The Hunters

[ This post originally appeared as an article in Game Nite Magazine #7. ]

Sometimes, we are learning a new game or we just don’t have anyone to play with. Sure, it may be easier to play a game on an iPad, but often times it’s just nice to sit back and relax with our favorite beverage and relish in the cardboard on the table — to disconnect from our electronic lives. In this on-going series I hope to highlight some games that play well solo. These could be co-op games, multi-player games with solo variants, or games specifically designed for one player.

Cover image of The Hunters from Consim Press

It’s midnight, December 1941, your U-Boat is patrolling the icy, North Atlantic. Several days have gone by without incident until… off your port bow a tanker, a small freighter, and an escort. You surface and sneak up on the small convoy, you decide to fire on the small freighter with your deck gun. A hit! It sinks but you’ve been spotted by the escort, you immediately submerge trying to escape, depth charges hit the water, explode and you start to take on water…

This is the kind of narrative that emerges from gameplay and enters your imagination in The Hunters German U-Boats at War, 1939-1943 – a solitaire game designed by Gregory M. Smith and published by Consim Press.

Initially, you choose a U-Boat type specific to the starting year of your patrol. Historically, only certain U-Boats were in service during certain times during the war. You have a limited number of steam and electric torpedoes at your disposal and your deck gun may have a limited number of rounds to fire. Choosing a different sub may mean your patrol starts later in the war, which gives you less time to level up your captain and his or her crew. Also, U-Boats became easier to detect in later years, so there’s that danger.

You have a play mat that depicts your sub, and using counters track your armament, hull damage, flooding, damaged systems, crew status and track your patrol progress. Don’t be too scared, there are not a lot of counters in this game. There are a lot of dice rolls so providing additional dice than what comes with the game will make the game move a little quicker and smoother.

A U-Boat combat mat tracks damage to convoys and other ships you encounter. It also tracks your range to the target and incoming hits on your U-Boat. Conveniently, there is a player aid to track all the steps required during combat vs. escorted ships. There are encounters tables, patrol assignment tables, torpedo dud charts, escort detection charts and damage charts to check but the more you become familiar with the game the easier it is too manage it all. What’s really nice is that you can perform a patrol or two, put the game away and come back to it later (after your sub has been refit in port) and continue your career.

Alternative Map created by BGG User Delphine Echassoux

Although the mats are pretty bare bones and track what needs to be tracked, BoardGameGeek user Koinskyz (real name: Delphine Echassoux) created a giant play mat utilizing an old map of Europe, the Atlantic and North America as well as a custom submarine graphic to more visually present torpedo loads, mechanical systems and track damage. Although not necessary at all, it does add a significant amount of theme and ambiance to an already fantastic solo experience.

The Hunters is a great solitaire experience especially if you are interested in submarine warfare during the Second World War. For those of you who’d rather play the allied part, there is a version coming called Silent Victory where you control U.S. submarines in the Pacific. Randomness is pretty high in the game since it relies on dice rolls for most outcomes but much of that is offset by the decisions you make: should I surface or perform a submerged attack? Should I attack during the day or follow the convoy and wait until night? At what range shall I attack thereby increasing my chances for success but increasing my chances of being detected? Should I even attack at all against so many ships with such a damaged U-Boat? When all is lost, should I crash dive to dangerous depths to escape my enemies? Tensions are always high when you are discovered by the escort and you are still trying to attack vessels. Or are you trying to escape but the enemy keeps hammering on you with their depth charges?

The Hunters: Charts and Tables

Die roll after die roll, the game is a nail biter as your torpedo and deck gun resources are dwindling. Levels of victories are contingent upon you sinking enough ships. It may seem a little abstract but out of game play comes a personal chronicle as you track which vessels you sink, which in the game were all real ships sunk by U-Boats during WWII. You will track their tonnage on a log sheet as you try to complete a patrol in the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic or off the west coast of Africa. Your captain could be promoted which gain you modifiers in die rolls against enemy ships. Over time, the career of each captain has a permanence, which gives each play and the game overall a history all to itself on your gaming shelf.

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Playing Solo

[ This post originally appeared as an article in Game Nite Magazine #6. ]

Playing Solo Sounds Dirty, Doesn’t It?

