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U-BOAT LEADER from DAN VERSSEN GAMES As hoped for, having soared to great heights gaining my pilot's wings over Vietnam in Phan...

U Boat Leader by DVG Games Review U Boat Leader by DVG Games Review

U Boat Leader by DVG Games Review

U Boat Leader by DVG Games Review


As hoped for, having soared to great heights gaining my pilot's wings over Vietnam in Phantom Leader, I have been allowed to sound the chilling depths of the North Sea and Mid-Atlantic with U-Boat Leader.  Having surprised myself with the amount of enjoyment I gained from an air war simulation, I had little doubt that a topic I have always liked, namely submarine warfare, would immediately appeal.  Being part of a series, I was not surprised to find that there are many similar features to both games.  But would that make for disappointment or would two totally different environments be capable of being successfully simulated by similar mechanics?  Before solving that key question, let's take the traditional peak inside the box at the physical components.

Once again quality stands high on the agenda ranging from the same deep strong box with its beautiful artwork, counters of even greater richness and thickness and visually first-class cards.  For me, the sombre brown, shading to sepia of the illustrations of ships seen through the periscope lens and the faded writing are perfect for conjuring up the period and ambiance of the game, but they may evoke different responses, especially if striking colour is more to your taste. 

What has definitely caused a degree of concern and complaint has been a number of significant production errors.  None of them prevent you from playing the game, but they do raise questions.  Above all, virtually all the cards depicting the surface ships [Merchants, Escorts and Naval] have been printed on the front as Merchants.  DVG has an excellent record on customer care  and they have been swift to reassure buyers that complete new decks will be supplied, but this will take at least a couple of months.

In the meantime, in practical terms of playing the game, this can swiftly be sorted out by comparing the ship counters with the cards and the correct three decks created.  But to save you time, the Escort cards are those numbered from 86 -100 and the Naval cards are those numbered 101-112.  The simple process of using sleeves with different coloured backs is a further quick way to make sure that you don't have to go through the process of sorting at the beginning of each game.  Having been a gamer since 1976, it's no big deal for me, but I can quite understand and sympathise with those for whom this is a very off-putting factor.

The problem seems to stem from the printers, but even more disconcerting is that the main play aid [labelled Help Sheet], which contains important rule sequences, wrongly contains the old Combat routine instead of the new 2nd edition ones.  Again the mistake can be easily overcome by referring to the rule book, but as one of the main criticisms of the 1st edition was the simplistic and unsatisfying Combat rules, there must have been considerable focus on this element.  So, this mistake really should not have been allowed to get through.  I'm hoping that like the cards this will be corrected for those who have already received the game, though so far I am unaware of any pronouncement from the company on this.

[This is the mounted board Help Sheet.  The incorrect Combat Sequence is in the bottom left corner and as you can see the central pile contains all the Escort cards wrongly printed as Merchant cards and to their right are the Naval cards, again, apart from the two I've put on top of the pile, wrongly printed as Merchant cards.]

These drawbacks will sadly deter some from ever buying the game and will cause many to justifiably wait until they are sure all has been put right.  However, my personal major disappointment is the Tactical Display Board on which all the direct action between submarines and the vessels that they encounter is performed.  As it stands, it looks the part, but small is definitely not to be considered good here.  This central focus of the game takes the form of a sonar display and the quadrants are barely large enough to hold more than two ship/submarine counters, as the picture below shows. 

the Tactical Display Board contained in the 2nd edition

Considering that in Phantom Leader [PH from now on] the equivalent board is twice the size and excellent in every respect, I was puzzled about this reduction.  Fortunately, I received, along with my review copy of the game, the U-Boat Leader and Gato Leader Ship Miniatures and Battle Board package.  As the Tactical Display Board in this expansion is exactly the size of the board referred to above in PH, I strongly feel that this should have been a basic part of the 2nd edition production.  It certainly transforms the whole experience - as the identical set up on the larger board [shown below] reveals.

the Tactical Display Board contained in 
the U-Boat Leader and Gato Leader
Ship Miniatures and Battle Board package

All that now follows establishes that both PH and U-Boat Leader follow similar effective paths in all other respects.  4 Campaign cards take us from the early years in The Battle Begins [Sept 1939 - May 1940] on into the Axis domination of The Happy Times [June 1940 - May 1941] and up to the period of parity and then the gradual British upturn in The Hunted [June 1942 - June 1943]. The fourth Campaign is, for me, something of an unknown sideshow taking us to the Caribbean and the American coast in Operation Drumbeat [Feb 1942 - June 1942].  I'm not sure whether this was an eye to the American market, though Gato Leader which takes us to the Pacific war with American submarines will certainly satisfy that desire.

My first four submarines set up ready to start
 a Short version of The Happy Times Campaign

Each Campaign contains the ability to play at Short, Medium and Long length.  The length of campaign determines the number of SOs [Special Operation] points that you receive and the number of patrols each submarine must make.  SOs are mainly used to buy your submarines.  In PH your aircraft was designated by its call sign [e.g. Digger]: in U-Boat Leader, each submarine has an historical U-boat commander's name on the card.  I liked the call signs and feel that being able to sally out with such characters as Gunther Prien makes play even more immersive.  You can buy each submarine card at one of four levels, Green to Ace, as against the six levels of pilot in PH.

Above are the cards for those first four submarines.

If you have your own copy of PH or have read my review of that game, you will quickly see that U-Boat Leader is marginally simpler and easier to play at each stage that I'm now going to take you through.

