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Posted on Jun 22, 2021 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Operation Judgement: The Taranto Raid Hits the Tabletop in “Terrible Swift Swordfish”. Board Game Review

Operation Judgement: The Taranto Raid Hits the Tabletop in “Terrible Swift Swordfish”. Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

Terrible Swift Swordfish. Publisher: LPS, Inc. Designer: Roberto Chiavini. Price $19.95

Passed inspection: Generates an engaging narrative of the attack on Taranto. Simple rules that lead player through gameplay. Color map of the Taranto harbor area. Color counters represent each plane in the attack. 

Failed basic: The rules are printed as part of the gameboard as white text on a medium blue background. The combination of distance from the eye combined with the relatively small size of the text and the contrast between text and background may pose an issue for readability for visually impaired players.  

There’s a long history of synergy between history books and historical board games. An engaging historical game can prompt a player to seek out additional information through various books and maps. The converse is true where inspiring historical books can motivate the reader to find a historical game on the topic. For  me, David Hobbes book Taranto was the catalyst which led to the acquisition of the tabletop game Terrible Swift Swordfish (TSS(f)) from LPS. Inc.

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Taranto is one of those historically pivotal events. A small band of warriors, challenging conventional wisdom as to what is possible, risk their lives and achieve a result that alters the course of the war.

In Roberto Chiavini’s game, the player takes on the role of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm planning the daring night attack on the Italian fleet anchored in the port of Taranto by 21 Fairey Swordfish Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance (TSR) aircraft launched from HMS Illustrious.  You are tasked with sinking a substantial amount of Italian battleships, or some combination of damage to battleships, cruisers and shore installations.

Standing it your way are the Taranto harbor defenses, which are a mix of anti-aircraft guns, barrage balloons, torpedo nets and the geography of the harbor itself. You’ll have surprise on your side, but as once that fades, you can expect an effective barrage of gunfire to be protecting the battleships sitting at anchor.

But before we unleash the torpedoes, let’s review the components of the game.  The ships in a plastic bag. Inside the bag we find the following:

  • One (1) cover sheet
  • One (1) gameboard/rulebook
  • One (1) counter sheet
  • 1 backing sheet

The cover sheet functions as the cover for the game. It gets the job done with a representation of Italian ships and the titular Swordfish.

The gameboard is the heart of the game. That’s doubly so in the case of TSS(f) as the rules are integrating as a part of the gameboard. The board is an unmounted, cardstock rectangle 8 ½” by 34” in length. The left half is devoted the game’s rules while the right half is a map of the playing area.

The game board

The map depicts the harbor of Taranto depicting the locations of the battleships and cruisers, as well as important shore facilities worth attacking. Though not shown, destroyers and smaller vessels are assumed to fall into the shore facilities category. TSS(f) is an area movement game. The harbor is divided into 17 zones which regulate movement and determine flak firepower and the various die roll modifiers used.

Aftermath of the airstrike. Could have eased up on the flares!

The rules take up the left-hand side of the gameboard. The text is relatively clear and unambiguous, but as with many things in life, you need to read the fine print. The rules boil down to two (2) pages of text with smattering of tables tossed in for resolving flak, torpedo runs and bombing. It’s white text on a medium blue background.

The counter sheet consists of 108 color counters. The single largest group of counters are those that represent each plane involved in the airstrike. Each plane carries its specific identification code. You’ll need to do some research to determine which plane belongs to which Fleet Air Arm squadron. (Remember when I wrote that David Hobbes book got me interested in the attack on Taranto? That book is a great place for this kind of detailed information.).

In addition to the plane counters, there are chits for determining the effectiveness of the anti-torpedo defenses and the torpedo damage results. Lastly are a group of counters depicting each capital ship in the harbor. These counters are useful for randomizing the deployments of the Italian ships with some of the variants.

Game play is relatively simple. There is a planning segment in which the player allocates their aircraft between one of two airstrike waves. Dwight D. Eisenhower would tell you that the plan is nothing, but planning is everything. That’s true for Terrible Swift Swordfish. Within each wave, the players determine the order in which the aircraft will attack, how the aircraft are armed and the target each plane is tasked to attack. Once planning is finalized, game play proceeds to airstrike resolution.

Airstrike resolution is the heart of the game. Starting at the top of the planning roster, the player moves each plane across the game board, resolving flak for each area entered, attacking the assigned target and – hopefully – exiting the game board and safely returning to the Illustrious. The actual attacks involve some die rolling, with the torpedo attacks requiring a chit draw for torpedo defenses and then determining the effect of any torpedoes that find their mark. While the first planes in each wave have the element of surprise, the Italian defenders will find their footing and start to bring more effective fire to bear on the attackers.

