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Compass Games: Silent War and My Dice Tower

posted Nov 22, 2012, 12:41 AM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: December 9, 2009

Inspired by the glimpses of the Pacifc War at sea in The History Channel’s recent “World War II in HD” series, I got it in my mind to pull my copy of Silent War off of the shelf and crack it open again — which rather surprised me, as I had had my doubts about whether I would ever play the game ever again.

Which is not meant to be a knock against Compass Games’ entirely impressive maiden effort at all. On the contrary, when I first played it, I found the system to be elegant and surprisingly simple, given its level of detail and seriousness with which it takes itself as a simulation. It’s easy to learn, easy to play once learned, and entirely engaging. Physically, it looks and feels gorgeous — the counters die-cut into heavy, durable stock and everything printed in bright, vivid colors. Since Brien Miller is credited with both the game design and graphic design, he deserves double kudos for his work, as does Compass for being smart enough to know that if it wanted to make a splash as a publisher, it needed a game that was done up properly. No, Silent War is an admirable piece of work, and I recommend it highly to anyone who happens to be interested in a solitaire game about the American submarine war against Japan in World War II.

Instead, the reason I doubted I would ever play it again was all about my personal quirks — perhaps an overfondness for epic, if you had to pick one out. Silent War is a strategic-level game with operational-level detail, but if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, it offers plenty of small scenarios devoted to individual campaigns, and you can finish them quickly. But no, I skipped over them because I was interested in nothing less than the big picture: the campaign game, covering the entire war from the day after Pearl Harbor to the point at which one has sunk 5.5 million tons worth of Japanese ships. In other words, I didn’t get a taste for the game; I devoured it like one of those Japanese hot dog-eating champions with prize money from Nathan’s on the line.

Now, at that level there’s no getting around the fact that Silent War takes a long time to play. It’s a simple and elegant system, yes. But it’s also detailed enough so that playing the campaign game all the way through requires you to do the same thing over and over and over again. Compass’ official estimate is that it takes 125 hours to complete the campaign game. That’s five straight days of solitaire gaming, if you go

My latest go at the Silent War campaign scenario,  c. Spring of 1942. I barely cleared the February ’42 performance threshold for tonnage sunk, but a little good luck (sinking a couple of 10k-ton merchant ships with the older, S-## Class subs) is about to put me over the May ’42 threshold with ease.

without sleep and other normal biological processes (and can somehow avoid the consequences of neglecting them). In other words, you could set up Silent War in your own little corner of ConsimWorld Expo, play straight through the con without sleeping, getting progressively more rumpled and encrusted, and only at the very end, as everyone is leaving, would you reach the point at which Nimitz and MacArthur sailed into Tokyo Bay on the USS Missouri

Mostly, it’s darn lot of die-rolling. When you first send a sub out on patrol, you roll a d10 to see if something happened to it in transit, and if something happened, you roll 2d10 to see what happened. You roll twice more to determine what sort of contacts the sub receives that turn while on patrol. When the sub attacks, you roll once again for each ship it attacks, and again for each hit it scores to determine severity of damage. You have to roll to see if the escorts inflict any damage. You have to roll to see if the sub runs out of supplies and has to return to base. At the beginning of each turn, you have to roll to determine the readiness of each sub at a base. And remember, the campaign game ultimately encompasses every single submarine that the USN put to sea between December 1941 and August 1945.

In short: I played the campaign game scenario once. I decided that I really liked Silent War’s rules mechanics. But I also decided that I could really use a dice tower. Seriously. Silent War is the game that inspired me to buy a dice tower.

Another way of looking at it is that Silent War is a solitaire monster game. It’s satisfying to play it all the way through, but in the end you can’t help but feel a little drained by the effort and doubtful that you’ll have the time to do it again anytime soon, if ever. In fact, it’s a tribute to the game that while I put it out of sight for a couple of years, it was never truly out of mind, and that all it took was a couple of looks at a TV show to get me to play it again.

The game could, however, use some digital play aids to help speed things along in the campaign scenario— especially since those tasks get pretty repetitive. It’s not so much the die-rolling, especially since there are already plenty of digital dice-rolling programs that you could use if your wrist can’t take it. I’m thinking primarily of pulling chits to generate possible targets and the targeting modifier for each attack. Over the course of a campaign game, you spent an awful lot of time pulling chits, arranging them on the display card, flipping them, and then returning them to their containers afterward. In fact, once you get into a strategic groove in terms of your decision-making, you’ll probably spend more time on these administrative tasks than on thinking about what to do with your subs. Being able to deal with them with a mouse-click would speed up the game a lot. I know that there’s a VASSAL module for Silent War — which now makes the game an excellent way to kill dead time when you’re on the road with your laptop — but I’ve never seen a VASSAL module that automates chit pulling like that. How many Silent War players have an iPhone or an iPod Touch? Perhaps there should be an app for that.