Thursday, August 20, 2015

Harpoon: Captain's Edition (GDW) - 1990

Harpoon: Captain's Edition is not one of those games you hear people talk much about these days.  There are quite a few good reasons for this but mainly it was a victim of incredibly bad timing.  This 1990 release from GDW focused on naval combat in a hypothetical World War III between the Soviets and Americans in the GIUK gap.  Designed by Larry Bond, the same man who designed the Harpoon series, Harpoon: Captain's Edition was an attempt at creating sort of a "Harpoon Lite" version that was accessible to a wider audience.

A Victim of Timing

Looking at the components and the rules, it seems to be aimed at the "dad-son" gaming crowd.  Unfortunately, by 1990 the Cold War was over and done with and everyone just sort of wanted to move on with things.  I don't have any proof of this but I get the impression that Harpoon: CE may have been one of the very last games that was in the pipeline when the Cold War abruptly ended in 1989 and GDW was left standing around with a Cold War game ready to go.

I also get the feeling that Harpoon: CE was one of those games that fell between the cracks of a real audience.  For Harpoon enthusiasts, it was way too simplified and for casual boardgamers, it was too complex.  I remember seeing this in my FLGS when it came out and I assumed it was an expansion for Harpoon, which I already considered way too meaty for my tastes.

Finally, I should mention that computer game company 360 Pacific had released Harpoon as a PC game in 1989 already, which took the legwork out of learning a complex set of rules - or any rules at all, for that matter.  Maybe the Harpoon PC game was just a little too good.

Anyway, this is all just speculation because from the limited amount I've played Harpoon; CE, it's actually not a bad game.  It plays smoothly and I've found nothing wrong with it.

The Components

Here's a look at the components:

Now, you have to admit that the cover is pretty bad-ass.  You've got the battleship guns in the forefront (I believe that is supposed to be the Iowa, which is in the game).  You also have an F-14 Tomcat buzzing the tower with "Top Gun" still firm in everyone's minds at that point in time.  You've got a ship on the left and the Nimitz off in the distance.  GDW tried to distinguish this from other Harpoon products with the "Easy to Learn / Fun to Play" in red at the bottom and - just to be sure about it - put another red box with "Start Playing in 30 minutes".  I got this game in the mail yesterday and, true to form, I was up and running the first scenario in 30 minutes.  Good for GDW!

Now, let's take a look at the back of the box.  

Alright, we've got a blurb that explains what Harpoon is and what this game is about and the fact that it's easy to play repeated again.  We have a little bit of text about Larry Bond and the fact that Harpoon was used as a source for Clancy's The Hunt for Red October.  All good stuff.  The one nitpicky issue is that the silhouette for the Bunker Hill is wrong.  You can see on the bow and stern of the ship, there are Mk. 26 missile launchers but the Bunker Hill was the first cruiser with the Mk. 41 vertical launching system.  Not a big deal if you're a casual gamer but a very big deal if you're a Harpoon fanatic.  I wonder if that may have hurt a few sales.

Opening the box up, we find lots of interesting goodies:

Inside the box

I love the assortment of stuff that's included in the game.  You have plastic pieces, counters, roster sheets with checkboxes, cards, maps, references, you name it.

Here's the log sheet for the game.  Very simple.  The pad is still pretty full.  I'd say there are about 200 sheets in here:

We have 54 cards with US and Soviet ships, planes, and subs.  There are also "dummy" cards meant to fool your opponent.

Each card outlines the basic capabilities of the ship in terms of detection (ASR = Air Search Radar, SSR = Surface Search Radar, SON = Sonar), fighting capability, movement, and hull strength.  I like the cards because they help to keep the counters and the map uncluttered.  They are very simple but they look good and they work well for this sort of game.  You can divide up your task forces very easily without having to stack counters or write anything down.  Information can be accessed quickly.

You get these plastic pieces that are supposed to be search planes. The red ones are Soviet and the blue ones are NATO.  They each have a number (for NATO) or a letter (for Soviets) affixed to the bottom.  I'm not totally sure why these are plastic or what the numbers/letters are for but there you have it.  Perhaps the plastic pieces are there to enhance the "friendliness" of the game to beginners?

And of course, there are a bunch of cardboard counters here in the game.  They are mostly aircraft and missile counters.  There are also counters for Task Forces on each side with chits for each task force.  During the movement phase, players pull a chit from a cup and that determines which task force gets to move, shoot, etc.

