Michael Eckenfels, 19 November 2020 ~ #UnboxingDay
Rather than just another unboxing article, here’s a look at what’s inside, and a bit on how it plays, to go with the AAR that’s already running in our forums.
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By Stealth and Sea is one of the latest titles from DVG and game designer David Thompson. In this game, you take on the role of leading a group of frogmen from the Italian Decima Flottiglia MAS, piloting manned torpedoes into heavily-guarded Royal Navy harbors in the hopes of blowing a few of Her Majesty’s ships to pieces.
Inside the box, you’ll find a ton of stuff – and this box weighs close to five pounds. There’s a Rule Book, a Mission Book, three sheets of counters, lots of cards, three mounted maps, and several player aid sheets.
The components are of good quality; the counters are thick though the print on the ship counters are a bit small (that’s more on me I think). The design choices will look familiar to anyone who’s played Pavlov’s House or Castle Itter, two other excellent designs from David Thompson and DVG; this is mostly apparent in the chosen font, which is unique.
The rule books are well laid-out and there aren’t many pages (21, not including the handful of pages devoted to Campaigns). They’re pretty standard glossy material that you come to expect from typical wargame content these days.
There are three mounted maps, each depicting a harbor targeted by these frogmen – Algiers, Alexandria, and Gibraltar. As you may expect, each is laid out differently and therefore presents its own challenges in navigating and finding the best targets in the time allotted to the mission.
The rule book gives a clear set up for the first mission (there are nine total in the game), as an example. The Mission Book also covers this, as well as all the other Missions involved in the game.
The SLCs, or siluri a lenta cursa, meaning “slow-running torpedoes” or “manned torpedoes” according to the rule book, are represented by three cards. Each card has spaces for tokens to record the condition of that SLC; breakdowns and crew effects are recorded here and can greatly impact how these operate each turn. These breakdowns can significantly impact how the SLC operates; for example, if the Ballast Tank malfunctions, the SLC cannot submerge, and they’re much easier for the enemy to spot if on the surface.
That’s the trade-off: you can move much further along the surface than underwater, but underwater, you’re harder to spot. It’s a balancing act to decide when you should submerge or if you should try another dash for the harbor.
There are several player aids that list all the actions your SLCs can take in a turn. Most SLCs receive two Action points each turn, which are spent to move, dive, turn, and a lot of other different things. Spending one Action point on an action means there’s a chance it will not succeed – usually it requires a d6 roll of 4 or higher to make it happen. Most Actions, however, allow you to spend both your Action points to ensure an automatic success.
There’s really not enough time to do everything you want to do, and the inclusion of being spotted and enemy Patrol Boats bearing down on your SLCs means you often have to lay aside your plans to improvise. The situation changes drastically and often, usually for the worse, but sometimes – just enough to make it interesting, in fact – for the better.
The game comes with five dice – three normal d6s, one d6 that is numbered 1 through 3 (with two instances of each on the die’s faces), and a d8. The normal d6s are used to check for Faults, to conduct Repairs, and to determine if an Action is successful or not. The d6 with the 1-3 values is used to determine which SLC is picked on for a Fault Check at the start of each turn. And, the d8 is used to determine random movement for any Patrol Boats that might have lost sight of your SLCs.
There’s several wooden disks included, which are used to record your SLC’s operational capacity, among other things.
And then, there’s tons of cards. For one, there’s Crew cards, which represent the two-man crew operating a single SLC. Some of them have better skills than others. These Crew cards have two sides, one brown indicating exhaustion, and one dark blue/gray, indicating ready.
The Forward Positioning cards represent home bases from which your SLCs will operate. Some have unique challenges, in the fact that you can only reach certain British harbors from them, and some require extra Fault checks at the start of a game (which can be brutal).
The Fault cards, which you draw once each turn, are shuffled so you don’t know what’s coming next. However, the deck’s composition depends on the technology you have in the game. If you’re playing the custom campaign game, you can upgrade your craft slowly over the course of the game, which means different faults are removed and then included in that Fault deck. When you draw one, you have to roll a normal d6; if the result is a failure, the card indicates something that goes wrong with that SLC. Usually it’s repairable, but sometimes it is not.
There are also Alert cards, which are drawn to determine whether or not your SLCs are detected. They also are drawn whenever a Patrol Boat attacks, to indicate success or failure for the attack. Harbor defenses can be variable as well, and in the custom campaign can improve drastically depending on how well your frogmen are doing.
Your goal as the frogmen is to infiltrate a harbor, get your SLC into the same hex as a target, attach the warhead, and then scuttle and escape. It might sound relatively simple, but there’s a lot that needs to happen to make a successful mission. Or a failed one, for that matter.
I will admit my own ignorance in not knowing a lot about these operations in World War 2, and am thankful for the education. I thought these torpedoes were brought to bear on a ship, then turned on and the frogmen escaped while their torpedo moved to its target. It was eyebrow-raising to learn that no, these guys actually drove these manned torpedoes up to the very ship they wanted to sink, then removed the warhead from the SLC and attached it directly to the enemy ship’s hull, set it for a timer (usually a couple of hours), scuttled their SLC, then made good their escape. That’s just in blowing up a ship; I can’t imagine the unmitigated bravery it took to actually pilot one of these things, in pretty much pitch darkness (especially underwater), avoiding patrols, torpedo nets, and navigating with pinpoint accuracy. It’s quite an eye-opener.
