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Posted on Aug 17, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Under the Sea, For the Glory of Rome. GMT Games ‘Beneath the Med’ Board Game Review

Under the Sea, For the Glory of Rome. GMT Games ‘Beneath the Med’ Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

Beneath the Med: Regina Marina at Sea, 1940-1943. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: Gregory M. Smith. Price $52.00

Passed inspection: Great narrative-based game focused on World War Two Italian submarine operations. Game generates a solid narrative of the combat patrols of your submarine commander. Represents many of the Italian submarine classes used during the war. The game includes some narrative role-playing elements for leader and crew skill development. The game covers the war from Italy’s entry in June 1940 through the 1943 surrender. Allows operations in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Caribbean and more. Special operations include the ‘S.L.C.’ attacks, commando raids and supply runs to Singapore.

Failed basic:  In common with other entries in this series, the game play can feel ‘fiddly’ with the need to reference multiple charts and tables as you move through each location in the patrol. Combat resolution lacks the detailed tactical feel of maneuvering the submarine to reach attack position against the target.

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August ’43 – the war was going badly for Italy. Sicily was falling to the Allied armies. But for Capitano di Fregatta Rey Cielo-Camminotore there was still time for one last patrol. Over the course of the war, the submarine commander had racked up an impressive amount of sunk tonnage that included two British battleships.

He had at last convinced the squadron commander that his submarine, the Adua-class boat, ‘Gondar’, was the right choice to perform an S.L.C. manned torpedo attack against Royal Navy ships at Gibraltar. Leaving La Spezia, the boat cruised on the surface. While the crack crew keep a lookout for enemy ships and aircraft, by the time they spotted the incoming Swordfish biplane it was too late to submerge. The plane placed a bomb dead-center amidships, smashing the submarine’s hull and engines. Foundering, one last radio signal was sent – ‘vessel sinking, submarine Gondar calls for aid!’

Welcome back to the undersea world of Gregory M. Smith. The designer of classic games like Silent Victory and The Hunters heads back to sea with his latest solitaire game – Beneath the Med: Regia Marina at Sea, 1940-1943. This installment in the series puts you in command of an Italian submarine during World War Two.  You’ll have lots of subs from which to choose and the possibility of travelling the waters of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean seas, or even the distant waters of the Far East as you attempt to reach far off Singapore!

When Italy declared war on the United Kingdom and France in June of 1940, they started with the second largest submarine fleet of any of the major European powers (just behind the Soviet Union!). Though quantity may have a quality of its own, the different classes of the Italian submarine force were a cross section of naval strategy in the early twentieth century.  These boats ranged from smaller, short range coastal subs to large sea-going boats designed for lengthy voyages.

The submarine fleet was but one blade of the trident that made up Italian naval power in the Mediterranean. The submarines were a complement to the surface navy of the Regia Marina and the aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica.  In ‘Beneath the Med’, we’re focused purely on the experience of that submarine force during the war.

The core of the game is a table-driven style of play that produces a narrative based experience for the player. In a way, this could be described as a ‘choose your own adventure’ type game as the various die rolls guide you through each step of your patrol. Players of earlier games in this series will be able to dive in and start playing almost immediately. New players should have no trouble reading the rules and quickly being able to put to sea. For those new to the series, when we pop the hatch on the box, we find the following components stowed beneath the lid:

  • Rulebook
  • Submarine mats
  • Patrol mats
  • Submarine Combat mat
  • Commander and crew mat
  • Five Player Aid charts and tables
  • dice

The rulebook is a slim saddle-stitched 8 ½” x 11” paperback booklet that clocks in at 24 pages. The booklet follows the format of other games in the series and is laid out in the order you’ll need the rules in a game turn. The rules are well indexed with internal cross-references where needed. The only question that came up was a reference to checking the torpedo loadouts being listed on the sub mats. It’s not actually defined on the sub mat, but it’s pretty easy to deduce that the number of torpedoes you carry is one in each tube and the full number of reloads (unless a mission parameter states otherwise).

The sub mat is a single sheet used to describe the characteristics of each class of submarine. This includes the number of torpedo tubes, deck guns, damage capacity, floatation and system hits.  These follow a similar format to previous games, with a change being that the specific rewards and crew abilities are moved to the Commander and crew mat.

The patrol mats are maps of the operational region you assigned. These are either the Mediterranean or the Atlantic depending on your station. These maps contain the patrol tracks for each mission type. While they duplicate the tracks found on the submarine mat, they put each patrol into a geographic perspective that helps set the stage for each patrol in a way the generic patrol track alone does not achieve.

The submarine combat mat is a play aid that helps in managing and resolving combat encounters. It’s a tabular representation of the action that gets the job done. It’s not as immersive an experience as an actual tactical map might be, but that’s below the focus of the game. You track targets, allocate your weapons and resolve attacks to generate results.

The commander and crew mat is a feature from games like Zeppelin Raider or Raiders of the Deep. This sheet consolidates your commander’s awards and skills in one chart along with your crew quality and any special skills the officers might have acquired.

