Avalon Hill, £18.95.
A new game from the Avalon Hill & Courtney Allen double act is quite an event. With a track record including Up Front, Storm over Arnhem and Thunder at Cassino, we are looking at one of the better design combinations, if not the most prolific, in the boardgame hobby. The new game is Attack Sub which concentrates on modern submarine warfare and which bears a distinct family resemblance to Up Front in both design and play.
I often wonder if I should write a macro to type out the comments on Avalon Hill components, so seldom does one have anything but praise. Attack Sub comes in the usual bookcase box with above average George Parrish artwork and contains just a rulebook, some marker counters, a range of ship and sub data cards and a pack of 128 glossy action cards. There is no map. Everything is up to the usual AH quality but there is a low heft factor here. The bottom of the box is hardly covered when punching-out is complete and at £19 or so, it represents only reasonable value for money in terms of components.
The ships and subs come in the form of double-sided data cards which rate each ship for sensor, attack and defence strengths and a 'detectability' rating. Interestingly, every ship in the game has the same defence strength (which determines the ability to score a hit) so the unsinkable carrier is a thing of the past. The game effect is to make the carrier vulnerable to even the weakest attack card as any sort of hit can be deadly. At the bottom of each card is the ship's sonar contact scale, of which more later. The cards also show a neat ship outline and some salient hardware data, but this is purely for effect and plays no part in the game. The bulk of the hardware supplied is, as you might expect, US and Soviet, but there are a few token Brits and a couple of Argentinian subs for the one Falklands scenario.
As with Up Front, the game revolves around the play of the action cards. There are no dice in the game, so each card carries a random number from 0 to 7 with a few X's thrown in for breakdowns. For those with a slight case of Medrowitis, the card distribution is 8xX, 16x 0,1,2,3,4,5,6 and 8x7 which, seriously, is useful to know when you are trying to keep a helicopter in the air or repair something. The cards specify the various actions that can occur in either your turn or as an immediate, out of turn, response to an opponent. Generally, each ship is allowed to perform one action per turn which for a large force can be quite flexible. The cards cover three broad areas; detection and avoiding same, offensive fire and movement. In addition there are cards to make repairs, launch helicopters and, rare though they are, Battle Stations cards to double the number of performable actions.
Unlike Up Front where each nation gets a fixed number of cards and discards, Attack Sub gives you a basic three cards plus one for each active ship or helicopter. There is therefore no tactical difference between the Soviets and the USN, purely hardware distinctions. This also means your hand will vary throughout the game, shrinking as your ships go to the bottom, increasing as reinforcements appear or if you get all the Moskva's choppers in the air. As a trade off for this sometimes restricted hand, you can pass on any turn and discard one, some or all of your cards. The ability to discard your entire hand in one action is a radical change from Up Front, but one that seems entirely justified. At one extreme, as the commander of a single submarine, you get just four cards. With that hand you need to manoeuvre, perform sonar, take defensive measures and fire at any given time. Accordingly, the tactical situation will sometimes demand a complete change of plan and with the freedom of the ocean compared to the confines of forest and barbed wire, this rule is a logical development.
The various detection cards allow passive and active sonar searches and the responses permit such sneaky manoeuvres as hiding in surface noise or under the thermocline (the latter is for subs only, despite what my opponent once tried with his frigates). The sonar tests are straightforward, basically being the sensor rating plus a random draw compared to the detection rating of the target. For some ships, especially the modern subs, the result can be a virtually guaranteed 'find', but you still have to flip a card in case fate is to play a part in you plans. The clever part of the game is then brought into play in the shape of contact ratings.
Each of your ships has a contact marker on your opponent's ship card which shows the level of contact you have on that ship. All scenarios with no contact between the various forces. If you perform a successful sonar search, either active or passive, you can move your marker up the contact scale from the 'no contact' box to show you have a faint track on the enemy. He, at that stage, has no idea where you are and you don't have enough of a contact to actually attack him. As the contact hopefully improves over the course of a few turns, the marker is moved from 'No Attack' up to 1, 2 and so on to a maximum of 4 where the 'blob' is slap bang in the middle of the radar screen.
Because this contact is just one way, this allows the situation where a sub can be sitting pretty with maximum contact on the entire task group and the ships can't find him. The nicest design feature is that very quiet boats, as well as having tough detect ratings, have more contact boxes so a meaningful contact is harder to achieve. Neatly, all ships in the surface force can share contact data on subs, but subs, being independent and without comms links, are obliged to keep their own individual tallies.
