Steam and Iron – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Fine AI, accurate and comprehensive historical detail, a myriad of scenarios and campaigns, good editors
Failed Basic: A bit of a learning curve, basic graphics, lean documentation, no multi-play.
Like RMS Titanic, naval warfare in World War I represented the highest achievements of the industrial age. Mammoth dreadnoughts, aircraft, submarines, radio, code breakers all played parts in the conflict. Also like Titanic, events didn’t turn out as planned. Naval Warfare Simulations’ solitaire Steam and Iron, version 1.53, and its campaign expansion, version 1.2, offer players insight into the complicated workings of fleets of this period in every sea and clime that saw conflict. Can a game of such detail still be enjoyable?
Functional graphics set the game’s tone. Land is yellow masses with realistic coastlines and port names. Dusk, night and dawn sweep over the map to change visibility as time passes. Mine fields are marked in blue and red. Moving the view is a simple click, hold and drag. Zoomed-out, ships appear as dots with division names with triangular or rectangular pennants representing player or AI control. Zoomed-in, vessels are shown in a 2D bird’s eye view with dominant features like turrets, superstructure, wakes and stack smoke. Players can opt for gun and sighting range rings, course tracks, compass roses and damage meters. Ships of different nations can be colored per taste for differentiation during battle in the zoomed-in battle view. Shell splashes and smokescreens turn up as white blocks. Torpedoes speed toward targets. Shell tracks are shown with color-coding to differentiate between incoming and outgoing. Damaging hits can be seen as red circles. Enlarged inserts of selected ships show a photo of the ship or diagrams of their state in the game. Statistics for each vessel abound. Sounds are the thunder of guns and explosions. Manuals for both products and editors are detailed but could use more illustrations for mechanics. The tutorial PDF is quite helpful.
Above all, this game is about accuracy and information. The information begins with a side panel to the battle maps. The order of battle (OOB) tab shows players’ ships collapsed into divisions, squadrons or flotillas. Expanding any of these shows individual ships; double clicking on one centers the map on the vessel. Right-clicking that vessel brings up a dialog showing many characteristics such as armament, armor, crew quality, ammunition and speed. Crew quality, ranging from +2 to -2, is particularly important for combat and damage control. These values will change during battle as damage or malfunctions occur. Other buttons reveal details on damage. The same information can be gained by right-clicking on the ship in the OOB tab.
Down and Out in the North Sea
Game time runs in one-minute turns, but players have options in managing time. “Run 5″ button allows for five minutes of game time to run before pausing while “Run” allows progress until a player-set event triggers a pause. Players can also pause at any time to give orders.
Game play is dictated by levels of control. The game is most realistic on Admiral Level where players control only lead divisions of formations, shown by rectangular pennants. Other units are controlled by the AI but usually follow the lead division. Rear Admiral mode allows players to take over all divisions within sight of the flagship but at the cost of losing 10% of points earned. In Rear Admiral mode, the lead division should attempt to maintain contact with other friendly forces. In Captain mode, players control all divisions but lose 20% of victory points. This mode may sound exciting but is overwhelming in any but the smallest battles.
Play starts before contact; in fact, contact may not occur. Players click on a red rectangular pennant, turning it yellow, and then right-clicking to give orders. Different divisions can be chosen by changing the role from “Independent” or AI controlled. Division speed can be dialed up and down or set to cruise, squadron median or maximum with buttons. Course changes are handled with heading being dialed or by clicking on a button and then clicking on the preferred map direction. Having the division’s ships turn together is another option. These commands and more detailed orders can be given through the division dialog. Brought up by a right-click, this screen shows each ship in the division. Clicking on a ship allows the same movements commands and also allows selection of the six roles related to the lead formation, e.g., core, support, screen or patrol, choosing from four formations such as line ahead or abreast, search line or screen and even handing control of the division or squadron over to the AI. The screen also indicates the division’s or squadron’s lead formation and divisional target. Until contact, players can choose from four “fast” settings. All these commands can also be given from the main map.
En route to contact, intelligence and sighting reports will stream down the log panel along with news of possible engine failures and fuel problems. Sightings first appear as vague “ships” appearing as small dots on the map. More detailed information on vessel type and class appears as range closes.
When the enemy formation is clearly in sight, players should pause the action, turn on the sighting and gun range circles and right-click on an enemy to check its speed. Weather and wind direction should also be considered in tactical planning. Forming line ahead with the controlled division probably yields the best gunfire and torpedo solutions.
