They Come Unseen Game Box

I have reached out to Commander Andy Benford who designed They Come Unseen with Osprey Games, which is a game of submarines and subterfuge in the Cold War, for an interview.  They Come Unseen was released in 2015 and was nominated  for the 2015 Golden Geek Best Wargame Award. This interview is amazingly detailed and I truly appreciate Commander Benford’s time putting this together. Enjoy!

Grant: Please tell us about your 21 years of service in the Royal Navy as a submariner. Do you miss it? Are you claustrophobic? Do you hear sonar bleeps in your dreams?

Commander Benford: Grant, thank you very much for this opportunity to talk about They Come Unseen and the background to its creation.

I was in the Royal Navy for 25 years but the first four of these were spent undergoing general naval training: 20 months at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth; 6 months on courses and the remainder at sea; before I volunteered to specialize as a submariner so my service in submarines was for 21 years and began at the Submarine School at HMS Dolphin, Gosport, in May 1972. I also spent two months as a Midshipman onboard HMS Finwhale, a Porpoise class submarine based in Singapore with the 7th Submarine Squadron in 1970, but this was really just to get a taster for the life to see if it suited me – and it did.

The fickle finger of fate would try to intervene on 4th March 1972 two months before I was to join the Submarine School. I was one of 24 passengers on an SR-N6 hovercraft which was flipped over onto its back in high winds and heavy seas off the entrance to Portsmouth harbour. I swam out through a submerged window to make it to comparative safety; sadly there were five fatalities so this was a close call which could have changed everything.

After ten weeks onshore training in the Submarine School I was appointed to my first submarine, HMS Grampus, a Porpoise class diesel-electric conventional submarine – P boat – to gain my sea qualification and earn my “Dolphins”; once qualified I remained onboard as the Navigating Officer. The standard rotation in the submarine service at the time was to spend about two years in a particular submarine before moving on to another boat and so in late 1974 I left Grampus to join HMS Otus, an Oberon class submarine – O boat – very similar to Grampus but a newer class. In Otus I was once again the Navigating Officer before changing roles to the Sonar Officer for the second half of my time onboard. For much of the time in both Grampus and Otus we were engaged in exercising with NATO air and sea forces honing our respective warfare skills in the North Atlantic and in the Norwegian and Mediterranean seas, as well as occasionally working with members of the Special Boat Service or SBS. After two years onboard Otus I was appointed for nuclear training and attended the Royal Naval College at Greenwich to learn all about the submarine nuclear power plant before being appointed as the Sonar Officer of HMS Sovereign, a Swiftsure class nuclear powered attack submarine SSN. As well as operating under the arctic ice flows, a particular highlight during my two years in Sovereign was an operation called Agile Eagle during which we conducted what remains perhaps the longest trail of a Soviet submarine during the Cold War; to learn more about this operation, and others, I highly recommend the excellent book: “The Silent Deep” by James Jinks & Peter Hennessy, published by Allen Lane, which lifts the lid on many Royal Navy submarine operations since 1945.


HMS Grampus 2

After my appointment to Sovereign I did a very short stint as the First Lieutenant of another O-boat, HMS Opportune, before being selected in 1979 for COQC, the Submarine Commanding Officers’ Qualifying Course, which is known colloquially as “Perisher” because you just get one attempt at the course and if you fail you “perish” and can no longer serve in submarines. COQC 1/80 ran for the first 6 months of 1980 and I was successful and qualified as a submarine captain. While waiting for my submarine command I was appointed to the staff of Flag Officer Submarines and, specifically, to the Submarine Operations Centre where we worked underground swapping many feet of seawater for many feet of concrete. Here we exercised operational control over the submarine flotilla with the exception of the Polaris force which was controlled by a similar organization that I was to join later in my career. During my time under concrete the Royal Navy was engaged in the Falkland’s War and I was involved in the shore-based support of the submarine force sent to the South Atlantic.

