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Game #3 : Computer Bismarck (1980)

We will not stay forever in this fjord , Leutnant Narwhal. We need to make it to the Atlantic to destroy the convoys the allies rely on so much…

The entire British Navy will be looking for us, Admiral. Should we try the long route through the Greenland Sea or the shorter route between the British Isles and Iceland ?

According to the map, we could pass between Scotland and England !

I am afraid this is not a canal but a display issue, Admiral !

Any unit moving has its former location visually replaced by the default “sea” tiles. Before you ask : you cannot navigate there.

Computer Bismarck is the first game published by Strategic Simulation. Strategic Simulation had been founded less than a year earlier by Joel Billings, a 21-year old tabletop wargame enthusiast. Joel Billings showed a “proof of concept” of a computer wargame to Avalon Hill and Automated Simulations, but failed to convince them. After this refusal, Joel Billings recruited two developers : John Lyon, who would go on to codesign Computer Bismarck with him before coding it, and Ed Willinger who would design and code Computer Ambush. Computer Bismarck would be the first released, in January 1980.

The chase for the Bismarck is the kind of material great movies are made of. The Battleship Bismarck was the most powerful ship in the German Navy, along with its sister-ship the Tirpitz. In May 1941, the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen are ordered to intercept British shipping in the Atlantic, but as they cross the skagerrak the British are informed of their presence and muster everything they have to intercept it. After briefly hiding in a fjord near Bergen, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen start their attempt to run through the British gauntlet the 22nd of May 1941.

The Bismarck was part of the last battleship vs battleship action of the Western theater, and as such it fascinated generation of hobbyists ; but for tabletop players simulating the chase has an issue : neither fleet knew where the other one was, which is hard to simulate without a referee. No such problem with a computer, and the wargamers will leverage this : there will be two Bismarck related games in 1980 alone and probably around 4 more until 1990.

The game starts the 22nd of May at 12.00. Only the British side can be played in single player. The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen are hidden in the Fjord in Bergen, but will move imminently with a double movement of 4 tiles instead of two.

The number on the left and bottom are the X & Y coordinates. We will discuss the numbers on the right soon

My objective of course is to sink the Bismarck. Fortunately the Bismarck cannot hide forever, because the German objective is to intercept and destroy as many of my convoys as possible :

As long as the Bismarck is not spotted, which means as long as the admiralty believes she is still hidden in the fog of Bergen, the Admiralty will not make all its assets available to me. Therefore, my initial objective is twofold :

  • Get a sight on the Bismarck as soon as possible, even if I were to lose her it would trigger the reinforcements
  • Prevent the Bismarck from using the “shortest” route by interdicting with battleships the Southern part of the passage between Iceland and Scotland,
if the Bismarck does not take the long Icelandic route, I should be able to see her as she crosses one of those tiles

Initially, my ships are fairly out of position, so I can only rely on my planes to scout the sea. Every single available aircraft is used – it is noon already and their usefulness will decrease as night falls anyway :

R for reconnaissance plane, L for Dive Bomber (used as scout here)
B for Battleship or Battlecruiser, C for cruiser, S for Submarine, M for Convoy. Only one letter can be displayed by tile, and since weaker ships are cycled last by the computer, they are often displayed “above” the more valuable ships

Four hours (and one turn) later, the German ships have not been detected.

Given it is likely that the Bismarck did a full movement the four first hours, I know her probable position and her next possible moves are pretty well narrowed down :

Now is the moment to talk about the most important feature of the game : searching and detection.

  • Each tile in the game has a weather value : it is the same for each tile in a row and is the number displayed on the far right side of the screen (eg 1 for the top row, 3 for the bottom row).
  • Each ship or plane provides a search value : 1 for a moving ship, 2 for a moving plane at day. If a ship does not move or if a plane moves by no more than 2 tiles, they can provide a larger search value (3 or 4). At night, the plane search value is halved, whereas the search value of ships in patrol depend on whether or not they have a radar (3 search value) or not (2 search value).

If the search value of the British on a tile is superior or equal to the weather value, they will see the Germans should they be in this tile 100% of the time. Else, the Germans will remain hidden 100% of the time. The only exceptions are submarines (invisible without planes) and the fact that some tiles (near Norway and north of Iceland) can have “fog”, which makes all ships in it invisible.

My orders for the second turn allow me to close the blockage – I have sufficient search value everywhere the Germans are likely to go.

I am using my planes to scout the Northernmost part of the map, as my cruisers did not have the time to reach them.
The number to the right of the letters is the search value I have on the tile. My blockade is there by turn 2

And it works. North of the Faeroe islands, the Prinz Eugen is spotted :

The Battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the Light Cruisers HMS Arethusa and HMS Manchester meet the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen. With a modern battleship on my side, the odds are massively in my favor but strangely the faster Prinz Eugen accepts the battle.

