Reviewed by James Davis
U-BOOT: THE BOARD GAME (Ares Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 30-120 minutes; $99.95)
Willkommen an Bord, Herr Kaleun!
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be trapped in the middle of WWII with a bunch of men in a very small and claustrophobic place that was underwater for most of the time? No? Well until I played U-Boot The Board Game neither had I. But as is the case with well-made simulation board games, I did find out very quickly. And it’s fascinating and terrifying at the same time.
U-Boot The Board Game is an excellent cooperative real-time simulation board game by Bartosz Pluta and Artur Salwarowski where the players take on the roles of the First Officer, the Navigator, the Chief Engineer and the Captain on a German Type VIIC U-boat during World War II. Each role has its own focus and responsibilities. The players each have four Sailor figures that they position within the six areas on the submarine to create different effects. They also have unique Player Panels that help organize game play. And there are other tokens, cards and miniatures each player has that are unique to his or her role.
The Captain of course is in command and issues orders. One of his main tasks is to order a “Mobilization” which allows everyone to move their Sailor figures within the submarine. Since certain tasks can only be done by certain sailors in a specific location, it is essential that the Captain mobilizes the crew when needed. The First Officer’s most important role is to be the conduit of information between the crew and Captain, among many other things. The First Officer also is in charge of the companion app (more on that later). The Navigator actually plots the submarine’s course using a ruler and compass and an Attack Disk that determines the enemy course and bearing. Lastly, the Chief Engineer maintains the systems on the submarine, either repairing damage or patching up faults.
The game requires a free app on your phone, tablet or laptop. But unlike some other app-aided board games, this one is integral to the game and not tacked on after the fact; the game cannot be played without it. Fortunately, the designers did a very good job of combining physical to virtual game play. Essentially everything external to the crew, such as enemy ships, the submarine’s condition, weather, etc., is created by the app whereas the physical parts of the game, the Crew figures, tokens, cards and so on, are all of the things the Captain and crew can manipulate within the submarine.
It works quite well. It also adds to the illusion of the simulation. For example, when using the periscope or when observers are on the bridge you can actually view the surrounding ocean and see targets. In fact, The First Officer does exactly that to determine what the target vessels are.
The goal of the game is to gain Renown. You score Renown by completing the objective of the mission the players have chosen and by sinking enemy ships.
The app has many missions to choose from and there is a solid introductory tutorial mission that helps you train. You can choose a single mission which will allow you to lean the game and try out different tactics. Or you can take on linked missions that turn the game into a mini-campaign. The linked missions are harder as you need to survive over many games to succeed. And there is the full campaign mode where you play all of the missions of the game in order.
To give you a better feel of the game, let’s go into more detail of each of the roles, starting with the Captain. This role is in command of the submarine. You determine the course, depth and targets of the sub. You also direct the different stages of a torpedo attack after you’ve chosen a target. And as mentioned above, the location of the crew figures within the sub can only be moved when the Captain says so. But of course, there is a limit to how many orders can be made. On the Captain’s player board is an “Order Track”. Tokens are used to keep track of how many orders are issued.
Once the 9 spaces on that track have been used, then any further orders come from the “Morale Track”. The Morale Track has 12 spaces and is manipulated by many factors, such as rising when you sink an enemy vessel and lowering when the crew is exhausted. In five spaces on the Morale Track, the Captain must choose the appropriate morale card and read it. The Morale cards are always bad and get increasingly worse. Essentially, this role of the Captain means you need to prioritize, focus and think in advance and have a very good grasp of how the other roles work.
The First Officer’s main task is using the companion app and disseminating the information to the Captain and crew so you will need to know the ins and outs of how the app works. As mentioned above, the app creates everything that is outside of the crew’s control. The First Officer is a critical role to ensure that things don’t get out of hand and that everyone has the information they need. You also need to make sure your Helmsmen miniatures are in the right location to man the Helm. Your other tasks are administering first aid, identifying enemy vessels, receiving and sending radio messages and carrying out 88mm gun attacks.
The Navigator is responsible for strategic and tactical navigation, managing the observers on the bridge, meal prep and manning the 20mm cannon. The interesting thing about this role is that you are using a real compass and ruler to determine your location and direction. You also have an Attack Disk that has three concentric disks that can be aligned to determine your course, the enemy’s course and bearing. You are essentially using similar tools that were used to navigate the real U Boats! You also have ship miniatures that you place on a grid to show the Captain and First Officer the enemy’s position relative to the sub. Your crew miniatures are mainly used on the bridge of the sub when surfaced to observe the surrounding seas.
The observers give the players a much better understanding of your surroundings than using the periscope or hydrophone. And you also keep track of meals on the sub to make sure morale does not drop too low. Meal tracking is essentially manipulating tokens to create sets, knowing those tokens will be used, making future sets much harder to create.
And then there’s the Chief Engineer. You are tasked with repairing the sub; both from attacks and from routine maintenance that, if ignored, could prove deadly. The location of all of the crew figures on the sub is important but much more so with the Chief Engineer. Your crew must be in the right position to change the ballast, load torpedoes and alter speed, as well as being in the correct location to repair a system. The Captain needs to know your situation at all times because the mission will not succeed without the Engineer.
Of course, this does not come close to explaining the rules. There is so much more like hazardous sections that would interfere with mobilization, activating Sailors, submarine damage and crew health and stress. There is also a Watch System. At 0600, 1200, 1800 and 0000 hours, there is a change of watch. These allow your four Sailors to get some shut eye as they are replaced by a fresh new set of four (strangely identical) figures. A change of watch also allows the Captain to readjust the Order and Morale tracks upwards to stave off the game’s crew exhaustion.
To get a better feel of how the game is played, I’d strongly suggest you go to the web site for this game: uboottheboardgame.com There you will find links to videos explaining in much more detail what I could only allude to above. You will also see that the game can come with a 3D cardboard model of the Type VIIC U-boat that you can place your Sailor miniatures within! There are also plastic miniatures of the conning tower, the 88mm gun and the 20mm cannon you place on the model. When the game is all set up with the model in the middle of the table, it looks amazing.
As I hope you can tell, this game is a deep dive into how a WWII submarine actually works. (Pun intended.) The level of detail is amazing while not getting too detailed to bog down the game. And the fact that it is real-time and not turn based gives even more of a feeling that you are racing against time to accomplish your mission’s goals. It is an excellent simulation; it gives you a distinct feeling of “being there” without the claustrophobia and danger. You feel a real sense of accomplishment after sinking your first war ship. I love the historical details, and the fact that the Navigator uses real tools is a great touch. If you are like me and love co-ops and simulation games, then give U-Boot a try. It is in an ocean of its own. – – – – – – – – – James Davis
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