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Posted on Jan 30, 2022 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

The Kriegsmarine threatens Britain’s Atlantic lifeline in GMT Games, “Atlantic Chase: The naval war in the Atlantic 1939-1943”. Board Game Review.

The Kriegsmarine threatens Britain’s Atlantic lifeline in GMT Games, “Atlantic Chase: The naval war in the Atlantic 1939-1943”. Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: Jeremy White. Price $85.00

Passed inspection: A multi-layered operational game covering maritime operations from 1939 through 1943.Extensive two-player and solitaire scenarios. Well laid-out rulebook(s) nicely cross-referenced with the play aid charts.

Failed basic: “Failed basic” is an overly harsh term here. We could quibble over how specific ships are rated for firepower and if the effect of airstrikes is overstated or understated. But the biggest challenge is that Atlantic Chase is a radically different game from what traditional naval gamers are used to playing. The block format of the trajectories may be off-putting to old school hex and counter grognards. But work through the pain, folks – this is a great game!

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steamed for the Jutland coast into bad weather and stumbled upon our quarry. After a short exchange of gunfire, the Germans managed to break contact. In the morning, the storm had passed and the real battle began. Luftwaffe dive bombers and torpedo planes repeatedly struck our formation. We reversed course, but the speed and size of the air attack inflicted heavy losses on our task force. Almost every battleship and battlecruiser were damaged with HMS Rodney succumbing to repeated hits, sinking beneath the cold waters of the North Sea. They say ‘a ship’s a fool to fight a fort’, but I’d rather face any fort than to again face dive bombers without our own air support…..

In 2021 GMT Games released Atlantic Chase: by designer Jerry White. Jerry is the creative mind behind both the Enemy Action Ahead and Skies Above the Reich series of games. Atlantic Chase promises to do for naval operations what those prior games did for aerial missions.

Cover of the Atlantic Chase box

Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet covers the naval war in the Atlantic, Arctic and North Sea between the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 through 1943 – nominally when the Allies had ‘won’ the war at sea. This is a two-player game, thought it has the very strong support for solitaire play. I had failed to order the game during the P500 campaign, but was very lucky to stumble upon a copy in one of my local game stores in the summer of 2021. The game languished on the shelf as I tackled some other projects, but with the onset of winter, it was time to bring the game to the table. Time to peel of the shrink wrap and see what this game has to offer.

The game has an interesting set of components, including a mounted gameboard and a supply of wooden blocks and nicely rendered counters.  The complete contents of the game break down as follows;

  • 22 x 34″ mounted game board
  • Two 8.5″x11″ Inset Maps
  • Three 11″x17″ player aid cards
  • Two 8.5″x11″ player aid cards
  • Two Task Force Displays
  • Sheet and a half of counters
  • 240 wood segments and cylinders
  • Rule book
  • Advanced Battle Rules
  • Tutorial booklet
  • Solitaire Scenario booklet
  • Two-player Scenario booklet
  • Four six-sided dice

I’m not going to spend too much time describing these items. There are a number of excellent unboxing videos already out there for you peruse. But I do want to focus on what I think are the exceptional items here – the tutorial booklet and scenarios booklets (plural!!). Take together you have many hours of game play within these pages. The tutorials are basically ‘mini-games’ designed to teach you a couple of rules at a time. Pile on top of that the well-crafted dedicated solitaire scenarios and the two-player campaign game, operations and mini-scenario tactical battle games and there is a lot of bang for the buck here.

Task Force trajectory blocks are the most common piece on the game board.

It sounds as if I’m liking the game, right? Because, yes, I enjoyed learning and playing the game. But Atlantic Chase has a challenge to overcome. It’s what put me off from backing the P500 and I can see where it could be a challenge for other traditional hex and counter gamers. That challenge is…the blocks. It’s easy to see those blocks and immediately classify the game as a generic ‘Euro-type’ game that lacks the feel and crunchiness of a traditional naval wargame. It’s not an area movement game like Avalon Hill’s classic “War at Sea” or “Victory in the Pacific” and it’s not a conventional hex and counter naval game like Avalanche Press’s Great War at Sea series (yes, yes, I know GWAS using offset squares and not hexes, but the effect is the same).  It was this perceptual bias that kept me from ordering the game during the P500 campaign. My perception was that this was trying to turn naval gaming™ into an abstracted Eurogame with naval combat as a theme. It didn’t grab me at the time.

 I could not have been more wrong.

Jerry White and the team at GMT Games have crafted a solid game that will appeal to both the solitaire player as well as naval gamers looking for a variety of challenges. After the first three tutorial lessons I was on board with what the game trying to model. 

The game offers an experience unlike other naval games I’ve played over the years. Playing the game, you’ll definitely feel you’ve been cast in the role of a senior naval officer. Your responsibilities extend far beyond a single ships bridge, or even the flag plot of a task force flagship. Instead, your purview is your entire navy. You can issue orders to your task force(s) and naval forces, but the execution of your instructions lies in the hands of your subordinates. At the end of the day – you’ve got missions to complete and you have to keep the big picture firmly in my if you want to succeed.