“Why” is clear quickly enough :

The Prinz Eugen focuses her guns on the HMS Arethusa, which is made of the famous English paper technology. The Prinz Eugen takes some hits (effects unknown) from the HMS Prince of Wales, but the HMS Arethusa is sunk – and with her her state of the art radar.

The fist victim of the campaign. The dazzle camouflage did not protect her.

And immediately after that, the Prinz Eugen disappears in the night. Reconnaissance planes from Scapa Flow try to “shadow” (=follow) her, but they fail.

I am not sure where the Prinz Eugen disappeared. She may still be on the correct side of my blockade, but it is also possible that she passed it and can now fall on my convoy ; I have nothing to detect her and even less destroy her. I decide to maintain the blockade four more hours rather than investigate whether the Prinz Eugen passed the blockade, in the hope that the Bismarck will try to follow the cruiser – after that my planes will have to return to refuel anyway.

I am down to 4 battleships and 6 cruisers as long as the Bismarck does not show up. Midships is a fancy word for “health points”

Sadly, neither the Bismarck nor the Prinz Eugen are detected.

My planes are out of fuel, it is the middle of the night and the weather is getting worse, and even terrible. My blockade is a failure. I have nothing to stop the Germans from sliding through in the wee hours of the 23rd of May, though I managed to restore a semblance of blockade by noon :

23rd of May – 8 AM : The ships are there, but the bad weather (6-7-6 in the area of interest) makes the blockade inconsistent

My new blockade has been pushed West and South, in the hope of keeping the Germans on the correct side of it, though I am very afraid they passed through using either the night or the bad weather. The weather improves only in the early afternoon, allowing me to blockade safely halfway from Iceland to Ireland. I just hope the Germans, if they have not passed already, decide not to hug the Irish Coast.

23rd of May, 12H – Blockade halfway to Ireland

Of course, for all I know the Germans passed North of Iceland. There are invisible German supply ships distributed across the map, so it is possible (and happened historically).

As the storm moved South, I could finalize again my blockade, but my chance to stop a German ship that would have made it to the North Atlantic plummets to zero.

23rd of May – 16H – The storm moved South

It is at this moment that I receive the best news : my destroyers spot the Prinz Eugen. I would have preferred to spot the Bismarck herself, but at least the German cruiser is not loose in the Atlantic ! The destroyers are outstanding at shadowing, and they keep the Prinz Eugen on a short leash.

Under the destroyers’ direction, the HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Suffolk sail West towards the German cruisers. The nice weather allows me to do this without weakening significantly the blockade.

23rd of May – 20H – German ships are indicated by white-on-black letters

The Prinz Eugen evades battle once again, and does so all night – but she does not manage to shake off the destroyers.

My destroyers tried a torpedo attack during the night, without effect.

In the morning the Prinz Eugen finds herself in a difficult situation. The destroyers are still there, and, unbeknownst to her, the line of British ships has moved South of her while she had been busy evading the HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Suffolk.

24th of May – 8H

Of course, the Germans still had one powerful ace up their sleeve :

The HMS Cairo is the oldest cruiser in the British line-up, but by chance the Bismarck did not manage to catch her.

Spotting the Bismarck in the North Atlantic so close to my convoys finally convinced the Admiralty to release reinforcements. Everything is moving in direction of the German warships, except the HMS Prince of Wales, allocated to the close defense of the convoy should either the Bismarck or the Prinz Eugen attack it !

24th of May – 12HGerman submarines have been detected by chance, but they turned out totally irrelevant for our story

And indeed, the target of the Bismarck is the convoy.

My “genius” plan had a battleship to escort the convoy, but nothing to escort the battleship – and the HMS Prince of Wales has 30% to 40% less HP and firepower than the Bismarck, in addition to special “roll dice” rules that favor the Bismarck.

The Belchen, Hamburg and Lothringen are supply ships only available in multiplayer

Nonetheless, I need the Bismarck as damaged as possible, so I accept battle. The Bismarck receives 20 salvos, the HMS Prince of Wales 34. After this first exchange, the British battleship is still in fighting condition, but damaged and critically slowed down by a hit near the engine. She tries to escape, but the Bismarck is faster…

Quid escortiet escortes ?
The second victim of the Bismarck. Not that her final fate is any different in real life.

I lost one battleship and one of the convoys I am supposed to defend and on top of this, the Bismarck disappears from sight ! Happily enough, the weather in the area is almost perfect, and reconnaissance planes are sent from Ireland to find it again.

