31 October 2014

Board Game Review: U-Boat Leader

Scott Udell dissects Dan Verssen Games' solitaire portrayal of the battle for the North Atlantic. Does it inflict the "just one more turn" syndrome, or does it sink to the bottom?

Published on 27 SEP 2012 12:46am by Scott Udell
  1. world war ii, tactical, single-player, submarine combat, boardgame, 1, no

Publisher: DVG

Designer: Dan Verssen

Artist: Val Nunez


Not Your Airplane’s Leader Game

Dan Verssen Games (www.dvg.com) does airplane-themed board and card games; everyone knows that. From its best known Down in Flames series to its Leader series of solitaire games, it’s air, air, air warfare. Well, okay, they’ve got Modern Naval Battle and Rise of the Zombies and the Field Commander series, amongst other non-air themed games, but at least the Leader series is air-themed, right? Well, except for U-Boat Leader, their solitaire game of U-boat warfare in the Atlantic during World War 2. The game’s rulebook (page 10) says, in a fine example of understatement, that “U-Boat Leader is different from the Air Leader games.” No kidding! It’s definitely a Leader game, but as the rulebook goes on to elaborate, it’s more of a game where you are given weapons and then select the targets rather than the air Leader games’ approach of giving you a target and letting you select the weapons to attack said target. Many of the mechanisms are the same—it is a Leader game, after all—but this difference in perspective leads to a game pleasantly different in feel from its brethren.


 

Cardboard Gets Soggy When Wet

U-Boat Leader is the second game in DVG’s reboot of the board game versions of the Leader series (see my Phantom Leader Review for a look at the first of the “new” Leader games). Between the original ‘90s-era Leader games published by GMT Games and these new self-published boardgames were the Hornet Leader computer game from Matrix Games and DVG’s print ‘n’ play PDF and VASSAL game box versions. 


The game’s contents out-of-the-box. Top row: box top, rulebook, box bottom. Middle row: help sheet, tactical display, campaign sheets, log sheet (copy or print PDFs from the DVG website are also available). Bottom row: full counter sheet, three wrapped decks of cards that contain a total of six play decks, a ten-sided die, and a half counter sheet.

Component-wise U-Boat Leader is similar in physical quality to Phantom Leader but not quite as good as that seen in the newer Hornet Leader and Thunderbolt/Apache Leader titles. That’s not to say the quality is bad—far from it—but it uses the card-stock components of Phantom Leader instead of the mounted boards of the newer games. Card quality is very good—not surprising from a publisher with extensive experience in card games. In terms of design quality of components,U-Boat Leader is a step up from Phantom Leader—the visuals are much more thematic. Rather than generic solid-color backgrounds on the “Help Sheet” and “Tactical Display” cards, the graphics look like they could’ve been pulled off an actual World War 2 sub.That may seem unimportant, but to me it increases engagement with the game, and therefore increases enjoyment.

Here’s the game set-up at the start of a campaign:


In this layout I’ve got my counters organized in a counter tray (not included with the game!). Most of the counters are markers of some kind: torpedo and cannon ammo counters, stress levels, detection and damage counters, etc… Each U-boat in the game has a counter with two sides, representing surfaced and submerged.

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Ships in the game are broken into three categories: merchants, naval, and escorts. Merchants are (mostly) un-armed vessels that will be your primary targets, getting you the bulk of your experience and victory points—as was portrayed in real life. Every once in a while you’ll stumble on a convoy of naval vessels, combatants with little or no ability to attack submerged U-boats but do pack a punch against surfaced subs. Virtually all convoys, merchant or naval, will be accompanied by escorts: the ships that will hunt the hunters. They’re not worth anything for victory but may become targets in order to open up a convoy’s soft underbelly, or to ensure your boat’s own survival. Well, theoretically, I’ve yet to actually find the need to target an escort in any encounter I’ve played… but more on that later.

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Clockwise from the upper left: merchant vessels (unknown and known), naval vessels, and escorts.

