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Posted on Jan 3, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

It’s a Red Storm on The Rise with Compass Games ‘Blue Water Navy’. Board Game Review.

It’s a Red Storm on The Rise with Compass Games ‘Blue Water Navy’. Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Blue Water Navy. Publisher: Compass Games. Game Designer: Stuart Tonge and James Derek Harris. Price: $109.00

Passed inspection: Provides a strategic overview of World War Three at sea, while retaining enough tactical detail of engagements to allow you to envision how the events unfold. The game does a good job of integrating all the aspects of naval warfare in a package that rewards coordinating attacks to maximize your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses. 

Failed basic: Rulebook could be better organized for clarity. A table of contents and index would have been helpful. Including rule number references on the player aid charts would simplify looking up rules. You’ll need to be incorporate the errata into the rules and scenario book.  

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In 1979, General Sir John Hackett’s book ‘The Third World War’ laid out one possible scenario for what a war in Europe between NATO and the Soviet Union might look like. While written as a backwards looking retrospective of fictional events, it was a sobering look at the state of the Cold War.  In 1986, Tom Clancy’s ‘Red Storm Rising’ was published. Another fictional look at the Cold War gone hot in the 1980’s, Red Storm Rising put naval combat front and center, helped in large part by the assist from Larry Bond and his naval miniatures game ‘Harpoon’.

Harpoon was a quantitative gamers dream. It had all the crunchy details of weapons systems and sensors that a gamer could desire. Sensor range and detection chances with a SPY-1 radar? It’s in there! Performance of a Soviet AS-4 anti-ship missile? Oh yeah, it’s in there. Convergence Zones for a state-of-the-art towed array sonar…yeah, that’s covered too!

The price of all that detail was a game that could bog down under the weight of all that process resolution. Sure, a good referee could abstract some of it, but good referees were a rare commodity. So, Harpoon often sat on the shelf reserved for small actions or more often pulled out as a cheaper alternative to finding a copy of a Janes’s reference book.

 What was needed was a game that was more accessible. Easier to play than the miniatures game.  Around the same time as Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, game designer Joe Balkoski developed a worthy effort in the form of the ‘Fleet’ series of board games (Sixth Fleet, 2nd Fleet, etc.) that covered the operational areas of major US naval commands.

The ‘Fleet’ series were good, but very much a product of their times, grounded in process-based outcomes and attempting to model time as a discrete element. Thirty years later game design has evolved and gamers often want something more streamlined that still has the techno-crunchy feel of a Larry Bond novel.  In 2019 ‘Blue Water Navy’ from Compass Games popped up on the targeting plot in a bid to revisit the naval ‘Cold War gone hot’ of the 1980’s.

Here’s a game that attempts to blend a strategic level view of the Third World War at sea, while providing enough detail in the combat resolution process that you don’t feel that you are rolling dice for a completely abstract result. Reading the rules and checking out the components my initial perception was that it was if some had dipped the chocolate of the fleet series games in the peanut butter of the old Avalon Hill game ‘War at Sea’. This felt like it could be two great tastes paired up in one engaging product!

I’ll get to my thoughts on the game in a bit. First off, let’s start with a review of the components. Blue Water Navy has the following components;

  • A gameboard, consisting of two (2) map sheets
  • Four counter sheets with the playing pieces and markers
  • A 56-page rule book
  • A 32-page scenario book
  • Two sets of player aid charts
  • A fistful of ten-sided dice

The game board consists of two (2) map sheets that display the oceans and seas critical to the war at sea during a general war in Europe. North Atlantic. The majority of the board displays the waters surrounding Europe, including the Atlantic Ocean into the Caribbean Sea. The seas are broken up into zones. You’ll find representations of ports and airfields across the map. These are often aggregate representations of facilities in a region, though some represent specific locations. Overall it gives a good representation of the network of bases each side built throughout the cold war. For example, you get a good understanding for just why the United States maintained air and naval bases in the Azores as well as the importance of Syria and Cuba to Soviet strategy.

The quality of the maps is comparable to other products from Compass Games such as South China Sea or Blood on the Ohio. It’s a medium weight paper, four color gameboard.

