It is no secret that I find Joe Steadman to be a horse's ass, and while many disagree with that opinion, I find as many or more people that found his presence on the Dice Tower to be a, uh, problem. A closet wargamer who found time to play an astonishing amount of games while teaching at an American ex-pat school in Korea, I found most of his reviews of wargames to be fanboyish and not containing much in the way of useful information.
Joe, all is forgiven. And all because you pimped Silent War, one of the premier titles from Compass Games. I was ready to pass this one over, largely because the designer is Brien J. Miller (damned hippie parents, you'd think they'd have learned to spell by the time they were fertile, plus do we really need the middle initial to distinguish you from that other Brien Miller?), late of Avalanche Games. Avalanche has a crap attitude toward customers, refusing to put out anything more than the most essential errata and pumping out games with a kazillion unplaytested scenarios. Plus, he did Airlines, perhaps the most pointless game ever. And I'm extra bitter because I bought that dog at $38 retail. But I was young.
But no, Joe said that this was a great little game, if a tad expensive ($70 retail, and I can't find it anywhere retail in Portland). And you know what? This will be the game that ends my marriage. It's the wargame equivalent of Sid Meier's Civilization (the first one, the one that nearly killed my master's degree).
The game is about the US submarine campaign in the Pacific in WWII, and it includes every sub that saw action in that theatre. That's a lot of subs. They go out, they find stuff to shoot at, the damned torpedos either miss or bounce off the damned hulls of glorified dinghies, they get sent home to sit in the damned broom box for umpteen turns while you miss those rolls too, and then you realize that it's 10pm and perhaps the dogs should be fed and taken out to poddy, and instead you PLAY ONE MORE FREAKIN' TURN.
Damn you, Brien J. Miller. Damn you to hell. I'll have to forgive you too.
The basis of the game is pretty easy, and there are lots of little "patrol" missions where you have a single sub trying to sink a certain number of ships/tonnage in a set amount of time. These are great learning scenarios, and even better if all you have is an hour or so to play. Assuming you can find the sub in the mess of, what, 150-200 sub counters. I strongly recommend you bag/sort these bad boys by entry date. When the sub is heading out, all you really do is check to see if anything goes wrong (which is unusual, especially if you are staying close to base). While the sub is out "on patrol" you generally roll to see if you get a contact, easier to do in some portions of the war (and there is a very clever mechanism to figure out when things start changing). If you do, you also roll to see if it's a large/small convoy or a task force, then cross reference the size of the contact with the type to determine what ships make up the convoy.
To do this, you have a set of ship counters, some warships/anti-sub aircraft, some supply ships/tankers/troop carriers. Based on what part of the war you are in, they are divided up into four groups, placed in cups, then drawn based on how the search came out. Task forces tend to have fewer merchants, and a larger proportion of capital ships, most of which are in the "D" cup.
No wonder I like this game, it has a cup size for everyone.
The ships are placed face down on the combat display, sorted by which cup they came out of. Merchants tend to have "meatball" flags on the backs, warships have "rising suns". You pick which column (ABCD) you want your sub to go after, then flip as many ships as your sub's tac rating (typically 4, at least in the early game). You then assign modifiers (TDCs, simulating things like attack angle, distance, etc) randomly to as many ships as the tac rating, which do not have to be in the same column or even revealed at that point. You then distribute your attack factors among the ships you wish to attack (in the early war when the torps were produced by the mid-century equivalent of Halliburton, you want to aim for a single ship unless you get two really good targets), and roll the dice to see if the torp manages to hit. Factors such as the robustness of the target, ASW in the area, distance from the sub (based on attacking adjacent or the same column), and the quality of torpedos play a big role. If you get a hit, you then get to see if the torp bothers to explode, or if it does so in an effective manner and place. The bigger the tonnage of the ship you are going after, the less chance a single shot will kill it, but it does happen. There are also "ships" that produce random effects, perhaps the most unsettling is when a torp is defective and circles back to take a shot at the sub that launched it! Now THAT is a bad day at sea.
After you get your shot off, the convoy gets a shot back at you. This can be no big deal if you didn't manage to turn over meatballs that were really very effective destroyers or aircraft, or the end of your submarining career, at least for that boat. Assuming you survive (which can include being spotted or damaged), you can turn over more ships (although you have to start with "rising sun" ships this time), and try again. If you've got a Super Skipper (seriously, that's what they're called), you can even try to take another shot. While second/third attacks have a slightly better chance, assuming no new ASW forces, the counterattacks are also more dangerous as well. However, given how tough it is to sink a ship in the early going of the war, you may want to take some chances.
There are also semi-randomized methods for determining how long a boat can stay out, how badly damaged a returning sub is, how long it takes to service a boat (including those coming into play), sub tenders, random war events such as the Fall of Manila, Special Mission Zones that suck up your subs from doing useful work, ULTRA intercepts that improve your chances of finding that really big convoy, wolfpacks, and who knows what else. And all of it flows so quickly that you will finish your game only to realize that you should have left to go to work three hours ago, and you started playing when you got home.
Damn you, Brien J. Miller.
I have played a single short patrol (you get 1-2 shots at finding/sinking ships, although patrols can last for several turns), as well as the Nederlander sub campaign in early '42 out of Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies. At four turns to the month, with up to eight subs in action (rare), it took me about two hours to finish this mini-campaign, and I've started another one with considerably more subs that is limited to the Solomons in late '42/early '43. A full campaign game, assuming you aren't sacked at one of the "got tonnage?" points, should last you about a month solid, assuming you don't, you know, work or eat or say hello to your wife/SO/family.
Compass, unlike Avalanche, has done a great job of including not only additional scenarios (the Nederlander and Solomons mini's were found online), but also additional counters if you don't feel like ever using the modern nuclear sub counter they included in the game. There are also additional counters from various nationalities, including one US boat that was originally a Type XIX Nazi sub captured off of Norway. In all, I think there are seven campaign games that will use the entire map and take a solid month or eight to play, ten or twelve patrols, and six or seven mini-campaigns, enough to keep you busy for a while.
While there are rules for two-player play, it basically means that you get a certain number of bases each that you operate from. I can't imagine that this would be fun unless you were doing it with a younger relative, such as a pre-teen that wanted to get in on one of "Dad's games" (and we grab those opportunites every time), but as a game for two grognards, I just can't see it. What I can see is tournament versions where one player takes the role of the Loyal Opposition while the other plays a short campaign, then they switch and compare scores. That could be cool.
So, there you have it. The Next Big Thing That Will Eat My Time. And I've got Joe Steadman and Brien J. Miller, people I would gladly sucker punch if I ever met them in public, to thank. Sigh.
Now I have to go play the Solomons campaign, all of the new boats are in and I'm hoping to get a Gato-class out there and see what it can do. That, and start a 12-step program for Silent War addicts.