When you first encounter a convoy, all the ships in it will be marked with “unknown” counters. You aren’t able to learn the specifics of a ship until you get close to it. Convoy cards specify what kinds of markers to put down, but what you ultimately get may be different. For example, a draw on the merchant vessel card deck may get you a card that says to instead pull from the escort pile—surprise!Unknown markers all specify a speed of 2, but when revealed, a ship may be faster, especially if it’s an escort. This factor is yet another thing that can disrupt your planning, and is a simple but realistic mechanism.

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 The three lower-left tray sections hold merchant (left two) and escort counters. You’ll be digging through these a lot.

One minor irritation is the need to dig through the piles of counters every time you unveil a ship in a convoy. The mechanism for unveiling a ship is to pull a card for a ship of the appropriate type and then find its associated counter. Unless you have the space and time to lay out the counters in order during game set-up, this means digging through a pile of counters. Easier, perhaps, is to draw a counter of the appropriate type and then pull its card out of a sorted stack of cards. An even faster and easier method is to use the ship counter statistics sheet posted by U-Boat Leader fan Dean Brown (a.k.a. GrumpyOldGamer) on boardgamegeek.com—draw a counter, then get its statistics from the sheet. This, of course, eliminates the need for the ship cards but isn’t as visually appealing;though,this is an option.

Next to the counter tray is the rulebook—need to have that handy, especially your first several play-throughs. 

 

DVG rulebooks are always very slickly produced. They present lots of color shots of game components, and make extensive and effective use of color in the text.

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The book uses a pretty standard but effective organization, presenting the components up-front, then presenting the mechanisms of gameplay from a game-turn order, walking you through the game’s rules in the order you’ll use them in playing the game. Some optional rules and historical information on the types of U-boats in the game come next, and the game ends with a very nice example turn walk-through.

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While the rules do have a (very) short table of contents on the cover, they don’t have an index. You may think an index really isn’t needed for a relatively short rulebook (28 pages including covers) with lots of white space. For the most part that’s true, but for topics and mechanics that are mentioned throughout the rules, it’s sometimes missed. Most of the rules themselves are clear, although as with Phantom Leader, I find the rules for tracking and applying the effects of “stress” sometimes a bit vague. Luckily, the correct use of Special Operations (S.O.) points is more straight forward in U-Boat Leader than in Phantom Leader. These complaints, though, are pretty minor as overall these rules are very approachable, especially for a wargame.

Below the rulebook I’ve laid out the cards representing the six U-boats I’ve deployed for this particular campaign.Each U-Boat is provided with two double-sided cards, giving four different experience levels from green to ace. Each level of experience gained (or “purchased” at the start of a campaign) will get you better skills in torpedo and gun attacks and in evasion, not to mention a greater ability to handle “stress” (more on stress below). At the start of a campaign you use the SO points available for that campaign, to “buy” boats to command. More experienced boats cost more SO points, excepting “ace” level which can’t be purchased, only earned with in-game experience. Of course, the more points you “spend” on an experienced boat means fewer points available for other boats, or a greater number of low-capability reports. In addition, SO points are also used during the turns of the game to purchase special options for the turn, things like: advanced torpedoes, supply ships, improved intelligence, or the ability to go on special missions worth lots of victory/experience points. So, you can have more low-quality boats, a few high-quality boats, or a bit of flexibility throughout your campaign—a set of planning decisions that can greatly impact your play.

 

1: U-Boat number and one commander’s name. 2: U-Boat type. 3: Availability range. 4: Special Operations point cost. 5: Special abilities, if any. 6: Experience level and number of points to next level. 7: Capabilities by stress level. 8: Status at certain stress levels (above the top stress level a boat is “unfit”). 9: Initiative: cautious attack after escorts, aggressive before. 10: GS rating: ability with gun attacks. 11: TS rating: ability with torpedo attacks. 12: Evasion rating. 13: Number of torpedoes available for an encounter. 14: Number of torpedoes available to replace ready torpedoes after an encounter.

