December 4, 2023

Cold War, Hot Wargame – Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea

The Cold War at sea seen thru the lens of 2020

RockyMountainNavy, 15 May 2020

Captain Ramius: Once more, we play our dangerous game, a game of chess against our old adversary – The American Navy. For forty years, your fathers before you and your older brothers played this game and played it well. But today the game is different.”
– The Hunt for Red October (screenplay)


A mechanically-modern naval wargame of ‘Cold War Gone Hot’ that looks incredible on the table but is laden with rules that should be easy to learn but are not presented clearly. Blue Water Navy surprises in that it is more than just a combat engine; the card-driven play and relationship to the land war in Europe builds a believable narrative not unlike The Hunt for Red October or Red Storm Rising. It is not without its challenges, including a very steep learning curve courtesy of the rule book. However, once learned the game delivers a superior operational-level World War III at sea wargaming experience.



Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea

  • Designed by Stuart Tonge
  • Published by Compass Games, 2019
  • Complexity – Medium
  • Time Scale – 1 Turn = 1 Day
  • Unit Scale – 10 ships, 3 submarines, 1 squadron of planes
  • Number of Players – 2
  • Solitaire Suitability – Medium
  • Average Time to Play – Scenarios 1-3 hours, Campaign – 8-16 hours


World War III at Sea – in Cardboard

In 2020, it appears to me that more than a few wargamers are attracted to the ‘Cold War Gone Hot’ genre. The World At War 85: Storming the Gap, a game of platoon-level combat on in 1985 Germany from Lock n’Load Publishing had a Kickstarter campaign that cleared over $100K. Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 from GMT Games went from P500 candidate to publication in less than two years (and an expansion is already on the way). World War III at sea is also not ignored, with Compass Games releasing Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea in 2019.

In the Introduction to Blue Water Navy, designer Stuart Tonge wastes no time in describing for us what the game is:

Blue Water Navy simulates a hypothetical 1980’s war between NATO and the Soviet Union. The game takes place principally at sea and in the air, with ground operations represented in an abstract fashion. In the event of a conflict, NATO convoys would form up in the United States and head to Europe and the Mediterranean carrying supplies and reinforcements. Their arrival would be of the utmost importance to the continued survival of NATO. The Soviets would attempt to interdict these convoys with their submarine fleet and their long-range bombers armed with stand-off anti-ship missiles while being supported by the Soviet surface fleet, simultaneously the Soviets would seek to conduct amphibious operations against the NATO flanks (Norway and Denmark).”


War & Pieces

Component-wise, Blue Water Navy is gorgeous on the table. The two-piece, paper-folded 34’x44” map covers from the US East Coast to the end of the Mediterranean and from Cuba to the Arctic. Don’t look for hexes though; Blue Water Navy uses area movement with each ‘zone’ being about 500 nautical miles across. The layout of the map in Blue Water Navy is optimized for two-sided play. In an effort to avoid too much bookkeeping, many boxes and tracks are placed on the map.


click images to enlarge

The NATO player has the conventional ‘North is Up’ view of the world, whereas the Soviet player sees the world ‘upside down.’ That’s not bad, but for solo players the need to read the map upside down may be a challenge. Personally I really like this approach as it forces the players (especially the Soviet player) to look at the world from the perspective of what they need to do; NATO – cross the map vs Soviets cut off by sweeping down (up?) from the north.


Cardboard Battleships

Jack Ryan: I’ve got a line on those doors. You know what they are?
Admiral James Greer: A nearly silent propulsion system?
Jack Ryan: [taken aback] How did you know that?”
– The Hunt for Red October (screenplay)

The counters in Blue Water Navy are equally beautiful but do take some getting used to. Graphically, the use of ship and submarine silhouettes and plane-views for aircraft helps player recognize their units. To help convey the copious amounts of data on each counter, the designer relies on colorful symbology – which creates the first challenge of several for players. To understand the symbology, especially when learning the game, it is absolutely essential to reference the ‘How to Read Air Units’ and ‘How to Read Naval Units’ Player Aid Card.

One side note – The counters in this Compass Games product, like many others , are a nicely sized half-inch for this bifocal wearing Grognard. However, when separating the counters from the sheets there seem to be an excessive amount of ‘tufting’ at the corners. If you are not a wargamer that clips the corners of your counters, you will be after buying a Compass game!


