Atlantic Chase is a new game from Jerry White that’s currently on GMT’s P500 list. You can check that out here, but we wanted to give Jerry an opportunity to reach you all with some of his thoughts on the game and it’s design.
AK: For the newer readers out there can you let us know a little bit about yourself: Who is Jerry White and why did you choose wargame design as a path to pursue?
JW: Been gaming since I was a kid, which was way back in the third quarter of the twentieth century. Twas a long time ago. Am an architect by training and been teaching architecture history for the past ten years or so. I like history. I like design. Wargaming is a natural fit.
AK: Atlantic Chase is your latest offering on the P500 from GMT Games. What prompted you to make a game revolving around North Atlantic naval operations during World War II?
JW: Never set out to make this game. Not exactly, anyway. I was really interested in designing a game on the American Civil War that focused on the movements of armies and the vital role cavalry played, as well as the fog of war. Big fan of Civil War games but most leave me disappointed. Anyway, I created the system of trajectories for that game and found it was too complex. Wasn’t sure it worked, or could work, so I looked to test the system on a situation that was simpler. Reduce variables, as it were. Be great to remove the variable of terrain, which prompted me to study naval operations. The sea doesn’t have forests, rivers, mountains, or breastworks. I knew a fair amount about naval operations in World War Two, but I shied away from that period at first because of the air component. Went through a few books before I created a crude prototype that modeled Napoleonic era operations, and it worked fair enough. Emboldened, I decided to test it on a World War Two situation with limited air assets. I created a prototype treating the Scharnhorst’s last operation north of Norway. It was a small game, an 8.5×11 map and just a few counters. Seemed to work, so I expanded it to the North Atlantic to model the famous Bismarck operation that sunk the Hood as well as that German battleship. All that designing and testing took place between 2004 and 2007, and although I was pleased with the prototype, it was far from a complete game. When I say “far,” you have to imagine Mars, or maybe Alpha Centauri. Anyway, that’s how I worked my way towards a game on surface action in the North Atlantic. It’s been a long road.
AK: Atlantic Chase uses some unique mechanisms in order to model trajectory and location of the various convoys and fleets. How did you come up with this system and what challenges does it provide the players?
JW: Oi, that’s a big question. I could go on quite a bit, but I will behave. As I mentioned, all this started with me thinking about how armies navigated the landscape of Virginia during the 1860s. Leadership, cavalry, and limited information made for some very surprising situations during that war, but I don’t know any games that treat that mixture effectively. Short of a Reiswitzian double blind system where players don’t see each other during the game, their decisions mediated by a referee, nothing captures that situation. Dummy blocks and hidden movement or combat values seem to be the way the fog of war is handled in wargames today. When treating naval operations, real time feedback is particularly pernicious, eroding the persuasiveness of the simulation. I mean, you move your task force into that hex over there, and I watch you do it. That’s kind of a problem. Heck, you watching you move it there is kind of a problem. What battleship, aircraft carrier, or merchant marine constantly wired its position back to HQ every two minutes? That is the real challenge. How can a design obscure information about one’s own playing pieces? How can a player be given false information about their own units? And, how can this be done without a soul crushing load of detail or complexity?
Well, some years ago I was in London and had the pleasure to visit Churchill’s bunker. His Cabinet War room or whatever it’s called, where he and 500 of his chums hunkered down during the Blitz brooding over nautical charts. If you’ve been there maybe you noticed the two things I noticed. First, it’s way cool. I had to be dragged out of there by my wife. And second, those charts were huge, they had pins stuck in them to represent the course of task forces and convoys, and…those pins were connected by strings. Took a while, but eventually the gray matter came around to embracing rather than dismissing all that string.
