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Compass Games: Steel Wolves and the Name of This Blog

posted Nov 23, 2012, 2:17 PM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Nov 23, 2012, 2:18 PM ]

Well, I named this blog "I Think We've Been Playing It Wrong" for good reason. But this is the first time I can remember playing a game for a while, then deciding I should start over again because I'd been badly misinterpreting a rule or two, breaking it down so I could restore the initial set-up… and then promptly realizing that I was wrong to think that I'd been playing it wrong, because I was right in the first place.

It was probably the consequence of attempting deep-think at 2:00 AM. But I'll also say that it's easy to lose your bearings when you immerse yourself in a solitaire game as detailed as Steel Wolves, Compass Games' follow-up to a game that I have blogged about quite a bit, Silent War. Whereas Silent War treats the USN's submarine campaign against Imperial Japan in the Pacific, Steel Wolves covers the U-Boat war against the Allies from September 1939 until the middle of 1943. Although the game system remains mostly unchanged from Silent War, Steel Wolves feels more complicated — more chrome-y special rules (like extra search-and-contact opportunities in "Home Waters" OpAreas) and more detail shoehorned into the basic system (like possible damage suffered from exploding targets).

In short, if you have played Silent War it's not a good idea to blithely assume that your experience will carry you through Steel Wolves on its own momentum. I know, because I tried it that way. As a consequence, I quickly got the nagging feeling that I was missing a lot of small, but important details as I plowed onward through the endless cycle of dice-rolling and sinking small, nameless cargo ships.

I'm sure that this subtle distraction was a major cause of my confusion when I thought, in the wee, deep hours, that I had allowed all of my Type II boats (a major component of the U-Boat fleet early in the war) too much range and allowed them to stray too far from the Germany base. I completely forgot that range is measured by OpAreas, and for that purpose a base is part of any OpArea to which it is attached. So I was right in the first place, and played it wrong by thinking I had been playing it wrong when I had been playing it right. And I didn't realize it until after I had started to reset the game.

If that makes any sense.

Anyway, I gave the rules a proper study the next morning and I have started afresh, more confident that I know what I'm doing (in more ways than one). So maybe it's just as well. In fact, if you were to tell me that, at some level, I had a subconscious desire to start all over again because of all the details I sensed I wasn't grasping properly, I wouldn't argue against you at all. Let's call that first one a learning game.

More comparisons between Silent War and Steel Wolves that might be useful to those of you just going from one to the other:

The turnaround time for German subs is longer than that for American subs in Silent War, at least until you can get the base improvement bonus (I forget if this is possible if you're not playing with the optional political rules). Don't worry about pushing your subs out into the Atlantic or the Med to avoid congregating risk from boats leaving base behind them. It won't be much of an issue, because you'll be lucky to have more than 5 or 6 subs setting out from Germany per week, at least through the first 6 months of the war. At any given time, you're likely to have at least as many subs being readied in port as at sea.

Clear your mind. Your strategic dilemma in Steel Wolves is very different than in Silent War, and unless you clear your head of your prior experience, it could freak you out a bit. In Silent War, you start out at something like rock-bottom, but you know that if you can scratch out a little progress here and there, things will get better. You start out with few capable subs and genuinely crappy torpedoes. But you'll start getting very capable submarines by the end of 1942, an unending stream of state-of-the-art Balao/Gato Class boats starting in 1943, and you'll be facing an enemy that is getting progressively weaker thanks to the efforts of the other branches of the USN.

Steel Wolves presents you with a very different situation. You start with plenty of subs at sea, some of them very capable, three of them with +1 Ace Skippers. Your foe is weak and unprepared compared to the IJN in Silent War, and they will only get stronger — probably much stronger, by the looks of it — as the game goes on. You have to take advantage of that and bank as many victory points as you can while you can. OKL and OKW will also take back toys and other bennies that they loaned you in the earlier War Periods, and if you're using the political rules, you have to bank enough prestige and influence to fight it. In other words, circumstances will hinder you as the war progresses, not help you.

Also, you cannot bank kills and tonnage during hot streaks/good months to help you to victory. In Silent War, it doesn't matter that much when you sink ships, because once you get past the point where you can be sacked for underperformance only your totals for the entire war matter in determining victory. 

In Steel Wolves, however, you accumulate victory points each month based on kills and tonnage sunk in that month, and that month only. You are limited to 10 VPs per month, 5 based on kills and 5 based on tonnage sunk. If you max out your VPs earned because you've hit the benchmarks for both categories (due to skill, luck, Wotan's favor, whatever), you don't get to carry over a surplus into the next month. Because of that, extreme good luck won't necessarily even out extreme bad luck in the long run; it's important to maintain relatively steady performance over the entire course of the game.

More insights, observations, and grousing as developments warrant.