Harpoon: Captain's Edition - Surface Encounter

So I just got Harpoon: Captain's Edition, which is a nice little beer and pretzels game released by GDW in 1990.  If you're a fan of modern naval combat games and you want something lighter than, say, the Fleet series then this is actually a pretty fun game.  It's probably set at just the right angle for introducing a kid or a spouse to wargaming.  The first few scenarios are basically just training scenarios.  As you read the rulebook and learn more rules, it tells you to play certain scenarios that use them.  This is a nice gradual learning curve approach that makes this game even more friendly for introducing non-wargamers into the hobby.

Anyway, I'm going to show a recent playthrough of scenario 1, which uses the bare minimum of rules.  This is the scenario that you're supposed to be able to play within 30 minutes of opening the box.  You don't need to use the detection rules.  Both sides start out detected.  There are no air units or large collections of ships.  This scenario is just a straight up knife-fight between two fighting ships.

In this scenario,.called "Surface Encounter", an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer is escorting a merchant vessel somewhere and it happens to detect a Soviet Sovremenny-class destroyer with an Ivan Rogov-class landing ship.  A skirmish ensues with both sides trying to sink the other's escorted ships.  The Soviets win a victory if they sink the merchant vessel while NATO wins if it can sink the Rogov.

Starting forces:  Task Force 1 (NATO) and Task Force A (Soviets)
Okay, so here's our lineup.  The Americans basically have one ship that can do any real fighting.  The DDG has 4 long range SSMs (can fire up to three hexes away) and 2 short SSMs (can fire one hex).  The ship has 2 gun factors.  In terms of defense, the Burke-class DDG has 10 long range SAMs and a Point Defense value of 3.

The Soviets have the Sovremenny-class DDG with 8 short range SSMs and no long-range SSMs.  What the ship lacks in ranged weapons, it makes up for in terms of defenses.  It has six short range SAMs and a whopping Point Defense rating of 5.  It also has 4 gun factors - twice the value of the Burke-class DDG's guns.  Note that both ships have the same speed and hull rating.

The Soviets also have the Ivan Rogov, which has 2 short range SAMs for defense and a gun rating of 1.  It has a hull rating of 3 but so does the NATO merchant vessel.

You would expect this to be a fairly even fight, I suppose!

Setup:  NATO TF-1 is three hexes away from Soviet TF-A.  Both TFs are detected.
The Soviets set up three hexes northeast of Jan Mayen Island (Task Force A) while the NATO player must set up three hexes east of the island (Task Force 1).  The direction that each group is facing in the hex doesn't really matter.  Both sides have already detected each other so there's no need to sneak around here.  The fighting starts right away.

We pull our first chit from the cup and it's Task Force 1 so the NATO player moves his ships north towards the Soviet task force.  I could have just fired off my 4 long range SSMs at the Soviets but I want to get close enough to fire off all my missiles at once in order to try and overwhelm the Soviet ship defenses.  The NATO player announces his attack so the Burke-class DDG launches all six SSMs at the Soviet task force.

Missiles away!  6 SSMs fly towards the Soviet ships in TF-A.
The Soviets would normally have a chance to try and shoot down the incoming SSMs with long range SAMs first.  However, neither the Sovremenny DDG nor the Rogov LPD have long range SAMs.  The missiles continue their flight.

6 missiles en route to LPD Ivan Rogov
So 6 missiles are now on the way to the LPD Ivan Rogov landing craft and the Sovremenny and Rogov both decide that enough is enough and it's time to try and shoot them down with their short-range SAMs.  The Sovremenny DDG fires first.  It has 6 short range SAMs so we roll 6 six-sided dice.  Each roll of 4 or 5 eliminates 1 missile.  Each roll of 6 eliminates 2 missiles.  We get a 6 and two 5s so three  four missiles have been eliminated.  The Ivan Rogov fires its SAMs and we get a 6 and a 4.  The three remaining missiles are shot down. Bad luck for the American DDG.

The Soviets pull the next chit in the cup and it's for Task Force A. They now get to move and/or fire back at the NATO task force.  The Sovremenny DDG fires its 8 short range SSMs straight at the US ships.

Incoming!  Soviets fire 8 SSMs straight at the Americans. 
The Burke has 10 long range SAMs to fire at the incoming missiles.  So we roll 10 six-sided dice and any results of 4 or 5 eliminate a missile while a roll of 6 eliminates 2 missiles.  The American player rolls horribly, shooting down only five of the eight SS-N missiles.  Normally, the US player would get a chance to use his short range SAMs next to try and further whittle down the number of incoming missiles but neither American ship has any short range SAMs.  The three remaining missiles are about to slam into the US merchant ship.

3 missiles get through US defenses.
The Soviet player rolls a die for each missile.  Results of 3 to 5 mean a missile scores a hit while a result of 6 means one of the missiles scores 2 hits.  We get a 3, 4, and a 6.  That's 4 hits on the merchant ship, one more than is actually needed to sink it.  Down it goes to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean!

With no more missiles left, it decides to enter the Burke's hex and engage it with guns.

