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Subject: Alaaarm! Diving into the 2nd Edition rss

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Ernie Olsen
Canada
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I'm a big fan of WWII history, and have read many books regarding the "Battle of the Atlantic". For me, a game about that conflict should feature two things. One, a campaign that captures the changes to technology during the war and the growing experience of your crew, and two, a mechanism to capture the tactical aspect of that conflict, especially the cat and mouse interplay between the submarine and the escorts.

I became interested in U-Boat Leader because on the surface, it looked like it had the features I wanted. Also, I already have Hornet Leader, so I kind of knew what the game play would be like and liked the character development withing the campaign.

What kept be from getting the game was the lukewarm reviews of the original, which criticized the limitations of the tactical part of the game and the rather bland damage model borrowed from the air leader games where everything comes down to stress. Having read Herbert Werner's 'Steel Coffins' I know that the U-Boats were sunk by mechanical damage, not stress.

I bought the 2nd Edition because it is supposed to address the damage model issue. But how did I find it overall?

The strategic part: I assume it's the same as the original version, but the only similarity to the air leader games is that your subs have to draw event cards in order to reach the 'battle'. Event cards like the frequently drawn, 'Enemy Aircraft' fit the theme well since the fear of every real U-Boat captain was the unexpected, and often fatal, Sunderland or Liberator bombers. The big difference from the air leader games is that there's no planning; you don't know the target when you leave port, the point being your submarines have to go out and find targets. There's no deciding on the loadout. All the subs have pretty much the same loadout, but it is the historically accurate number of torpedoes, so that's good.

I used to play the video game, 'Silent Hunter III', and what I found tedious was, well, the tedium of searching for targets (full real mode) for hours on end. U-Boat Leader gets right to the point and your odds of finding that fat convoy are handled by a die roll. I like the die roll modifiers. If you attack a convoy you get a negative DRM for finding future targets in the same area. It's like the British have re-routed convoys away from your area.

What could be better: The elegance of the Leader games is that they are quick to play, and not too fiddly. It would be nice, though, if they ditched the generic Experience Points and have you buy key crew member counters while in port. So, you buy a torpedo and diving officer. Spend more SO points for better ones. Experience points accrue to the crew, not the sub (torpedo hits,torpedo officer gets XP. Successful crash dive, diving officer gets XP.). Even better, they can be injured as part of the damage model!

I don't care for the optional 'Special Raider', 'Special Mine' missions. In my opinion they are too abtracted.


The tactical part: This is the meat of the game. It took me a while to stop attacking like Hornet Leader, where I only have 5 turns. I lost a lot of U-Boats charging in like an A6 Intruder. In U-Boat leader you can take your time and probe the convoy screen for weakness. The simple 'lag movement' mechanism, where the slow or damaged merchant ships fall behind the convoy is brilliant. It is thematic, and adds historically accurate strategy to the game, where one U-Boat can attack the convoy while another trails it, preying on the damaged ships carved out of the convoy.

I like the chit draw system for mechanical damage. It has a lot of variety to the types of damage and definitely adds tension to the game. Having two torpedo tubes put out of action creates tactical variety that simply taking 'stress' does not.

What could be better? The escorts are too vulnerable to torpedoes. Historically it took too long to work out the firing solutions to accurately target the shifty escorts once they were pursuing the subs. I house rule this with a -1 DRM for torpedoes targeting escorts after the sub has been detected.

Escort movement is better if you use the optional rules where the escorts might go to damaged merchant ships when no subs are detected. It adds more tactical opportunities for the subs (a critique of the original version was the lack of tactical variety).

Torpedoes should use the optional rules as well (one die roll with DRM for the number of torpedoes in the salvo) because they are otherwise too accurate under the standard rules. Also I house rule that a salvo can only have a maximum of 4 because there were only 4 forward torpedo tubes.

I find 'Silent Running' not very effective at getting your U-Boat undetected under the standard rules, and punishing if you fail. Early war escorts suffered from a general lack of training (I'm looking at you Canada), so I house rule this as well by rolling against the U-Boats 'Evasion' rating +1. This also allows more tactical variety in the game, since the escorts are so good at detecting.

Overall, I really like U-Boat Leader. I find it very thematic. There are many things in the game play which mirror the historical reality. You have to get into good firing positions in order to husband your precious torpedoes. You really have to respect the escorts because your U-Boat is quite frail, especially surfaced. The 'Lag Movement' mechanic makes it hard for you to keep up with the convoy while submerged. There is no one-size-fits-all tactics if you are not afraid to house-rule a thing or two.

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John Burt
United States
Portland
Oregon
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Thanks for the review. Gives a good sense for how the game plays. I need to check out Iron Coffins.

Have you played The Hunters: German U-Boats at War, 1939-43 or Silent Victory: U.S. Submarines in the Pacific, 1941-45, and if so, how do they compare?
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James Megee
United States
Edgewater Park
New Jersey
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Nice Review! I have the 1st edition, and I've always enjoyed the game. I am thinking of printing out the newer damage counters and using the PDF 2nd Ed. Rules. Thanks for the review!

Jim
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Bret Hekking
United States
Acton
Massachusetts
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FWIW, I started with Avalon Hill's Submarine ages ago, and love sub games of all stripes. Personally, I much prefer The Hunters / Silent Victory to U-Boat and Gato Leader. I often find myself 'wanting to want to play' the Leader games, but choosing not to do so.
The scale is different (tactical vs. operational/tactical), but I think it's the the way that the Hunters / SV series creates a story and makes me care a lot more about what's happening. At the end of a long campaign, I feel like I've been through the ringer myself.
For me, the Leader series feels more detached, even though both games have tactical-level battles. I also dislike the number counters for keeping track of # of torpedoes - I prefer ticking those off of a sheet I guess.
I do love the 'lag movement' mechanic and the variety of subs and missions, though.
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Ernie Olsen
Canada
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Immersion comes from two things, one is whether there are tactics that are evocative of the real thing (however abstracted), and two, whether those tactics involve meaningful decisions. I find U-Boat Leader is pretty good at the first thing, but just ok with the second if you are using the stock rules. But if you are not opposed to house-rule a few things it makes it much better.

With the stock rules the game encourages a single strategy/tactic, because the AI behaves so predictably. The only tension comes from the escorts that are hidden among the merchant ships (which admittedly is a great feature). To enhance the AI, I use the DVG optional rules for escort movement, which makes them slightly less predictable, but also add in a house-rule where the escorts can detect AFTER they move on a certain die roll. Plus, I house rule that U-Boats can use the Silent Running Tactic to dodge a depth charge attack, and escorts, in turn, can attempt to 're-acquire' the U-Boat immediately after another escort loses contact.

The result of these house-rules is that they add layers of risk/reward to the tactical game that are lacking in the original rule set. It is more likely you will be detected if you attack, but you have more avenues to survive. I find this creates more decision making.

It also helps to start campaigns with rookie crews, so they are both more vulnerable and have a longer development path. That really helps you become attached to your favourite captain.
 
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