The next components out of the box are the counters. Bruce Yearian and Compass Games did a nice job with these. Units break down into three major classes – ships, subs and aircraft. Each counter has a unit name, ships and subs have a side profile while aircraft have a top down view with of the airframe with some carrying camouflage. The units are a rogues gallery of the 1980’s. All the old familiar items are fielded. US carriers are flying F-14 with the A-6 and A-7 bulking out the attack squadrons. The Royal Navy and the Spanish field their ‘Harrier carriers’ while the old reliable carrier Foch represents France. The Soviets have their big guns in the form of the Kirov and a handful of the new Slava and Sovremennyy and Udaloy destroyers while the core of the fleet are the aging Kresta’s,  Kyndas, Kashin and Krivaks. The Minsk and Kiev give a small air component to the Red fleet, while the majority of their aviation is heavy maritime strike aircraft such as the Badger, the Bear and the fearsome Backfires. 

The counters convey a lot of information. They are not cluttered, but you’ll be referring to the unit key for the first few turns until things start to click. In addition to the units are the markers. You’ll need these for everything from marking spent units, keeping tabs on the invasion tracks and tracking damage to ports, airfields and convoys.

One aspect of the game is that with the exception of the carriers and the other ‘capital’ ships, the counters generally refer to a division or squadron of vessels. Unlike the old Victory Game ‘Fleet’ series games, counters don’t represent a single vessel, but rather division or a squadron of ships or a number of submarines. The result is that you lose the granularity of commanding specific named vessels.  Aviation units are provided by type, but not designated with squadron or other affiliation.

The rule book is a bit of a beast – it’s 56 pages cover to cover. Its raw size is intimidating, but the last 14 pages of the book are the campaign set up, designers notes, examples of play and supporting documentation. Let’s call it 40 pages of rules. One the one hand that feels like a lot to digest, but on the other hand I think it’s the bare minimum needed that captures all the activities and events going on within the game.  

I do appreciate the examples of play. With all the various activities, it can get a bit overwhelming and the example of play are a welcome aid in helping to integrate all the rules and see how they interact and generate outcomes.

There is a bit of errata – make sure you grab a copy and download it.  Stuart Tonge has kept on top of the updates as people have surfaced items.

The scenario book is nicely done. The layout for each of the scenarios as well as the campaign game reminded me of the scenario cards from Panzerblitz and Squad Leader. You get a roster showing you exactly which unit is required and a clear definition of where to place it on the map. Also reminiscent of the older Avalon Hill games, the scenarios are laid out in a manner that slowly introduces you to the game system. These scenarios are not filler included to round out the game and provide some smaller engagements. Instead, think of them as key training exercises that will aid in your understanding and mastery of the game system so that when the big dance starts, you’ll be ready to bust a move.

And that big dance is huge. The heart of the game is the campaign game covering all of the war in Europe. The scenario book lays out three types if campaigns based on preparedness and surprise along with three variants for when in the 1980’s they happen – that’s 9 different campaign choices!

The player aid cards consist of two identical sets of four double-sided cards. This gives you a total of 8 pages of charts. It can be a bit overwhelming at first. Stuart Tonge and James Harris put some time into getting these sensibly organized. One chart is focused on air combat, another on submarines and surface ship. A third is basically your game turn outline with the flip side being a reference to all the different counter types. The last chart is a good reference for a lot of the specific rules for the campaign that you don’t need when playing the scenarios.

So those are the parts. Putting them together, what do we get? Playing the game, Blue Water Navy definitely feels like a strategic game of the ‘war at sea’. Each player is cast into the role of a senior naval commander of either NATO or the Soviet Union (sorry Warsaw Pact, you don’t have much of a role in the war at sea.)

Playing all these scenarios helps you master the skills for what is the games ‘big dance’ – The Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Who knows what chain of events brought us to this point? All we know is that the Politburo decrees that the time to ensure the safety of the Motherland is upon us. The soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Soviet Union and NATO prepare to do their duty.

The campaign game is a big undertaking – a game lasting twelve (12) turns, but representing twenty-four days of time. Now is indeed the summer of our discontent. The campaign game itself can represent up to 9 unique scenarios by varying the level of strategic surprise/preparedness and the year in which the war breaks out. The 1980’s were a period of massive military build up on both sides and the passage of two years can change the balance of forces as new ships are commissioned, new planes take flight and enhanced weapons systems are deployed.

