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PQ-17: Arctic Naval Operations 1941-1943» Forums » Reviews

Subject: This is the Operational Naval Wargame System I've Been Waiting For rss

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Lee Hamer
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I have been looking for the right WW2 operational naval wargame system for 30 years. I have not found one that puts all the pieces together. Until now. If you are interested in operational naval warfare in WW2, PQ-17 is a game that belongs in your library, but more importantly it belongs on your table.

My criteria is for a complete game (operation) to be completed in 4-6 hours of play, at most two standard maps, tense and exciting play with no relevant historical details sacrificed, and above all, emphasis on the fog of war.

PQ-17 is a complex wargame. Like all complex wargames it requires an investment of time and effort to learn and to fully understand the nuances of play. You cannot master any complex wargame in one sitting. Is PQ-17 worth the effort? For some the answer will be no, which is fine. For me, it is a resounding YES !

Many comments have been made about the presentation of the rules, and yes the rules could have been made clearer. I found the biggest problems to be frequent page flipping to track down important details during the first 2 games, and inconsistent use of terms and definitions. In my opinion these are minor flaws, not even close to deal breakers.

Overall I thought the rules were understandable. There are some tricky bits (there always are in complex wargames) but the designer seems to be available to answer any questions. The combat systems, charts, sequence of play and overall mechanics are excellent. The game play examples are fun, detailed, and helpful. You can tell this game is well tested. It feels solid and true from the first read of the rules.

And that leads us to the real question to ask about a rules set - do the mechanics work? Can the rules be learned or are they half baked ideas jumbled together?
In this regard, the PQ-17 delivers an interesting, rock solid and fun system of play. You can trust the mechanics. The game works.

The game system
What PQ-17 does best is deliver an operational level WW2 naval game that plays fast without compromising historical accuracy. I don't know of any other naval game system that plays fast with detail. Usually you only get one or the other.

PQ-17 gives you two levels of fog of war. The first level resides in the beautifully designed search procedures combined with hidden block movement of task forces. The search mechanics use card-draws and the system works like a dream, very fast and fluid. The hidden movement mechanics, down to the level of dummy block creation, are obviously very well tested. It works effortlessly and is great fun in play.

The combat system provides the second layer of fog of war. This is accomplished with a somewhat abstract (fully appropriate in an operational level game), yet rich combat system that plays fast and captures lots of tactical detail. What I appreciate most is that the player is not in complete control of the tactical action. The duel between subs and escorts is represented without permitting players to exert control over the action once begun. Surface combat is very well presented with surprise rules, reinforcing task forces, and best of all, unpredictable combat length. The air strikes are very interesting with the optional surprise rules.

Here is what combat in PQ-17 looks like in play - There are stretches of sheer frustration as contact is gained and lost, followed by moments of terror, followed by moments of relief. In PQ-17 combat is fast and tense, and then its over. Very scary. You feel the torpedoes, bombs and depth charges coming at you. You find your task force surrounded by subs, shadowed by aircraft, attacked by enemy surface units. Your surface forces engage the enemy only to withdraw too soon. Your subs contact the convoy, avoid the enemy destroyers, launch all their torpedoes, only to miss...but then somewhere all of a sudden something hits and wham! the game changes. And then its over. The ocean is quiet again for a few turns until forces can reorganize and reestablish contact.

Other game elements include the nasty (but necessary) administrative rules for fuel consumption and refueling at sea. There is no separate paperwork involved, which is a nice touch. I personally don't mind checking off boxes on separate paper, but I like how PQ-17 handled fuel. The design decision to put light ships in groups helps to keep the game play streamlined. Damage is handled by rotating ship counters, very easy. Overall, a successful administrative design.

The victory conditions are well thought out and are relevant in play. The victory points greatly influence how a player approaches a given operation. There is a great deal of tension as the convoy proceeds toward Russia. Most player decisions require risk vs reward judgments and the victory points are clear indicators that both players must keep in mind during play.

There is a campaign option (for part of all of 1942) that actually appears do-able. I mean, its not just tacked on to the game, it is integrated into the game. It promises to be the most exciting way to play. I have not tried it yet, but it looks really cool.

I have waited a long time for an operational naval system this good. What I wanted was a great game with plenty of historical detail that is playable in one sitting. I wanted a system that emphasized the fog of war. Not everyone will agree with my taste. But I can't imagine a naval warfare enthusiast not wanting to play this game over and over.
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Phil Miller
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Nice review! This is exactly what I saw in the game when I purchased it 3 months ago. I just haven't found anyone willing to play. I don't understand why but none of my gaming friends seem interested. If I can ever get this to the table I am sure it will be glorious!

By the way, have you ever played this on Vassal?

-Phil
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Francis K. Lalumiere
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Very good, personal review.
I'm glad you like it this much! I'm also very fond of it.
(Though I need to play it more...)
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Andrew Brazier
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The campaign is hugely enjoyable anf VERY tense. It's a must try.
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Lee Hamer
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I have never played any game on Vassal. But from what little I know of Vassal, PQ-17 would probably play very well.

Thanks for the kind words regaring my review. I wrote it because it seemed like most comments were kinda lukewarm on the game. I think it deserves a lot more attention. PQ-17 is a very good game. I feel like I got my moneys worth already.
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Francis K. Lalumiere
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abrazier wrote:
The campaign is hugely enjoyable anf VERY tense. It's a must try.

Damn, Andrew, I have a hard time getting single games going...
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Andrew Brazier
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I've played two full rounds of the campaign via VASSAL, some PBEM and some "live" and it works really well either way. As I said before it is very good indeed and adds a whole new layer to the game. Our first run through was an Allied win but it was on a knife-edge almost all the way. The second one was less close, the Axis luck with the dice was very poor but it was still very exciting. So far we're into August on the third attempt and it's another close race, the Allies are just ahead but it could go either way.

By the way, has anyone found anything that U-boats are any good at? Mine never seem to achieve very much and get sunk more often than they sink anything!
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Chris Janiec
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Thanks for your kind review, Lee. Your response is what I was hoping for with this system, but my rules were (ahem) problematical. I have drafted a revised version for the Norway 1940 Expansion (that will also be posted here when done) that incorporates all the clarifications and errata, standardizes the terminology, and moves information around to where it's easier to find. In particular, it moves a bunch of rules that were in the first couple sections to where they should have been, includes setup instructions, and eliminates some of the "chaff" that was nice-to-know but perhaps confusing.

I would welcome some "blind" reviews of the new rules version. If any of you who have the game but have not read the rules or played it yet would like to see them and offer feedback, please send me an email (drklahn@earthlink.net).

/Chris/
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Steve Carey
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Issue 23 of C3i magazine (still available from GMT) contains an article by the designer, PQ-17: Mind Your P’s and Q’s which offers helpful learning hints for this game. Recommended.
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Jonathan Harrison
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This review was enough to put this game on my wishlist, and on my short list for an order.

Thank you. I'd have probably never seen this game if I hadn't noticed your review on my front page; as it is, I'm itching to play it.

Kudos on a good review.
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jay white
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It's a fantastic game. I think it's had a slow start because of the challenging rules layout, but I get the feeling word is slowly getting out about this one. I'm just finishing my first scenario and it's a blast.

There are a lot of restrictions on the Germans in this particular game, but it's still a lot of fun. I can't imagine how wild a PTO / Med game would be...
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Volko Ruhnke
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PQ-17 is a serious wargame: don't let the blocks fool you into presuming that it's light. It is not a standard block system game at all, but uses blocks in an entirely original way to simulate the degradation of tactical intelligence over time -- a key concept in naval operations. The resulting narrative and strategies that the game generates are quite compelling.

PQ-17 shows itself as a labor of love. You can trust the details. Chris went so far as to dig into British archival data on actual Arctic weather patterns during the years depicted in the game, then use this data to generate his weather tables. In other words, the tables generate not just Arctic conditions, but the Arctic conditions experienced by the combatants in 1941-1943 specifically.

When asked why he started his series with the Murmansk convoys and not, say, the Southwest Pacific or the Med, Chris responds "because it was the hardest". This is not a man of shortcuts, and in PQ-17 you will get as thorough and uncompromising a representation of WWII naval operations as we are ever likely to see in a playable, indeed delightful, board game.

vfr
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Jan van der Laan
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jvdv wrote:
I had other games clamouring for my affections at the time, and I really find the rules well, not badly written, but badly organized. Most of the time I'm reading a rule in the book, I have no idea what he's talking about. Which is a shame, because I do believe, as you have made completely clear, that there's a great game in the box there.


I couldn't have said it better. That's exactly my experience. Reading a rule without having a clue what it's all about. And still having the feeling that PQ-17 is a great game I would more than gladly learn and play.
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Lee Hamer
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Andrew - I'm interested to hear about your experiences with the campaign game. Specifically how was it different from a single scenario? What span of time did you choose? What made the game so close and how did the closeness impact your decisions as a player? Please post a Session! You got me curious.
Also, I'm with you - I have not had much effectiveness with subs. It must be the very razors edge of design to balance subs between being occasionally effective and taking over the game. I need to read more about the arctic war to get a better sense of this, but the way subs are in the game feels right. I mean, it was surface and air forces that planners were sweating over.

Chris - Thanks for designing just what I wanted but could not do myself. It seems from the comments that the main issue with the rules is the layout, and it seems from your post that you are making good strides in that direction. Don't sweat the rules controversy too much, all real wargames have their rules re-written!

Volko - At the risk of changing the subject...I ordered PQ-17 and Wilderness War at the same time. I tried Wilderness War first. I love it. That is a great game, super fun and replayable. Brilliant.

Steve - yeah...I ordered a C3i...I'm a geek I guess.

I'm curious reading about some of the difficulties folks are having learning the rules and playing PQ-17. I know I'm not smarter than most of you, so how come I can enjoy playing the game? Is it that I have good study habits? Tons of patience? Too dumb to know when to quit?

The way I approach a complex wargame is to:
-skim the rules, charts and examples, refuse to be intimidated
-read the rules thoroughly, refuse to be intimidated
-take out the map and charts and play around with a few units and combinations, test the systems like search, air strikes, surface combat, sub/ASW combat, at sea replenishment....this is a critical step and cannot be rushed. Refer to rules as needed. Practice again.
-play a 'walkthrough' game and discover the inevitable errors in implementing the rules. Re-read rules.
-now I'm ready for a trial game, but still nothing too competitive.
-If all of the above can be done with a gaming friend then so much the better!

I think some patience is required to learn a complex wargame. Practice sessions are critical to aid in preparing tactics, and a walkthrough (abbreviated, not using full rules detail, non-competitive) game is very important for learning.

Any comments? What are your experiences in learning PQ-17?
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jay white
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Lee Hamer wrote:
Any comments? What are your experiences in learning PQ-17?


I'm pretty good at picking up rules as well. I didn't have a problem with Fields of Fire (except for some ambiguities that were obviously missing and cleared up in the Q&A.)

With PQ-17, I thought I had a good grasp of the game. The basics are easy enough. But when I started playing an experienced opponent, I found I was making a mistake almost every turn. The small details are all over the rulebook, so you might not be doing something right just by following a specific rules section.

I later realized that I hadn't put the Q&A / Errata into my rulebook, which made a difference to a few issues.

After one scenario, it's a piece of cake, and now I only glance at the rules occasionally, for combat procedures or fuel stuff.

I don't think any problems with the rules should stop a naval wargamer from picking up this game. It's a gem, and it's only going to get better with updated rules and expansions.
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Steve
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Volko wrote:
When asked why he started his series with the Murmansk convoys and not, say, the Southwest Pacific or the Med, Chris responds "because it was the hardest". This is not a man of shortcuts, and in PQ-17 you will get as thorough and uncompromising a representation of WWII naval operations as we are ever likely to see in a playable, indeed delightful, board game.


Is there more planned than this game as a series, Chris? I should get around to picking this up.
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Chris Janiec
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Quote:
Is there more planned than this game as a series, Chris?

Yes. I'm trying to get testing rolling on the Norway 1940 Expansion for PQ-17, and working on the next stand-alone game which will focus on the Med in 1940-42. Down the line will be one to three games featuring the Imperial Japanese Navy -- if I live that long (I'm a slow worker!).
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Steve
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Wow, very, very nice.
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Roger Taylor
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Lee Hamer wrote:
Andrew - I'm interested to hear about your experiences with the campaign game. Specifically how was it different from a single scenario?

I have not played a campaign myself, but I know from reading other players' AARs that their mindset changes when they must think of future operations while running (or planning for) the current one. In particular, the German player properly is extremely wary of committing surface ships. If they are lost or heavily damaged, they are out for the rest of the campaign, and that can be a looong time. Players tend to have a greater tolerance for risk (especially in naval games) when they only have to live with the consequences for a single scenario.
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Jan Ozimek
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Chris Janiec wrote:
Thanks for your kind review, Lee. Your response is what I was hoping for with this system, but my rules were (ahem) problematical. I have drafted a revised version for the Norway 1940 Expansion (that will also be posted here when done) that incorporates all the clarifications and errata, standardizes the terminology, and moves information around to where it's easier to find. In particular, it moves a bunch of rules that were in the first couple sections to where they should have been, includes setup instructions, and eliminates some of the "chaff" that was nice-to-know but perhaps confusing.

I would welcome some "blind" reviews of the new rules version. If any of you who have the game but have not read the rules or played it yet would like to see them and offer feedback, please send me an email (drklahn@earthlink.net).

/Chris/

Will these updated rules be usable for the base game only?
 
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Andrew Brazier
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Lee,

We played all the way through using the campaign OB. I have always played the Axis and have yet to score a campaign win which only adds to my frustration.

Our first run through was pretty much on a knife edge all the way, the LW did well and even the U-boats scored once or twice. The surface forces didn't have any real impact except for getting sunk! In the end the Allies scraped a narrow victory but it was very close.

Our second campaign was much more one sided, the Axis suffering very poor luck with recon and attack rolls whilst the Allies had generally good dice. The final action of the game was a do-or-die sortie by the KM (one CB, a CL and several DDs) which was roundly defeated only a couple of DDs surviving. I was going to lose anyway so thought I might as well go down in style!

Third time round it is proving to be pretty close again, the Allies are slightly ahead (convoy PQ17 just got a severe hammering from the LW, 1CS of He111TBs scored 4 hits!) and we're up to August I at pressent with PQ18 just about to enter bombing range. The KM surface forces haven't played much part, the Tirpitz plus (optional) Graf Zeppelin staged a successful breakout into the Atlantic (by the skin of their teeth) and then proceeded to Brest. The KM is currently building up it's strength in Trondhiem awaiting the long winter nights.

In terms of the difference between a single op and the campaign, my feeling is that the campaign gives you a broader arena for the development of tactics. There is also the element of trying to manage your resources for the long haul, husbanding the deadly but fragile He111s for example, using the Condors to best effect (recon only, never as bombers) and finding something useful for the U-boats to do, present best use during continuous daylight seems to be harrasing the Home Fleet to try and keep it from bombing Bardufoss & Banak.
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Lee Hamer
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Jeroen - Old guys rule! Well spoken.

Jay - I would say my learning experience was almost exactly like yours. Overall grasp of game was not difficult, but tracking down the details took up some time the first 2 games I played. Just finished game 3 this weekend (and started a 4th game - PQ12) and I'd say in over 6 hours of play the rulebook has not been open more than a minute or two. I made 2 copies of the sequence of play, it is always right in front of us during game.

Roger - That's what I'm thinking, that a campaign would really put pressure on preserving resources.

Andrew - Thanks for a great reply, lots to chew on. Three campaigns? Sheesh. All of '42 or just part? What do you mean by 'broader arena for the development of tactics?' I'm guessing the start of each fortnight is interesting with fresh set ups, and maybe the Germans need to read and react to British movements with more uncertainty. What else?
And the Graf Zepplin and Tirpiz broke out!? Win or lose that is epic. That should be worth a free beer somewhere.
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Chris Janiec
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Quote:
Will these updated rules be usable for the base game only?

No, they will carry across to the rest of the series. In fact, they'll include a few bits that are only needed in the Norway 1940 Expansion.
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Chris Janiec
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Quote:
I made 2 copies of the sequence of play, it is always right in front of us during game.

That's one thing I actually got right: putting the Expanded SoP on the back of both the Rule Book and the Play Book, so two copies are available to players.
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Lee Hamer
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I also like that both players have a copy of all the charts and tables, it helps speed up play. I like that the special conditions and random events are unique to each player. The random events in particular could have been dumb or too repetitive, but there are several interesting events and the probablilities for the events are well thought out. Every game has unique little twists.



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