Feb 21

The Evolution of Naval Wargames

Friday, February 21, 2020 2:05 PM



Naumachiae: Sea Battles in the Colosseum

The Romans always enjoyed a good game, especially if it was extravagant and resulted in multiple gruesome deaths. Historical accounts from the reign of Emperor Titus detail spectacles known as naumachiae (Latin for “naval combat”) in which arenas such as the Coliseum were flooded and prisoners were then forced to reenact famous sea battles by fighting from scale-model ships. The easily bored Romans occasionally spiced up the games by added specially trained bulls that could fight in water.

The Fred Jane Naval War Game

In the 19th century, several games were produced for the public market that had naval themes and graphics but were essentially variations of chess, checkers, or backgammon. In 1898, Fred T. Jane (of the long-running book series Jane’s Fighting Ships) introduced a meticulously detailed strategic and tactical game that used data from actual ships. Civilian naval buffs played it for fun, but many world navies viewed the game as a valuable tool for training because of its accurate representation of the abilities of the world’s fleets. In 1903, Admiral Sir John Hopkin and the Portsmouth Naval War-Game Society used the game to determine the outcome of a hypothetical naval war between the United States and Germany fought around the globe. The “war” ended in a draw, with an edge given to the United States, but both navies suffered significant losses.


The origins of the venerable strategy game Battleship can be traced to World War I, when it was played by drawing grids on paper and known by several names, including Salvo, Swiss Navy, Naval Combat, Sunk, and Sea Battle. In 1967, Milton Bradley released the most popular version of the game, which has lived on through a long line of incarnations (the original release reveals its age on the cover, which depicts a father and son playing the game while mother and daughter wash dishes). There is even a drinking version in which players have to down shots when their ships are hit. The simplicity of Battleship resulted in unofficial versions becoming some of the first games available on early home computers. In 2012, Universal Pictures thought the enduring popularity of Battleship would attract the masses to their $209 million big screen homage to the game. It did not quite work out.


Arcade games dating to the 1940s, such as Bally’s Undersea Raider, developed the concept and controls that allowed players to pretend to be a submarine commander who launches torpedoes at distant ships, but it was the 1965 electromechanical game Periscope that attracted a lot of attention when it was first released in Japan. It became so popular in the United States and Europe that several arcade games inspired by it were released in the subsequent decades, including Sea Raider, U-Boat, Sea Wolf, Submarine, SubRoc-3D, and Battle Shark.



Family Board Games

Much like the lunchboxes that have become highly collectible, board games in the 1950s and 60s were produced at an astonishing rate to capitalize on the latest TV shows and movies. McHale’s Navy, Navy Log, Ensign O’Toole: USS Appleby, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, and GI Joe: Navy Frogman were board games based on characters and shows associated with the Navy. The gameplay for these tie-ins was simple and usually involved players using dice, spinners, or cards to navigate around a board to reach a goal. Other naval board games from the era that were not based on licensed properties, such as Carrier Strike! and Admiral, required a bit more strategic thinking.


Don’t Give Up the Ship!

In 1972, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax published a set of rules for the game they created about naval warfare during the Napoleonic era titled Don’t Give up the Ship! The tabletop game encouraged players to use scale models to reenact historic single ship actions. The game was later expanded to include rules for fleet engagements such as the Battle of Trafalgar, often requiring players to find a larger surface than a tabletop. Arneson and Gygax went on to gain more notoriety by creating the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

Air-Sea Battle

When the Atari VCS home video game console debuted in 1977, Air-Sea Battle was among the original games available for purchase. It sold well but that should not be surprising considering that there were only eight other cartridges on the market including one with the less-than-tantalizing title of Basic Math. The game is basically another variation of a shooting gallery with players having the option of destroying targets with planes, anti-aircraft guns, ships or submarines.


Debuting in 1981, Harpoon was another highly detailed game that moved the focus from historic battles to modern naval warfare. Like the Fred Jane Naval Game, Harpoon was a well-researched game notable for its accurate representation of the abilities of fleets relative to one another. Author Tom Clancy was an avid fan. Upon the publication of The Hunt for Red October, Clancy was often questioned if someone with intimate knowledge of current naval operations had shared classified information with him. He said much of what he knew came from playing Harpoon. The success of the board games led to series of computer versions. After The Hunt for Red October became a bestseller, its title became a hot property that would be used for a board game and two video games.


Model Warship Combat

Model ship building has been a popular pastime for centuries. Some hobbyists were happy just displaying their models on a mantle while others wanted to float their ships in ponds. In the 1970s, a group of model builders decided to take their hobby to a new level by weaponizing their radio-controlled ships with compressed air guns that fired BBs. Enthusiasts meet at regular events in which they are divided into historical alliances and then proceed to blast away at each other’s ships.


World of Warships

World of Warships is a massively multiplayer online game that has become a global phenomenon. The immersive game is visually stunning and features a faithful representation of WWII-era ships. It is ultimately a team game in which players need to understand the role of their class of ship in order to defeat the enemy. Just like in real life, a carrier is capable of launching attacks that can devastate enemy ships but is very vulnerable if it does not have escorts to protect it. In turn, the carrier has to make sure its fighters protect its escorts from the enemy’s aerial attacks. Players can improve their chances in battle by earning better ships through experience

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