The area movement mechanic gives a feel for being at sea. Examining the map, the ‘areas of operation’s spans from the shores of Florida and Cuba reaching all the way to Syria on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. It’s a big theater and it’s a lot to manage.

The interplay of detection, submarines, aircraft and surface units give a solid representation for the strengths and weaknesses of each type of unit, as well as how then can complement each other. Layered on to of this are rules for recon satellites, spies and the whole land war in Western Europe. Taken together each area on the map feels multi-dimensional with not just the two-dimensional spatial relationships that are show on the map, but also incorporating the vertical dimension that captures the interplay between submarines, surface vessels, air units extending all the way into orbital space with the abilities of recon satellites.

I found the game gives the feel of naval combat. Each side will have to work to identify enemy task forces. Submarines can be lethal, but can be countered by ASW, which can be rolled back by sending fighters on patrol.  There is no single wonder weapon in the game and success is often the result of good planning to bring the right weapons system to bear at the right time. As the Soviets, you’ll feel frustration as NATO’s robust ASW units disrupt your submarines attacks while their fighter patrols stiff arm your Backfire and Badger strikes.

At the same time, the game does not feel unbalanced. NATO can be tough, but the Soviets can do damage with their regiments of bombers and massive fleet of submarines. With a bit of skill and a little luck you can cripple or sink a NATO carrier. It happened multiple times both in scenarios as well as the campaign game.

Soviet naval aviation can definitely have a moment of glory. In one scenario the Yak-38 from the Minsk got the better of the F-14 squadrons flying off USS Enterprise. Yes, it was a low order probability event (the US rolled *very* badly), but it shows that there’s always hope.   

On that subject, I think the system does a good job of depicting the utility of the Yak’s. They are clearly not going to be front line fighters, but they bring a measure of CAP to a Soviet task force that can make the difference in keeping those pesky P-3 Orion, Nimrods and Atlantique’s from snooping too close to the task force.  Under this same heading, you see the value that smaller carriers such as HMS Illustrious and the French carrier Foch add to the mix. They may not be in the same class as the American supercarriers, but they still add value to the fleet.   

The mix of air units, surface ships and submarines could have been a simple rock-paper-scissors solution. But the game is more complex than that. There are enough dynamic results to allow for tactical flair and luck to prevent this from feeling like a statistical probability.

Victory is measured less on the waves and skies of the ocean than on the fields and cities of Germany, Italy and Norway.  It’s the classic ‘seven days to the Rhine’ scenario. As the Soviets, your goal is to prevent NATO from carrying those convoys of equipment, fuel and supplies to the troops in Europe. As NATO, you need to protect those convoys and erode the Soviet’s warfighting ability. 

It took several scenarios and the campaign game before it dawned on me that the games processes are actually a blend of a discrete temporal model that moves task forces and convoys, coupled to a dynamic and subjective temporal model where the ‘operations points’ reflect the focus of the action across the game turn. It’s a really smart concept, and presented in a very subtle way.

The campaign game does a good job of reminding you that your role requires supporting the ground war to achieve victory. While the ground war is abstracted, it presents just enough detail to give a flavor of how the war is proceeding while not getting bogged down in the details.

The Soviet player can also be rewarded by inflicting heavy convoy losses and damaging or sinking American carriers. This is a nice touch as it shows the naval war has its own value and is not merely a sideshow supporting the main effort in western Europe.

To succeed, you’ll need to assess the enemy fleet and air forces, understand its weaknesses and strengths and then tackle it with the right units.  Are there lots of pesky Soviet strike aircraft ranging across the North Atlantic? Get your carriers on picket duty to provide air cover while you send your submarines and recon aircraft into combat.

Facing a lot of hostile submarines in the area? Make sure you task forces have an attached nuclear attack boat and plenty of maritime patrol assets.   

Blue Water Navy does a good job of bringing the tactical lessons put forth in the late Captain Wayne Hughes (USN, ret.) ‘Fleet Tactics’ (Naval Institute Press, 1986). Namely, the game captures the critical importance of striking the first blow on the enemy. This is an old lesson, exemplified by historical battles like Midway, but it’s nice to see the experience applies to the game.

