was clearly a response to a desire among players to have something more to work with. For me, perhaps the most controversial thing missing from the main battle system is any notion of facing and gunnery arcs. If you play with the standard rules alone, there will be no crossing of any “Ts” at all. You simply close in, or not close in, roll, hit and get hit, firing with factors unaffected by anything other than prior damage and possibly the weather. My feeling with the advanced rules is that they are better seen as a pick and mix rather than applied as a wholesale replacement for the originals. If you put the whole lot in, and that as part of a substantial operational scenario, your game pace will slow appreciably. On the other hand, with a smaller engagement, or with a stand-alone battle scenario, you might opt for as many of the new rules as you like.  Ranging shots, and a much more involved list of modifiers are part of the story, along with more relation to historical results via damage die rolls, and a tad more detailing on armour efficiency.

However, tucked away at the end of these rules is the highly significant “Better Part of Valour” rule. Being of a certain age, I well recall the notes accompanying the Brigade Combat Effectiveness provision in the original Terrible Swift Sword. This was introduced, as the notes recall, to prevent players, as seen in playtesting, avidly grinding their units to nothing without any real sense of consequence. The Better Part… rule does much the same thing for larger combats in GWaS (not a good idea to use it in anything small or where forces were locked by honour and/or foolishness, like Coronel). The premise of this rule is that no admiral, given all the prestige considerations tied to these fleets, was going to expend his nation’s assets without a serious amount of inclination to sail away in a different direction. And to emphasise how little a prod were needed, the rules here call for a break-off roll the moment casualties get to 10% of the force. If that seems a bit iffy to anyone, just think of Scheer at Jutland, who turned away twice from the British when he still had not lost a capital ship; or consider Jellicoe, turning away from a torpedo attack and losing sight of the Germans when he still had well over thirty functioning or entirely unscathed capital ships against little more than half that number.

It might be considered interesting that so much of the controversy about this series has concentrated on the “I don’t like the combats” line of argument. Somehow, the operational side of the games tends to be overlooked; and yet, it is such a vital and integral part of the system and what the games are meant to be about. At the level of those commerce scenarios, fuelling and moving your one ship in the big wide water is as tense as moving the Grand Fleet to a meeting with the Hochseeflotte, and hoping that no mines, submarines, or other mischief are encountered along the way. Von Spee’s courses were often determined by the hunt for coal – from islands, from stopovers in neutral ports, and most fatefully, from an aborted visit to the Falkland Islands.Kaiser-Wilhelm-II

And there are little things to be learnt, or better grasped, by play. The German fleet, the Kaiser’s exercise in egotistical mania, was confined not only by inferiority of numbers and unfavorable geography, but by the fact that its range was severely limited. This was something actually depicted in gaming as far back as Avalon Hill’s Jutland, where the initial German campaign plot was not going to be able to cater for going a long way and then hanging around a bit. German colliers might supply a ship or two, but the whole fleet? No chance. And not only that, but as at Dogger Bank, the Germans were to lament the inferior quality of their coal, which kept the speed of their vessels below what it might otherwise have been.

And what about playing the series solitaire? This is entirely feasible in pure battle scenarios, but when one enters the world of complex operations, where lack of knowledge is predominant, and where ambush and surprise is of utmost importance, the whole thing looks distinctly unpromising. But there are solitaire rules on the Avalanche website, which will allow you to play operational games on your own; and in any case, an experienced gamer will always be able to find ways of randomizing choices and options, revealing the true and concealing the fake, and thus enjoying to the full what I believe to be the best, and certainly the most accessible, historical naval series in the hobby.

About the Author


Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.

 Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.


  1. Nice review! At this moment I have one of the Pacific Crossroads battle scenarios on the table and really enjoy the story it tells me and the story that you can make out of it.

  2. A remarkably fair review of a system that while unsurpassed in its breadth of coverage of the topic is usually reviled for its combat system. The expanded tactical rules in Dreadnought authored by Karl Laskas help considerably, but most reviewers tend to forget the focus of the game is Operational allowing large engagements to be actually played rather than just dreamed about. I also prefer the use of reasonably simple “hit sheets” to counter clutter or A4 size individual ship status sheets that more detailed games require.

  3. I was one of those gamers who tried the system briefly and then soon lost interest because of the combat system. Although it lacked all kinds of tactical detail, Avalon Hill’s old Jutland let you visualize the battle with the long lines of battleships slugging it out. With all those capital ships deployed on stacks the Great War at Sea series seemed to completely that visual drama. The battles indeed felt like the War at Sea with less fun.

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