The five players aid cards are the heart of the game. Here you’ll find all the tables that walk you through a patrol. From determining a patrol area, to defining the details of any encounters, you’ll be referencing these charts. (Even though these are heavy duty cardboard charts, do yourself a favor and put them in clear plastic page protectors as these will get a lot of use in each game.)

Rounding out the contents are a set of dice used in conjunction with the various tables.

New players should have no trouble reading the rules and quickly being able to put to sea. The game is played as a series of patrols. At the start of each patrol, you’ll roll dice to determine your particular mission parameters. These can include patrolling various sectors of the Mediterranean, searching for enemy ships, laying mines, or performing one of a number of special missions. These special tasks include delivering supplies to Axis forces in North Africa, laying mines, intercepting convoys, landing commando teams and for some submarines, deploying the S.L.C. – manned demolition charges often referred to as human torpedoes. Depending on your class of submarine, you may also be transferred to the Atlantic Ocean theater with a range of missions that can take you as far as the Indian Ocean.

Once you have determined your mission and outfit your boat, it’s off to sea. Each patrol requires transiting a number of patrol zones. In each zone, you’ll roll dice to determine if there is an encounter with the enemy, or in some cases, a random event (for example, a broken gyrocompass that requires returning to port).  Those zones can yield contacts that range from nothing at all through unescorted ships up to full blown task groups featuring capital ships of the British Royal Navy.

It’s at this point that the player has the most decision-making input in the game. Each encounter will be defined and then the player decides if they want to attack, if they want to attack during the day or try and wait until night, what range from which to conduct the attack and how many torpedoes to fire. Being closer is better for attacking, but this carries the risk of being detected before launching an attack. After these decisions, you’ll execute the attack and check to see if you were detected by the escorts (if any). If you are detected, play shifts to the anti-submarine warfare portion of the encounter. The boat is subject to a round of attack which damages the boat. These rounds continue until the submarine can either shake off the attacking escorts and slip away, or succumb to the pounding and either surrender or sink.

Assuming you make it through your patrol, you’ll return to base, refit your boat, check for crew skill progression and tally your score. Scoring is done using the universal currency of a submarine force – tonnage sunk. Once you’ve completed your campaign, you’ll compare the total of your tonnage sunk to the scoring matrix and determine if you are a legendary submarine ‘ace’ or were a disappointment to the service.

The general experience is very similar to what you’ll find with any of ‘The Hunters/Silent Victory’ series of games. Like ‘The Hunters’, the Allies gain naval proficiency over time that makes your survival progressively more difficult. However, there are a number of elements that give ‘Beneath the Med’ an experience distinct from the other games in the series.  For example, targets have a much different feel than in ‘The Hunters’. You are more likely to encounter enemy warships, than you would in the Atlantic. And these tend to be either smaller groups of surface warships operating independently, or full on escorted task forces featuring named capital ships.

The game does a good job of presenting the experience of an Italian submarine during the war. The most obvious thing you’ll see is that the game depicts the historically less effective Italian fire control systems and torpedo quality in reducing the ‘to hit’ roll compared to the German U-boats. Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani discuss these problems in their book ‘The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940-43). Conversely, the Italians torpedoes have a much lower dud rate than the Germans, so you got that going for you, which is nice. Which is good, as all Italian torpedoes are steam powered. Which leaves a nice, easy to follow trail of bubbles that leads right…back…to…YOU!

The game also captures other points documented by Greene and Massignani, that being the design of Italian boats and their diving performance. The Italian boats were originally designed with large conning towers that had the unexpected consequence of making them more easily detected when on the surface. Additionally, many Italian submarines had a slow dive rate – often on the order of 60 seconds. These boats were unable to perform the ‘crash dive’ that was a staple of the German and American submarine response when detected by aircraft.

The solution to this problem was to put the boat in the yard and ‘cut down’ the size of the conning tower to lower the boats profile and attempt to improve the dive rate of the boats. At some point, your boat will go into the yard for this refit.

Also unique to this version of the game is that it ends in 1943 – before the tide really turns against the submarines. You won’t find the tough, capable opponents of ‘The Hunted’ in this game. You will often encounter smaller groups of warships which, while still proving to be a resilient foe, generally do not offer the rewarding tonnage count that the slower, big merchants tend to offer.

A nice touch is the game allows you to experience the ‘Singapore run’ of hauling equipment and raw materials between Germany and Japan. We saw similar missions presented in ‘The Hunted’, but focused on the German U-boats. It was nice to see the Italian participation in this activity represented in the game. You can find more background on these missions in Lawrence Patterson’s book “Hitler’s Grey Wolves: U-Boats in the Indian Ocean.

Beneath the Med is a solid, engaging title. However, there are still a few things that felt off, or were opportunities that just fell outside the scope of the game. The biggest factor is the effectiveness of the Italian torpedo attacks. Greene and Massagnani cite an average success rate of 14% for torpedo attacks. They suggest some of the factors contributing to this were the poor fire control, inconsistent quality of the torpedoes and the tendency of Italian sub commanders to attack from longer ranges. Even reflecting these in Beneath the Med, some back of the envelope calculation suggests that to achieve this hit rate you’d need to consistently attack from long range and have a green crew or be facing a warship.  

