Sunday, July 10, 2011

PQ-17, or How Really Bad Weather Saved My Bacon

My main focus in wargaming has historically been land battles. I love me some Down In Flames for light play just like the next guy, but I've just never been able to get too far into naval or air operations. Over the past few years, some notable exceptions have popped up, such as Nightfighter, The Burning Blue, and Downtown on the air side, and the Fleet series from Victory Games. Actually, I've loved the Fleet series since I started collecting it in the early 90's and I'm very happy to have all of those games in my collection. Our four-player game this past WBC West playing 2nd Fleet was a high point in a week of very good gaming, and we plan to follow up next year with another large scenario.

What I've learned through these games is that there's a joy in planning and a joy in deciphering plans. There's a joy in the search, and a joy in the discovery. Even if it's 40 degrees below zero outside.

Thus it was that when Tex taught me PQ-17 as my final scheduled game of WBC West 2011, the seed was well and truly planted for me to become more interested in this genre of wargaming. I don't know that I'll ever enjoy naval games at the tactical level, certainly not so long as a game like War Galley or Flying Colors requires what my friend Tripp called "counter stew" and I will call a "countercopia". That said, the Fleet series, and now it's conceptual second cousin once removed PQ-17, will become games that are a regular part of my rotation.

PQ-17 is set in 1941-43 largely in the ocean area bounded by the UK on the south, Iceland in the west, the coast of Norway and the White Sea in the east, and Spitzbergen Is. and the polar icecap in the north. The game consists mostly (but not entirely) of convoy operations between the UK/Iceland and Murmansk, including both loaded convoys on their way to Russia and the empty "ballasted" convoys returning home. While the German surface fleet will most often be hiding in port, it remains a threat in being and can not only come out to wreak havoc but also may be assigned to an Atlantic breakout, requiring the Allies to be on their toes. The various scenarios, each lasting 15 days of two turns each, cover a wide range of historical convoys, and there is also a campaign game that allows you to play out a year's worth of "fortnights", about 25 games in length. Play time ranges from 3-6 hours depending upon how complex a given scenario is.

Tripp came over yesterday to play PQ-17, and we had a great time. This was my second game and the first game for Tripp. We played PQ-9/10, a C3i scenario that the designer, Chris Janiec, uses to demo the game at cons. Compared with the intro game that Tex and I played seven weeks ago, this is a much better choice - you have all elements active (unlike the boxed scenario that hobbles the German air force, which is grounded short of a miraculous random event roll that *might* give you a little action once or twice during the game) but the planning phase is largely skipped to get right into the game itself. Since most players aren't going to be terribly effective in planning right out of the gate, this is a good way to get started.

I'd like to mention the ruleset for this game before I go into my recap of the game and my thoughts on the system, as it's been the element that's gotten the most criticism. The designer himself has already acknowledged the ruleset's shortcomings (oh, if only some other designers were so humble, and long time readers will know exactly who I'm talking about), but I agree with his assessment that the actual rules are extremely easy to work with on a system-by-system basis, and that the main issue with the rulebook is about structure, but there are issues with the descriptive material at the front that are enormous gumption traps for anyone trying to learn the game from the rules. There are a few language issues here and there as well. That said, aside from there being a lot of small subsystems you'll need to learn over time, at it's core this is a very easy game to play - you move, you search, you shoot.

The game is based to some extent on the Fleet series, mostly in terms of the variety of combat involved. There is torpedo combat (torp bombers and subs), bombing combat, anti-aircraft fire, air-to-air combat, surface gunnery, ASW, the entire gamut. In fact, about half of the rules you need to play the non-campaign game are tied up in combat. Which is hilarious because in my experience you actually *fight* about a quarter of the time, if not less. Every time you want to shoot at a force on the map, you have to find it first, even if you've already "found" it. And it is in the searching, not the combat, where the tension and fun in this game lies.

How to best simulate air/naval operations in a boardgame? As the designer lays out in his notes, it's been a bit of a problem for designers for decades. The old AH Midway game used a double-blind system that required you to give away where your own units were, to some extent, when you searched for your opponent's forces. A large number of systems use plotting, often in advance, to simulate slow response times and the size of the area being searched. The Fleet system was probably the most accessible, although the technology is so much more advanced that it wouldn't work well in a WW2 era game.

