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Posted on Apr 2, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Ice, Ice, Baby. High Flying Dice Games ‘Breaking the Ice: The Great Lakes Winter Fleet 1942’. Tabletop Game Review.

Ice, Ice, Baby. High Flying Dice Games ‘Breaking the Ice: The Great Lakes Winter Fleet 1942’. Tabletop Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Breaking the Ice: The Great Lakes Winter Fleet 1942. Publisher: High Flying Dice Games.  Designers: Paul Rohrbaugh.  Price $30.00-$41.00 (depending on version and options)

Passed inspection: Presents a little told aspect of the Merchant Marine in World War II.  Offers a challenging series of decisions to the player.

Failed basic:  You will learn to hate lake ice and unexpected work stoppages.

By Ray Garbee

Mention the merchant marine in World War Two and generally the first thing you think of is the Battle of the Atlantic. Allied convoys with columns of freighters facing off against the wolfpacks and aircraft. Possibly, you might think of the long trans-Pacific supply lines that supported the war against Japan. But you’d be forgiven for never thinking of the merchant fleet of the inland seas – the bulk carriers that cruised the Great Lakes of North America.

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Paul Rohrbaugh aims to change that gap in our knowledge with ‘Breaking the Ice: The Great Lakes Winter Fleet – 1942’. ‘Breaking the Ice’, a solitaire game from High Flying Dice Games. In ‘Breaking the Ice’, you take on the role of the recently formed War Production Board – tasked by the US Government with coordination and allocating materials to optimize production supporting the war. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the Great Lakes ore carriers had delivered what was then considered an adequate supply of iron ore and limestone. The Japanese attack and German declaration of war made those earlier stockpile plans woefully inadequate for a country moving to a full-time war footing. More raw materials were needed to keep the furnaces of industry pouring out the needed amount of steel.

The solution by the War Production Board was to mobilize the ore carrier fleet earlier than usual. To not wait for the spring thaw. To fit out as many ships as possible and ‘break the ice’ that still covered the lakes between the mining ports on the upper lakes and the delivery ports on the lower lakes. 

The Game shipped with the following components

Two (2) 11”x17” map sheets

241 double sided counters

One Player’s Aid Sheet

24 playing cards

One (1) Rule Book

In addition, the copy received included the current errata and was also the boxed edition that shipped with a cardboard box (you can opt for the less-expensive zip lock plastic bag option.)

The maps encompass the waters of the five Great Lakes, along with oft over-looked Lake Saint Clair between Lakes Huron and Erie. Choke points such as the Welland Canal, Soo Locks and the Mackinac Straight limit movement and can become bottlenecks to moving your ships as quickly as you would like to see.

Surrounding the lakes are the ports. These come in two types, either loading ports where ore is loading onto the ships, or the destination ports where the cargo is to be delivered.  Ports have different loading and unloading capacities and destination ports have different minimum volumes of cargo that needs to be delivered to meet demand. In addition to the cargo ports are the ‘fitting out’ ports where the ore carriers start the game or enter play.

The counters include a number of playing pieces and status markers. The core game piece is the ore carrier. The game includes thirty ore carrier counters. These depict a group of ore ships and are double sided to depict being either loaded or empty.  In addition to the ore carriers are markers used to indicate the location of labor units, the ice on the lake, fog, damage to ore carriers and information markers for use on the player aid sheet.

The review copy included the mounted and cut counters. High Flying Dice did a nice job on this with colorful counters that have sharp cut lines. If given the option, you should definitely opt for the mounted counters. They add a nice tactile feel to the game.

The player’s aid card contains basic information used in a game turn. 

Game play is fairly straight forward. Leveraging a core feature of most High Flying Dice Games that I’ve played, a card deck is used to generate resource points, and trigger random events and weather checks. While the ore carriers can move on any numbered card, they are restricted as to the total number of areas they can move in a game turn. Those restrictions can be further limited by either the geography being traversed or the ice conditions the ore carriers must pass through. 

Oh, it seems easy in the abstract, but every time you move a ship, you must make a damage check. It’s dangerous on the winter lake water. Even in the best of times with good weather and open water accidents will happen and machinery will fail. All of this will erode your ability to move ore to the steel mills.  (As I write this in late March 2020, a quick check of the Great Lakes shipping news shows that traffic is starting to move across the upper lakes, but ships are still fitting out for the 2020 season. So, the game is certainly spot on that starting in early March is much earlier than historically considered prudent.)

