Victory At Sea is a WW2 naval miniatures battle system from Mongoose Publishing, loosely based on their Call To Arms space combat system (set in the Babylon Five universe). I originally bought VaS in an effort to get into naval wargaming. I once owned a copy of Harpoon back in the early 1990s, and even got as far as setting up one of the starter scenarios in Harpoon, but never actually played a game of it. Looking back, and given the seeming complexity of Harpoon (and modern naval warfare) I was probably lucky: I fear the experience may have put me off naval wargaming.
Victory At Sea was really meant to be a return to the milieu, partly prompted by the availability of ready-painted plastic Axis& Allies warships, in 1/1800 scale (not really the scale of choice for WW2 naval wargamers, who tend to favour 1/2400 or 1/3000). But, the A&A miniatures include some great aircraft stands in their boosters, come ready painted (did I mention that?), AND can survive the attentions of young children, which is always a major selling point in my household.
The great thing about naval wargames rules is that they are not particularly scale specific, although playing out the Battle of Midway in 1/600 might require you to take to the garden (or one of those nice flat bowling greens that pepper the Brighton landscape).
Victory At Sea is not a comprehensive set of rules by any means. From experience we found it is NOT good for fighting convoy actions, and the rules for sub-hunting are sparse and inadequate. In the space of 20 minutes my group cooked up an alternative set of rules for ASW actions that is much more fun, using dummy counters. Oh, the frustration on the faces of the destroyer commanders as they find their latest sonar contact is but another shoal of herring!
VaS is really a game about fighting small to medium sized WW2 surface actions. Airpower in the game is understrength, to say the least. Ships get to make their AA attacks first, and any planes that survive that barrage can then drop bombs/launch torpedoes. In the two games I’ve played to date, the first saw Royal Navy Swordfish biplanes successfully attack an Italian light cruiser, crippling it with torpedoes in return for 33% losses amongst the pilots. In the second, German planes attacking a British Mediterranean convoy sustained 80% plus losses, which sounds too high to me. This was partly because they were attacking freighters in AA range of a British battleship, but still. You could potentially reason that some of the ‘losses’ were really pilots chickening out, perhaps dropping their torps into the sea prematurely, and reflect this in your campaign rules, yet…
Fellow gamers of mine have also tried VaS with a big 1945 Pacific War battle, a major clash of fleets between the Allies and a large Japanese force, but found this game dragged on too long. Their opinion was that there is an upper limit to the size of game one can manage with VaS, and it isn’t Leyte Gulf!
VaS has the feel of Warhammer about it. You roll attack dice based on the number of weapons in range, trying to score hits on a target number largely dictated by the target ship’s speed and size. Thus, a nippy destroyer is much harder for your gunners to hit than a battleship. But, once you score your hits, you then roll a number of damage dice for each hit in an effort to break through the target’s defensive armour (think Warhammer armour saves here). Damage is then tracked by ticking boxes, with scope for critical hits from sixes rolled at the damage stage (these tend to be what really puts most ships out of a battle).
What baffled me here was Crew hits. Each ship has a Crew rating, which tracks the number of active personnel, and lets losses to the crew affect the performance of the ship. The only problem is, according to the damage tables, Crew losses always seem relatively small, regardless of the weapon being used. Sure, critical damage like fire breaking out can cause additional Crew losses, but apart from merchant ships, which have relatively small crews in this game (and I suppose in real life), ships in VaS never seem to be taken out because of Crew losses. Something else always gives first, which begs the question – why bother tracking Crew hits?
There is also a lot of paperwork in VaS. Each ship has its own record sheet, even destroyers. This is great in a multi-player game, where each player has his own squadron of four or five ships, but if there are two of you playing a larger battle, you will be swamped with record keeping as you struggle to track how many torpedoes HMCS Haida has left to shoot. It does seem to set a ceiling on what can be gamed.
My group is still keen to game WW2 naval, but I suspect VaS will be shelved. Even my son has not expressed much enthusiasm about revisiting it, and this is telling. Perhaps it is lacking in the ‘fun factor’ stakes. I know A Call To Arms was a very successful project for Mongoose, and they are apparently in the process of hatching a new set of sci fi rules that draws heavily on CTA as its game engine, but this has simply not worked well for WW2.