Our friend Gregory M. Smith is a solitaire genius and has done many of these solo, narrative driven wargames that we have all enjoyed for hours on end while we have been unable to find an opponent or just because we want to play a game on our timeline. We have interviewed him many times for his games such as Zeppelin Raider, Interceptor Ace, The Hunted, Western Front Ace, Amerika Bomber, Defending America and most recently American Tank Ace. Greg always has something cooking in his game design kitchen and we recently became aware of his newest project taking a look at Convoy Escort Groups in the North Atlantic during World War II called Atlantic Sentinels: North Atlantic Convoy Escort, 1942-1943 currently up for pre-order on Compass Games. I reached out to Greg and he was more than willing to talk with me about this new game with a much different focus than his previous work.
*Note: Any graphics or pictures used in this interview of components are nothing more than the prototype version created by the designer intended for playtesting purposes. Also, details of the game play and mechanics may also change throughout playtesting and final development prior to publication.
Grant: You have done several solitaire submarine games and now you are flipping the script and telling the other side of the story. Where did the inspiration come from for Atlantic Sentinels?
Greg: After The Hunters came out, a good friend (Marty McCleary) told me that I needed to do a game on this subject. That was not the first suggestion either as I have had a few other requests for it over the years. After that game was done, not that I have a lot of extra time or anything, but I finally got around to designing it.
Grant: What design problems did you find you had to think outside the box to solve?
Greg: The main issue was that my “normal” format just wouldn’t work to cover the Allied side here. U-boats work individually (even as part of a wolfpack, their actions are only loosely coordinated at best.) Convoy escorts work as a coordinated team with each ship serving a critical purpose, and with that in mind, it made no sense to have the player just operating a solo escort vessel. The right approach was to let the player control an entire Escort Group consisting of multiple ships, and once I realized that (finally) the game began to take shape.
Grant: What time period does your new game Atlantic Sentinels cover?
Greg: The games’ name mostly sums it up: Atlantic Sentinels: North Atlantic Convoy Escort, 1942-1943. It actually starts in February 1942 and goes through June 1943. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of “why then?” and “why not start earlier? (Go later? Longer? Shorter?)“ etc. But the bottom line, this was from the start of the MOEF (Mid Ocean Escort Force). I tried to hit the “sweet spot” for the game’s timeframe to make the most interesting and engaging experience possible. Earlier than 1942, there was no MOEF; later, well, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge then really.
Grant: How much did your previous designs help you in setting up the frame work for this one?
Greg: The funny thing was, it was a mixed bag regarding that. From the U-boat side, I had already done the research and had attack routines I could use. From the destroyer side, I had nothing, plus, the overall tactical display mats were created from scratch. So I did have a lot done, but I also had a lot of information I needed to find. And that meant a lot of research and thought about the structure of the game and how it would play out.
Grant: What sources did you consult about convoy escort and their actions during WWII?
Greg: Without question the best operational book on convoy escort I found to be Battle of the Atlantic by Marc Milner. Great maps, illustrations, and narrative on the actions of the convoy escorts and the battles. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the topic, which I would assume would be anybody interested in the game. A more limited book (not in quality, but in the period covered) was The Critical Convoy Battles of March 1943 by Jurgen Rohwer. Those two books allowed me to have a feel for how things were conducted and some of the issues faced by the Senior Officer of the Escort.
Grant: What ships does your Convoy Escort Group consist of and what choices do players have in the makeup?
Greg: The game starts with the player picking a historical escort group (or randomly rolling for one). At the time, these were mainly 6-7 ships, depending on which one. For example, if starting with Escort Group B-3 (British #3) the player has 3 destroyers and 4 Flower Class corvettes. The player does not get choices per se on the ships they start with (and receive as reinforcements) but they do have a choice when refitting on who gets the Type 271 radar, Hedgehog ASW upgrades, etc.
Grant: What choices does the player have regarding the placement of escorts in defense of a convoy? How is this placement exacerbated by convoy size?
Greg: This is actually part of the heart of the game, as there are 11 areas in which to place your defending ships, but only six or seven starting ships. You have to assess the risk of approach from the different sides of the convoy and try to match up your defensive forces to give the best coverage possible.
