Fleet Warfare Done Right

Aug 12, 2009, 9:25 PM |

As I worked my way through my 4X campaigns in Sins of a Solar Empire and Sword of the Stars, something really started to stick in my craw. As I played each fleet intensive game, I realized that it truly didn’t capture the high stakes nature of fleet battles. The ships looked impressive enough and the battles were exciting, but the implications of those battles were less than important. For example, in both games I had large fleets massacred, yet there was little real effect on my larger war effort. Oh sure, I might have to fall back from system to system, but as soon as I replaced my losses, I was quickly back on the offensive. Neither game delivered any sort of gravity to the battles.

As I thought about this in the wake of each game, I realized that the primary problem was the ease with which the player could just build new ships. Even with the limited capital vessels in Sins, the ease with which an entire fleet could be reconstituted is incredible. It is this ease of rebuilding that ultimately removes any tension from the fleet maneuvers. I mean, who cares if you are sending an entire armada to its death if you can just snap your fingers and replace them in short order?

This ridiculous replacement model stains not just these two games, but just about every fleet-based game I’ve played. It makes the player throw caution to the wind and just fling vessels at the enemy almost haphazardly. Who cares? We can just make more! If only President Roosevelt was so lucky after Pearl Harbor!

Someday I hope a game designer takes a decidedly more serious take on fleet warfare. Instead of having ships that can be mass produced and crews that require no training, I hope we get something more realistic. Imagine a 4X game where the player is given an initial allotment of ships with reserves trickling in at a snail’s pace – a bit quicker for smaller vessels but much slower for cruisers on up. Basically, the player would need to engage in all his eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminating with just what he had on hand. Do you think the player would be less cavalier and more cautious? Yeah… Smile I also think every battle, because it could cost the player so dearly, would also be ten times as tense as current fare as the implications would be so far reaching.

You know, there is a game that does come rather close to the careful maneuvering and commitment of forces that takes places in actual naval warfare. Know what is it?


It’s true. The average game of Chess has both players maneuvering their ‘fleets’ with the utmost care and forethought. For every ship (piece) that is lost, the admiral (player) expects, at a minimum, equal compensation, and at best, a significant tactical or strategic advantage. There is a lot of Midway in your typical session….

Here’s an example from a game I recently played:

(32) rogrot - RooksBailey [D00]
Online Chess Chess.com (1), 21.03.2009
[Fritz 11 (30s)]

D00: 1 d4 d5: Unusual lines

1.d4 d5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.h3 Nc6 [3...c5 4.e3 Nc6 5.Bb5 e6 6.Nf3 Bd6 7.0–0 0–0 8.Bxc6 bxc6 9.Re1 cxd4 10.exd4 c5 11.Be3 Qa5 12.dxc5 Bxc5 13.Bxc5 Qxc5 14.Qd4 Qxd4 15.Nxd4 Rb8 16.Rab1 Bd7 17.a3 Rfc8 18.Nf3 Ruciero Miguez,E-Teran Alvarez,I (2392)/Seville 2002/CBM 086 ext/0–1 (36)] 4.a3N Prevents intrusion on b4 [4.Bg5 e6 5.Nf3 h6 6.Bxf6 Qxf6 7.e3 Bd6 8.Nb5 Qe7 9.a3 a6 10.Nxd6+ Qxd6 11.c4 0–0 12.c5 Qe7 13.Bd3 e5 14.dxe5 Nxe5 15.b4 c6 16.0–0 Qf6 17.Be2 Re8 18.Nh2 Qg6 Fragni,E (1859)-Zaccaria,S/Saint Vincent 2006/CBM 114 ext/1–0 (48); 4.Bf4 Bf5=] 4...e5

Both sides slowly maneuver their assets, attempting to gain a positional advantage. Only after I was confident that my “vessels” were properly supporting each other, did I venture a “destroyer” (e5 pawn) into battle.

