I have really grown to love a highly playable, well designed solitaire wargame and Gregory Smith does a great job in his design efforts. In fact, he has designed many very successful solitaire wargames, including Silent Victory: U.S. Submarines in the Pacific, 1941-1945, The Hunters: German U-Boats at War, 1939-1943, The Hunted: Twilight of the U-Boats, 1943-1945 and an upcoming title from Compass Games called Nightfighter Ace: Air Defense Over Germany, 1943-1944. In the March Monthly Update from GMT Games, his newest game Beneath the Med was offered on the P500 and takes players into the Mediterranean Sea as you take control of one of many Italian submarines and attempt to sink Allied shipping and capital ships while surviving to the end of the war. I reached out to Gregory and he was more than pleased to obtain his second “Doctoral Dissertation” by finishing my interview.
Grant: What led you to want to design a game on the Italian submarine fleet and the battles in the Mediterranean? Did the Italians even have much of a submarine fleet?
Gregory: After the success of The Hunters, I received requests for several games about submarines from different nationalities, among these, the Italians. Well, I sure didn’t know much about their fleet, and was simply amazed once I started the research. When the war started, they had 115 submarines in service in over 20 classes! This placed them second in the world numerically (only surpassed by the Russians with about 160) and certainly a much larger fleet than the Germans. The more I dug into it, the more I realized there was an interesting game to be had here.
Grant: What sources did you refer to to find information on the Italian fleet?
Gregory: I’d be remiss if I didn’t list Erminio Bagnasco’s Submarines of World War Two (Cassell & Co., 1973) as my “bible” for this effort. It’s just a superb reference, and not only for Italian submarines – it has great information on other nationalities as well. Axis Submarine Successes of World War Two by Juergen Rohwer (Naval Institute Press, 1999) was invaluable when it came to listing all the targets and for verifying locations. Not exactly light reading, but an awesome resource. The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943 by Greene and Massignani (Chatham Publishing, 1998) is an interesting, yet scholarly collaboration between an Italian and an American, which details fleet actions and covers (in less detail) submarine operations. Finally, for more of a personal feel, I got The Hunters and the Hunted by Admiral Aldo Cocchia (United States Naval Institute, 1958). Although biased and based on many personal recollections, it contains very interesting information, especially about the human guided torpedo and BETASOM operations. Finally, I got a lot of help from a couple of Italian Naval enthusiasts on ranks, awards, and torpedo details. God Bless the Internet for linking me up with them! 😊
Obviously there were more sources, but I’ll let the truly interested read the bibliography provided in the rules. 😊
Grant: What elements of the Italian subs did you want to make sure to include? How do they perform differently than U-Boats in your other designs?
Gregory: I’ll sum up the answer to this question by giving my first possible title for the game: “Brave Men in Substandard Boats.” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, so I went with Beneath the Med instead. 😊 Seriously, the Italian boats, for the most part, had some serious challenges. They had poor fire control systems, many had poor handling qualities, they were slow divers, and they had poorly designed conning towers which amplified the diving issue. Although they corrected the conning tower issue by redesigning them shortly after the start of hostilities, they never really got a good fire control system implemented. This was critical in game terms, as I had to be sure their hit probabilities were reduced accordingly. Some of the late war submarines were quite excellent, up to German standards almost, but obviously they came too late and too few to matter.
Grant: What design challenges presented themselves with this game? How does it initially compare to your other sub games in The Hunters series?
Gregory: Probably my biggest challenge was to try and “keep it fresh.” Obviously I’ve got a proven game design that I know works well, but I wanted to be sure I got all the nuances to the Italian submarine effort right. Yes, this is a sequel of sorts, but the situation is quite different for the Italians, especially when it came to their split operations (Atlantic and Med) so I had to almost create two games, one for each theater.
As far as sequels go……well, the general public has had to suffer through 7 The Fast and the Furious movies so I don’t feel guilty about making sequels. Not yet, anyway! 😊
Grant: Well, we will eagerly await Solo Submarine Game Volume 12 “When Will It End” in the not too distant future! I know the game is called Beneath the Med but that’s a little misleading. Italian operations were not limited to only their home seas. Where do operations and patrols extend in the game?
Gregory: The game features split operations: you’re either in the Med, operating from an Italian port, or you’re at BETASOM (Bordeaux) operating in the Atlantic, with patrols ranging as far as the Brazilian Coast and the Caribbean. I was personally surprised to find out that the Italians participated in “Operation Drumbeat” in early 1942. So yes, it’s perhaps a little misleading, but I liked the title and feeling it gives.
Grant: What bases are there for the Italian fleet? What differences are there in these bases?
Gregory: There were a variety of submarine bases in Italy, such as La Spezia, Ancona, Taranto. I just use one base on the map as they are all essentially identical for game purposes. In the Atlantic, however, there was just one base used by the Italians, at Bordeaux. By combining “BETA” (for Bordeaux) and “SOM” (for Sommergibili, the Italian word for submarine) they came up with the term BETASOM to describe this base. As many as 27 Italian submarines operated in the Atlantic from Bordeaux, no small effort considering they all came through the Straits of Gibraltar!