In wargames, we are accustomed to seeing a unit in a hex, thinking “that brigade is at Fairfax Courthouse.” Then we move that unit, to another hex or area or point, and we think “that brigade is now at Culpepper.” Terrific, except that’s way too much information. Whatever happened to dispatching orders to march from Point A to Point B, and then waiting hours, days, weeks for confirmation that the orders were received and executed? The problem is not the unit (the counter, or block, or pawn, or whatever). The problem is the hex (or area or point, or whatever). The game board presents absolute certainty about the military landscape, and it can’t be argued with. If a brigade counter is in a hex, it’s in that hex. As I mentioned, it took me a long time to come to this idea, and it’s a simple one: What if the brigade was represented by a line instead of a point? What if the game board represented a general’s map instead of the battlefield itself? By “line,” I am referring to a trajectory of movement. Could be the movement of a brigade from Fairfax Courthouse to Culpepper in 1862, or a convoy from Halifax to The Clyde ports in 1942.
To cut this explanation short, I was inspired by the pins and threads adorning Churchill’s wall, but it’s taken me forever and a day to make this simple idea work in a wargame.
AK: Which part of the game’s design do you think most evokes the historical situation and why?
JW: Trajectories model the fog of war better than many other typical features of wargames. I’m not saying its the only way to do it, but I’m really excited about the ability to interfere with a player’s knowledge, especially of their own assets on the game board. That trajectory spanning the many hexes between Halifax and The Clyde represents a path of travel that merchant ships are following. The player does not know where those ships are along that trajectory, or when exactly they will make port. The enemy doesn’t know either, but he sure would like to, which is why he has just plotted his own trajectory to intercept the convoy. That’s the cool thing here. Players make decisions about where they want battles to take place, and then take actions to make that plan a reality. This system also has the benefit of quick playing. Instead of the usual incremental movement where ships and task forces move a hex or two each turn, players boldly plot trajectories across the map, then resolve them. And seeing those trajectories winding across the board is pretty cool too, because they give the visual impression of courses plotted on nautical charts. It’s a system to simulate naval operations that shares an aesthetic quality of a nautical apparatus.
AK: The main board has a battle board on the side, could you describe the functionality of this and what an array of forces in battle may look like?
JW: Atlantic Chase is an operational game where the players’ main concern is maneuvering task forces and engaging the enemy task forces under favorable conditions. In order to consummate operational actions, there has to be combat between ships. The Hood duking it out with the Bismarck. Battleships and cruisers. When opposing task forces engage in a surface battle, the ships in those task forces are shifted to the battle board. It’s organized into zones of relative ranges, this being a simpler rather than a more complex game. The zones allow range to be calculated easily, and there are four range categories: extreme, long, short, and point blank, comprising the geography of the battle board. Ships fire at each other, then maneuver, then fire again, and a typical battle lasts three rounds, or just two in bad weather. Engagements are brief, but they can happen in a string of battles interspersed with air strikes, search, and trajectory actions. During that period in the Atlantic, inevitably when ships clashed, one side was in a hurry to skedaddle. The challenge was pressing home the attack when one possessed superior force, and that is reflected in Atlantic Chase.
AK: What was the most difficult part of the Battle of the Atlantic to actually model into a board game system?
JW: The tricky part is finding the right balance between simplicity and detail. It is very tempting to add detail, especially on the battle board. In fact, Atlantic Chase will have advanced rules, the majority dealing with a more detailed treatment of combat. Those advanced rules will be more satisfying to the discerning Gorgnard, but the game will stretch on quite a bit longer because of it.
AK: Were there any parts of Atlantic Chase that didn’t ‘make the cut’, so to speak, with regards to play testing and various revisions/tweaks in the rules?
JW: Yes, absolutely. The trajectories were originally counters. They were long and narrow with an arrow at one end and each had a value. It was possible to have multiples of those trajectory markers in a hex, in order to treat a variety of situations. All that worked well, but made for a cluttered game board and necessitated two extra counter sheets. Andy Lewis of GMT took one look and said “yikes.” That was in 2008, sending me back to the drawing board. A few years later…eventually I had the epiphany to get rid of those markers and substitute wood sticks. Much simpler. Much easier. Much cleaner. It really has taken a loooong time to boil this game down, and the form that the game ultimately took would not have been possible with another war-game publisher. GMT now incorporates non-wargamey bits in its games, such as cubes and such. The wood bits in Atlantic Chase are unusual but Tony Curtis was willing to make it happen. I am grateful.
