RockyMountainNavy, 22 September 2021
Thanks to the generosity of fellow Twitter wargamer Nicola (@6xW_a), I now possess a good copy of the boardgame The Hunt for Red October designed by Douglas Niles and published by TSR, Inc. in 1988. I was in college when The Hunt for Red October game was published. I (kinda) recall seeing this in my FLGS, and I even think I played a demo game for I recall
fondling handling the standee ships. Maybe a decade later I think I saw a copy in my new FLGS, but winced at the price tag as it was being marketed as a collectable. I also heard reviews of the game, and realizing that the game was aimed at the mass market gamer, figuratively turned my nose up. After all, I was a real wargamer Grognard and to play a mass market game was “beneath me.”
How much do I regret my attitude and actions.
I am of two minds regarding the The Hunt for Red October. From a family gamer perspective, The Hunt for Red October is a lite, family wargame aimed at the mass market that delivers a fun and relatively uncomplicated model of Cold War naval warfare. The game is easy to learn and quick to play with incredible table presence. On the other hand, from my Grognard perspective, The Hunt for Red October fails to connect game mechanisms to theme making which makes learning from the game difficult.
click images to enlarge
It’s Easy to Write About Wargames
With a social media persona named RockyMountainNavy it should be no surprise to my fellow gamers that I love me some naval wargames. I own and have played many different naval wargames, from the super-tactical (simulation?) Harpoon-series by Larry Bond (1982+) to the operational Blue Water Navy (Compass Games, 2019) to the strategic Seapower & the State (Simulations Canada, 1982). Many of those wargames, especially at the tactical level, border more on simulation than “game.” As I played The Hunt for Red October, I tried to figure out what I would write about. Could I do another “Naval Wargames According to Captain Hughes” series post where I analyze The Hunt for Red October in terms of how well it represents Cold War naval warfare? Or would I do a post where I describe how The Hunt for Red October distills Cold War naval warfare into a simple, playable game?
My original written post for The Hunt for Red October was that second one. Everything was cooking along great until I went and read BoardGameGeek. In a review written 17 years ago, BGG user @hyzer wrote, “The idea that you can’t “see” the ships until you detect them is ludicrous. You can see them right there on the board. Just mover [sic] over there and roll.” My first reaction was to think this makes a good example for designers of what happens when somebody sees only game mechanisms and fails to understand what they represent. In this case, @hyzer is “obviously” a lazy rule book reader for if they only looked at the rule explanation they would clearly see that The Hunt for Red October, like many naval wargames, doesn’t use hidden movement and in order to attack the enemy must be “localized.” I mean, that’s what the rule book says right on page…
Hmm. Where is it? Ahh, check the Designer’s Notes…but there are none…
It’s not there. And not only for detection but for every game mechanism in The Hunt for Red October. The rule book is absolutely silent on the relationship between game mechanisms and reality. Neither the rule book or any other material in The Hunt for Red October explains how game mechanisms relate to Cold War naval combat. It’s implied in a few places but never even explicitly stated. [OK, I found one—ONE—example as cited later.] That became my hook.
Massive Red October
From first look, The Hunt for Red October does not appear like a “typical” wargame. The flat box measures a massive 21 5/8″ x 12 1/8″ and is almost 1 3/4″ deep. It’s almost as though the box was designed with a coffee table in mind (and certainly not Kallax shelves from Ikea)! When I think about what a mass market wargame would look like, The Hunt for Red October hits many of my desires.
The mounted mapboard for The Hunt for Red October is trifold and when laid out comes in at a whopping 36″x22″. Not a small play area! Add in the need to place the cardstock Battle Board and both NATO and Soviet Task Force Boards on the table and you quickly realize this will need something like a family dining room table the size of an ocean to play. The board itself is not hexes but areas, not too much unlike Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977), though in The Hunt for Red October there are many more areas.
