Reviewed by James Davis
SILENT VICTORY: U.S. SUBMARINES IN THE PACIFIC 1941-1945 (Consim Press/GMT Games, 1-2 players, ages 12 and up, 120-180 minutes; $55)
Of all the branches of men in the forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariners. – Winston Churchill
I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea. – H. G. Wells
The submarines during World War II were basically surface ships that could travel underwater for a limited time, very different from our modern subs. They had diesel engines that gave them high surface speeds. But underwater they used quiet electric motors that relied on short-lived batteries with severely reduced speed. The German U-boats and the multiple Japanese subs were considerably more advanced than the Allies’ fleets during most of the war. For example, the Mark 14 torpedo that the US used was prone to technical glitches that caused premature firing and often failed to explode on contact. The Mark 14 even tended to run in a circle and return back to the sub that fired it! The USS Tang was sunk this way.
Life on a sub was very difficult. They were much smaller than the huge nuclear-powered subs we have today. Each of the 60 to 80 men crew only had about one cubic foot of personal storage. In the forward torpedo room alone, around 15 men slept along with a similar number of torpedoes. Boxes of food and other necessary things were stashed anywhere they would fit. When near an enemy target or airfield, the sub needed to remain below the surface to avoid being spotted. This meant that the temperature could soar to over 100 degrees in the engine room. And the air would slowly become so foul they couldn’t light cigarettes. Not to mention the fact that there was little excess water on long patrols, and so the crew tended to bathe every ten days or so. And laundry was not a possibility. Think of the smell.
The job of submariner was one of the most dangerous of the war. Nearly one out of every five US submarines were lost. Similar numbers were seen for other nation’s fleets. But the submarines were very successful. The German U-boats were a lethal force against Allied shipping early in the war. And against the Japanese, American crews sank almost 1,400 ships, totaling more than 5.5 million tons. Would you like to re-create the experience of commanding a submarine during World War II? Except for the odor fortunately, when you play Gregory M. Smith’s Silent Victory, that is exactly what you will find.
Silent Victory is a solitaire, tactical level game that places you into the control of a single U.S. submarine in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. The goal is to sink as many ships as possible to rack up tonnage, which are your victory points. And hopefully survive to the end of the war.
You start as a Lieutenant Commander of a single submarine. The game year you choose to start limits what submarines you can begin the game with, from the Narwhal class in December 1941 to the Tench class starting February 1945. The Tench class sub is much better, but you have almost no time before the war ends to sink enough tonnage to escape a defeat in the game.
The setup is simple. Choose the date you will begin your command, and an available sub for that year. Fill out the log sheet with the sub’s information, set up the display mat for your chosen sub and set up the torpedo load and ammo markers for the deck guns. There is also a mat for keeping track of combat, a couple of maps to show your sub’s location in the Pacific and five double-sided player aid cards.
The sequence of play is broken into three major parts: 1) Determine Patrol Assignment, 2) Conduct Patrol, and 3) Refit Submarine.
The first sequence is the quickest; you simply roll 2 six-sided dice on a table found on the player aid cards to find where your superiors in command have decided to send you. The locations possible will change depending on how far along the war has progressed and if your command base is located in either Pearl Harbor or Australia. For example, if you are based in Australia, early in the war you are not sent to patrol Japan at all. But by January 1945, eight of the eleven options are to Japanese waters. The possibilities are: the shallow coast of the China Sea, Japan (called Empire in the game), Indochina, Java Sea, Marianas, Marshalls, Midway, Philippines and Solomon Islands.
A few of the locations in the table will have a letter next to them. This indicates that there is a special mission involved in addition to the normal patrol for enemy ships. The possibilities are: Lifeguard (picking up a downed aviator), Minelaying (obvious, but the mines reduce space for torpedoes), Recon (also obvious), Transport (delivering a passenger) and Wolfpack (you are part of a group of subs patrolling together).
The second sequence, Conduct Patrol, is where the action is. Your patrol consists of locations or “travel boxes” for your sub to move along. You start with two Transit locations, then five locations near the assigned area (the third of which is counted twice), and then two more Transit locations to get back to your base. There are rows of boxes on your sub’s display mat to keep track of where you are on your patrol. Or you can use the provided map of the Pacific theatre if you are like me and prefer a visual indication of where you are.
