- Paul Dobbins(rddfxx)United States
This year (early August, 2010) I stopped off at the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) in in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for an all too brief two-and-one half day visit. My intention was to play in the Richard III tournament and to get an overall impression of the WBC, which I had never before attended. Well, there was more than enough time to peruse the dealer exhibits on the Friday before my tournament started, and peruse them I did. Catching my eye right away was the L2 Design booth and its latest offering, The Grand Fleet by Stephen Newberg, which was actually printed shortly before, and assembled practically on the road, to the WBC.
I had not heard of this game before the convention, but once I got the idea it was the next chapter -- a prequel, really -- to the War at Sea (WAS)/Victory in the Pacific (VITP) family, I was on board and reaching for the (golly, empty) wallet, a situation quickly addressed at the nearest ATM.
Grand Fleet (GF) models the struggle between Germany and the Allied powers -- most notably the United Kingdom -- for control of the sea lanes into northern Europe during the Great War, 1914-1918. The classic game on the subject is Avalon Hill’s Jutland (1967), which I played as a youngster back in the day. In some respects Grand Fleet is a remarkable melding of the WAS system with the exciting battle line action of Jutland, without the physical abuse of having to crawl around the floor, nautical movement gauge in hand, in order to fight the good fight (but wasn’t it a lot of fun when the knees were young and the heart willing?).
1. 22” x 28” map of the North Sea and environs printed on very heavy card stock
2. 264 1.25” by 5/8 “ inch very high quality fleet, battle group and ship die cut counters
3. 108 9/16” die cut damage, disabled and sunk (assorted admin) counters
4. 1 die (goodness, you need a lot more than that to play, but the little buggers co$t)
5. Fleet and battle group organizational charts for each side
6. Battle board
Sequence of play summary chart
The components are of an excellent quality. The map and the charts are printed on a slick, heavy stock, perhaps equivalent to a single ply high gloss plate; the large counters are really gorgeous with period ship silhouettes. The legibility of the minor unit flotilla counters could have been improved had they used single ship silhouettes instead of crowding multiple images on the same counter, but that is a trifling complaint when stacked against the overall quality of the very well done major unit images. More dice would be nice, too, but then again perhaps those of us with plenty of dice already don’t want to pay for more. The play aids -- organizational charts and battle board -- are functional and easily augmented as we shall probably see as intrepid gamers take up the challenge of play and begin to post home made alternatives in the files section of Boardgamegeek.
A lot of game is packed into the relatively small rulebook. Although the basic shell of the game is the old tried and true WAS/VITP system, the differences are significant. [Many gamers out there probably don’t know about and/or have never seen GF’s older siblings; the good news is WAS is available from L2 Design].
The WAS/VITP game system is built around a relatively simple resource allocation model. The game map is divided into historically significant strategic areas, into which the players allocate their naval and air resources. Players earn points for controlling areas on the map; such control is achieved essentially by overwhelming your opponent’s resources in each area by fighting battles small and large. Battles are simple affairs as each asset in the fight has an attack die rating which determines the number of dice rolled for that asset; the dice that come up 5 (disable) and 6 (hit) whittle away the enemy fleet. Assets have defense ratings that indicate the amount of damage each asset may sustain before sinking, but most hits scored are serious business for the survival of the asset.
GF amplifies and enriches the WAS/VITP system by adding layers of detail relating to the fog of war and period specific variations. Most important is the notion of the fleet and the battle group. Basic WAS/VITP relied on the alternating sequence in which players committed assets to the areas on the map in order to generate shock and awe, and occasionally not a little surprise. In GF, the sequence of deploying assets, while still important, is much less so as the main combat assets are deployed by battle group, and the composition of the battle groups is kept hidden; the battle group markers are deployed face down -- all your opponent sees is either the German naval ensign or a collection of allied naval ensigns. The organizational charts where the actual ships comprising the battle groups are stacked are kept from your opponent’s view. Prior to combat in a given area, the players conduct search and screen combat before the battle lines engage (more on this below).
After reading the rulebook a couple of times, I still had questions which I posed to designer Newberg (henceforth “Steve”) on the Consimworld Forum in the Grand Fleet folder. A first play through generated a host of additional questions, which again I passed by Steve on Consimworld. The bottom line is the available on-line resources certainly complement the rulebook, so a little effort pays off. And it may take most gamers several play throughs to fully understand the game and its mechanics, which is typically the case with wargames of moderate complexity.