While less accessible than Fleet, PQ-17 (just PQ from now on) does an excellent job of managing the concept, and does it in a way that creates a fair amount of detail while keeping the mechanisms themselves very manageable. The key is to use blocks, but unlike most block wargames the orientation of the block does not reflect combat strength but how well that "force" has been identified. A face-down block is in port, an upright block is at sea but unidentified. Once identified, the force is placed face up and it's orientation now shows how recently and how effectively the force has been tagged by the enemy. As time goes on, the "ID level" which ranges from 0-3 (4 if a force is photo-reconned in port) will increase or degrade, determined by combat, shadowing by enemy recon forces, movement, and time of day. Once an enemy force is identified and face up, you can send units against it, although they need to find it once they get there.

Of particular interest are the way that you detect the enemy and how you maintain that detection. The first line is the air radii, which simply means the area that each side is able to maintain regular air recon operations. For the Germans, that's the area around the entrances to the Baltic. For the Allies, it's the areas around the UK and Iceland and to some extent between the two. The Russians have an air radii, but it's very small and only around Murmansk. Obviously these areas are set in the game by map iconography. Aircraft carriers also can provide air radii in their hex, and some aircraft can provide them on a hex-by-hex basis if a player chooses.

The second level of detection involves Air Sectors, which are also delineated on the map. Each player has Air Sector counters assigned by the scenario that can be used to search individual hexes in their predefined areas. For the Germans, that means the North Sea, the waters around Trondheim, and the Barents Sea. For the Brits, it's the area around Iceland. Often the path your convoys will take are largely determined by the limits of these Air Sectors.

The third level of detection is based on having your forces in the same space as your enemy's forces. You also have the ability to try to detect forces moving through hexes you occupy, which if detected will cause combat. Forces can also be detected in port by photo recon, but aside from seeing if the German High Seas Fleet is in port or not, this is a very small part of the game (but can be very important).

Detection is accomplished through the use of cards, much as is done in The Burning Blue. I like this considerably better than simply rolling on a table for a couple of reasons. First, a card can give considerably more information and detail about whether or not a search occurs, whereas tables tend to be fairly compact and "one-size-fits-all". In PQ, the cards take into account whether a force you are searching for is already identified, and how well, whether it is being shadowed, whether it is near a coastline, whether it is a submarine, what the weather and light conditions are, and whether there are enemy air forces nearby. In addition, if the force is discovered, it can determine how well the force has been recced and set the ID level accordingly. It's a very nice evolution of the Burning Blue system, and aside from requiring frequent reshuffling (every turn, up to 30 times in a game) it's an extremely elegant system once you internalize the symbology (which takes about half of a game). Also of note is that such elements as weather and what sort of force (air, naval, or both) is doing the searching play a role in the results.

Detection is great for getting units identified, which means you can attack them. Unfortunately, you move your aircraft before you detect anything, so often you'll detect a force during a Day turn but won't be able to send your units against it until the following Day turn (assuming a Spring/Fall scenario - being this far north, some scenarios are all Day and some are all Night), so you will probably want to "shadow" the force to keep it's ID level constant. If you detected the force with an air sector marker, you can use it to shadow the force but it won't be able to search for other forces while it does so. Shadowing also improves your odds of being able to actually find the damned force when you go to attack it, which uses the same mechanism but doesn't change ID levels. In other words, just because one of your searchers finds a force doesn't mean you will successfully even *start* to attack it. The exception is if it's detected during movement through an enemy force's hex, which immediately results in combat.

Of course, there are a certain number of "dummy" blocks that are intended to keep your opponent guessing. You can only place dummies when surface groups are in port or when a force goes back to unidentified at the start of movement (if it is unshadowed and already at ID0), but they are extremely useful for eating up clock cycles as your opponent works his way through them. Some dummies are also placed by scenario rule at the start, which is generally how subs use them.

If you've seen the game, you know that there are not only the force blocks on the map, but also a bunch of actual unit counters (large square ones for the ships and subs, rounds of various sizes for air). While air units go on the map, the naval units themselves go on your force display which shows which block they belong to. Hilariously, the naval units work exactly like more traditional blocks do - they have a CS value that dictates combat strength. Named units are single ships capable of taking multiple hits, while destroyers, torpedo boats, "escorts", and merchantmen all consist of one or more ship per CS. CS dictates not only how intact a force is, it also dictates how many dice they roll in combat as well as often dictating how fast a unit can move (from one to three hexes per turn based on the color of the circle around the CS value). Superscripts dictate AA values. Air units, on the other hand, are a single CS per side, although their values are used in a similar fashion.

I believe that part of the difficulty this game has gotten gaining traction with the wargaming community is largely because the initial part of the rules tries to explain the components in some depth, in turn because the blocks are used like units and units used like blocks compared with other games. Certainly one glance at your typical air counter will reveal up to eight or nine pieces of information, and the ship counters are not much less complex. A game with this much data *has* to be confusing, right? In fact, most of the air unit info pertains simply to size, range, and capability. For example, a unit might have up to five or six letter codes that say if it is recon, torpedo, ASW, or photo capable, as well as it's anti-air value and it's home base (important because aircraft are not permitted to rebase in the fortnight scope). Within a short amount of time, you realize that these codes are all pretty readable in the scope of the game, although they are daunting when you are trying to learn the game. Even the type of unit (MB for medium bomber, for example, DB for dive bomber) really only comes into play during combat, so for most of the game you just need to know if a unit can recon and it's range.

I won't go into the combat realm other than to say that every type has a different process but all share the same basics - you have to find your target, then you roll dice based on your CS that need to hit target numbers based on the attacking and target types with various DRMs based on the environment and target/attacker status. I'd have preferred to have seen the rules follow the entire procedure for each combat type rather than give some general rules then give the remaining part of the process in the individual sections. If you are learning the game, read the first page and a half of the combat rules that are general in scope and leave the rest for when you actually need to perform the combat. A play aid would be a good idea here, and I'm surprised no one has made one yet. One other important note: subs can't move *and* attack in the same turn, so you have to do a certain amount of lying in wait. Surprisingly, wolfpack tactics can be very effective here if you have dummies floating around the ocean.

Another similarity with Burning Blue is that you don't just send all of your ships out to sea. Instead, you pay command points, which later translate into VP for the other side, every time you send a ship of a certain size out of port. Send the whole fleet and you'll end up losing the game even if you never get attacked. The Germans have even stiffer requirements, often needing to have a big enough target to risk a capital ship asset. The Soviets don't have issues with leaving port, but they can get expensive when they stray far from home, which in this case is largely defined as a couple of hexes. Even their subs are very limited in where they can go.

While the map might seem to be constant, in fact the polar ice cap plays a significant role. There are two zones of ice, east and west, which dictate what the conditions are when moving from one hex to another. If there is any ice, there is a chance that units will be damaged, but you don't always know what the conditions are in a given "band" as printed on the map. Often, a band will say "Light Drift?" meaning that once you roll on the table you'll find out. In particularly harsh conditions such as pack ice, forces have the option to "turn back" if the conditions are worse than expected with less damage. You risk the ice at your peril, but often it's a good way to throw your opponent off the scent if he suspects you are only sending a dummy force through it. Ice is set by scenario, so it can be relatively open or closed depending upon the time of year. This is the most elaborate but yet elegant system I've seen for managing this aspect of the environment in any wargame, especially after becoming more interested in Arctic exploration over the past 12 months personally

Finally, I'll mention the wacky part of the game - random events and special conditions. Random events are things that pop up during play, and they are rolled for every turn by both players, each having their own results table. In general, these will create local weather, collisions (if in foggy weather), bring in reinforcements, all sorts of things that you'd expect from a standard convoy mission.

Special conditions, however, are a much different beast and while I'm tempted to teach this game without using them, there's no question that they create a lot of extra tension and can really mix a game up. Each player draws a single chit with a letter to determine what their special condition is, which can include delivering gold back from the USSR, bombing raids on the Tirpitz by Bomber Command, the dreaded Atlantic Breakout by the German navy, various special operations to mine Murmansk's harbor or raid Norwegian ports, all sorts of stuff. The various scenarios also provide special situations, so replayability goes way up even with the 13 or so scenarios I have access to (two extras included online or to preorders, as well as one included in C3i). Even the scenarios can result in a much different mission than a convoy, so there's a lot of game in this box.

Back to the recap!

Tripp and I played the PQ-9/10 scenario included in C3i, which was historical but uneventful, so it's a bit on the alt-history side but not much so. It's definitely the best way to teach the game to an experienced wargamer as it bypasses prep without too much trouble and includes a lot of forces without overwhelming the players. My goal as the Brits was to get a convoy, already off of the east coast of Iceland, to Murmansk in more or less one piece. This is a small convoy on the verge of being a large convoy (10CS of MVs) but no return convoy from Murmansk. The Brits have an aircraft carrier, and the AM turns are daylight while the PM turns are night. The Germans can't sortie with the Tirpitz until they roll a reinforcement random event, and even then they can send out a dummy to keep the Brits guessing, but first they have to roll that reinforcement, which is not a given in any game.