As mentioned, you roll twice in the third non-Transit location. It is set up this way because the Argonaut class of submarine rolls three times in that box. This simplifies the layout of the display mat and map, eliminating the need for duplicates.
For each of the travel boxes your sub’s counter enters, you’ll roll two six-sided dice to determine what you encounter. For the four Transit boxes, a roll of 2 will result in an aircraft encounter and a roll of 12 means you’ve found an unescorted ship. Otherwise the seas are empty. For each of the other locations, you roll on the table for the area you were assigned to patrol. Each location is quite different. The waters around Japan are busy, for example, while the Marianas or Midway are a little quieter by comparison. And the types of encounters are different for each location as well.
The first non-Transit, or “on station” travel box in a patrol is where a mission is performed, if one was rolled in the Patrol Assignment step. Otherwise it is a normal location. Each mission is very distinct from the other, but in most cases, they succeed if there is no encounter, or if you survive an encounter at this location. On a travel box (other than the mission box during a mission), the first natural 12 rolled during a patrol is instead a random event. It could be good (you sink a POW ship) or bad (you run aground).
The types of encounters possible in each travel box are: Aircraft, Capital Ship, Convoy, Ship, Ship + Escort, Minefield, Two Ships + Escort and Warship. And of course, there is no encounter, as well as an SJ Radar encounter described below. Other than the Capital Ship, when the encounter mentions a “Ship” it means either a tanker, freighter or passenger/cargo ship.
- The Aircraft encounter is its own type of combat. The sub can attempt to crash dive to avoid damage, which happens on a modified 5 or more on two six-sided dice. Otherwise the sub is hit, but it can also fire the AA guns in defense.
- The Minefield encounter is problematic. Only a roll of six on a six-sided die will allow you to survive (you get a bonus for a veteran or elite crew). Fortunately, the mines are only around Japan and only if you roll a 2 on the encounter chart. So, the odds are in your favor that your career as a sub commander will not end so ingloriously. On the other hand, I rolled exactly that two patrols into my game, and had to start over. It is realistic, but it can be frustrating.
- All other encounters are against ships of one type or another, either with or without escort. A Capital ship is one of twenty named battleships or cruisers, such as the Yamato or Yamashiro. They are huge ships and so can rack up your tonnage quickly, but they are hard to take down. A Convoy is three ships. The Ship encounter means a single, unescorted ship. The Warship is a destroyer, frigate, cruiser, or possibly another submarine. And the last ones are either one or two ships with escort.
- The SJ Radar encounter is depicted on the table like this: “- (SJ)”. This means you re-roll the encounter if you sub has an SJ Radar. American subs early in the war had SD radar that was replaced with the much more accurate SJ in mid-1942. In game terms this means that if your sub has an SJ radar, there is better chance to detect enemy ships. Thus, the re-roll. If you roll this again, it means no encounter.
Once you know the encounter type, you determine exactly what it is you do encounter. If it’s a Capital Ship, roll a d20 to determine which one. If not, then roll on a few tables to determine the size, ID and name of the ship. The size is either small or large, the ID is either a, b or c. You use these two results to find the table to roll d100 to find the name of the ship, which will include the exact type of ship and its tonnage. For example, a result of “large” for size and “c” for ID, and a d100 roll of 66 on the resultant table would mean you encounter the Akatsuki Maru, a tanker with a tonnage of 10,200. A nice prize if you can sink it. Once you know what you are up against, you can decide to let the enemy ships pass by unmolested. You are never forced to fight; you just proceed to the next travel box and roll an encounter there.
But if you go for it, you then roll a six-sided die to determine the time of day, 1-3 is day and 4-6 is night. A night attack is much better for you. And so if you rolled for day time, you have a choice to follow the targets and wait until dark, with a chance of losing them. You then choose how close your attack will be: long, medium or short range. Short range gives you better odds of hitting the target, but you need to roll to see if an escort ship spots and attacks you before you reach your target. You then decide on a submerged or surface attack. A surface attack is only allowed at night for obvious reasons. If the enemy ship is unescorted, a surface attack also allows you to use your deck guns if you are at close range.
You then fire your torpedoes. Depending on your sub’s class, you have between 4 to 6 forward torpedo tubes and 2 to 4 aft tubes. You can assign each torpedo independently to any enemy ship. Although, given the problems with the Mark 14, you’ll probably want to send multiple torpedoes to a target to make sure the job is done. You roll 2d6 for each torpedo, with a modified 8 or less hitting at close range (a 7 or less for medium and 6 or less for long range).
And then for the frustrating part. For each torpedo that hit, you need to roll to see if it’s a dud. As I mentioned, the Mark 14 was horrible at the beginning of the war. Until July 1942, a roll of 1 to 4 on a d6 means it misfired or didn’t explode on impact. From then to August 1943 the roll is 1 to 3, then 1 to 2 for the rest of 1943. After that it only fails on a roll of 1. If you think that’s frustrating, just think what the actual submariners thought. I’m sure there’s quite a few curse words still floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
For each torpedo that hit and was not a dud, roll for damage, with a range of 1 to 4. The majority of ships (5,001 to 9,999 tons) have 3 hits to sink. A Capital ship ranges from 5 to 7 hits, which means multiple attacks to sink it with an early submarine, or a good roll with a sub later in the war.
Then you desperately try to avoid detection by the escort ships. To make it harder for them, you can choose to dive deeper than your sub should normally go. This will damage your hull, but it does give you a small benefit. You’ll not want to do this if your sub is severely damaged, as it is possible that the hull will collapse from the pressure. A modified roll of 8 or less on 2d6 means you remain undetected. Otherwise, welcome to depth charge hell.
Depending on the situational modifiers to the roll, your sub will take from 1 to 5 hits. For each hit, you roll to see where you take damage. The damage types are: Flooding, Diesel Engines, Electric Motors, Hydrophones, Dive Planes, Radio, Hull, Periscope, AA Guns, Deck Guns, Forward or Aft Torpedo Doors, Fuel Tanks, SD or SJ Radar, Batteries, and Crew Injury. Each type of damage affects a different part of the game. For example, a damaged Periscope means you can’t make a submerged attack, or a Fuel Tank leak means a modifier against you for the Detection rolls. Speaking of Detection rolls, that happens again. And since you were detected before, you have a +1 to your die roll making it harder to sneak away. If you are detected once more, then you take more damage. Rinse and repeat.
Believe it or not, it is possible to survive this death spiral. An unmodified roll of 2 (“snake eyes”) on a Detection roll means the enemy loses contact. But more likely, other than Flooding, Hull or Crew damage, a roll on an already damaged section of the sub is no effect. You can’t break something that’s broke. So, it is possible to take a severe pounding and eventually luck out with a good roll and escape. This does accurately simulate the horrors of submarine warfare. The crew just had to sit and take it and pray for the best, as depicted in almost every WWII submarine movie ever made.
If you do escape detection, you can decide to follow the ships and attack again, if you are able. If so, run back to the beginning of the combat sequence. Otherwise you continue to the next travel box and roll for the encounter. After the last two Transit boxes, if you survived, you will limp home to your base. Which leads to the third sequence: Refit Submarine.
A patrol takes two months to complete. The log sheet is divided into rows for each month between December 1941 to July 1945. You’ll enter your patrol on one line for the month you left, then on the next month you simply write a P for the second month. (The two-month rule is not in the rule book for this game, it was mistakenly left out. I had to read the errata to know.) The minimum time to refit a sub is one month, but you add additional months for every 3 Hull damage and/or two systems that were damaged. This can add up quickly. If the refit ends up at 5 months or more, they just give you a new sub and make you promise to treat this one better.
There is also the possibility of crew advancement at this point. For every 3 successful patrols your crew will become more useful. And you also gain a Battle Star per patrol that allows you a better chance to pull in an expert when you replace a crew member. You can also gain a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, a Navy Cross and so on, depending on how well you did. These medals have a small in-game benefit, such as gaining a boat upgrade if you have a Medal of Honor.