Slowing the speed to one of the four “slow” times or real time is also a good idea. Divisions open up automatically but holding fire to get maximum hit chances and to conserve ammunition is a possible option. Automatic fire works fine but players can opt for manual targeting. Friendly AI-controlled ships maneuver well to support the main thrust—enemy AI does the same. Friendly destroyers are very good at opportune torpedo attacks, as are the enemy “little boys.” Depending on range and relative position, hits can involve eight parts of the ship, including deck, turrets and superstructure. These events are shown on the steaming report log with an asterisk indicating penetrations. Penetrations cause flooding, steering damage, engine failure, disabled guns and the fatal magazine explosion. The overall status of a ship is shown on a health bar or by clicking on the ship to view a diagrams and stats. Maneuvering for the best shots while presenting the least dangerous aspect will keep players mightily engaged.
Scenarios and Campaigns
The 32 scenarios are diverse in size and objective. Their size ranges from single ship actions to mammoth fleet clashes. Objectives include sinking a specific number of enemies, reaching a destination or blocking such a dash, shore bombardment, laying mines, and convoy raids. Points are rewarded for achieving objectives, sinking and damaging enemies, and by engaging in the humane but dangerous practice of picking up survivors from doomed vessels. Important actions are examined in depth. For example, Jutland is represented through three variants.
Players can vary play not only by changing modes but by choosing from historical, variable and maximum force levels. Replay is assured by the battle generator covering the Adriatic, Pacific, Baltic and North Sea and by a scenario editor, allowing changes to five ship variables and overall force composition. A ship editor allows for modifying ships or creating them from scratch. These editors are buried in the program folder.
The campaign expansion is more than a bunch of linked missions strung together. This add-on provides a completely separate level of play, elevating the system to a strategic level with a dash of operational thinking thrown into the mix. The four campaigns include the Baltic from 1914 to 1917 and three North Sea variants: 1914 to 1918, 1916 to 1918 and a German High Sea fleet reinforced with ships that, historically, never made it off the ways.
Each campaign starts with the full Russian, British and German fleets listed in the OOB, but some divisions will be unavailable. Campaigns can be played in turns of one, two or four weeks so players can settle down to fairly long sessions. Depending on turn length, several actions like the scenarios in the base game can occur. As the campaign progresses, reinforcements appear.
The ability to activate fleets, divisions or individual ships is a function of operational points (OPs) representing supply and readiness. Ops are gained each turn so players should hold back a turn or two when planning an all-out foray. Emergency activation in the face of large enemy attacks lessens the OPs needed to activate forces. Another limitation is port capacity. A port can maintain only a certain number of ships so forces are spread out and must be coordinated. Entrances to ports can become tricky later in the campaign as the enemy lays mine fields. Repair, refit and upgrades are also done in ports. These activities take time as shown on a list. Vessels can be moved up or down on the list as wished.
The number of ships to be activated may also depend on objectives chosen. A dialog box gives a list of objectives: these objectives can be selected or not, except for those that come from HQ and must be accomplished. Players can give themselves mine-laying objectives. Objectives include bombardment of shore installations, mine laying, or sweeping or sinking a certain number of ship types. Mine-capable ships must be loaded with mines manually. Sometimes, no objectives appear or players choose not to select any. The fleet can then stay in port to gather more OPs or conduct sweeps to find weak enemies—or run into nasty surprises. Points are awarded for sinking ships and completing objectives; losses and damage lose points.
Before sailing, intelligence reports come in. Also, buttons and tabs list friendly ships and their statuses. The Fleet Engineer will report on ships refitting or being repaired while the Chief of Staff recommends vessels to be trained. The vessels can be right-clicked and be detached from their division to go on short training jaunts.
Submarines are also part of the game. A tab lists available subs that can be directed to places on the map with a click. Early subs have limited range, but their operational distance and capability to lay mines are added throughout the campaign.
Play during a turn is much like a scenario in the base game. Bombardment and mine-laying missions require the force to linger at the red spot for a set time. Damaged ships may be forced to head home early. If a vessel can’t make it to her home port, any port not at full capacity will do. An option to move home at some risk is given. When a turn ends, the next one carries over the results of the last with notifications of possible reinforcements.
Steam and Iron could be improved by adding a multiplay component and a “return-to-base” function in the campaign game. Mediterranean and Pacific campaigns would be nice. These complaints are minor; however, this series is without doubt the most accurate, comprehensive and detailed of any World War I naval game on the market. Any gamer wanting to feel he is not only fighting a ship but handling a fleet should buy this series posthaste!
Armchair General Rating: 90%
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad.