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Posted on Mar 5, 2021 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Remember to Always Be Bold – The Campaigns of the Tenth Assault Vehicle Flotilla. “By Stealth and Sea” Board Game Review.

Remember to Always Be Bold – The Campaigns of the Tenth Assault Vehicle Flotilla. “By Stealth and Sea” Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

By Stealth and Sea. Publisher: Dan Verssen Games. Designer: David Thompson. Price $72.00

Passed inspection: Quality components. Glossy rules and scenario book. Engaging gameplay that explores in detail a rarely covered aspect of the naval war in the Mediterranean.

Failed basic: No faults with game play. A minor component fault with one warped game board.

When I was a lad, Saturday afternoon B-movies were quite popular. One of these films was The Silent Enemy which depicted British efforts to defend Gibraltar against attacks from Italian frogmen on mini submarines. While it may seem like something straight out of a James Bond adventure, the exploits of the Italian “Decima Flottiglia MAS” (or the Tenth Assault Vehicle Flotilla) are firmly in the historical record. While the Italian Royal Navy struggled to compete against the British on the surface of the Mediterranean Sea as well as in the air, it was beneath the surface of the Mediterranean Sea where the efforts of these Italian commando frogmen demonstrated how skill and determination lead to success. These attacks were responsibly for damaging multiple Royal Navy warships. The efforts of a relatively few ships and men had as much impact on the course of the war as did any single fleet engagement.

The box cover conveys a sense of the action in the game

 In 2020 Dan Verrsen Games released By Stealth and Sea a solitaire game the presents the efforts of those Italian commando frogmen and their craft known as “SLC”. Those efforts take the form of a series of historical scenarios depicting attacks on British anchorages at Gibraltar, Alexandria, Egypt and the port of Algiers. Designed by David Thompson, “By Stealth and By Sea” presents these attacks in a historical campaign in which the player attempts to match – or better – the historic result.

Let’s bring the game up to the surface and examine the components. By Stealth and Sea ships in a large, sturdy, cardboard box. The box art depicts the nature of the missions the Italian sailors would undertake – two men against an enemy fleet, in the dark cold waters of the Mediterranean Sea.  Inside the box, we find the following components:

  • Three game boards
  • SLC Sheets
  • Cards
  • Counters
  • Tokens
  • Dice
  • Rulebook
  • Mission Guide
  • Player Aids

An interesting feature of By Stealth and Sea are the three (3) mounted game boards. Each board depicts the geography of a specific anchorage, either Gibraltar, Alexandria, Egypt or Algiers. You will only use one of these at a time depending on your specific mission. Each game board is 22” by 17”. While the focus is on the watery portion of the harbors, the map depicts the shore facilities through both graphics and text labels. With a color palette that suggests a dark, claustrophobic environment, the net effect provides an immersive playing space for the game.

The Alexandria harbor board

In conjunction with the game board are the SLC sheets. These are three display sheets that help in tracking which crew is assigned to the SLC and in conjunction with the fault cards and status tokens, the status of the various sub-systems that make up each SLC.

An SLC sheet, ready for a mission.

Next up – the cards! While not a “card-driven game” in the classic sense, the various decks of cards do drive the play of the game. This starts with the forward position card, which defines the mission’s starting base, as well as quantifies the starting conditions for your assault teams.

A forward positioning card

Then come the operator cards. These define the men who crewed each of the SLC. Some crews have unique skills and traits that set them apart from their peers. There’s a substantial deck of operator cards as these depict the crew for each SLC in each scenario. In addition, there are a number of blank cards which allow you to create your own teams.

The last informational cards are the harbor defense cards. These are cards that are placed on the game board to show new or enhanced harbor defense equipment and techniques. These include better surveillance techniques, harbor nets, improved weapons systems and new techniques like underwater dive teams. The exact mix of which cards are used are defined in the mission set up description.

An example of one of the many harbor defense cards

Now come the cards you will love to hate – the fault cards and the alert cards. You’ll be using both of these decks every single game turn. I say you’ll love to hate them as each deck is a harbinger of bad news.

