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Board Game: Convoy Terror
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Subject: CONVOY TERROR - a genuine gem from the Sixties rss

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Martin Smith
New Zealand
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‘Convoy Terror’ was one of the games routinely marketed in comics in the early 1960s. My copy is marked copyright 1962, and was produced by Five Star Toys (or 5 Star Toys) of New York. The company appears to be linked to Helen of Toy Co (who later produced the successor to ‘Convoy Terror’, called ‘Fighting Ships'), as the Rules sheet has little advertising boxes to order from both companies - 5 Star Toys for ‘Convoy Terror’ and Helen of Toy for ‘Task Force’.

Anyway, many gamers and/or comic readers in America and around the world can remember the advertisements for such games, and it seems from reading the Internet that quite a few also fondly remember the games themselves. Not that many seem to have kept them though - or still have complete ones - if one judges from the prices they fetch on eBay and elsewhere. [The most recent ‘Convoy Terror’ I saw on eBay (which was almost complete) sold for US$109, and that is not at all the record price.] They originally sold for $1.50 !

The Game Pieces

And for $1.50, you got 94 little plastic ships, 30 very small planes, 8 tiny mines, a green coloured paper mapsheet with a 9x16 grid of rectangles on it, 2 plastic spinners (called ‘gyroscopic indicators’) to equate to D6 dice, and the Rules (printed on a double-sided sheet). The plastic pieces are in green and grey, and each side gets 1 Aircraft Carrier (that takes up 4 rectangular boxes on the map grid), 1 Battleship, 6 Heavy Cruisers, 1 Light Cruiser, 1 Destroyer Frigate, 3 Destroyer Leaders, 4 strong Destroyers, 2 standard Destroyers, 2 Destroyer Escorts, 6 Submarines, 4 Mine Layers, 1 Mine Sweeper, 5 tiny PT Boats, 10 Cargo Ships, 15 planes and 4 mines. The planes are placed on the Carrier (8), and one each on the Battleship and Heavy Cruisers. All 4 of the mines are placed on one of the Mine Layers. I’ve loaded a few pictures to BGG showing the ships and map.

The scale is of the plastic miniatures is not all that consistent I think, but the quality is not bad at all, and many of the ships would probably be useable in naval miniatures games around 1/2400-1/3000. The styles of the ships are intended to reflect the modern Navy of the time, including nuclear powered and armed. The advertisements (see the picture posted on BGG) referred to the 'World’s Greatest Nuclear Naval Battle Game', but a few of the ships look more like World War 2 to me. And the 'Heavy Battleship' looks very foreshortened - not like a small and sleek Graf Spee ‘pocket’ battleship, but like a big battleship that has been squashed. And with a landing deck to boot!

The submarines do look like the modern nuclear subs of the time, and the Heavy Cruisers look futuristic in a 1950s sort of way, most resembling the USS Long Beach nuclear-powered missile cruiser (which was designed and built in the late 1950s and commissioned in 1961), but with the Long Beach’s huge bridge 'box' reduced and more rounded.

Asterisks on the Rules sheet advise that the Heavy Cruisers, Destroyer Frigate and Submarines are nuclear powered, and that the Aircraft Carrier, Heavy Cruisers, Destroyer Frigate, Destroyer Leaders and some Destroyers are armed with guided missiles. For dramatic effect the adverts had a lethal looking missile tracking in the foreground, oddly resembling a Nike Hercules AA missile (which was land-based as I recall), and even featured an American eagle and the Russian hammer-and-sickle emblem, reflecting the Cold War times.

And having fixed-wing planes on the Battleship and Heavy Cruisers (not being the old bi-wing seaplanes) seems a bit weird - or prescient - as VTOL jump jets only really became operational in the mid 1960s, with the Hawker Siddeley Kestrels and later Harriers. So one would have thought helicopters might have been more appropriate for this game - but I try to think of them as Sea Harriers anyway.

Playing The Game

The 2 players (or 4 if you each have an ‘aide’ who takes the alternate turns) set up their fleets in the 3 rows nearest to them, and the remaining 2 ships in the front/fourth away row. The set up is hidden from the other player - by a cereal box, the Rules suggest! - and it is true that a good setup, or at least avoiding a bad one, is important to winning the game. So it helps to have players of similar experience/skill for a good contest. The pictures I’ve loaded were done just to illustrate the game pieces, rather than a good setup (which it is not). When I was a youngster, I devised my own special setup that I liked - as I expect other CT players did too - and I still have my secret piece of paper in the game box! As the Rules explain (a little simplistically, perhaps):

"All ships are reliant on each other. There is no self-sufficient ship in any navy. The Battleship and the Aircraft Carrier would be easy targets for torpedo launching craft if they did not have the support of fast striking destroyers but in turn the destroyers are easy victims of the larger enemy cruiser. Therefore, the alert commander will form a ring of fast small ships, following with an inner ring of larger ships, and so on, with his most powerful ships in the center of the rings well protected but ready to speed to the rescue of his supporting ships whenever it is necessary."

All this talk of 'fast' ships and 'speed to the rescue' is a little misleading, though, because all ships regardless of size or type can only move one box (space on the map grid) per turn, forwards, backwards, left or right (not diagonally). But the advice in the Rules about interdependence and vulnerabilities is right - as any CT player who has had their Battleship or Aircraft Carrier disabled or sunk by a Submarine or PT boat can attest.