In 1982 I flew out to Australia with my wife and daughters for a two-year exchange posting with the Royal Australian Navy. During this exchange I commanded HMAS Oxley, an Oberon class submarine, while an Australian submarine captain was on exchange in the UK in command of one of the RN’s O-boats. A highlight of my time in command was to sail Oxley to Hawaii to participate in a very successful RIMPAC 83; this is a major annual naval exercise involving navies from around the Pacific – and is probably the largest naval war-game on the planet. Here we took on the might of the USN and other Pacific Ocean navies, dispatching some of their major units to the deep including an SSN, theoretically of course, and returning to Pearl Harbor sporting a ‘clean sweep’ broom from the attack periscope.

Oberron Class Submarine

1985 saw us back as a family in the UK and as I had just had two years in the sun the Officers’ Appointer decided to send me to the much less sunny west coast of Scotland at Faslane where I worked in the Submarine Tactics & Weapons Group known by its initials STWG. My role here was to oversee the tactical development of the Tigerfish Mk2 submarine launched wire-guided torpedo and to be one of the command riders inspecting the proficiency of operational submarines when handling and deploying the torpedo. Luckily the sun would feature again during this appointment when I supervised Tigerfish Mk2 developmental firings in the waters of AUTEC, the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Centre, off the Bahamas … well, somebody had to do it! Another highlight was supervision of the live firing of a war-shot Tigerfish Mk2 torpedo against the hulk of HMS Lowestoft which now rests on the seabed to the west of Ireland with a broken back. From time to time a live weapon, with a warhead as opposed to an inert training head, is selected at random from war stock holdings to test that they work properly…and, as expected, it did.

After two years in STWG I was appointed as Executive Officer and second-in-command of HMS Revenge – Starboard Crew, a Resolution class Polaris SSBN in which I conducted five successful deterrent patrols. In 1990 I returned under many feet of concrete to the Strategic Systems Operations Centre intimately involved with the operational control of the UK’s Polaris deterrent submarine force; this would be my last appointment in the Service.

In 1993 I retired from the Royal Navy as it was restructured following the end of the Cold War. During my service I had sailed six of the Seven Seas – the Arctic Ocean, North & South Atlantic, North & South Pacific, The Indian Ocean – only missing out on the Southern (Antarctic) Ocean – but I hadn’t seen as much of the surface as most mariners!

Do I miss it? In many respects, yes. I very much miss the people and being part of a closely knit professional crew with a joint and important purpose working in a fascinating environment but I can’t say that I miss the separation from my family – that was hard.

As for claustrophobia, no I don’t suffer – it would have been impossible for me to have had a career in submarines if I had and, indeed, I didn’t meet anyone with claustrophobia as they tended to keep their distance. There were two cases of unsuitability for submarine service though. A senior rating joined our boat for training and started to wake up screaming – which is not good for general morale – and another trainee, in another boat, was found sleep-walking and trying to open a torpedo tube rear door; for the rest of the patrol we had a crew member watching over him while he was asleep. They both returned to the surface navy when we got back from the respective patrols.

As for my own dreams…yes they sometimes involve submarines but never sonar bleeps.

“Do I miss it? In many respects, yes. I very much miss the people and being part of a closely knit professional crew with a joint and important purpose working in a fascinating environment but I can’t say that I miss the separation from my family – that was hard.”

Grant: I want to say thank you for your military service.  Many of us will never be able to understand the difficulties and hardships associated with deployment thousands of miles away from family and I want to simply say thank you for your part in keeping the world safe! How has that experience led to you designing a war game about submarines? How did you get into design?

Commander Benford: First let me say that I have always liked board games, so that partly explains it, and when I was about 12 or so I made a game I called ‘Combat’: two fleets of balsa wood ships, submarines and aircraft and engaged in battle on a cardboard seascape. So I guess I have had the design bug with me for a while and with a leaning towards all things nautical. The decision to design ‘They Come Unseen’ was the direct result of seeing a news item on the local TV about a man who had devised a board game that was about to be published; this reignited my childhood interest and, taking this man’s advice, I chose a subject for the game that I knew something about and designed the game around submarines – I had been in submarines for two years at this point and was the Navigating Officer of HMS Grampus in 1974.

Grant: What is the goal of They Come Unseen?

Commander Benford: They Come Unseen introduces players to the challenges and tension of naval warfare between NATO submarines and Soviet destroyers in the early 1970’s, each with their own distinct aims, and puts them together in an interesting seascape where the environment has just as much a part to play in the final outcome as do the tactical decisions made by the adversaries. The NATO players are tasked with landing special forces to destroy four out of six Soviet ice-stations…and surviving the game. For their part the Soviet players need to search out and sink the submarines before running out of fuel, weapons…and bases.

