Monday, February 23, 2009

FORTY YEARS OFF JUTLAND

The battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916, the largest battleship clash in history, has always drawn the attention of wargamers. If you're of the right age as well as bit of an eccentric in these matters, you may know Jutland was one of the original giant wargames. The sprawl and expanse of the battle, the number of ships, the tension and confusion of night engagements at close range as Jellicoe's destroyer screen collided with the rear of the German Navy's battleship line as it tried to escape being cornered at dawn -- surely elements to stir the blood of any fan of the history of naval combat.

Marketed by Avalon Hill of Baltimore, MD, in 1967, it was designed to be played on the floor. And it was Jim Dunnigan's first published game, one immediately followed with 1914, another early whack at the monster genre, one that invited the player to re-enact the Schlieffen Plan and subsequent deadlock on the western front. These sound intriguing -- but without a lot of processing and record-keeping (1914, for example, seemed to take a full day to set up), these games were only infrequently playable.

For the kids who bought Jutland, the main obstacle was the size of its North Sea battlefield. There's still no room in your house in 2009 with a floor large enough to play Jutland to actual scale. The battleship counters were about two inches long. (Now stay with me here -- DD is going to convert rapidly between inches and meters). And and if one equated that with battlecruiser Lion's length, a little over 200 meters, one arrives at a scale in which about five and a half meters of floor space -- the equivalent to 20,000 meters of separation -- are required for any theoretical recreation of the initial approaches to contact of David Beatty's Splendid Cats and Franz von Hipper's Scouting Group I.


Battlecruiser counters -- the Splendid
Cats -- from Avalon Hill's Jutland.


Jutland attempted to take this into consideration, shrinking its scale to accommodate US living rooms. "Each ship counter represents 2500 yards while it should, in reality, equal 750 yards (approximately 200 yards for the ship and the remainder for minimum interval between ships)," reads the manual. "This distorted scale, while it allows for play in a reasonably small area, such as the living room, presents ... problems when large numbers of ships are involved. Players can solve this by increasing the scale of play when unlimited playing surface is available ... Make a new range finder 5 feet long ..."

So with a mule's determination it was possible to re-enact the battle or, more often, segments of it. One recalls employing upside down golf tees as shell splashes for just that little bit extra in make believe.

However, by nature, unless Jutland was bought by a military school as a teaching aid, it probably never lent itself to frequent play anywhere. Finding like-minded partners willing to take it on was also a practical impediment. And this explains why used copies in relatively pristine condition occasionally come up for sale on eBay.

Naturally, the home computer is an ideal platform for Jutland. Still the game would not be suitably ported to it for another four decades even though game programming capable of the load was available in the early days of DOS. (DD will get to this in a moment.)

In the intervening period, a few strategy game companies would periodically reinvent Jutland, always on a scale which overcame the need for room.

Chief among these was Dreadnought, published by SPI in 1975. Dreadnought shrank its battleships to standard wargame counter size and made the ocean into a series of movable free-form hex maps. And it overcompensated for the diminished art and visual joy with an expanded set of ship chits encompassing the British, Japanese, US, German, French, Italian and Russian navies from 1906 to 1945. It could be played on the kitchen table but the serious wow factor which came with Avalon Hill's Jutland was absent. Practically speaking, it was a vanilla exercise in moving standard wargame counters and dice rolling. (For those obsessively immersed in the subject, other takes on vintage battleship engagements included SPI's publishing of "The Battle of Tsushima" in the Fall 1989 issue of Strategy & Tactics, a 100-ship counter "Jutland" furnished in the January 1991 issue of Command and the much more recent and better known Great War at Sea series by Avalanche.)

Fifteen years after Dreadnought, though, Raw Entertainment marketed a game with the artificial intelligence and record-keeping needed for battleship naval warfare. It was called Action Stations, and as abandonware you can have it for free these days. It was WW II only, however, a shame -- really -- because the computer opponent was merciless, the ship and ballistics modeling excellent. Graphics and interface, however, were plain DOS ANSI-style, immediately limiting its appeal. A couple years later SSI's Great Naval Battles V, now also abandonware, addressed Jutland and WW I. The latter is difficult to recommend. If one is feeling a bit generous, it could be described as having barely adequate graphics, primarily ships composed of wiggling blocks. The further away from it you were, or the smaller the screenshot, the better it looked. So if you could plan on playing the game four or five feet from the PC monitor...