Soviet TF-A enters NATO TF-1 hex in 1009.
The NATO player chooses to make a stand here and possibly sink the Ivan Rogov with its own guns.  This is now a close-range gunnery duel so both sides set up their ships in pairs and decide which of the ships will fire and which ship will be screened.  Of course, the NATO player only has the one ship so it will be firing.  The Soviets obviously choose the Sovremenny-class DDG as the firing ship while the Rogov hangs back.

The ship with the highest gunnery rating fires first and results are implemented immediately.  The Sovremenny has a gunnery rating of 4 while the Burke has only 2.  Any result between 4 and 6 results in a hit.  The Soviet player rolls 4 six-sided dice and gets 1, 1, 4, and 5.  The Burke-class DDG takes 2 hits and is sunk.

The Soviet task force, having won an overwhelming victory, sails on towards its objective.  The pride of the Red Banner Northern Fleet remains intact.


I really wonder if there is any way the Americans can win this scenario.  It seems to really be a matter of luck with the Soviets having a slightly better chance at winning.  Attacking the Sovremenny DDG seems like a bad idea.  The ship's combination of SAMs and Point Defense make it almost impossible to hit.  I don't think I really made it clear how ships defend against missiles here so I'll try to explain it here.

When missiles are fired at a task force, they need to pass through three potential defensive belts in order to have a chance at hitting.  Long range SAMs fire first at the total number of incoming missiles.  It doesn't matter which ship they are targeting in the defending task force, the missiles are treated as a group that any ship in the TF with long-range SAMs can try and hit.   Any surviving missiles can be fired at with short-range SAMs next.

In this case, the attacking player divides up which of his SSMs are going for which ship in the enemy task force.  The defending player, who has already divided up his ships into pairs, declares which set of incoming missiles he is firing at with his short range SAMs.

So, for instance, I could have fired 4 of my SSMs at the Ivan Rogov and 2 SSMs at the Sovremenny.  The Soviet player would then have to decide whether to fire both ships' short range SAMs at the 4 incoming missiles on the Rogov OR the 2 incoming missiles at the Sovremenny.  If the Sovremenny chooses to protect the Rogov with his short range SAMs, the 2 incoming missiles aimed at the Sovremenny would automatically get through.

The next defensive belt is for each individual ship.  This is the point defense (usually high rate-of-fire gatling guns) system.  Any missiles that survive long and short range SAM defenses must finally make it through an individual ship's PD systems in order to have a chance at hitting their target.  Because PD systems are very short range, they can only be used to protect the ship on which they are mounted.  So the Sovremenny, in my previous example, would get to roll 5 dice to try and hit those 2 missiles coming at it.  Any rolls between 2 and 5 eliminate one missile.  A result of 6 eliminates 2 missiles.

So as you can see, it is very difficult to hit an enemy ship with a missile in Harpoon: Captain's Edition!  Keep in mind, though, that this is a very tiny scenario with a very small number of ships.  Once you get further into the game with large task forces that can fire huge numbers of missiles, it is much easier to completely overwhelm the defenses of even the strongest ships,

Fleet vs Harpoon

So I wanted to see, just for fun, how this situation might have worked itself out in 2nd Fleet.  I'd like to stress that I'm just doing this out of curiousity to see what will happen rather than to point out any weakness in either game.  So I set up the game on Vassal.  First thing I noticed is that the scale is slightly bigger for Harpoon (60 nautical miles per hex vs. 46 nm in Fleet).  I set up the units slightly further apart on the 2nd Fleet map to reflect the difference.

The first thing you notice with the Soviet and US units is that the stats for offensive missile power approximate those in Harpoon: CE.  The Burke has a longer range for missiles (5 hexes vs 2) but less firepower (8 FP vs. 14) than the Soviets.

The big difference between the games are in the defensive values.  The Burke and the Sovremenny both have a close anti-air value of 5. I suppose these are like short range SAMs. It seems like there is a difference here with the games as the Sovremenny DDG clearly has a better short-range SAM and point defense rating than the Burke DDG in Harpoon: CE.

In terms of long range defense, the Burke DDG has an area anti-air value of 7 while the Sovremenny has an area anti-air value of only 4 in the Fleet series as you can see above.  This is a major difference between the games because Harpoon: CE has the Burke DDG with 10 long range SAMs while the Sovremenny DDG has zero!

So let's play this thing out.  I put a merchant ship (the Baugh) with the Burke and an amphibious ship (the Beloy) with the Sovremenny-class DDG.  Neither side has enough combat units to form a task group, never mind a task force.

The Burke and the merchant ship move up adjacent to the Soviet ships in order to get a bonus to the attack roll for being right next to the enemy.

The US player declares an SSM attack on the Beloy, the amphibious ship stacked with the Sovremenny.  The area anti-air value of the Soviets is 4.  The combined close anti-air value of both the DDG and the LDP is 8 for a total defensive value of 12.  I roll on the CRT and get a 2 for the Soviet defensive roll.  We subtract one from that because the target is not in a task force or task group.  The result is a "1" for the Soviets.  The result on the CRT is a zero.

Now the NATO player rolls.    We get a "1".  Cross-referencing this with the 8, we get a zero result.  