Grant: Is there a story behind the name? Is that a common reference term in the Royal Navy?

Commander Benford: Very simply the game’s name is based on the Royal Navy Submarine Service’s motto: “We Come Unseen”. I decided that it wouldn’t be right to use the motto verbatim so I changed it to the third person with “They”, which actually makes more sense in this context. Originally I had called it “Submarine” but I thought this rather unimaginative when I decided to try to market it.

Grant: How does the hidden movement play out over the course of the game? What are the keys for remaining hidden for NATO?

Commander Benford: Hidden movement is of course key to any game involving submarines. In They Come Unseen the NATO submarines are diesel-electric conventional boats powered by batteries and so do not have unlimited endurance, like their modern nuclear powered counterparts, and are not free from the need to visit periscope depth from time to time. The NATO players therefore have to expose the position of their submarines during the course of a game in order to recharge the batteries conducting what is called a “snorting move” on the Main board. This means that the Soviet players get occasional indications of the whereabouts of each submarine which they then try to refine using their active sonar templates. Although the Soviet players will get detections on the submarines without seeing a snorting move first, and always know where a boat is when an ice-station is attacked, the longer NATO can remain hidden below the waves on the Deep board the more frustrated the Soviet players will become as they expend vital fuel frantically searching for their prey. So the key for NATO is to manage their batteries well while moving towards their objectives so that they can remain unseen as often as possible and for as long as possible…hidden movement is the name of the game.

Grant: How does bluffing come into play? How do you bluff in a steel cylinder 1,000 feet below the surface?

Commander Benford: The bluffing element for the submarines, as in real life, is really a case of doing the unexpected, with a healthy dose of double-bluffing thrown in. The game comes with a History & Strategy booklet in which in order to inform players how the real world relates to the game I have described what it is like to serve in a conventional submarine and how anti-submarine warships of the era went about their business. This booklet also has a section of strategic and tactical suggestions for the players. So, advice for NATO like: perhaps not moving as far in each turn as the Soviets might think; or making a snort move in one direction at periscope depth on the Main board, thereby suggesting to the Soviets that a particular ice-station could be a target, and then changing direction when hidden below the surface once more on the Deep board; or making a snort move close to one of the ships of the logistic fleet so that the destroyers think that the submarine has moved underneath one of these ships to possibly be immune from an attack but then move the other way. There are plenty of ways to bluff.

“The bluffing element for the submarines, as in real life, is really a case of doing the unexpected, with a healthy dose of double-bluffing thrown in.”

Grant: What is the strategy for the Soviets to find and destroy the subs?

Commander Benford: The Soviets know the starting positions of the NATO boats – they have good intelligence reports! The longer the destroyers are without contact the staler that initial intelligence becomes so they need to get stuck into their task as soon as they can. As players will find out it is possible for the Soviets to be in position to detect and attack a submarine on their second turn and for NATO to have attacked an ice-station on their third turn, so there isn’t a slow-burn in They Come Unseen but instead relentless pressure on both sides. Once the Soviets are in contact with a submarine it can be tricky for the NATO player to get away and coordinated attacks by the Soviet destroyers can be lethal, but as in real life, careful tactical use of the prevailing weather conditions and judicious use of depth by the submariner can save the day. The Soviets also need to exercise careful management of their fuel resources, in particular, by effective use of their logistic fleet to enable them to stay in the hunt.

Grant: Who has the upper hand in their asymmetrical goals, the Soviets or NATO? How did you add balance?

Commander Benford: I designed the balance between NATO and the Soviets to be as close as it can be and this seems to be in line with most reported player experiences; you can’t of course allow for reckless or thoughtless play by either side which can skew the outcome and throw the designed balance out of the porthole! Players can opt to exclude the weather mechanic while learning the game and this perhaps favors the Soviets but once the weather is included it’s pretty much nip and tuck.

