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Posted on Oct 22, 2012 in Boardgames

Steel Wolves – Boardgame Review

By Michael Peccolo

Steel Wolves: The German Submarine Campaign Against the Allies – Vol. 1, 1939-1943. Solitaire boardgame. Developed & Published by Compass Games. designed by Brien J. Miller and Steven C. Jackson. $130.00

Passed Inspection: Detailed and addictive game play. Campaigns and scenarios can be very challenging. Large number of scenario choices to fit your gaming needs and available time. High replay value.

Failed Basic: Confusing charts and rules references, needs plenty of extra room around map if playing a campaign.

In the overcast, gray morning, the submarine continued to shadow the convoy. With over 20 ships, the convoy made a fine target for a wolfpack. The sub had been patrolling the Western Approaches to Great Britain for two weeks and had only encountered a couple of loners, managing to sink just one, a small, 2,000-ton Dutch freighter. But this—this would be different, as three other subs were also out here on patrol and were trying to answer the call to mass their forces.

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"Captain!" the XO called up to the conning tower. "The convoy has changed their general direction to 58 degrees, still sailing at six knots!"

"Ja, Hans, send a signal out to the responding boats!"

"Jawohl, Captain!"

Above the dark ocean, a British Sunderland flying boat that had been on patrol for two hours was just coming into range of the convoy that had sailed from Halifax. The overcast ceiling had been up and down so far today, and it was looking like it might just burn off for the afternoon. Jones, the signaler, stuck his head into the cockpit: "Huff Duff contact sir! Bearing 337 at 8 miles."

Flying Officer Smythe banked the big plane as he alerted the crew.

"Pilot to crew, action stations! Barnes old boy, a fiver says I spot him before you."

"Aw, Sir, I hates ta take yer money!"

"Alarm! " The U-boat’s lookout screamed, as the big British patrol bomber came into view off the starboard bow. As the men cleared the tower, the captain took one last look, gauging the distance. The deck was just barely starting to go awash. It would be close. As he dropped to the control room he yelled, "Right 10 degrees rudder, full angle on bow and stern planes!" Men were still trying to rush past to the forward torpedo room to help the bow go down. If any of them had survived, they could have said they heard the splash of the aerial bomb just before it struck the hull and detonated.

Admiral Doenitz, What are Your Orders?
Steel Wolves:The German Submarine Campaign Against the Allies – Vol. 1, 1939-1943
is Compass Games’ second title covering the submarine campaigns of World War II; their first, Silent War, covered the Pacific. This new title is about the battles not just for the North Atlantic, but those in the Caribbean, South Atlantic, and even ’round the Horn of Africa to the Indian Ocean.

This is a solitaire game that puts the player into the position of trying to run the U-boat campaign, deciding where subs will patrol, where aviation assets will be used, and where attempts might be made to form wolfpacks to attack detected convoys. I really like this game and found the shorter scenarios to be a bit addictive, especially the first wolfpack scenario, in which I have yet to beat the historical outcome by both ships sunk and tonnage. I have gotten one or the other outcomes, but not both—yet!

The game comes chock full of stuff, which is good because the $130 price is high and could be a turn-off. It has 12 sheets of counters (1,344), and of those eleven-and-a-half are ship counters (Oh boy!); the remainder are game markers. You get the whole U-boat fleet, plus the Italians and some of the subs of occupied Europe (like Polish and French). There is a slew of generic merchant ships, different classes of Allied escorts and warships (beware those "diligent" escorts as they can ruin a sub’s day). There are a half-dozen chart cards, convoy attack displays, rule book, scenario book (with 33 scenarios) and the map. It is all nicely manufactured, and the counters all look grand (especially the subs) and are crisply cut on the sheets so they can be removed easily. The game charts are on a sturdy cardstock that will stand up to much handling.

The toughest part of the game is the first-time preparation for play; you have to separate nearly all of the Allied ships and sort them into the cups for play. I like to joke that this is my "red Solo® Cup" game. You’ll need a maximum of 14 cups to hold different groups of counters that you’ll draw blindly for Allied shipping. (Whenever you put the game away, keep the counters separated; it will greatly speed up future games’ set-up.)

Not all of the information concerning which ships go into which cup is located in the same place. Most of the info is on a game chart, but for military task forces and Allied submarines you will have to go to a different chart, which is referred to in the rules but without much explanation. For the most part, 90 percent of the time you’ll only pull ships from just four different cups. Only on special occasions will you use any of the other 10 cups and, depending on the scenario, some you won’t use at all.