Ships fire a certain number of surface to surface missiles at each other and they need to get through the defenses of the enemy ships in order to have a chance at hitting.  As the enemy defenses go to work, they whittle down the number of missiles coming at them (if they're lucky).  So having missile counters is necessary.  Also, the missiles go for specific targets in the enemy task force, so during an attack, you can break up a certain number of your missiles to go for one target in a saturation attack or try your luck by spreading out the missiles among various targets.   The bottom line is that the missile counters track how many missiles are still active as they go through enemy defense layers and which targets they are aimed at.

The Base Charts are used for each player to track their forces in the more advanced scenarios.  I haven't played any of these yet so I'm not sure exactly how they work.  The game has some advanced rules that allow for things like tanker refueling, which is pretty cool.  Again, I haven't yet gotten into this yet so I can't explain it much further.

And here we have the map.  It's not elegant by any means but it's functional and works for a game made in 1990.  The hexes are actually quite large and the map is small enough to fit on a coffee table.  It features an area of the GIUK gap with airbases included.  There is seasonal ice (which has its own special rules) up near Greenland and West Spitsbergen.  It's a paper map but it's a nice thick paper that lays down well.  I have no real complaints.

There are two books included with the game - the Captain's Rules (the rulebook) and the Captain's Briefing (a scenario book).  The rules are a bit spotty in some places with tables and charts interjected among explanations but there's nothing confusing here.  It would have been nice to have the tables and charts on a separate sheet although I'm apparently missing two player screens that may actually have them on there.

There are over 30 scenarios in the scenario book, which is pleasantly surprising. The scenarios cover everything from small duels between enemy frigates right up to full-scale WW3 battle with lots of units.  One really nice thing is that players secretly "purchase" their units in the advanced scenarios prior to play so you don't really know what kind of force you'll encounter out there.  Also, players get secret mission objectives that they must fulfill during the scenario in order to win.  This adds considerably to replayability.

First Impressions

So far, I've played the first two scenarios of the game, which seem like training scenarios.  The first scenario features the Arleigh Burke DDG and a merchant ship fighting against a Sovremenny class DDG escorting an amphibious ship (LPD Ivan Rogov).  Whoever can sink the other's merchant/amphib ship is the winner.

The central problem is whether the Americans should fire their long range SSMs first and then close with and fire their short range SSMs later or if they should get close and fire all their missiles at once.  The only way I've managed to score a hit on the Soviets is by using the latter method.  The Soviet anti-missile defenses on the Sovremenny are impressive and if the short range SAMs down't take care of your incoming missiles, the Point Defenses certainly will.   After the American player runs out of missiles, the Soviets just close in and use guns to sink everything in sight.  It is unbalanced but it works fine as a training scenario.  I'll do a playthrough of it later to show how the game system works.

Harpoon: CE vs. the Fleet Series

You may be wondering how Harpoon; Captain's Edition stacks up against other modern naval games from around that time.  The closest game to this that I can think of (in terms of theme/scale/etc) is the Fleet series of games from Victory Games (specifically 2nd Fleet, which deals with the same location/subject matter).  Harpoon: CE happens at a slightly lower scale than Fleet but the basic principles of detection and combat resolution are similar.  Combat is a bit smoother in Fleet as the close anti-air values and area anti-air values are calculated for a single modifier that helps resolve combat very quickly with only one or two rolls.  Harpoon, on the other hand, has a "bucket of dice" approach to combat where players roll a set amount of six-sided die equal to a ship's rating and then consult a table to see the results of each of the die rolls.

The Fleet series also allowed for a bit more nuance.  Damage to ships in Fleet result in lowered ratings on virtually all aspects of the ship's abilities.  In Harpoon: CE, damage to a ship results in lowered movement ratings only (though there are a few more consequences for damage to an aircraft carrier).  So a ship in Harpoon is basically at near 100% capability or sunk.  I wonder if anyone thought about using the back side of those cards for a damaged version of each unit.  Attack capabilities of different SSMs are abstracted in the Fleet series in a way that accounts for more than just the number of missiles a ship carries.  In Harpoon: CE, a missile is a missile and seem to be distinguished only in terms of whether it is a short range or long range missile.  

There are some things I actually prefer about Harpoon over Fleet. I do like how ships can react to other ships in Harpoon.  One thing that was missing in the Fleet series was the ability to react to what another player was doing during this turn (except in the case of CAP).  In Harpoon: CE, the active player moves his task force and the enemy player has a chance to attack him if the active player's unit is detected.  That provides a bit of tension to the game, which is nice.  As I said before, the idea of buying your units and selecting secret missions before play seems like a fantastic idea.


