Not often is a wargame found to be on the cutting edge of forging new ground. There are many tried and true systems that are of high quality, simulation value that designers use them over and over again to great effect. But, once in a while, a designer seems to go out on a limb and try something new that ends up being highly innovative and changes the way we view games on that subject. Such is the case with the newest design from Jeremy “Jerry” White called Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 from GMT Games. In case you don’t know, Atlantic Chase is an effort at simulating the naval campaigns fought in the North Atlantic during World War II between the surface fleets of the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine from 1939 to 1942. The Battle of the Atlantic is a tricky nut to crack in a wargame as there are many things that players shouldn’t specifically know, but end up knowing because of limitations in design ideas and approaches on the subject. As you know from history, the Admiralty headquartered in London and overseen by Winston Churchill himself, had very little ability to actually know where their fleets and assets were when it was time to dispatch them to combat the enemy after being sighted. In fact, the Admiralty had to track their fleets locations using pins and strings on maps of the seas but only really knew their trajectory as they were traveling between ports and not necessarily where they actually were located along that path.
That is where this new system in Atlantic Chase does such an admirable job, in creating and maintaining that elusive Fog of War concept that we all love so much as wargamers. I hate having the “God’s Eye” view of all the units on the board during a wargame as well as generally knowing their strengths and makeup. I want to be surprised, and unsure about the makeup of my enemy, as it creates some fantastic tension and palpable hesitation about making attacks, you know, the way that we all have imagined that it actually is on the battlefield! How does it do this? Actually, very simply. The game utilizes a system of trajectories of ships using nothing more than small different colored matchstick style wooden bits with various markings on them to represent which taskforce they belong to. These trajectories are laid out on the hex board in the shortest path from port to port and represent the path of travel that the ships will take. Like I mentioned earlier about the Admiralty and their pins and strings, players don’t necessarily know where their ships or the enemy ships are located along that trajectory but must perform various actions to move along it and also try to perform actions such as Naval Searches to pinpoint where the taskforces are on the map.
A game like this, that provides new mechanics and concepts, definitely requires a bit of a different approach to learning or teaching the game. Unless you have the designer over for dinner, who has played the game hundreds of times and can explain to you all of the nuances of the design and how it works, learning this one will require a bit of patience from the average gamer. Even for us who have played hundreds of games and digested many different styles of rulebooks trying to understand the overall concepts of a game, this one was going to require us to approach it differently than in playing the 100th hex and counter odds based CRT I-GO-U-GO wargame. And even after following all of the tutorials and messing around with the game, I am not sure that I get it or fully understand how I am to go about trying to execute my plan on the board. But, the method provided to learn the game is the old faithful Jerry White way of following a continually expanding and building upon previous concepts method of learning scenarios through a tutorial. The game comes with lots of nicely bound and thick learning aids including the 64-page rule book, with plenty of well laid out examples and pictures, a 56-page Tutorial with a full 10 different Episodes covering concepts such as Time Lapse and Movement Rate and how bad/good weather effect those, Pass Actions, Signals Actions and Intel markers, Completion, Naval Search, Stealing Initiative. taking Evasive Maneuvers, making contact and engaging in battle. I know that some of you are going to look at this one and tune out because you will think that it looks too complicated or is too involved. In the face of new paradigm shifts in gaming, the designer provided you with a life preserver to be able to float through the mechanics learning as you go at your own pace. You will start on the surface of the game, learning basic concepts to help you be able to come to understand other concepts and then after you are comfortable you will take the deep dive, throwing the life preserver to the winds and diving in. And I say come on in, the water is fine!
We walked through the first 8 of these tutorials and really found them to be invaluable in assisting us in learning the mechanics, as well as some bits of strategy. This game initially appears complex on the surface with its various tables and charts printed on the board itself, but after navigating the well done tutorials and then playing several of the 2-player scenarios, I now don’t see the game as complex but see it is as a new experience in a theater of World War II that I don’t have much experience with but that was a joy to learn and play. Some of the principles in the game are new, such as a Trajectory Action where you are placing a line of thin colored wooden sticks connecting your port or point of origin to your expected destination. This trajectory is not a linear accounting of your task force’s movement but more a concept of the shortest distance between point A and point B plotted to avoid detection by coastal defense forces and patrols from enemy ports or long range recon aircraft searching the vastness of the North Atlantic for your fleet. The players will go about plotting these trajectories and performing Naval Search actions to attempt to discover where their target is along that line. These Naval Search actions are modified by the length of your own searching trajectory and the length of your target’s trajectory and will place the roll into various categories on the Naval Search Table. When the total trajectories of both players are alot (16+) the best you can hope for is to remove a segment or two of that trajectory. But, as you continually do this action turn after turn, you will hone in on the target and ultimately can force them into Station status where you can then try to sink them or do damage. That cat and mouse experience is really tasty, as it is very frustrating to roll poorly and find nothing, but there is also a palpable tension to it and that makes it interesting. In the end, persistence and a bit of luck will reward your efforts and you will find success but it is never an immediate or total success. Never are naval battles really decisive and are more likely to be a running engagement over a period of hours or even days as targets break away, due to poor weather or smoke, only to be found again and attacked.
