I have always been interested in the PQ-17 Convoy disaster from World War II but have never played a game based on the incident. I know that there is a game from GMT Games called PQ-17: Arctic Naval Operations 1941-1943 but I haven’t played it either. So when I saw that Against the Odds Magazine was doing a game on the subject, and more importantly that the design was by Mark Stille, I reached out to him to see if he was interested in giving us the lowdown. Even though he was busy, he worked with us to bring the following to you on the game.
If you are interested in obtaining a copy of Against the Odds Magazine Issue #47, which contains Arctic Disaster: The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17, you can order from this link: http://www.atomagazine.com/Details.cfm?ProdID=143
Grant: What inspired you to do a game on the destruction of the PQ-17 convoy in World War II?
Mark: PQ-17 is probably the most well known convoy battle of the Second World War, yet there have been only a couple of games focused on it. I wanted to design a playable, but realistic, game on this event to let players explore what happened and what could have been.
Grant: What about the event intrigued you and what did you find as a challenge to model in a wargame?
Mark: The PQ-17 event is intriguing for a number of reasons. How did the Germans pummel a convoy that was seemingly so well protected? How could this have happened without the most powerful German unit, the battleship Tirpitz, not even firing a shot? What happened on the Allied side to facilitate this disaster? We all know that the battle ended up in an Allied rout. The challenge for the designer in such a situation is to come up with a game which both replicates what happened (while still making it challenging for both sides), and also including a few realistic variables which if used, could render an entirely different result. The challenge is to be true to the historical event, even if it turned out badly for one side, but still produce a challenging simulation.
Grant: What sources did you consult to get the history correct? Which sources would you recommend as a good read for those interested?
Mark: Surprisingly, there are few decent books dedicated to the PQ-17 battle. The best source for an overall history is the British Official History, which is Stephen Roskill’s War at Sea (Volume II). It is useful, but does not levy criticism where it is due on the principal British command figures. The best read on the battle by far is The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17 by David Irving. It is well-researched and well written, and does not attempt to spare the reputations of those responsible for the disaster. It was published before the author went insane and became a Holocaust denier.
Grant: It seems that the convoy was well protected with multiple cruisers, battleships and destroyers. How did this protection fail and what did the Germans do to ensure that only 11 ships made it to their destination?
Mark: The Allies were expecting trouble by the time PQ-17 departed for Russia. Accordingly, the convoy was provided with what appeared to be formidable defenses, including a large number of escorts for ASW work, a cruiser covering group, and the Home Fleet in case Tirpitz made an appearance. However, even before the convoy set out, the seeds of its destruction were laid by a restrictive set of Allied rules of engagement. Players are invited to read the historical article which comes with the game to get the whole story.
Grant: I read where the game system is built around the uncertainty of task force activation, replicating the weak command and control evident on both sides. What part of the system replicates this element? What was difficult about getting this right in the design?
Mark: The most important part of the game, and actually the easiest to replicate, was the weak Command and Control (C2) exhibited by both sides. The simple device of using random command activation accomplished this nicely. Layered on top is the unpredictable weather which can change several times during a turn. This has the effect of introducing more uncertainly into the proceedings. For example, if you draw an air formation while the weather is bad, or while the convoy is not detected, that formation doesn’t fly that entire turn. Players will find it is hard to get a planned operation to go off smoothly.
Grant: I also see from the rules that the game system used is loosely based on Against the Odds’ earlier Imperial Sunset. Why did this game and system work well in this instance?
Mark: The same random activation system was used in Imperial Sunset. It worked well there, but works even better in Arctic Disaster where both Allied and German C2 was weaker, and where weather played such an important role, making for even greater chaos.
Grant: How do Task Force, Task Group, Air Formation, and Event Activation markers work in the game? How does the blind draw work well to simulate this battle?
Mark: Each task force or air unit has a counter which is drawn at random from the activation pool. Events are not totally random as both sides have a limited ability to select the precise formation that they wish to activate. In addition, the German player has the potential to activate all or most of his air formations in a massed attack once per day (each turn is 8 hours long, so there are three turns per day). When drawn, each formation executes its move. Obviously, the order of activation has an enormous affect on game play. Some events, like when air reconnaissance is conducted by land-based aircraft, are also random. This simulates the fact that even if the reconnaissance was effective, by the time the contact report reached the operational commanders it could be (and often was) out of date and useless.
Grant: How are Dummy TF/TGs used? What options do players have to sniff out these charades?
Mark: Dummy Task Force markers are available, and if used correctly, can introduce an element of unpredictability into the game. However, each player has multiple chances per turn to locate each TF marker on the board, and if located, the contact report could reveal whether the TF is a dummy or not.
Grant: When TF/TGs are activated, what actions can they take?
Mark: A surface task force can execute several actions, all in the same move. These include movement, search, and surface combat. If the TF has a carrier, then it could also conduct an air strike. For example, the TF with a carrier could start with a search action, locate an enemy TF, then move toward it and finally launch a strike.
Grant: What type of Event Activation Markers are there? How do these events change the game?