Is solo gaming an important part of the gaming industry? Great question. Depends who you ask. There is a strong contingent of gamers who enjoy playing games solo for multiple reasons and there are those who either don’t really care or are against it — a very small minority of the latter. I believe it certainly fills a certain niche for many. Sometimes you might want to play a game but don’t have anyone around to play with. Or perhaps the game is too complex for most, so you decide to “solo it” and play all four factions maybe in something like a COIN game (more on that later) or you might even be learning a game so that you can teach it to your friends on game night.

In many recent Kickstarters, there have been backers who specifically backed a game due to its “solo-ability.” I, for one, don’t back a game “solely” (see what I did there?) based on that. There are lots of games out there for solo players, let’s briefly mention a few.

For the most part, solo games fall into one of three categories: cooperative games, multiplayer games with a solo variant or are considered multiplayer solitaires and lastly games specifically designed for solo play. Let’s start with that.

Thunderbolt Apache Leader by DVG

There are lots of games that are designed for the single player. Some examples include: Friedemann Friese’s deck building game Friday, Dan Verssen Games’ (DVG) Thunderbolt Apache Leader or Field Commander Napoleon, The Hunters: U-boats at War 1939-1944 (one of my personal favorites) or games in Z-Man Games’ Onirim Universe including Onirim, Urbion, and the recently released Sylvion (although there is a 2 player variant).

Cuba Libre (COIN) by GMT Games.

Some standard multiplayer games include a separate set of cards or boards to allow for solo play, or the game may have solo variants either officially sanctioned by the designer or solo variants posted on BoardGameGeek. Some multiplayer games that you may not realize have solo playability are La Granja, Splendor, Renaissance Man, Carcassonne, Nations and Nations the Dice Game, Imperial Settlers, and all games in the COIN, or Counterinsurgency Series, from GMT Games. There are other titles that have little to no player interaction and are therefore considered multiplayer solitaire games such as Race for the Galaxy, Agricola and Fields of Arle.

Elder Sign (Base Game) by Fantasy Flight Games

Lastly, games that are cooperative — all players playing together against “the game” are almost always solo-able. Some shining examples are Elder Sign, Eldritch Horror, Dead of Winter, Flashpoint Fire Rescue, Pandemic, Sentinels of the Multiverse and Legendary to name but a few. You can play multiple players at the same time since you often share information and cards anyway, you can just play multiple “hands.” Other games might have a different setup that may include additional cards or a different starting hand than a normal game, et cetera.

For me personally, solo gaming has a place in my home. Why? I work in technology and stare at LED displays, computer screens, and cameras all day long. For me, video gaming is not something I am interested in. My son loves it to be sure and I was in to it when I was younger but as I approach 50 (yikes!), I tend to like things that disconnect me from technology. I love having a multiple day session of solo gaming where the game is sprawled out on my table where I can savor the art, push the bits around, contemplate the event text on a card to decide what I want to do, all the while not worrying about my battery life or my eyes straining any more than my nearsighted, tired eyeballs can handle. I like the quiet solitude that comes out of that more than the sounds of booms, beeps, and explosions coming out of my iPad, phone or home tv. Regular gaming does have a place with me in my gaming group, friends and family but so does solo games. I know it’s not for everyone but this hobby we are in is so varied and so vast, luckily, we will never run out of games to play — with other people or by ourselves.

 

 

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Pavlov’s House

It’s not too often that I sing the praises of a print and play (PnP) games but only a few come to mind that are truly worth the investment of time and effort to get everything printed, cut, pasted, sleeved and assembled. One I want to talk about in this post is Pavlov’s House which is the second big PnP game that I have assembled from designer David Thompson. (The first was Castle Itter pictured below.)

Castle Itter somewhere mid-game.

David made Pavlov’s House available to gamers to try out and to play test. Additionally, it is available to play for free on Tabletopia. I personally dislike playing board games online as the whole reason for me to play is to disconnect. The moment I played it, I knew this game was going to get picked up by a publisher. In fact it was recently funded on Kickstarter by DVG and should be hitting shelves later this year! The game is sort of a tower defense game. As enemies encroach on your position, you can counter attack to select areas on the board but only from specified firing positions. And as the fight for Stalingrad continues on, the enemy slowly makes their was up the Volga in their attempt to take the city. So not only are you defending on a more strategic level but also on a smaller scale tactical level defending the house as well.

