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Posted on Nov 15, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

‘Remember the Maine!’. Compass Games ‘Dawn of Empire: The Spanish American Atlantic Naval War, 1898’. Board Game Review

‘Remember the Maine!’. Compass Games ‘Dawn of Empire: The Spanish American Atlantic Naval War, 1898’. Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

By Ray Garbee

Dawn of Empire: The Spanish American Atlantic Naval War, 1898. Publisher: Compass Games. Designer: Stephen Newberg. Price $55.00 (Holiday sale price $36.00)

Passed inspection: Color, mounted map that conveys a sense of space and place in the Atlantic and Caribbean basin. A fast playing game that conveys the relative strengths of each side. Plentiful variant rules for exploring a number of ‘what if’ scenarios.

Failed basic: Printing error on the gameboard mars what is an otherwise excellent effort. A number of typos in the rules that may cause confusion (All of which can be remedied by downloading the current errata from the Compass Games website.)

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Ask for a quick summary of naval operations during the Spanish American War and you’ll likely get a response along the lines of, ‘America, heck yeah!’. The two major naval battles of the war – Manila Bay and Santiago, Cuba were both decisive defeats for the Spanish Navy. The lop-sided casualty ratio – in terms of both ships and men – reinforced a sense that the war was not a contest between equals and that it marked the rise of American as a global power. In Seapower – A Naval History (Prentice Hall, 1960) Potter and Nimitz take the line that the victories were a triumph of American technical engineering, leadership and training. A closer examination shows that it was not quite the unbalanced conflict that a shallow read of the historical record would have you believe. The unpreparedness of the Spanish had masked American deficiencies in gunnery, amphibious assault and a lack of a global network of coaling stations to support projecting American naval power away from the coast of North America. While there are not many games covering the naval aspects of the Spanish-American War, its popularity appears to be increasing with miniatures players.

Now you can explore the the Caribbean naval campaign in Stephen Newberg’s ‘Dawn of Empire: The Spanish American Atlantic Naval War, 1898’ from Compass Games. Built on a foundation derived from the classic Avalon Hill game ‘War at Sea’, Stephen has crafted a game that conveys a clear sense of the strategic spatial relationships, political vulnerabilities and the technical correlation of forces between the two nations.

The players are cast into the role of managing the naval war in the Atlantic theater for either the United States or Spain. The game focuses purely on the naval aspects of the conflict in the Atlantic. You’ll find no dramatic charges up San Juan Hill here. By extension, you don’t have any ‘combined arms’ actions in which the Army attempts to capture Santiago in support of the Navy. What you will find is a game that rewards the United States player for executing a tight blockade of Spanish ports while the Spanish player attempts successful port raids and to keep their fleet intact.

Removing the shrink wrap and cracking open the box, you are greeted with the sweet smell of a new game. Inside the box, we find the following components;

  • A game boards
  • Two (2) counter sheets
  • A rulebook
  • A battle board
  • Two (2) identical player aid charts

The game board is a mounted map of sturdy construction. Dawn of Empire uses an area movement model that depicts the areas and key chokepoints of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic. Also depicted are ports for each of the combatants, along with ports of neutral nations found across the region. The color pattern nicely captures the bright, warm feel of Caribbean waters. The game board also includes the turn track and a search matrix used to determine if opposing squadrons in the same sea zone locate each other.

The counter sheets are excellent. These are big counters with excellent die cutting. While the counters don’t fall right out of the sheet, they are very easy to remove. The counters have nice rounded corners that won’t need any attention from my Oregon Laminations corner clippers. I’ve heard Bill Thomas, President of Compass Games, touting the change in counter sheet production coming from Compass, but Dawn of Empire is my first experience seeing the new format. The graphics are colorful and clear. All the key information is depicted in large print. The smallest element on the counter might be the profile of the ship, but these are in line with similar counters from my aging copy of War at Sea.  Overall, these counters are first rate!  

The rulebook is a saddle-stitched booklet with medium weight glossy pages. Printed in full color it rules twenty pages in length. But don’t think the game is burdened with an excess of rules. Of those twenty pages, seven pages are a detailed example of play and two more pages cover variants and designer’s notes. Take the cover page out of contention and you are looking at a total of ten pages of rules. Those rules are nicely laid out, often following the turn sequence. It’s an attractive and easy to read document.

The battle board is a handy reference used when opposing squadrons engage in combat. It’s a clean, well laid out reference that helps track which ship matches up with their respective opponent. This card does a good job of conveying a sense of the ‘line of battle’ of each squadron. It captures the sense of fleet action as conveyed in an era after wooden ships, but before the time of the massive squadrons of dreadnoughts.

