Saturday, March 07, 2009

Second World War at Sea - Midway

Eric turned me on to what was probably the biggest gaming deal in my life (even better than finding Magic Realm on eBay for $35) when I scored eight of Avalanche Press' Second World War at Sea games/expansions for $163 including shipping. The "big" box in the set, Leyte Gulf, retails at $199, so it was like getting it at discount and the rest thrown in for good measure. 

The only problem was that my experiences with Great War at Sea, which uses a very similar system, had not gone so well. Chuck and I struggled to enjoy that game when we played it, and there's a very strange rule, "Referred Pain," that can make it difficult to sink a heavily damaged ship if it had primary guns but never any secondary guns. I won't go into the details, but there was a significant issue with no sign of being "fixed" by Avalanche. Jesse and I discovered the problem when we played a tactical battle and I've simply never gone back to the game. 

Since Eric and I were the only people in the group really interested in playing SWWaS, we finally managed to get together today and give it a shot. Our verdict - despite the usual Avalanche poorly-organized and laid out rules, this is a really fun little game. We played the Relief of Wake Island scenario from the Midway boxed game, which featured a relatively small number of units (perhaps 15 or so per task force for the Americans, less for the Japanese, and three task forces for each side to start) and a situation that would force us to learn a handful of relatively simple but less used rules such as unloading cargo and assaulting a port. 

The game uses pretty much all of the rules from GWaS, although the ships are much faster, you only plot one turn ahead for TFs on Intercept missions, and you are much less likely to run into surface combat situations as most of the time your aircraft are doing the dirty work. Like most APL games, you roll dice based on a combat factor, then try to hit target numbers based on various drms. Each hit allows a roll on a damage table (torps or gunnery/bombs) and damage is marked off on various record sheets. There are two levels of the game, an operational game where you are trying to locate the enemy and hurt him before he hurts you, and a tactical game that is about as abstracted a version of naval warfare as you'll see. While each ship down to the destroyer level is represented by a single counter, you won't find any strong rules forcing you to move as a fleet would, although SWWaS does have optional rules for surface ship combat that encourage such formations. 

The bulk of the game, however, is taken up by record keeping and various other functions. We didn't make any contact at all for the first quarter of the game, and bad weather made it dangerous for aircraft to take off at all for the first three days. On the fourth day, though, the sky cleared and we got a lot of practice with the CAP system, air strikes, air searches, subs, cargo, ports, all sorts of stuff. 

Despite what seems to be a convoluted ruleset, the system is really extremely sequenced and easy to follow once you know what you are doing. The trick is getting to that point, and I think we were very successful, breaking down each subsystem and going through the rules to make sure we understood it. Part of our success was in no small part to Xander's extremely useful play aids, which collect about 90% of the information you need on two pages of charts, one for operational use and the other for tactical use. 

Also surprising was how little you really interacted with counters in the game. There are a bare handful of markers on the board, and the air units on the five carriers in the game (one of which didn't show up for 20 turns) and two airbases. Submarines were involved around Pearl Harbor, but not so much afterwards (my lone sub near Wake was sunk almost immediately). 

The game needs a few things to make it come out more often, although some of this would also require a certain amount of technical ability and resources as well. Here are my thoughts on how this game goes from being a decent boardgame with a ton of recordkeeping to a fun, fast, enjoyable game:
  1. Easy tracking of plotted routes for TF missions. For almost every mission in the game other than Intercept and Abort, you are required to plot path right up to when the TF returns to port. Since your plot may change as a result of ships not able to do what they want for a variety of reasons (weather, damage, etc), if something changes you have to erase the entire plot and re-enter it. If you have a 70 turn game where the weather turns particularly bad early and requires you to move one space per turn instead of two, you have to re-enter the plot for the entire game. What would make this about 1000 times better would be to use strategic planning maps where you simply plot the route and the planned speed. Suddenly, the whole thing takes five minutes to do and you never need to fuss with it. 
  2. Fuel tracking. I understand why everything is done in 1/24ths of a fuel point, as otherwise ships that now have ten points would need 240, and that would be an issue. However, fuel as it stands is a massive pain in the ass. If you figure it out for every destroyer in your 15 ship TF, it can take forever, and if you use an oiler to get fuel back, you have to erase close to 100 boxes if you rescaled the points. I used the campaign log to keep track of how many fuel points each TF used each turn, and it helped, but it needs to be incorporated into the game rather than left to the individual to figure out.
  3. Ship records. These are supplied as either part of the game-specific scenario booklet, or as a separate booklet altogether if there are a lot of scenarios. What would really be useful is to have these in a form where you could either get them organized by task force (my preference) rather than having to wade through 12 pages of sheets printed from the PDFs that APL supplies. Unfortunately, when you have ships that have taken damage, you have to refer to the printed record to see if they still have all of their gunnery factors, etc. 
  4. Easier aircraft handling. Aircraft come in two-step counters, but the rules constantly refer to "aircraft". Whether that means a counter, a group, or a step, is often a little unclear. To make matters worse, the aircraft status sheets have small boxes that aren't big enough to separate out the various types for a given base/carrier, and they are close together. The risk of tipping over units (and losing track of how many steps you have on board) or mixing them up is very high. 
  5. Scoring. When every aircraft step generated points, but they may or may not come back over the course of the game, it can be difficult to remember how many points were scored when and where, not to mention how you're doing in comparison to your opponent.
  6. Sequence of play in subsystems. It can be hard to remember all of the steps you're supposed to go through when flying an airstrike, or who does what when when it's time to place search markers. Having these listed out (rather than in "conversational" form as the rules do most of the time) would be very helpful. 
Fortunately, it's not difficult to fix all of these problems simply by allowing a computer to do most of the work for you. 18xx players have used custom software to manage their stock prices for years, and that's *nothing* compared to tracking info in GWaS/SWWaS. However, APL guards it's IP in a rather, ahem, manic fashion, and it doesn't allow *any* electronic versions of it's games (such as VASSAL, Cyberboard, Sun Tzu) unless it already gives it away for free, as it does with a demo scenario available on it's website. VASSAL would be the perfect way to do this, as it would allow secrecy and data tracking in a very simple form. Hit a ship with a torp? Roll the die and the necessary factors are immediately modified accordingly, including scoring. Shoot down an airplane step? The unit flips, the kill goes to the Aircraft Salvage box, and the factors change. Playing this game on paper is hard work - making it electronic would be much better. 