Grant: What role does the Type 271 radar play in the defense of the convoy?
Greg: Type 271 radar can give you coverage to an entire flank, but again, you’ll only have one of those systems at the start of the game. They actually work out to be more effective at night, due to the fact you can only detect a periscope out to about 1K versus a 5K range against a surfaced U-boat. But the Type 271 is key in giving you extra coverage, as detection by any method is not guaranteed.
Grant: What upgrades are available to the Escort Group ships as the game progresses?
Greg: The main upgrades available to your Escort Group are Type 271 radars and Hedgehog ASW weapons (forward throwing mortars). Additionally, you may get an HF/DF upgrade, although many groups start with HF/DF installed (and you only have “one” HF/DF action per group) so you stop checking for that once you have the capability.
Grant: What additional ships are available as the Escort Group advances?
Greg: Ships were in short supply in 1942, but each Escort Group does have a chance to increase from their starting six (or seven) ships to a maximum of ten. There is a slim chance during the Refit/Upgrade Phase to add a Flower Class, B-Class DD, E-Class DD, or even (after 5/42) a River Class Frigate.
Grant: What type of research did you do to find out the different ships and their specs and capabilities? What one source would you recommend as a must read source on the subject?
Greg: Easily the best resource for this was Atlantic Escorts: Ships, Weapons and Tactics in World War II by David K Brown. Obviously I consulted Jane’s Fighting Ships of World War II and online sources, but Brown’s book was a wealth of information and had great details on ASDIC (sonar), depth charges and throwers, and the ships themselves.
Grant: What ships are your personal favorites and why?
Greg: I would have to say I’m a bit partial to the Flower Class corvettes. Not the biggest, not the heaviest armed, not the fastest escort, but without question the workhorse of the Atlantic Fleet when it came to escort duty.
Grant: Can you share a few of the Ship Display Mats with us and discuss the benefits and weaknesses of each?
Greg: There are no individual ship display mats per se in Atlantic Sentinels. This is, of course, a major departure from most of my games, where you are in charge of a single craft. However, I have modeled certain benefits/disadvantages of the classes in the attack charts, based on weaponry available. For example, the Town Class (lend-lease DD’s from the USA) were not equipped with ASW initially and didn’t get much after modification. They get a small penalty to reflect that. The River Class Frigate, on the other end of the spectrum, came equipped with 8 depth charge projectors, two rails, and a large load of depth charges, and therefore get a small bonus.
Grant: What are the different crew found on these ships?
Greg: There is one crew marker representing the entire crew, but they can improve over time as they have success in sinking U-boats to Veteran and possibly even Elite.
Grant: What does the Tactical Display look like and how do they differ based on the size of the group?
Greg: There are two tactical displays; one for small convoys, one for large convoys. The main difference is you have a little more area to cover in a large convoy so your defenses will be spread a bit thinner.
Grant: How does the Operational Display work?
Greg: The Operations Map gives the “big picture” for the game and tracks your progress from St. John’s in Canada over to Londonderry in Northern Ireland. As you move along the convoy route, you roll for U-boat (and worse, wolfpack) encounters.
Grant: What role does Air support play in the operation of the Escort Groups?
Greg: Air support can be a huge help for two reasons: First, for driving off the Fw200 “Condors” that will sometimes shadow your convoy and report your location to the Germans. Second, as long as you are not in the dreaded “Black Pit” (the air cover range gap between Iceland and Canada) they can assist by attacking U-boats.
Grant: What are the CVE “jeep carriers” and when do they arrive in the game?
Greg: Eventually you can receive a CVE (escort, or “jeep” carrier) which can even support you in the “Black Pit” as it travels to the mid-ocean near you, but you will not have that support until 1943.
Grant: What is the “Black Pit” located in the center of the Atlantic and why is it a high threat area?
Greg: As discussed above, the “Black Pit” was the nickname for the area that was beyond the range of air support from Iceland, and beyond the range of air support from Canada. Air attacks on U-boats were not only effective in destroying them, but even by forcing them under, might cause a U-boat to miss an attack opportunity against a convoy. Accordingly, as an area without air support, the “Black Pit” automatically was a high threat area.
Grant: What is the Sequence of Play and how does the game progress?