Of Fleets and Battle Groups
Each side in GF is allotted 8 battle groups (BG), which may be deployed independently or collected into stacks to form fleets, of which each side has two markers, representing the British Grand and Channel Fleets, and the German High Seas and Baltic Fleets. Any or all of the BGs may be stacked together in a single sea area under one of these fleet counters, during the movement phase, to dynamically form the fleet named on the counter. Indeed, each side may form either or both fleets each turn in the same or in different sea areas as suits their battle aims. The allies may occasionally but not reliably have the use of a 9th BG, for the Russian fleet, and (via an optional rule) even a 10th BG for the (optional) French fleet. The American navy, which enters play late in the game, does not have its own BG marker(s), rather its assets will be distributed among the British BGs as they are brought into play.
[And now here’s a hint. If your first game goes like mine, you’ll be tempted to use and overuse those fleet markers by fighting one major fleet action after another, until both the allied and German navies are shot to hell by about, hmmmm, the end of 1915. But the allied navy will rebuild through the arrival of heavy re-enforcements throughout the war; the German navy won’t -- there just isn’t very much in the German pipeline-- so watch out. More on this below.]
But what is a BG? A BG is comprised of two components, a screen and a main battle line (MBL). The screen many have any, all or none of the following ship types: minor units submarines (SS) and /or destroyer/torpedo boat flotillas (DT), and major units light (CL) and/or armored cruisers (CA). Screens provide two crucial functions in GF: search and screen combat. The MBL may contain any, all or none of the major unit types: dreadnoughts (BB), battlecruisers (BC), and/or pre-dreadnought battleships (BA). The MBL provides a single function: multiple rounds of ship-to-ship combat versus opposing MBL(s).
A BG may have no naval units at all assigned to it; such a null BG may be deployed on the map as a decoy, but it cannot control an area. Control of an area requires at least two major units, whether they are deployed in a BG(s) or individually as independent major units.
There are 14 areas on the GF map over which the navies will contend, so the limited numbers of BGs must be allocated and used wisely. Fortunately, not all of the map areas are created equally as the points earned for controlling them are different for each player. Thus, either side may have the luxury of committing their old, attenuated pre-dreadnought warships as “independent major units”, i.e. not deployed in a BG(s), to hold and control the rear areas -- if you deploy at least two but no more than four in the same area -- while the battlegoups contend for the front line and high value point areas. This is a boon especially for the British player, who has a large number of these old girls at anchor in ports around the UK, and a large number of low point value areas around the periphery of the map that the former can shepherd for points as the latter are generally inaccessible to the German player. Independent major units are fine in the shepherd’s role, but they literally cannot contend with a BG, so they cannot control any area that can be reached by an enemy battlegoup (that isn’t a shipless decoy).
After the allied and German navies complete movement, the German player initiates the Combat Phase by selecting a first (any) sea area for combat resolution. The procedures for resolving combat in an area are carefully described in the rulebook, but one needs to pay close attention to appreciate and understand all of the fine points. At the beginning of combat resolution in a chosen area, neither side knows anything more than the number of counters on the map.
The first phase of combat resolution is the mine warfare resolution segment. For this phase, both sides reveal -- turn over -- any mine layer (ML), mine sweeper (MS) and airship (AS) counters in the given sea area. These are independent minor units that are not -- and cannot be -- part of any BG; rather they are independent assets that players move into sea areas during movement in support of (or in lieu of) BGs and/or major independent units. Mine layers can be deadly, and may potentially deliver up to 6 mine attacks per counter on the opposing fleet if not countered by sweepers and airships; basically, each pair of sweepers (MS) negates one layer (ML). A single MS, curiously, is ineffective. For each ML that is effective -- not offset by MS units --- the owning player rolls a 1D6 to generate the number of mine attack on the enemy forces. Each enemy airship (AS) in the area offsets one mine attack. The targets of the mine attacks are determined, somewhat painfully, by random selection. Players should take care during the laborious mine target selection procedure to conceal from their opponent any and all details about their forces in the area except for the actual targets of the mine attacks; the rules are not fast and fixed on how this should be done, but they do offer up some alternative procedures, so be creative. The mine attacks are resolved on the mine attack table, resulting in damage, disabling, sinkage or (whew!) no effect [NOTE: the table lists 1 HIT, 2 HITs and 3 HITs for MU, but what is actually meant is 1 to 3 points of damage, and not the ever much worse 1 to 3 HITS].
