Monday, March 14, 2011

PQ-17 (GMT) ~ "XIII. PQ-9/10: Before the Storm "

Game: PQ-17
Scenario: "XIII. PQ-9/10: Before the Storm"
Participants: Jim "HeavyD" D, Myself
Time: Friday, Mar 11th ~ 6.30PM - 9.30PM

Tonight, HeavyD and I sat down to play our second game of PQ-17. We had played it about a month ago, the first time that either of us had played this game. We played one of the scenario's published in C3i called "PQ-9/10: Before the Storm". This is a smaller scenario that the designer has used to teach the game at events. It depicts the peaceful passage of a convoy to Murmansk in February 1942. Historically the Germans did not attack the convoy. The scenario has daylight turns and night turns (one each day) thus allowing the German and Allied players the chance to do air operations. This is defiantly the right choice for people learning the system to be their second scenario.

I enjoyed our playing of the last scenario. As mentioned it was the first time we played this game and we were both busy figuring out the mechanics of the game. I was the German player in that scenario and once I got the mechanics of the searching down, it went very quickly. Essentially I would move, search and then if I had a convoy/task group spotted and U-boats in position (they cannot move and attack in the same turn) I would attempt to make an attack. This would require another search (a card draw) and then we'd roll on a couple of charts to get the results. The subs could sometimes attack first, other times the escorts are able to attack first and perhaps thwart the subs attack all depending on the situation (represented by modifiers). I might have gotten one or two hits that night and I don't recall any destroyed U-boats. As the scenario took place during near total darkness the Luftwaffe was not a factor aside from the abstracted search units (the game abstracts air search nicely using various zones for this).

The game after set up
One thing HeavyD and I both did since our last playing was to re-read the whole rulebook. I had only skimmed the surface combat section last time as I knew that there was no chance of having a surface engagement. I also paid close attention to air combat mechanics as in this scenario air units represent my main force, aside from 5 or so U-Boats and a small chance that the Tirpitz would make an appearance via random event. Based on HeavyD's reaction, I was expecting the surface rules to be much more complicated then they actually were. Essentially each player places his units on a battle board in various lanes and shots, then if the engagement continues, some units can move within these lanes and you have another round of combat. A pretty nice method and again heavily influenced by modifies and various other things. The Germans were skittish of loosing their few remaining heavy surface assets in this phase of the war and as such there are many conditions that have to be met to allow the Germans to fight a pitched battle. Thus most of the time the German players main threat comes from the air and underneath the waves.

This scenario, specifically designed to bring players into the game starts after the "pre-game" stuff has taken place. This means that you skip a phase where the Allied player will plot his movement (he still does in this scenario) and then move for 3-4 turns rolling only for weather and other random events. The purpose here is to help speed through the phase where the Allies are queuing up and leaving port...all this makes sense and I'm glad the designer chose to approach it this way in lieu of opening each game with 3-4 really boring turns. This scenario only has one convoy en route to the USSR and no returning convoy heading the other way, which you will have in most of your PQ-17 scenarios (or campaign games for that matter).
PQ-9 Moves North
Thus we are starting with a very scripted situation with little room for the players to make any major decisions. I am speaking mostly about the German side, I really only had 4 subs at sea and 4-5 air units at my disposal for most of the game. I did have a few destroyers in port that I could have sailed with, but the Allied player starts with an overwhelming escort force, including two BB's (KGV & Duke of York) and one CV (Victorious) as well as several heavy and light cruisers and a half dozen DD's plus other escorts. Both sides know where the convoy starts and where its going, so the dummy blocks don't add much fog of war. The Allied player has a couple more decisions to deal with but these are also fairly marginal and don't seem to add very much tension or excitement to the scenario (for instance when to turn the heavy escorts around to return to Iceland and turn over the protection to the Russian based escorts).

Sadly, I lost interest almost immediately. I never felt engaged by the game. I didn't feel like any of the decisions I made had much of an impact on the outcome. It seems like its all very scripted and that the player is really just lining it up and watching the show. Sort of like those old "electric football" games that those of us of a certain age will remember. You set up your stuff, move it where its supposed to go and see what happens. I had little interest in what happened. The book I am reading about the Arctic Campaign was much more engaging then the game, and all I have to do is read the book (and use my imagination of course)! HeavyD seemed to come alight at the thought of the Tirpitz sailing (I actually rolled the random event to trigger this) but by then I just wanted it to be over. We got through around ten turns without either side making an attack. I started to play Angry Birds on my phone after awhile it got that bad. When the Convoy was a couple of turns away from making port we stopped as he'd sailed past my U-boats and we knew they would not likely be able to get into position to make an attack.

Convoy sighted
Thus this will be the last time I have PQ-17 on the table. I had similar reactions to "Downtown" and "The Burning Blue". I think very highly of both of those games and what they accomplish through their enlightening treatment of their subjects (Downtown is the air war over North Vietnam, Burning Blue is the Battle of Britain) but as games they didn't hold my attention once I had the systems down. Its very much the same with PQ-17. I admire the design and am very glad that HeavyD and I played it a couple times, but in the end there isn't much here to make me want to come back and play the game over and over again. I want to at least think that I as a player have something to add to the experience. I felt none of that here.

Now, I know that the designer is working on other historical situations for this system. I can see this system being highly effective say for example covering the Guadalcanal campaign or some of the campaigns in the Med in the early war. Guadalcanal especially seems like it would be perfect for this system and I would be first in line to P500 that title. I am happy that I spent the time I did with the game though. As mentioned I bought and am reading several books on the campaign and these are quite good. I'm also glad I spent the time learning the game as it does a great job of getting you into the situation, making you aware of the challenges both sides faced during the campaign. This for me is one of the big reasons I game, to get this context around the history that I am so taken with. PQ-17 certainly does that in spades. So I hope that Mr. Janiec is hard at work on volume two of this series as I'll be back for it.


  1. Well written AAR Steve. I didn't buy PQ17 due to similar concerns, i.e. is there enough decision making to make it interesting or is it mainly a "process" game.

  2. Thanks Bob. Good call on the "Process" game...I hadn't thought of it like that but its very fitting.

  3. Helpful. I've read similar electric books about this facet of WWII and hoped the game would recreate it, but it sounds like it won't. Do you think playing a full campaign would have made it more interesting?

  4. Only slightly in that you will see some progression from scenario to scenario. You still have to play the scenarios though, and that's where it fell flat for me.