As befits a ‘Convoy’ game, the object of ‘Convoy Terror’ is to get as many of your Cargo Ships as possible to the opponent’s back row, which (for this purpose) is also the destination ‘port’. The winner is the player who gets most Cargo Ships to safety - but if all the Cargo Ships are sunk, it is simply a fight to the finish between the fleets (meaning a real fight to the finish - not a Jutland-style one ...).

Naval Combat

Combat between ships occurs when one ship moves into the other’s box on the mapsheet, and is determined by the type or numerical value of the ships (ie, higher number wins). No die rolling, ranged gunnery computations, or factors like armour or damage. So a Battleship just clobbers a Cruiser, and Cruisers demolish Destroyers, and so on. Higher value ships sink lower value ships of the same type. If the ships are equal, the spinner decides on an odds or evens call. Submarines automatically sink all ships except the Carrier and Battleship, but subs are themselves automatically sunk by Destroyers and Destroyer Leaders. Cargo Ships and the Mine Sweepers are sunk by any armed vessel - as are Mine Layers, except that when they explode they will take the attacking craft with them! ‘So why would anyone do that then?’ you might ask. Well, that takes us to one of the important elements of the game - it is part-way to being Stratego-on-Sea.

By this I mean that you can tell many of the ship superiorities just by looking at them, but there a number that you cannot. The Heavy Cruisers range from 10 to 15 in fighting strength, but they all look the same except for the number hidden underneath. And the Light Cruiser (9) looks identical to the Destroyer Frigate (8) and the Destroyer Leaders (5, 6 and 7). The little Destroyers themselves all look the same, but can vary in fighting strength from 1 to 4 (4 being the ones with the missiles). And then there are the Cargo Ships - which you must sink to win the game, but they look identical to the Mine Sweeper, and the Mine Layers which can blow you up if you attack them ... .

So, in this respect CT is like Stratego with its hidden units, but only partially, as it’s only relevant for some of the ships. I’m not a fan of Stratego, I’ll confess, but I can cope with this hidden aspect of ‘Convoy Terror’ and it does add a bit of risk, excitement and fun to the battle. [I should add that, while one doesn’t know the opponent’s hidden ship values until an attack, you can check the number under your own ships during the course of the game.]

The game also has special rules for torpedoes and planes. When a Submarine attacks the enemy Aircraft Carrier or Battleship, the ‘gyroscopic indicator’ is spun (while the torpedo is running), and the attacking player calls odds or evens. If successful, there is a hit, if not a miss. The first hit disables the capital ship - it cannot move further during the game - and a second hit will sink it. For PT Boat attacks, the attacking player spins the indicator and must nominate 2 numbers (or only 1 number if the target is the Carrier or Battleship) - success means the big ship is sunk, but failure means the PT Boat is destroyed.

As to the planes, these are only used for finding and attacking Submarines. If a Submarine is within 3 boxes of a ship with one or more planes, the player may (‘declare Sonar’ and) launch the plane. The indicator is spun, one number is nominated and the plane sinks the Submarine if that number comes up. If it does not, the plane is lost.

The Mine Layer carrying the mines can lay one on a turn, which will blow up and sink any enemy ship if it enters that space. As they are visible, these mines can be avoided - but they are still useful for blocking or making a small ‘safe passage’ trail for your own ships. The Mine Sweeper, of course, can remove them without damage.

So there’s quite a lot happening in a game of Convoy Terror.

But is it any good as a game?

General Comments

Well, the game is undoubtedly simplistic and unrealistic - like the one space movement for all ships, and combat occurring by moving onto the other ship’s square and comparing numbers. And some aspects of the Rules are clunky or lame - like why can’t the ships move diagonally, why can’t trained Navy sailors distinguish a Light Cruiser from a Destroyer Leader, and why are planes automatically lost if they don’t sink the sub - are they shot down or just run out of fuel looking for it? For that matter, why do all the little mines have to be on one Mine Layer? [When Fighting Ships came out, this rule changed so that 2 of the Mine Layers have 2 mines each, which I prefer and play that way]. And the paper gamesheet was not great - no graphics at all and liable to tear (I had mine laminated many years ago).

But, to be fair, the game was only $1.50 ... . And the little bits are very cool, in an 'Axis & Allies' sort of way - and, most importantly, it’s just fun.

It tends to start off sedately with a careful setup and a series of chess-like moves, but then the opposing forces start to mix it up, and ships are coming in for attacks or trying to avoid them, losses start to mount, and gaps start opening up in the defensive formations. Sometimes raiders break through the front screens to get to the backlines of the opponent’s fleet, generating much excitement and consternation respectively. It can become virtually impossible not to cheer or groan when a PT Boat or Submarine downs a bigger ship, and not to feel the tension of the spinner turning when a torpedo is fired or a plane is attacking a submarine as a capital ship’s last hope ...! You’ll quite likely find yourself calling out "Torpedo Running" as you spin, or "Sonar" when you’re attacking a menacing sub - with a little plane that you might even catch yourself holding in the air above the mapsheet ... .blush

‘Convoy Terror’ was years ahead of its time. For many of us, it was our first real wargame. The fact that it is still remotely playable - even enjoyable - is a testament to the (unidentified) designer.

So, if you see one, grab it! But not to resell on eBay. Play it - even if it has to be with your kids - or their kids.

Or invite me over ... . I'll bring my secret setup
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