The Naval Battle of the Yalu 1894

So, my favorite hobby is to play miniature wargames, which should come as a surprise to nobody. I like naval games, and obscure conflicts nobody talks about. The Naval Battle of the Yalu is both of those things– obscure and naval. TLDR history version: Back in 1894, Japan was getting up to some shenanigans in Korea, “The Hermit Kingdom”. The Chinese Qing dynasty considered Korea their sphere of influence and Japan just had to piss off, and the First Sino-Japanese War happened. Japan went through with landing an army and making plans to reinforce it through the sea. The Chinese sent their polyglot Beiyang Fleet to intercept the fledgling Japanese Imperial fleet, and thus the stage was set for the first fleet action between opposing coal-burning, steam powered, modern navies. The historical results were horribly lopsided– the Beiyang fleet got their ass handed to them, losing 5 ships sunk and 3 damaged, vs. the Japanese just having 4 ships badly damaged. There’s a lot of reasons why this is a very interesting sea fight. For one thing.. wow, these ships were wildly varied. The Beiyang fleet had two of the most heavily armored ships in the area in the Chi Yuan and Ping Yuan, both built by the British and sporting modern Armstrong guns. Many of the ships on either side were foreign purchases and must have represented a logistical nightmare to provision. It’s no wonder the Chinese were so reluctant to risk their “fleet in being”. The other interesting tidbit for Yalu is that this was NOT the era of big battleships– this was the era of Protected Cruisers and Armored Cruisers– with patchy armor and erratic power plants. The Japanese believed in discipline and drilled their fleet often. The Chinese in contrast were corrupt, tend to not sally forth very much and leadership was by captains who were routinely feathering their nests by looting naval stores. In the ensuing battle, it was a minor miracle the Beiyang fleet did the minimal damage it managed to do.

an interesting period magazine piece by a participant in the Battle of Yalu

Fire When Ready (Metagaming Concepts, 1982)

For rules, I chose Fire When Ready, a very old Metagaming microgame that was at least 30 years old. Read Seth Owen’s review on BGG.

I’ve played the actual board game as a board game, but only via Cyberboard. Why? Well, not many people were eager to play Microhistory line games back in the day, and games like Ogre, Melee and Wizard were way more popular. I love microgames and kind of have a thing for them, despite the Metagaming products of the era having awful graphic standards. Although some of the later games were pretty terrible, I always thought the early ones and the Micro-History games were hidden gems. Fire When Ready actually had a pretty solid pre-dreadnought design hidden in the crappy graphics and ugly typesetting. Secondly, there really aren’t that many pre-dreadnought era rule sets out there. There are a few, but I didn’t want to learn something new just yet. So I rummaged around in the vaults and found an old (still in shrink wrap) copy of FWR. Note, I’ve owned 4 or 5 copies over the years– the production values were so poor the box always disintegrated on me.

I had time on my hands when they were rebuilding my house back in 2017, so I painted up a couple of predreadnought fleets: the battle of Yalu and the battle of Santiago. I’ve always wanted to game Yalu in miniature format, so with the COVID epidemic forcing us to stay in, I thought I’d gt up to a solo game last night. Why not? It sure beats watching more depressing epidemic news.

This is the battle space. the Chinese enter the area searching fort Japanese to intercept their reinforcement attempt. The Japanese enter on the South west corner.

Japanese fleet.
Chinese Beiyang fleet
Assorted implements of destruction
All Litko. Red targets are Japan, Black ones Chinese. Firing markers to keep track of simultaneous or split fire. Secondary targeting improvised by the tiny splash markers. Raging fire= this ship is sinking.

One headache I’ve had was the names of the Chinese fleet. Chinese is not an easy language to grasp for many Westerners and the ship names reflect a Westerner trying to interpret Chinese vowel sounds. In a nutshell: I’m aware there are more modern versions of how to depict Chinese spelling but I’m going with the information that was current in the 1980s.

The other roadblock, sort of, was the design. The rules suggest that players plot movement simultaneously and execute them simultaneously. That’s just not going to happen in a solitaire game. Instead, I came up with a reasonable compromise:

Okay, it’s not sophisticated but it will do.

Basically I had to take turns plotting and moving and then execute gunfire all at once– finalizing damage at the end of the turn. It worked pretty well. I’d just keep track of damage done and mark it with a single underline, and when it was “permanent” the next turn, I’d double underline it.

The Rulebook was tiny, dense and badly laid out and typeset. It needed a better editor even back in 1982. So I ended up extracting the cognizant charts and plugged them into a Google Sheet, which I could read (in much larger type) on my Ipad

The first few turns were pretty standard stuff for a naval wargame. Lots of jockeying around for position and the right angle to attack each other with. Both fleets deployed in a long battle line, and both dispatched a force of lighter craft to torpedo the enemy.

