I just want to make sure you all understand how great a designer our friend Gregory M. Smith is and how fantastic his work on these narrative driven solitaire wargames has been over the past decade. He has designed many of these solo 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 including titles such as Zeppelin Raider, Interceptor Ace, The Hunted, Western Front Ace, Amerika Bomber, Defending America, American Tank Ace and most recently Atlantic Sentinels. Greg always has something cooking in his game design kitchen and we recently became aware of one of his projects taking a look at Japanse Fleet Submarines in the PTO of World War III 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 similar focus to his previous work but with some new and unique twists.
*Note: Any graphics or pictures used in this interview of components are nothing more than the prototype version for playtesting purposes. Also, details of the game play and mechanics may also change throughout playtesting and final development prior to publication.
Grant: What time period does your new game Sensuikan cover?
Greg: Sensuikan basically covers all of WWII in the Pacific Heater of Operations, ie, 1941-1945. There’s a good chance the player will be involved in attacking Pearl Harbor so action happens from the get go in the war and never really slows down.
Grant: Why did you feel inspired to design a game on Japanese submarines? Was it just because you’ve covered everyone else?
Greg: I guess that’s a good enough reason, LOL. Seriously, it was requested by fans several times. But other than the British, they are the only major submarine fleet I don’t have a game about. And by the way, I don’t want to get “hate mail” from the any Russians when I say that. The Russians did have a lot of submarines but really didn’t do anything with them in the war, technical issues aside. Most people don’t really know the details about the Japanese Fleet Submarines but it was significant. Japan started World War II with 64 total submarines; 21 were older, obsolete types that would be of little use other than for training. Still, with over 40 first-line submarines, they posed a significant threat to the American Navy. Sadly, Japanese doctrinal use of their submarines never allowed them to fulfill their true potential. Forced into picket line duties, reconnaissance, and launching aircraft to bomb mainland America to little effect, the effort mainly dwarfed the meager results. It is interesting to think of what their submarine force could have achieved had it been wielded more like the American submarine force. Japanese pre-war thinking was that the submarine’s primary purpose was to conduct surprise attacks on the enemy’s main force, act as an advance force, and attack the enemy’s main force and provide reconnaissance. There was never an actual mention of using submarines for what they do best – interdicting an enemy’s lines of communications and logistics by destroying shipping. Still, the Empire had big plans for their submarine force.
Grant: How much did your previous designs help you in setting up the frame work for this one?
Greg: As I like to say, this one “shares a lot of DNA” with my previous submarine games, which makes a lot of sense, really. Those games use a proven system that simulates the experience in a narrative way and there is no need to change the wheel if it works. However, I do want to point out to everyone that this one is also probably the most different in design for a variety of reasons which will be discussed below in more detail.
Grant: What sources did you consult about the Japanese submarine types and doctrine and their actions during WWII?
Greg: Bagnasco’s Submarines of World War Two was probably the most useful resource available on the technical side of WWII subs. Not only amazing for Japanese submarines, but really, for subs from around the world. Another great resource I used was Boyd and Yoshida’s The Japanese Submarine Force and World War II. I thought it was important to get a perspective from a writer who was Japanese as they can research other publiscations and historical documents to better give us a look at the details.
Grant: What were some key points about the Japanese submarine fleet that you had to make sure and include in your design?
Greg: Japanese submarines had (operational) three main capabilities that nobody else really had in the entire world. Midget submarines, aircraft in watertight hangars, and (later) Kaiten suicide torpedoes. Those three issues alone guaranteed this design was going to be very different as it gave me plenty of new toys to include in the design and explore with the game.
Grant: Who is your credited codesigner Brett Grimmond and what role did he play in the process?
Greg: Brett is an Australian who I’ve known now for about a decade (I think.) He and I had gone back and forth on issues with Silent Victory and Interceptor Ace if memory serves me correctly. He was, without question, the driving force behind Sensuikan. His concept of “modules” for the aircraft, mini-subs, and Kaiten suicide torpedoes was -perfect- to represent them in a playable manner. Brett very much earned his name on this one by providing a great alternate opinion to my other designs.
Grant: The goal of each Commander is to destroy Allied shipping but this is very tough and they will find it hard to survive very long. Why is this the case? Is this the hardest to survive solo game you’ve designed?
Greg: I think the “hardest to survive” label still rightfully belongs with The Hunted. However, this one’s no cakewalk – you are, after all, facing Allied ASW which gets bonuses in ’44 and ’45. It will be hard to survive to the end, by design, because that was the reality of the Pacific War. I don’t make games difficult to be sadistic but do try to accurately depict the historical situation as much as possible.