The Hunt for Red October also breaks from “traditional” wargame accoutrements by using standees for ships and submarines. This is an interesting design choice because each standee measures a huge 1 1/2″x 3/4″ and on one side has a profile of the ship/submarine with a few (very few) factors of information, and occasionally an additional icon. The opposite side is a blank side designed to be shown to “conceal crucial information from your opponent” (Rule Book, p. 1). Aircraft in the game are represented by die-cut cardboard chits like one gets in a normal wargame though at nearly 3/4″ squares they are larger than many wargames of those days where 1/2″ or maybe 5/8″ seemed “standard.”
The Rules of the Hunt
The rule book for The Hunt for Red October is a 30-page package that has both the rules and scenarios. The rules themselves are laid out in very conversational style more akin to a boardgame than to the rules-lawyer driven, numbered paragraph style of wargame rules. The rule book is appropriately illustrated with “chrome” call-out, flavor text boxes that describe ships or weapon systems, not too much unlike what a Janes does.
While not explicitly stated in the rules, The Hunt for Red October has both a basic game and an advanced game using the Optional Rules in the book. The basic rules are covered in ten pages with the Optional Rules taking just over two more. The balance of the rule book is three pages of Examples of Play, a centerspread Hidden Movement Map, eight scenarios spread over ten pages, and a two-page Steps Summary (Sequence of Play). Taken as a whole, the rules for The Hunt for Red October are relatively uncomplicated and generally clearly written making it both quick and easy to learn (and to teach)—perfect for a mass market boardgame.
Clearing the Baffles* -or- Simplifying Modern Naval Warfare for the Masses
Like many boardgames, there are no Designer’s Notes for The Hunt for Red October which makes divining the designer’s intent a bit hard. While one doesn’t have the designer’s words to study, one can at the design decisions in the game and try to understand what it says.
Initiative – Advantage NATO
Step 1 of a game turn in The Hunt for Red October is Initiative. Like many games, this is a dice-off with the higher roll given the choice of first or second movement. The rule itself is a single paragraph:
Each player takes two detection markers from his offboard pile and places them on the map in his “Detection Markers” space. Then each player rolls a die. The NATO player rolls a colored die, the Soviet player rolls a white die. The number rolled tells how many extra detection markers both players get. Each player adds that many detection markers to his “Detection Markers” space. Whoever has the most detection markers has the initiative for this turn. If both players have the same number of detection markers, the Soviet player gets the initiative.
The Hunt for Red October Rule Book, p. 4
Those Detection Markers are a very important game mechanism in The Hunt for Red October. Detection Markers are used later in the Movement and Combat steps to find enemy combatants in order to attack them. Not only does the initiative roll determine play order, but it also awards Detection Markers and the advantages that come with having them to use. When making that initiative roll in The Hunt for Red October, the NATO player rolls a colored die and the Soviet player the white die. That colored die is a d10 (with 0 read as “0”) and the white die a standard d6. Thus, while it is possible for the NATO player to roll less than the Soviet, the die type makes it likely that the NATO player will often roll higher gaining both more Detection Markers and the initiative.
As I read the initiative rules for The Hunt for Red October, it seemed to me that the use of a d10 by NATO over the d6 for the Soviets represents a NATO advantage in Electronic Warfare (EW) and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). The initiative die rolls are a very simple “gamification” of the perceived advantages NATO enjoyed over the Soviets in both EW and ISR. This advantage, while not guaranteed, is represented by the number of Detection Markers each player has, and the player with the most Detection Markers has a choice of moving first or second as best suits their plans. In some scenarios of The Hunt for Red October the number of starting Detection Markers for one player or the other changes to represent the advantage/disadvantage one side may have depending on the state of the war.
But I don’t find that explanation even hinted at in the rule book.
You Need to See It to Hit It (Even When Right There)
Movement is The Hunt for Red October is by area. When it is your move (First or Second Sea Movement) you move all your ships, submarines, and task forces (but not aircraft). During movement, if you move a piece into a space with an enemy piece, the other player can play Detection Markers. When a Detection Marker is placed, play shifts to Detection Steps where Search for the target is resolved followed by a Battle Decision.