I see I’ve not yet mentioned the cards. Blue Water Navy’s campaign game is a classic card driven game. It’s a nice touch that brings in an element of Clausewitz’s friction of war while at the same time allowing for events outside a rigid turn structure without using awkward special rules.

Blue Water Navy includes rules for limited nuclear war, both on land and at sea, while also including the dimension representing the Soviet ballistic missile submarine force and the risk of the war escalating into full blown nuclear war. The rules for nukes will change the game dramatically – both in terms of combat as well as changing how victory achieved.

If I have a gripe, it the lack of an index in the rule book and references on the Player Aid cards. The table of contents does a tolerable job of assisting me in getting in the ballpark of the rule I need, but adding the rules references to the card would have been a great help.

I would have preferred a heavier cardstock medium for the game board. My first choice is always a mounted map. Sure, a mounted map would have been awesome with this game, but the sheer size of the Blue Water Navy game board makes a mounted map a really unrealistic expectation. I’m thinking I may have to have the game boards laminated if the game gets as much play as I expect.

One thing I struggled with is that the task force detection rules seemed a little odd with regard to submarine attacks. A touchstone of modern sub warfare is that subs are effective at detecting and hunting surface vessels.  But in Blue Water Navy, it feels like your subs will need assistance in finding those surface targets as just trying to locate a task force with just submarines is a challenging task.  

Blue Water Navy is a big game. It’s a big map, taking much of my 3 x 5 game table. And it’s big in its sheer scope. It’s bigger than any single one of the old Victory Games ‘Fleet’ games. It’s equivalent to combining 2nd and 6th Fleets, basically wrapping them around the bloody conflict raging across western Europe.

Having recently played South China Sea (also from Compass Games), my personal preference is that I enjoyed Blue Water Navy more.  I like the simplicity of the processes in Blue Water Navy over the mechanics in South China Sea. I don’t think it’s just the familiarity of the setting (though that could be part of it). A big part of this is how time is modeled and how your operations point dictates the ‘pace’ of operations.  

The big part is how the area movement and combat mechanisms work.  I like the easy flexibility of allocating operations points to various units and how air units recycle across the day. Detection is simpler, while still being important.  SCS feels a little more ‘tactical’ (though still living in an operational space) while BWN firmly inhabits that operational theater level of game play.

You can play this solitaire in the same way you could play Path of Glory or any other card driven game as a solo effort. Blue Water Navy does not ship with any bots, though I read that a bot to automate the soviets is under development. There is a vassal module, so if you have access to a PC and the interwebs you might be able to find an online opponent to play.

I really dig this game. It’s like War at Sea and Harpoon had a baby and called it Blue Water Navy. Or someone got Harpoon on my War at Sea. You get the idea. The blending of the area movement system with the cold war weapons systems hits a sweet spot with me.  Some of this could be chalked up to nostalgia. This was the setting I grew up with as a teenager and young adult. Some of the appeal comes from how it depicts the two acknowledged superpowers at the top of their games. A lot of it is how the game let’s you quickly resolve all sorts of attacks into meaningful outcomes.

I think the game gives good insights into naval strategy and operations during the 1980’s. It’s a bit Clancy-esque in how it shows off the tactical abilities of all the hardware and how it can interact with other units. The game also has a lot of value as an educational tool. Playing the game drove home why the US and Soviets maintained their global alliances and networks of supporting naval bases and airfields. It really puts Iceland, the Azores and Syria into a geo-political context that’s as relevant today as it was thirty years ago.

It’s an interesting game system that I think could be applied to other theaters (ala the Fleet series) and even updated to the current ‘modern’ period with additional counters and rules updates. I have to wonder if the engine could be tweaked for a World War Two or Great War setting – it could give interesting results as you have many of the same types of units.

If you are a fan of naval warfare in general, or have an interest in the cold war gone hot type games, you should set a course for adventure and check out Blue Water Navy!

Armchair General Score: % 92

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  3

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. He continues to dabble with designing tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies, Battleline: 2250 and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines

Blue Water Navy game board
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1 Comment

  1. Eyeing this one and this article is helping form my opinion. Thanks for the review.

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