In any case, if you can imagine all the trials a pair of frogmen would face in this situation, you’re pretty much going to be experiencing all of it yourself in this game. The tension and stress (good game stress, but stress nonetheless) of trying to slip through a torpedo net, or avoid several Patrol Boats that have your number, it’s all a fascinating experience.
As mentioned, your targets are ships – British warships, though there are cargo ships too. The cargo ships aren’t worth nearly the victory points as say a heavy cruiser, or even better a battleship or aircraft carrier, but the cargo ships are a heck of a lot easier to blow up. Most warships are within the confines of a well-protected harbor.
The Fault Check Phase is where you roll that aforementioned d6 that has values of 1-3 on its faces (two 1s, two 2s, and two 3s), which will indicate which of the three SLCs gets to make a Fault Check. You draw a Fault Check card, which is usually pretty rough for early technology SLCs (meaning you more often than not have to roll a 6 on a normal d6 to pass the Fault Check). If you fail, which is more than likely in the early years, something difficult happens. For example, if you drew a Fault Check for a Warhead, you’d need to roll a 6 to pass; if you fail, you have to place the Fault card next to the SLC, and then place the Warhead marker on the card, which indicates that SLC cannot place a warhead onto a target until this is repaired.
In the SLC Phase, you conduct a variety of Actions, each with unique costs. Most SLC crews get two Actions, as mentioned earlier, which can be spent on things like Full Move, Move, Dive, Repair, and others. Most Actions allow you to spend one Action to roll a d6 to see if you’re successful, and also allow you to spend two Actions for the same thing in order to guarantee success. You could easily go through the game spending both Actions each SLC Phase to assure success, but that will slow you down tremendously. And that’s if you don’t have the Patrol Boats to worry about, too.
The Harbor Defense Phase is where the fun really begins. Here, you determine what the British defenses do for the game turn. This is divided up into several sub-phases, including Searchlights, Underwater Dive Team, Patrol Craft Response, Patrol Craft Movement, Patrol Craft Attack, and Shore Base Mortar attacks. In the early years of the war, the Underwater Dive Team and Shore Base Mortars do not come into play, which is great because you’ll have your hands full enough already with the Searchlights and Patrol Craft Response.
Each of those functions (Searchlights, Patrol Craft Responses) requires a draw from the Alert Deck for each SLC on the board. Each Harbor has a range of numbers associated with either of these events, and if the Alert card drawn features a number that’s equal to or higher than the number for the Harbor, the SLC is spotted. You then place a yellow disk on the SLC to indicate this status. Spotted SLCs are much easier for Patrol Boats to find.
Patrol Boats will make a beeline for spotted SLCs, and if they enter the SLC’s hex, they will fire upon it, whether it is on the surface or submerged. It’s easy for the SLC to remove the Spotted disc marker if it is submerged and moves, but if it’s spotted when it’s close to Patrol Boats, it’s going to have to go through some attacks. That can be devastating when several Patrol Boats are nearby.
Most of the tension is derived in this Phase, with you sweating bullets waiting for the searchlights to pass over, or Patrol Boats to find you. Once you get into the later years of the war, you’ll have the joy of having to deal with Underwater Teams and Shore Mortars. This is actually quite thematic as the British were quite keen on countering this unique method of attack the Italians executed numerous times. In the campaign game, as mentioned earlier, your success fuels added Royal Navy defenses, so good work is not necessarily punished, as much as it is rewarded with additional challenges.
If you’re lucky enough to get an SLC into the same hex as a target ship (which is even harder in a harbor as it’s much easier to spot SLCs there), and manage to attach the warhead without issue, you can then scuttle your SLC and make your escape. The game rewards you with an extra Victory Point for each SLC crew that manages to scuttle its vessel; you get one additional Victory Point if your crew successfully escapes. It might not sound like a lot, but it can add up, and the game rules give you a scoring range to compare your score against, to see how well you do. In the campaign game, you can spend Victory Points to research newer technology to help you perform your missions (and deal with the Royal Navy’s own advances).
Honestly, I thought this game would be too esoteric for my tastes. I mentioned earlier my complete ignorance of these operations (I’d heard of them, but never looked into them), and wasn’t sure it would be fun to simulate a pair of frogmen moving a faulty manned torpedo into a harbor teeming with Royal Navy targets and patrols. And the more I thought about that, the more I realized how much fun it DID sound like. I posted to Facebook about this game and how I wasn’t sure I’d like it, but it ended up being a big surprise. I’m happy to say it’s a fantastic game. Interestingly, designer David Thompson answered my post, saying he himself had concerns the game would be too niche to be interesting to most wargamers. However, I’m here to tell you just from a game standpoint, it’s a great deal of fun. It’s one of those games that is very challenging, so much so that wins are going to come much more infrequently than losses – but at just the right ratio to keep you wanting to try again and again. And when you do win, you’ll want to try yet again to better your score.
It would be difficult for me to give a game higher praise than that, to be honest. I’m a fan of a couple of David’s previous games, Pavlov’s House and Castle Itter, which are very enjoyable. I’m happy to add By Stealth and Sea to my list of ‘must play’ games. Not to mention, it’s sparked interest in me to go and read more about these operations. It’s always great when a game kindles interest in areas of history you may not be familiar with.
Thanks for joining this month’s #UnboxingDay with the Armchair Dragoons and we hope you enjoyed our recon of our recent acquisitions.
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