Who wants to sail the icy waters of the arctic? Where for months of the year you’ll never see daylight? Where the climate is your enemy as much as anywhere on the planet? Where if you fall overboard your life expectancy is numbered in seconds rather than minutes? Tough enough in peacetime, unimaginable when every mile of the journey someone is trying to kill you, under, on and over the waves. That was the fate of the seamen on the Murmansk convoys, and this is the situation covered by GMT’s new PQ 17 game. The BGG airwaves have been buzzing this week with claims and counterclaims about wargames and history. There seems to be a general agreement that games don’t simulate anything. They can however be fun and flavoursome. So how does PQ 17 fare in the flavour stakes?
A box of delights
The PQ17 box contains as eclectic a range of components as I can remember. Five counter sheets with 1 inch ships, circular planes (ah, Luftwaffe, more nostalgia) and 1/2 inch markers, cards, blocks, displays, plotting sheets, a nice map, rulebook, play book, player cards etc - all the major food groups. In components alone, PQ 17 is fine value for money. It looks good set up, too. There are a small number of problems with the printing on the back of the ship counters, but nothing which impacted on play. Sometimes GMT raises the component bar, and this is one of those times.
Britannia rules the waves
The warm glow caused by the components comes to a grinding halt when you open the rulebook. These rules are awful. They start with too many definitions and fine distinctions before the reader has any context (for example, a description of play) to allow him to judge which of the distinctions are important. Key concepts are scattered over a number of pages, some concepts are not properly explained, and even the index has errata. The net result of this was that in play my opponent and I - both experienced gamers - completely screwed up at least three key rules, which undoubtedly influenced the outcome of the game. In effect, the rules ruined our game.
Just to clarify, I'm not looking for a joyful experience in the rules. On the other hand, to some extent the rulebook is my favourite game component. I enjoy figuring out how new systems work. I've read at least 500 rulebooks, and at least 20,000 pages of rules. The first impression created by the PQ17 rules was pretty well unprecendented. Sometimes I will read the rules and throw away a game. PQ 17 was one of a handful of occasions where I have thrown away the rulebook.
How it all works
PQ 17 is at an interesting scale – individual named heavy ships, 4 to 8 ships per counter for smaller vessels, squadrons for air units, just under 100 miles per hex, 12 hour turns. Individual scenarios cover single convoy actions, of around two weeks (30 turns.) There is a campaign which links together a years’ worth of action.
Limited intelligence is at the heart of the system. Wooden blocks represent task forces, convoys and wolfpacks, and are stood on their edge until located, when they are placed face up on the map. The blocks are numbered 0 to 3 on their edge, each representing progressively detailed intelligence states for the enemy. The recon system is elegance personified – all resolved by the turn of a card, which contains all the many weather, time of day, intel state and searching platform modifiers at a single glance. This works very well. Combat is simpler – there are echoes of the fleet series here. In an interesting wrinkle, attacks can only be launched against a previously-identified enemy, AND targets need to be located by the attacking units before they can press their attacks. Many attacks fail…
Victory conditions are smart. Aside from points won and lost for causing casualties, the British player gains points for the safe arrival of loaded merchantmen at Archangelsk and Murmansk. Winning is a pass or fail condition – score one more point than your opponent and you win. Each scenario also presents the historical margin, so you can test yourself against history too.
The play’s the thing
Everything seems to hang together pretty well in play. Geoff Phipps and I played PQ-13, which is a reasonably large scenario. We almost finished it in around 5 hours - good for a complex game.
The British player made the mistake of sending his BB/CV task force too close to North Cape. A maximum effort air strike knocked two hits off the King George V, and then some subs followed up by crippling the Victorious. Geoff was used to Pacific games, and so was confident that his carrier fighters would make mincemeat of the unescorted level bombers. Unfortunately, he had not reckoned on the Fulmar. He also never hit anything with the Albacores. Follow up sub & air strikes sank the KGV, although the Victorious would probably have escaped.
Final result was -14 - a resounding German win. However, this was thoroughly tainted by our misplay of some key rules. In particular, we allowed moving wolfpacks to attack – a nightmare for the British.
Is it any fun?
I’d say yes and no. It was easy to play – no real brain ache. We had plenty of action, the mechanics were smooth enough, both of us were involved in the game most of the time. However, I was never excited – there was no real drama, few tough choices. I knew where the convoys were after a couple of turns, so I searched for them, and when I found them, I attacked with everything possible. Some of this was caused by our rules mistakes. But some of it is inherent to the situation I think – between the North Cape and the ice flows there are only two hexes – this choke point is where all the action is, all the time.
The designer makes great play in his notes that this is a system for the whole of the war. I imagine that a Solomons game would be the sweet spot – if it doesn’t work there , it won’t work anywhere. In the meantime, I will give PQ 17 another try with the correct rules – I imagine it’s harder to sink the convoys when you can’t attack them twice per day!
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- Robert Johnson(txrobpam)United States
- Hi David - do you think the examples of play listed on the geek will help with regard to your rules comments? Thx for the review - looking fwd to getting my copy next week.
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- Craig StosserUnited States
Given that this game has mechancs unlike any I have yet encountered, I think the rules are pretty good. But they can be intimidating and frustrating when starting out.
Having said that, I think there is a case to be made for a narrative that explains in plain English how a turn flows.
Plus a plain English summary for each rule section about what and how that section "drives" the game.
I guess that's something for our collective PQ-17 "to do" list.
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txrobpam wrote:Hi David - do you think the examples of play listed on the geek will help with regard to your rules comments? Thx for the review - looking fwd to getting my copy next week.
I don't think so, Robert - the example of play is included in the playbook.
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Stosser44 wrote:Given that this game has mechancs unlike any I have yet encountered, I think the rules are pretty good. But they can be intimidating and frustrating when starting out.
The mechanics are pretty traditional really - off map displays, on map force counters, dummies, searching etc have all been seen many times before, and the combat system has a number of similarities to the Fleet system. There is nothing intimidating here for an experienced gamer. As always, the specific implementation of these concepts has unique wrinkles, of course.
The problem is that the rules are incredibly poorly presented. Geoff Phipps and others have set out a number of detailed examples of this on ConsimWorld.
Rather than re-hash this here, though, I will focus on the positives. The two other local players I know who have played PQ 17 are both enthused by it to an extraordinary extent - to the point of seeking any excuse to play it. One of these is an expectant father - baby due in a couple of weeks - who is trying to schedule the birth around PQ 17 dates...
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- Jay SheelyUnited States
I agree that the way the rules have been presented make it difficult to digest. But I'm not sure a rewrite would help this. Many things are intertwined and there are many small exceptions.
It's certainly not something you'll open up, read and start playing.
It was probably the toughest rulebook I've yet read (out of the 25 or so I've read). But I was still able to pull it off and find answers to questions quickly.
I also really liked my first play and would love to have some enthusiastic fathers-to-be living near me who want to play.
And I to want to see the system used for: Leyte Gulf, Midway, Coral Sea... All the big famous Battles! Although, I have the feeling that it may be awhile.
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