Once again, this simple game mechanism in The Hunt for Red October represents a much more complex activity. Search in this case represents “localization” of the target, in effect gaining “targeting data” in place of general situational awareness (as shown by the piece on the map).
Unlike @hyzen I figured that out; but in his defense the rule book doesn’t say anything either.
Combat According to Hughes
Attacks in The Hunt for Red October are extremely simple; select the proper die type and roll equal to or under the attacking platforms Attack Rating. The die rolled is usually a d10 (remember that “0” is 0) but in the case of an attack against an undetected submarine one uses a d6. Occasionally two dice are rolled if your Attack Rating is in white and the target is a surface ship and again if the target is an enemy aircraft squadron and your Attack Rating is in yellow. Why the different colors? The rule book for The Hunt for Red October delivers the start of an explanation, “Ships with white attack ratings are especially effective when attacking enemy surface ships (not submarines). Pieces with yellow attack ratings are especially deadly when attacking enemy air squadrons.” That’s a start of an explanation, but still very vague. It’s as though the designer assumed everybody knew what it means. From that family gamer perspective this explanation may be sufficient, but from my Grognard perch it seems incomplete.
Like Detection Markers before, this simple combat game mechanism hides a very complex activity—in this case Cold War naval missile combat and antisubmarine warfare. One of the cornerstone tactical concepts of those days was the concept of “rollback.” A very good explanation of rollback is found in the rule book for Captain’s Edition Harpoon (GDW, 1990) which relates:
The most important consideration in picking a target is which ship will hurt the enemy most if it is lost. Usually it is the merchant ship, carrying troops, supplies, or some other valuable cargo. But the escort will always position itself so that any attack on the merchant has to get by it.
The answer is a naval tactic called “rollback.” Instead of attacking just the merchant ship, attack the escort as well. Putting pressure on it means reducing your main attack by one or two factors, but the escort might shoot down more than that if unmolested.
Also, instead of just putting the pressure on the escorts, you may attempt to sink them outright. This works if you have a second wave of attackers, or two different types of attacking units that can work together.
If you have both submarines and long-range strike aircraft, how about attacking a formation first with the subs, aiming for the powerful missile ships? If one or more of those are sunk, the aircraft might have an easier time with their attack. Or lead off with the aircraft, and let the subs penetrate the weakened escort screen and attack valuable ships.
If you have two or more different attacks, and you decide to try a rollback, lead off with the strongest attack, concentrating on a few ships of the escort screen. If the attack is successful, the next attack should be able to inflict greater damage.
Captain’s Edition Harpoon, “Rollback,”, p. 7
The combat model in The Hunt for Red October shows rollback in action through the design and game play of The Battle Board. That board itself is a bit of a clever graphic design through the manner in which it depicts Task Force ships and their mission assignment within that Task Force as well as first or second attacks. In a very unstated manner, The Battle Board shows how a rollback attack works without the players even understanding why.
When fighting a battle in The Hunt for Red October, a simple seven-step process is followed. While mechanically simple, these steps are where real decisions must be made by the players.
- Step 1: Initial Target Placement – In this step the DEFENDER must place all their DETECTED pieces on The Battle Board in either the Attack First or Attack Second sections. If the pieces are part of a Task Force different units can also be allocated to Task Force ASW (good for submarine hunting and defending), Task Force AA (good for air and missile defense), and Task Force Center (no ships in Task Force Center can be attacked in the First Attack Step). Right away, the defender must decide how to best defend while also striking back (attack first, or second?)
- Step 2: Attacker Commitment – The ATTACKER must now place their pieces on the board in the Attack First or Second sections. The pieces MUST include any DETECTED units and, if desired, any UNDETECTED units. Again, a key decision to expose or keep hidden undetected units.
- Step 3: Defender Commitment – The DEFENDER now places any UNDETECTED units if they desire. Having seen the attack, do you have an ace up your sleeve?
- Step 4: Air Interception – This is your air-to-air combat step.
