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The Submarine War Rages On: Silent War and Steel Wolves

posted Jul 27, 2012, 10:49 PM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: January 27, 2011

Mike Lam has been dutifully keeping me updated on his progress with Steel Wolves, Compass Games’ strategic-level solitaire game of the U-Boat war. Beyond the recitation of ships sunk and other interesting events, it’s becoming clear to me from Mike’s accounts that Steel Wolves is actually a rather different game from Silent War, and it’s making me more eager to give it a shot. It sounds like Steel Wolves is not so much Silent War’s Teutonic twin, but a game that takes its predecessor’s scale and basic principles, but differs significantly in respect to the differences that made the submarine war in each theater distinctive.

For instance, I’m sensing that Steel Wolves gives you discretion over the composition of forces available to you, whereas Silent War gives you an exact initial set-up and a schedule of reinforcements. Mike also explained to me that surface combat is an option in Steel Wolves, rather than a random event. And it sounds like your decision-making will be influenced by the need to curry favor with the ridiculously Byzantine Nazi hierarchy.

However, Mike has yet to comment on one of the aspects of Steel Wolves that most intrigues me, and that is the overall structure of the game. If I have any great insight about Silent War, it is that the structure reminds me of a video game/computer RPG. In both, you have to achieve certain performance goals (XP in a roleplaying game, ships/tons sunk in Silent War) to “power up” and move the story forward. Instead of leveling up, you get better torpedoes. Instead of moving to the next act, you move to the next War Phase. But the effect is the same. And all of this occurs in the overall context of getting stronger and stronger (you get better submarines, as the war goes on, too) until you reach ultimate victory (in Silent War, player victory is determined by how quickly you can bring about an end to the war).

Steel Wolves, however, must have a harder time embodying that sort of triumphalist narrative. Now, this may not be much of a problem in that — from what I understand — Steel Wolves only covers the U-Boat war in Europe until 1943. In which case, I suppose it would be possible for the player to build toward some kind of German victory, perhaps even a genuine, ahistorical victory in which Germany bludgeons the USSR into submission and forces Britain and the U.S. to sue for peace. But within the overall historical context, I imagine you have to sense that your side lost historically, and lost pretty badly at that. It’s like a video game RPG in which the endings are not happy vs. unfavorable, but bad vs. depressingly catastrophic. Can you imagine that? It might work in some kind of highbrow artistic sense. But the audience would never buy it.

As for my go-around with Silent War using the IJN addenda (first reported here), I have reached the end of November 1942 with 212 ships sunk, worth 876,000 tons. I have ceased worrying (or even thinking much) about the performance milestones for retaining my command. I have sunk enough named auxiliary ships that I reckon I might run out before the end of the war. The named ships are neat little flavor packets to add to your experience of the game, but I don’t think they have much practical effect overall.

I have lost 13 subs to date, but that includes 5 lost in the month of November alone. 4 of them were lost to counter-running torpedoes, which has me feeling more than a little snake-bit at the moment, and what hurts especially is that one of them was a Gato-class boat. I know that plenty more will come on line and that, given how the Gato class will come to dominate the submarine fleet, it’s inevitable that some will be lost. But throughout 1942, when they’re the bright, shiny new toy with which you suddenly get to play, every one lost hurts. And in the entire game, the counter-running torpedo has got to be the most pathetic way to get sunk.