Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Tsushima Project

Even before the covid-19 pandemic shut down society as we know it I’d started a new project inspired by my son’s varied interests in history: wargaming naval actions from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. After chancing upon some 1:2400 scale period Russian ships at the Williamsburg Muster game convention in mid-February I set out to acquire a small Japanese force, adapt some naval wargaming rules, and prep my play surface. It’s been a diverting side-project the past few weeks while my son’s been home, first with a mild illness, then with the state-wide shut-down of schools through March 27 (now extended through the end of the academic year...). So far I think we’re well on my way to some successful naval wargaming.

As decent parents we’ve tried sharing with our son various interests to engage him beyond his school curriculum. He’s fairly interested in history, a host of media franchises (including Star Wars, no surprise there), and cats. A few years ago I found a thick, heavily illustrated historical encyclopedia for kids for 75 cents at the regional used bookstore. Occasionally he pages through it and starts asking questions. He loves many aspects of Japanese history and culture beyond his interest in Godzilla. We explored the history of Pearl Harbor together, to the point where he watched Tora Tora Tora and then asked me to create a kids wargame about it (my stripped-down Wings of Glory “A Game which Will Live in Infamy” I occasionally run at conventions). We even watched two seasons of the Japanese television show “Neko Samurai” (“Cat Samurai”) which incorporated his love for cats. He became interested in Russian history hanging out with a very intelligent friend at school who went to preschool in Russia (we suspect his parents work with the U.S. diplomatic corps). Then he remembered a bit in that illustrated kids history book about a war between Russia and Japan in the early 20th century and started asking me about the Battle of Tsushima...and naturally wanted to wargame it.

My small fleet of Viking Forge Japanese ships.

I put wargaming any Russo-Japanese War naval action on the back burner until I happened upon some period ship miniatures at the Williamsburg Muster convention in mid-February. Rob at Waterloo Games had a few blister packs of Russian ships; I resisted the temptation to buy everything and settled for two battleships and two armored cruisers, what I felt was a decent starter force (note to self: I should have bought everything...). At first I thought I could head over to the GHQ website and find period Japanese ships there, but unfortunately the earliest the company’s Micronauts range covers is World War I. So I checked out the manufacturer on the minis I’d bought at the convention. Turns out The Viking Forge remains active in the wargaming industry and is based just west of Richmond, VA, about 90 minutes from my home in Culpeper. They still produce 1:2400 naval miniatures, including a line for the Russo-Japanese War. So I made an order and selected two Japanese battleships and two armored cruisers from those on their online catalog with photographs. The service was excellent; I placed my order on a Friday, received order acknowledgment and paid the PayPal invoice on Saturday, and received my minis in that Tuesday’s post...and they comped me one of the armored cruisers, too! While some might argue that the detail on the miniatures wasn’t as good as GHQ’s, the prices were easily half what GHQ charges for comparably sized ships.

Now I had two small fleets, two battleships and two armored cruisers each. So I set about assembling them – gluing tiny turrets and masts on most – then painted them. Some quick online research revealed a host of different paint schemes, so I settled for something that I liked based on my overall not-terribly-historically-accurate impressions. I based them on flat strips of clear plastic packaging, pointed at one end to clearly indicate forward, with painted wakes and a sticker with the appropriate ensign, name, and designation. The clear bases allow me to use them with any color cloth so they fit right in.

I needed some solid historical reference for the campaign, so I naturally ordered Osprey Publishing’s Tsushima 1905. Osprey books always provide a graphically engaging overview of their subjects with solid research. I was pleased to learn the Russo-Japanese war included several naval engagements which gave me good scenario ideas for my own battles. In hindsight I probably should have read it first to get some idea which ships participated in different naval engagements; but I’m a firm believer in “play with what you have,” so I’m determined to soldier on with the two fleets of four ships each...for the time being. My son, always ambitious with his father’s time and money, thinks we should get all the ships so we can play the full Battle of Tsushima.... And although I like the flat ships Topside Miniatures offers – and they have a full roster for the Battle of Tsushima – I really like how my 1:2400 Viking Forge miniatures turned out.

I knew exactly where to turn for period rules: Bob Cordery’s Gridded Naval Wargames (which I’ve featured before here at Hobby Games Recce and used for both American Civil War ironclads engagements and some World War II naval action). The pre-dreadnought-era rules are well-suited to Russo-Japanese War naval action and work well with the additional depth of the “Critical Damage Table” and repair rules I devised when I first read and tried the rules for other periods. To further facilitate running a game I developed stat cards for each vessel indicating its flotation points, speed, and weapon stats, but also customizing it to take into account my damage system, which can reduce the effectiveness of primary weapons, reduce speed, and limit steering. Laminating the cards enables us to write on them with dry-erase markers to note various damage conditions and loss of flotation points.

I still needed to create a gridded surface for the Gridded Naval Wargames rules (though I have a few blank cloths ideal for other naval wargaming). I had a spare sheet of light blue fabric I cut to about 4 x 5 feet. Having tried the rules with a simple square grid and not been completely satisfied, I wanted to try a hex grid. Using S. John Ross’ HexPaper Pro fonts I printed a 2.75-inch hex pattern onto two cardstock sheets, lined them up and taped them together, then meticulously cut out the hex edges to form a stencil. Then I spent an afternoon lining up the stencil and marking through the cut hex edges with a blue Sharpie. The results weren’t exactly precise – the hexes have a kind of natural feel to them – but I now possess a blue hex-gridded battle mat suitable for Gridded Naval Wargames.

Now I think I have all the components ready for play. I just need to entice my son away from his tablet and let him command some ships in a light engagement to familiarize ourselves with the rules before moving on to a larger battle. Who knows, maybe I’ll have my work cut out for me buying and painting the rest of the ships for all the major naval engagements of the Russo-Japanese War. With school closed for the pandemic we’ll have plenty of time....


  1. It sounds like this will be fun and you have done a good job thinking out the project.
    You might consider looking at the White Bear, Red Sun rules on Wargame Vault (https://www.wargamevault.com/product/223354/White-Bear-Red-Sun?manufacturers_id=6867). They have a campaign and a set of easy pre-dreadnought naval rules (no grid needed).
    The Viking Forge ships are good for this period. You might take a look at the 3D printed ships from War Times Journal (http://www.wtj.com/store/) They come in different scales to suit your needs.

  2. Hello I have some of the 1/600 scale ships that Old Glory produced for this period languishing in a box in the garage. That rule changes etc did you make to reflect the period. I have a gridded table tennis table bases to play on. Best wishes in these trying times. Regards Alan in Australia

  3. Hello, I wish you every success I your project.
    I did the RJW in 1:240 as well using Panzerschiffe resins ships which are cheaper than metal and easier to modify and drill to attach wire masts, if desired. For rules I use 'Damn Battleships Again' which is freely available online and a campaign system by David Manley as appeared in both Miniature Wargames and Wargames Illustrated. I found having a campaign generated some interesting mismatch fights and also gave a strong reason for keeping your fleet in being so no fighting to the last vessel.
    Good luck!

    1. Obviously the scale is 1:2400 NOT 1:240! Just a typo like so much of the comment. Happy to share rules, photos, etc. if I could email you.

  4. Thanks for all your comments and insights. You've all offered some solid resources I'll have to explore in the future. I'll admit I'm quite happy with the Gridded Naval Wargames rules; even with my "Critical Damage Table" they're just the right level for introducing kids and newcomers to historical wargaming...one of my principle areas of interest these days.

    Hope everyone is doing well and staying healthy in these trying times. Sic transit mundus.


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