The players aid cards are double sided documents that provide a quick reference to squadron orders on one side and a turn sequence summary chart on the other. It’s a useful document as the various orders you can issue a squadron impose restrictions on your subsequent choice of order options. These restrictions are conveyed in the text on one side of the aid and in a graphic form on the other.

Game play is straight forward, but it is not simple. Both players face a challenging situation. The US player has a modern fleet and outnumbers his opponent. But the American player has a lot of tasks to perform that will require the fleet to be split up. The Spanish ports need to be blockaded to prevent additional arms and troops from reaching the islands. At the same time the Americans must protect the mainland while containing the Spanish navy. Conversely, the Spanish player must protect their ports from blockade, tie down the US navy all the while conserving their ships for future operations. Simple, right?

Let’s dive in and engage the game more closely. A game turn consists of five phases: New Forces and Orders, Movement, Combat, Victory Point awards and lastly, the repair phase.

In the New Forces and Orders phase both players receive reinforcements (if any), form their squadrons, assign officers and most importantly – assign their squadrons orders. Most of these actions are done secretly with the ships, leaders and orders placed face down on the gameboard. Part of forming your squadrons is stacking your ships so they reflect your ‘line of battle’ in a future combat. Since you don’t know where – or even what – you may be fighting, you have to give some thought to this. I’m reminded of the first chapter of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” in which is described the importance of initial estimation and laying plans to the outcome of future battles. That’s definitely true here – you need to determine what you need to do, how many squadrons it will take and only then what the composition of those squadrons shall be.

In the movement phase, players move their squadrons (thanks, Captain Obvious!). Here you see one of the strengths of the US navy – the Spanish player will always move their squadrons and ships first. Once all the Spanish squadrons are moved, the US player moves their squadrons and ships. In practice, the US will always have the opportunity to react to the Spanish moves. However, that reaction is restricted by the orders the US player has already issued. This has the effect of forcing the US to keep a ‘flying squadron’ in reserve that can be deployed to counter an unexpected Spanish move.

Once all the squadrons and ships have moved, play proceeds to the combat phase. Here’s where all that hard work in the prior phases plays off. Combat is resolved area by area. The first order of business is to determine if the two opposing forces in an area actually find each other. The sea is large, and in an era before radio communication, finding an opposing squadron took effort. Fortunately for the players, the effort involves determining the initiative player and cross indexing each squadron’s current order to determine the chances that the squadrons encounter each other. It’s a clever way of introducing uncertainty into the game as one great die roll can let a raiding squadron slip through past a strong defending squadron and bombard a port.

When two squadrons do encounter each other, play moves to the battle board. This is the point where the line of battle that was defined in the orders phase comes into play. The two squadrons face off. The larger squadron can allocate excess ships against the smaller squadron. Reading Captain Wayne P. Hughes (USN ret.) seminal work “Fleet Tactics” (Naval Institute Press, 2000), I’m impressed with how the battle board emulates the sense of the tactics of the period. Ramming is no longer an option and the torpedo is has not yet emerged as a threat to the battleline. The squadrons are small enough that command and control still allows for the firepower in a larger fleet to be concentrated against a smaller opponent. It’s not quite ‘doubling’ your opponent’s line in the classic age of sail sense, but it captures the tactical flexibility allowed by divisions of steam powered warships.

Combat is then resolved in rounds in which both sides trade shots and inflict damage. Disabled and sunk ships are removed from the line of battle. At the end of each round, players have the opportunity to disengage. The speed rating of each ship helps determine the success or failure of the break off attempt. This is very reminiscent of the Battle of Santiago in which the fleeing Spanish ships mostly failed to break off and were lost in battle.  

The combat model reminded me again of Captain Hughes firepower and survivability model “Fleet Tactics”. Captain Hughes stressed the importance of getting the first strike in naval combat. That first strike starts a downward spiral of reduced firepower that leads to the defeat of the other force. While there’s not really a first strike per se in Dawn of Empire, the combat model still rewards hitting your opponent early and hitting them often. As a player, be aware that a bad first combat round can be a clue that you need to quickly break off before you lose more ships!

After all combats have been resolved, players determine control of the sea zones and tally the victory points earned for the turn. While controlling the seas is important, players will derive as many points through blockading, raiding and sinking their opponent’s warships. As in War at Sea and Victory in the Pacific, areas are assigned different victory point values reflecting an areas relative importance to each side. 

Lastly, damaged ships that are in port may be repaired, assuming the port was not disrupted by an enemy attack earlier in the turn.

