Random Carrier Battles: kinematics and scale

I spent some time the other day playing the old-school DOS version of the current state of the art in carrier air warfare simulations, SSG’s 1992 classic appropriately entitled titled Carriers at War. As far as DOS-era wargames go, it’s pretty good—it doesn’t bother you with too many details, and it (largely) lets you focus on the grander strategy. I really blew the Battle of Midway as the Americans, though.

So, let’s talk about a way in which I hope to improve on the old classic: movement. Carriers at War plays out on a 20-mile hex grid; Random Carrier Battles currently tracks positions down to 10 meters; rather than a five-minute time step, I use a six-second timestep (organized into ten steps per one-minute turn) for movement and combat. This lets me do all sorts of fun things which 1992’s processing power did not allow, which I’ll get to shortly. It also causes me a great deal of trouble, which I’ll gripe about first.

The short version is, the kinematics are hard.

The slightly longer version is, there’s a lot of math involved in working out just how game entities ought to move. Warships aren’t much of a problem, because it turns out that warship maneuvering is pretty straightforward1. Aircraft, however, get a little tough. Not only do I have to consider everything I do with warships, I have to account for performance differences at altitude, as well as rates of climb and descent beyond which aircraft must either decelerate or accelerate. I don’t have the design fully worked out for that yet, I’m afraid, so I can’t say much more yet. Rest assured it’s complicated.

So, what does that enhanced positional and temporal resolution buy me above Carriers at War?

Better simulation of strike range
This is the biggest win, in my opinion. With such a high temporal and positional resolution, I can simulate fuel consumption to a much greater level of accuracy. As such, I don’t need to limit myself to Carriers at War’s fixed strike ranges2. The TBD, for instance, gets a with-torpedo range of 90 miles. I’ve seen other figures give a combat radius of 150 miles, and still others give a range (not radius) of 435 miles with a torpedo. By tracking fuel, I can, to some degree, ignore the trickier combat radius figures2, and simply grab a plausible cruise range figure. If I mix in some reasonable modifiers for speed, altitude, weight, climbing and descending, and maneuvering, suddenly I have a system which doesn’t need to work with combat radius at all. Players can launch strikes well beyond range if they want to; they just need to know that they’ll have to either deal with losing planes to fuel exhaustion, or follow the strike with their carriers.

Realistic combat behavior
The level of detail in kinematics, and the short time step, lets me make emergent some behaviors which might otherwise be the result of dice rolls. For instance, are Devastators running in on your carriers? Turn away from them, and the slothful American torpedo bombers will have to chase you, running their fuel down and exposing them to the depredations of your CAP and your escorts’ AA. Dive bombers rolling in on you? Throw the helm hard over to throw off their aim.

Many of these behaviors can be made to happen automatically: ships under dive bomb attack will make evasive turns on their own, for one. I haven’t yet decided which behaviors will end up being automatic, and which will be tactics set up by the player, but my aim is to do the low-hanging fruit for the player.

A notable exception to the above model is air combat: my current expectation is that the six-second combat step will prove too large for air combat (and relatedly, that emergent air combat behaviors will prove very complicated to code), and that the best way to handle it will be to put planes into a furball object inside which combat is handled in an abstract manner.

Exploration of unexplored formation options
Allowing the player relatively detailed control over formations, and keeping track of positions in similar detail, allows players to try some unusual tactical ideas. For example, the Japanese were not in possession of shipboard radars until fairly late in the game. What if, in some hypothetical battle, they detached some escorts from the main task force to make a search line a few miles toward the threat? Perhaps they could better direct their CAP to meet incoming threats.

That’s only one example. Undoubtedly there are others which haven’t occurred to me yet.

Those are at least a selection of the benefits of an approach with a greater focus on direct simulation, as opposed to a more traditional hex and counter approach. We’ll see how they turn out.

  1. At least to the fidelity I plan to simulate. There are lots of fascinating behaviors when you introduce multiple screws into the mix, but given that Random Carrier Battles is still, at its essence, a game of task forces, I don’t intend to allow players to give orders that detailed.
  2. The reason they’re so fiddly is that nobody ever talks about their assumptions: what load, exactly, constitutes a combat load? Is range deducted for reserve fuel and the time spent forming up? Are allowances made for maneuvering over the target? These are three of many questions left unacknowledged by most authors of military references.

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