Super PAC – Player Aid Cards

Each player in Blue Water Navy also has four-double sided Player Aid Cards. These cards are both a blessing and a curse. In addition to the ‘How to Read’ hints, the cards also have all the major sequences and tables needed to resolve combat or other activities in the game. Indeed, I found that the game almost completely playable from the cards. That is, once you learn the rules….



By the Book – Speaking Blue Water Navy

If there is a weak point amongst the components of Blue Water Navy it is the rule book. It appears to me the designer wanted to ‘split the baby’ between a formal, numbered rule book and a set of rules presented more conversationally. As a result, you find a rule book that has a few numbered rules applied to the first one or two levels leaving many many paragraphs unnumbered. The book could definitely use another round of proof-reading. For instance, rule 17.0 Combat System ends with, ‘How to Resolve an Air Mission’ which is really 17.1…but that does not start until the next sentence. The result of the lightly numbered approach unfortunately makes cross-referencing difficult. Adding further difficulty to the situation is the fact no index is provided either. The designer appears to believe that the players will be comfortable learning the titles of many sequences and being able to find them in the rulebook without the need for a reference.

This same attitude applies to the Player Aid Cards where you find tables with labels like, ‘Cruise Missile Attacks Vs. Land Targets” and no way of referencing back to the rule book. The reality is this table (and sub-tables) are used when executing ’17.19 Attacks Against Land Targets’ by following the rules in ’17.21 Cruise Missile Attacks’ but the players have to discover (and remember?) that on their own. Give me some hints, please!

Captain Ramius: [spoken “You parle ruski”] You speak Russian.
Jack Ryan: [in Russian] A little. It is wise to study the ways of ones adversary. Don’t you think?
Captain Ramius: [in English] It is.”
– The Hunt for Red October (screenplay)

Which brings up the issue of language in Blue Water Navy. No, you don’t have to learn Russian, but players must to learn the ‘lingo’ of the game in a set of rules where it is not always consistently applied. Take for example the ‘Cruise Missile Attacks Vs. Land Target’ table referenced above. The first sub-table has two columns – ‘No. of Missiles’ and ‘No. of Dice.’ The same table in the rule book on page 31 has two columns labeled ‘Missile Points’ and ‘Dice.’ It’s the same, yes? Are you sure? There are other examples, like when the designer references “Interception” by Air Units but doesn’t make it clear that interceptors are formed by Fighters when placed ‘On Patrol.’ The inconsistent approach to language again makes learning this game challenging on top of the challenge of no cross-referencing.


“Amazing what a pair of fives can do…”
– Red Storm Rising (novel)

Which brings me to the final major component – the cards. Surprised? Blue Water Navy is a Card Driven Game (CDG). Each player has a deck of 55 cards, each of which has an Operations value, an Event value, an Operations Event and Reaction Event. More on how all those are used later. The cards themselves are of good cardstock and so far don’t show a need for sleeving. That said, I am not sure how fast you ‘burn thru’ the cards in a campaign game and if that means you will be needing to shuffle often (creating more wear & tear).


Boxed Out

Finally, there is the box itself. More than a few owners of the game have complained that the box art wrap is wrong sized. The impact is that the graphic on the spine of the box can get cut off or appear too close to the edge. Annoying? For some more than others. A deal-breaker? You decide.



Mechanically, Blue Water Navy is not that complex; that is, once you figure out where all the rules are and how to read the tables. Although it is easy to focus on the fighting aspects of the game (the combat system), remember first that this is a…


Card Driven Game

Adm. Painter: What’s his plan?
Jack Ryan: His plan?
Adm. Painter: Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan.”
– The Hunt for Red October (screenplay)

Players start every turn of Blue Water Navy with a hand of five cards. After placing convoys and reinforcements, the first day of the turn begins with the Soviet then NATO player playing a card for its Operations Value (OPS). This is the number of ‘actions’ that player will get during the day. The Soviet player then takes their first action, with play alternating. At some point, a player can elect to play the Event on that Operations Card for the day, which may or may not also cost Operations points. Players can also play cards from their hand for the Reaction Event. As the players move down the Operations Track on the board, certain events like Fast (fast Task Forces move), Ships (Task Forces move), and Repair (at facilities ashore) take place. At a certain point the Next Day will be reached where a new Operations Card is played for its Operations Value to simulate Day Two of the turn.