Creating this balance and, generally close encounters, between the two sides was achieved through a combination and interaction of many things: the distances that the destroyers and submarines can move versus the fuel/battery used and their maximum moves; the value of the fuel & weapon tokens; the maximum number of salvos that can be carried by each destroyer; the capacity of the logistic fleet and their maximum moves; the coverage and accuracy of the active sonar templates; the ability for the Soviets to set ‘Sonar watch’ at the end of their turn which enables them to achieve some search continuity between moves in a turn-based game; the number of searches allowed per turn; the number of attacks allowed per destroyer per detection; the ‘hit’ and ‘near miss’ rule; the movement restriction placed on the submarines during a snort move; the areas of different depths and their size and shape; the depth capabilities for the submarines pre and post damage; the approaches to the ice-stations offering different depths of water and finally, the restrictions created by the changing weather conditions.

Grant: I love the 2nd board used by the subs to track their movement. How did this element evolve? Was it always a 2nd board?

Commander Benford: Yes the game has had two boards from day one – you can see the small screen hiding it from view in the photograph of an early version being played onboard HMS Sovereign circa 1978 by my captain at the time. By the way, this was Richard FARNFIELD and not Fairfield as shown in the History & Strategy booklet included with the game. This misspelling was a really annoying case of text auto-correction that I failed to spot – and it tried it again while I typed his name here, so writers beware! The evolution for the second board was very simple because it seemed an obvious way to allow play to take place in three-dimensions, when combined with the depth gauge, which is essential for a game about submarine warfare.

Early Prototype with Hidden Board Behind Screen
An early version being played at sea onboard the HMS Sovereign (SSN) c1978. Commander Roger Bridgeman (left) and Commander Richard Farnfield right) CO of Sovereign.

Grant: I also really like the components, especially the depth, battery and fuel markers. Why did you decide to use these components? Is it for improved theme?

Commander Benford: Yes Osprey Games have done a wonderful job reproducing the control panels. The use of the gauges was, as for having two boards, also there from the very start. As well as being thematic they are a direct result of my desire to remove the element of luck from the game as much as possible. I’m sure that too many frustrating experiences playing games like ‘Risk’ or ‘Cluedo’ as a lad, where careful strategic play or deduction could be nullified by the roll of dice, led me to not wanting anything in my game to be decided or resolved in that way. It therefore fitted this aim well to base the movement of the submarines and destroyers on the expenditure of battery power and fuel respectively and, by doing so, leaving the movement of these pieces completely within the control of the players. To record the use of their respective power sources they would therefore need gauges, and the use of a depth gauge was also essential for the submarines to be able to move in depth to add that all important third dimension. One small change to the battery gauge used in my prototype was made by Osprey Games following their play-testing; this altered the gauge’s design by slightly simplifying the original scale, shown as percentages from 0% to 100% in 5% steps, to a scale in single unit steps from 0 to 20 – same outcome, different look.

They Come Unseen Early Prototype with Gauges
The prototype version of They Come Unseen demonstrated to Osprey Games in July 2014.

Grant: Speaking of the theme, what design elements and mechanics help to simulate the experience of a sub “hide and seek”? When you play do you have flashbacks or feelings of nostalgia?

Commander Benford: The hide and seek simulation comes from a combination of certain mechanics and design elements.

Firstly there is the design of the sea area with its various areas of different maximum water depth in which the submarines operate and which constrain them in shallow water (250 feet) and give them more freedom in deeper water (450 & 650 feet). Then there is the incorporation of realistic environmental conditions, in the form of changing wind force and the associated sea states and thermal conditions which affect how the respective forces can operate. Another important design element is my decision to base the game on conventionally powered submarines with their inherent weakness of dependency on periscope depth. The snorting move in the game is as thematic as you can get when combined with the battery and depth gauges because in real life the battery is the very life-blood of a conventional submarine and its health and capacity is at the forefront of any submarine captain’s thoughts and his tactical planning and it is similarly fundamental to success for NATO in They Come Unseen.