Then, if it isn’t July 1945, you go on patrol again. You can of course decide to end the game early. Once the game is over, you total up the tonnage sunk and determine your victory level. You are Defeated if you sink less than 9,999 tons or if you are captured. A Decisive Victory will be yours if you sink 100,000 tons or more, with varying levels of victory between the two extremes. If your sub sinks or your captain dies, you can still be awarded a level of victory posthumously. This is good because, as I mentioned, historically one out of every five subs were lost. The game accurately reflects that. Surviving to the end of the war is hard.
Now, I’ll be the first to say that this game isn’t for everyone. It is decidedly a war game and not your typical hobby game. And it brings the trappings of most war games, such as dozens of tables to roll on and intricate rules. If that doesn’t interest you, then I’m surprised you are still reading this. If it does, however, then you’ll be amazed at how accurate this simulation is, considering how abstracted it needs to be to be a playable game. The research that Gregory Smith did for Silent Victory is just astonishing. You can feel the difference in play between one class of sub and another. The combat rules do an excellent job recreating the difference in tension between an unescorted transport ship and the 62,300-ton Yamoto battleship.
I do have a few things I should mention, however. The accidental deletion in the rules of the patrol time being two months comes to mind. Make sure you read the errata found on Board Game Geek! There is also no obvious description in the rules for what the Green, Elite and Veteran crew modifiers represent. The counters have +1A and -1D for a Green crew, or -1F for a Veteran Crew for example. Fortunately, I was able to track that down. The modifiers are: A for Attack, D for Detection, F for AA Attacks, H for extra Hits and R for Repairs. (You are welcome.) The almost certain chance of death if you are as unlucky as I was to run into a minefield can be especially unsatisfying. And lastly, there is a lot of rolling on charts! I personally don’t mind much. It is a war game after all, and it becomes second-hand once you’ve figured out the flow of the game. But I can easily see other people having a problem with that.
One important thing I haven’t mentioned, is that Silent Victory is one of four games in a series: The Hunters (German U-boats), Silent Victory (U.S. Submarines in the Pacific), Beneath the Med (Italian Regia Marina), and The Hunted (Twilight of the U-boats). The basic rules are the same for each. The differences are from the type of subs used by each nation with their limitations, their enemies’ defenses, as well as the nature of the missions the captains were sent on during the war. Because of the depth of detail and historical research into each of these games, those differences make each game quite different from the other.
I’ve only played Silent Victory and so I can’t speak to the experience of the other games. I own The Hunters and Beneath the Med and I plan to try them out at some point. Each game has variations to enable the simulation to better match the conditions for that theatre of war. The Hunters, for example only has two missions: minelaying and delivering an Abwehr agent to Ireland or North America. The awards are limited compared with Silent Victory, there is only one base of operations, and the U-boats are much better than the American subs. The U-boat torpedoes actually have a good chance of hitting! Imagine that. The targets, of course, are quite different, and the game ends in 1943, not 1945.
For Beneath the Med, you are playing as a captain of the Italian Regia Marina. The Italian submarines had pretty severe technical issues and that is reflected in the rules of this game. Don’t expect to rack up as much tonnage as you will in Silent Victory, but of course the victory point levels are changed to compensate. You are stationed either at Italy or at the base in France named BETASOM. You have two areas of operations, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. In the Atlantic you can range as far as the Caribbean, Brazil or West Africa. There is also an option of an S.L.C. (Siluro a Lenta Corsa) Attack. They were “human torpedoes” where a frogman manually steered a torpedo into the harbor, attached it to a ship and attempted to escape.
The Hunted is also about German U-boats, but this focuses on the late years of the war. It picks up where The Hunters leaves off, in 1943, which allows you to play the entire war using both games. The experience for the U-boat captains in the later war was brutal. The Allied efforts and technology increased dramatically during this time. This is a much harder game to survive than the others.
I hope this overview helps you open your eyes to a part of WWII that is sometimes overlooked. Silent Victory is true to history as is possible in a war game. All of the sub classes are accounted for. The target ships are quite accurate to their size and capabilities. Every important level of detail for each submarine is there for you to use. And all this allows you to recreate the critical decisions submarine captains had made over 70 years ago. Without the smell. – – – – – – – – James Davis
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