All of which makes for very interesting strategy choices. First, how many Operations do you want for the day? Second, do you also want to play the Event? It starts the day face-up so your opponent can see it…how do they react? Which cards do you want to keep in your hand for their Reaction Event? More importantly, what Operations Track Events are nearing? Every turn the players will have to balance what they want to do with their pieces on the board versus what then can do with the cards in their hand.


“ The Resolution of Conflict” – Red Storm Rising (novel)

Once you have your plan and get the cards to execute them, it’s time for some cardboard carnage. The combat system in Blue Water Navy rests on two major pillars – detection and combat.

Capt. Bart Mancuso: Hang on, Jonesy. If I can get you close enough… can you track this sucker?
Seaman Jones: Yes, sir. Now that I know what to listen for, I’ll bag ‘im.
Capt. Bart Mancuso: [smiling] Carry on.
– The Hunt for Red October (screenplay)

Detection is used to overcome the God’s-Eye problem in Blue Water Navy; just because you see the counter on the board doesn’t mean your combat forces it see. Before being struck, units must be detected. Detection of Task Forces is accomplished using Maritime Patrol aircraft, RORSAT (Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellites), Tattletales (trailing ships), or Events. The quality of the detection determines how much you see of the Task Force. The simple rules capture the real essence of detecting, tracking, and then striking ships at sea in the 1980’s. But in another example maybe having a few too many subroutines, in Blue Water Navy, submarines remain on the board at all times. Although you can see them on the board, detection of submarines is built into the Anti-Submarine Warfare routine.

Captain Ramius: You’re afraid of our fleet. Well, you should be. Personally, I’d give us one chance in three. More tea anyone?”
– The Hunt for Red October (screenplay)

Combat in Blue Water Navy uses a d10 for resolution (0 is 10). Unlike the classic wargame approach of the Fleet series which adds up attack values and then consults a Combat Results Table (CRT), Blue Water Navy generally uses a dice pool-like mechanic where the attack value represents the number of d10 rolled. There may be modifiers to either the number of die rolled or the the results of the die roll. The die result is usually compared to a defensive value to determine if a hit occurred. What those hits are can vary. Unfortunately, there is really no way to memorize all these details; players will absolutely rely on the Player Aid Card to execute EVERY combat action.

It’s easy to look at Blue Water Navy and see little more than the card-driven Operations creating a wide variety of combat events. Indeed, given the amount of effort needed to learn just this part of the game, this may be as deep as the average players experience is with the game. Understanding the Operations Phase and the abstracted combat sequences allows one to play small scenarios of which there are five in Blue Water Navy.

The five small scenarios in Blue Water Navy present abbreviated versions of the system. All use what is called the Small Scenario OPS Track which differs from the one printed on the map. 2nd Fleet also has smaller scenarios with five Introductory and four Intermediate scenarios. Like Blue Water Navy, the Introductory and Intermediate scenarios focus more on battles than campaigns.

This is where one might hear many Grognards who played the Fleet series from Victory Games back in the mid-to-late 1980’s and early 1990s make their comparisons and proclaim the Fleet series superior if for no other reason than it is easier to learn. To compare the two at this point is fair, but also misses the second-level of the Blue Water Navy design. It is at this point players must decide if they want to make the jump to the campaign game. Hint – If they make the jump, the real beauty of the design of Blue Water Navy emerges.




Admiral Josh Painter: This business will get out of control. It will get out of control and we’ll be lucky to live through it.”
– The Hunt for Red October (screenplay)

Digging beyond the Operations Phase and abstracted combat sequences of Blue Water Navy reveals a whole other game. This one is a game of strategy and options that keep every game different. It also teaches you why the naval campaign in the Atlantic was so important to Europe.


Keeping the Genie in the Bottle

Skip Tyler: When I was twelve, I helped my daddy build a bomb shelter in our basement because some fool parked a dozen warheads 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Well, this thing could park a coupla hundred warheads off Washington and New York and no one would know anything about it till it was all over.”
– The Hunt for Red October (screenplay)

Ballistic missile submarines, or Boomers appear as counters in the game and usually operate in the Soviet Boomer Bastion or in a First Strike Zone. Again, this is a realistic depiction of the situation in the late 1980s. However, Boomers are an important part of a key game mechanic called First Strike Points (FSP). FSPs represent the nuclear posturing between the two sides. The Soviet player earns FSP through card play with the number earned depending on the Payload Value of Boomers in certain areas. They can be turned in for powerful effects benefitting the Soviet player. On the other hand, NATO can try to hunt the Soviet Boomers, but doing so risks Soviet stability. If the Soviets lose too many of their Boomers, their own capabilities become limited, and at worst it causes the game to end in a Soviet Internal Coup.