My initial plan was to leave the Home Fleet in Scapa Flow but to definitely sortie the carrier group (supported by some very big guns) to help provide a certain degree of air support and search capability. I also had a CL in Scotland that needed to get to Murmansk as well. I broke my subs into two wolfpacks of two subs each, one to watch the waters around Trondheim in case the Tirpitz got out, the other to try to counter the German subs blocking the path to Murmansk.

On Tripp's part, he chose not to send out his destroyer in Kirkenes to challenge the Soviet "fleet" of one wolfpack, two destroyers, and an escort, but it did force me to leave those units in port for defense. His primary defense was to use his wolfpacks (sadly, his dummy forces were eliminated early thanks to my random events) and air units to try to find and kill my convoy.

In the early game, Tripp was very successful in locating a small destroyer TF and sinking one while crippling the other, putting it out of the game immediately. Worse, he located my Adventure TF carrying diplomats and sunk it as well, treating it like a sunk convoy. Meanwhile, my Bomber Command special condition was less than successful - you need two hits to do any lasting damage to the Tirpitz, and while my photo recon worked right away, the bombers only got one hit. It's hard to hit ships with heavy bombers!

It was in the mid-game where things got very interesting. As I approached Bear Island, the historical limit of British TF operations largely because of harsh limits on ships that can dock in Murmansk (and you need to dock them before their fuel runs out, also a very elegant system), Tripp managed to locate my convoy during a night turn, meaning that the next turn he could fly every bomber in range to attack it. Miraculously, a Gale came up that turn that prevented air operations, and while my convoy was delayed and half of the ships dispersed (very bad if there *was* an attack), he was unable to find me with his naval forces and I not only managed to become unidentified but also generated an extra dummy counter. Tripp was unable to locate the convoy for the rest of the game.

Which was also good because he got his 1CP reinforcement that allowed him to send out the Tirpitz. That was a 3VP cost to him, but we figured that if you have the chance to sortie, you do it because it's more fun that way. Despite a little bit of back and forth with a wolfpack I'd left for just such a contingency, the Tirpitz was ineffective and never saw actual combat.

In the end, the game was surprisingly close, 4VP to my side. I'd sent out maybe one or two ships too many (should have left the battleships in Reykjavik, but the carrier was very useful), and the loss of the Adventure and the DD hurt. Fortunately, every ship in the convoy arrived. Had Tripp not sortied the Tirpitz, the game would have barely been mine. I have a strong sense that I misplayed a wolfpack of mine that went into a hex with one of my taskforces on one or two occasions, and I also suspect that perhaps Tripp didn't get enough points for the CL he sank, so it may have been even closer. The important thing, however, was to learn the game (and reinforce what I'd learned in my game with Tex) and to get a sense how the game felt with all of the various forces in active play.

At this point, my very early verdict is that this is a game worth learning. You will in all likelihood want to have it taught to you rather than try to learn from the rules, although my understanding is that the designer has a 1940 Norway expansion in the works (and in fact there are components in the box solely for use in this expansion, particularly Axis convoy forces), and that he intends to do considerable rewriting of the rules in conjunction with it's release. I hope that's the case - the game isn't all that difficult, but there is a lot of chrome and a few conceptual hurdles to be met. Really, it's the only flaw I can find in a theater that I've recently become more interested in and that has struggled to find a system that does it justice.

I also understand that the designer intends to take the system to other theaters, such as the Solomons or the Med in the future. I think that's a great idea, and I plan to take a more evangelical approach to this game than I do with most.

If you bought this game but gave up after taking one look at the rules, I strongly recommend you take the time to find someone who can teach it to you. I may try to put up a demo video at some point to try to teach the game, as it teaches quite well as you play with only a very small amount of preface material to cover nomenclature and a few key concepts. It's definitely worth the effort to learn if you have even a passing interest in the topic, and it's a really fun game to boot with a lot of variety. Give it a shot.

1 comment:

9train said...

Great review. I have been wanting this but fearing it will go un-played. Now I think I might get it anyway.