Fleet Battle School

The CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) was interested in creating a wargame which would be accessible to a wide audience and allow for experimentation with new approaches and technologies (and how those affected decisions in the operational naval war).  The goal was a game in which the effects which occurred in the game were in line with those which would be observed in a much more detailed game.   However, we wanted to keep it both more streamlined (to allow it to be played more quickly than a professional wargame) and less specific (so we could eventually share it with a wider crowd of naval game players over the internet).  I discuss the game objectives in more detail on the CRIC podcast with Jeff Anderson and Matt Hipple, and a blog post coming soon on CIMSEC.

Paul Vebber’s Fleet Power system provided an excellent place from which to start, since its abstract approach made it much easier to play than a wargame with more complicated set of rules.  The idea was that we could create a game where you could replay a scenario over again, to try different decisions and see how it changed the game.  We also envisioned eventually being able to design your own fleets (or at least create your own order of battle), and potentially introduce new technologies to see how it would change the game.  Does a laser really herald a new era of naval warfare?  Or is it “too little, too late?”  How many third-generation aircraft does it take to bring down a flight of fifth-generation aircraft? 

As we got further into play-testing, we started to find more and more places where we wanted to deviate from the Fleet Power system to try to make a game that was more “playable.”  At the end of the day, Fleet Battle School is supposed to be a game that’s relatively easy to sit down and play.  We felt it was better to have a game that you could play through again and again rather than trying to model every possible engagement precisely.

So as we’ve started to look forward for how to put together a beta version of the game that we can release onto the world, I would be very interested in figuring out how we can make the Fleet Battle School variant of Fleet Power a better (and frankly, more fun) game.  Paul provides an overview of the Fleet Power system here, and I wanted to discuss some of the ways which we leverage the system to create a game that is enjoyable enough that you can sit down with a beer and play through a game, but with enough realism that you’ll buy a helicopter pilot a drink out of appreciation for a task that you might not have understood before.

  • We really wanted to focus on the non-umpired version of the game.  There’s certainly a lot to be said for a closed game, especially when you are trying to play a cat-and-mouse game.  We considered including rules for dummy units to try to offer some opportunity for concealment.  Frankly, though, we found that we learned a lot more about naval warfare and the effects of our decisions in playing an open game.  In playtesting, we had some phenomenal arguments discussions on how well different sensors performed, and in trying to understand what effect sensing had on the game, this was much more valuable than driving around in the dark.  However, this does makes decoy and deception very hard.  (We also found that submarines had to be tracked on a separate piece of paper which each player hid from the other.)
  • The game is still played with 3-hour turns, but we didn’t divide them up into impulses – all movement was resolved at the same time.  We found at 24-mile hexes and 150-mile megahexes, it tended not to matter too much when each side moved.  If we wanted to have all the impulses for the few instances where it did matter, it would add hours to the play time.  To compensate, during the air phase, we created a priority in air missions so airborne early warning and defensive counter-air missions would be in the air the whole turn, and offensive counter-air and strike missions would move in sequence to allow the fighters to clear the airspace for the bombers. 
  • We also scrapped the advanced game ATO, but I’m not sure that’s the right answer.  The system we used assumed a constant sortie generation rate throughout the day, but it doesn’t allow you to scramble all of your aircraft into a single strike, which is really needed if you’re playing at an air disadvantage and need to get in a lucky strike against a very capable air force.  I’m looking for feedback on better ways to manage aircraft.
  • Paul’s system has a well-researched model for damage control, which we had debates about throughout the entire project.  He had a very complex system for managing different size warheads that I personally found totally cumbersome (and that, frankly, we never used during gameplay).  I’ve tried an alternative method that we used in early play-testing where the damage roll is resolved down to a single die-roll to see if the ship is mission-killed, which accounts for the cumulative probability that total number of incoming warheads would have hit something critical.  However, I’m still struggling with a good way to model damage to carriers and airfields – the size of both means that a single missile hit isn’t going to take out a critical system, and you’re almost more interested in destroying aircraft on deck than sinking the carrier.  I would welcome people’s thoughts on how to model carrier damage.
  • We kept the basic command and control system of Fleet Power; it was the big appeal of using that system.  It is incredibly concise and streamlines a lot of the complication associated with planning in a wargame.  However, rather than track friction points, we simplified it so each orders change entails a 1R shift to all rolls.  (That means, on the engagement table, you roll one column to the right, which is bad.)  Though, while Fleet Power provides a great menu of order options, planning out your first day’s move tends to still be the most time-consuming part of playtests. 