With uncomplicated mechanics, the game can be played in an hour or so, with the big variable being how much time you expend formulating your strike plan. And that time is critical. You need to assess what you want to accomplish with your airstrike, how you want to accomplish it and what obstacles you need to overcome. Creating an effective plan means understanding your objective (the victory conditions), the enemy dispositions (ships and flak) and the tools you have at your disposal – the Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious.

This is a good introductory tabletop wargame. The game depicts a narrow slice of the overall operation focusing on the resolution of the attack once the strike force reaches Taranto. While the game is highly structured, the rules give the player a sense of agency and control. You are not just pushing data through the program and seeing how your attack plan executes based on a handful of dynamic variables. Instead, you have to evaluate your performance with each zone entered and each flak barrage encountered.

The components make an attractive game. The gameboard map is slightly more detailed than the maps used with David Thompson’s By Stealth and Sea. Both games deal with attacks by small forces on an enemy harbor. While By Stealth and Sea uses the harbor shore as a boundary that delineates the playable area, in TSS(f) the shore areas may be traversed with many offering additional opportunities for illumination and bombing. It would have been nice to see specific high value targets labeled so the player better understood why it was worth attacking each area as well as to enrich the narrative created by game play, but you still get the satisfaction of earning victory points for each successful bombing run.

Terrible Swift Swordfish is focused on the resolution of the attack once the strike force reaches Taranto. That means the game does not provide an experience similar to Jerry White’s “Enemy Coast Ahead” series. TSS(f) is all about planning and executing the air strike on the harbor. You don’t worry about pre-mission random events or anything happening to the ships of the task force after that last plane flies off into the darkness. 

TSS is not a detailed game of aerial combat. You don’t fuss with the detailed performance of each plane regarding airspeed, altitude and spotting targets. You are unconcerned with the status of each member of the aircraft’s crew.

This game could almost have been done as a pen and paper narrative, die rolling exercise. Since your construct a strike plan and resolve the events of each aircraft in a linear process, there’s no real need for the individual airplane counters. Having said that, the airplane counters do give the player a sense of physicality and uniqueness to each plane in the strike force.

We’re talking about a dedicated solitaire game. The decisions are all in the hands of the player, who is controlling the strike force. The performance of the defenders is handled through some die-rolls and chit draws to introduce the required degree of uncertainty.

Terrible Swift Swordfish includes a number of variants. The historical scenario lets you play it straight and experience the defenses in their historical form. For those players wanting a challenge, there’s also a scenario with more robust Italian defenses. (Historically part of the barrage balloon defenses had been damaged in a recent storm while torpedo nets had not been fully deployed in the harbor.)

In the variant, the random deployment of Italian ships does not appear to impact an areas flak value. I’d expect some additional flak from ships in the harbor, even if it’s only light AA used in self-defense. There are some rules for better coordination and improved flak fire, but it’s not a quantitative model built on the types of ship in a specific zone. We are talking an introductory game here, so it’s not complicated. But if you wanted to vary the flak based on the defending ships, there’s nothing stopping you from tinkering with the game.

Terrible Swift Swordfish offers a good value in a game. As a player, I found it engaging to try and plan an “optimal” strike by balancing the mix of bomb and torpedo armed aircraft, their order of entry and the targets. On the surface, TSS(f) appears to be a narrative style game as the player pushes each plane through the attack. However, the player has a degree of control over the flight path of each aircraft and when bombs (maybe flares) and torpedoes are released. Given that each zone you enter triggers another flak barrage, your encouraged to get in and get out as quickly as possible. The player appears to have the ability to ‘switch’ targets with the torpedo armed Swordfish, in the event that multiple planes attack the same target, or if a plane suffers damage during the approach and just wants to dump the ordnance at the nearest target. So, it’s not a total narrative-based game where you just see how many ships you damage and who survives the attack.

Terrible Swift Swordfish is a fun game. It captures the theme of the attack and reminded me of that cinema classic “633 Squadron” (but of course, with Swordfish!) The game creates a sense of mounting tension with each additional plane that flies into the harbor. It’s an excellent game and the variant rules give it solid replay value. Its uncomplicated rules make it an excellent choice for the new gamer while the depth of options will offer a pleasant diversion for the weary grognard looking for a change of pace. It hits a sweet spot of cost, easy of play, time to play and appearance. This Swordfish scores a hit every time!  

Armchair General Score: 96 %

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

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s 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 hobby magazines.

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