The approach to Boomers in Blue Water Navy naturally drives strategy. The NATO player must decide if it is worth it to go after the Bastion, or how much effort to dedicate to hunting those ‘Damn Yankees’ in the Atlantic. Each choice comes with advantages and disadvantages.


Spies & Sticky Fingers

Captain Ramius: An imperialist spy has sabotaged our ship, and somehow knew what our orders were.”
-The Hunt for Red October (novel)

The Soviet player in Blue Water Navy has a Spies Track which can be used for game effects to detection, Anti-Submarine Warfare, and boomers evading to preserve First Strike Points. Before the game starts, the Soviet player can also chose to steal technology for combat advantages.



Skip Tyler: [Looking at photos of Red October which show the doors in the front and back of the sub] I’ll be… This might be a caterpillar.
Jack Ryan: A what?
Skip Tyler: A caterpillar drive. Magneto hydrodynamic propulsion. You follow?
Jack Ryan: No.
Skip Tyler: It’s like… a jet engine for the water. Goes in the front, gets squirted out the back. Only it has no moving parts so it’s very, very quiet.
Jack Ryan: Like how quiet.
Skip Tyler: Doubt our sonar would even pick it up. If it did, it would sound like… whales humping or some kind of seismic anomaly. Anything but a submarine. We messed with this a few years ago. Couldn’t make it work. This… this isn’t a mockup.
Jack Ryan: She was put to sea this morning.
– The Hunt for Red October (screenplay)

Blue Water Navy also has variable powers for each player through the use of Options. Before a game begins, both players can select options, getting more if they give up something to the other player. These options vary the setup and help vary scenario start. (No, there is no Red October in the game, but the Soviet player could get Towed Array and Quieting which can be used to quiet six submarines).


Grounding a Naval Game

Here’s a secret that isn’t; Blue Water Navy is actually all about the LAND WAR in Europe. Deep in the rulebook are three rules that actually compose the game’s victory conditions. They are 18.0 Amphibious Landing & NATO Troop Delivery, 20.0 War & Invasion Tracks, and 28.0 NATO Losses. Buried within 20.0 is the actual victory condition for the Campaign Game. Specifically, “Hammer and Sickles: This shows when the game is won. To win the Soviet player must be able to count four hammer and sickle symbols on War Tracks overrun by Soviet armies.”

So you thought Blue Water Navy was all about the war at sea, eh? Yes, it is. But rules 18.0, 20.0, and 28.0 are the keys to victory in the campaign game and show WHY the battles at sea are fought. The truth is no matter what you do in Blue Water Navy, as a player you are trying to move the Invasion Marker along Invasion Tracks.

The Soviet player advances along the Norwegian and Danish Invasion Tracks by putting troops ashore using Amphibious Landings. NATO can oppose the landings or strike Soviet troops ashore to stall the advance. One advance is cancelled for every three hits scored by NATO. This means NATO needs to project power ashore, in this case using airpower or cruise missiles to slow the Soviet advance.


The Europe North and Europe South War Track both represent the invasion of Europe. The North Track is the classic Central Germany front and the South Track is the route through Yugoslavia to Italy. Every turn the Soviets advance one box westward. On the north track, NATO can cancel the advance by expending Supplies or Partial Supplies. These ‘supplies’ are delivered by NATO convoys to Western Europe ports. On the South Track, the advance is cancelled by hits from NATO.

General Alekseyev: You know how close it was. We nearly defeated you. If those damned invisible bombers of your hadn’t hit our bridges on the first day, or if we had managed to smash three or four more of your convoys, you would be offering me terms.
General Robinson: [Thinking to himself] Make that one or two more convoys, It was that close.”
– Red Storm Rising (novel)

Rule 28.0 NATO Losses also forces the NATO player to think about what he is fighting with. A Convoy Massacre (destruction of a Convoy) earns one NATO loss point. Another point is lost for a carrier damaged (2 if sunk). If the carrier is lost north of the SOSUS line it’s another loss point. If the NATO loss marker ever reaches six points, it’s worth one Hammer and Sickle of the four needed by the Soviet player to win.


What is Old is New Again?

