Francis K. Lalumiere
(Originally posted on www.boardgamenews.com)
Zip up your parka, wear a wool scarf and wrap your hands with whatever you can find - welcome to the Arctic. It’s 1941, the Allied war effort depends on your supplies, and the Germans want you at the bottom of the icy waters. Try and make it to the Russian coast with your convoy in one piece.
As a naval operations game, PQ-17 has got it all: convoys, escorts, aircraft, submarines, reconnaissance, suspense, combat (on the sea as well as above and below...), time constraints, weather surprises, ice threats, fuel problems and night turns! All rolled into a tight package that, while requiring a sizeable chunk of time to digest its many intricacies, provides a satisfying simulation and promises to raise wargamers’ pulses everywhere from Reykjavik to Murmansk.
PQ-17 is a block game with a twist: each block on the map represents a force (that can comprise merchant ships as well as warships and submarines) whose exact makeup remains confidential until the enemy has properly identified said block. Until then...
Blocks go on the map - essentially as placeholders - while actual ship cardboard tokens rest on each side’s force display, properly hidden from enemy eyes. Round cardboard tokens represent aircraft, generally laid out on the board for all to see. Five d10s are used to resolve pretty much everything in the game, except for reconnaissance. And that is the heart of the game.
While the Allied player tries to take his convoy all the way to Murmansk or Archangelsk - and sometimes back again - the German player does his best to sink it all. But it’s a task easier said than done: first, the German needs to identify enemy forces at sea. This is accomplished by sending a reconnaissance-capable aircraft, or a German task force, or a dreaded wolfpack, to a hex containing an opposing block. Alternatively, the German could also use one of the built-in air search sectors and declare a search in a target hex. The action is then resolved by turning over the top card of the German deck and looking at the little table printed there. If the time of day, weather conditions, and searching units all combine in just the right way, the target will be identified, and information about the composition of that force will have to be revealed by the enemy. Then, and only then, may an attack on the identified block be attempted.
But this can only be done if the German units manage to actually find their target in that icy blue vastness. So before each attach, a location attempt is performed by flipping the top card of the German deck. If the target is found, lead starts to fly. If not, keep your mouth shut and they might just pass us by...
However, this works both ways, folks: whenever the Allied player wants to attack a German force, he must first identify it and then locate it (using his own card deck) before each cannon roar and torpedo rumble. There’s no way around that harsh reality.
When forces do find each other, combat erupts in three big sequences: air combat, submarine combat and then surface combat.
Air combat involves waves of aircraft dropping bombs or torpedoes onto ships of all shapes and sizes - provided the planes survive the burst of flak they’re sure to receive beforehand. Placement of ships and aircraft affect the odds, and rolls on tables determine the outcome.
Submarine combat is similar, with some subs managing to attack before their targets can react with anti-submarine warfare, while the remaining subs - if still able! - get their shots afterwards. Again, rolls on tables seal the deal.
Surface combat has the ships organizing on a battle display where relative positions become important if some ships are to screen others (usually merchant ships carrying much needed supplies). And once more, gunnery and torpedoes attack are resolved with rolls on tables.
Weather can have a huge impact on the proceedings - grounding aircraft in certain cases, for starters - especially when it comes to reconnaissance attempts. Anyone who’s tried to mount an attack at night during a storm will know what I mean. Chances are the enemy will slip by unscathed.
Parts of the map are color-coded to indicate the presence of ice. In some scenarios, ice is identified from the get-go. In others, ice will tend to take one form or another, but confirmation will not happen until a boat actually sails into that frosty unknown. And then, ice damage may apply - resolved with the same card deck used for reconnaissance.
Fuel is also a major concern. Each task force has a corresponding fuel counter on the time track. Whenever time catches up with those counters, bad things happen - from fuel going low (no more sailing around at full speed!) to ships finding themselves out at sea and at critical fuel when the scenario ends, earning victory points for the opponent. Not to mention that fuel shortages wreak havoc on combat capabilities. If no friendly port is close by or time doesn’t permit such luxuries, refueling at sea is a possible, although tricky proposition.