They Come Unseen Gauges

From the Soviet perspective, the hide and seek experience is designed around the destroyers’ quite large but also rather raw sonar search capability using their templates; these templates are designed to add a degree of uncertainty and imperfection to their operations. The uncertainty and imperfection reflects the fact that active sonar has its flaws and against a well operated submarine will not always guarantee success. In real life a submarine captain may reduce speed to a minimum and turn his boat and maintain it end on towards threatening sonar transmissions to minimize the outline that his boat presents, as well as any doppler effect, so that the reflected sound arriving back at the hunting vessel is insufficient to give a clear contact or any contact at all. Add to this that the picture presented by the active sonar can be cluttered with false echoes from the sea bed and so on and you can see that it can be far from plain sailing. Now, this level of detail is tricky to design into a board game and so I chose to cover these and other vagaries of using active sonar in the open ocean by approaching the matter from the other end, the searching ship, and limiting the accuracy of the templates so that when contact is achieved the detection remains ambiguous as to the exact location; all part of achieving gameplay balance as mentioned earlier.

As for flashbacks and nostalgia, for me these are created more by the banter and the “do you remember when…” comments that come if playing the game with fellow retired submariners.

Grant: Why did you choose the Cold War rather than say WWII? How did you integrate the Cold War struggle into the gameplay?

Commander Benford: The choice of the period in which to set the game was simply a case of matching it to my own experiences. My submarine service began during the Cold War and so I designed the game around the submarines, ships and anti-submarine weaponry in service at that time.   The game originally had fictional adversaries – in case it fell into enemy hands!? – and changed to NATO vs. the Soviets during the run up to production.

Grant: You mentioned that the game is best with 4 players. Why is that? What is the experience like for 2, 3 and even 5 players?

Commander Benford: It’s a personal preference really and is simply because I like plenty of player interaction and general banter when playing games and you can guarantee you’ll get that with 4 or more players, but the game plays perfectly well with other combinations of players and a head-to-head with two players will be just as intense and enjoyable…but perhaps less amusing.

Grant: How long was the game under design? How much play testing was done and how much did the game change over time? Do you have specific examples?

Commander Benford: Quite a while! As the game was ‘born’ in late 1974 and I took the final prototype version to the Play Test Zone at the UK Games Expo in early 2014 it was effectively under design for 40 years. The basic mechanics used in They Come Unseen are faithful to the original version which was played both afloat and ashore over the years but of course there were periods during which the game was stable and didn’t change at all and then I would add or change something and it would remain like that for a few more years. The main changes have been to the shape of the areas of differing depth on the boards to stimulate more strategic and tactical thinking during play – in the original draft of the game the areas were either squares or rectangles as you can see from some of the early photographs; the introduction of the Logistic Fleet to make the game more realistic and challenging – before this change the only way that the surface fleet could rearm and refuel was at a base where tokens had been placed during the game’s setup and so any resource management element was rather limited; and introducing the weather mechanic to achieve more realism.

They Comme Unseen 1st Prototype
The very first version in 1974 when the game was called “Submarine”.

Grant: How has working with Osprey Games been?

Commander Benford: Put quite simply it has been fantastic; the team at Osprey Games are terrific and I’m so grateful that they decided to pick up my game after the Expo and go on to publish it.

Grant: Did they allow you to create or did they direct you? How does that designer/publisher relationship work?

Commander Benford: Well, I feel that I presented They Come Unseen to Osprey Games in a state of development that just needed fine tuning from them from the point of view of the practicalities of how the game could be produced, the player gauge panels in particular, and at what cost.  I’d like to think that that’s how they viewed it too although with my agreement they streamlined the gameplay a little and I suspect that Duncan Molloy, the game developer at Osprey, may have considered the task of editing my 42 page rule book down to a manageable size as a bit more than fine tuning!

Grant: Are you satisfied with the final version of the game? What would you change if you could?

Commander Benford: Yes, I’m hugely satisfied. The thrill I got when I first saw the full production makeover of my game hasn’t left me and I can only thank the team at Osprey Games for making it possible and for doing such a wonderful job.  I’m also very proud that They Come Unseen was one of the first two board games to be published by Osprey Games; the other being The King Is Dead.

Grant: The game was nominated as the Best Wargame for 2015 by Board Game Geek. Were you surprised? I know that Churchill by GMT Games won the award. Did you feel that game was more deserving than yours? Why?