Mark: There are several event markers placed in the activation pool. These include two weather events, a C2 event for each player (allowing him to activate the TF of his choice), an intelligence event for each side (allowing a search against an enemy TF of his choice), two land-based air search events for each side, a grounding event possibly affecting the German player, a massed German air attack event, the Knight’s Move event for activating Tirpitz, a Hitler Status event for possibly bringing Tirpitz back to port, a tactical advantage/surprise event, and the all-important Convoy Scatters event. All of these events are important to some degree, but the order in which they are drawn will determine their impact.
Grant: Tell us specifically how the Hitler Status Marker and the Knight’s Move markers work and why you wanted to include them?
Mark: It is not a given that Tirpitz will sortie at a time of the German player’s choice and then proceed to shoot up the convoy. Reflecting the actual event, Tirpitz only moves under certain conditions (the Knight’s Move Operation) and every turn it is at sea, Hitler could order it back home. Even though the battleship might never engage the convoy, all the German player needs to do is get it near the convoy to force it to scatter, which has catastrophic consequences for the Allied player. In fact, just being undetected for two turns during a certain point of the game could force the convoy to scatter.
Grant: This game does take place in the Arctic Ocean. How does ice effect the movement of ships? How can ice be used strategically?
Mark: Even in summer, there is an Arctic ice field in the northern part of the Norwegian Sea which most ships cannot move into. The exception is merchant ships and small escorts which can move into the ice fields following the convoy scattering. Once there, after a couple of turns, they are assumed to have hidden in the ice (some of the crews of these ships actually broke out white paint and tried to paint their ships white during the battle), so they get a modifier against air searches.
Grant: How are Air units used? What is the difference in both sides Air units?
Mark: Only the Allied player has fighter units which can fly Combat Air Patrol (CAP), and carrier-based torpedo bombers which can attack surface targets. Allied long-range search aircraft are included, but are treated as events for activation purposes. The Germans have most of the air units in the game, and these can be devastating. The Luftwaffe brings an entire wing of Ju-88s to the fight, and two types of torpedo bombers. There is also a group of Ju-87s if the Allies foolishly venture too close to Norway. German long-range search aircraft are also activated as events.
Grant: How does the Convoy PQ-17 Display work?
Mark: The mass of PQ-17 merchants and escorts is placed on the convoy display. This is important for determining the disposition of the convoy’s escorts (either maximized for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) or for air defense), and for the conduct of air attacks.
Grant: What are the different forms of combat in the game?
Mark: There are many forms of combat in the game as you would expect in an air-naval game. Units can be attacked by aircraft (and in some cases defended by friendly CAP), which is heavily influenced by AA fire. Surface combat is present, featuring both gunnery and torpedoes, and submarines can also attack surface targets and then undergo ASW attacks. The level of complexity for these attacks is not very high. The emphasis is placed on player allocations and decisions, not a long drawn-out combat resolution.
Grant: How does Shadowing work and why is this important to the design?
Mark: Shadowing is important because it does not require the German player to re-locate the convoy before every formation activation. Submarines and land-based aircraft can shadow the convoy. If the convoy is being shadowed when a formation is activated, it can attack immediately. Of course, weather was a factor and could force the shadowing unit to lose contact.
Grant: We have talked about Tirpitz in a few portions of the interview but I want to know what is special about the Battleship Tirpitz in the design? What special rules are designed to mimic its historical power?
Mark: Tirpitz is the centerpiece of the game since only it has the capability to make the convoy scatter. If the German player can get the battleship underway and headed for the convoy, there is a good chance the convoy will scatter. Once this happens, the U-boats and Ju-88s can pick off merchant ships at an alarming rate, as occurred in the actual battle. Thus, Tirpitz does not even have to fire its weapons to impact the game. However, bringing Tirpitz into action carries a degree of risk, and its loss would be catastrophic for the Germans. Though unlikely to happen, the Allied player has two battleships in the game. The USN’s Washington is just as powerful as Tirpitz, but not as well protected. The same is true for the RN’s Duke of York.
Grant: How are VPs awarded to both sides? How is final victory determined?
Mark: VPs are awarded to both sides for sinking naval and merchant ships. The Allied player also gets VPs for getting merchant ships to certain points on the map. If the historical results are replicated, the game is considered a draw. Players must do better to win.
Grant: What scenarios are included in the game? What scenario is the most challenging?
Mark: There are two scenarios. One is the historical scenario in which the employment of heavy Allied naval units is greatly circumscribed on some parts of the map, and the employment of Tirpitz is problematic. This scenario is challenging for both sides as they attempt to better the historical results. The other scenario is a flight of fantasy in which both sides can employ all their units in virtually any manner they want. This may not be as challenging, and is totally unrealistic, but is way more fun.
Grant: What are you most proud of in the design?
Mark: I like how the game came together. It puts the players in the position of both operational and tactical-level commanders, while facing some degree of fog of war. Most of all, the games flows somewhat quickly and is actually fun to play.
Thanks again Mark for the great look at the game. I appreciate your time and your thoughts on the design, as well as a snap shot of the history of the battle and some of the possible reasons for the outcome. Once again, if you are interested in in obtaining a copy of Against the Odds Magazine Issue #47, which contains Arctic Disaster: The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17, you can order from this link: http://www.atomagazine.com/Details.cfm?ProdID=143