The player will spend the early turns of the game moving the ore carriers from the fitting out ports to the loading ports and then on to the destination ports. This is where the player’s initial decisions on unit placement start to have effects. There’s nothing particularly complex about the mechanics of moving the ore carriers.

But there’s a lot more going here than just reading the daily shipping reports – there’s a war on. In addition to managing the ore carrier traffic, the War Production Board has a number of pressing projects. In no particular order you are tasked with delivering additional works  – mobilizing the work force needed to get loading and unloading done quickly; making progress – or completing – construction of the Soo Canal expansion; improving the defenses around those same canal locks; commissioning the remainder of the ore carrier fleet so it can get to work hauling your ore; and lastly, pushing along construction on a set of state of the art larger ore carriers, dubbed ‘The Supers’.

At the start of the game, this task list can seem daunting. There is a lot of work to do and not nearly enough resources! But like most projects, you need to decompose it into smaller tasks and start tackling what you can do in incremental chunks.

Breaking the Ice is a novelty. I’m unaware of another game on this topic. While it’s a unique theme, at its heart this is a traffic management and resource management game. It could have been called ‘Dispatcher’ as it is *critical* to plan ship movements, port capacities and worker allocation to make the most of your resources. Your initial loading plan will shape how much of the game plays out. The geographic bottlenecks mean you will end up moving your ships in groups and soon convoys of ore boats are crawling across the map. While these convoys may not be facing U-boats, they do face other dangers – lake ice, fog and the risk of collisions and mechanical failure. 

The game does impart a respect for the effects of lake ice and the value of the ice breakers deployed on the lakes.  After two turns of watching the ore carrier unit’s movement stalling and racking up damage, that respect had soured into a deep distaste for lake ice. More icebreakers for the Coast Guard!

The RAF Museum in Hendon has an exhibit of the ‘Big Board’ showing the status of all the bomber units in the RAF at the end of World War II. I was reminded of that board while playing ‘Breaking the Ice’. As the leadership of the War Production Board, you know how many ore carriers you have, approximately where they are and with what cargo they are loaded. You should hopefully have a plan as to where that cargo is to be unloaded. A good plan allows for the unexpected. And if this game has one constant – it’s that you should expect the unexpected!

The first few turns of the game generated a great deal of frustration. There’s no time and a lot of water to cover and the ice does nothing but slow you down and damage your ships. As the weather – hopefully – improves, so does the game play. Much like GMT Games solitaire submarine game ‘Silent Victory’, activities in Breaking the Ice’ start out very hard, but get better over the course of the game.

That feeling of frustration can be reinforced by the victory conditions. The bar is set high to achieve the historical result that the fleet turned in.  Without a solid plan and a little luck, this is a tough game to win by the yardstick of the victory points. Achieving a ‘marginal victory’ should feel like a well-earned win. The historical result can be hard to replicate. You have to execute your vessel movements with very few mistakes to get the required victory points.

It can be hard for the player to assess their progress. A lot of the scoring happens near the end of the game and is subject to some random events that can throw off your carefully constructed plans. The cumulative effects of weather, wear and tear and random events will cause a lot of friction. That end of turn card can ruin your whole game. I had it pop up within the first five cards three turns in a row. That’s enough to ruin your whole game plan as you need those resources to get a lot of the other work completed.

The scoring in this solitaire game reminded me somewhat of DVG’s solitaire game ‘Pavlov’s House’ – you do the best you can while dealing with everything that the game throws at you. In the end you might score a marginal victory or even a loss, but can you derive satisfaction from knowing that you did the best you could with the hand you were dealt from the initial conditions. That same principle is at work in Breaking the Ice – the randomized set up may deal you a really tough starting position, but all you can do is work with what you have.

The mechanics of the game create an experience where you may not feel like you are exercising a great degree of control. Yes, you direct the ore carriers as to what cargo to pick up from which port and where it should be delivered. You can limit movement to minimize some of the risks from fog and lake ice. Beyond that there are a number of external forces with which you’ll have to grapple. Clausewitz is known for his maxim, ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’. That’s certainly true in this game. But you should also remember Eisenhower’s corollary – ‘The plan is nothing, planning is everything.’ You’ll need to plan – and you’ll need to remember that plan as you play the game.

A question I grappled with was trying to determine if this is a narrative type game where you just roll with the unfolding story or was the game very responsive to player decisions. With all the random events and obstacles to movement, the game does create a solid narrative flow of the events. While not quite the ‘along for the ride’ feel of ‘Queen of the Skies’, ‘Breaking the Ice’ has a similar sense of management providing direction, yet still being at the mercy of the weather and accidents beyond your direct control.