- Step 5 : First Attacks – Units that are in that Attack First section now conduct their attacks. Like mentioned before, units in the Task Force Center are immune to attacks. A nice easy way to represent defense in depth for the defender and the need to rollback defenses for the attacker.
- Step 6: Second Attacks – Units in Attack Second section can now attack any detected enemy pieces anywhere within a Task Force. This presents an interesting challenge—does one attack first or wait to (hopefully) rollback defenses to get at that high value target (HVT) in the Task Force Center.
- Step 7: Battle Conclusion – All pieces are returned to the main board and become undetected. If one wants to “track” a target, they need to spend more Detection Markers.
Several of the Optional Rules in The Hunt for Red October change up the combat procedure in different, more tactical, ways. “Missile Defense” enables surface ships and aircraft squadrons to negate hits instead of attack. “Jamming” protects aircraft squadrons. In the basic rules, an undetected unit that attacks escapes automatically, but “Reaction Attacks” give the defender a limited counterattack. “Anti-Aircraft Quality” changes the hits caused rules advantaging strong fighters like the F-14 Tomcat. “Anti-Aircraft Doctrine” rewards placing strong missile defenders in the right area of The Battle Board to take advantage of their superior capabilities. “Splitting Attack Ratings Against Multiple Targets” does just what it says.
Almost all those decisions and challenges are what I read into the rules; with the exception of one or two Optional Rules not a single other one is called out in the rule book.
When I first looked at the Steps Summary for The Hunt for Red October I zeroed in on Step 5: Combat that takes place after the First and Second Sea Movement steps and the Aircraft Movement step. When I went back to the rules of movement, I was confused to find combat in the movement step. The rules of The Hunt for Red October actually creates the opportunity for many combat situations, again showcasing different ways of coming to battle that, once again, are hidden behind game mechanisms with no explanation. In the case of Step 5: Combat, the difference is, again, those Detection Markers. Whereas Detection Markers played during movement are restricted to areas your own pieces enter, in Step 5: Combat, any Detection Markers left can be played against any space on the board. Some might ask, “How can this be? I don’t have any units there.” Well, welcome to the world of “National Technical Means” and broad ocean surveillance and reconnaissance using classic high-frequency direction finding (HF/DF) like in World War II and satellites in space like the Soviet RORSAT that landed in Canada. Yet again, a highly thematic moment of the Cold War at Sea captured in a game mechanism that many likely don’t even recognize–in great part because the game never even tries to explain it to you.
“Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan.”
The Hunt for Red October has eight scenarios. Seven of the scenarios are Cold War Gone Hot with the last one (Scenario 2) being the book-based hunt for the submarine Red October. If you bought this game because you read the book and are looking to see if you can “escape” as the caterpillar-equipped Red October or hunt it down, you can give Scenario 2 a try. But what about the other seven? Not a single one of those scenarios are taken from the book…
This scenario, based on Tom Clancy’s bestselling novel, The Hunt for Red October, is just one of the many tense situations you can create with this game.
The Hunt for Red October, “Situation Briefing,” Rule Book, p. i
The other seven scenarios presented in The Hunt for Red October actually do a good job of showcasing the vast breadth of possible combat situations in the North Atlantic if the Cold War went hot. From submarines duking it out in the far Arctic north (Scenario 1 – Arctic Patrol) to convoys conducting an opposed ocean crossing (Scenario 3 – North Atlantic Convoy) to moving Marines to Norway (Scenario 4 – MAG to Norway) to a focus on the Royal Navy (Scenario 5 – Long Live the Queen!) to a Soviet Mediterranean Fleet breakout (Scenario 6 – The Gauntlet) to a Soviet amphibious assault (Scenario 7 – Amphibious Assault) to the climatic Scenario 8 – War in the Atlantic, there is much to be played with this game. I wonder how many people bought this game thinking it covered the book story of the hunt for Red October and nothing else?
