Steel Fleet

  First Sino-Japanese War Designer's notes
bulletDéjà vu?
bulletBalancing Pungdo
bulletYalu no slam dunk
bulletSteampunk and clockwork
bulletComing soon?


  Déjà vu?
"The past is never dead. It's not even past.” - William Faulkner

The Sino-Japanese war seems very modern in the context of Russian annexation of Crimea and forceful Chinese naval ambitions beyond the Yellow Sea. Power abhors a vacuum and will inevitably challenge  weak sovereignty in poorly defended territory. Ironically the disputed original terms of settlement following this distant war form part of China's current claim, such as it is, to the Pinnacle Islands.

And while the first Sino-Japanese war seems increasingly familiar, fought between regional actors armed and occasionally officered by various Great Powers for mercenary motives, what were the outcomes?. While the world watched from afar conventions of international law were stress- tested and various assumptions of contemporary geopolitics were revised; including the narrow limit of protection afforded by the British ensign from interdiction by a secondary naval power. Not to mention that after years of competitive claims by arms manufacturers and abstract tactical analysis by experts untried naval theories and expensive fleets were finally tested in battle with predictably unexpected results.

Undeclared war, untried weapons, bold and ruthless violence in the face of intransigence, conflicting claims of treachery and massacre confounded by partisan journalism and unresolved by history; in many respects the first Sino-Japanese war was thoroughly modern.

The overarching lesson perhaps being that the sudden intrusion of war on status quo politics and profitable trade in the region, inflamed by the regional ambitions of Japan and others, instigated a series of unintended consequences, not least of which European meddling in the post-war settlement of territory, which arguably further destabilised the region and led directly to the Russo-Japanese war a decade later; fought in the same region against a different opponent with a similar strategy for the same ends.

Balancing Pungdo
It is pretty clear that the inevitable loss of the open lane of navigation to Asan on which their troops depended was a strategic naval blunder on the part of the Chinese, days before the war formally began the Japanese pounced on this barely defended yet essential link. That the Chinese had little strategic reconnaissance on the whereabouts of the Japanese fleet seems apparent also. Because of their overwhelming superiority a simulation of the battle of Pungdo amounts to the Japanese squadron seeing off the Chinese forces, every time with maybe a little torpedo action.

Sometimes strategic mistakes result in lopsided engagements. For the Pungdo battle one would probably want an additional scenario in which the Chinese reinforced their standing patrols and aggressively protected their vital sea communications with Asan1. That could provide a more interesting and balanced encounter. German and English-built squadrons of Victorian era proto-battlecruisers in a meeting engagement at first light off the Korean coast? 'Tis the stuff of legend.

Yalu no slam-dunk
Similarly, it is not clear that Yalu always delivers a Chinese defeat; with less imaginative doctrine and more aggressive handling perhaps the slow-firing battleships of the Beiyang fleet could form an effective and impervious battle line around which lighter vessels might seek protection or even regain some tactical initiative. There is plenty to consider here.

Steampunk and clockwork
The nascent technology of the period seems begging to be designed into our game. Transitions were impacting just about every aspect of naval architecture, engineering and gunnery yet Yalu was fought at relatively short range so the many vessels fitted with slow-firing guns actually had some chance of hitting. The transitional development of guns, propellant, armour, fire control, torpedoes and torpedo boats are captured in these battles like an unusual fossil in sediment.

Work done on the Russo-Japanese war battles makes Steel Fleet quite readily adaptable to this earlier period, though by no means complete. There are other concerns. The rate of fire of main guns, for example, can be painfully slow and in some extreme cases, like the 320mm Canet gun armed Matsushima-class cruisers with a notional rate of fire of two rounds per hour, may fall completely off our 'to hit' table at all ranges. One presumes that if these vessels were securely anchored in sheltered water an optimal distance offshore their guns might usefully, if slowly, shell coastal targets but in naval war game terms they are merely ballast.

This may initially seem like a shortcoming, rather than merely a practical limitation, of our game mechanics; on the other hand we're not convinced that any vessel of the above-mentioned class ever actually hit a moving target at sea using this armament. So there's that.

Nevertheless our basic game engine includes early iron and steel in baseline armour modifiers; ditto early propellant and explosives in respective calculations so the engine is there; some new fire control mechanisms would be required to correctly simulate the period, however. The firing sequence and resolution remains the same, in any case.

Coming soon?
We aren't sure when we'll be designing scenarios and adapting Steel Fleet for the battles of the first Sino-Japanese war because we've got Pungdo and Yalu on our list of things to do without saying when; hopefully once Coronel is released we will get some player feedback on which additional periods and scenarios are wanted soonest. To be honest we have always thought we might easily embrace this period technically but intentionally limited our initial game design framework to 1904-45, the right strategy for us for the time being until we get a mainstream release done.

Shaun Appleby 02 August 2014
Please note that links on designer's notes pages often redirect to existing topics on other relevant designer's notes pages.

1 Pungdo, while barely significant as naval warfare, started the war and had strategic outcomes that changed its course and ultimately outlasted it.
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