If you don’t succeed…it’s likely your own fault.

The fault cards are a deck designed to generate a possible system failure. Each card depicts a specific sub-system on the SLC. The fault deck is actually several smaller decks that contain cards specific to the specific model of equipment being used. You’ll assemble a fault deck for each mission based on your crew’s wetsuits, the model of SLC being used and the type and number of warheads being deployed.

An example of an alert card.

The alert deck is used for resolving detection attempts and attacks on the SLC. Each card has a number.  The numbers are well rendered and clearly convey the value intended. Like the crew and harbor defense decks, the alert deck are small cards. The breakdown of numbers in the deck is similar to the distribution on would expect from rolling 2d6 – a bell-curve range of values between 2 and 12.

A sample of the counters included in the game.

In addition to the cards, there are counters and tokens. The counters are big, thick squares of cardboard that depict the SLC’s, navy ships, merchant ships and patrol craft that the SLC may encounter. The die cutting was solid so no need to break out the Oregon Lamination corner trimmers. Rounding out the playing components is a set of tokens – colorful wooden discs that are used to depict the status of various sub-systems and skills.

By Stealth and Sea includes a set of dice. There is a single d3 (a six-sided die with the numbers 1 through 3 repeated), several d6 and a 1d8.

Beyond the playing components, there are several additional components– the rulebook, the mission guide, and the two (2) player aids – the sequence play aid and the SLC action. The rule book and the mission guide are soft bound, saddle-stitched booklets. Made of heavyweight, glossy paper and printed in four colors each meets the material standard you’ve come to expect from Dan Verrsen Games.

The rulebook is clearly laid out. As each rule is presented, it is paired with an example (often illustrated) to demonstrate the intent of the rules. The rule book was easy to read and to comprehend.  You’ll be up and playing in no time at all!

The mission booklet provides the set-up instructions for each of the nine (9) scenarios. The scenarios are presented chronologically. As you work your way through the missions, you get a nice representation of showing both improvements in technology and the evolving defenses of the Allies.

The play aids consist of two (2) cardboard charts. One is the turn sequence reference and fault effect reference. This is handy tool that lays out the game turn with references to the rule book. The fault check is handy reference to the various types of faults in the game as well as providing the effects of a failed fault test.

The SLC Action reference card is a great tool. It’s a one-stop shop for almost every action possible in the game. This card lists the actions, their effects and the skill check value required. That skill check is based on how many action points you expend, more on that in a bit.

The components are first rate. Now let’s fire up these SLC and take them for a cruise! We’ll start with the first scenario. It’s a good place to start for two reasons – first, it shows you the state of Italian technology at the beginning of the campaign and it’s also a brutal introduction into the relentless nature of the card driven harbor defenders.

We’ve been ordered to attack Royal Navy ships at Gibraltar. Intelligence reports that a squadron containing the battleship HMS Barham and battlecruiser HMS Renown are current at anchor within the harbor. Our commandos will take three of the prototypes into action, launched from an Italian submarine.

Arriving at the initial point, the teams unpack the SLC from their storage racks and check them out. Referring to the forward positioning card, we find we need to make two fault checks per SLC before the game even starts. (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”, said a farm boy from Tatooine.) The SLC did not survive the trip well. (I draw two fault cards per SLC and resolve the fault checks). SLC 1 can’t submerge due to a ballast tank fault and as a bonus, its warhead is malfunctioning. SLC 2 has a battery fault that puts it at half charge. SLC 3 has a balky transmission linkage which means we cannot go, and the craft has another bad warhead.

Starting in to the cycle of game turns, I roll a 1d3 getting a 3. SLC 3 may have another problem. I now draw another fault card – the card is the wet suit fault. I make a fault check rolling a d6 and score a 2, which fails. I think to myself, ‘This is ridiculous, remind me to dock the pay of whoever did the pre-mission check on this craft.’ I expend the SLC’s surge token and re-roll the die getting a six – success! (I sure hope I don’t need that surge token later!)

