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Posted on Aug 22, 2021 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

“Sir, reports from HQ say that there are five U-boats in this area.” The Battle of the Atlantic comes to the game table. An Interview with Alan Eagle, Designer of “Corvette Command”

“Sir, reports from HQ say that there are five U-boats in this area.” The Battle of the Atlantic comes to the game table. An Interview with Alan Eagle, Designer of “Corvette Command”

Ray Garbee

“This is a story of the Battle of the Atlantic, the story of the ocean, two ships, and a handful of men. The men are the heroes; the heroines the ships. The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea that man has made more cruel….”

The opening lines of the 1953 movie “The Cruel Sea” captures the feel of Alan Eagle’s recent solitaire game “Corvette Command”. In the game, the player takes on the role of the commander of an Flower class corvette (These were mostly Canadian and Royal Navy vessels). The player is tasked with escorting convoys of merchant ships back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean between the United Kingdom and North America.

Corvette Command creates a narrative of events in a way similar to the classic board game “B-17 Queen of the Skies”. Your escort vessel is tied to supporting the convoy (barring some random events) and moves across the sea zones. In each zone, you check for a number of events and try to repair damage. With a little luck, you’ll avoid the U-boats and make it to your destination. The game covers events for the two-year period from May 1941 through May 1943. This is a free print and play game that can be played in a small footprint with optional advanced rules that enable you to play a quick set up one-off game or a two-player game and introduce greater level of detail. There’s even a VASSAL module available (thank you Lee Smith!) for those who want to skip the printing phase and dive right into playing the game!

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The playing area showing the Atlantic zone map and the ship status display. Taken from the Vassal edition of the game.

Corvette Command’s designer, Alan Eagle answered some questions I had regarding the game, the design process and his plans for future installments.

Tell us about Corvette Command. We know it’s a solitaire game, set in the North Atlantic but, what does the game represent to you?

AE: I designed Corvette Command to have a small footprint, with a short set up time and to be the type of game that you could play quickly, yet still generate a compelling narrative. The aim was to have a game where if you are short of time, you could play just a single convoy in about 30 minutes or complete a campaign over successive, self-contained games.

What motivated you to design Corvette Command? Was it a case of filling an unmet need? Were there books, movies or other table top games that inspired you?

AE: During lockdown I discovered and really enjoyed playing “The Hunters” and other solo submarine games designed by Gregory Smith. That left me really wanting to play through the experience of escorting the Atlantic convoys, but there didn’t seem to be anything available. So, I took “The Cruel Sea” by Nicholas Monsarrat as my main inspiration along with his autobiographical work “Corvette Command” which gives the game its title, and set about designing a narrative solo game. The research stage took just over 10 months as there is so much published material available including the excellent oral history recorded by the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth with the help of the Flower Class Corvette Association. Uboat.net is such rich source of data covering all participants in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Flower class corvette HMS Asphodel, K56.

Once you had the basic design built, how important was the development cycle of playtesting and feedback in getting to the current product? How important have the online communities been in these efforts?

AE: I have enjoyed every stage of producing this game but I have to say that experience of working with the two developers, Brett and Tony, has been my favourite. It was the first time that I realised that here was something that other people would not only enjoy playing but would share my enthusiasm for the game.  I had started by designing a very unwieldy, complex game that tried to incorporate everything that I had found in my months of research. I then stripped out all those elements that I thought were getting in the way of making the game playable including some of my favourite bits. Brett and Tony not only put back some of these elements but vastly improved on my initial mechanics and brought in other elements that have really enriched the game playing experience. For example, we struggled for a long time to get the victory conditions right when Tony came up with the idea of victory points for each convoy (based on the tonnages for the HX convoys) which lead to a running total so that after each convoy you have not only an outcome for that game but you also have something that decides the result of the campaign. Feedback from the playtesters has been really important in ensuring that the rules that we constantly revised still made sense and where they didn’t, we could rewrite and clarify as needed. Having a dedicated Facebook group has really helped to highlight where rules need to be clarified and it has been really rewarding to read players AAR narratives. It has been an iterative process that constantly refined and improved the structure of the game.  Now that it is published, I really hope that players will be enthused to write their own mods and house rules that continue this process.

Did you try and model the efforts of Allied codebreakers being able to periodically read German signals?

AE: Yes, I did and as a player you may even get the opportunity to capture an intact Enigma machine yourself if you are fortunate enough to force a damaged U-boat to the surface but you also risk losing an officer in the attempt. I worked not far from Bletchley Park and I remember seeing the Enigma machine on display in the museum. Sub Lieutenant David Balme who went aboard U110 from HMS Bulldog was personally presented his Distinguished Service Cross by the King who apologised that “for security reasons” the award could not be higher.

At the beginning of the game in May 1941 Bletchley Park had a set of captured rotors and code books and have just received the captured Enigma machine from U-110. This is reflected in one of the random events which allows you to reroute the convoy to avoid a gathering Wolfpack. 

What’s your favorite feature in the game?

AE: The resolution table is the heart of the game and it is proving to be a really versatile mechanism as more and more features are added to the core game. The Asdic detection cycle is frustrating and yet compelling as it must have been for those actually involved. Surprisingly, the most popular feedback we have had is for the weather system using positive and negative dice.

Any future plans to expand the game to other theatres like the Arctic and the Mediterranean? (Or perhaps the Pacific from the Japanese point of view?)

AE: I have already started work on Arctic Command which will give players a choice of ships to command. In addition to a Corvette there will be an Armed Trawler and an Escort Carrier. This will introduce a new dimension to the game as aircraft will have a significant role in reconnaissance as well as attacking and defending the convoys. The threat of attack by the capital ships such as the Tirpitz and the Scharnhorst based in Norway is a constant source of concern but the weather will be the worst enemy of all as the Arctic has some very nasty surprises in store. After that I plan to work on Mediterranean Command which will feature much better weather but also yet more aerial attacks, E Boats and the challenge of trying to keep Malta supplied. After that who knows?

Thanks for you time, Alan. We’re looking forward to your future projects!

Flower class corvette HMCS Sackville. A museum ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Do you want to know more?

To learn more about Corvette Command, you can visit the game’s page on Board Game Geek or join the conversation in the Corvette Command group on Facebook.

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