Northern Fleet

Northern Fleet, a simulation of a NATO/Soviet conflict in the mid-90s, is about as minimalist as they come. The game, published by Simulations Canada, is text only – defiantly so. There are no pixelated renditions of planes exploding or ships sinking. You won’t get an adorable little mushroom cloud if the nukes fly.

Even for 1987, when PCs and home consoles had the ability to at least crudely render basic graphics in 8 and 16-bit color, this stuff was bare bones. To put things in proper perspective, the first Harpoon video game was released only two years later than this game.

Despite the complete absence of graphics, Northern Fleet is a classic and you’d be making a mistake by turning your nose up at it. The game presents the player with just the right amount of choices without delving into military esoterica. You fight the war the way you want – the computer handles the rest.

The player can choose to take on the role of commander for the NATO or Soviet forces. Each turn, you are given the option of escalating the war. The game begins with rising tensions between the superpowers and both sides are carefully maneuvering their ships into the North Atlantic and getting into position for what is to come next.

The Soviets might try to pour their attack submarines into shipping lanes, find and shadow the NATO surface task forces assembling near Iceland, or sneak ships into the bastions to defend the boomers. Throughout numerous plays, I’ve found some Soviet commanders to be more aggressive than others. In one game, Alfas and Kilos swarmed my carrier battle groups and whittled my surface fleet down while in other games, I barely caught a contact until I started sending my Los Angeles class boats into the bastions.

Category:Alfa class submarines - Wikimedia Commons

The NATO commander can (and should) use his own submarines to locate the Soviet surface forces early on. This usually means sending out a few subs to hang out around key Soviet ports of Polyarny and Murmansk. I try to create an ASW force that lines the SOSUS area in hopes of nailing Russian subs as they try to get through the GIUK gap. Whatever you choose to do, you should probably do it quickly, because the Soviets can decide to start the war at practically any time, and NATO will just sort of have to deal with it.

As each turn progresses, the option to escalate from a conventional war to tactical nuclear war and then operational nuclear war is given. Your choice might be vetoed by your superiors if the conditions aren’t right. Intelligence comes in from your task forces, aircraft, subs and other sources and you put together a picture of what the Soviets are up to. If the weather is lousy or the Russians are being sneaky, you might not learn too much.

You then go through a task force screen that allows you to organize your surface ships and assign them various missions such as anti-shore facility operations or ASW. You will get to see some of your own ship locations, though submarine locations might be unknown until they arrive at their destinations.

Next, you issue movement orders to your forces, but with one vital caveat. Giving orders to surface ships or submarines lowers their EMCON level, so you’ll want to be sparing about how often you do this. The next screen allows the player to pick strike targets for aircraft if they are in range and the planes are available. Aircraft in Bodo and Trondheim do the heavy lifting for close air support throughout the war, and the Soviets will try their best to knock one – or both – airfields out with repeated Badger and Backfire strike packages. The Russians also have the option to attempt an amphibious invasion or drop a regiment of paratroopers to capture an airfield.

Combat between ships and aircraft is surprisingly tense. The text prints out across the screen line by line, giving reports of detections, sightings, and combat results coming in and it feels just like a commander getting raw real time information from the battlefield. The turn ends with a report of the ground war’s progress and any other reports that might be relevant. Sometimes, you get a one-line message that the war has turned nuclear in Central Europe, which serves as a warning of how things will likely progress in the North Atlantic. I found this much more chilling than a graphic with a nuclear bomb and a city blowing up in the background.

The A.I. provides a very decent challenge for the human player. Even as an experienced NF player, I usually lose. Each side has its dilemmas and weaknesses and you need to understand these well if you want a chance at winning. Sending a single US carrier group into the North Atlantic early in the game will result in nothing but a bunch of American ships at the bottom of the ocean. The Soviets will take grueling losses of Backfires and Badgers to get a shot at your carrier group. The Russians will also set traps for you, such as trying to bait your P3s in Keflavik into a costly attack on their surface ships. Once the P3s are gone, the Soviet subs will have a much easier time of moving their subs around. Don’t fall for it.

On the other hand, the Soviets have their own problems too. The American hardware is much better and their commanders are more reliable. The US surface fleet can afford to sit back west of Keflavik until reinforcements arrive and there really isn’t much you can do about it unless you want to lose all of your bomber force in one fell swoop. I tried to recreate the famous Larry Bond/Tom Clancy-inspired “Keflavik Turkey Shoot” and the game willingly obliged. Between the Tomcats on CAP, the F-15s in Iceland, and the other NATO squadrons in the Faroes, the Russian bombers were slaughtered and NATO had a field day, forcing the Soviets to turn to nuclear weapons to try and even the balance.

A good Soviet player will need to take calculated risks at the right time and maximize any successes. Spetsnaz attacks can be made against Over The Horizon radar stations in the UK or against the SOSUS lines or NATO airfields. The chance of success is not great, but a good player should be able to exploit and run with any bit of good fortune that comes his way.

The NATO player needs a good deal of luck, but also a measure of restraint and good timing. Sending your subs to hit the Soviet airfields in the early game is tempting, but whatever damage you are able to do will be repaired in a few turns and the chances of losing your boats are high. Whatever strikes you make against the Russians need to be coordinated with each piece in position before springing the trap. Neglecting the defense of your own backyard is dangerous too. Assets must be used to protect Bodo, Trondheim, and Keflavik from amphibious attack until the Soviet LSTs can be hunted down and destroyed. Even then, there is a good chance the Soviets will get a sub close to your bases and launch a surface missile attack.

Northern Fleet is a great game that provides the player with interesting choices and offers a real challenge at just the right scale. Harpoon and CMANO enthusiasts might not be happy with the lack of tactical options and bells and whistles, but I find NF to be quite satisfying perhaps because of this minimalism. With only a blank computer screen to look at, imagination fills in the details.

There are two versions of Northern Fleet – one made for the Apple IIe and the other a DOS version (edit: looks like there’s also a version for the Atari ST). The Apple version provides fewer options to the Soviet player for amphibious landings. It also only provides the class of each ship or submarine while the DOS version includes the actual ship names. As a whole, I recommend the DOS version because it’s a bit more challenging for the NATO player and the battle reports are more detailed. Northern Fleet is still for sale by Simulations Canada and can be purchased by contacting the publisher directly by mail. You’ll easily find that information over on the Consim forums.

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