Right now, there’s a very rough alpha test version of the game.  It’s principally designed to be playing with a voiceover to help talk through the game, but I’m willing to share (@Chris_Kona) if you are particularly interested in seeing and testing our approach (milSuite link coming soon).  We’re certainly interested in hearing your thoughts.  As Paul Vebber has mentioned before, this is all leading up to a demo at Connections in August, so hopefully we can share a full beta version after that.

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10 Responses to Fleet Battle School

  1. Pingback: Welcome Aboard! | Wargaming Connection

  2. joesaur says:

    Your idea of a simple game that can be played over and over is definitely worth the effort, but my experience would indicate that the scope of the game you describe might be too large. While Ops on Sylvania some years back, I ran some simple scenarios for JO training, and these could be easily repeated, but they only involved 1-2 units per side. “You’re the TAO of the USS XXX, an FFG w/Harpoon transiting the Straits of Hormuz at 20 kts. Suddenly, a contact comes over the horizon (25k yds); it’s an Iranian DD illuminating you with fire control radar in acquisition mode. What do you do?”
    The CO was the local enemy commander (read: “local nut job”; we did something similar for the Gulf of Sidra); the XO got to be either COMNAVFORMIDEAST or COMSIXTHFLT, two senior LTs were the Iranians, and a few senior JGs were on the XXX. The game became a terrific opportunity for the CO to observe his wardroom, and to teach! (We almost never got to kinetics, btw.)
    I’ve done something similar for the Marines; this was a simple tabletop game with maybe six units per side (2 line infantry, 2 archers, 2 horse, and either two bolt throwers or two elephants/chariots or one of each). A one-page set of rules for Ancients was sufficient. The game could be set up in less than an hour, and played three times in four hours (I called it “Duffer’s Drift” on a table).
    Bottom line: anything more that 1 page rules takes it out of the “simple and repeatable” category. To include all of the DC, weapons, tactics detail you outlined, you would need very small scenarios. To have large scenarios, you would need to abstract away most of the detail. As the detailer used to say, “You can have the ship you want, or the homeport you want; pick one…”

  3. Chris Kona says:

    You’re absolutely right. There’s definitely a gap in gaming at the tactical level, and I can see how that approach is much easier and gets to the core of the decisions you would actually have to face as a TAO. Frankly, I think that many in the Navy believe that simulation is able to fill this gap, but it concentrates too much on button-ology and doctrine and doesn’t exercise the decision-making that officers are faced with. (I recognize there’s an important place for simluation as well, but it doesn’t replace the sort of game you’re talking about.)

    For Fleet Battle School, we really wanted to focus on the operational level of war, to capture the interactions that occur between the domains and allow players to see how these interactions shape and are shaped by decisions. As you pointed out, we can’t have it all ways, and we ended up giving up a large amount of detail at the low tactical level. The Fleet Power C2 system has an underlying assumption that your pilots and TAOs are going to try to act in the best manner based on the information they have and the commander’s intent the player provides. We wanted to try to pull the player out from giving rudder orders and missile engagement orders and focus instead on deciding how they were going to employ the forces they have at the operational level. While it doesn’t let a player nessecarily think through a particular decision they would have as TAO, it does let them experiment with how surface ships, aircraft and submarines need to support each other to achieve some objective.