So since APL won't help, the next best thing is to come up with VASSAL software (or custom software, although that's much more work) that will allow two players to play the game face-to-face but with laptops to manage the data. You have a map to keep track of where your forces are, where they're plotted to move, and will allow you to do on-the-fly plotting for those TFs on intercept missions and those that have aborted, and if something delays the schedule you don't have to do anything different, just don't move the unit as far. Click on a set of ships from a list and you have an instant TF record sheet that you use to mark off which things have changed. Aircraft management is now much easier, as you can have separate windows for each base and aircraft, and it automatically remembers which base it works out of. You can even keep better track of which aircraft are on what missions, as now the game only allows tracking search, CAP, and ASW missions but not the ad hoc ones. 

Sure, this requires you to have a handy computer or laptop, actually two (one for each side), but that's less and less of an issue. While I don't think that you're going to use an iPhone for this sort of thing any time in the future (the map alone would be insane), pretty much everyone reading this *does* have a computer, and a laptop would take up less space than the tracking sheets and data sheets you need to play the game as it is. And, frankly, I'm thinking about *my* enjoyment of the game, and I *do* own a laptop. 

The obvious starting point is to use VASSAL, as it covers quite a bit of the existing data structures you'd need - counters, maps, and a wide variety of windows, plus context specific popup menus for different game elements. In live play, you could use the map in VASSAL for plotting, but move TFs on the physical operational map. You could skip the tac map entirely, as you set that up anew every time that TF is attacked. The scenario-specific ship damage charts would be a trickier proposition, but at worst you write separate software for it and run it alongside VASSAL. Heck, with VASSAL you don't even have to worry about platform dependencies.

Heck, APL could produce this and ship the module along with the game for very little cost. The art is already digital for them, you'd still need the physical game to play, and all you need is a CD in the box (or better, a code to allow a download of the specific module for your boxed game). Players who already own the game could get access with some proof of purchase, or even just give them direct access since the game would be nearly impossible to play without the counters and tac map. 

If I were a game publisher, my primary concern would be (after making sure that I put food on the table and a reasonable effort to ensure that no one was stealing my product) to know that people were playing and enjoying my game. Avalanche, unlike companies like GMT, MMP, and several others, don't seem to think that this is nearly as important as making sure that no one, and I mean *no* one, not even a single person, rips them off. Yet companies like GMT do quite well with more or less every game they've ever made available for online play via a wide variety of sources. Even their rules are online, and some games you can play entirely using VASSAL and what they make available. The simple truth is that wargamers understand that their hobby is dependent upon continued sales, and I know not a single wargamer who plays a VASSAL game without owning the boxed version as well. Not one. 

This may be a good project for me to undertake, although I won't be able to advertise that I have such a module available, much less distribute it beyond my ftf opponents. However, if I can show APL that such a proof of concept would fit their data model, I think that maybe, just maybe, this game may start to see the amount of play it deserves. Because, despite the appallingly large number of "what if" scenarios the various game sets use to pad the product line, it's a very cool game made difficult by the recordkeeping requirements. 


Eric said...

My brief thoughts:

Yes, the game is very fiddly, and I'm amazed there aren't better tracking systems out there given the following the series has. Particularly the delayed plot problem. (They say in the rules to indicate the turns of delay, but it's already confusing enough remembering that the turn you're plotting is not the turn you're on, and when different task forces are acting from different lines of the log, it would make something go "pop.")

The method of resolving air strikes on a naval task force (once you fought through the CAP) was very evocative of the war footage. You could almost see the planes coming out of the sky.

For whatever reason I was not expecting the bulk of our time being spent on air operations. In retrospect it makes sense. Chalk it up to lack of experience.

The operational map brings to mind black and white pictures of the old war room with the giant map and people pushing around markers indicating forces.

Now, all we have left to do is play out a ship-to-ship battle and we'll have exercised nearly every part of the rules.

That was a good time. Very different than anything I've played before, and quite compelling.

Anonymous said...

Six years later I stumble across this! Nice write-up, with good comments about some of the record-keeping challenges.

To aid with those, there is a spreadsheet program available on CSW that eases plotting and contact resolution plus allowing for double-blind play (and tracks fuel), and adjustable versions of the ship data sheets on the APL website so you can organize ship data by TF etc.


Anonymous said...

That spreadsheet seems like it would be pretty helpful. Do you know if there is one for SWWAS? That one seems to be focused on GWAS.