24th of May – 16H – At least the destroyers are STILL shadowing the Prinz Eugen

The Bismarck is found as it was escaping North !

24th of May – 20H – The Bismarck tries to escape North. The Prinz Eugen reaches another convoy

It is already night in the lower half of the map, and it will be night next turn in the top half of the map : it may be the last occasion to catch the Bismarck before she disappears ! Every single ship of the former blockade The HMS Hood, the HMS Rodney and three cruisers catch the Bismarck, whereas the aging HMS Byramillies and three more cruisers protect the convoy attacked by the Prinz Eugen !

The Prinz Eugen did not expect to be faced with such an escort. Caught back by the cruisers, it is quickly destroyed :

In reality the Prinz Eugen would never allow the sluggish WWI-era HMS Ramillies to be close enough to her to be in range, but the game assumes that if a fleet stops you from withdrawing then every ship in that fleet is able to shoot
The third victim of this campaign – German this time. In reality it survived the war.

The Bismarck is a tougher nut to crack. The submarine arm of the Kriegsmarine had received orders to help her fend the British (it historically happened), and no less than 6 submarines (two groups of 3) are escorting her.

The first group manages to hit the HMS Hood with a torpedo, whereas the other group loses a submarine trying to replicate the feat.

The torpedo badly damaged the HMS Hood, whose speed is more than halved from 31 knots to 14 knots. Nonetheless, possibly due to the damage received from the HMS Prince of Wales, the Bismarck does not manage to evade combat …

And historically, I suspect the Bismarck would not have approached the also-sluggish but heavily armed HMS Rodney

… and she is sunk.

The last victim of the campaign, if we do not count an anonymous submarine.

The game is effectively over. I will have to run a few turns until my convoys reach their destination, and while the heavily damaged HMS Hood limps back to Iceland, but the game is won :

It did not happen quite like that historically : historically the Bismarck passed North of Iceland, met and sank the HMS Hood, never reached any convoy, and then was crippled by torpedo planes before being sunk by battleships.

But the game felt like it could have happened this way. I did not lose the HMS Hood, I lost the more valuable HMS Prince of Wales instead, in addition to a cruiser – though I sank the Prinz Eugen to compensate for that cruiser. All in all, a very satisfying campaign.


Computer Ambush should logically be our next game (June 1980 release) but I think the game is very appropriate for a Commenters Command (join here) so we will move directly to the 5 games Avalon Hill released in summer 1980, probably starting with Campaign Midway. I have no problem with not respecting the order of release ; Computer Ambush is a very special game that has no equivalent with anything Avalon Hill (or anyone else) released in 1980.

Given the one feedback I got on it, I will close Invasion Orion fairly quickly next week as the game is not the most interesting to read After Action Reports about.

Rating and review for Computer Bismarck here.

5 Comments

  1. baud baud

    > Not that her final fate is any different in real life.

    sunk in Atlantic, sunk in the Pacific, in the end it’s still a reef for fishes

    • Well, I think I prefer the fate : “Sunk in combat against the Bismarck while escorting a convoy” rather than “ingloriously sunk by planes at the beginning of the Pacific War as part of the “ We updated the rules, don’t leave port without air cover” tutorial”.

      Better be the last casualty of the age of battleships then the first one of the age of aircraft carriers :).

      • Andnjord Andnjord

        Don’t worry, now that HMS Hood survived she can go to Singapore with HMS Repulse. That will show the Japs!

  2. Andnjord Andnjord

    How would you rate this game in terms of difficulty? How likely is it for the player to randomly stumble upon the Bismarck and swamp it with ships as opposed to have it slip by and wreck your convoys?

    I feel like kinda odd to call this game a naval combat simulator, it feels more like a naval blockade/reconnaissance simulator. But I’ll admit that it does so rather elegantly, the rules seem clear and effective in simulating the difficulty and guess-work involved in finding a ship in open waters.

    • I have a specific “Review and Rating” for this game on Friday, but in what should have been my “run” that I would use as an After Action Report I detected the Bismarck on the first turn as it tried to pass by hugging the Northern British coast – with quick predictable results for her.
      Since it would have been a very boring AAR, and one not very representative, I gave the AI another chance. I feel the game is better balanced against a human player, but I wonder whether as a German player you don’t feel like nothing happens until suddenly you are found and lose the game.
      I am going to try to set up end of month a “distant server” allowing me to remote multiplayer this game (and othesr), and then it will only be a matter of finding an opponent to check that.

      As you say definitely a naval CAMPAIGN simulator rather than a naval BATTLE simulator, it is not Rule the Waves !

      Monday next week, I will cover Avalon Hill’s 1980 take on the Bismarck. As you will see, it is so different it could be a totally different naval campaign.

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