Frankly, I really haven't played too much of Harpoon: CE to say too much more about it at this point.  I can say that from what I've seen, the components for the time were quite good and the rules do succeed in giving the feeling that you're simulating modern naval combat in an extremely simplified but earnest manner.  I think GDW tried its best with this product and rolled the dice.  It's too bad that the game never caught on but if it had come out in 1984 or 1985 (both during the Cold War and right before the Fleet series came out), it might have seen much greater success.  I'm looking forward to playing this game with my son some day.  It seems like an extremely good way to get a kid into gaming.  There are enough interesting decisions to make and the rules are provided in a simple - but never patronizing - way that makes it easy to explain and get playing.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I actually purchased the game when it came out and have held onto it ever since. I think I only played it once. I am drawing on my memory but I think my gaming interest shifted slightly with the first Gulf War in 1991 and I became much more interested in land combat than naval combat.

    1. Thanks for your comment! There is a nice little game in there if you give it a chance and it's a nice entry game if you want to introduce someone to the hobby. I remember Gulf War fever too and you can see it in the lineup of games for GDW after the war ended. They put out Phase Line Smash, the Gulf War Factbook, Battle for Basra, Sands of War, etc. I don't think they ever tried another naval themed game again after this one.

  2. Brad,
    Have you heard of or played SPI's Task Force? If I'm not mistaken it was the precursor of the Fleet series. I bought it at Origins in '86, I think. Played several games when I was there, and a couple more against our ASW Officer on the Lawrence (DDG-4). Always enjoyed it.

    1. I've heard of Task Force and I know it's gotten a lot of love. I'm tempted to get it as Korean War designer Joseph Balkoski did this one too. The one thing that was stopping me was the double-blind/hidden info nature of the gameplay. Having said that, I just took a look on BGG and it appears someone made the game solitaire-playable by adapting the rules for Carrier. Brilliant! Maybe I'll have to put this on my wish list then.

      By the way, how did you fare against your ASW Officer in the game?

  3. Nice you can compare these air+naval operation/grand tactics games. Good luck playing more intricate scenarios!

    1. Thanks very much, Mircea! Hope to read your comments in my future updates!

  4. You got better and better at mutual predictive thinking ;-) specifically here to launch the maximum long+medium salvo together.
    This other AAR of scenario 1:
    made the mistake of firing long and medium range missiles in separate salvos, both totally stopped. (Is the Sovremenny THAT good at self-defense? If I get more details on how dice are rolled and interpreted, on attack, defense etc. I may calculate probabilities for salvos together and separated)

    1. Thanks for that! The Sovremenny is rated highly for self defense in the game. It has a 6 short range SAMs and a Point Defense rating of 5. To stop a missile at short range, I get 6 six-sided die rolls and anything between a 4 - 6 is a hit (actually a 6 is 2 missiles taken out) against any incoming missiles agains the Soviet group (the Ivan Rogov has 2 short range SAMs to help out). After that, if there are any missiles left, the Sovremenny gets 5 six-sided die rolls and anything between a 2 - 6 (again a 6 is two hits) eliminates a missile.

      The Sovremenny only gets to use its PD for missiles that are aimed specifically at it. I often find it a little easier to just launch all my missiles at the Ivan Rogov. The Sovremenny will usually take out five or six missiles but then the Rogov only has a PD rating of 3, so there is a much better chance of at least one missile getting through.

      Usually, it seems that the Arleigh Burke Burke will need to go in with guns and try to finish off the Rogov. However, the Sovremenny has very good guns and can usually sink the Burke. The Sovremenny has 4 guns while the Burke only has 2 (so that means 4 six-sided die for the Sov and only 2 for the Burke). Hits are scored on a 4 through 6. Highest gun rating ship goes first (the Sov. in this case) and results are implemented immediately. Almost always, the Burke will lose in a stand-up gun fight against the Soviets.

      I'll write this up to help explain it better!

  5. I remember the starting/learning scenario in that computer Harpoon. It was quite much lower-tech.
    NATO: a versatile US frigate (OH Perry) and weaker British frigate (Type 23?) escorting 2 vital transports to Norway. Not to forget the helicopters the frigates carried.
    USSR: a super-corvette (Nanuchka), a noisy cruise missile sub (Victor) and a few Mig-23 with weak missiles.
    All defenses were quite leaky and the scenario felt balanced and interesting. No defenses totally shutting down attacks, but some capability was there on both sides.

    1. Yes! I remember that game now! I wish I could find it. I remember that scenario too and watching my frigates getting hammered after stumbling on the Soviet missile boats! My teenage mind didn't have the patience at the time to really learn the game and the nuances of detection and naval combat! I would love to try that game again. That really brings back memories...