Grant: What submarine models are accounted for in the design? Did you add in any fantastical models not based in reality?
Greg: This one didn’t really NEED any “what-if” classes, the Japanese took care of that for me by just creating them 😊 There are 17 main submarine classes to choose from, representing all the major combat classes and a few of the scarcer ones, such as the Sen-Taka and Sen-Toku. Here are most of the others:
- Types A, B, C
- Junsen (3 classes)
- Kirai-Sen Class
- Kaidai (5 classes)
- Type B. 3 and Type C. 3
- Sen-Toku and Sen-Taka Classes
- Type A (Modified)
Grant: What is the most obscure submarine featured?
Greg: I’ll give the nod here to the Sen-Toku Class. With a base armament of 20 torpedoes, it also carried three aircraft on deck in a large watertight hangar. The AA defense included 3 x triple 25mm mounts and a single 25mm mount, and it carried enough fuel for 4-month patrols. At one point there was a plan to use it to bomb the Panama Canal, but this plan was overtaken by the realities of the war.
Grant: How did you account for Allied advances in Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) in the design? How did you deal with these elements in the design?
Greg: This was actually very easy to do, as the ASW values (which are built into the “year” DRM among other things) are easily tweaked. The more unpleasant specific systems (FIDO homing torpedoes and HEDGEHOG spigot mortars) were an easy add-on as well, as those systems were debuted in The Hunted.
Grant: What patrol zones are included in the game? How do these zones change throughout the game?
Greg: There are sixteen total patrol zones, ranging from Hawaii to Tarawa, the Indian Ocean to the Aleutian Islands, and pretty much everything in between. The player rolls to be assigned on patrol, and the exact zone is therefore random, but the zones change over time to reflect the historical progress of the war. Therefore, for example, in 1941 you have a good chance of going to Hawaii (and therefore participating in Pearl Harbor) whereas in 1945, you’re probably going to Iwo Jima or Okinawa.
Grant: Can we see a picture of the map? What areas are the most challenging and how do you differentiate each?
Greg: I’m not really sure, like “normal” games, that any one area can be said to be more challenging than another, because a lot of is dependent on your submarine and its capabilities. Pearl Harbor (Hawaii) might be more difficult than Sydney (Australia) for a midget-equipped submarine, but that is probably reversed for aircraft-equipped submarines. So it really just depends.
Grant: What different bases are available? Do any of them provide advantages?
Greg: The bases are Yokosuka, Paramushiro, New Guinea (representing Rabaul and Shortland, etc.), and Dutch East Indies (representing Singapore, Penang, Sebang, etc.) You -might- consider Paramushiro to have an advantage as it does not get strategically bombed starting in 1944 like the other bases.
Grant: What is the layout of the various Submarine Display Mats?
Greg: Players should note the layout changes over time in some classes, based on operational changes. Some classes lose their aircraft (so that Kaiten suicide torpedoes can be installed) while other classes lose their deck to install a landing craft, etc.
Grant: What targets are available for the Japanese submarines? What targets are the most challenging?
Greg: The Japanese may possibly encounter anything, from Capital ships down to small merchant ships. Obviously the Capital ships, with their extra escorts, are the most challenging targets, similar to all my other submarine games. Players are always happy about encountering a good escort as it makes the game a lot more risky and creates lots of tensions just trying to make that evasion check.
Grant: What is the purpose for the Combat Mat?
Greg: Some players really like it when attacking ships, especially a convoy, as you can place the counters on there and assign the torpedoes and visually see what is headed where. You aren’t really required to use it if you want to just track results in your head, but that’s what it is for.
Grant: Is there anything unique about combat in the design?
Greg: Yes…and also no! No, from the viewpoint of the submarines firing torpedoes at ship targets. That combat is essentially identical to my previous submarine games. Yes, from the viewpoint of the three Sub Modules (Midget Submarines, Aircraft, and Kaiten suicide torpedoes). All three of those are unique and quite different from anything I’ve previously done, thanks to Brett Grimmond.
Grant: What Special Missions are available? How are players rewarded for success of these missions?
Greg: Special Missions should be considered the heart of the game. There are a huge number of them (ten unique types) linked to whatever Major Event markers are currently active on the map. Success in a mission counts as two patrols for the purposes of crew advancement, so they are lucrative in that regard.
Grant: What are the different Sub Modules that are available? Give us a bit more detail if possible.
Greg: The three Sub Modules (no pun intended) are Midget Submarines, Aircraft, and Kaiten. The beauty of the design is that only one module is ever used at a single time (if any at all) as they are used based on your current Submarine class and its current equipment configuration. You don’t use a module if your submarine doesn’t possess that capability. This really shows the various capaibilities of these special modules and creates a very unique experience where you might get to participate in some differing Special Missions if you have the right equipment. But, for example, if you later configure to have Kaiten suicide torpedoes, then you would start using that module. Choice and customization is a key to this design and I am really grateful for having added it in.
Grant: What about Crew Advancement and Commander Promotion? What type of medals are available and can you show us some graphics of the different types? Also what different skills are available to the players?
Greg: There are a slew of crew upgrade skills available, such as Gunnery, Mechanical Genius, Expert Medic, etc. etc. The crew itself can upgrade to Trained, Veteran, and Elite status, with minor game advantages such as a faster diving time. The ship’s Captain (who starts as a Lieutenant Commander) can rise in rank up to Captain, with some minor game benefits tied to that.
The artist hasn’t started on the awards yet, but here are three examples – the Order of the Golden Kite, 5th Class, and the Order of the Rising Sun, 8th Class, and finally an actual image of an Order of the Golden Kite, 4th Class. There are seven different awards available, and while most are simply for role-playing/historical interest, the Order of the Golden Kite will confer a game benefit, similar to the Knight’s Cross in The Hunters Series games.
Grant: How do Random Historical Events happen and what are some of the different types?
Greg: A random event is possible only once per patrol, and only if you roll a “12” for an encounter. They run the usual gamut of very good (“Blessings of the Emperor”) to very bad (“Man Overboard!”). I found it fun that the good luck charm in this game is the “Maneki Neko” aka the “Beckoning Cat.”
Grant: How does the game come to an end? How is victory determined?
Greg: Well, hopefully not with you at the bottom of the ocean, but that is a distinct possibility 😊 The game runs until July 1945, at which time, if still alive, you calculate victory based on tonnage sunk. However, this level of victory is adjusted for the number of special missions you have successfully completed.
Grant: What are you most proud of with the design?
Greg: The overall structure of the various Special Missions, Major Events, and the Sub-Modules and how they all more or less seamlessly fit together.
Grant: What was your greatest challenge to overcome in this one?
Greg: Without question it was getting the historical limitations “right” and exposing the player to the difficulties the Japanese submarine commanders faced. The historical reality was, despite having very advanced submarine classes with unique capabilities, they were not used like other countries used their submarines. This is why the tonnages will never be as high as in the other submarine games – by Japanese doctrine, they were not employed (usually) to go out and sink merchant shipping. They were seen primarily as an adjunct force to the Main Fleet, supporting via scouting and conducting combat against surface ships. In my other sub games, you’re just on the hunt for merchant shipping, basically. In Sensuikan, the game play is driven by Major Events and the Special Missions tied to those events. Yes, you will sometimes encounter and hopefully sink merchant shipping, but most of the time that will not be your focus. It was very important, I felt, to get that right.
Grant: When can we expect to see Sensuikan hit our tables?
Greg: The design work is done, and it’s just started in art. It’s probably a 2023 release, but I couldn’t be more specific.
Grant: What other games are you currently working on?
Greg: I like to stay busy, so I’ve done two sequels to American Tank Ace already (British Tank Ace and Soviet Tank Ace.) I have also been working on a Gladiator combat game which I hope to show you at WBC, an American Civil War game called Rebel Tide – sort of Imperial Tide but set in the 1860’s), a B-17 game where you can either play a B-17 or an escort (P38, P-47, P-51) (because of the critical shortage of B-17 games, heh), a Stuka/Sturmovik game (amazing timing there as well, I just finished my design when I found out 4 companies were releasing Stuka Games) and finally, possibly a game on Operation Chariot (the raid on St. Naizaire.) So, yes, I’m busy!
A pleasure as always, and thank you for taking an interest in my work.
As always, thank you for your time in answering our questions Greg and for the great work that you do on these narrative driven solitaire wargames. They are always interesting and provide players the opporunity to explore history a bit in the safe setting of a game.
If you are interested in Sensuikan: Japanese Fleet Submarines, 1941-45, you can pre-order a copy for $52.00 from the Compass Games website at the following link: https://www.compassgames.com/product/sensuikan-japanese-fleet-submarines-pay-later/?sfw=pass1656598594