Musing on Battleships

Battleships have always held a fascination for me.

Certainly as a young boy, seeing pictures and drawings of battleships bristling with armament left an impression.

USS Missouri and USS Iowa

But things martial do tend to attract young boys.

Tanks, airplanes, and battleships all figured heavily in my childhood play, day dreams, and drawings. (Something actively discouraged by most female relatives of mine, yet subtly encouraged by nearly every male relative.  You see how this works.)

And while I might consider myself having missed the golden ages of tanks or airplanes, they still exist and have continued to evolve during my lifetime, if more slowly than before. (The US Air Force flies planes built before I was born and plans to keep flying some of them until after the actuarial tables say I am likely to have passed on.)

But I was born after the age of battleships.

The US Navy maintained a few during my lifetime.  One is parked, in storage, about an hours drive from my home.  It is waiting to be turned into a museum.

Fleets of steel clad battleships though, that idea faded as a strategic force nearly a century back, and even then the battleship concept was never really put to the test.  The list of battles involving battleship forces is relatively short, and the more decisive engagements tend to reflect either mis-match forces or leadership.

On that list there is the one battle that represented the clash of mass naval forces, matched in size, quality, and leadership in the style foreseen by the naval powers of the time: Jutland.

And that pretty much ended up a draw, with both sides claiming victory and pretty much returning to the same state of affairs as before the battle.

So if you study history and want to compare equipment and tactics you are at something of a loss when it comes to battleships.

With tanks you have the western desert and the eastern front.  For aircraft you have pretty much the whole European theater to study.  Battles between aircraft carriers dominated the war in the Pacific.

But for battleships fighting as their creators envisioned, you have Jutland, a battle that spawned many theories but decisions.

Part of this is because the era of the modern battleship was so short, lasting from the late 19th century to the end of World War I and the coming of the aircraft carrier.  Compare this to the age of sail, which ran from the mid 16th century up to the ironclads of the US Civil War and contains a long list of battles to study and compare.

And, likewise, there have been a number of good games representing the age of sail, full of broadsides and laying along side to board.  The actual ship to ship combat was a high point of Pirates of the Burning Sea, which I felt hit very close to the mark in the balance between realism and playability.  Pity about the rest of the game.

And, of course, there is plenty of supporting literature to put you in the mood for wooden ships.  I’ve been through all of Patrick O’Brian and most of C. S. Forester‘s tales, all of which I highly recommend.

So when announced World of Battleships (see, I’m closing in on an actual point here… somewhere) I started thinking about games I’ve played, or at least seen, involving that narrow span of time when battleships ruled the waves.  And they all seem to center around one battle.

I remember being up at The Outpost, a hobby and game store up in San Carlos, and watching very earnest men moving tiny lead models of ships around on a very large felt-covered table, measuring distances and consulting tables and charts, in order to simulate the clash of forces at Jutland.

I recall playing Avalon Hill game Jutland with a friend in a room that quickly turned out to be too small for the effort.  Plus the measurements and accounting took patience we barely possessed, and there was the danger of pets and siblings messing things up.  But the alternatives were more like AH’s War at Sea, which pulled back for a more strategic view and gave little feel for ship combat except in a very abstract sense.

I had Victory in the Pacific as well...

And neither option lived up to Wooden Ships & Iron Men.

More recently I tried out Storm Eagle Studios’ game called, naturally, Jutland.  Imagine that.  It is a 3D modeled simulation of naval combat in the age of the “modern” battleship.  And while it suffered from some of the interface maladies that tend to come with war games from smaller studios (along with some annoying copy protection for just the demo), I probably could have dealt with that had it not been for the scale of combat, something hinted at in the previous two memories.

Getting the camera hauled around to the point where I could see at least a squadron of my ships in some detail meant not being able to see the enemy except as specks on the horizon, or the rest of my own fleet, which was likewise tiny bumps on the ocean surface.

The thing that always comes back to slap me in the face is that, compared to the age of sail, combat with 20th century battleships takes place at pretty extreme ranges.  When the heavy guns of a fleet range out from 20-35km, there is no laying along side or yardarm to yardarm broadsides.

And while battleships are big, that sort of range makes them seem pretty small all the same.  I have seen the USS Iowa from the highway as we drove past Suisun Bay.  It was certainly less than 5 miles away, and it seems unimpressively small at that distance, despite being nearly 900 feet in length.

Which makes me wonder how plans to address this.

As I said about World of Warplanes, the sky is big and it needs to be because WWII aircraft move fast.  They have said they plan for a 13km by 13km airspace in which to fight 15 vs. 15 battles. (Which seems small to me, but we’ll see.)

For battleships the ocean is big and it needs to be, not because they move fast (the best can scoot along at about the same rate of speed as the fastest tank in World of Tanks), but because their guns can reach out and hit just about anything they can see.  A flat 13km by 13km square of ocean would be a battleship bloodbath.

Given’s past game plan, which is quick 15 vs. 15 battles where combat commences very rapidly, I am trying to figure out how they will fit this into the same plan.

If you start everybody too close to speed things up, it is aim, shoot, and over.

If you go for smaller ships, destroyers or cruisers, it then ceases to be World of Battleships.

If you lay things out in real world distances, with the sides out of sight of each other, the match takes a long, long time.

So how do you make a game that involves quick(-ish) action, keeps to a reasonable scale, and yet does not throw realism completely out the porthole?

Tanks were easy.  Warplanes at least have antecedents in things like Air Warrior.  But battleships?