In the first turn, I need to fix some of these systems, so SLC 1 spends 2 actions to fix the ballast tank while SLC 3 fixes it’s transmission issue (We made it go! We are smart.). SLC 2 – the most capable craft at the moment – uses 1 action to move and then makes a skill check roll to make a full move on the surface.  Rolling a 4, they succeed and move an additional three hexes towards the harbor.

All the SLC actions completed, we now run through the harbor defenses. First up, we check the searchlights drawing an alert card for each SLC. In order we pull a 4, 8 and 9 – we’re not spotted! But we’re not out of the woods yet. Now I make another three checks for the patrol craft. SLC 3 pulls a card with a 10 on it – they are spotted. I place a patrol craft adjacent to the SLC. Not a good start. The patrol boat just spotted the SLC, so it cannot attack this turn. The SLC has a chance to run next turn.

So, the first turn was an inauspicious beginning. In the second turn, I do another fault check, SLC 3 has no luck this game as it draws a wetsuit fault and fails the ensuing stamina check – the crew is stunned, right when they need to run away. The other two craft elect to submerge. It slows them down, but they are less likely to be detected. The boats pass their detection checks, except for SLC 3. A second patrol craft appears while the first patrol boat moves to attack. The attack is quick to resolve – draw an alert card and consult the attack table. Drawing an 8, the patrol boat scores a hit. As the SLC crew was already stunned, the second stun kills them, eliminating the mini-sub from the game.

Things are looking bleak for the men of Decima MAS flotilla. A third of their offensive firepower is gone and they still have a long way to go in order to attack their main targets. But after traversing the torpedo nets and dodging the searchlights and patrol boats, SLC 2 manages to fix their charge to the hull of HMS Renown. The attack would prove fatal the battlecruiser. The SLC’s two man crew was not as lucky, failing to escape and being captured by the British. SLC 1 elected to settle for attacking a freighter anchored offshore. While not as impressive as sinking a battlecruiser, the crew did successfully attack the merchant and was then able to escape to neutral Spain and make their way back the Italy.  If this seems like a bleak outcome, don’t be discouraged – the first scenario is meant to be very hard. It also showcases the fragile nature of this new technology.

By Stealth and Sea is a fun game. It certainly captures the feel of the period and it captures quite well the challenge faced by the commandos using these cutting-edge weapons. The game is engaging. At the same time, the game can be incredibly frustrating. The polite phrase would be “herding cats”. Another point of view would be you are juggling eggs in variable gravity. You send your boats on their mission and over the next six hours (12 game turns) it’s a constant struggle watching your craft fall apart while the defenders find you and charge to the counterattack.

As with other games by David Thompson, there’s a lot of tension in By Stealth and Sea. Carl Von Clausewitz is known for his maxim “every thing in war is simple, but the simple things are difficult”. That maxim aptly describes By Stealth and Sea. The game itself is simple. The rules are straight-forward and provided with clear examples. But when you put those rules in motion, the game they define is very difficult to win. This is not a bad thing. It’s common to many other solitaire games in which the process of the game seems designed to wear down the player by throwing difficult challenges and choices at the player. In a lot of ways, that’s the core of a good solitaire gaming experience. Most  players wants to be presented with challenges they need to overcome. It’s also important that the player feels like they can make meaningful choices that will influence the outcome of the game. While they are ‘along for the ride’ players also need to feel like they have their hand on the steering wheel. 

An example of this is found in the rules for using the alert deck. At the start of the game the deck reflects the distribution of results from the sum of two six-sided dice. However, each time the ‘alert’ card (the “12” result) is drawn, the lowest value card(s) are removed from the discard pile and the deck is then reshuffled. What this mean is that as the game goes on, the defenders are progressively more likely to be achieving detection results and successful attacks. While you can – and will! – take steps to mitigate the success of those defensive actions, at some point, things will go sideways. I cannot begin to count the number of times I’m swearing at the alert deck as – yet again – one of my SLC is detected or successfully attacked.