What is completely missing is the feel of searching for 'something' out there. A lot of the interest in reading books about sub warfare derives from the cat and mouse sonar duels and the almost complete isolation of the sub commander. In Attack Sub, there is no mystery as to whether it is a November or an Alfa screw you can just about hear on the sonar; in fact, you can see exactly what it is on the other side of the table. This is a bit of a let down, but I can see that this treatment fits with the scope and level of the game. Besides, there are more than a few other games that haven't solved the perennial omniscience problem.
One of the best parts of being a surface-based searcher is that you usually get to use at least one helicopter. Conversely, this is a distinct pain in the bum for the subs. The choppers are introduced by playing a card and while in the air add another card to hand capacity. They stay there until they fail a check following airborne actions - the bigger the ship the more chance of keeping it in the air. Helicopters are useful in Attack Sub, rightfully so I would suggest, and their main use is scooting around with sonobuoys actively pinging away with no fear of reprisal. Usually, any ship pinging its active sonar can be automatically detected using a passive sonar card in response. This makes the decision a tough one for ships, but for helicopters there is no recourse. There is nothing much the subs can do apart from hide and wait for the little Hormones to fail their serviceability check and return to their base ship.
Having established sufficient contact to allow an attack, you then, at last, have the choice of firing something at the enemy. This is done with fire cards as in Up Front. If you haven't got the appropriate card, you can't fire and you'd be surprised how long it can take to get one while the sonars are searching you out. The fire cards dictate a minimum contact level and, as a rule, the higher the required contact the better the shot. This corresponds exactly to the variable fire factors in Up Front. Once the 'fish is in the water', the target gets to play an evasive action card or, if it's a sub, fire off decoys and soundmakers. The net result is combined with a random number to see it a hit is scored. If it is, a damage check will result in damage or an instant sinking. If you do score a hit, the results tend to be pretty deadly and often only a dud torpedo will save a sub from any sort of ASW hit.
The movement system, often such a headache in Up Front, is simplicity itself. There is just one card that can be used to either open or close the range of ships you are in contact with. You can also play a card in your turn to nullify an opponent's attempt to close or escape. This has the effect of either raising or lowering the contact values of the affected parties - there are no range chits or indeed any form of quantification, just an abstracted 'closer' or 'further away'. This is appropriate to the level and subject of the game, tactically sound and classically simple.
Perhaps because of this consistent simplified approach, Attack Sub is definitely fast to play. Small encounters will take just 10-20 minutes, larger ones half an hour tops. Even these times can be reduced if a few lucky 7's are turned at the right moments. With games taking so little time, it is quite possible to turn round after each game and play it the other way or to work through a few scenarios in a session. Attack Sub is certainly up to modern standards in this respect.
It would be true to say that the Up Front ruleset is not the kindest introduction to a game. The result is that, having watched the game at conventions and clubs, I've never seen it played the same way twice. Some rules are ignored and others are adapted to what the players agree the rules mean. No such problems with its successor Attack Sub, though in fairness this game doesn't need to tackle those horrendous relative ranges. The Attack Sub rules cover just five pages, are well written, clear and comprehensive. The usual sequence of read, play once and re-read carefully will have you playing the game as the designer intended. No complaints here at all.
As far as the scenarios go, there is a good enough selection (thirteen in all) and more are easily created by adding a ship each side or swapping the nationalities around. Many are simple, balanced sub vs sub or escorts vs subs affairs, but there are also larger actions (restricted I guess only by the marker counters supplied) with several ships and occasionally convoys and reinforcements for each side. These bigger scenarios were where we discovered a small problem.
We played one action, 'Sink the Moskva' where five Russian ships with heavy chopper support took on two Improved Los Angeles boats with a British sub as a reinforcement. The first game was distinctly one sided, with the sub commander having very little scope to do anything except run silent or keep moving to avoid combat. This was odd as I don't think there is anything wrong with the situation of two subs attacking a small task group, more that the game seemed to give an exponential advantage to large surface forces (because of the larger size of their hand, the fact that ships share contact data and get five or more actions per turn to the subs' two). With eight or more cards in the hand, it didn't cause any problem for the ships to close or open range at will, listen passively, launch active searching helos and eventually manage to finish off our heroes.
To test whether this was an unusual result, we played it again a couple of times to see if the sub's lot improved. What we were trying to do was to lie low, gradually build up a good contact with passive sonar to be able to loose off a torpedo and then scarper. In this aim, the second game was a lot better and, with no little effort and canny play, the Annapolis (one of the 688s) managed to move to maximum contact on the Moskva without being detected himself. In doing so though, his partner went down. A little later, while still undetected, the Annapolis got off two shots against the Moskva using the Battle Stations card. It managed to sink it on a lucky shot, thereby winning the scenario. The fact that he promptly got hit by about five ASW attacks and sunk immediately after doesn't come into it! Nevertheless, it was good to see that the task was possible, if somewhat difficult. The third game saw a return to the one-sided balance - it was very hard for the subs to evade all the sonar if the ships got good cards. From the gaming angle then, with the sub's limited card selection, being usefully outnumbered does seem rather tough. As a simulation, we may well be along the right lines.