Below each card you place torpedo counters to track “ready” torpedoes (those that can be fired during a particular encounter) and replacement torpedoes. You can’t replenish ready torps with replacements during encounters—a rule that nicely abstracts, if doesn’t completely represent, in-boat torpedo loading. Next to each card is a counter for gun attacks for those U-boat models that have mounted deck guns. These don’t count rounds, per se, but “attacks”, and each U-boat starts with six. During play you will place other markers, particularly for stress, on the cards as your tactical display gets crowded.

Each boat has a range of dates it is available. According to the rules, if a particular U-boat’s date range intersects the date range of a campaign in some way, it can be used in the campaign, even if it wasn’t available for the whole range of the campaign.These availability dates seem to be tied to, in general, the availability of the class of U-boat, not the specific individual boat’s availability (as the boats are designated by a specialized and unique“U” number). For example, in the campaign I’m showing in the pictures accompanying this article the U-27 and the U-44 were both, in real life, sunk before the start of the campaign, but their cards’ dates show availability dates intersecting the campaign’s dates. Is it historically accurate? No—the limitations of the board game platform.

Next to the cards I place the “Campaign Sheet” for my current game. As with the air-themed Leader games, these cards give you a lot of static information about the campaign setting you are in.but unlike the other games, you are actually going to be using the map board quite a lot to track your operations.


1. Turn summary. 2. Victory accounting for short, medium, and long versions of the campaign. 3. Items you can “buy” with Special Operation points. 4. Table and rules for implementing wolfpacks during this campaign. 5. Cards to remove for this campaign—they don’t apply for this period. 6. Special rules for this campaign. Note my flub! The U-boat in the mid-Atlantic with the red circle, U-56, is a Type II and shouldn’t be assigned there! 

As you send your U-boats out on patrols you’ll move them through, or to, the different regions. For each region you’ll experience a certain number of “events” as you move through it, or stay and patrol within it. You will also have a chance to actually make contacts in an area you are patrolling in, and you may be able to conduct a special mission in an area. The “Campaign Sheets” are basically 8.5 x 11 inches, and the maps occupy about half of each card. This can make for a crowded map, especially as you try to concentrate U-boats to make use of wolfpacks. Not a big deal though.


 Just a handful of the kind of events you may encounter at the operational level of play.

In the lower left of my play area I position the “Help Sheet”. This sheet concentrates a number of references from the rulebook, focusing on those involving die rolls. The top of the sheet includes spaces for the Merchant, Escort, and Naval card draw decks. The rules don’t really tell you what to do with drawn cards once you’ve used them for an encounter: do you set them aside, shuffle them back in, or what? I usually set aside the cards for any ships I sunk and then place the un-sunk (but drawn) ship cards above their particular draw deck—if I make it through the draw deck I’ll just shuffle these ”used” cards to recreate the draw deck.

 

Note the thematic graphic design on the help sheet. This, to me, enhances the gameplay experience.

In the bottom center, closest to where I sit, I place the “Tactical Display”. This is where you’re spending the bulk of your time as you work through encounters. The left of the card has spaces for your event and convoy draw decks; as with the ship decks, I place used cards face-up next to the draw deck. The main part of the display is the sonar scope-like area. This is where you position your subs and enemy ships according to the convoy card drawn for that particular encounter.


Each convoy card specifies the contact type, the vessels to place, and any special rules for the encounter. Samples of the different convoys you might encounter:upper left is escort heavy for only a handful of targets, upper right is target rich but has extra-attentive escorts more evenly spread around the convoy. Lower left has a nice target-to-escort ratio, especially since the special rule gives you a torpedo targeting bones. Lower right is a dream encounter—unescorted merchants! If you can’t sink these you’d better join the Heer and head for the Eastern Front.

The tactical display is divided into rings, and each ring into sectors. The merchant or naval vessels are set up in the four sections of the central convoy area; rarely do escorts start here, although sometimes a purported merchant turns out to be an escort. The escorts usually start in the short-range ring just outside of the convoy area, and your U-boats often start out in the long range ring unless they have the “Infiltrator” special ability which lets them start as close as the short range ring. In general, you can start at any sector in the ring although some encounters’ special rule specifies starting in the “course” area (top of the display) or the “wake” area (bottom). Vessel and U-boat speeds are indicated on their counters; each point of speed lets you move one sector on the display. 