But that’s not to say you are totally removed from the operations of your task forces. Indeed, the game empowers you to direct your forces against the enemy using the “Four F’s”

  • Find the enemy – Locate the enemy.
  • Fix the enemy – Pin them down with suppressing fire.
  • Fight the enemy – Engage the enemy in combat or flank the enemy – Send soldiers to the enemy’s sides or rear.
  • Finish the enemy – Eliminate all enemy combatants.

Captain Wayne P. Hughes laid out the broad strokes of naval tactics in his book “Fleet Tactics” (Naval Institute Press, 2018). “Fire effectively first”. To do that, you need to use the “Four F’s” while denying your opponent the opportunity to do the same to you.  The “Four F’s” roughly correspond to actions your forces may take during a game turn.

Naval search is an activity designed to localize, then the location of an enemy force. Air Strikes can play into this as one of the results is to generate ‘contacts’ that make future actions more effective.

Once you’ve located the enemy, you can move your ships to intercept.

All this prior work is designed to bring the enemy to action. You can engage the enemy with your surface forces. Alternatively, if they are in range of your maritime aviation assets (either land-based air, or for the British, carrier-based air) you can launch strikes at enemy task forces. This is the surface gun duels or the air attacks at the heart of the naval combat model.

 The game mechanisms are very well crafted in that you are not constrained by the game turn as to when you do what, but rather have to choose what seems to be the best option at that moment to advance your goals.

There are a number of tasks that equate to the activities needed to seek, search and strike your opponent. Your specific choice of task is a decision that reflects your current capabilities and your current objectives. As the Germans, you can attempt to engage Allied convoys in the North Atlantic, but you’ll have to deal with the Allied counter moves if the Royal Navy sorties from their fleet bases or attempts to use airpower to damage your force at sea.

These actions do not happen in a vacuum. Your opponent will often have the opportunity to attempt to react, sometimes even pre-empting your action before it can happen. This feedback rewards a savvy player that recognizing the percentages associated with the various interruption and initiative tasks.  For example, there’s a base 28% chance of seizing the initiative – with each failed attempt modifier making in more likely, but consult a table of 2d6 outcomes if you need a refresher in your chances of success. You are messing with each other’s OODA loops here and trying to disrupt the operational tempo and decision-making loops on each side. It yields a complex game experience from a relatively uncomplicated set of actions.

You know what else really makes the game work? Believe it or not – it’s the concept of trajectory using those wooden blocks. Yep, the very thing that initially turned me off backing the game. The trajectories allows you to sketch out the broad strokes of operations, while preserving dense fog of war regarding the location of your own and the opponents’ forces. This ain’t the old classic War at Sea with its sea zones and pitched battles each game turn. If anything, the trajectory blocks drive home the importance of positioning task forces and planning your operations with an eye towards your opponent’s reactions.

The game provides a great feel for the tension of fleet command as you move your pieces on the chess board of the sea and now have to sit back and wait for those contact reports to come in to headquarters. Standing against that are a couple of minor quibbles from the experience.

The air strike feature bugs me. I suspect a lot of this is situational and perceptional. Air strike will have an effect, but what I wrestle with is that this effect is both either not enough or too much. Looking at the numbers of the Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command (See Hobbes, Taranto, 2020), the effects of British Air Strikes give a good return on the number of actual real-world planes and aircrew. The same is likely true of the Luftwaffe maritime strike units. Never plentiful or at strength, in the Atlantic, they achieved good results for their numbers. Having a carrier present is helpful just for the air support bonus it can provide. What it means in the game is that you venture into the range of enemy aircraft at your own peril. A few bad die rolls can play your entire task force in jeopardy.

Assorted battleships in the game
Battlecruisers of the respective combatants.

One other thing bothers me, but it’s the kind of quibble not unique to Atlantic Chase The gunnery and damage ratings for various ships are sure to generate spirited debate. (Just go read any naval gaming forum and ask which is better – King George V or Bismarck and you’ll poke the hornet’s nest. We face the same thing with Atlantic Chase in how the gunnery factor, speed and armor ratings reduce many ships to carbon copies of each other. Jerry White addresses some of the gunnery issue as it relates to superior German long range gunnery (Shades of Jutland!) but looking at a comparison of KGV, Bismarck and USS Washington left me puzzled as USS Washington didn’t seem to possess any inherent advantages. I’ll grant that the game reflects Washington before her 1942 refit at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with modernized search and fire control radars, so it may be a question of the changes just washing out at the scale of the game. Related to that. Most every cruiser has very similar ratings, to the point that it doesn’t see to matter which ships get assigned to a mission, they’re all basically interchangeable. That may be true from the view of the Admiralty building in London, but traditional naval gamers obsess over differences in guns and sensors. They may find the lack of detail disappointing. Again, it’s really about the scale of the game and the granularity of the model. So don’t obsess over the ship stat’s, just remember your in the role of a senior leader managing operations and get on with it!

Assorted ships. The variation in cruisers is mostly in speed.

Okay, you’ve sold me. I want to take the fleet out to sea! What are my options?

