Review – U-Boat Commander from DVG Games
Designer – Dave Schueler
Art – Val Nunez
A copy of this game was provided by DVG games
No, I don’t like being convide in close spaces which means I would have never volunteered for the submarine service although I surely tip my hat to those who did and continue to do so. I just don’t know how anyone could do it, but they certainly did. The Battle for the North Atlantic during World War II was typified by the German U-Boats hunting for convoys, and causing havoc until the Allies were able to develop parity and greater numbers and resources. Although I don’t know a lot about the history of that expect of the war, I know enough to have a sense of what went on. Films like Das Boot, certainly the best submarine film I’ve seen, give a view from the German side of the conflict, and it was certainly harrowing for the sailors to say the least.
When it comes to playing war games, I’m a land lubber really. The only submarine game I’ve ever played was the old SPI game, Wolfpack so it was certainly interesting to see how things have moved on in the design and development of submarine games with U-Boat Leader. I’m not a tactical fan either but I can see the attraction for war gamers who enjoy playing at that level of conflict. So I went into playing this game a low level of interest. I did some checking and the DVG Leader series of games is pretty well regarded so I thought that at least the pedigree of U-Boat Leader was good.
What you have here is a solitaire game, for age 12+, which means it will be a systems anchored approach to playing it. In other words, the system was the thing as in may solitaire games and a good solitaire system shouldn’t be something you are fighting with, in fact the more seemless it moves from stage to stage, allowing the story to command your attention, the better.
Inside the sturdy box you get –
165 full colour cards – representing Merchant ships, Escort ships, Naval ships, U-Boats, Events
264 die-cut cardboard counters representing U-boats, other ships, torpedoes, and other bit and pieces
4 campaign sheets
2 player sheets – Tactical Display and Help Sheet
a 10-sided die
1 Player log sheet
The components are pretty typical war game fare and are very functional. The information is laid out for you, the solitaire gamer in a way that you can get a hold of easily enough and thankfully, they are presented in a concise way without tons of tables, charts, etc. The artwork is very effective and accessible and I found it all very appealing. There have been some comments about the lack of mounted Tactical Display and Help sheet and I would have to agree that for the price, that would be a reasonable expectation, although, I have no real problem with them being on sturdy cardstock.
U-Boat Leader includes the following type of U-boats:
Type IIB/C coastal submarines
Type VII A/B/C Atlantic submarines
Type IX A/B/C long-range submarines
Type XXI Elektro-boat
U-Boat Leader includes four campaigns covering different stages of the Battle of the Atlantic:
The Battle Begins: covering operations at the start of World War II to about mid-1940.
The Happy Time: covering the period from mid-1940 to mid-1941 when the U-boats and wolfpacks dominated the seas.
Operation Drumbeat: covering operations off the American coast and in the Caribbean in early 1942.
The Hunted: covering the time period when the tide starts to turn against the U-boats.
The campaign structure makes things manageable and allows you to pick up and play in short time settings. Very nice.
As a solitaire game, U-Boat Commander has a system that takes you through each campaign. Dave Schueler has put things together in a reasonably easy to follow set of rules, which at first, seemed a bit much, but were actually fine for me to go through and get playing. I haven’t played any other games in the DVG Games Leader series so I can’t compare, but from what I’ve read, this game fits in well alongside the others in the series.
Helpfully, the rules start by giving you the lay of the land by walking you through the components.
The important Campaign Sheets are divided into areas and you place your U-Boats in these areas and move between them. They also provide information on Ports, Patrolling, Number of movement cards you can draw, Number of enemy contacts, Searching, and special Missions.
The Help Sheet holds the Merchant, Naval and Escort Ship cards to make things nice and accessible.
The Tactical display is cool as this is where the tense action takes place as you resolve combat using U-Boat and ship counters as well as torpedoes in status counters to reflect you tactical decisions.
The U-Boat cards give you information on U-Boat ID, Captain, Class, Years in service, Special Ops cost, Skill rating, Experience, Special Abilities, Crew Stress
Event cards indicate what happens as a U-Boat moves during the relevant year Campaign year.
Convoy cards show the ship types the U-Boat encounters as well as how to deploy them, the type, and any special conditions.