Game Turns in Steel Wolves
Game turns represent one week and are broken down into four main segments: Strategic, Triple "R" (reinforcement, ready, repair), Operations and End of Turn. The Strategic segment covers any possible major war events that might occur, torpedo improvement, and an intelligence phase that determines which patrol zone is the prime focus for intelligence gathering; during that phase available German aircraft are placed for searching and you determining if there is a nasty weather system out and about.

The Triple "R" brings new units into play, sometimes removes units, damaged subs have repairs attempted and the long process of readying a sub for sea takes place. The meat of the game is the Operations, where your subs find out if and what they might intercept in the course of the week. One by one, for each patrol zone, you see what ships the sub might have an opportunity to attack. As each sub completes its operation it is moved to the Done portion of the patrol zone. If a sub locates a convoy, any subs in the same patrol zone that have not had their turn can attempt to form a wolfpack to join the attack on the detected convoy. If they succeed, it will count as their turn, and all wolfpack subs go to the Done portion of the patrol zone once the attack is finished.

The final part of the Operations Segment is the Transit Movement Phase: subs putting to sea, returning to base, or sailing to the far outer patrol zones make their moves. This phase has a nasty Transit Event Table. Early in the war, this table isn’t too bad, but it will get worse. A loss could be due to a myriad of things such as mechanical failure, caught napping on the surface by an allied sub or aircraft, hitting a sea mine—just remember that in the real war, many crewmen never came back. The Operations Segment can take up 90 percent of the game turn; it is where the most fun (and the most rules consulting) will occur. Some events occur so rarely that even after you’ve become knowledgeable with the rules you still might have to refer to them to remember how to go about a certain task, such as engaging a fast ocean liner.

I consider Steel Wolves to be a prime candidate to be turned into a computer game and remove the need for shuffling through the game charts. About two-thirds of the time, however, you will use only one game chart card and those tables located on the map. It is the other third that has you searching thru the other charts and rule books. This is why you’ll need extra room to either set the charts down in handy reach or to have space for setting up a battle chart based upon the size of a convoy intercepted. I’m wishing there was an App for that. I’d buy it.

Target Acquired—Fire Torpedo One!
In the Operations segment, the player rolls a die, based upon the war period and patrol zone, to determine if a given submarine detects anything during the week and the level of activity. Some patrol zones, such as The Western Approaches, are very busy and you get to roll twice for patrolling submarines to detect possible targets. In most zones you will only roll once. If something is detected, a second roll is made to determine what was seen. Observations could be a single ship (or loner), small/large convoy(s), task forces or, rarely, smoke disappearing over the horizon.

Once the observation is determined, ship or ships are put upon the appropriate combat display. The submarine attempts to position itself for the attack and choose whether to attempt forming a wolfpack. If so, will the spotting submarine shadow the convoy in order to increase the success of forming the wolfpack?

Once the submarine(s) are placed on the attack display, a select number of ships in the convoy—hidden with only a merchant (white flag) or RN flag on the back side of the counter showing—are flipped to reveal what ships are present. They run the full range from tiny, 1,000 tonners to large liners, aircraft carriers and battleships. "Most" ships flying the merchant flag turn out to be merchants and the same can be true about the RN flag. But, there are enough "Oh S**t!" moments out there when a merchant is misidentified and turns out to be an escort—or (shudder) even the dreaded "diligent escort"—to keep a player’s attention focused. The big, fat targets are usually in the center columns of a convoy; getting into position to attack them is not always easy.

Attacks on a convoy are done in rounds, with a submarine usually getting two attack rounds unless it has an Ace skipper, who has the ability to attempt a third round. Subs are allowed to target a number of ships equal to their attack rating. The tactical rating of the submarine determines the maximum number of ships the sub could engage. A TDC (Torpedo Data Computer) chit is drawn for those ships and placed next to the possible targets. This represents a firing solution, ranging from +4 (really bad) to -4 (great). Only then are the targets revealed, with diligent escorts and aircraft getting an opportunity to attack the submarine first. (Alarm! Crash Dive!)

In the second and third round new TDC chits are drawn, and the TDC values are modified by -1 to represent the submarine working for better shots; all White Flagged ship counters must be revealed. A submarine can engage any number of ships, up to the limit of its tactical rating. The sub’s attack factor is divided by the number of chosen targets, modifiers applied and a die rolled to determine a success number. At least one attack factor has to be allocated against a target for it to be attacked.

