Gauntlet – Boardgame Review
Passed Inspection: Interesting subject matter with plenty of action. Good looking components for a DTP game.
Failed Basic: Cumbersome mechanics and a terrible manual. Few decisions for players.
In the summer of 1942 the fortress island of Malta was in trouble. Low on food, fuel, and munitions, the dagger to the heart of resupply efforts to the Deutsches Afrika Korps in North Africa was about to become a blunt instrument. In a weakened condition Malta could be invaded, and if successfully occupied, a victory by Erwin Rommel against the British in Africa would be an almost certain result. Malta could not fall.
Operation Pedestal was the British answer. A convoy amassing a large show of force (battleships, multiple aircraft carriers) to shepherd a force of transports carrying the precious relief supplies needed at Malta, Pedestal would run the gauntlet of an Axis-controlled lake. From August 11th until the 13th the convoy was savaged throughout the day by German and Italian aircraft and U-boats, while at night the enemy’s motor torpedo boats attacked the convoy. Suffering tremendous losses it was a British tactical defeat, but since enough transports made it to Malta (in some cases transports were reduced to towed barges by the amount of damage they had endured) it was a resounding strategic victory. Malta endured, and soon the tide of the war in North Africa began to swing towards the Allied side.
Operation Pedestal is a fascinating topic to read about, full of drama, heroism, and excitement. If only Gauntlet, a desktop published game on the subject designed by Paul Rohrbaugh and published by his High Flying Dice Games, captured those emotions.
Gauntlet is a two-player naval wargame focusing on the Pedestal end-run of August 11th through the 13th, 1942. Day turns represent two hours while night turns are four hours long. Units are represented mostly in groups (e.g. a full strength air or destroyer unit represents multiple aircraft and ships respectively), although capital ships are represented as single vessels.
Unlike many naval wargames, solo play is quite possible thanks to the open nature of the game (and indeed, after several plays it seemed like the game would have been better designed as a solo game). The map depicts the convoy run as a single track. Counters representing the task forces move on the map, while an off-map display holds the individual units and also contains the battle board. This is not the usual maritime game of hide and seek, as the Axis player controlling the German and Italian forces knows exactly where the convoys are located.
The British player attempts to get as many transports and combat units as possible to Malta by the end of the game, while the Axis player tries to sink those same units. The Brits have two main convoys, Task Forces Z and X, and a third tiny convoy, Task Force Harpoon, which can come on map when desired. Z and X contain various warships and transports, and a small air fleet thanks to three carriers (a fourth is present, but it is used only to ferry Spitfires to Malta). There is also a British submarine, which appears useless (more on that later). The Axis have two airbases with numerous fighters and bombers, some motor torpedo boats, a few U-boats, and the chance for an Italian cruiser squadron to come into play.
Each turn begins with a determination of Axis Coordination and the Malta Resistance Level. Axis Coordination helps determine how many German and Italian units come into the game each turn, and whether the Italian cruisers go to sea. The Malta Resistance Level helps defend Malta during air or naval attacks and allows limited offensive operations against nearby Axis naval units.
With the exception of the Italian surface fleet every unit the Axis has essentially respawns each turn. Die rolls determine how many air units, submarines, and torpedo boats appear each turn (air units only during the day, torpedo boats appear only at night). The British player, of course, does not have this luxury. British air units are lost permanently, while damaged ships do get a chance to roll for repair. Overall though, as a numbers game the British are on the losing side.
Once the units for that particular turn are determined the British player moves his convoys and decides what to do with his air units: keep them close for CAP or send them against the Axis airfields. Suppression of the airfields will reduce the number of aircraft that can launch. And here is one of the main issues with Gauntlet as a game: a lack of options by the British player. Of course the British player will continue to move his task forces towards Malta each turn, and so the only question is to keep his aircraft close or send them hunting. Since the Axis aircraft respawn each turn and the British do not, why take the risk?
After the Brits do their thing the Axis get to move their available combat units. And guess where they’re going to go? Right at the fat convoys, except those that can’t reach the convoys but can reach and attack Malta. Just as there is a lack of options for the British player the Axis player also is pretty much straitjacketed to his actions. Other than the possibility of losing some minor victory points due to combat losses, there is absolutely no reason why every unit that can attack the convoys would not do so; likewise, every unit that can bomb Malta has no reason not to do so.
When combat occurs players do get to make a few more decisions. Task forces are laid out in zones, aircraft can be launched to provide cover, and the attackers get to choose which ships to attack and what to attack with. There are mechanics to keep the attackers and defenders spread out, so no need to worry about gamey tactics like every aircraft attacking one ship.
The combat rules in the game are not complicated but are somewhat cumbersome. Let’s take the bomb and torpedo combat mechanics as an example. The attacker first declares how the bomber is attacking by its type (dive, level, or torpedo). Depending on the attack there is a die roll modifier (DRM). An additional DRM can come from the status of the targeted vessel. A die is then rolled and compared to the air unit’s combat factor, modified by the DRM. If the result is greater than the combat factor the attack missed/caused no damage. If the result is more than zero but no greater than the combat factor then a hit is scored, and damage is computed depending on the type of vessel, and whether or not it has already suffered damage. If the modified die roll was less than zero, then another roll is done to see if the target is sunk or crippled.
All die rolls in the game, from determining the Axis Coordination Level, to submarine combat, to surface combat plays out in a similar fashion. Dice are rolled, there are modifiers made to each roll, then numbers get compared and depending on where they fall something happens. As mentioned previously, none of this is particularly complex, but it can be quite burdensome.
A much bigger burden to players though is the rulebook. Desktop published games have a reputation for bad manuals, and unfortunately in this case that rep is earned. Errors are numerous and come in a variety of types. Sometimes information is simply left out. The section on surface naval movement states “ … naval units have the following Movement Factors (MF) … ” and then proceeds to not list any movement factors (these are ultimately found on the reference sheet). The rules for Axis air movement fails to mention that the player should make a die roll check, thus implying the number of units that can sortie is not randomly determined. It is not until the example of how this works is read that the missing verbiage is discovered.
Some rules contradict each other. One paragraph states that there is no need to mark dive bomber units since any that are capable will automatically be treated as such. A few case sections later it states that dive bombers can attack either as a dive bomber or a level bomber. Yet didn’t the rules just state they are always treated as a dive bomber when attacking?
Then there is this nugget: until you get to the section on winning the game, found at the end of the rules, there is no mention of a Task Force 2. It is Task Forces Z, X, and Harpoon. But all the VP awards mention Task Force 2, a task force that does not exist per the game.
Finally, there is the case of the mysterious British submarine unit. It is mentioned in two places. One, during set up of the game and two, as a die roll modifier in submarine combat. There are no rules for moving the British sub, attacking with the British sub, or even a victory point award for it. All submarine rules only mention Axis subs. It’s as if the designer put the counter into the game and then forgot it existed.
Gauntlet is a game that can only be recommended to the naval wargame completist. The rules read like a first draft, and the mechanics involve far too many modified dice rolls. Even if the rules are cleaned up it would be hard to recommend based on the limited number of decisions each player has in a turn. At least combat is almost a constant thing in the game, so if you enjoy blasting away at ships with Stukas and JU-88s, then this is your game. Unfortunately any drama that was present in the real battle is replaced with the luck of the die.
Gauntlet is a good example of how a design appropriate to highlighting the subject matter is so important. As a two-player standard wargame Gauntlet feels too much like a luckfest. A different approach was needed to bring this pivotal battle to life, and unfortunately Gauntlet is not that approach.
Armchair General Rating: 65%
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 4 of 5
About the Author:
Scott R. Krol has been writing professionally about games for almost twenty years now, on both sides of the critic/publisher fence, but has loved them for even longer. He resides in the historic Southern city of Roswell, Georgia, which was surprisingly not burned to the ground by Sherman on his way to Atlanta.