Atlantic Chase is more like three games in one. I mentioned the scenario books earlier in this review. Well, all three of them given you a variety of gaming experiences.  First up, the tutorial lessons are very short games designed to demonstrate one or two new concepts. They build on each other and become more complex. The remind me of the old “Programmed Instruction” method used in the classic Avalon Hill games.

Next up are the dedicated solitaire scenarios. These encompass both small solitaire scenarios and larger scenarios that allow you to find a game that fits your time needs. Using the Norwegian inset map, they give you a chance to practice what you have learned in the waters of the North Sea.

The situation room at Western Approaches HQ. The game captures the feel of directing operations from a HQ such as this.

The larger solitaire scenarios have you playing the ‘full game’, albeit against a scenario specific ‘bot’. These ‘bots have been given clear, but not exhaustive instructions that creates a reasonable opponent action choice. The bot’s actions are coupled to the scenario victory conditions, which makes each solitaire scenario an engaging experience, but also one that can play out quite differently from one game to the next.

Between the tutorials and the dedicated solitaire scenarios the solo gamer will derive hours of entertainment from the game. There scenarios lend themselves to repeated play as the specific AI actions will vary based on activity die roll, reinforcement die rolls and the tactical situation at the time.  The AI holds up. It’s aggressive, yet the results will press the player to react to the changing tactical situation. It’s not infallible, and with a little luck you can pull it into an awkward tactical position. But be warned I got my head handed to me by the bot on several occasions!

However, as Ron Popiel would say, ‘but wait, there’s more!’

There is a separate book of two player scenarios. This also contains the full campaign game as well as a host of ‘micro-scenarios’ which are really just short tactical battles.

The two-player campaign game is played as a series of operations. Those operations reflect many of the two player scenarios, but now they are placed into the context of the full war at sea. It’s ‘best of five’ playoff format. If one player wins the first three operations, the campaign has been decided early and the remaining two matches are cancelled. Historically, the campaign went the full five operations, with the Allies winning the game. You’ve got to manage your ships as sunk and damaged ships may not be available for future operations.

Did I say Atlantic Chase was like three games? Well yes, but that but that leaves out the secret bonus game – the advanced battle rules! Are you tired of the streamlined, generic rules from the standard game? Well good news, if you act now, Atlantic Chase includes a separate set of advanced battle rules that give detail and depth to your engagements. This adds in critical hits, damage control and different hits based on the attitude of the firing ship. It does not replace the basic combat rules, but it grafts on another layer of detail the battle experience.

Using the Advance Battle rules with the Rio Plate scenario.

Granted this detail comes at the cost of more time to resolve battles. But if you’ve gone to all that trouble to engineer a surface action, don’t you want the richest, most detailed outcome you can get? When sharing the aftermath of the battle do you want the high-level summary ‘sank to battleships, lost one battlecruiser’ or are you looking for the narrative details of rudder, bridge hits and magazine critical hits. And if you don’t want to slow down your big operational scenarios, these advanced battle rules are great for the micro-scenario tactical battles. The game includes the ‘perfect’ starter scenario for testing out the advanced rules – The Battle of the Rio Plate with the Graf Spee and the Exeter, Ajax and Achilles. In my first go, Ajax was damaged, Exeter suffered a magazine hit which was automatic damage, while Graf Spee suffered a bridge hit an armament hit, both of which were repaired, prior to successfully breaking off at the end of the battle. All in all, the game gave a fairly historical result! 

In this day and age, it should be no surprise that there is a vassal module for the game. If you use Vassal, this will make finding an opponent easier, but again, you can still use it to play all those solitaire scenarios without the need to take over the dining room table.

The game gives players an excellent sense of the size of the Atlantic Ocean. When playing the campaign game, you’ll recognize why the ‘air gap’ between North America and Great Britain was a hunting ground for the U-boats. It captures the difficulty in locating an enemy and bringing them to action. And the corollary to that is how the game demonstrates the value of not being seen.

Should you buy this game? My answer is an unqualified yes. Here is an innovative system that should be nominated for a Charles S. Roberts award. This is a game that will appeal to naval gamers as well as to solo gamers. But there’s a bit of a rub. The game is out of stock at GMT. So, if you can find a copy from your local store or online merchant – grab it! But if you cannot find a copy and you want one – you’ll need to back the game via GMT’s P500 program. As of this writing, the game is over 70% to goal. Sign up today and help push the game towards being reprinted!

Atlantic Chase is engaging game which generates historically plausible actions and outcomes. It’s an innovative system that has a lot of potential for expansion and modification. I could envision future games focused on the Mediterranean, the Pacific War or dare I suggest – either the Great War with its ability to generate a playable battle of Jutland or even a Napoleonic edition? 

If this game were a movie, “Sink the Bismarck” would certainly an appropriate analogy given the multiple scenario and campaigns featuring her career. But from a campaign perspective, “The Cruel Sea” may be more apt as the campaign game – and many of the two-player operational scenarios – takes the long view of the war with a focus on the important role of the convoys in sustaining the United Kingdom’s war effort.

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 American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of hobby magazines.

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