‘Breaking the Ice’ is a great example of friction. To paraphrase Von Clausewitz, ‘everything in this game is simple, but the simple stuff is hard to do without something breaking!’ To frustrated players, I can offer our standard mantra from the retail sales business. If business is off and you are missing your production goals, don’t blame the game, blame the weather!

Breaking the Ice will appeal to different kinds of players. For those solitaire players wanting a challenge, this is a great candidate. If you want to crack the scoring model and win big, the game will offer a complex puzzle to solve. In some cases, that puzzle may ultimately prove to be a losing hand. This is not a fault in the game. I experienced something similar with DVG’s ‘Sherman Leader’ game where you can sometimes tell from your initial card draw that you are not going to win the game. You can see some of that in ‘Breaking the Ice’. If you have 12 ore carriers in the fitting out box and the lakes are chock full of sheet ice and fog – you are unlikely to be on the path to victory. Again, blame the weather, not the game.

The game will also appeal to the gamers that enjoy exploring the environment and want to experience the world of the game. Breaking the Ice will give these players the opportunity to watch the narrative of events unfold across the frigid waters of the northern lakes. It’s not just about moving counters. The random events will illuminate some of the tension that existed between the government, business and labor.  Despite labor unions pledge to avoid strikes during the war, they had difficulty in getting local work forces to always toe the line. Part of your task in Breaking the Ice is managing any labor issues that may arise and hopefully getting them resolved before it impacts the war effort!

Overall Breaking the Ice is an enjoyable game. If I could change anything, I’d only make two adjustments. One relates to the counters used to track delivered ore at the destination ports. This counter has a background designed to convey a bulk ore of some kind. Overlaying that background is the text in black and white. It may just be me, but every time I look at one of these specific counters, I find the counter hard to read. It’s the combination of the background art’s pattern with the black and the white text. Specifically, it feels like the white text blends into the background art.  Again, maybe it’s just me and the, but the ore counters give me eye strain – bordering almost vertigo/nausea. I can’t speak for everyone, but those markers just don’t work for me. It may even be a combination of the counter and lighting in the gaming space. When I look at a digital image of the counter, I don’t have the same problem. Fortunately, if you do experience the same issue that I did, you don’t have to look at the counters that much during the game so it’s far from a deal breaker. Worst case I could flip them over to avoid looking at them, but it didn’t come to that. It’s the only counter that gave me a headache, the other counters and markers are well rendered and quite attractive.

The other thing I’d adjust is additional player charts. There is a bit of material in the rule book that you’ll be referencing – damage check modifiers, resource point costs and random events. I ended up copying many of the tables onto card stock so I could avoid paging through the rule book.   

Even with the additional charts, I still had to refer to the rulebook for the victory point awards. If the VP awards were all in one section, that would be fine, but the VP awards are not grouped together. You’ll have to refer to the individual construction projects to locate the victory point awards earned. It’s a minor thing, but it would be nice if all the victory points were in one easy to reference section of the rules.

Those admittedly minor items aside, ‘Breaking the Ice’ is a fun, challenging game. The randomness of the initial set up – both player-controlled decisions and the random die roll determination means no two games will play exactly the same, so replay value in good. If you are looking to learn a bit about the Great Lakes ore business, or better understand some of the behind the scenes logistics that made possible the battlefield successes of World War Two, check out the game. If you are a gamer that spends a lot of time soloing your games, here’s a dedicated solitaire game that you should definitely consider adding to your collection!

Armchair General Score: 95%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  5

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

box cover
Box contents
Mapboard
Lake Erie deliveries
ore carrier counters
card front and back
Strike in action
Superior status report
Ore counter

4 Comments

  1. Great review! I am excited to get this game. Do you have any recommendations of books about the Great Lakes Winter Fleet to go along with the game?

  2. Good day, Trevor! There is an robust bibliography included with the game. I’ve not read them (my library is geared more to the warship side of ships not the merchant marine). Given that, I’d start with searching the web – there is a fair amount of material. But if you want a book, I’d start with George J. Joachim’s “Iron Fleet: The Great Lakes in World War Two.” Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.

    If you want greater context regarding the setting, I recommend reading up on the War Production Board and the National War Labor Board. Also read up on the ‘captive mines’ situation for an idea of labor relations in the lead up to the war.

    • Thank you so much, Ray. This is perfect!

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