As the game progresses and torpedoes get better, misses and duds will be less frequent, but expect to find most TDC chits to be between -2 and +2, and the chance of an attack succeeding is not great if you don’t focus on one target. After every round where normal escorts are present, they get an attempt to counterattack the submarine.  This may sound rather busy, but, after playing the small scenarios to get the feel of the game, the ritual becomes second nature and can be moved through quickly.

Beware the Dreaded Transit Table
I have found I do not fear the escorts near as much as the Transit Table, used when moving the submarines out to or thru patrol zones or returning to port. Roll two dice and cross-index on the chart with the War Period. It is not a really dangerous table in the early war periods, but as they progress from one to five, the chance for an event to be triggered—for it to be deadly for the submarine—increases significantly. I was particularly frustrated when one of my ace U-boat skippers, after a great patrol, had to return to base. Rather than taking a two-week sail around England, I chose for him to return thru the Channel to Kiel; it was early in the war, and the threat was minimal. A Channel dash requires two rolls on the Transit Table and the second roll resulted in the submarine being lost at sea with all hands, Aaaaaggggggg! Such is the play of the game.

Playing Steel Wolves‘ smaller scenarios (Convoy/Wolfpack) can be done in half an hour, or even less once familiar with the rules. The mid-range scenarios (War Patrol for a submarine) can last up to a couple of hours. However, to run a campaign, even some of the smaller ones, you will need time and space to dedicate to the endeavor, as the longest runs 176 turns. There are five long Campaigns and five small ones. The smaller Campaigns end once all submarines have either been sunk or returned to base after a patrol. You will come to love your little cardboard submarines and worry over where to send them to patrol, what bases to return to for resupply, repair and/or refit, and whether you really want to try and sink that big, fat tanker with a bad TDC plot or go for the smaller tramp steamer with a good TDC plot. You will watch the U-boat dead pile up and start to feel the stress of command. The choices are yours. Good luck, good sailing and good hunting!

Armchair General Rating: 81%

Solitaire Rating: (1 low, 5 high) 5

About the Author
Michael Peccolo is a retired Armor Major from the US Army with overseas duties, Company commands and additional assignments in recruiting and ROTC. He lives in Tennessee where he raises horses with his wife. He volunteers at Ft. Knox to be a Civilian on the Battlefield.

6 Comments

  1. Where’s the swastika in the center of the Kriegsmarine flag on the U-boats? Is the game publisher by any chance self-censoring in fear of German law?

    That craven practice is becoming universal–witness recent WWII GMT and MMP games. It’s also completely unnecessary, as long as you keep swastikas off the boxcovers displayed for sale; the anti-Nazi law in Germany proscribes swastikas on public display only. Nobody is taking boardgame designers to court, almost all games in Europe are ordered directly from the publisher, and nobody is inspecting the counters on games imported from the U.S.

    Pathetic ass-covering/political correctness.

  2. (Sorry for my american, but I’m French…) All to agree. This is as dumb as not to put swastikas on the tail of the German model airplanes! History does not change even if you tear out the pages of the book!

    • You might take note of image #6, you will see that the german Supply Ship Nordmark has the correct flag and German aircraft (not pictured also have the correct flag). It may very well be that the copy provided to me has a printing error.

  3. Unfortunately, even if you are correct that history will not change by forbidding symbols, German law is strict here. And German customs does very well look inside games or scale models if they suspect forbidden symbols.

    Therefore the German gaming communuties asked publishers like GMT or MMP and many more not to use such symbols any longer in order to enable all German players to play all those games without problems.

    And to be honest, the game plays the same with or without swastikas.

    Law is law, even if it is a foolosh one.

    • I spoke with a game shop owner in Munich earlier this year. He said the exact opposite of what you claim: there is no inspection of wargame components whatsoever by German customs and the authorities pay no attention to game components with swastikas. The law prohibits only public display of Nazi symbols. The swastika and other symbols of the Third Reich can be found in historical books and films, TV, etc. all over Germany. Someone can get into trouble only if the symbols are on the box and hence on display.

      The law itself is bad enough, but kowtowing to German lawyers just to sell a few more games is much worse–it’s a form of cowardice. And it’s relatively recent. There are plenty of GMT/MMP games with historically correct flags prior to the mid 1990s (Stalingrad Pocket comes to mind). The anti-swastika law has been around since the 1940s it was mandated by the Allied De-Nazification campaign.

      Game companies: don’t skimp on your own dearly-bought freedoms even in the most trivial instance. Provide special “sanitized” countersets for Germans at extra cost if that’s what they require, but altering history in historical gaming is just shameful.

    • German law does without doubt translate the general will, and the history does matter. The key is that our German friends can play the games they like.

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