Naval Wargames

edited February 2016 in Board Game Reviews
Over a recent weekend, I managed to get two games to the solo wargame table. First was GMT's PQ-17, which had actually been on the table for a few weeks as I worked my way through the rules. Last night it was Pauckenslag, from ATO magazine.

PQ-17 is a game that I got quite some time ago and it sat on the shelf unplayed. I decided at one point that I would not be able to solo the game so I got rid of it. After a time and spurred on by the great desire to preorder and eventually play the Norway 1940 expansion, I got a second copy in the fall sale for $20. I figured $20 was well worth it if only to be able to play the 1940 expansion someday. But the game seemed interesting enough for me to set it up after my last game (Empire of the Sun) was completed. So Friday night and Saturday afternoon, I played scenario 1 solo. PQ-17 is a game about the naval convoys of 1941-43 from Iceland to Murmansk Russia. It uses wood blocks for hidden movement and all sort of other sizes and shapes of cardboard pieces for individual and groups of ships and airplane squadrons. It uses two decks of cards to facilitate the searches and other ramdomized game functions. While it plays best with two players to preserve the hidden movement (including dummy units), I felt it would work out OK solo.

I struggled with the rules of this game much more than most other games. For whatever reason the concepts of unidentified and identified blocks just didn't sink in right away, but eventually, with help on the PQ folder on consimworld, I got it. And I like the system. It is a bit fiddly, but after a time, thanks mainly to the cards used for searches and other functions, there is a flow to the game. And the narrative is very plausible with a sufficient amount of detail amid the necessary abstraction. While this would be a great game for face to face play, I found it to be very fun playing solo. I used some random determination to allocate searching assets and tried to arrange the dummies in a way that would maximize the dilemma for the opposing side. I look forward to future installments using the system, which are the aforementioned Norway 1940 campaign and the Malta convoys in the Med and also Guadalcanal naval battles. PQ-17 is a keeper.

The same cannot be said of Pauckenslag. This is a game about US convoys form the east coast to Europe vs. U-boats. While on a very interesting aspect of the convoy topic, the game left me flat. Maybe because there were only 12 pages of rules several of the concepts were not explained very well. As an example, it seemed that surface combat involving U-Boats would allow the U-Boat up to 5 hits whereas the destroyer or other surface vessel would sink after only 2. I eventually got this explained but it took some reading on the Pauckenslag folder on consimworld to get it. Adding to the confusion was that some changes had been made in development of the game but not all the rules had been updated accordingly. This wasn't that big a deal as all games go through development and magazine games tend to have tighter schedules, so I guess my expectaitons were not as high as they might have been for a boxed game.

What ultimately sank Pauckenslag for me was that the game got VERY tedious after just a short time. Units move from the strategic map and then to an operational map which can then also serve as a tactical map. Placement on these latter two is random, so it seems like one of the other of these two steps could have been done away with.

Designer Perry Moore said that the game started out based on a three level German navy display that was used to manage the U-boats back then. Interesting historical point, but not much fun to resolve all this shuffling of units about, especially for multiple convoys. That was the main criticism I found, although the history was a little suspect as well.

One abstraction made was to include convoys from turn one when in history the convoy system wasn't started until later, as a result of the terrible toll inflicted by the Germans on the individual ship sailings. Abstractions are necessary of course, but I wondered if a different system might not have simulated this better. Then there was the whole issue of the German development of long range bombers to attack New York and other spots on the east coast. An interesting idea maybe, but not one I wanted to simulate. And the inclusion of the USS Hornet with B-25's on board for a Doolittle style raid on the Azores or Canary Islands just struck me as weird. This game, while on an interesting topic, is ultimately an exercise in futility, a game destined for the trade pile.

Rebel Raiders on the High Seas is a boxed game from GMT that simulates the American Civil War from a naval viewpoint. Land battles are highly abstracted whereas in most ACW strategic level games, the land combat is detailed and naval combat is abstracted. RR takes the opposite approach.

Rebel Raiders on the High Seas came out to the wargame night table recently. It was the first time playing for both of us. There were very few questions and those we did have were pretty easily answered. I had read somewhere that the rules were not clearly written, but we found them to be very complete and unambiguous.

We made it through about 1/3 the complete game in about 3 hours. We would probably be classified as slow players as we tend to discuss the history of the game as well as the game at hand and others also. The maple flavored scotch was also pretty helpful in the latter.

I had the CSA and was lucky early to draw a card that allowed me to place something like 6 free blockade runners out in the neutral ports. I took full advantage to bring in as many VP's as I could. With the bounty, I purchased an ironclad, a few batteries, some raiders and lots of gunboats for the Mississippi. Mark had to make multiple assaults on Island #10 before it finally fell. That was his sole conquest on the Father of Waters and he further only made two incursions into CSA coastal territory by the end of turn 4, so I think I am ahead of schedule. This game is currently being continued via email using the Vassal program.

Both of us really enjoyed it. The game is a fresh take on strategic ACW games. With the focus on the naval and land campaigns heavily abstracted, this is the opposite of most strategic ACW games. I even commented when considering the map at one point, that the entirety of all strategic ACW campaigns are reduced to about a dozen key areas on the Rebel Raiders map. The game system in RR is simple, yet there is surprising depth to the decision making required. As the CSA, I decided early on to fight for the Mississippi first and hardest, then the area around Richmond. I figured that I can't hold off the Union navy very long, so I have avoided battle except when it was brought to me. Now into turn 5 (of 12), I am starting to see the tide turn a bit as the USA industrial machine is coming into play. There are a lot more ships in the coastal areas and blockade zones than there used to be. Fortunately for me, I still have a pretty good roster of runners and raiders and the dice have been kind to me on the speed rolls.

I was pretty skeptical of this game when it first came out. In fact, I think I dismissed it as being lightweight. I am happy to say that I was completely wrong with my first impression. This game is a good one. There is a certain "captures the essence of the war" feeling to it. The narrative is strong, particularly when the cards put out some of the more famous ships into the the normally generic counter mix. This gives the game a slightly more epic feel without the burden of having every ship be named with a story to tell. In spite of there being a great deal of necessary but pedestrian work that the runners and raiders have to do, the game never felt tedious.

So RR is a winner and a worthy addition to the list of good strategic ACW games.
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