Commander Benford: Yes I was surprised but only from the standpoint that I didn’t know that the BGG awards existed – I’m very new to this environment. I have always believed that I have designed a great game and so from that standpoint it didn’t seem unreasonable to me that others would share that view and would want to see its nomination and success (Dear Reader, if that was you – thank you).

I can’t comment about Churchill. I haven’t read much about it or played it but it is clearly popular and received the necessary support to win – so very well done to the designer and publisher. I did note, however, the designer’s comment in the game’s description at BGG that “Churchill is NOT a wargame” which made me smile at the time given the nomination and subsequent award.

“I have always believed that I have designed a great game and so from that standpoint it didn’t seem unreasonable to me that others would share that view and would want to see its nomination and success.”

Grant: How do you gauge the success of your games?

Commander Benford: I get most of my feedback about the game’s success from the Board Game Geek website which I have visited regularly ever since They Come Unseen was announced. My main reason for visiting is to answer questions that users have because I think it is important, as a designer, to take responsibility for a game so that questions are answered promptly and accurately, but these visits also give me a feel for how the game is being received. I also get feedback through social media and through comments left at online retailers but there are many more owners of the game out there than there have been ratings and reviews so I don’t think that I will ever get a true picture of what is going on although I do get a great buzz from seeing how far around the world the game has spread. More simply though, if someone says that they have enjoyed playing They Come Unseen then I rate that as a huge success.

They Come Unseen Final Version
They Come Unseen production photo from Osprey Games.

Grant: Are there future expansions for They Come Unseen planned? What are they and when can we expect to see them?

Commander Benford: Well, I have devised an expansion called They Come Unseen – Imminent Danger but whether or not it will be published I can’t say. Suffice it to say that it introduces some more components and mechanics along with a different NATO mission and a hidden movement element on the Soviet side.

Grant: Are you working on any other designs at this time? If so can you share anything with us?

Commander Benford: I have tinkered with a few ideas for other games but there’s nothing really to report other than to say that all my ideas so far have been related to being on or around the sea – so nothing new there! I am rather conscious that I don’t have another forty years in hand.

Grant: What games do you play?

Commander Benford: I’m open to any suggestions but I generally like strategy or deduction type games. The games that introduced me to a different breed of board game to my childhood experiences in the 50’s and 60’s when Monopoly, Totopoly, Buccaneer, Risk and Cluedo were king, have been titles such as Pirates’ Cove, Scotland Yard, Forbidden Desert, Shadows Over Camelot, Jamaica and Mystery of the Abbey. I also like to go back to an old childhood favorite game called Flutter (Spears’ Games 1950) – and there’s a little story here.

Flutter is a stock market game with a simple dice rolling mechanic. It’s a game that I really enjoyed in my childhood but it was sold off when I left home and then went out of print. Some time in the mid 80’s I saw a new version in a shop in Scotland and I very nearly bought it – I had picked it up and was heading to the checkout – but then I decided against it simply because the color scheme used had changed radically from the original version and it just didn’t look right – so it went back on the store’s shelf. Of course I was to live to regret that decision when I realized that that was perhaps my only chance to get my hands on a copy and from time to time I would remind my family of “the one that got away”. Happily I did finally get a copy of the original version just a few years ago now but only after one of my daughter’s and her fiancé found it in a bric-a-brac shop; they presented it to me as a surprise Christmas present – I suddenly realized that everyone else had stopped opening their presents to watch me unwrapping my surprise. It’s a simple but engaging game and usually gets an airing at Christmas to celebrate its rediscovery.

I’m also looking forward to another game lost from my childhood, Osprey Games’ new version of Escape from Colditz.

Grant: So am I! I saw it at Gen Con and the box was amazing and just called out to me! I have to have that one. If you are taking suggestions, that non-wargame Churchill is pretty damn good! I’ve played several times with my group and we love it.  Are you a Grognard?

Commander Benford: I had to look this up in order to decide! Now that I know what it means based on this online definition: Someone who enjoys playing older war-games or roleplaying games, or older versions of such games, when newer ones are available  my answer is ‘no’.

There you have it….my interview with Commander Andy Benford regarding his game They Come Unseen. I have a copy of the game and will be doing an unboxing video soon and hope to be under the waves very shortly!  I want to thank Commander Benford for his graciousness in sharing his story with us to talk about his fantastic game and the design process.