The Strategic Segment especially is much quicker than the equivalent procedures in PH.  Choose your submarines and spend the few SOs you may have kept back after putting your submarine group together on such things as Special Missions such as Raider or Air Searches and Supply ships.  That's more or less it.  There is none of the lengthy deliberation on what types of ammunition and missiles you need, as each sub card tells you how many torpedoes you have in store and ready loaded and whether it has a gun capacity for surface firing.  Torpedo capacity may vary, but all subs with guns get 6 potential shots!  Place your subs in whatever ports are available and you're ready to sail on to the Operational Segment.

Close up of the submarines in port ready to sail
in the Operational Segment on the Campaign map.

To my surprise I rather missed the more complex decision making of PH.  On the other hand, I did like being able to get down to the action quicker and here there is a major difference, as your U-boats have an Operations Segment where each moves individually on the Campaign map from sea area to sea area drawing and resolving Event cards as they do so.  Though a simple process, I like the extra dimension of deciding how far you're going to move and finding out what happens as you keep pressing on.

When you have moved all your subs, you then change to the Tactical Segment and once more sub by sub roll to see if you make contact with the enemy.  The possibility is from zero to three contacts, with each contact giving you the opportunity to draw a Convoy card.   When you have drawn a Convoy card reduce the Contact marker by one.  The size and composition of the convoy may vary and, if you don't like what you see you can always decide to abort that encounter.

A close up of the Tactical Display with two Merchants identified.

One has taken damage, the other so far is unscathed.

If you do decide to tackle the convoy, then in some cases you may be able to form a wolfpack, if you have chosen to move more than one sub to the same sea area and the pickings look particularly rich.
With the Convoy card accepted, you set out the enemy ship markers according to their positions on the Convoy card.   Often there will be a number of merchant ships with one or two escorts, on the Tactical Display.  As yet your targets are unidentified and so their markers are those with question marks on.  Then you  place your sub/s on the outer most ring of the display.

You move your subs one space if submerged and two on the surface, while very simple and easy mechanics govern the movement of enemy ships.  As these come within range, you'll draw an appropriate card which will identify the ship and you will place its named marker on the display.  This whole part of the game is engrossing with all relevant features taken into account through very accessible rules.

And so the heart of the game is under way.  Decisions, decisions!  The element I always appreciate in a game.  Attack on the surface, so that you can use your gunnery as well as torpedoes and become a more easily identified target by any Escorts.  How many torpedoes to launch at one target to improve your chance of hitting?  How do you react to being attacked?  Always loved Silent Running and Crash Dives in warfare?  They're both simple options that you can go for.

At this point the following familiar and in most cases identical elements from PH kick in.  Your subs indicated on their card as aggressive fire first, then the enemy and then cautious subs. OK and Shaken status play their part as does Stress.  The different hit numbers on the enemy ships determine the amount of damage your die roll inflicts on them, up to and including sinking them outright.

What has greatly improved the game is the introduction of damage chits to be drawn randomly for the enemy attacks on your subs.  Overall, this works very, very well, with only one slight concern on my part and that is the almost nil chance of Merchant ships inflicting damage and the seeming lethality of Escorts. 

It does mean, of course, that you try to keep the Merchant ships between you and the Escorts, but as the Escorts can both sail through and fire through the Merchant ships, this isn't too easy.  I must admit that here I feel that a house rule might come into being for me, limiting the ability of Escorts simply ploughing straight through the Merchant ships.  As things stand at the moment, once the Escorts start firing, it's time for my subs to cut and run to fight another day.

Once your subs are off the display, that particular encounter is finished and there is the opportunity to reload torpedoes and attend to other housekeeping elements.  However, it does not necessarily mean that your current sub is finished with.  If you still have a Contact level remaining you may draw another Convoy card and the Tactical cycle begins again or if you have an enemy ship on the verge of sinking you can spend a Contact point, fire off a torpedo or gun if on the surface to guarantee that it does settle beneath the waves and add to your VP and Experience point tally.  These ideas get another thumbs up from me. 

Just some of the high quality counters contained in the game.

This continues until all your subs have been activated or you do not want to activate any more.  However, all is still not quite done, as you still have to return to a port passing through the sea areas necessary to do so and drawing Event cards as you do so.  This constitutes one Patrol.  Finally, you reach the Refit Segment with such items as promotion of U-boats if gained, Stress recovery and torpedo reloads.   If playing a Short Campaign, you'll now determine the success level, as your subs only undertake one Patrol; if a Medium or Long Campaign, you will prepare for another Patrol and off you go again. 

All these elements are handled in the rule book with excellent clarity and in the appropriate logical progression familiar from DVG's solitaire games.   Components are clearly explained, as are all the different cards, followed by the Set Up instructions.  Next come the rules for the various Segments I've talked you through, a short historical section on different types of U-boats and a very helpful three page example of play.  This latter part is standard in all the DVG games I've played and is thankfully becoming a feature of other companies' rulebooks.

In terms of game play, I can thoroughly recommend the experience of playing U-Boat Leader and would suggest that it is an easier starting point than the many solitaire air warfare games produced by DVG.  For those of you who are hesitant because of the production problems needing to be rectified, you could always move straight to Gato Leader, which covers the Pacific war from the periscope lens of the American subs.  Hence the title. 

Obviously, the appeal is solidly aimed at the US market, but everything in the box is spot one with none of the slip-ups to be corrected in U-Boat Leader.

As the only difference in the rules are very, very minor, a separate review would be a pointless repetition and so, I hope, in a few weeks' time to take you instead through a detailed AAR of a Short length Campaign from play of Gato Leader.  Until then, beware the enemy above!



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