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The convoy “moves” towards the top (“course”) of the display, while escorts will move randomly around their rings (if no U-boats are detected) or right towards a detected sub. Not all counters actually move. Instead, a non-escort vessel with the highest speed is chosen as a reference. Vessels with higher or equal speeds remain in place, while slower vessels (including your U-boats) move back towards the convoy wake area. Sometimes you’ll intentionally use this lag movement to drift towards the rear and near slow merchants, doing your best to avoid detection by escorts.

 

A fairly standard merchant vessel. It won’t net you much in victory or experience points, but it’s not a hard target for either guns or torpedoes, and it doesn’t have a bite of its own (the “N/A” next to “Surface” means it’s not armed). The three values for “Gun” and “Torpedo” tell you what you need to roll on a die (adjusted by modifiers) to lightly damage, heavily damage, or outright sink the vessel.


A naval vessel card. Not an escort actively seeking you out, but a dangerous target.This vessel is faster than your sub even on the surface, and is dangerous as well. Its armor means that your gun can’t cause it heavy damage or sink it with one attack—you’d have to use multiple gun attacks while it could be whaling away at you with much more effective gunfire. So this target will usually be attacked submerged, with torpedoes.


Your nemeses, the escorts, the only vessels that can attack you when you’re submerged.

When I’m resolving an encounter I set the various surface vessel cards to the lower right. I’ll mark vessels with damage markers and when I sink a vessel I’ll turn its card upside down until I break off the attack. It’s important for experience reasons to track, in a wolfpack attack, what each U-boat sinks (not just damages, it has to be the one delivering the coup de grace). But there are no tools in the game to do this so you’ll need to track it yourself.


Thankfully this was a wolfpack attack, since one of the “merchants” turned out to be a misidentified escort. The wolfpack was successful in sinking all three merchants. It’s now time to break off the attack since almost all the ready torpedoes are expended and the escorts aren’t worth attacking.

When I’m not actively resolving an encounter, I keep the campaign log sheet in the lower right corner. One copy of this sheet is included in the game. You’ll need to copy it or print out copies of the electronic version available on DVG’s web site. 


Half-way (more-or-less) through a long campaign. U-56 and U-122 are already on their third (of fourth) patrol for this campaign, while the long-enduring U-43 is still on its first patrol.

 

Surfacing to War and Diving to Doom

U-Boat Leader comes with four campaigns covering the first two thirds of the war. “The Battle Begins” extends from September 1939 to May 1940. It has a narrower geographic focus, with your U-Boat forces limited to ports in Germany, necessitating dangerous transits of constricted waters near the British Isles. On the plus side, your opponents are weaker and not as organized. “The Happy Time” runs from June 1940 to May 1941. Bases in France give you easy access to the Atlantic, and a higher number of SO points let you “buy” more U-boats which in turn gives you greater chances to form strong wolfpacks, or to spread your patrols across a wide area. “Operation Drumbeat”, February 1942 to June 1942, covers operations off the U.S. coast and in the Caribbean. Lots of targets but long travel times, and not a lot of support options,will definitely impact your strategy. “The Hunted” is the final campaign and runs from June 1942 to June 1943. You get access to new torpedo technology, but the Allies do develop new and deadly tactics. The end of this campaign marks the point in the war where things really started to turn against the U-boats; the game doesn’t cover the final two years of the war where U-boats were more and more marginalized.

 

So, How Does the Game “Flow”?

The game is broken into four general segments. The strategic segment sets things up for each cycle beneath it. During it, you’ll get to spend special operations points on things to help you in the next cycle: intelligence, air recon, sea supply, and more. It’s here that you can “buy” a special mission and assign it to one of your boats. Some of these special options can only be spent on U-boats in ports, others can be used to support boats already on patrol.