I suppose we will have to wait and see.

15 thoughts on “Musing on Battleships

  1. HarbingerZero

    I have a copy of War At Sea myself, but I’ve never actually played it. You bring up some great points, I’m curious to see how they resolve these issues. I have a hunch it will revolved around a lot more landmass on the map than one would anticipate in a naval combat game.


  2. Aufero

    Agreed – I can’t quite see how they’ll get around the fact that naval battles take a HUGE amount of time (in MMO combat terms, at least) to play out. I loved Wooden Ships and Iron Men, but it solved that problem in favor of fun over realism. I suspect World of Battleships will do the same.

    (You wouldn’t believe how much time I spent with my friends at age 12 trying to design a realistic nuclear powered tank. Or maybe you would.)


  3. Luk

    One of the best battleship games can actually be found on PS2 of all platforms:

    Naval Ops: Warship Gunner

    It starts with basic gunships and over time you upgrade to air carriers and rail gun nuclear cruisers. It is not a simulation in any sense but it is very fun to play and the guns sound fantastic. If WOB is anything like that and online that could be more fun than WOT.

    BTW there were other big battleship battles besides Jutland, particularly the battle of Tsushima in 1905, I can see why Russian game devs have an axe grind about battleships, since Russian Navy never had a chance to redeem itself from that disaster.


  4. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Luk – Yes, I linked to a list of modern battleship engagements in the post, which apparently you missed, that includes 18 such battles including Admiral Togo’s victory at Tsushima.

    My comments were not that Jutland was the only battle, but the closest thing to the sort of battle people envisioned, with large fleets that were equally skilled and technically matched, which is why it is almost always the fallback position when somebody is going to make a modern battleship game.

    Storm Eagle Studios, for example, created a game around Jutland, then later on created an expansion pack for Tsushima, but not until the had done an expansion for Dogger Bank first. (Which isn’t on that list I linked… battlecruisers don’t count I guess.) Tsushima is interesting, but the forces were not matched either in skill or equipment.


  5. Luk

    Point taken, i did miss the link the link to the list of battles. Although, I hope the new game will ignore the Jutland lesson and go for more decisive and fun scenarios, because that battle’s outcome only proved that battleships were reaching a dead end in sea warfare evolution.

    Whatever the history can say about Tsushima, the difference in ships and skills was not as great as the numbers show. There was some bad luck involved and the lack of sensibility that just doomed the entire Russian fleet from the start. I hope WOB would allow to replay this scenario (without making Russian ships invincible of course) to prove the history wrong.


  6. James Stephens (@TCF_Hardcover)

    For what it’s worth, Battlestations: Pacific was fairly decent, I thought, at making a fun game centered around at least semi-realistic naval combat. I would be surprised if I didn’t fire up World of Battleships whenever it goes public and see at least some minor similarities.

    Also, it may interest you to know that, recently, there has been talk coming from the Pentagon about the possibility of updating and recommissioning the at least some American battleships, with proposed upgrades to include Phalanx CIWS and Chobham armor.


  7. Pingback: The Rogue Blogger » All I Ask is a Tall Ship…

  8. Maarkean

    I started a response, but it grew to long because I just started rambling about ships. So I made a post.

    But in specific response to this, I’ve not tried any of these games that have been mentioned. I think I’m missing out and need to go look them up.


  9. Ahnog

    Did you try Harpoon when it was out. There was a paper version and a computer version. I remember using the battleships a couple of times, but loved the carriers more.


  10. D506

    I think most would argue the battleship wasn’t displaced until Pearl Harbor. While it’s true that major battles between battleships were rare, they were still the mainstay and focus of modern fleets until that time. Carriers only took over the role when the US was forced into using them. You get a good sense of this when you see how many of the early carriers were converted battlecruisers and battleships.

    That there was no big battle, as had been envisioned, was more due to the failure of the decisive battle doctrine than a failure of the battleship, which aren’t actually wed that strongly together. IIRC, the USA and Japan both held on the the decisive battle well after the crowning of the carrier – leading to both the Battle of Midway and the disastrous losses of American shipping on the East Coast when compared to Britain.*

    I’ve since realized this post is rather pointless in the context, but what can you do.

    *The British learned from their experience in WWI, and did a very good job of shaping the battle space to minimize merchant shipping losses due to U-boats into something manageable. When the US entered the war, their insistence on ‘finding and sinking’ subs failed rather spectacularly and they took horrendous losses for the first year or two before adapting. Fortunately, they had such a huge production base that they could afford it.


  11. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @D506 – Certainly, as part of doctrine, the battleship remained well into WWII. But effectively, as shown through what happened, the last great battleship engagement was in WWI and that the fate of the US battleships in Pearl Harbor, the Italians at Taranto, or the fate of Force Z reflects the reality of the situation.


  12. Anonymous

    I suspect that, one of two things or possibly both will happen, one would be the game like solution… reduce ranges both of observation and gunfire. And make battle happen near land so rocks to hide behind etc

    The second would be to limit stuff to the ww1 era ships, yes they could shoot stuff over the horizon but since the only spotting system was the human eye, it practice it was far closer than that. Add it coal smoke slower speeds etc and you would get a a more measured solution.

    Also I think theirs a role for many ship types, destroyers as scouts, cruisers as scout killers battleships as the main line. And even a small destroyer can harm a battle ship with torpedo, use Jutland as your example one of the key factors their was the British turning away from the German line due to worries about torpedoes.


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