With that in mind, one of the most interesting parts of this design is how it attempts to model this naval warfare. As I mentioned no navies every got into engagements and fought to the death. This combat was never all or nothing but more akin to hit and run with elusive maneuvers and commanders who were willing to forgo attacks to move into better position or to escape the guns being brought to bear on them. Jerry does this in aces and skillfully captures this concept of fight, break up, disengage, flee, pursuit and reacquiring targets. If you manage to catch a task force you never do enough damage to finish it immediately. You have to chase it as it continues to move toward their objectives and will make contact again and again, with sometimes your quarry eluding your efforts with a lucky roll to steal imitative but you ultimately catch it before it has the opportunity to pull of a Completion action into its destination port. I am not a naval historian but I do know the focused effort of of the Allies to try and corner the mighty Bismarck as it disembarked into the Atlantic hunting prey. This became a long stretching process that saw outdated planes attempting to penetrate the armor of this major behemoth and the chase that ensued. This unique system really well captures and simulates these points and I found the experience to be fabulous….frustrating and enervating all at the same time!
Another element of the cat and mouse that was really interesting to me was this concept of stealing the initiative. When a player is active and it is their turn, they can take as many actions as they want, including Trajectories with various taskforces on the board, but the moment that they decide to do something aggressive such as Engage or Naval Search, they must then give the opportunity to their opponent to roll some dice and attempt to steal this initiative. This stealing of initiative is not necessarily easy though as to be successful you must roll a result of 9+ on 2d6. If the attempt fails, the acting player can simply decide to take other actions and this cycle can continue. It only automatically passes to the other player when they decide to pass and then they perform what is called a Time Lapse and the taskforce will move their allotted hexes on the board, which can be changed by bad weather. This was a source of great tension as sometimes you simply need to steal that initiative to deal your enemy a defeat or race for your home port to safety with a Completion Action. The roll though is very challenging as 9 on 2d6 is really difficult as we saw time and time again.
But don’t worry, after each failure the failing player will get a +1 DRM that is tracked on the board and is cumulative for each successive attempt so it is possible to miss 2 or 3 of these attempted thefts and be rolling at a +2 or +3, which makes the odds of success much more plausible. If the inactive player has acquired an Evasive Maneuvers marker, they have the option to also spend this to gain an immediate modifier to seize initiative. The value of the modifier will depend on the current weather but is a +1 for good weather and a +2 for bad weather. This makes sense as it might be easier to slip away or move into position when the waves and wind are combining to try and sink the players. Here is a look at the player aid that lists the various actions to cause an opportunity for the opponent to steal this initiative. It is referred to as SI (Steal Initiative) but there also is V for I (Vie for Initiative) which simply is a dice roll off for the initiative. Not as fun but still very tense! This was such great fun and added some real tension to the game. I am not a naval expert but it seemed to me that the commander with the most aggression can really do some damage because they are being proactive and forcing their opponent into mistakes.
This game is an experience and one that will reward the work that players put into it by giving them more on the back end as they experience this type of warfare.. We were immediately taken with the game, with its amazing components, crunchiness and tension and have really enjoyed our plays. There are moments when you end up asking yourself how you are supposed to get done what is needed, but after trial and error, and a bit of dice luck, you will finally see and then understand what is trying to be done. There are also some advanced combat rules that we haven’t tried yet but that add a bit of crunchiness to the process. As the game really isn’t about the fighting necessarily, we didn’t feel the need to dive into those rules immediately but will leave it for later plays to add to the experience.
This game also has a robust solitaire experience and provides 15 different solo scenarios. We have not had the opportunity to try it out solo but want to and Alexander is going to run it through its paces first before he hands it over to me to try out. I recommend this game wholeheartedly. It is unique, interesting, well done and really fairly easy to learn if you but simply follow through with the Tutorials and really dig into the experience there to build on your knowledge and understanding. I always hate to say this so early in the year, and we have really only played a few 2021 games, but this one is going to in contention for my Wargame of the Year for sure and there will be more of this on the way I am sure as this game is but the first in a new series of games called Intercept.
We posted an unboxing video for you to get a good look at all that is in the box and you can view that at the following link:
We also posted our initial thoughts video after our run through of the Tutorials and you can gain some good insight into the various elements and what we found interesting by viewing it at the following link:
Good luck and happy hunting!