Next, you enter into the operations segment. This is where you move your U-boats on the strategic/operational map, resolving events and special missions as you go. After this, you enter the tactical segment where, for one U-boat at a time, you move through the contact phase (draw convoys if you have any contacts, do tactical set-up, and try to form wolfpacks), the combat phase, and the post-combat resolution phase.This segment is often iterative: you’ll go through your active U-boats, each boat may get more than one contact that you choose to follow-up on, and within contact resolution you’ll have multiple passes through the combat resolution phase. After one combat resolution you do post-combat resolution, where you add stress, reload torpedoes, record results, and the like. Rinse and repeat until you have gone through all contacts and all active U-boats.

After you’ve finished the tactical segment for all your U-boats, you enter into the refit segment. This the closing bracket to the operational segment’s opening bracket. Here you do U-boat promotion, recover stress, port restock and sea reload, and reset the campaign map. If a particular U-boat has entered port on its final patrol, you stop using it—it’s done for this campaign.Overall, you’ll still spend the greatest amount of time in the tactical segment.But in U-Boat Leader you’ll spend more time in the strategic/operational phases than you do in equivalent phases in any other Leader game.

Just looking at your campaign log tells you how different the flow of a game of U-Boat Leader is from other Leader games. Campaigns in the air Leader games are by rigid mission counts—X number of missions for this short campaign, Y number of missions for that long campaign, etc... Pilots either fly on a mission or they don’t. Once the mission is done it’s done, and the campaign advances to the next mission. Similarly, here,within a mission you usually have a set number of turns to complete the mission.

In U-Boat Leader, though, your boats go out on patrols independently of the other boats. They’ll each have their own encounters, and will only sometimes be able to join up with other boats in a wolfpack. They’ll each end their patrols independently of the other U-boats unless you manager their patrols closely. The campaign won’t be finished until all your U-boats have finished the number of patrols required for the campaign. There’s a danger in this because you can lose victory points for every strategic turn you have no U-boats actively patrolling.If you have a single sub that’s been effectively extending its patrols at the end of the game it can be costly, as it will have to put into port to restock and recover while your other subs are already done for that campaign. In the example above: if U-43 doesn’t finish up a couple of patrols, or if one of the other boats doesn’t last longer on patrol, U-43’s solitary effectiveness will end up hurting you. In other words, you want your last two U-boats to end their final patrols on the same turn.

Similarly, a particular combat resolution is much more open-ended than an air mission—you or the specific results of your engagement determine when the engagement ends, not a pre-set number of turns. Even when you decide to break contact, you have to move out of the convoy area while escorts still have a chance to track you down.

 

Stalking Prey

The tactical segment’s combat phase is, of course, where the action is at. Each loop through this phase has you, basically, moving and shooting… or being shot at. First, you move your U-boats.Will they surface or submerge? Will they use silent running, actively move towards the convoy, or wait to drift? Next, there’s lag movement for all vessels: yours and theirs. Now, the escorts move. First, they try to detect your boats if they are in range. If there are any detections, the escorts will move towards them, otherwise they’ll move in a predetermined semi-random pattern.Next comes the attack phase. If you’re lucky, you’ve got aggressive subs that can attack first; this can be very important once your U-boats get detected—cautious subs have to wait for escorts and other armed enemies to attack, and if things are desperate, and they have to go into silent running, they won’t be able to attack.

Actually, this response by U-boats to attack is one of the weaker points of the “as-published” rules. A submerged boat can, when attacked, choose to go run silent to negate the attack and any future attacks in that cycle. Similarly, a surfaced U-boat can crash dive to also negate attacks, but unlike the U-boat operating under silent running this the crash-dived boat can still attack?! Either response may add stress (this is where your evasion rating comes into play). But I’ll usually choose this chance of stress versus an attack’s possibility of adding some stress, severe stress, or even outright sinking your boat. A submerged U-boat can also deep dive, but this automatically adds stress and leaves you open to attack.The attacking vessel rolls twice and you must choose the lower attack value; it also lets you attack. Obviously, if you’ve got an aggressive boat, just avoiding the attacks by crash diving or silent running is a great option as you’ve already made your attack.