Greg: The Sequence of Play is reasonably simple: Start from a terminus (St. John’s or Londonderry) and link up with a convoy at WESTOMP (Western Ocean Meeting Point) or EASOMP respectively. Travel across the ocean, rolling for encounters in each travel box, resolve encounters, and continue until you reach the other side. At mission end, check for air support for the next mission, upgrade your ships, and repeat. One fun upgrade to this game is the inclusion of “Sequence of Play cards” which was a fantastic concept by Jose “Stuka Joe” Ruiz. Their use is optional, and after probably a few missions will be unnecessary, but will help keep new players on track.
Grant: What decisions will players have as the game progresses outside of setup and defense?
Greg: The keys to this game are the tactical decisions, of which there are many. However, during the Refit Phase, the player must decide which ships to upgrade and with what new devices.
Grant: What type of enemy forces beset the convoy and which are the most difficult to defeat?
Greg: During this time of the war, the convoys were sometimes hit by lone U-boats – these could either be Type VII or Type IX U-boats, with the Type IX being slightly more dangerous. However, the worst case scenario is to be hit by a wolfpack. The small wolfpacks are problematic to deal with, but the larger wolfpacks can be extremely difficult to thwart. Be prepared for losses if a large wolfpack hits you, even with a good defensive deployment.
Grant: How are Encounters generated? What are the different types of encounters?
Greg: Encounters are randomly generated based on the month and year. They range from a single U-boat to an entire wolfpack. Additionally, depending on your location, you may encounter a Fw200 “Condor” long range reconnaissance aircraft, which will shadow your convoy and vector in U-boats to attack you.
Grant: How is the game designed to integrate with The Hunters if players wish to combine the games?
Greg: This was perhaps the best part of the design. By making the U-boat combat equivalent to The Hunters it allowed for a seamless integration of the games. Many of the charts for combat were directly imported from The Hunters for example. Multiplayer rules cover the various details of combining both games, with one player running the escorts and the other a Type VII on Atlantic patrol.
Grant: What type of an experience will this create for the players?
Greg: I had some “Hunters”-experienced testers who really enjoyed it, so I am not worried about that aspect – when you get hit by a sizable wolfpack, it gets pretty tense! But I think, importantly, the game reasonable covers the realities of convoy escort during this critical phase of the Battle of the Atlantic. Players will experience that I think.
Grant: What was the toughest design challenge you had to overcome?
Greg: Laying out the Tactical Displays was pretty challenging, as I’ve never done something like it before and came up with it from scratch. You’ve got a convoy of 40-60 ships, with 6-7 escorts protecting it, that can move around, and you can get hit from pretty much any direction (less so from behind, but still). I had to lay that all out in a logical manner that wouldn’t be overwhelming. I think I achieved that. The displays -look- pretty busy but they are ergonomic, if I can use that term. Players will enjoy it, I think, as it gives a good feel for a convoy under attack.
Grant: When can we expect to see the game printed?
Greg: Hey man, I just work here 😊 Seriously, it just wrapped….so off to print shortly. Getting a slot in the release schedule is a different matter, but that’s not my call. I would hope late 2022 but I really should give up on predictions. You of all people should know my bad track record on that! 😊
Grant: What other designs are you currently working on?
Greg: Based on the positive response I got on American Tank Ace at the Compass Con, where I ran a tournament, I was encouraged to do more in that system, so I’ve been working on British Tank Ace and Soviet Tank Ace. Sensuikan (my Japanese submarine game) will go to art shortly. Stuka Ace is ready for art, but there’s only so many artists to go around. I’m kind of excited for that one as it has a new combat system that’s a lot of fun. Two longer-range projects are American Bomber Ace (my version of B-17) and Rebel Tide (2-player game on the American Civil War.) So, yes, I am busy. But thanks for taking the time to interview me, always a pleasure.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Greg and we always appreciate your designs and discussing and sometimes playing them with you.
If you are interested in Atlantic Sentinels: North Atlantic Convoy Escort, 1942-1943 you can pre-order a copy for $52.00 from the Compass Games website at the following link: https://www.compassgames.com/product/atlantic-sentinels-north-atlantic-convoy-escort-1942-43/?sfw=pass1648836582