Pavlov’s House all setup and ready to play.

Balance-wise the game may have been a tad off as I was playing version .5 rules with a few cards missing since I had printed a previous iteration of cards. I will get the entire game up to version 0.5 at some point in the near future.

Here are the three areas of the board:

Pavlov’s House

Most of my combat positions in the House are occupied but I will admit that I did not suppress as much as I should have, but the dice were pretty good to me. I also made the mistake of deploying my Soviet Command counters too late in the game and thus not getting four actions early enough. Three actions every turn just isn’t enough to get things done. The red discs represent disrupted units and the grayed out counter is exhausted. Although you can’t see it, off the map, there are a bunch of “dead dudes” — didn’t get enough first aid counters into the reserves fast enough either. Always too little, too late. This part of the game feels very much like Castle Itter. You are using your counters and weapons to roll dice to hit armored counters and infantry counters in the middle of the board…

The area surrounding Pavlov’s House and the tracks of approaching enemies.

…that shows the tracks that advance toward the house. Here’s some infantry spread out and a couple of armored divisions. The Panzer IV in the game is tough by the way! The Sapper token on Track 4 saved me from advancing Scouts thanks to a successful roll. Not sure if the Sapper token is supposed to be removed on a successful roll or not. I house ruled it and left it in, to make my life easier. I suspect it should’ve come out.

Both these areas make the game feel very much like Castle Itter as I said. Plus the infantry Wehrmacht counters are identical. So while you are trying to manage that, you are also trying to manage a strategic situation on the far right side of the board…

A high level representation of Stalingrad and the surrounding area.

…that depicts the Volga and the area around Stalingrad (space #18). As you can see, a Luftwaffe 4 bombing roll of 14 would’ve placed a disrupted token on space #17 since 14, 15 and 16 were already disrupted — just one away. Very, very close as the bombing of Stalingrad ends the game. The Staging Area with all the cubes represent a supply line across the Volga where you can get more ammo (that are traded for suppression markers), first aid, Sappers and food into Pavlov’s House. Can you believe it? I have to feed my Soviets or they die!

So overall…

The art on this game is very well done. Everything is functional, clean, and easy to read.

The rules are very well written and provide clear examples of game play. Only a couple of times did I think there was some vagueness and had to house rule it on the fly. No big deal as this was my first play and I haven’t delved into the forums or asked David directly. I really dig how the Soviet cards have two different actions on them but you can only choose one. Plus you draw four cards, but can only use three and the Fog of War cards are dummy cards that clog up your card draws. Really tough decisions. I wish the cards had some reminder text/bullet points on them so I wouldn’t have to refer to the player aid constantly to remind myself what each action can do. The Wehrmacht cards are almost identical to most of the SS cards in Castle Itter. So that was easy to figure out and understand. I only got a little confused with the Assault card but over repeated times that card appeared, that became easier.

As I said earlier, not having enough actions really sucks. Big time! But that’s the game — trying to best use what few actions you have the best way possible.

Yes, the randomness is pretty high in this game. The card flips can kill you especially if that one track is almost full and you pull another Infantry or Armored card. Better suppress that baddie or you’re screwed! Plus, a lot of dice rolls. It seems less than Castle Itter but I am not sure. I think the dice rolls are pretty common for most wargames actually, so that really doesn’t bother me.

The win conditions are pretty tough and the game is a little long the first time. I imagine over repeated plays, it would become far easier as one becomes more familiar with the cards, the rules and the special abilities of some of the Soviet counters which is really easy to overlook.

I think this game is great! I am excited that it has been funded on Kickstarter, I backed it and look forward to its arrival some time in the summer. The game is available on Tabletopia if you’d like to play it. If you are more of a tactile guy, like me, the PnP files for version 0.5 are available for free on BGG. There’s a lot of cards, but after that making the counters is pretty easy. You do need 5 dice and a bunch of tokens but that’s really not a big deal. David Thompson has designed a really great game about the drama around Pavlov’s House and the bombing of Stalingrad. I am looking forward to playing this again soon. One more thing that is really cool, in David’s games he includes a section at the back of the rulebook of readings and references for players who wish to learn more about the conflict!

It’s definitely a solid design.

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