AK: When players sit down to get in a game of Atlantic Chase, what kind of feeling/experience can they expect?
JW: Folks who have done just that, sat down and played, have told me they find Atlantic Chase to be unusual. I get it. It’s different. But they usually say it is a fine way to simulate naval operations. Years ago when I was first trying to make trajectories work, the people I cornered to play it looked at me afterwards like I was an escapee from the nut house. Now, folks who I demo it for seem quite excited by it. I’ve noticed they are hesitant, however. When they sit down to play and the game is all set up and it is their turn…they are unsure how to proceed. We are used to moving pieces one hex and then another hex, in an incremental process. There is certainty in that process. In Atlantic Chase, you have to ask yourself where you want that task force to be. You plot a line of trajectory segments to get it there. Doesn’t take long for players to figure it out and they start to ponder the nuances. And it doesn’t take long for the hunter to become the hunted, which is a feature of this system that appeals to me the most.
AK: For those of us with the time for it, what material out there would you recommend for a wider reading on the subject so we can prime ourselves to execute the campaign ourselves?
JW: That’s a tough one because there is so much good stuff out there. John Keegan’s The Price of Admiralty is a good start. If you want to get into the weeds, try Roskill’s The War at Sea, or the compilation of Admiral Raeder’s papers published as The Fuhrer Conferences on Naval Affairs (a fine read for any WW2 enthusiast, and for those who want to know what it’s like to work with an insane boss).
AK: Any strategy tips or hang up that newer players should look out for?
JW: Sure. I’ve noticed that new players sometimes put every asset in motion, especially as the British. Cruisers going here, cruisers going there, all trying to lay a trap for the German surface raiders. It takes a while to realize that by laying down a trajectory from point A to point B, you lose control of those ships. They are now on there way to point B, so if you need them to be in point C, well, it may take longer now that they are steaming on orders. If you don’t know where your opponent is going to send his ships, wait for him to give you information you can use (i.e., a trajectory on the map). Once he makes his move, pounce on him. By laying out your trajectories so soon, you are actually giving your opponent information that he could use against you.
AK: We haven’t even got our hands on this one, but we’re already looking to the future – any other projects of yours, or even ideas, that we can look forward too?
JW: Yes, but I’m not sure which will materialize first. After all, it took how many years for Atlantic Chase to emerge? Let’s not count them, it’s too painful. Anyway, there will soon be another Enemy Coast Ahead game on the P500. This one will include a pair of raids, Operation Biting and Operation Chariot. Players will be able to handle air and sea assets as well as put boots on the ground. The two raids can be played individually, or combined. Lots of scenarios and lots of decisions to make during planning. I’m very excited about it. I am also working on a two player game treating the U.S. raids on the oil fields around Ploiesti. Operation Tidal Wave and the many raids in 1944. It will share many features with Enemy Coast Ahead, especially in terms of planning, but in this game, both the American and the German player have much to think about. There will also be a solo option, since the situation lends itself to solo play. Probably will not be ready for the P500 this year, but maybe (just maybe) in 2019? Who can say. Designs have a life of their own, or their own timeline, and the designer is sometimes more a midwife helping it into the world rather than a creator.
I want to thank the Players’ Aid for giving me the chance to talk about all this. Much appreciated!
Thank you very much for answering our questions Jerry. I know I’m excited to play a game that looks unique, and covers a conflict that is somewhat overlooked in the wargaming world.
If you are interested in pre-ordering a copy of Atlantic Chase, you can do so for the special P500 price of $45.00 at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-706-atlantic-chase.aspx