20 May 2009

The Origin of Battletech

I was reading a review of the Battletech games universe at BoardGameGeek when I came across this fascinating comment:
Lance McMillan wrote: ... Weisman's basic system for Battletech was an obvious derivative of the ancient (1930's vintage) "Fletcher Pratt's Naval Battles" game: players rolling dice to determine the location and extent of damage inflicted by each individual weapon, and then checking off little boxes on status charts to keep track of the totals. ...

I had often wondered about predecessor games to Battletech. I assumed they existed, but I had never seen one. A little voice in the back of my head tells me I knew science fiction author Fletcher Pratt wrote a naval battle wargame, but I never made the connection until now.

My interest peaked piqued, I dig a bit more and find this old Sports Illustrated article:
Pratt was a writer and a naval expert (before he died in 1956 he had written some 60 books about naval and military affairs), and one day, in 1929, "bored with seven-card stud, backgammon and craps," he and a group of maritime minded friends decided to invent a naval game. They bought a division or two of model ships, pushed back the furniture in Pratt's living room and set to gaming. By the time they were done, they had come up with the rules for a mammoth contest that required up to 60 people on a side, a large ballroom to play in and vast fleets of accurately scaled ships, and the Naval War College started sending down experts to take lessons. [See The World's Most Complicated Game at SIVault, it's a good read.]
Pratt's game even had its own version of Battevalue:
There was a vast formula for calculating the fighting power of each ship: (Gc[2] X GN + Gc'[2] X Gn' + 10TT + 10A[2] + 10 A'[2] + 10A" + 25 Ap + M) Sf; + T, and elaborate tables for telling each captain what had happened to his ship when the turn's shooting was over.
What that formula means I have no idea, but now I want to find out. I located a source for the original rules at John Curry's History of Wargaming Project, which also has more details about the game:
One of the main facets of the game, the gunnery, is commonly decided by dice. Therefore, games can seem to consist of large numbers of dice rolls reflecting the low hit-rates of long range naval gunnery. To many, the sheer number of dice can make the game seem dull. Pratt aimed to change this by using estimating ranges as a way of determining hits. He also experimented with shooting, darts and tiddle-winks against paper silhouettes as alternatives, but he settled on estimating as the final method. The inspiration of using estimating the range for gunnery accelerated the pace of the game and gave naval wargamers control of the most important aspect of the naval warfare, namely hitting the other side.
It even has it's own miniatures.
OK. I'm sold. I want it, if only to satisfy my own curiosity, and it is available from Amazon.

After communicating with John Curry, it seems that Featherstone's book only summarizes the rules, and the full rules are not currently in print. Mr. Curry is currently working on a new book which is to include Pratt's original rules and more. I might have to wait until that is available.

[Images Amazon Look Inside!]

*** UPDATE 5/22/09 ***

I had another email from John Curry informing me he has opened up his ship cards for download. Here is an example.

From what I can make out, the lower portion is a list of total damage accumulated (1st and 3rd unlabeled columns), and the 2nd and 4th columns give the effect of damage on the ship. At the point where the ship has accumulated 10,721 points of damage, it is only capable of moving at 8 knots, has lost 6 of its 8 "4.7 inch" guns, and 3 of 4 torpedo tubes.

This is simpler than a Battletech Mech sheet, but it serves the same function.

See also: Fletcher Pratt's Naval Wargame
GBR Giant Battling Robots Favicon


Ian said...

Of course! One of the ex-military types I grew up playing Battletech with made numerous references to naval combat games and would occasionally spend convention time moving ships around a 'ballroom floor'. I'm really surprised that a rule for simulating naval combat is that young. I would've imagined games like this to have a history spanning centuries, not decades.

Dan Eastwood said...

I think maybe the innovation here is representing the ship "on paper" and accumulating damage until it is destroyed. Earlier games may have just removed the figure from play when it was hit and its armor penetrated, rather like toy soldiers (or Warhammer figures).
Maybe I can dig up a copy of the Kriegspiel rules (an older game) and compare.

Anonymous said...


James Sterrett said...

The historian side of me coming out: The problem with Lance McMillan's posting is that - based on what is posted - he assumes the connection, but provides zero proof (such as a reliable source indicating that Weisman had read the rules to the Naval Game). Sometimes very similar systems arise independently.

Dan Eastwood said...

Historical comments appreciated! I agree that is far from proof, and perhaps I should be more cautious in my wording. However, FPNWG is the oldest game I know of that has anything resembling the SSD mechanic. Curry's book mentions one older game (name escapes me), and I don't know it it has that same mechanic.

Interesting: This link mentions that Steve Cole had been playing Jutland immediately prior to getting the idea for SFB. And Jutland might have that direct connection to FPNWG.

Suddenly, I feel another blog post coming on ...

James Sterrett said...

I checked my copy of Jutland and found no designer's notes. :( However, it came out in 1967 according to the copyright on the manual. Avalon Hill's 1966 Guadalcanal used check-boxes for step reduction of unit strengths (somewhere I've seen a claim it was the first) -- possibly the designer, Jim Dunnigan, got the idea from Guadalcanal? Equally, it may have simply been a clever solution to the problem of doing incremental damage to the ships, with or without prompting.(Somewhere, I've read a discussion of the design process for Jutland, but cannot find it now.)