The alert deck is cruel. As noted, every time that “alert” card with a 12 is drawn, you discard the lowest card value ard(s) from deck. (up to a point) This means that in every shuffle of the deck there are fewer and fewer chances to avoid something “bad” be it detection, patrol boats or attacks. If these checks were against a die roll, it would reflect the same chance of success or failure every time, but with the card deck, each event does not have an equal chance of occurring.  It seems designed to reflect that as time goes on the British efforts get more and more effective as they focus in upon the SLC and build up a better sense of where to find the commandos.

It’s not a flawed mechanic. In many ways it’s similar to the way the damage decks work in Ares Games Wings of Glory. But the player needs to be aware of how the alert deck functions so they can properly weigh the risk posed by the deck and make informed decisions in response to that risk. In terms of net effect, it’s like each time the ‘alert’ is drawn, the British gain a cumulative +1 die roll modifier.

For all the good you’ll find playing the game, there are a couple of items that could have been better presented. One of those is the escape table. It’s only displayed inside the rule book. It bothers me to have to leaf through the rule book when the table is needed. I would have like to have seen it as a table on one of the play aids, but there’s not enough real estate to make that happen. The good news is that you’ll only have to reference the escape table a maximum of three times in a game (if you are lucky!). If this really bothers you, make a copy of the chart and keep it with the other two play aids.

The other fault I had with the game was the game board for Alexandria was warped. This manifests itself as a bowing on each section of the board that prevents the game from laying flat on the table. It was not so pronounced as to impede game play, but it was enough that counters and tokens could slid under the edge of the game board and hide (by stealth indeed!). The good news is that DVG has a crackerjack customer service team. If you find yourself with a warped game board, reach out to DVG for assistance.

By Stealth and Sea is designed from the ground up as a solitaire game. David Thompson proved with Pavlov’s House and Castle Itter – both from DVG – that he knows how to craft a solid solitaire experience. By Stealth and Sea continues that tradition. The player is deeply engaged in the decision-making process for each SLC. In addition to the basics of deciding where to move and when to submerge or surface, the player is faced with the challenges of random system failures. Those constant system failures will derail “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men”. You’ll need to plan for time for your crews to fix whatever breaks and still have time to conduct the attack before sun rises. By the time you reach a target, you’ll derive a sense of satisfaction as you make that final attachment and trigger the timer.

The game is not deterministic. Far from it. However, fate still has a role in the outcome. Once a crew is stunned, you may find yourself locked in a struggle just to extract the crew before the British harbor defenders kill them. I’ve seen that devolve into a downward spiral of attacks that stun the crew, with the crew spending all their efforts to recover only to be stunned again in the next combat round. It can be frustrating. Again, not a flaw, as this is certainly an historical outcome. From a strategy standpoint I can argue that by pulling in multiple patrol boats, the sacrifice of one team helps clear the path for the other teams.

Beyond being a dedicated solitaire game with nine different scenarios, the game offers you the opportunity to conduct not one, but two different campaigns. One of the campaigns walks you through the historical events by playing each scenario in order. The other campaign offers a much more ‘free form’ experience where you start from the initial conditions of the first game, but events diverge based on your crew performance and where you choose to invest resources into system upgrades. As you make your choices, you’ll find the British reacting to your developments with their own countermeasures, usually in the form of improved harbor defenses. 

By Stealth and Sea is a solid game. It delivers an engaging solitaire experience and in 2021 that’s a welcome feature! You’ll find yourself forced into difficult decisions against a relentless foe. We know that fun is a value that is in the eye of the beholder. If you enjoy games in which you are presented with a series of challenges, you’ll like this game. The game does a solid job of imparting historical information to the players. I learned a lot about the operations of the Italian commandoes. That knowledge led to an appreciation and respect for what these men achieved against the might of the Royal Navy. Also, the game captures the cycle of innovation on both sides. For each technological advance made by Italy, there is a corresponding round of new tactical measures designed to stop the men of Decima MAS from achieving their mission.

There’s enough randomness in the game model that you can replay missions and still have them feel fresh. It’s a solid game that explores an interesting aspect of Second World War naval operations. This is a worthy addition to your solitaire gaming collection. In By Stealth and Sea you’ll find that nothing is certain, except an engaging game experience!

Armchair General Score: 98%

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.