PC Game Review: Steam and Iron: The Great War at Sea
Jim Cobb dons his admiral's cap and engages the enemy fleets in this review of Naval Warfare Simulation's Steam and Iron: The Great War at Sea.
To date, World War I naval war games have concentrated on the North Sea or raider operations. The few games covering the topic also don’t deal with the problems of fleet command and control, opting for players to be omniscient. Naval Warfare Simulations and designer Fredrik Wallin rectify this situation with Steam and Iron.
All the World’s Ships…and Seas
Steam and Iron covers the globe and the 1914-1919 period with one detour back to 1912. With more than 250 ship classes and 1,300 individual vessels from ten countries, every clash can be shown in its entirety, not just phases of large battles. The thirty-two scenarios are supplemented by a battle generator that allows players to create fleets to taste. Preferences in color, sound, pauses, realism and display are manifold.
How is such comprehensiveness possible without a Cray computer? The answer lies in simple, functional graphics. Land is yellow flat masses with realistic coastlines and port names. In the zoomed-out views, ships appear as dots with individual and division names, many with triangular or rectangular pennants representing player or AI control. Zoomed-in, vessels are shown in a 2D bird’s eye view with dominant features like turrets, superstructure, wakes and stack smoke. Such simplicity doesn’t mean “plain Jane” graphics. Players can opt for gun and sighting range rings, course tracks, compass roses and damage meters. Ships of different nations can be colored per taste for differentiation during battle in the zoomed-in battle view. Shell splashes and smokescreens turn up as white blocks. Torpedoes speed toward targets. Shell tracks are shown with incoming and outgoing color coded. Damaging hits can be seen as red circles. Enlarged inserts of selected ships show the way turrets are laid. Such graphics are exciting as well as useful.
Yet, this game is more about accuracy and information than graphics. The trip to a data treasure trove begins with a side panel to the battle maps. The order of battle (OOB) tab shows players’ ships collapsed into divisions, squadrons or flotillas. Expanding any of these shows players’ individual ships. Double clicking on a ship centers the map on the vessel. Right clicking that vessel brings up a dialog showing over thirty characteristics such as armament, armor, crew quality, ammunition and speed. These values will change during battle as damage or malfunctions occur. Further buttons on this screen show details on hits and the ship’s division. The same information can be gained by right clicking of the ship in the OOB tab.
You Sent What Signal?!
Game play revolves around levels of control. The game is meant to be played on Admiral level where players control only lead divisions of formations, shown by rectangular pennants. Other units are controlled by the AI but usually follow the lead division, although the player can command then to a role in relation to the lead division. Rear Admiral mode allows players to take over all divisions but at the cost of losing 10% of any points earned. In Captain mode, players may control all individual vessels but at the cost of 20% of victory points. This mode may sound exciting but will make players crazy in scenarios with more than five ships.
The game actually runs in one-minute turns but players have many options in how time is managed. One minute of game time to one minute of real time turns are possible to watch torpedoes or shells fly but a “Run 5” button allows for five minutes of game time to run within seconds while “Run” allows progress until a player-set event triggers a pause. Each of these setting can be further modified by seven speeds ranging from very slow to very fast. With the 1.1.5 beta, players can navigate and zoom the map with any combination of toolbar buttons, mouse or keyboard.
Movement commands can be sent from the side panel by clicking on player-controlled divisions or ships. Speed can be dialed up and down or set to squadron median or maximum with buttons. Course changes are handled similarly with heading being dialed or by clicking on a button and then clicking on the preferred map direction. Having the division’s ships turn together is another option. These commands and more detailed orders can be given through the division dialog. Brought up by a right click, this screen shows each ship in the division. Clicking on a ship allows the same movements commands and also allows selection of the six roles related to the lead formation, e.g., core, support, screen; choosing from four formations and handing control of the division or squadron over to the AI. The screen also indicates the division’s or squadron’s lead formation and divisional target. Combat commands are buttons and boxes for manual targeting, making smoke, holding torpedo and gunfire as well as ordering a destroyer flotilla attack. A ship status button brings up the vessel screen described above. In combat, a further screen available from the ship detail screen displays hit chances on a target and all the variables creating that percentage.
Scenarios are diverse in size and purpose. Size ranges from single ship actions to mammoth fleet clashes. Objectives include sinking a specific number of enemies, reaching a destination or block such a dash, shore bombardment, laying mines and convoy raids. Players can vary play not only by changing modes but by choosing from historical, variable and maximum force levels. Replay is assured not only by the battle generator but also by a scenario editor buried in the program folder, allowing changes to five ship variables and overall force composition.
Play is easy with the interface but difficult in the execution. Fog of War is always present either by AI activity, weather or erroneous reports on the log. Manual targeting is possible when an enemy is identified but AI gunnery usually does a good job in target selection, although crew quality affects accuracy immensely; a ship manned by reservists has little chance against regulars. Action is tracked in the report tab of the side panel; double clicking on a report event pinpoints the pertinent ship on the map. Variables in combat include not only ship and crew quality but also sea state, time of day, wind direction and torpedo-happy subs that tend to shoot at any ship, regardless of nationality. Combat movement at the Admiral level is an exercise of keeping your fleet together while maneuvering for the best possible firing solution. Damage from enemy fire and equipment malfunction make this concept harder to execute. Repairs are possible depending on the crew but admirals may have to cut “ruptured ducks” loose. Fortunately, independent AI-controlled formations act rationally against the stiff enemy AI. Victory levels are decided by points for damage inflected versus damage received. Additional victory points can be gained by having ships pick up survivors with the chance of making them targets.
Unless one is addicted to 3D graphics, finding flaws in Steam and Iron is hard work. The names of ships and divisions get a bit messy in large battles and the beta manual could do with a few illustrations and a description of the scenario editor. These nits do not take away from the fact that this game with the promised campaign mode will be the definitive World War I naval game for many years to come.
Review written by: Jim Cobb, Writer