Retrospective: Bismarck

There's one single wargame that I've played very much in my life: Bismarck!

Now, I feel like personality-wise I'm well suited for wargaming, but other than this one game, I never did much. I had a copy of "Little Round Top" (part of the Gettysburg conflict), but I think I played it once and set it aside. Of course, the D&D references to mass battles always intrigued me greatly, but the only thing I could access was "Swords & Spells" and those rules are not really a lot of fun or very immersive. But this game seemed to draw me like a supermagnet at a very young age -- I think I've had it since circa 1980, when I picked it out of a game store at age 10. I dare say it changed my life and understanding of games, history, tactics, and technology in many ways.

Bismarck was Avalon Hill's 1979 game simulating a famous engagement in WWII, in the spring before the U.S. entered the war. The action revolves around the time when the lone, technologically advanced German battleship Bismarck was sent out of the Baltic to cut off British shipping in the North Atlantic (with one cruiser escort), and came precariously close to holding off the entire British Royal navy that was sent to hunt it down. The game is very well known; in the recent and acclaimed interview with David Wesely (inventor of RPGs?), he mentions it twice, as he's searching for some random example of an Avalon Hill game, and it's the first thing that springs to mind. (There was also an earlier 1968 version of the game.)

Play takes place partly on a strategic-level searchboard of the Atlantic Ocean, and partly on a zoomed-in battleboard. The two strategic boards are kept hidden by opposing players. The action here winds up sounding a lot like the game "Battleship", with players moving air and sea units, and then calling out board coordinates ("I15! H17! O20!") in places where they have sufficient search strength in the hopes of detecting enemy targets. Random rolls affect the weather (i.e., visibility; sets a required search strength score), general British search and radio intercepts, and the possibility of German encounters with convoys. When enemy targets are found, play switches to the battleboard where either air attacks are rolled, or ship-to-ship maneuvering and gunfire is resolved. Victory points are assessed at the end when time expires or the Bismarck is sunk.

The Basic game, simulating the core historical scenario, is already quite involved (I find I have to cut back on even some of the "Basic" game rules on movement and fuel tracking in order to get other people to play with me.) The Intermediate game adds modular supplements, such as refinements to weather tracking, submarines and destroyers, aircraft carrier on-deck status, fighter aircraft, random breakdowns, and alternative scenarios including French, U.S., and other hypothetical German vessels. The Advanced game provides an immensely more detailed tabletop miniatures game for ship-to-ship combat (based on the prior Avalon Hill game Jutland), which can constitute a daylong game all by itself.

To the right, you'll see some photos of the Basic game setup. First, the opposing British and German sides of play, including Searchboard, Player Aid Card (including time track, weather gauge, and initial setup instructions), and Game Tables Card. Second, closeups of the starting positions for both the British and German player. Third, a closeup of the battleboard near the end of a sample game (when the Bismarck has been bombed repeatedly, cornered, and is about to be sunk after a fierce firefight with the combined British battleships Hood and Prince of Wales). Finally, the game's Hit Record Pad.

Okay, some analysis: First, in some general sense, Bismarck is a game of "piracy" of the sort that's never failed to intrigue me. A lot like Sid Meier's addictive Pirates! or my own D&D-based Corsairs game, the fundamental action is one of a heavily-armed vessel preying on the cargo ships of some enemy nation, and being hunted in return by a more powerful but spread-out navy. In some sense, historically, naval actions tend to hinge on exactly this dynamic (far more so fleet-against-fleet battles). Even more generally, the "two levels" aspect of the game (strategic map vs. tactical combat map) is shared not only by all of those games, but even D&D itself (with an exploratory map action, and a distinct combat-encounter action). Not only is it almost unavoidable realism-wise, there's lots of interesting dynamics available via the "game-within-the-game".

