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Posted on Apr 18, 2013 in Boardgames

Death Before Dishonor – Boardgame Review

By Patrick Baker

Death Before Dishonor: The Battle of Santiago Bay. Boardgame. Game Designer: Paul Rohrbaugh. Graphics: Bruce Yearian. Published by High Flying Dice Games. Price: $5.95 ($9.95 for mounted counters).

Passed Inspection: Very low cost, fun and engaging, high replay value.

Failed Basic: Rules could use some clarification; needs a turn tracker.

In accepting an assignment to review a game, I can honestly plan on experiencing various kinds of emotions; satisfaction with a good game; boredom and frustration with a not-so-good game. One sentiment I had not expected to feel was nostalgia. Death Before Dishonor: The Battle of Santiago Bay made me feel satisfied and nostalgic in the best possible way.


Back in the day (the early ’80s) the now-defunct Yaquinto Publications put out a set of “Album Games.” The unique things about these games were their low cost (most were less than $5 US) and their singular packaging. The games were packaged in what looked like a double record album; the map board was printed on the inside of the sleeve and the components could be stored inside the jacket. Games like Battle, Beachhead, and Fast Attack Boats were all produced in this format. Now High Flying Dice Games (HFDG) has produced a set of games designed on the same precepts as Yaquinto’s “Album Games”—that is to say, low cost, easy to learn, fun and quick to play. Death Before Dishonor is decidedly all of those things.

Historical Background, Spanish-American War
The Spanish-American War’s (1898) main theater was the Caribbean, primarily Cuba. At the start of the war the Spanish dispatched a fleet of four cruisers and two destroyers from Spain to the island. After managing to avoid the much more powerful American fleet, the Spanish force, commanded by Admiral Pascual Cervera, found refuge in Santiago de Cuba harbor. An attempt by the Americans to block the harbor with a scuttled ship and thereby prevent Cervera from escaping failed. Because of Spanish shore batteries the US fleet was forced to conduct a distant blockade. American ground forces finally surrounded the city and took the dominating heights of Kettle and San Juan Hills. Cervera, unwilling to see his ships destroyed at their moorings by American field artillery, decided to break out. On July 3, 1898, the Spanish fleet emerged from the harbor, flags unfurled. The American fleet of four battleships, an armored cruiser and two auxiliary cruisers, closed in on the fleeing ships and quickly sank or drove aground all the Spanish vessels. The Battle of Santiago Bay was one of the most lopsided victories in naval history; the Spanish lost nearly 500 dead, 1,800 captured and all six ships either sunk or captured. The American loses were one dead and ten wounded.

Game Components
The whole game comes in an 8 x 11–inch document protector containing brightly colored front cover piece, a three-page, stapled rule booklet, a full-color 16×11-inch map (folded in half to fit) and a single sheet of printed do-it-yourself counters that need to be cut and mounted. (I put mine on some quarter-inch thick foam board, which works really well, being both sturdy and light.) The player will need a ten-sided die.

The map, instead of being divided into hexes, is divided into 19 rectangular areas that control combat and movement, but because they are offset from each other the player can move into any of six other areas. The areas are large, which is good, since there is unlimited stacking of units. A suggestion to HFDG regarding the map: a compass rose would be nice to help orient players.

The unit counters are large and readable. The single printed side displayes the ship’s name and type, primary and secondary battery strengths, protection factor and whether is it armed with torpedoes. The Spanish coastal batteries counters are similarly designed. The combat status markers (“D” for disrupted, “Damaged” and “Crippled”) are color-coded; yellow, red and black. Given the low cost of the game, the components are of surprisingly good quality.

Game Play
The sequence of play:

  1. Determine Initiative: the players roll the die to see who goes first.
  2. First player moves any eligible units, including rolling for drift of units that are crippled.
  3. Second player moves.
  4. Mutual Combat: All combat is simultaneous. Units may attack only one enemy unit per turn. For example, if the USS Texas has three enemy ships in range, Texas may only attack one of them, using both her primary and secondary batteries. All damage is marked on ships simultaneously.
  5. End Phase: After combat, sunken ships are removed. Crippled ships that are aground or that drifted off the board are also removed. Disrupted ships recover automatically. The player rolls the die to determine any repairs to damaged or crippled ships still afloat.

The next turn starts the process again. The game is played until all the Spanish ships are removed from play or manage to escape off the board.

The combat rules need a bit of clarification. Is “disrupted” status considered “normal” status? The rules seem to imply that it is but don’t come out and state it. So my opponent and I assumed it was normal status during our games. Also, are hit effects, minus repairs, cumulative from turn to turn? The rules clearly state that it takes four hits to sink a ship. So, for example, if the Spanish armored cruiser Oquendo is hit three times, making it “crippled” but it manages to “repair” in the End Phase, it is now only “damaged.” Does it take only one hit to sink the Oquendo or does it take two? Again the rules don’t say, but we played that it would take two. Extending the rules half a page by including some examples of play would have been most helpful.

The game has two scenarios: “A Bold Stroke: The Merrimac‘s Dash” and “Spanish Honor: Cervera’s Final Sortie.” In the first one, the US fleet tries to block Santiago Channel by sinking the old coal ship (collier) the Merrimac in the mouth of the harbor. Historically, this attempt failed. The second scenario depicts the main battle as the Spanish attempt to break out of the harbor and the Americans try to stop them. Both scenarios have variants, usually involving allowing more units to be involved, advancing the reinforcement schedule, or having some the Spanish ships in a better state of repair. The victory conditions are nicely balanced, with both players having a good chance of winning either scenario.

The game has unexpected depth and requires a number of tactical decisions be made by the player. For the Spanish player: do you keep your fleet together and try to fight your way through the American fleet? Do you sacrifice some ships to buy time for the others to escape? Or do you scatter in all directions and just run for it, hoping at least one vessel makes it? For the American player: do you seek to cripple enemy ships to slow them down and then go back to sink them later? Do you go for the kill before moving on to other ships? Do you fight two or three ships against one Spanish craft to ensure a sinking, or fight ship-to-ship duels, trusting to your superior firepower to win the day? The variants to the basic scenarios and the range of tactical approaches that both players may take give this game a high replay value.

To sum up, Death Before Dishonor is an engaging, entertaining and involving introductory war game with a startling depth of play. It is more than well-worth the $5.95 US price tag.

(Editor’s Note—In response to Patrick Baker’s review, HFD published a rules addendum to address a couple of the points Patrick raised. You can find that addendum in the Death Before Dishonor discussion on Consimworld.)

Armchair General Score: 91%

Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 4

About the Author
Patrick Baker is a former US Army Field Artillery officer, currently a Department of Defense employee. He cut his war-gaming teeth on Squad Leader and Victory Games’ Fleet Series. He bought his first PC in 1990, a Wang PC-240, specifically to play SSI’s The Battles of Napoleon (much to the annoyance of his wife). He has degrees in Education, History and Political Science. His most recent history article was published in the March 2013 issue of Medieval Warfare Magazine.