  4. joesaur says:

    If you plan to make Connections, I will be there and we can definitely talk. As you point out, tactical naval games can be very button-heavy, and the alternative we had at the time was the old trifold TCRP game, where one had three separate vertical plot displays (paper). Since the skipper was more interested in “why” than in “what”, two or three simple ship models on the wardroom floor or table were sufficient.

    • Paul Vebber says:


      Chris and I will both be at Connections, and plan to run a Battle School Demo.

      When you aggregate things into CSGs. SAGs and Air Wings, you can play pretty “hgih level” games with 12-15 units per side. An example might be A CSG, its Airwing, a land airbase with composite wing of MPA, tankers and long range fighters, 2 SAGs and 2 subs for Blue. Going up against 2 heavy and 3 light SAGs, 6 Subs, supported by an Air force of 2 fighter, 1 strike and 1 bomber regiment.

      That’s getting pretty sporty for both sides! Particularly if the “play field” is fairly small – say 25 x 25 hexes (600 x 600nm)

      With multiple players on a side, the admin of plotting for even 4 or 5 units is not onerous.

      We also focus – perhaps to a fault – on the Naval forces being the “supported command” so helps keep the scope of the game llimited.

      In the playtests we have also kept the playfield pretty “sterile” as lower level games like Harpoon do. The whole “OpArea” idea comes from trying to get away from that in the overal Fleet Power game system, but its tough to keep such things abstract.

      Chris is great at taking the good ideas that get thrown around, focusing on making them playable, and waiting until I forget the rest…

      • joesaur says:

        I look forward to the chance to play. Between all the NAVWARCOL folks (Chris W., Peter, Stephen) and ex-Navy (Neil Byrne (NavTAG?), Bill Simpson, etc.), could be interesting!

  5. Pingback: Fleet Battle School: Innovative Ideas through Wargaming | Center for International Maritime Security

  6. joesaur says:

    Chris and Paul,
    Open ocean AAW at the battle group level is all well and good, but I believe it was Corbett who pointed out the need to deal with choke points. In that vein, let me suggest a scenario at the level that I think has historically been overlooked.
    Red is guarding a gap between two islands. The location is beyond easy air cover from the mainland. Red has some short/medium range ASM/ASCMs, some local AA capacity, has the ability to lay a half dozen or so mines on short notice, and a battalion of troops for security. Red is aware that Blue is coming, but has not laid the mines. Yet.
    Blue is charged with taking the gap, and holding it for 48 hours to permit the strike group to pass through, execute a strike, and leave safely. Blue can have 2 MCM/LCS (AMW config), an LHA with embarked MEU, and 2 DDGs.
    Hits would be at the capability level: a ship is said to have capabilities:
    – buoyancy
    – movement
    – ASuW
    – AAW
    – ASW
    – helos
    When a ship takes a hit, roll 1 die; whatever comes up is the capability lost. Lose 2 or more, and that unit is out of the fight performing damage control. For larger ships (LHA), there would be up to 12 capabilities; roll a 12-sided die; loss of 5 capabilities would put it out of the fight.
    This is outside the realm of the two-ship trainer, and below the full fleet engagement; more the realm of an O-6 Commodore and staff, which is where, I would submit, we need the work.
    Your thoughts?

    • Chris Kona says:

      That’s an interesting idea. I like the idea for damage, to reduce it to warfare areas instead of worrying about specific points worth of damage. I could see that there are some cases where weapons could create different effects (either smaller weapons or larger weapons), but it seems close. I could see that it might be a way to exercise different warfare commanders depending on how you wanted the different players to interact.

      Is it reasonable that there wouldn’t be some red air cover? I could see how a squadron of fighters in the area would force blue to think about how they deal with the air domain as they transit. I can see how the addition of mines adds to what blue has to think about; low probability of occurring, but significant ramificiations if you accidentally stumble onto one.


      • joesaur says:

        The idea was to set the scenario far enough out that the aerial furball was closer to the mainland, and so the fight didn’t degenerate into another AAW drill, but rather was an exercise in the coordination of disparate forces in a tactical setting.

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