We left in the first glow of dawn, the docks of Wilhelmshaven fading quickly in the morning mist. Brave and bold we were then, still flush with the immortality of youth. We had much to learn....
U-Boat Leader is one of a series of solitaire war games produced by DVG games. In it you lead a small group of German submarines through one of four eras of the Battle for the Atlantic. You are attempting to sink as much tonnage as possible while keeping your boats from becoming crumpled bits of metal at the bottom of the ocean. Survive all of your required patrols with enough kills under your belt and you will be heralded as a hero of The Reich. Fail and you will learn first hand that the ocean is deep and cold.
The game comes with four different scenarios which reflect different stages of the German submarine campaign of World War II. You can also choose how long you wish the scenario to be, from one to four patrols. The boats available to you are dependent upon the time period of your chosen scenario. They range from the broke ass Type IIs of 1939 to the super high tech Type XXI "electro boat" of the late war. Further, each crew comes in four levels of experience from "green" to "ace". The boats and crews are purchased using resource points assigned according to which scenario and number of patrols you opted for.
I chose the early scenario entitled "The Beginning" covering operations from 1939 to May 1940 and planned on completing 4 patrols. I picked four of the better boats available for that time period and I limited myself to the "green" experience level for the crews because I thought that would be thematic. This left me with some excess resource points. This is important because those excess points can be used for buying various things during the scenario itself such as better intel, resupply ships, etc.
We had patrolled the Western Approaches for several days before we spied them, our first prey. Two lone freighters. They never knew we were there until we were upon them.
The game is divided into two main segments. The first is the strategic where you equip your boats with any special options that are available using left over resource points and then move them to the hunting ground of choice. Each time you move to a new area you are forced to draw event cards which can help or hurt your sub but almost all add some level of "stress" to the boat reflecting damage to the sub itself or mental strain to the crew. As the stress piles up the crew become first less effective and then eventually "un-fit" for duty and must return to port for refit.
Once all the subs are in their hunting grounds the game moves to the tactical segment and action moves from the strategic map to the sonar like battle board. Each sub in turn gets a number of "contacts" based on a die roll. For each contact, a "convoy card" is flipped which shows the layout and general type (escort or merchant) of ships in a given convoy but importantly not the exact ships. You can then choose to attack the convoy or let it slip past in the hopes of finding one that might be easier pickings.
If you choose to fight you then set up the convoy as illustrated and place your U-boat on the board at long range. The specific ships themselves are determined by a card draw but only once you are within a certain range of them. Is that escort a bumbling converted freighter with little or no skill or is it a deadly destroyer with a well trained crew? Is that merchant ship a fat tanker or a puny trader? You won't know the answer until you get close.
Combat is pretty straight forward and easy to grasp. Your U-boats maneuver trying to get close to the merchants without being detected by the escorts. The escorts then have a chance at detection and/or attack on known U-boats followed by the U-boats taking a shots at the ships of their choosing. Getting off a volley of torpedoes before being detected is always a good thing because once those escorts are on to you, things get very dangerous.
My subs made their way to the waters off the coast of Britain and the first two contacts I drew were for unescorted and unarmed freighters. Without any defense they were as good as dead, the only question being how much ammo would it take to sink them. I approached surfaced and laid into them with my deck gun. Two shots a piece and down they went...this was going to be easy.
The longer you stay in range of the convoy and the more attacks you make against it, the better the chance of being detected by the escorts. Once they spot you, they waste no time in racing in to destroy you. Each escort has it's own set of attack numbers. If, on it's attack roll, it equals or exceeds either of the first two numbers it adds more "stress" to your boat but if it rolls equal to or greater than the third number....well does the phrase "explosive decompression" mean anything to you?
You do have the chance to escape by crash diving or diving deep to avoid the attack and you can try "running silent" to become undetected but the odds are against it especially with an untried crew.
The captain smiled. A bunch of fat geese sitting on the water between us and the escorts. We'd be able to get off a salvo or two before they could respond or so he hoped. It was too good of a chance to miss...that is until what he thought was a freighter turned out to be a destroyer....
After all the combat has been resolved, by either all ships being sunk or all U-boats having fled, you either draw a new contact for the current sub or move on to the next one and repeat the process. Then once you've accumulated too much stress or you're out of ammo you sail back to Germany. The refit segment allows you to rearm your sub and also level up your crew providing they've got enough experience from sinking ships. If you enter port during refit, this counts as one "patrol" and you remove some of the stress from your boat, take on some new torpedoes and head back out to sea. Once you've finished your allotted patrols the game is over.
I didn't get that far because I spotted a crowded convoy and decided to attack. Using one of my unspent resource points I summoned a wolf pack which allowed the other uncommitted U-boats in my area to join me. So with three subs, 8 merchants and only three escorts, we began the dance. I kept my subs surfaced because in a submerged state the convoy can out run them. I wanted to approach from behind on the far side away from the escorts. I closed in and then drew the first "merchant card" which basically said "what you thought was a merchant is actually an escort". Being surfaced and so close, detection was a given and the damned HMS Kite was on me like ugly on an ape. I attempted to crash dive but it was no good. The destroyer blew me out of the water. My other two subs were also quickly detected, one was destroyed and one was able to flee but my flotilla was decimated. I saw no way to victory so called it a total loss.
In a solo game, there are three things I am looking for.
Smoothness of Play:
This is not to be confused with complexity. Mage Knight is a complex game but it plays very smooth. U-boat Leader is pretty straight forward and does a good job in this regard. The rule book is well done and easily answered any nagging questions I had on my first couple plays. Setting up the convoys can be a bit tedious especially if you keep all your ships in a counter tray. I take them all out when I am setting up and place them on the table in alphabetical order. It's a pain at first but it makes the rest of the game much faster.
A good solo game has to be hard. Hard to win. It has to make me work for it because I want to feel as if I've accomplished something at the end. It can't be impossible though. I do need to feel that if I just did better, thought harder, got luckier, I might have pulled it off. Again the game does a good job. I've played four games so far and got my ass kicked each time but never did I feel that the game was being unfair. It was my own inexperience and poor choices that led to my destruction. I get a little better each time.
This is the biggie. We're talking the story the game tells. This is important in any game but especially so in a solo. Without other players, if the story is weak then the game devolves to just pushing pieces. The gold standard is Fields of Fire which is like living out a drama each time I play it.
It is here that U-boat Leader stumbles a bit. Maybe it's because that historically U-boats had only numeric designations and not names but I felt it hard to connect with my men. The enemy escorts and naval vessels have more personality than my subs. I can feel for the HMS Kite but the U-44 leaves me cold. Maybe the lack of what war gamers call "chrome" (that is conditional and/or exceptions to rules that increase complexity but add flavor to a game) is what is lacking. Sure it speeds play and enhances the smoothness but there is a certain sameness to the different U-boats even when they have different captains.
The game is good but I will not call it great. I have enjoyed it so far and look forward to playing it again. I have a lingering fear in the back of my mind that once I figure out the proper tactics I should be using that the game might become repetitive and thus boring. Will I get in enough plays before that happens to justify the purchase of the game? I think the answer is yes.