Before I tell you much about the game I want to tell you a little about my history with the game. I have played War At Sea at least once a year since 1978. I have played it at the tournament level, with my latest tournament being the WBC in 2005 (where I came in 3rd). I now consider myself more of a Euro-gamer than a war-gamer but still have war games highly ranked in my profile. War At Sea is one my favorite war games.
I think War At Sea needs to be looked at from two perspectives. It should be looked at first as a game and secondly as a simulation of historic events. Since I love the game I will first detail where it shines brightly, as a game, then comment on its less shiny side, as a simulation.
Components: Pretty standard 1970s Avalon Hill fair. The main playing piece are comfortably sized card board counters. Each counter is labled with a unit name, some reference values and a drawing of the capital ship/submarine/plane/merchant convoy that the counter represents. Support counters are smaller and are used to represent the games score, turn number, area control, and current status/damage for each ship. The board is fairly sturdy backed cardboard with an effectively drawn (though not proportionate) map of North and South America, The Atlantic Ocean, Western Europe and the Mediterranean Sea.
The Game Play: The board is divided into sea areas (thus making it one of the first area control type games) and ports. Each sea area is rated for the number of victory points the controlling side receives at the end of each turn. The victory point value is different for each area for each side, with the German/Italian side typically getting more victory points for controlling a given sea area. The UK player places his/her ships first. At the start of the game the UK player has 27 ships to place as he/she sees fit to protect the five sea zones to which it is possible for them to move. The German/Italian player then places his/her significantly smaller number (9?) of ships. This is where the game shines. It is a beautiful asynchronous situation where the numerically superior Allies must determine how best to protect a literal ocean of space while the numerically inferior German/Italians must determine where they believe the Allied player made a mistake in his/her placement in order to exploit the perceived mistake. As part of this decision making for both sides comes the issue that slower ships may have to roll a die, that is compared with their current speed, to determine if they in fact can reach the desired sea area. A great plan might be put in jeopardy with a few failed "speed rolls" where a risky plan might end up being a brilliant stroke with a few well timed "speed rolls." Once the surface ships and submarines are placed both sides (Allies first) place their single air force unit (placement is restricted for both sides to only particular sea areas and ports.) A game can be greatly affected by a fortunate shot by these airforces.
With the ships now deployed battles can then be resolved everywhere that the two conflicting sides each have at least one unit. Combat commences a sea area at a time with the UK player first attempting to
sink any submarines the German player placed in the area. They receive one die roll for each non-carrier/convoy capital ship and three die rolls for each air-craft carrier or convoy in the area. Every die that comes up a six immediately sinks one submarine, each die roll that comes up a five immediately sends a sub back to germany. All other Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) die rolls are misses and do nothing. After the ASW is resolved the germany player can target each surving submarine against an opposing ship. Each submrines rolls one die and a roll result of a six results in a hit. Each hit has a follow up die roll that determines the amount of damage the defending ship receives. If the new damage plus any existing damage totals greater than the target ships "armor" value then the ship is sunk. Damage is thus cumulative. Each submarine roll result of a five returns the target ship back to port. Combat continues with each side allowed to target one enemy ship for each airfactor present carriers have one to three each, depending on the ship, and the airforce unit has three airfactors) in the sea area. The air factor die roll is resolved like those of the submarines (ie a six is a hit requiring a follow up damage die roll, a five sending the opposing ship back to port). Only one round of air combat is resolved per battle. The battle then commences to consecutive rounds of surface ship to surface ship combat. Each ship targeting a single enemy ship and rolling a number of dice equal to its gunnery factor (the Bismark has a gunnery factor of four and an armor factor of nine). The die roll results are interpreted again as per the description of submarine/air unit fire. At the end of each round both players decide if they want to stay in the area and continue to fight it out or if they want to try to flee. If they flee they may be pursued by enemy ships that have enough speed (i.e. the pursuing ships current speed (which is their starting speed factor minus any damage they have received) versus the fleeing ships speed (which is their starting speed factor minus any damage they have received). Ships which are successfully pursued resolve follow up rounds of combat as if they chose to stay in the area but with no possibility of eventually owning control of the sea area at the end of the round. This system of combat is a dice fest and adds a large amount of unpredicatability to the outcome of a given battle. It also can be a lot of fun if it isn't taken too seriously (though most of us have whined when they had a particularly bad run on no fives or sixes showing up on their attack die rolls. "How can I not roll one six on twenty dice?!") Some have called War At Sea "Yahtzee at Sea" for this large number of dice rolling and there is without a doubt a lot of dice thrown. In general though, the better player will beat a worse player way more times than they lose due to "bad dice." At
After all battles have been resolved each area is assigned a control flag. A Union Jack if the allies control the sea area, a red German flag if the German/Italians control it and no flag if neither side had
surviving surface units OR (and this is very important to the game) the German player has one or more surviving submarines in the area and no German surface ships). Each side then totals the victory points from the areas they have control flags in and subtracts their amount for the round from their opponents amount for the round and this total is added/subtracted to the current running total for the game. Each player then returns their ships back to friendly ports, and receives any appropriate reinforcements owed to them for the next round. The next round begins just as the first round with the allies placing their ships.
I have intentionally neglected to discuss a bunch of small rules on things such as repairs, USA/Russian Ship Entry, and convoys but I believe I have covered the gist of the game play.
Simulation Value: War at Sea tries to simulate the WWII naval conflict in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea between Germany and Italy on one side and the UK, USA, and Russia on the other. If judged simply as a simulation the game fails. Playing this game gives the players a sense that several large naval battles should have occurred. Further it suggests the German/Italian side could have, with some luck, defeated the Allied sides capital ship navy. This is an entirely ahistorical, what-if packaging. There were in actual fact very few significant capital ship engagements between the warring powers in the Atlantic, with the epic Bismark sortie being the exception. In historical fact the main damage the Germans did during the WWII war at sea was the merchant ships they sunk with their U-Boat force.
Summary: I would hope anyone that has any interest in fighting ships, relatively easy to learn war games, and area control games would give this one a try. It plays in under two hours and usually has enough tension and thrills in it to be worth the time invested. It is out of print, but is reasonably priced on EBay. Hard core grognards and total Eurogamers probably won't like it for exactly opposite reasons but there is a lot of room in the middle for the rest of us to put this two player game out on the table on occasion.