Jutland's first modern treatment, one that actually took advantage of the PC's virtual space and capacity for data crunching was HPS's Jutland in 2005. The company used the game engine for Russo-Japanese naval battles, and one for engagements in the Pacific in WW II. These games have no eye candy. But Jutland, because the complexities of the entire battle when the Grand and High Seas fleet come together, can easily get away from the player, giving one plenty of challenge beyond pretty pictures. For what it delivers, the HPS design of the game is elegant and so its recreation of the battle seems convincing. Scheer's ships and shooting are qualitatively better than Jellicoe's; the British battlecruisers blow up with alarming alacrity. And it obviated the potential boredom of endlessly battling the AI by being also playable through a network connection.

Finally, this brings us to Storm Eagle Studio's Jutland, published just before the holidays as a download unlocked by registration after payment. It has Digital Rights Management implemented in such a way that it needs to call home every seven days. One either hates these types of these things and screams about the taking of tyrannical liberties with one's personal computing space or is indifferent to it. In terms of mechanics, it doesn't interfere with play.

The more interesting aspects of Storm Eagle's Jutland, though, are some decisions made with regards to making history come out about right. This was called design for effect back in the days of
Avalon Hill's Jutland and it mostly ensures players can't make the game play as a lunatic's version of history.

This has resulted in some finer interpretations of history in the game, stuff that wasn't possible with Avalon Hill's old analog model of the battle, particularly when it comes to gunnery and ship quality.

For instance, the gunnery of Beatty's battlecruiser squadron is infamously bad. DD is guessing it has taken the results from the battle of Dogger Bank. At Dogger Bank, Beatty seemingly fired on Hipper's fleeing squadron for about an hour without much effect other than the destruction of the Blucher and a magazine hit on the Seydlitz which almost sent her to the bottom but which did not alter her speed.

The other feature, almost immediately obvious, is that all the Grand Fleet's capital ships, not just Beatty's battlecruisers, can explode catastrophically. The developer explains this as a decision arrived at after reading John Campbell's "Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting."

"Brit ships blew up due to the extremely volatile nature of their cordite, which basically would explode (as in very rapid combustion releasing vast quantities of high-pressure gas in an extremely short time) even when not contained within the breech of a gun," writes the developer.

"In effect, the pile of cordite in the magazine was analogous to the filling of a shell, and the hull of the ship was analogous to the shell's body, becoming fragments when the filling exploded ... This was in sharp contrast to the German propellant, which burned slower and did not release such huge amounts of high-pressure gas in such a short time. Thus, while German propellant would burn spectacularly, it was incapable of creating the over-pressures necessary to rip a ship to pieces."

Whether you go along with this reasoning or not is immaterial. If the player is admiral of the Grand Fleet, this means even the stoutest battleships, like Iron Duke, can suddenly go missing. In real life, the High Seas Fleet turned away from Jellicoe's main body as quickly as possible so we don't know if this was actually so.

It comes as a bit of a shock to find that Evan-Thomas's Fifth Battle Squadron of heavies isn't especially survivable and even more churlish that HMS Warspite, a fighting battleship that inspired one of the classic books of naval literature could likely go to the bottom while stuck in front of the oncoming High Seas Fleet. In the real world, it survived and went on to give the German and Italian navies quite a hard time in World War II.

"Had the Brit [battleships] ever come under effective fire, some of them certainly would have blown up, too," concludes the developer.

In the full Jutland engagements included with the game, if one doesn't pause the action, the exchanges easily run over the armchair commander. The developer says most players have to use pause in the major engagements, but since it plays out on a real time scale, it's cheating a little to do that. You have to rely on your computerized staff a bit and they aren't always up to perfection. In any case, call it the confusion resulting from close action between many units, a reasonable demonstration that the game's a reliable recreation and that the average player's not up to the battle management skills of Jellicoe or Scheer.

But you might be a Robert Arbuthnot, the commander of the Grand Fleet's armored cruiser squadron, a man regarded berserk, because he threw away his life and those of his men in a crazy final command to rush suicidally into the teeth of the High Seas Fleet, endangering the unfolding and planned disposition of his admiral's ships.

If you play Storm Eagle's Jutland, that happens a lot.


Hipper's flagship, Lutzow, listing to
starboard in Storm Eagle's Jutland.




Related:

How badly could you mess up Jutland?

DD's philosophical take on decades of monster wargames.

Monster wargame Monday. Is your host afflicted by obsession?

3 Comments:

Blogger Sherpes said...

interesting. Found AH Jutland in a flea market, and wondered about its history. Thanks for posting

8:11 AM  
Blogger Borepatch said...

I'm terribly late to the party, but thank you for a great waltz down Memory Lane - I was one of those kids who made one of the 5 foot maneuver gauges for Avalon Hill's Jutland.

5:49 PM  
Blogger George Smith said...

You were genuinely hardcore!

6:06 PM  

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