The Soviet player goes.  It starts off firing its SSMs at the American merchant ship.  We combine the anti-air values of the Americans for a defensive total of 13.  We roll an "8" (-1 for no TF/TG is 7).  The result is a 4 on the CRT.  The Soviets roll for their attack.  They get a "1", from which the 4 is subtracted for a -3 on the 9 to 14 column.  The result is a zero.  Neither side wins the scenario assuming SSMs have now run out.  

If we had gone with the Close Combat optional rule on page 48 of the 2nd Fleet rulebook, how would things have turned out?

The Burke and the ship approach the Soviets and fire off their SSMs in the adjacent hex.  The Burke has a CCV of 16.  The die roll is odd so the NATO player can fire first.  This time, the Soviets roll a "3" for defensive fire (2 for no TF/TG) and we get a result of 2 on the CRT.

The US player rolls an 8 (-2) for a total of 6 on the roll.  We get a "4" on the CRT on the 15 to 20 column. The Beloy is sunk.  

The Soviet player now fires back at the US ships, hoping to sink the Baugh.  The US player rolls defensive and gets a zero.  Ouch!  The Soviet player now fires 18 CCV straight at the Americans.  We get a 4 on the die and cross-reference for 3 damage.  The Baugh is sunk. Both players lose the scenario.  

What a ride!  You can see the unpredictability built into this scenario by having two ships that are pretty much even in terms of defensive and offensive firepower.  It's far from the rather decisive win that Harpoon: CE presented in the same scenario.  I have no idea which game is the better one or more accurate but I can say that I enjoy playing both of these games immensely for different reasons.


  1. Very interesting comparison, thanks!
    With those ratings, it seems the best the US can do in Harpoon CE is to fire a full salvo at Rogov (since Sovremenny's point defenses are so impenetrable) then just run away (if possible?). Or split the US, run the merchant home while the Arleigh Burke sacrifices itself against Rogov. The chance to penetrate the defenses and actually sink Rogov is the tail end of a skewed distribution. Now I know how to calculate the exact probabilities in Excel, using discrete convolutions (sums of products of probability for each result at each stage).

    In the AAR on BGG the Burke fired double the missiles you fired? (4 Tomahawks, 8 Harpoons). Still no effect. Any harder to find rule there?

    For comparison also - the Gulf Strike/Aegean Strike system has nothing to depict anti-missile defenses (be it long, short range AA missiles or point defense guns). The not that high ECM rating in GS/AS does not seem to include those (?) but it does seem to depict submarine stealth. So it's just missiles decreasing the Hit rating.

    1. Thanks Mircea! You caught the mistake I made with the missile counts and I just updated them. The Burke has 2 short range SSMs and 4 long range SSMs. I had it the other way around but it didn't change the outcome. I just re-read the AAR on BGG and the writer seems to have it correct with 4 long range and 2 short range SSMs for the Burke. As for GS and AS, now that would be a very interesting comparison! Maybe I'll set it up some day and see how it goes with that game.

  2. In GS I cannot identify by ratings DDG counters like Arleigh Burke or Sovremenny. There are older destroyers like Spruance or Udaloy. The former were too new for the 1st edition in 1983, then focus of GS/AS shifted to smaller powers, on land, with oil ;-)

    1. I would love to see an updated version of the Strike system. Have you seen anything similar that has come out recently that compares to it?

  3. Enjoyable and informative write-up. One nit to pick here:

    "The Sovremenny DDG fires first. It has 6 short range SAMs so we roll 6 six-sided dice. Each roll of 4 or 5 eliminates 1 missile. Each roll of 6 eliminates 2 missiles. We get a 6 and two 5s so three missiles have been eliminated."

    Wouldn't one 6 and two 5s result in four missiles eliminated?

  4. I read your post last night and decided to build the same scenario using Command Air/Naval Operations. Same set up except I substituted a Whidbey Island amphib for the US merchant. I figured it would level the playing field. My outcome was different from yours a bit. The two groups fired off their SSMs for no hits. Then they closed and it turned into a gunfight. The US destroyer really walloped the Sovremenny and Ivan Rogov. The 5 inch gun just dominated.
    Always interesting to see how the same scenario works from two different games.

    1. Thanks Michael! That's very interesting! Harpoon has the gunnery value for the Sovremenny as a whopping 4 compared to the Burke class's measly 2. In the Fleet series, the Burke is only slightly overpowered by the Sovremenny in close combat. It's interesting to note all these differences. I have no idea which is more accurate but I love to see how the different systems handle this scenario.

  5. Sovremenny is given as 2x 130mm and the Soviet long 130mm was really good (in the land version of same barrel, balistically better than the older US 155mm, as shown to South Africans by lowly Angola in 1980's)

    1. Thanks Mircea. Very interesting! I read up on it after you made this comment. I had always assumed the Soviet naval guns were not quite as good as the US but it seems they tried to make up for technological shortcomings with sheer firepower. I am discovering a little bit more about a field that I knew nothing about previously.

  6. Sorry this is a long time after you posted this, but you're aware that there is extensive errata for Harpoon CE available on Boardgamegeek?

    It may help somewhat.


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