It’s clear the Gregory Smith did a good job in reflecting torpedo hit rates when using historical tactics. However, the game does not constrain you to using historical tactics or doctrine. As the representation of the submarine commander, you are free to be as aggressive as you wish. If you want, you may consistently try to attack from close range and use as many torpedoes as you wish. The trade off here is the increased likelihood of being detected, counter-attacked and possibly sunk.  This can result in a very aggressive (and lucky!) sub skipper racking up an amount of sunk tonnage that is well above the historical norm. In my first play through I totaled 154,600 tons of enemy merchants and warships – well more than either of the historical Italian ‘sub aces’ included in the game. Now its entirely possible that my game was a statistical outlier (hey, my sub was sunk at the start of the August ’43 mission, so at least I didn’t survive!), but I’ve read a few other after-action reports that suggest this result is not a fluke.

On the plus side, this makes for an enjoyable game as you can run the boards racking up kills. To be fair, my score included sinking HMS Royal Oak, HMS Malaya, HMS Nigeria, the submarine HMS Ilex as well as a number of large tankers and freighters.  It does not include the heavy damage suffered by the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious with a successful S.L.C. attack in Alexandria).

It’s not all beer and skittles. After all, this is a game based on ‘The Hunters’, and that often means a single bad die roll can end your career. (Stupid dice. I hate you. LOL.) You should enjoy the fun while it lasts! I was just lucky it happened at the very *end* of the game. (It’s never a good thing when you roll boxcars on the escort/air attack table and have to add the +2 for the air attack. My boat immediately went BOOM.)

Aside from the hit rate, there were a couple of things I would have liked to have seen in the game that didn’t make the cut. One of those things would be exploring the Italian submarines that started the war in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Those boats operated in the area until the fall of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland in the spring of 1941. Remarkably, several of these boats survived the East Africa campaign and managed to break out past the Royal Navy to reach Bordeaux, France. From there, the boats were either assigned the Italian BETASOM command and participated in the Battle of the Atlantic or successfully returned to Italy and served the remainder of their careers in the Mediterranean.

Another item that bothered me was a sense of futility. Even if you do have an incredibly successful career, that success seems to have no impact on the greater course of the war. Regardless of how well you do, the Allied juggernaut will still cause Italy’s capitulation in August of ’43. This inevitable outcome is a little disappointing as it causes your performance to be somewhat disconnected from the greater conflict in which you are nominally contributing. It would be interesting if perhaps, your level of success (or failure) was tied to keeping Italy viable in the conflict for a few more (or less) months. Granted, this is a feature shared with the other games in the series. Regardless of how well you do on an individual submarine level, it does not change the larger outcome of the war, or even the timeline of events.

It was a bit surprising that the list of Allied warships seems to be drawn entirely from the navies of the UK and Commonwealth countries. A little digging quickly shows that during World War Two, more US destroyers were sunk by US navy oil tankers (1) than were sunk by Italian submarines (0). That’s not to say there were no US destroyers present in the Mediterranean, but they appear late in the campaign. The largest US vessel sunk by an Italian submarine torpedo was a patrol craft. The participation of the US warships is handled by the existing variable convoy escort rules. 

If you are a fan of the Silent Victory/Hunters/Hunted series of games, you’ll enjoy Beneath the Med. It’s another opportunity to take to the seas and explore the nuances of the Italian Navy submarine force. Sometimes it’s the little moments, like encountering a task group with the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. Only it happens at a point in the patrol when you have a hull battered from previous engagements and all you have left are two torpedoes in the stern tubes. That’s the point where your decisions really matter. How hard will you push? What’s the return on your risk?

Beneath the Med is a solitaire game. It’s designed from the ground up to support play by a single player. If you’ve played other games in the series, you already knew that, but if you are unfamiliar with the series, let’s just restate that again. In this age of social distancing, solitaire games seem to have more value for the tabletop wargamer than ever. The game yields an excellent narrative flow. I actually find as much enjoyment in writing up the ‘patrol log’ after action reports for the boat as I do from running through the patrols. The skill progression will help the solo player identify with their in-game character as well as the non-player characters that comprise the crew of their submarine.

The game does support two players by having each player run the same class boat. The players alternate patrols with the ‘non-phasing player’ taking the role of the Royal Navy and rolling all detection and escort attack dice.

So, you are likely asking yourself – ‘should you buy the game?’. Well, if you are already a fan of Gregory M. Smith’s style of game, then you already know the answer – yes, you should. (And you probably backed the P500 campaign for the game, didn’t you?) It’s also one of the least expensive games in the series, so if cost is an issue, it’s got that going for it.

If you want a game that explores the experience of the Italian submarine force in World War II, this is your chance. Beneath the Med is an accessible game that will provide a fair amount of geographic and historical detail and it makes an excellent contrast to the Mediterranean patrols available to the German U-boats in ‘The Hunters’.  It’s a worthy addition to your shelf of solitaire games!

Armchair General Score: 96%

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 over four decades. Ray’s interests include the 19th Century 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 defunct hobby magazines.

Box Art
Adua class boat with SLC embarked
SLC embarked
Royal Oak sinks
what not to roll when under air attack

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