Secondly, I think that even today Bismarck is, intriguingly, the most asymmetric game I've ever seen. The German player has all of 2 ships; the British player has more than 20 (in the Basic game), including a variety of cruisers, battleships, aircraft carriers, etc. The strategies are entirely different; the German player is trying to quietly "break out" past the northeastern British search line, skulking and hiding around convoy lines for merchantman targets of his firepower; while the British player is managing an ocean-wide search and destroy campaign, managing scores of air and sea searches every turn. At the same time, the Bismarck is itself more powerful than any ship in the British navy, and also faster-moving than any of the British capital ships; such that frequently the British player has to send waves of sacrificial planes and cruisers at it, until some lucky hit slows it down and allows several battleships catch it at a disadvantage. I don't know what other game has this dual-level of extreme asymmetry -- kind of like an Escape from Alcatraz game spliced with Steve Jackson's Ogre. And, it really happened.

Before I'm done with asymmetry issue, consider the following: (a) The fascination with Starcraft, another asymmetric game (though not as thoroughly), which is one of the best-selling PC games of all time. (b) Erick Wujcik's comments on Ogre, which parallel my feelings on Bismarck: "asymmetrical, ... open-ended, ... a teaching tool. Ogre had restructured my mind pretty completely ... but it wasn't until 2002 ... that I realized how effective Ogre is at getting across so many important component mechanisms of play and design." (c) My strongly-held belief that classic Dungeons & Dragons has a great strength in offering character classes that are very distinct, both in flavor and in having different mechanics to support that flavor (and that 4E-style homogenization is a gross misstep).

Also, there's a slight bit of concern about the following question: Which side do you give to a new player when you're first introducing them to the game? The obvious choice is to give the new player the Germans (with just 2 ships, and likely sticking together as one unit, it's much simpler to manage), with the more experienced player taking the British (managing a much larger fleet of planes and ships, and a higher-level search task to administer). Compare this to the D&D tradition of giving Fighters to new players, and Wizards to more experienced players. However, this does have some slight awkwardness here in that (a) the Germans are more easily considered the "bad guys"; (b) it may look like the expert player is "beating up" on the newbie with the much larger British force; and (c) the Germans have a slightly more abstract goal of avoiding combat with enemy principals and seeking out faceless merchants that appear by random rolls only.

Thirdly, however, is the issue that there is an extremely high level of trust required between the two players, in that they are fairly and correctly managing their movement, patrol status, search strength calculations, air endurance, fuel expenditure, etc., etc., on each of the pair of hidden strategic-level searchboards. It would be trivial for a player to shift a vessel to a nearby empty space if they wanted to avoid combat, possibly a location that they "could have" been in legitimately; and even if the game is played honestly, it's easy to make a number of management or calculation mistakes. In addition, there's the slightly goofy reveal in that as one player (primarily the British) calls out search coordinates, the opposition then knows what areas have units in them and should probably be avoided (or attacked by air) on their next move.

I've always felt that there is such an obvious, overwhelming need to computerize the hidden information in Bismarck that it's practically a core experience of the game (secondarily, the computer could also manage all the number-crunching of search strengths, fuel allocation, combat mechanics, etc.) Even at age 10 or 11 I was writing a program for a TRS-80 computer to control the Bismarck's escape route by a virtual German player, and respond to search requests as I played the British side; of course, this also had the beneficial side-effect of permitting the game to be played single-player. Until I listened to the Wesely interview this summer, a different option had never occurred to me -- namely, having a 3rd player present to act as referee. However, in my rural Maine adolescence, my problem was not one of having extra participants around, but rather one of having too few.

So that's my take on Bismarck. Just about 30 years after first obtaining it, I can still play it with relish (as my girlfriend and I did on an afternoon this weekend in our newly game-friendly living room setup), and afterward have a fairly extensive conversation about its history, strategy, and ramifications. I find that a lot of my interesting intuitions about game design are frothing around inside the rulebook and tables to this game. I still get wired after a game, almost hearing the waves and sea-spray, smelling the smoke powder, feeling the deep shock of cannons when dice hit the table (to the extent of sometimes having trouble sleeping afterward). I'm not exactly sure how the 10-year-old version of myself got drawn to the Bismarck box out of all possible games and wargames in the hobby store, but I think it was the right move. Maybe I've just got the North Atlantic salt-water in my veins, or something.


  1. Dang, now I want to get my well-used copy out. :)

  2. Great post.

    I have a copy of Jutland, and now you have reminded me that I really need to play that game more often!

    The sea calls to me!