Continuing the subject of scenarios, I am reminded of the feel of Modern Naval Battles which resolves an interesting little scrap at the tactical level, but doesn't go much further than that. The sense is of missing that something wider than the battle itself; if you like, a reason to be fighting beyond that given in the short scenario blurb. This is common to games (especially miniatures) lacking a campaign options, unless the game goes in for the Squad Leader extended intro and outro 'fiction'. There is no reason Attack Sub shouldn't progress to a campaign level as does MNB2 (perhaps the General will feature such an expansion), and then the occasionally unbalanced matchups would be easily justified. This approach, if MNB is anything to go by, might signal a series of expansion gamettes but if I read between the lines correctly, the designer's notes indicate otherwise - Mr Allen's next game will be 'Blue Water Navy' and will cover all aspects of naval warfare, the implication being that it will use a different system.
For the gamer who has experienced Up Front, Attack Sub is a tough one to call. It would be hard to ask for a smoother system given the subject matter, it has clear rules, attractive components and is quick to resolve but one is left with a slight taste of Up Front-sameness and a worry that it is all a bit too simple in play and scope. There is definitely strategy required, so it isn't simplistic as MNB1, but it is sometimes not more than common sense or basic card play and once you have mastered the techniques there seems to be nowhere to progress to. The cards do allow some clever ploys, but all too often these rely on the right cards being in your hands and, as we know, that is not always going to happen.
As for the scope, I refer not to the realistically limited options forced by the cards held, but more the possibilities of the game system. As far as I can see, once you have played through the scenarios a couple of times and made a few cosmetic changes (HMS Sheffield instead of Hazard Perry etc), you will have played out the game in not a great many hours of gaming. In addition, I got the impression even after a dozen or so games that Attack Sub was going to be a little samey - without the terrain cards of Up Front and with the restricted range of actions (real or imagined), it may be lacking variety and thus replayability. I know many games would be grateful for even that level of play, but one somehow expects more in this instance. Either way, it is good value for those initial sessions.
The other slightly weak point, for me, is the atmosphere. The flavour is good in terms of hardware and available actions, but while the rationale for the system is easy to identify, it isn't always that gripping as a game or visual spectacle. To an extent Up Front is the same, though I can visualize the terrain and slow moving or pinned infantry better than I can the ships and subs which really need to be 'moving', especially when performing those evasive turns. It may be due to the card layout or the lack of map and counters showing positions, but there is occasionally something missing (even if you do supply your own sound effects). Rest assured that this is a Siggins quirk more than a criticism of the game, but Attack Sub can occasionally play a little on the dry side.
Where it does score is that it is usually fun to play, especially when you just can't get hold of that fire card, your sensors go down at the wrong moment or you get off a lucky shot and sink a carrier. It also works well when you manage to sneak a sub into close range and you can see the other guy wondering what to do next. This excitement also features strongly in close games and in apparently lost causes where you always have the chance to polish off those three frigates from an impossible position and, of course, in the variety of random results from the played and flipped cards.
Despite my few adverse comments, we played five games of Attack Sub straight out of the box (the rules were a breeze) and I was ready for more, so it must have something going for it. I have subsequently played two more sessions and have greatly enjoyed both. After all it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Attack Sub is, like Up Front, a card game with a theme. In Up Front that theme is slanted towards complexity and realism to a greater degree, whereas Attack Sub appears to be consciously pitched at a more playable level. In turn, it also becomes much more comprehensible. I'm sure the different feel reflects this subtle shift in emphasis as well as the less subtle change of subject matter.
Overall, Attack Sub is worth buying. It is a good game, perhaps even an ideal one for the less experienced gamer, and if my comments seem over-critical it is because I'm making the obvious comparison with the outstanding Up Front system. More than anything, because of its relative simplicity and clarity, Attack Sub strikes me as an excellent lead-in or gentle diversion to Up Front which can be no bad thing for Avalon Hill's sales. If the game does eventually pall, I suspect even the jaded gamer will derive much initial value from it. Courtney Allen has changed the subject and massaged the luck and skill levels of this unique game system until an entertaining mix has been achieved. The outcome is a worthy addition to the Avalon Hill line. Recommended.
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