Grant: How did you come to the decision to go with split patrols and how does this work? What was difficult about this part of the design?
Gregory: The decision was a no-brainer, for the most part. Obviously I didn’t want Med boats receiving patrol orders to the Brazilian coast! Since the BETASOM boats worked a whole different set of patrol areas from the Med boats, it seemed perfect to split the patrol charts into two parts, depending on where you’re assigned. The hard part was digging up all the locations for the Atlantic patrols and matching them to the right time-frame of the war (such as Caribbean patrols during the Operation Drumbeat period, etc.) But it really worked nicely once I set it up.
Grant: Can you show us the patrol maps?
Gregory: The maps are attached, with a caveat. Your readers should realize these are only MY working test copies and in no way represent the final product other than in general terms. I hate to be sensitive but I already got beaten up by some guy complaining that “the map had modern borders.” I literally just grabbed something that had the coast and water areas I wanted for test purposes, lol.
[Editor’s Note: You have hereby and forthwith been warned that your negative comments about these DRAFT and playtest version only of the maps will be ignored as the art and graphics are not yet finalized.]
Grant: How do you handle the Gibraltar Straits for the passing of the Italian subs?
Gregory: This brings up another interesting historical tidbit that the game covers….the Italians, unlike their German allies, had pretty much NO issues transiting the Straits of Gibraltar. So I had to tone down the danger from the Gibraltar passage routine from The Hunters to account for that. To be honest, I have no idea why. Home field advantage? They were lucky, and the Germans unlucky? Hard to say.
Grant: What type of missions are included in the game or are there simply patrols where your goal is to sink as many Allied capital ships and shipping as possible?
Gregory: Well, I like special missions, and found no shortage of them to include in Beneath the Med. The special missions include supply delivery to North Africa, Weather Reporting (boo, hiss – everybody hated it,) commando team delivery to North Africa (no kidding they did this), minefield delivery, and S.L.C. harbor attack. (more on this last one below)
Grant: How are each of these types different and what specific challenges do they offer?
Gregory: Most are reasonably similar in game mechanics….you arrive at the mission box and deliver your payload, whatever it might be. However, with the Siluro a Lenta Corsa (S.L.C.), also known as the Human Torpedo, attack goes into a whole game subroutine of its own, and presents a variety of decisions to be made by the player as he decides how bold he is going to press this attack.
Grant: How many different ship targets are included in the design? Is this too many or just the right number?
Gregory: Stop asking questions where I have to look stuff up! Sheesh! (shuffles papers). OK, I’ve got 480 unique targets. All of them were either sunk or historically possible targets during the war. Specifically, I have 100 warships, 20 Capital ships, 60 Caribbean/Brazilian targets, 100 large freighters, 100 small freighers, and 100 tankers. Rohwer’s Axis Submarine Successes of World War Two was key in updating and changing my previous target listings to include all of the Italian targets. This was no small effort, but I think absolutely worth it to players who want replayability. For that reason, I think it’s the right number. It’s certainly not too many, in my mind.
Grant: How does Crew Advancement and Commander Promotion work? What levels or awards are available and how do they effect a player’s career? Can you share with us some pictures of the different medals?
Gregory: These mechanics work similar to The Hunters except of course the promotions follow Italian ranks. Players may think some of the awards are easier to obtain, as the required tonnages to earn them are smaller, but the reason for this is based on two facts. First, the Italian Navy was reasonably generous in this regard, and second, it’s just harder to make tonnage in the Italian boats.
I couldn’t help myself, but included Cavaliere dell’Ordine Miliare di Savoia (Knight of the Military Order of Savoy); the Croce al Merito di Guerra (War Merit Cross); the Sommergibili badge (Submarine service); the Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare (Gold Medal for Gallantry) followed by the d’Argento and d’Bronzo versions (Silver and Bronze).
Grant: I’ve read where an Italian sub can win the Knight’s Cross. How does this work?
Gregory: Indeed, not only that, but the regular Iron Cross as well. The Knight’s Cross was awarded to several Italian submarine commanders, and in game terms, you have to have sunk 100,000 tons of shipping or have sunk one of the more lucrative capital ship targets. This is certainly achievable, I’d argue, but you’ll need some luck.
Grant: What multi-player options are available and how does this work? What about tournament rules?
Gregory: It will have the same options in these regards as The Hunters insomuch as you roll for each others contacts and combats, but you’re basically playing as teammates. For tournaments, you can set up a competition using any of a variety of formats. These are Long – Top Tonnage, Short – Top Tonnage, Survival, Mixed Boat.
Grant: How do Random Historic Events work? Can you give us a few examples and explain how this works?
Gregory: If you roll a “12” on 2d6 in a patrol box, you get (instead of a normal encounter) a random event. These range from good (“In Boca al Lupo!” which means literally “In the mouth of the wolf!” but colloquially in Italian, good luck) to bad (“Sabotage!”) to heinous (“Man Overboard!”)
I’ve just always liked the random events. They’re a fun way to spice up the game and add some historical tidbits.
Grant: Tell us what are Human Torpedo delivery missions like? How are the rules different for this situation?
Gregory: The S.L.C. attack mission is the most interesting of the special missions, insomuch as you have to make several decisions when you arrive at the enemy harbor on your attack. S.L.C. stands for Siluro a Lenta Corsa (in Italian, Low Speed Torpedo.) The term “Human Torpedo” is a bit misleading, as they were not suicide weapons. The frogman team steered the torpedo into the harbor, attached it to a ship with a timer, then attempted escape. You have to decide how close in to drop off the frogmen, which affects their success, but also adds risk.
Grant: Can you show us some examples of the different submarine mats and explain the layout?
Gregory: The game will have 12 submarine mats; one for each class of submarine. Here’s the Adua class (strictly a Med boat) and the Marcello class (longer ranged, used at BETASOM and the Med). These are just prototype mats, I’m sure the actual game mats will look nicer. Basically, the submarine mats are the center of game play – sort of “one-stop shopping” to track all events, crew status, and systems status. Damage to systems (and crew members injuries) can affect your combat capabilities. It all gets tracked here.
Notice the Adua class can be used for S.L.C. transport. If carrying S.L.C.’s no deck gun is carried. For those whose Italian is rusty (which is probably almost everyone reading this) the Secondo is the XO, the Ufficiale alle Armi is the Weapons Officer (2WO in German terms) and the Direttore di Macchina is the Engineer. I’ll leave you guessing for the Medico.
Grant: How do the Submarine Combat mats work? Can you show us an example?
Gregory: There is really only one Combat mat for the game and it is very similar to The Hunters mat. Here, you place your targets and allocate torpedoes to any/all of them. Its use is actually optional, I don’t personally use it to save time. But it is good for tracking multiple targets, say, for a convoy engagement.
I’m really loathe to post up one of my beta test submarine mats, as they are just…well, ugly. They do get the job done for testing but are not much to look at. I can tell you they will look basically similar to the U-Boat mats from The Hunters, however. One thing I will tell you though, is that there are a LOT of them for this game. 12 different submarine classes are represented.
Grant: Why is it so challenging to survive until the end of the War? What is your best advice on how to accomplish this feat?
Gregory: Probably the biggest challenge is your decisions on how and when to press the attack (and your luck). It will be difficult to obtain a decent amount of tonnage without putting your crew to some extra risk, at times. Essentially, you’re conducting risk management. The next biggest challenge is to survive the aircraft, to be honest. For that, you’ll need a little bit of luck perhaps, as there’s not much you can do about it.
Grant: When you started the design, what was your overall design goal for the game? Have you accomplished that goal?
Gregory: My design goal was pretty simple: take The Hunters system and use it to portray the Italian submarine effort from 1940-1943. I feel very comfortable that I’ve done just that, and will have achieved a secondary goal as well, to teach a little history along the way.
Grant: What has been the reaction of players? What are their favorite parts?
Gregory: One of the testers’ favorite parts was when I cackled maniacally as I depth-charged him repeatedly (true story 😊), but as far as the actual game, I think the S.L.C. attack mission was the hands-down favorite. Who doesn’t like taking frogmen into a harbor to sink battleships? 😊
Grant: What are you most proud of in the design?
Gregory: The target listings, I think. And, basically, the overall historical research. I put a lot of effort into immersing the players into the role of being an Italian submarine commander, and I hope it will show.
Grant: What elements still need some work?
Gregory: Well, the game is essentially completed (on my end). There still remains a decent amount of work after an artist gets assigned, but that comes as he implements my raw concepts into finished counters and player aids.
Grant: What is next for Gregory Smith?
Gregory: I am finishing up Nightfighter Ace for Compass Games right now, which (shocking!) contains zero submarines or U-boats. Who knew? 😊 My Zeppelin game got bumped up on the production schedule, so I’ve been going full guns on that lately. I finally solved “dynamic lift” for it in a way which makes sense so I’m happy there. Fortunately, you won’t need a degree in Aerodynamics to play the game. I’m trying to put together a concept for a Vikings game that sort of plays like the old SPI title Conquistador to a degree, but I’m having some issues with the map – those guys went EVERYWHERE. LOL. I’ve also been putting the finishing touches on a strategic Pacific Game for Compass Games called Pacific Tide which has really gotten a lot of interest from the testers. Finally, I’ve just started research on the opposite game to The Hunters where you play the escorts trying to sink the U-Boats. So, certainly enough to keep me busy!
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Gregory. I know it means a lot to our readers to get details from these interviews and you surely gave us those. Also, I definitely am interested in talking to you about some of your other upcoming games and will be reaching out soon….if you are up for it!
I have not played any submarine warfare solo games, but Alexander has in Silent Victory (also designed by Greg) and Depths of Courage: Volume 8 The Attack on Algeciras Harbor, July-December, 1942from High Flying Dice Games. I do own Gato Leader from Dan Verssen Games but havent had a chance to play it yet. I have added Beneath the Med to my growing P500 list and look forward to playing it in the near future.
If you are interested in ordering a copy of Beneath the Med, it is currently being offered for the special P500 price of $36.00 at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-697-beneath-the-med.aspx