Having resolved the mine attacks, play proceeds to the search phase. At this point all we have learned is what we needed to know to resolve the mine attacks, and what the carnage has been as a result of those attacks. Now comes the nitty gritty struggle to assert superiority in the search phase. A player with no BGs (and thus no fleets either) in the given sea area cannot search and cannot fight, and immediately cedes control to the player (if any) who does. Assuming both sides have BG(s), a search value (SV) is computed for each BG in the area; the values for the BGs comprising a fleet are added together to provide a single SV total for the fleet. The computed SV are modified by adding the search values of any airships (AS) in the area. Note: AS’s modify the SVs of all fleets and independent BGs in the area, but AS units DO NOT search by themselves, thus AS units in a sea area do not compute an SV if there is no BG present.
An SV is computed as follows: for each BG, add +3 for every submarine (SS) unit and +1 for every non SS in its screen. A fleet adds up the the SVs for all of its component BGs. All fleets and independent BGs then add the same modifier for the friendly AS units in the area: each AS adds +(movement factor - distance from its home base port). Each player announces his highest SV value for the sea area, either for a fleet or an independent BG. High total wins the search round in that area.
The side that loses the search round flips all of its remaining counters in the sea area to their front sides, revealing the names of the fleet(s), BGs, and the identities of the independent minor and major units in the area. The losing side must announce the number of counters comprising each fleet and each independent BG; the types and IDs of the counters comprising these are not revealed.
The side that wins the search round may then decide to “disengage by discovery”, i.e. retreat its fleet and BG counters out of the sea area and proceed directly to the anti-shipping warfare (ASW) phase of the combat in the area; or, alternatively, seize the initiative and announce the start of combat versus its choice of a fleet or an independent BG. It may engage the enemy with a fleet OR an independent BG (not both) of its own. The winner of the search round retains the initiative until combat ends in the area, regardless the results of subsequent screen actions (see below).
The forces engaged -- i.e. those chosen by the initiative player to fight -- participate in a screen battle that entails all of the units in their respective screens. Each unit in the screen battle rolls 1D6, and disables (5) and hits (6) are tallied up. Hit damage is resolved and all sunk and disabled ships are removed from the engaged screens. The side with the most screen units after a round of combat wins the screen battle. Otherwise, the screen battle continues until there is a winner or all of the screen units for both sides have departed (sunk or disabled).
If the winner of the screen battle also won the search round, continue on to the next paragraph below [since the following steps have already been completed]. Otherwise, the side losing the screen battle flips all of its remaining counters in the sea area to their front sides, revealing the names of the fleet(s), BGs, and the identities of the independent minor and major units in the area. The losing side must announce the number of counters comprising each fleet and each independent BG; the types and IDs of the counters comprising these are not revealed.
Winning the screen battle confers benefits similar to winning the search round, but on a smaller scale: the winner may opt to “disengage by screen”, i.e. retreat the engaged fleet and BG counters out of the sea area, or continue on to the MBL combat. However, the winner of the search round retains the initiative, regardless what happens in the screen battle; if his opponent disengages by screen, he may initiate another battle with any as yet unengaged enemy fleet(s) and BG(s) still in the area. If he does engage a second (or third, etc) enemy fleet/BG, he may use the force that just incited the enemy to disengage, or swap it out for another force in the area.
Main Battle Line (MBL) Combat
Now the fun really begins in earnest as the MBLs have at it. The players remove their major unit counters from their holding boxes on the BG organizational displays and line them up nose-to-tail on the Battle Board. The round one bell clangs and players roll dice by the bucket full (if you have ‘em on hand to supplement the one that comes in the box). The ships line up one-to-one, but extras may double up on the shorter enemy MBL. 5’s disable and 6’s hit, randomly generating 1 to 6 points of damage. A major unit (MU) can handle hit damage equal to its defensive rating -- which top out at 5 for the very best BB MU’s -- any damage in excess of the defensive rating sends the MU to Davy Jones’ Locker. There aren’t any Bismarck class MU’s in this game (defensive rating of 9 in WAS); most MU’s are 4 or less, leading to plenty of sinkings on a single hit. MBL combat is lethal, shredding both sides’ assets in quick order.