“The idea you can’t ‘see’ ships…is ludicrous”
Back to that review of The Hunt for Red October written 17 years ago by BGG user @hyzer who said, “The idea that you can’t “see” the ships until you detect them is ludicrous. You can see them right there on the board. Just mover [sic] over there and roll.” I already stated this is a good example for designers of what happens when somebody sees only game mechanisms and fails to understand what they represent. To be honest, this is one of the problems I personally often have with Eurogames; game mechanisms supposed represent something but the thematic connection is occasionally lost on me.
“The idea that you can’t “see” the ships until you detect them is ludicrous. You can see them right there on the board. Just mover [sic] over there and roll.”
BoardGameGeek user @hyzer
Although clearly written rules with maybe some design notes might help, in this particular case I think it’s not a designer’s problem. When one looks at the rule book for The Hunt for Red October, one finds plenty of game mechanisms explained in the rules but the only “flavor” or thematic explanation is in the call-out text boxes that describe weapons systems but in a manner totally disconnected with the rules and game mechanisms themselves. It’s why players like @hyzer write, “Likewise, you can be detected by an enemy who commences blowing the heck out of you, but if you don’t roll to detect them, you can’t attack, as if you don’t know where they are. Its just kind of silly.” Say what you will about the reviewer, the problem lies in some part with a rule book that communicates game mechanisms but lacks a thematic connection.
A Deeper Dive
While The Hunt for Red October looks, and even plays, like a lite family strategy boardgame, the reality is that this title is a good wargame depicting the interrelation between detection and combat in Cold War naval warfare. From my Grognard perspective, the rules do a good job communicating HOW to play the game, but they don’t pass along the WHY behind key game mechanisms. Thus, the opportunity to connect game with theme and create a strong narrative (story) during play is lost. Even if one masters all the rules for playing The Hunt for Red October, without hints at how gameplay depicts reality the story the game makes is one of game actions executed versus telling a story. Neither does the game teach or create a learning opportunity on Cold War naval warfare. No, I don’t mean The Hunt for Red October should be used to teach classes about the Cold War at Sea, but if the game gave players insight into WHY certain game mechanisms are built the way they are this in turn would help players to understand why they’re being asked to make certain decisions at various points in the game.
As an example of what I have in mind, I’m going to use that example from another lite wargame on naval warfare in the Cold War that I already referenced; Captain’s Edition Harpoon by Larry Bond from Game Designers’ Workshop in 1990. A good example of connecting game mechanisms to real world tactics and game theme is found in the Missile Attack Procedure and accompanying flavor text box on pages 6 and 7. Broadly speaking, the Missile Attack Procedure is resolved in a four-step process. In the rule book for Captain’s Edition Harpoon, the rules for the Missile Attack Procedure are followed with a “Tactical Hint:”
To make a successful missile attack, a player should not fire at every enemy ship, but pick a few important ones and overwhelm them. This is called saturating their defenses—giving the defenders more incoming missiles than can be shot down. Note that SAMs, particularly long-range SAMs, will take out a certain number of missiles regardless of the size of the raid. So while two small raids might be stopped completely, a large combined raid may result in spectacular success.
Captain’s Edition Harpoon, p. 6
The supporting flavor text box on page 7 of the Captain’s Edition Harpoon rule book reinforces this thought. The single column discussion of “Rollback” (parts quoted at length above) talks about the tactic of “rolling back” defenses in attacking waves. Taken together with the rule for missile fire and with consideration to the “Tactical Hint,” players learn not only HOW to play saturating missile attacks, but advantages and disadvantages to the tactic. They not only learn HOW, they also learn WHY.
In The Hunt for Red October, the rollback tactic is there in The Battle Board and combat steps. The major difference from Captain’s Edition Harpoon is that there is no explanation provided in The Hunt for Red October. Is one really necessary? In most mass market boardgames, and more modern Eurogames, there is often NOT an explanation connecting game mechanics to theme. For example, worker placement in Raiders of the North Sea (Garphill Games, 2015) represents raids, but in a detached clinical manner (move Viking pawn to area, resolve action, collect rewards). Given the popularity of the game, I guess many people enjoy the detachment, though for me it’s too detached.
