Have you ever heard the idiom “straight from the horse’s mouth”? This figure of speech is used to denote that what was said was from an authoritative source on the matter. So if you are looking to play an authentic game on Cold War Era submarine warfare, would you want it designed by your babysitter? No, you want the experience of a real submariner. In They Come Unseen published by Osprey Games, that is what you have, a game designed by a Royal Navy Submarine Captain in Commander Andrew Benford. Commander Benford started the design of his Magnum opus in the 1970’s while serving on various submarines in the Royal Navy for 21 years (25 years of total service including training). The game was released in 2015 and was nominated as the “Best Wargame for 2015” by Board Game Geek but eventually lost out to Churchill by GMT Games for this award. I also did an interview with Commander Benford on the blog several months back and you can read that to get greater insight into this interesting and very strategic hidden movement, secret unit deployment asymmetrical game.
What is They Come Unseen About?
From the publishers website we read the following:
WORLD WAR II IS OVER. THE STRUGGLE FOR EUROPE IS NOT.
Facing each other across a divided Europe, NATO and the Soviet Union have reached a stalemate. Two vast militaries, two opposing ideologies, two emerging nuclear powers. NATO players must use their submarines to infiltrate enemy ports, destroying vital strategic targets, while the Soviet team deploys a surface fleet to hunt down the subs and protect their crucial supply lines. Designed by retired Royal Navy Officer and submarine commander Andy Benford, and developed deep beneath the waves, They Come Unseen is an asymmetrical strategy game of bluff and deception that uses two boards, one for action on the surface, seen by both sides, and one for movement underwater, seen only by the submarine commanders. The game also comes with specially designed control panels to help keep track of vital information such as fuel, ammunition and current cruising depth.
WAR HAS NOT ENDED. WAR IS NOW SILENT. EFFECTIVE. UNSEEN.
At its heart, They Come Unseen is a secret unit deployment and hidden movement game with asymmetric victory conditions. Asymmetric is a fancy way of saying that each side has different conditions for victory. As the NATO player, you’re controlling two diesel-electric hunter-killer submarines that have the mission of destroying four assigned targets in the form of Soviet Ice Stations or bases. These targets are randomly assigned by drawing 4 target cards out of a possible 6. This way, the Soviets will never know exactly which 4 targets you are after making them have to spread their resources thin and try to anticipate those targets. The NATO player controls their submarines from behind a screen that hides a smaller version of the game board in order to hide your movements while controlling and tracking the depth of your submarines. The submarines can reach depths of up to 600′ in increments of 200′. The submarines must also watch carefully their level of battery charge as movement requires energy.
The battery charge is in essence the fuel for the submarines and as it nears depletion, the only way to recharge is to perform a “snort” maneuver, which is the term used for describing the submarine surfacing to charge the batteries. This necessary maneuver temporarily exposes the submarines to the Soviet player and the Soviets use that knowledge to be able to track their movements somewhat, although it is very frustrating thinking you know where he is only to have no contact on your sonar net!
It’s A Lot About Logistics
As the Soviets, you’re controlling two Destroyers tasked with protecting six Ice Stations by conducting sonar searches to locate and destroy the submarines. At first glance, this might seem like a fairly simple and straight forward task but as you delve into play and experience the many tricks available to the NATO forces, you realize the difficulty of your mission. While moving the Destroyers around the grid on the game board desperately searching for your prey, square by square, the Soviet player is also coordinating a fleet of logistics ships, including 2 Container ships and one Supply ship, in order to keep vital stores of fuel and weaponry safe from attack and to keep the fighting vessels fully stocked.
The hunt and the game of hide and seek is really the meat of the game. Sonar searches and the movement of the subs at different depths are the tools that each side has at its disposal to survive and accomplish their mission. I love this part of the game! I always try to judge how good a game is by how it makes me feel as I play. Using that as a yard stick for They Come Unseen, the theme is excellently integrated into the gameplay and is oozing out of every one of its portholes. The hunt is by far the most thematically tense aspect of the game. If you had ever hoped to experience what it must be like to be 600′ below the surface in a steel cylinder with concussive blasts from depth charges missing you by mere inches, look no further. But the game is not just tense for the submarine captain. The Soviet player also frets over whether the submarines have slipped through their net and made their way to freedom.
The main game board is color-coded and marked to indicate depth with deep water being dark blue and shallow water being lighter blue, so the NATO player is not only having to watch the movements of the Destroyers, but also must figure out how deep to run and for how long in order to maximize their movements or to sufficiently decoy the hunter into thinking they are where they aren’t. The subs can only move 6 squares in shallow water so this is definitely something they must be aware of and must be taken into account by the Soviet player as well as they attempt to keep tabs on the subs. There is the constant pressure of a dwindling battery supply, the impending necessity to recharge, which as mentioned previously means surfacing and giving away your location, the desire to remain hidden for as long as possible, and the struggle to continue pressing toward the ultimate destruction of four Ice Stations.
The submarines have no means or direct attack against the Destroyers other than by destroying bases thereby limiting their capabilities. The submarines are equipped and designed to sneak through the depths to approach Ice Station targets to drop off special forces commandos to do the damage for them. There is a passive aggressive option though for the submarines, that of laying a strip of mines in shallow water. The NATO subs can do this twice during the game, and it can be a real treat to try and figure out where and when the Destroyers or logistics vessels might pass the area tripping your booby trap.
Missing Components – I don’t mean that my copy of the game was missing components. In fact, I loved that they gave you several sets of different components in case you misplace (or destroy from frustration!) some. I mean that there were some components that if included, would have made the experience better. I had trouble keeping my place as I moved. Sometimes, you have to try and calculate where you are going and you would decide against that course after moving your ship. I feel that there should be a token or cube to mark where your ship originated from. There are a lot of little squares on the board, and backtracking is nearly impossible. (This can be especially important with the mine detonation rules which require the NATO player to watch the Destroyer movements, and announce when mines are struck.)
Rule Book – My only real gripe was the rule book. As we played, there were many instances where questions would arise (as in all war games), and the rule book provided little clarification. I just felt that many of the rules needed more clarification or better examples to help them to be property understood. There is a 10 page downloadable FAQ on Board Game Geek that will help in understanding the game better. I think it is great that Commander Benford added this resource to the page but I would like to see a new rule book printed.
They Come Unseen is a truly great war game that has thought of all of the factors involved in a Cold War Era sub hunt game. Excellent design, great components, with the exception of some of my comments above, and especially a lot of FUN to play! I truly loved the tension and the narrative that is created as you play through the game. After playing, I was physically and emotionally spent and felt as if I had been in a steel cylinder beneath the waves for 3 hours being rocked by depth charge after depth charge. This game is a great value, and is sure to see many plays on my table in the future! I guess that Osprey Games got a horse to design this one (see my intro above if you are confused)! Great job Commander Benford. I will see war gaming differently now. Remember, WAR HAS NOT ENDED. WAR IS NOW SILENT. EFFECTIVE. UNSEEN.