The current battle proceeds by rounds until one side disengages by one of several methods: “by gunfire”, “by speed”, or (Germans only) “by turn away” [a.k.a the famed “Gefechtskehrtwendung”]. If all of one sides’ ships are sunk or disabled, we have “disengaged by gunfire”. One side can always flee with units that have greater speed ratings than the surviving enemy ships, this is known as “disengaging by speed”. The Gefechtskehrtwendung is a special trick that always takes the German out of harm’s way, “disengaging by turning away” [please note, the term Gefechtskehrtwendung doesn’t actually appear in the rules, but I just can’t resist throwing it into the discussion since my regular gaming partner, a WWI naval expert, rolls it off his tongue every chance he gets :-) ]
If the side with the initiative disengages, combat proceeds to the final ASW phase. Otherwise, the initiative player may opt to engage another enemy fleet/BG -- if one is available -- and we’re back to screen combat. The bottom line is the initiative player -- i.e. the winner of the search round -- is able to fight any and all enemy fleet(s)/BG(s) in the area so long as he keeps winning the MBL rounds until he has established control over the area. Losing screen battles doesn’t disrupt this march to control, apart from possibly letting some enemy forces slip away; however, once he disengages from an MBL fight, leaving surviving enemy forces, the initiative player is pushed out of the area regardless the number of fresh, unengaged friendly fleet(s)/BG(s) still available in the area.
Anti Shipping Warfare (ASW)
ASW is an altogether different kettle of fish than regular battle line combat. This is really an anti-SUBMARINE warfare phase. Surviving German subs (SS) will score victory points for (implicitly) conducting successful anti-shipping warfare if they are located in the special shipping lane areas indicated on the map with a sinking ship icon. After the MBL phase has ended, independent SS units -- those not assigned to BG screens -- are subject to ASW attacks. The German player goes first, as he attempts to disable allied SS by rolling a die for each independent ML and MS he has in the area. An allied SS is disabled for each 5 rolled, and note, 6’s do not hit! German ASW cannot sink allied SS units. Now all of this is probably irrelevant; unless the optional Submarine Attack rule (A11.0) is in play, the only thing allied subs are good for -- and it is a very important function -- is scouting and fighting in a BG screen; SS units in screen are not subject to ASW warfare, so the allied player isn’t going to deploy any independent SS to be attacked by ASW in the first place.
Next the allied player conducts ASW attacks, in which as many as 9 German victory points may be at stake (1 per available, surviving independent German SS, provided they are dispersed through the shipping lanes). Allied independent DT, ML, MS, SS and AS units in the area get to “shoot” at independent German SS by rolling a 1D6 each. Only allied DTs may sink German SS by rolling a 6, otherwise, units disable a German SS by rolling a 5. There is a tradeoff, in so far as German SS assigned to independent anti-shipping duty are not available for the all important BG search screen function, but the VPs available probably mean all German SS units should be sent on independent patrol to the shipping lanes all or most of the time. If they are so deployed, one would anticipate they will draw substantial numbers of allied DT to independent ASW duty in the shipping lanes, weakening the screening forces available to the allied BGs.
A First Game
My first play of Grand Fleet was a no holds barred, bare knuckles slugfest from the first 1914 turn until the High Sea Fleet was bled dry sometime in 1916. There were plenty of gameplay errors by both sides to complement the strategic errors we made as well. Although I took enough notes to reconstruct much of the action, the quality of play was too poor to make it a useful session report. I will however reflect a little on the relative sizes of the combatants and the strategical implications of the force imbalance.
Perhaps the best measure of the “weight of metal” either side can throw in a fight is the proxy provided in the game, the number of attack dice each fleet can throw in battle. Focussing on the primary line of battle ships, the dreadnoughts (BB), battle cruisers (BC) and pre-dreadnought battleships (BA), we have the following:
The British navy has a total of 35 BB, 13 BC and 20 BA which bring, respectively, 140, 36 and 21 attack dice to the party for a total “weight of metal” of 197 dice.
The Russian navy, which may only unreliably and fitfully make an occasional appearance, has 4 BB and 1 BA for 16 and 1 and a total “weight of metal” of 17 dice.
The late arriving Americans bring 9 BB with a total “weight of metal” of 33 dice.
Thus, the allied navies have a total of 247 attack dice.
Arrayed against this is the German navy with 19 BB, 6 BC and 15 BA with respectively 74, 23, and 18 or a total “weight of metal” of 115 dice.