The closest The Hunt for Red October may come to what I am looking for as a Grognard is found in the “Anti-Aircraft Doctrine” Optional Rule and the text call-out flavor text for the “Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruiser” (both on p. 11). The text box states, “…the electronic detection and target tracking ability of these cruisers is unmatched by any system in the world.” The “Doctrine” rule starts out with, “Ships equipped with extensive AA weapons (those with yellow attack ratings) must be positioned properly to take full advantage of their equipment.” Putting the two together one gets to a reason why one might want to place that yellow attack rating ship in the Task Force AA Screen portion of The Battle Board. But even in this case it’s more a recognition that “yellow belongs in AA” rather than an understanding of why that is is the best place beyond recognizing yellow ratings have an advantage if placed in a certain zone of the player’s board. One approach tells a story—the other is simply a game optimization activity.
“It might seem incredulous to say, but in some ways The Hunt for Red October actually lacks theme.”
RockyMountainNavy, Sep 2021
It might seem incredulous to say, but in some ways The Hunt for Red October actually lacks theme. Sure, the game looks like NATO versus Soviets, and it looks like it is played at sea, but the game mechanisms don’t clearly connect to the theme. As a naval wargamer who came of age and started a Navy career during the Cold War, the connection of rules and themes seems obvious until I realize my background/experiences are filling in huge blanks in the rules. Why the different ways to use Detection Markers? It seems obvious to me…but now I see the rules make it obvious WHAT to do in a turn, but don’t explain WHY.
In some ways, The Hunt for Red October is more Eurogame than wargame.
RockyMountainNavy, Sep 2021
In some ways The Hunt for Red October is more Eurogame than wargame. Consider, please, that many of the accusations leveled at Eurogames is that they are a collection of game mechanisms with a pasted on theme. Mechanism before theme, the critics say. Now I ask you—what is The Hunt for Red October? Is it not a collection of game mechanisms wrapped in a theme taken from a book that appears in exactly one scenario out of eight in the game? Do those game mechanisms connect thematically in the game? If you are not a student of Cold War naval history does this game help you understand WHY certain actions or decisions are made? Or is The Hunt for Red October a series of game mechanisms that appear to be thematicly connected but in play are not so clearly related?
Outwardly, The Hunt for Red October is a great lite family wargame. It is perfect to take over the dining room table on a Saturday game night. It’s physically imposing, visually stunning, and not what many wargamers commonly expect in a wargame given the lack of hexes and card standee ships. The rules are easy to learn (and teach) and even a middle-size scenario can be completed in a short few hours with novice players. However, a hard reality is that the rule book for The Hunt for Red October is very procedural and fails to communicate how the game connects to the theme. Which is too bad; The Hunt for Red October actually has much to say about the Cold War at Sea and is this-close to communicating those messages in an enjoyable, understandable way. Unfortunately, close only counts for horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear weapons—none of which are in this game.
Maybe I am still too much of a Grognard to fully enjoy The Hunt for Red October. When I play a wargame I want to learn; to explore the “what if” of a battle or campaign. The Hunt for Red October is not—and never was—aimed at Grognards but instead the mass market of players looking not necessarily to learn but just to have an enjoyable evening’s diversion. They want to escape into a world of high-tech ships and submarines sailing across broad oceans and striking fear into the enemy. They don’t want complicated; they want easy and fun. They don’t want to be a student of naval warfare, just an everyday person playing a game. I guess I still need to change my attitude. I can (and do) enjoy playing The Hunt for Red October and my boys do too. At the end of the day I need to focus on the family social-play aspects of the design and not the technical. I need to stop turning my nose up and not
demand expect too much out of this game.
*Clearing the Baffles – “The baffles” refers to the area in the water directly behind a submarine or ship through which a hull-mounted sonar cannot hear. During the Cold War, a submarine would attempt to secretly follow another by hiding in its baffles. This led to the practice of “clearing the baffles” by turning to unmask the blind spot and detect any following submarines. I of course learned this from Tom Clancy’s novel The Hunt for Red October and used the tactic liberally when playing Harpoon!
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