Typically, a scenario ends when all convoys have reached their destinations. VPs are then awarded to both sides for sunken enemy ships, surviving convoy ships and a few other factors. Highest total wins.
Materials here are excellent. Cardboard tokens are standard fare, but this doesn’t prevent the round aircraft token from looking really cool. (No clipping corners here!) The wooden blocks that represent forces at sea work well at creating the all important fog of war. The map is paper and while not the most stunning board to escape from the GMT press (the ice zones look a bit too much like a schematic to me), it is clear and very functional.
The cards are good, perfectly readable and printed on the sort of cardstock that would never make me want to break out the plastic sleeves... except that in this case you’ll be shuffling those babies so often (once per turn) you pretty much have to sleeve them. Unless you get a kick out of that rugged, seasoned, old sea dog of a card deck.
The result tables - a whole army of them - and the display sheets are printed on your standard "reference card" stock, and do a good job.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
My rulebook is already worn out: this is one ruleset you’ll dive back into again and again. Not because the rules aren’t clear - most of them are - but because of the sheer depth of it all.
Under the umbrella mechanic of reconnaissance, which drives the whole game, the game is fleshed out through many interlocking smaller systems. In turn, each system presents several exceptions and special cases that, while forming a compelling simulation, nonetheless present a steep learning curve.
Expect to spend your first couple of scenarios in the dark - even during day turns!- and gradually work your way towards complete understanding of the rules.
Some sections of the rulebook would need a little expansion; the part about planning comes to mind. In PQ-17, scenarios don’t actually start until a given turn (Day 4, P.M., for instance). For turns that take place before that, players use a miniature version of the board to secretly write down what convoys and escorts will do. Then those are off on auto-pilot (barring a bad weather roll) until the official start of the scenario.
Once players have done it a couple of times, that concept becomes crystal clear. But from the short paragraph on planning in the rulebook, a few questions remain unanswered.
The referenced expanded sequence of play, found on the back of both rulebook and play book, does a great job of taking players by the hand and guiding them through the entire turn sequence. And the long and detailed example of play provided in the play book answers a great many questions. Add to that the ubiquitous online presence of designer Chris Janiec, and you’ve got a great support system. No reason not to learn the game right!
PQ-17 is the wargame that has presented me with the longest rules learning process in recent months, and yet I keep wanting to come back for more. This is a good indicator of old-fashioned fun and excitement.
The reconnaissance mechanics is mostly responsible for this. Sure, the combat sub-systems are fun, but when your big convoy slides between two enemy task forces in the fog and your opponent is flipping cards like a madman to locate you, tension rises to impressive heights. I’ve had my wargaming buddy unintentionally hold his breath during particularly tense moments.
Time is also a great excitement generator. Since convoys have to move every turn (towards their destination), the game has a built-in timer. A couple of factors can change things a bit, but by the time the game starts, the turn during which it’ll end is generally not difficult to pinpoint. By that turn, either the convoys will have reached safe haven or will be resting forever at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.
PQ-17 is a solid design, a fun game, and a thrilling simulation. It’s also very old school with its there’s-a-results-table-for-everything approach; so you need not to mind looking up rolls on charts for every other action you want to take. The advantage to this is that it minimizes the number of factors that need to be abstracted into the rules. You don’t resolve attacks with a single die roll, and this opens up the matrix of things you can take advantage of with good planning.
Many titles feature fog of war of one sort or another, but here it literally makes the game, creating tense situations of a kind that I have yet to encounter in another wargame. The occasional German frustration at not being able to attack the enemy for lack of adequate location draws is softened by the excitement that such close brushes generate.
The built-in timer works great and ensures that, once you’ve assimilated all the rules, the GMT promise of two-hour scenarios will hold true.
Of course, if you decide to go for the campaign option, then all bets are off.
Si tu cherches un partenaire, je serais surement capable de me deplacer les mercredis ;-)
Excellent review, Francis. Thanks for putting it up.
I think Chris got so many things right in his first published design (?), it's really amazing.
Two thumbs up, Anker auf und Leinen los!
Great review of a great game. I am just about to start my second game tonight so maybe after a few more games I can attempt my own take on a review.