In a worst case scenario, the Germans can bring less than 50% of the hitting power of the allies to an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of battle. In the series of actions I fought as the German against a capable allied admiral I faced much better odds than these, but the results of fighting constant, turn after turn major fleet battles was sobering after 4 turns:
Germans lost 12 BB, 2 BC and 4 BA for an estimated (using average attack dice per ship per class) loss of respectively 47, 8 and 5 or a total loss of 60 dice.
The allies -- all British -- lost 16 BB, 4 BC, and 1 BA , for an estimated 64, 11 and 1 for total of 76 dice.
The relative losses of the German were much higher, leaving a surviving balance of 55 attack dice versus 173 surviving allied attack dice or something on the order of 1-to-3.
The conclusion to be drawn from this first game is the German cannot win a slugfest, so the many other assets in play -- submarines, mines, airships, etc. must be used effectively to complement the main battle lines. The German capital ships are somewhat more robust than the allied ones, averaging nearly 1 full damage point higher in their protection factors, which is enough to explain the significant but strategically marginal advantage the Germans demonstrated in the fleet actions in our game. When next we play -- and we love this game so there will many more next times -- the German will be wiser and more evasive. It also helps that we now know the rules and have the kinks worked out.
Grand Fleet Rules Clarifications & Updates for V1.01 (posted by Stephen Newberg on Consimworld)
1. There is no specific counter example for minor units and it might be good to have one, but the sole value on a minor unit is its movement value.
2. In general definitions in the gun combat section also apply to the mine combat section, but on the Mine Combat Table, the number of hits indicated is the number of damage points taken, not the number of dice to be rolled to determine the number of damage points,
3. The BC Australia was intentionally left out of the counter mix, but if you want to add it back in, you need to add a UK 2-2-4 counter arriving on turn 5.
4. The Anti-Shipping VPs that the German player can earn for SS units are at a maximum of 2 per area per turn.
5. In 8.2 the Search value of the example for the German player should be 6, not 5.
6. HMS Triumph is not listed on the left of page 10 (the graphic at the bottom of page 10 correctly shows 8 ships in the battle line, but only 7 are named).
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- Don Dorrance(dorrdon)Canada
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- Eric Feifer(efeifer)United States
"I had a chance to speak to the designer, Stephen Newberg, who was there manning the booth."
Paul, you must have spoken to Art Lupinacci or Lembit Tohver. Art is L2 Design Group.
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- David ThompsonUnited States
- If I'm understanding the movement rule correctly, simply moving from port to the adjacent sea area is one move. For example, placing a German fleet from Wilhelmshaven into the Heligoland Bight counts as one movement point. Is this correct? Seems to exclude major German units from reaching a lot of map area.
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You are correct, and yes, there are a number of areas on the map that major German units simply cannot reach. That is intentional. There is a bit touching on this at the end of the 'design notes' section.
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- David ThompsonUnited States
- Thank you Stephen. Looks like an interesting game, and I'm looking foward to giving it a play. I own both the original Avalon-Hill Jutland and the Avalanche Press version. Looks like this will finally provide an opportunity to do the North Sea theater in an afternoon. I like the screening and fog of war elements. You must be glad to finally have it out after the extended wait. A friend of mine designs games, and I know the process can take quite a while.
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This one was over 5 years from the signing of the contract to the publisher for a design that was then in late development to when it was finally published. A good deal longer than expected.
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- Paul Norell(pnorell)New Zealand
Very glad to have caught this in the L2 Design Group sale. I had been looking for a WWI naval game of moderate complexity. I bought Jutland (Avalanche Press) a while back but found it very time-consuming in the set-up so haven't played it much. GF offers a strategic/area based format which I find eminently preferable to plotting hex moves every turn.
Hope it lives up to expectations.
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- Rob VeenenbergNetherlands
Since Germans are underpowered in the game Why not simply add the rules that no hit may cause more damage than the value of the gunnery rating AND fire from British BB's or BC's is 1 less on each die roll determining the damage. Alternatively each damage roll for gunnery is halved, rounded up for German ships and down for Allied ships. This reflect superior German gunnery as well as faulty British Shell quality.
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Rob, German gunnery superiority and better armour and compartmentalization is already figured into the values.
And actually, the Germans are not under powered at all. In general, they have better ships, they just have less of them. Of course, they also do not have as large an area to guard and they have other forces that can do very positive things for them, such as excellent submarine units.
But if you want the Germans to win more than half the time, sure, your suggested changes should give them an additional edge.
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