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Compass Games' Silent War Still Running Silent and Deep

posted Sep 20, 2012, 12:18 AM by Douglas Sun

Through the miracle of electronic mail, I am informed by Compass Games that they are reprinting their strategic-level WWII Pacific submarine service game, Silent War. Pre-order copies are set to ship next month. It sounds rather like a whole new edition of the game inasmuch as the rules set this time around will incorporate the new rules that were published with IJN, the modest expansion that was published in December 2010. But a whole new print run is a whole new print run no matter how you spin it, and if you commission one it means that you see ongoing demand for your game.

IIRC, that makes three print runs for Silent War, including its initial publication in 2005. That's a pretty impressive record for an historical wargame, given that our hobby is a niche within a niche, and it shows that the movers behind Compass Games chose their first product wisely.

I don't especially consider myself an expert on Silent War, but I have played through the big campaign scenario three times (once with the IJN rules) and over the last few years I've blogged about more than any other single game. I still think that the IJN rules changes tend to unbalance the game in the player's favor. But I remain a fan, and I can see myself playing through the entire war again, even setting aside a stack of untouched games to do so (heck, I still haven't even started in on its European theater sequel, Steel Wolves).

I suspect that the secret to Silent War's enduring popularity is its mix of abstraction and complexity. It's not a simple game, but it's complicated in the right way — in terms of offering you a lot of subtle and interesting decision points, not in terms of convoluted conditions under which you have to make those decisions (i.e., lots and lots of rules). The rules mechanics are relatively elegant, and they convey flavor without laying it on thick. In that sense, I would compare Silent War to two other historical wargames that have been reprinted due to continuing demand, GMT's Twilight Struggle and Combat Commander.

I would go on to suggest that those three games, taken together, offer something of a model for how to make a successful wargame for today's market. It's not about monster games that have a lot of flavor, but take ages to set up and play (as well as learn). But it's not necessarily about games that are simple to learn and quick to play, either. Simple, introductory-level games have their place in the historical wargaming ecosystem, but I'm beginning to think that simplicity actually mitigates against popularity. What wargamers want most is a deep sense of engagement with the game, but without the bother of digesting a heavy, dense rules set.