The whole combat phase is open ended, but it’s still compressed. Historically, the stalking portion of an attack could be extended—24 hour hunts weren’t unheard of. If you try to do a long stalk in U-boat Leader the odds are that an escort will detect you sooner rather than later, ending your stalk. This abstraction, though, is fine especially for the experience the Leader games usually deliver—after all, players of computer sub simulations often use time compression to speed the game along. If you’re a hardcore submarine game grognard you’re probably not interested in playing U-Boat Leader, at least not with its rules as published. 

 

The Debate

Indeed, this all brings forth the debate that was stirred up when U-Boat Leader was first released: is the game “too easy”? Is it more game, less simulation? If so, is that necessarily a bad thing in a board game? Pondering this question, I decided to do some back-of-the-envelope comparisons with history in a “The Happy Time” long campaign, which I’m currently in the middle of. I’ve played this game with the standard rules included in the game, although I have on occasion referenced the PDF version posted on DVG’s web site (I haven’t detected any differences in the two). I’ve come up with two tables of historical information, all of which I culled from the excellent uboat.net web site.

 

This first table shows some historical information on the six U-boats I chose to use for this campaign. What I want to point out here is that in real life all of these U-boats were sunk or otherwise lost, usually with all hands. As noted earlier, two of these boats were even lost before the time period covered by this campaign. This differs to my in-game experience where, roughly half-way through the campaign, I’ve yet to lose a single U-boat. Now, maybe you might argue I’m being too cautions in game terms, and that my ultimate victory level will show this; so let me present my second table:


This table lists all the ships I’ve sunk so far in this campaign. In real life not all of these vessels were lost in the war, although all were at least attacked. The important datum, though, is the tonnage. If you total the tonnage of vessels sunk half-way through this single campaign you’ll find it’s already greater than the total career tonnage, across the entirety of the war, for these six U-boats. Of course, tonnage isn’t a perfect indicator—the game’s victory points likely represent more than just raw tonnage—but let’s use it for argument’s sake.

So, in rough terms this would indicate that the game is both less “dangerous” to U-boats and that it’s much easier to prosecute attacks on enemy vessels than it was in real life. The included optional rules would impact this, of course, but the furor was such that DVG later posted further optional rules/variants, and then some fan-created, but basically officially sanctioned, optional rules. In addition, the aforementioned Dean Brown has posted on BGG a very nice (if not officially sanctioned) variant that looks to greatly add to the simulation side of the game. I haven’t tried it yet but it touches on a lot of things even I,  not an expert of the U-boat war, had noticed were missing or otherwise off: night combat, increased importance and detail for the use of deck guns, and on and on (his “Tactical Expansion” rules booklet is longer than the main game’s!).

The question remains: does it matter? Because U-Boat Leader is a board game, variants and options can easily be added, even by the board game community. Indeed, dedicated fans like Mr. Brown can greatly add value to the game without cost to the publisher and to the benefit of those gamers who want it. But what about the gamer who’s not aware of these extra resources, and who may or may not know the subject matter when buying the game off the shelf? I have only my own experience to go on, but one event that happened during my work on this review was telling. I came down with a bug and had to stay home sick. I decided to play the game even though I was feeling pretty “punk”. Some hours later I realized I really needed to get some rest—I was feeling awful—but I still found myself saying, in essence, “just one more turn!” Despite my illness, I just couldn’t stop playing. If that’s not an endorsement for a game, I don’t know what is.

 

Review written by: Scott Udell

 

 

 

About Scott Udell

Scott Udell, who's been wargaming for over 30 years, now considers himself a "casual grognard"—he likes the detailed stuff, but can be happy with beer 'n' pretzels and "conflict simulations" in the fantasy and sci-fi realms. The first wargame he saw was Panzer Blitz, a heavy box in a "men's gift" section of a department store that just HAD to be filled with little tanks. Not long after he learned that such games had hexes and chits instead, a love of board wargames started. A lack of opponents, though, soon generated an interest in computer wargaming. An interest that led, years later, to a gig with Computer Games Strategy Plus as Associate Editor for wargames, strategy, and simulation, and to a variety of jobs in the military simulation world; the latest of which feeds his interest in AARs. In the last few years he's gotten back into collecting board wargames, although play-time is limited by the presence of a five year old and a dratted game-killing cat.

Forum username: Splusmer

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