While Dawn of Empire is clearly recognizable as the offspring of the classic Avalon Hill boardgame War at Sea, it also stands as its own unique game. The orders phase and hidden squadron composition introduces the opportunity for strategic misdirection on both sides. I’d argue that the orders phase is almost more important than the combat phase as real success will stem from manipulating your opponent into a position where they are constrained by past orders and unable to effectively respond to a surge and unexpected strike.

I cut my wargaming teeth on War at Sea – it was the first game I bought and we played it many times. I bought Dawn of Empire as it was a relatively obscure topic, but there were concerns about how enjoyable the game would be when the historical result was so one-sided. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised with Dawn of Empire. The core game is certainly a tough fight for the Spanish, but the game includes twelve different optional rules covering everything from additional ships, more complex damage repair rules to the possibility of German intervention on behalf of Spain. Just exploring these options will provide fodder for multiple replay opportunities without having to rehash the same game twice!

A useful aspect of the game is to examine the counters. The era of the ‘New Steel Navy’ was a time of rapid technological experimentation and innovation. You see this reflected in the variety of ship present on both sides. The US navy includes the newest battleship Iowa, the three ‘sisters’ of the Indiana class and the Texas. While all were built within a span of three years, there’s a variety of armor and armament being tried.

At the other end of the scale were the ‘monitors’ like the Terror, Puritan and Miantonomah. While these are nominally updated, ‘rebuilt’ ships from the late Civil War period, in actuality these were mostly new ships from the keels up. Bulking out the American fleet were a number of steel hulled gunboats mounting relatively light armament and no real armor.

The Spanish have a smaller, but similar fleet built around the barbette battleship Pelayo and a number of armored cruisers that are edging up against being classed as battlecruisers. It’s a fairly modern battle squadron, but it is a single, small squadron. The ratings of the counters clearly depict the gap between the two fleets in both firepower and protection. The US battleships alone wield as much firepower as the entire Spanish fleet does in the game. Fortunately, the Spanish also have a number of fortifications protecting their ports which help balance the disparity in raw numbers of ships.  Those fortifications are key as they will be used when squadrons attempt to blockade or raid a port. Nelson is often credited as saying ‘a ship’s a fool to fight a fort’. You may not be a fool to attack the fortress defending Havana, but you better count on breaking a few eggs when you make that particular omelet.

Along the lines of ships fighting forts, I was disappointed that I did not find a counter for the USS Vesuvius. The naval war in the Caribbean was the Vesuvius’ one and only use in combat. It would have been nice to see her represented, even though the ship’s unique main battery of 15” Zaleski dynamite guns would have marginal use in naval combat.

There was only one thing that I struggled with in the game and that was understanding naval mines. While there is a clear reference to the mine value on the fortress counters, I struggled to find the rules on how to implement the mines in combat. The rules are in the book, but I had to do a close read of the rules to find the reference. Even though it’s in red, highlighted text, I had difficulty finding it. But in the end, I found it.

An important feature in board gaming is the suitability of a game for solitaire play. Dawn of Empire is designed as a two-player game. The game does not include rules for automating one side – commonly referred to as a ‘bot’.  That being said, it is possible to play this as a solitaire game with one person playing both sides.

However, the heart of the game relies on hidden orders and squadron composition. Attempting to play it as a solo game while ‘hot seating it’ means the player loses the fog of war. The nature of the hidden squadron composition and order selection are the source of much of the dynamic tension in the game. Without that fog of war, you lose the central mechanism that brings a lot of the tension and excitement to the game.

Without two players, the only real uncertainty you will face is in the resolution of specific battles.  For example, if I plan to raid the US East Coast with the Spanish, I’m pretty sure I’ll deploy a US squadron there to counter my own move. Unless the Spanish evade the US during the interception roll, I know that a naval battle will ensue. To get the maximum bang for your buck, do yourself a favor and find an opponent for the game.

What this means is there is an opportunity here to add some solitaire rules that drive US or Spanish squadron composition and orders. If there’s an enterprising designer out there, here’s your opportunity! The vast community of solitaire players will be appreciative.

Should you buy this game? Well, if you would like to learn more about the Spanish-American naval war in the Caribbean, here’s a great opportunity. Dawn of Empire is an accessible, relatively short game. It’s a game that allows you to experience the high-level strategic decisions faced by both sides. At the same time, you’ll gain insights into the performance of the ships of each nation’s fleets when the battle lines duke it out. If that gets your attention, then “Remember the Maine!”, and order your copy today!  

Armchair General Score: 93%

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 over four decades. Ray’s gaming interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines.

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