Merchant, Escort and Naval cards detail the ships in the convoys. Details include – Name and type, Tonnage, Speed, Victory Points, Experience cards, Torpedo and U-Boat Gun Hit numbers, and Surface Attack numbers. Escort Cards also have Detection values and Surface and Submerged Attack numbers.
You start by choosing a Campaign sheet from which you will choose the Campaign length, how many Patrols you will make, how many Special Operations points you have. You will also set up the card decks and Select your U-Boats.
Sequence of Play
Strategic Segment – You may Expend Special Operations Points on Air Search, Supply ships to refit (reduce stress), Intelligence to improve Contact results, Priority R&R (to reduce crew stress), Advanced Torpedoes, Radio Call to try and form a Wolfpack. You may also assign Special Missions – To place Mines , Attack enemy units, Aid a German Surface Raider.
Operations Segment – Very simply, this is about moving your U-Boats across the Campaign map (resolving Event cards and Special Missions) and then you can choose to end your patrol once you enter a Port box.
Tactical Segment – During the Contact phase, for each U-Boat you determine if there is a contact, and then, the number of them. Then you draw a Convoy card to see what the contact is. If you don’t choose to retreat, you set up the convoy and your U-Boat on the Tactical display. Then you can see if you can form a Wolfpack! Combat is resolved through movement on the Tactical display, revealing targets, dealing with Escorts before they get you, firing torpedoes to hit enemy shipping, firing with your deck gun, causing enough damage to sink the enemy, dealing with their counter measures by taking evasive actions, etc. There’s more but you get the picture.
The Post-Combat Resolution Phase is where you Add Stress to surviving U-Boats (I really like this as it talks to the human element which tends to be missing from these types of games), Reloading Torpedoes, Recording experience points, Recoding Victory points. If there are Contacts remaining, you can do nothing, return to the Contact phase and have another go for different Contacts, Re-Attack the Convoy or take one last shot at a heavily damaged ship (which will be a juicy option if you’ve taken out the Escorts), or end the phase for that U-Boat, choosing another to carry on with.
During the Refit Segment, you can promote U-Boats to the next experience level (so there is a progression which gives you more of a stake in your U-Boats’ survival), determine if you have reached the patrol limit for this Campaign, Recover Stress, restock in Port, Reload at sea, and reset the Campaign map markers.
Lastly, you have the Campaign outcome where you add up your victory points to see how you’ve done.
On top of all this, there are optional rules for different types of U-Boats, Snorkel, and Linked campaigns.
Yes, there is a lot here, but it is reasonably followed as you track through the rules phases. Its all explained pretty clearly, with some supporting example illustrations. Interestingly, and to the credit of the design, unlike many other war games, no one aspect of the rules is complex or difficult to follow in its own right. On top of this, the mechanics reflect the feel of the U-Boat war rather than the technical effects which to me, makes it very playable and not a simulation exercise. A very successful of a design for feel approach by Dave Schueler.
Did it work for me?
Having said up front, that tactical games aren’t really my thing, I found that I enjoyed U-Boat Leader for a number of reasons.
First, it’s actually not purely a tactical game. Yes the tactical aspects are there when you get into the fight but this is a stripped down view and approach which I appreciated. It didn’t feel like I was dealing with very technical aspects and not simulating being a U-Boat captain but gave me enough for my level of tolerance. Also, you have the operational and strategic aspects of the war and campaigns which broaden the picture nicely and make things very interesting indeed.
Next, the rules were pretty good to go through to play the system. I didn’t feel that I was struggling and it came together for me without too much effort. The rulebook is done rather well and reasonably user friendly which helped me learn the game.
Third, the information I needed was readily available through the cards and Player aids. I didn’t have to refer to myriads of charts and subsets of rules. U-Boat Leader was easier than I expected it to be, if I’m honest, although it by no means is an easy game that I would recommend to newbies. I would say moderate complexity is accurate as you do need to invest the time to familiarize yourself with how the system works.
Overall, this is as deep as I would care to go with this type of game. A very interesting experience which was enough to give me a feel for the key aspects of this aspect of the War in the Atlantic without burning my brain up and worse, boring me with the technical details found in more simulation-type games. I found it to be just the right mix in depth, strategy, and most importantly, fun, and it all comes in this very nice game from DVG Games. A nice production and a good alternative for those who like me, don’t like tactical simulations.
Boardgames in Blighty rating – 7 out of 10
Nope, its a solitaire war game