At the bottom of the screen, the Kang Ping and Kwan Chia (destroyers) and two torpedo boats break off to flank the Japanese line.
The lead ship in the Japanese line, the Matsoshita, hereafter called “Matso” is already being targeted by Chinese fire tokens.
The Japanese return the favor, targeting the lead Chinese ship, the mighty Chen Yuen.

Initial gunfire at long range was ineffective. The mechanics of Fire Combat were not very complex but they require explanation. To shoot at another ship in FWR, you first check the fire angle and range. I’m glad I had a naval hex map, as it made range and angles relatively easy. Next you check what level of firepower can apply at that particular range. In FWR classic you have to “pre plot” it, but that’s a pain in the butt solitaire. SO I winged it– if a ship has a shot, it put down a plot token (red for Japanese, black for Chinese). They are numbered so I could track the shot back to the firing ship’s position in the line of battle. At long range, the hitting power number is pretty low. That number is further modified by poor gunnery ratings and then double checked against the ship’s training rating (I admit I didn’t do the training penalty for most of the game, more on this later), then target ship armor rating is subtracted. After modification, the firing column on the hit table could be negative. You can still roll on the table– it ranges from negative six (where damage is pretty light) to positive six. So at the most extreme ranges (more than 12 hexes) you’re not likely to hit much.

The Chinese split into the main line (up top) and the light squadron (below)
Japan is moving to close the distance. Two destroyers on the far left, the rest are Armored Cruisers, except for the Fuso (last in line), an old ship with lots of armor that is rated as a Battleship in these rules.. for some reason.
The lead Chinese Ships shift targeting away from the Matsu (just a hex off meant a column shift), The Chen targeting the “Itsu” (using shorthand), and the Ping targets the Hashidate. This round is more effective. The Itsu loses most of its secondaries in this exchange.
I use the tiny broadside markers from Litko to mark ships that fire this turn. I’m going to have to buy more.
These are the relevant tables I punched into Google Sheets. This was very handy for a solitaire game. I didn’t need to open the shrink wrap on my latest copy of the game. Having the rules scanned into a PDF helps. I’ve owned a few copies over the years.
Here is where the exchange of gunfire got pretty heated.. about turn 8. The Japanese are concentrating fire on the Chen (lead ship) and the Ping (Next in line). These were the ones that had the thickest armor on the board, and after adjusting for that, the Japanese were routinely firing on the negative columns. So damage was pretty light. I think the Chen lost mostly secondary batteries and one armor point. The Ping hardly got a scratch.
The Chinese light squadron is trying to position itself to fire torpedoes. Unfortunately they have to be one hex distant, so the odds of their survival are not good.
Overkill plotted fire on the Matsu. If you lose ALL your armor, your ship sinks. Matsu was down to one point at start of turn. Here, the valiant Matsu takes a “D” penetrating hit, which removes the rest of her armor. However, this is followed by an E, Interior Explosion which really provides the overkill. Matsu is exploded and sinking, but gets to fire back this turn only as action is simultaneous. Hasidate and Itsu pour on the fire in the foreground.
Akagi and Hiei attack the other side of the Chinese line. They only have Secondaries and have to get closer to fire Torps.
Matsu goes down, firing continuously
First Japanese casualty was the Matsu, second Akagi. She was a tiny ship without much armor. All it took was one shot frm the Ping, who was splitting fire.
It’s a short and glorious life in the Beiyang
Fleet Torpedo boat service. First Chinese casualty.
Lat in the game, close to the end, the Chinese line turns into the Japanese line.
Now the Chinese Armored Cruisers pour it on, too… finally
So the Matsu is actually sunk, but the burning marker is dramatic. Note that one Torpedo Boat and one destroyer actually got close enough to launch Torpedoes. This is the thing that won the game solidly for the Chinese.
Chaos all over. The torpedoes both land, simultaneously with ships getting decimated by the main guns of Chen and Ping. Meanwhile, they are keeping up a steady fire vs. the Beiyang.
Turn 10 or 11. Here is where I called it. The Japanese have suffered the loss of three front line cruisers and a destroyer. The Chinese, a Torpedo Boat and a Destroyer (see above). Much of it was lucky shooting, but also because I forgot to use the training penalty. I think that gave the Beiyang just the edge it needed not to replicate history.
And there you have it. China 20, Japan 4. I had a lot of fun with my first Yalu outing. More thoughts below.

Go HERE to see all the pictures I took.