Given the topic area (World War III at sea) it is inevitable that Blue Water Navy will be compared to the grandfather of WW3 at sea naval operational wargames, the Fleet series from Victory Games. 2nd Fleet: Modern Naval Combat in the North Atlantic was the second game of the Fleet series published in 1986 and is a fair approximate to Blue Water Navy both in terms of theme and scale. It’s not a perfect match; 2nd Fleet tends to be a bit more tactically-focused while Blue Water Navy is more operational. However, the two games are close enough that some useful comparisons can be made when looking at components and game mechanics.

Blue Water Navy has a much grander view than the Fleet series which used a larger scale (for a smaller map). To get the sweep of Blue Water Navy, one would literally have to combine Sixth Fleet (Mediterranean) with 2nd Fleet (North Atlantic) and the Caribbean and Atlantic portions of 3rd Fleet.

The use of color and symbology in Blue Water Navy is certainly a step up from the Fleet series which usually featured two-color counters with the same ‘remember what that factor in that corner means’ challenges.

The use of cards alone sets Blue Water Navy far apart from the Fleet series. In 2nd Fleet, each turn consists of a Strategic Cycle to start each day and then the Activity Cycle with a series of three Action Phases for each player where only one warfare type (Air, Surface, Subsurface) activates. Blue Water Navy is much more interactive between the players and the OPS points forces players to not only plan what they want to activate, but when (and even challenges them to decide if they even can activate given the OPS required).

Superficially, Blue Water Navy and the Fleet series use similar approaches to detection. However, where in the Fleet series detection of surface ships is automatic once a condition is reached, in Blue Water Navy there is still a chance something may go wrong. Blue Water Navy also has a quality of detection not found in the Fleet series. The Fleet series also has a separate detection routine for submarines whereas Blue Water Navy subsumes it into the combat model.

Combat wise, both Blue Water Navy and the Fleet series have a relatively easy model that nonetheless requires careful attention to the specific actions. Like Blue Water Navy, players of the Fleet series will depend on the Player Aid Cards for many activities.

This design approach to Boomers in Blue Water Navy creates a much more natural strategy situation than in 2nd Fleet where the destruction of Boomers was either a Special Scenario Rule or worth Victory Points based on the Soviet Strategy adopted at the beginning of the game. The importance of Boomers was there, but their relationship to a game win was not always clear.

In terms of scenario optional rules, 2nd Fleet has similar technical options to Blue Water Navy in the Optional Rules, but the chit-draw approach of Blue Water Navy is far easier to use.

Both Blue Water Navy and the Fleet series recognize the importance of convoys. In a 2nd Fleet Advanced Game Scenario (literally the campaign game) there are eight ways for the Soviet player to lose or earn Victory Points. One method is Sea Denial where the Soviet player earns VP for having submarines or Task Forces in certain sea zones. The Soviet player also loses or earns VP based on amphibious landing in certain NATO bases and the arrival of cargo ships in certain ports. The net result of this VP accumulation gets to the same points Blue Water Navy tries to make – convoys are important and must get through and supporting the Red Army on the flanks is part of the war. I think most gamers are going to be like me; they see it in 2nd Fleet but they really understand it in Blue Water Navy. That ‘understanding’ is what sets Blue Water Navy apart, and in some ways above, the Fleet series.


Final Thoughts

Putting it all together, Blue Water Navy is a mechanically very modern take on a war that fortunately didn’t happen. Designer Stuart Tonge has mixed classic and new game mechanics, including area movement, card-driven operations, streamlined combat resolution, and an appropriate level of chrome to create a naval game that doesn’t forget the reason ships sail into harms way is the fight on the land. A physically beautiful game, play is unfortunately marred by a rule book that makes learning the game harder than it should. If one can work through the learning, the resultant game play experience provides keen insight into not only how a war at sea in the 1980s could of happened, but more importantly why it was a vital part of the larger war effort.

Further Reading

One cannot go wrong reading the granddaddy of 1980s techno-thrillers. The Hunt for Red October is excellent, but for a real Blue Water Navy feel nothing compares to Red Storm Rising. Indeed, many of the Events on the Operations Cards in Blue Water Navy appear to be directly lifted from the pages of Red Storm Rising!


About the Author

RockyMountainNavy is a Grognard wargamer of 40 years who is now also a family gamer. Retired from the US Navy, he works for the federal government. Follow him on Twitter @Mountain_Navy or on BoardGameGeek by finding user RockyMountainNavy.

The opinions and views expressed here are those of the author alone and are presented in a personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of any agency or employer.


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