5.dxe5 Nxe5 6.Bf4 Nc6 Black has an active position

If this was a 4X game, I would probably leave my knight to destruction because I could just make more! But this isn’t a game…it’s Chess! Needing to conserve what I have, I pull my knight back to save him for future work.

7.Nb5 Bd6 8.Nxd6+ cxd6

Vessels begin to engage and sink each other!

9.e3 0–0 10.Bg5 Be6 11.Bd3= White should quickly conclude development. 11...h6 12.Bh4 Ne5 13.Nf3 Ng6 14.g3 Covers f4+h4

Here we had something I never saw in any of the 4X games – careful strategic maneuvering by both sides with a reluctance to engage until a clear advantage could be discerned.

I felt the time was right, so....

14...Nxh4 15.gxh4 Ne4 16.Bxe4 dxe4 17.h5?? further deteriorates the position 17...d5 [¹17...exf3 and Black takes home the point 18.Qxf3 Qa5+ 19.c3 Rac8–+]

The strain of the battle causes my opponent and me to blunder. I really don’t know why I didn’t sink his knight. I guess I was too concerned about protecting my d6 pawn.

18.Nd4 a6 19.Nxe6 fxe6 20.Qg4 Qf6

The big carriers (Queens) come out to duel....

21.0–0–0 Qf5 22.Rhg1 Qf6 23.Rg3 Rac8 24.Qg6

Like their flattop counterparts, Queens must not be treated lightly as their immense power can prove decisive in a blink of an eye. Hence, my opponent and I use our carriers to feint and counter-feint, seeing if we can get the other to commit its awesome firepower recklessly. Ultimately, the blows are finally exchanged....

24...Qxg6 25.hxg6?

Scratch two flattops! But my side gains a positional advantage. Now it’s time for the battleships (Rooks) to take on the heavy lifting....

25...Rxf2–+ 26.Rd2 Rf3 27.Rdg2 Rcf8–+ 28.c3 28...Rf1+

Like their carrier cousins, Rooks also possess significant firepower. However, unlike the precious and solitary Queen, Rooks come in pairs and can only truly maximize their firepower by working together.

My opponent uses his own set carefully, refusing to commit unless he sees an advantage…or I force him to commit with a check to his admiral!

29.Kc2 R8f2+ 30.Rxf2 Rxf2+

One for one.

Both sides are now reduced to one battleship each and a bunch of destroyers. However, my side has a slight material advantage. The trick will be to come up with a battle plan to trap the enemy admiral and completely obliterate his forces.

31.Kc1 Kf8 32.Rg1 Rf3 33.Rg4 Ke7 34.Kd2 Kf6 35.h4 Kf5 36.Rg2 Rh3 0–1

Alas, it was not to be as my opponent withdrew from battle and sailed away. While I did have a slight material advantage and a stronger position on my kingside, I think he should have held on a bit longer as finding a way to mate him would have been a time-consuming and arduous task. Who knows, he might have even achieved a stalemate (albeit, my naval battle analysis computer, known as Chessmaster XI Smile, predicts a mate of the White King 27 moves later).

In many ways, this game was unremarkable for Chess. But for simulating fleet warfare, I believe it was quite remarkable in its fidelity; certainly more so than any 4X game I have played in a long time. Both sides carefully maneuvered their forces, only committing them when some sort of perceived advantage became apparent. “Combat” was even more realistically paced, as it was not unrelenting, but punctuated by noticeable lulls and sharp fights. And, of course, both sides didn’t carelessly throw their pieces into the grinder, but husbanded every unit, being careful to provide mutual support by using the innate abilities of the individual pieces. What is more, if CMXI is correct, my final mate would have been partially achieved by the promotion of a kingside pawn, something that was only made possible by the much earlier actions of my now departed Queen and Rook. Like real warfare, victory was not obtained by a super-weapon of some sort, but the smart use of regular forces that set the stage for a later victory. Sort of reminds me of the result of the World War II naval action at Midway….


You can play through the whole game here: