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Subject: An In-Depth Review of Metagaming's "One Tub Bilge" rss

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Dave Ferris
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After putting it off for years, I finally got around to playing Metagaming's "One Tub Bilge", a naval wargame included in issue #2 of Metagaming's house organ, "Interplay."

As mentioned elsewhere, I really wanted to like this game. I had been looking for an intermediate-level naval game that covered roughly 1898 through 1945, with rules complexity somewhere between Metagaming's successful and only partially misprinted "Ram Speed" and Metagaming's ambitious and scenario-laden "Fire When Ready" (not to be confused with David Manley's most excellent "You May Fire When Ready, Gridley") on one end of the spectrum, and Metagaming's self-immolation-inducing "Command at Sea" (not to be confused with Clash of Arms' rather better-selling and rather less singular-scenario-impaired "Command at Sea") on the other end.

Naturally, I was enthralled and only somewhat entrenched to discover Metagaming's "One Tub Bilge", a complete naval wargame published in the pages of Metagaming's then-not-completely-defunct magazine, "Interplay." Well, to be more accurate, Metagaming's "One Tub Bilge" was published on one page of Metagaming's at-the-time-not-dead house magazine, "Interplay." In fact, the rules, counters, chart, and map all fit on one page of what was inargumentatively a relatively small magazine.

The first thing I noticed was the map. I spent a couple of hours researching the historical accuracy of the map and came to the conclusion that it is, indeed, shaped like a bathtub, or at least as close as can be achieved using a hexagonal grid. However, I'm not convinced the scale is correct. I have written to the game's designer to ask if it was possible a mathematical error was made in the graphic design of the game map, but haven't heard back from anyone on that yet.

Still, I was excited about Metagaming's new naval title (well, new to me anyway) and I continued on with the unboxing. Such as it was.

The countersheet was a pleasant surprise. Half expecting to be disappointed with the sort of artwork (or lack thereof) that infected Metagaming's otherwise decent WWII tank game "Stalin's Tanks" and the crimes against humanity that pretended to be counter artwork in Metagaming's other otherwise acceptable WWII tank game "Rommel's Panzers" (not to be confused with several hundred other wargames with titles that start with "Rommel's Somethingorother"), which was particularly jarring when compared to the comparatively good artwork on Metagaming's contemporaneous "Hell Tank" and the even more comparatively good counter artwork on Metagaming's even more contemporaneous "Hell Tank Destroyer." Jar Jar aside, the counters in Metagaming's "One Tub Bilge" were a huge improvement.

A huge improvement over what, you ask? Well, that's a very good question. I wish I knew the answer to that.

To start with, there are only two counters in the game: the US ship, and the Commie ship. I immediately recognized the for-the-time-well-drawn overhead ship illustrations as coming from Metagaming's otherwise unpalatine "Command at Sea" (not be confused with XTR's otherwise highly readable but sadly no-longer-experiencing-publishicity "Command" magazine)and in fact I was able to identify the two ship illustrations. The picture on the US ship is actually the HMAS Canberra, and the picture on the Commie ship is the USS Vincennes (or the Astoria or Quincy, Metagaming's illustrations are not clear on that detail).

Again, the game's historical accuracy is brought into question. While I can see the justification of using a picture of an Australian cruiser for the US ship, I can't recall any instance of the Commie Navy ever using a US-built Vincennes class cruiser. What's more, after spending several hours pouring through my copies of Jane's and Conway's, I couldn't find any battle in World War II in which the Commie Navy fought against the US Navy. Certainly not any battle in which air power wasn't involved.

On the other hand, having just the two counters greatly reduces the amount of pre-game time spent sorting and organizing. I only with Metagaming's counter sheet for this game had been printed in color, to make it easier to tell which side is which.

Which brings me to the rules. While I was rather happy with Metagaming's "One Tub Bilge"'s gunnery combat system, which fits cleverly and efficiently into one single Combat Results Table, I was rather confused with the torpedo rules, which don't seem to exist. Neither do any rules for damage control, air power, submarines, mines, or aircraft carriers built out of sawdust and ice. Okay, I can see leaving off the air rules, nobody likes that stuff anyway, but I draw the line at not including the icecube aircraft carriers. That's just not right.

Which brings us to the movement rules. While I do appreciate Metagaming's approach in this game to movement, which fits nicely and succinctly into a single paragraph, I noticed that a few things seemed to be missing. For instance, there doesn't seem to be any mention about the ships being able to turn. One would think that a game with a map that is only 7 hexes long, featuring two ship counters that are each nearly 4 counters long, there would be some mention of how the ships go through the process of turning. You'd think that question would have come up in playtesting or something. Nevertheless, there's also the stated Movement Allowance of infinity for both ships, again pointing out that the map is 7 hexes long and the ship counters are both 4 hexes long. The math just doesn't add up. If the ships can move infinity hexes each turn, doesn't that imply that, mathematically, the scale of the map is somewhat off? The rules don't specify the distance each hex is supposed to represent, but my calculations come out to a scale somewhere around 1:72. At that scale, a ship's MA of unlimited per movement phase just isn't appropriate.

In conclusion, I can't in good consciousness recommend buying this game, unless you're a serious naval wargamer, or you need this game to fill a whole in your collection, or you're a completist and want to collect all of Metagaming's products. Personally, I think I got ripped off when I bought this game for $35 (plus $10 postage) off eBay. It looks to me like it's a poor photocopy of the page out of the original magazine, but the seller assured me it's mint, rare, out-of-print original issue from Metagaming'sMetagaming'sMetagaming'sMetagaming'sMetagaming'sMetagaming'sMetagaming'sMetagaming'sMetagaming'sMetagaming'sMetagaming'sMetagaming'sMetagaming's ooo my head hurts.
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Andrew Walters
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I've always been a fan of free-in-the-magazine games, but the the time and space constraints of that genre make them hit or miss. There have been some great ones, and some dogs. While I agree with your conclusion, that OTB is not worth buying for the casual player, the connoisseur is well served by reflecting on some of the games unique strengths.

Magazine games should be notorious for vague setup rules, but they usually have larger faults that obscure this one. OTB solves the problem with spectacular efficiency: there are no setup rules, and it doesn't matter where you put the ships at the start. This saves flipping pages to figure out which counter goes where (not that this would be that much of a problem in the case of OTB, but with some games it's a chore). You place the ships absolutely anywhere you like, essentially creating a "scenario", confident that you'll have just as much fun no matter where you put them. Try that with World in Flames. More wargames should implement this, though it takes a very sophisticated "engine" to support it.

The map has another subtle strength: you can't dance around and avoid the enemy. You literally cannot move out of enemy range, and there's none of that silliness about hiding in front of an island so your silhouette is obscured. By limiting the map to the critical area the a real-life commands would not abandon to the enemy OTB insures that players will behave in a way that makes for an interesting shoot-em up. RL commanders worry about force-to-space ratios, and game designers should, too. If you've ever had to chase an opponent all over a too-large map (I'm looking at you, Invasion of the Air-eaters), you appreciate the advantages of the constrained map.

You questioned the scenario, referring to the absence of documented US v Commies surface actions in WW2, but I never assumed it was supposed to be WW2. I figured it was a cold-war-gone-hot thing.

If the intrinsic system limits the geography in which you can play, another strength is the extensibility as far as orders of battle. In a lot of naval games if you want to add a new ship you need to do a fair amount of research - what should the attack strength be? It's not just the number and wight of guns, but the quality of the radar, rate of fire, etc. If you want to make a new counter for 7th Fleet you have a couple hours work ahead of you. Enjoyable work, to my mind, but two hours nonetheless. For a game like Shipwreck! it's a lot less, but still an hour. For OTB it's a bout two minutes, if you include the physical production of the counter. So if the game limits you to one battlefield, it allows you to pit any two combatants against each other in a surface action, from 1898 through the end of the cold war. If you're to picky you could use the same system all the way back to 1880 or forward to the present day, though the lack of torpedo rules for the early part of that extended period and the lack of air rules for the later part would be painfully obvious.

Air rules, no doubt, would have appeared in Bird Bath Bilge. The Designer's notes say "Bird Bath Bulge" but I assume that's a typo. A typo, or a deliberate slip to make more obvious that OTB was inspired by One-Page Bulge? That game is in some ways OTB's antithesis - I find the map distracting, the side-view counters problematic, and setup requires a lot of time. Where you can drop any two ships from a wide ranges of periods into OTB, OPB only lets you work with two specific forces at one particular time. Where OTB only makes you deal with surface to surface fire, OPB forces you to deal with air support, supply, road networks, etc. Also, where OTB gives you rules, map, and counters on one page, OPB has one page of rules alone! The map and counters are separate. Plus, OPB isn't free. Frankly, though, I find One-Page Bulge more fun to play.

The game has some more prosaic strengths as well: CRT on the map board, the map isn't distracting. I wish the Designer's Notes had been more insightful, and not mostly a plug for future games in the series. And top-view counter art cannot be praised highly enough. Whatever mental disorder makes people put ship profiles on counters needs to be studied, isolated, and cured, or at least we need to screen people for this disorder before letting them design countersheets. Who wants to play a naval wargame where every ship is listing 90 degrees at the outset?

I am more cynical about the turning rules. I believe, and I hope I am not being malicious, that this was an early case of leaving out a critical bit so people have to buy the expansion. OTB only allows you to play scenarios in which the ships cannot turn. To be fair this still allows you to play some interesting scenarios, but if you want the flexibility to recreate tactical situations where turning is an option you need Hot Tub Bilge (HTB). Sadly, like Howard Thompson's "Hymenoptera" system that was to be the successor to Chitin: I this was never published. History is replete with these tragedies: what if Edgar Allen Poe hadn't died so young, ditto HP Lovecraft, Van Gogh (or was it Monet?), etc.

Metagaming's demise is a tragedy for many reasons. Some good games vanished into the void. But more than that, if the mentioned follow on games in the OTB would-have-been series might have solved some of its problems, built on its strengths, and given us a set of rules for the ages. In the meantime, while we may not *play* One Tub Bulge as players, when we are wearing our designer hats we should be inspired by the things this game did so well.
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