I have a lifelong fascination with submarines. I don’t know where it came from, or why it persists, but something about underwater warfare just does it for me. With my recent foray into wargames, it seemed like the perfect time to take the plunge, if you’ll pardon the pun. By Stealth and Sea is a game set in WWII by publisher DVG, and the design partnership of Nicola Saggini and the prolific David Thompson (Undaunted series, Castle Itter, Pavlov’s House). The box says 1-3 players, but make no mistake, this is a solo game. It’s not the submarine game I was after, but oh boy, is it exciting.
A quick history lesson
Before I played By Stealth and Sea, I had never heard of the Decima Flottiglia MAS. If they’re news to you too, let me briefly tell you about their utterly terrifying job during the war. They were an Italian commando frogman unit, who piloted torpedoes into heavily protected harbours, to try to sink Royal Navy ships. Not in a submarine, mind. Actually in the water, holding onto torpedoes, trying to get into enemy waters. They had to attach the torpedoes’ warheads to the hulls of ships – by hand -, survive the explosions and being hunted, and hopefully swim to shore to be picked up by the Italian Secret Service.
And you thought your job was bad…
In the game, you control the three SLC (slow running torpedoes) crews, working against the clock to get into the harbours, do as much damage as possible, and escape. The game is played by spending action points on your turn, and taking your chances with the whimsy of the dice. Some actions are safe, like a small move, but if you want to make quicker progress, you’ll have to take chances. Everything takes time and effort underwater, so even something like turning your metal steeds costs action points. In a game where you might only get 11 or 12 turns to get everything done, every decision matters. It really feels like you’re up against it.
Damn the torpedoes!
The feeling of everything being against you, is one that pervades By Stealth and Sea. That’s not just a quirk of the game design, it’s another example of the game simulating real life. The real SLCs were plagued by mechanical problems, and this fact is reflected in the game. Take for example, the first game you play once you’ve punched the tokens and digested the rules.
You set the board up, get your SLC cards equipped with your pilots and equipment, and then look at the Forward Planning card for the particular mission you’re attempting. The very first card you play forces you to make two Fault Checks per SLC. That’s six checks – which you’re more likely to fail than pass – before the game even begins. In my first game, one of my SLCs had its ballast tank and warhead develop faults, so I couldn’t submerge, or attack my targets with it, without using turns to try to repair the faults. It gives you an idea of just what these submariners were up against.
It’s common in games for the designer to make you feel like you’re in a position of power. By Stealth and Sea is the opposite. The odds are stacked heavily against you. Between racing the dawn and the end of the game, your faulty torpedoes, and the patrol craft and spotlights scouring the ocean for you, you’re in for a rough time. Maybe that doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, so bear with me.
Despite By Stealth and Sea being what is essentially a hex & counter wargame, it really doesn’t feel like one. It’s a solo game of creating your own stories. Sometimes those stories are about clutching victory from the jaws of defeat, sometimes it’s a sombre reminder of the horrors of war. And sometimes it’s an almost laughable series of calamitous dice rolls. Every action you take, each die that’s rolled, turns a page in the story you are writing.
The feeling of success when you get a good result from a mission is such a rush. That’s not me blowing smoke up this game’s backside, it’s the truth. It invokes that same ‘against all odds’ feeling that games like Nemo’s War and Spirit Island do so well. Setting up each mission can be pretty time-consuming if you follow the mission book to the letter. There are a ton of very small chits representing real ships, each with very small writing on them telling you which is which. The mission book asks you to find specific chits to place during setup, and it can take ages to find the ones you want. In all honesty though, that’s my only real complaint with the game.
The game features a full, historically accurate campaign to play through, but the best way to play is with the custom campaign. You still work through the missions in the same way, but your surviving pilots and SLCs earn upgrades if they aren’t destroyed. You can carry them through mission after mission, each time feeling slightly less predisposed to failure. It’s a great system which feels more like a legacy-style campaign, only without destroying things or altering the boards.
By Stealth and Sea is a game unlike any other I’ve played. The way it pits you in what seems like – and often turns out to be – an unwinnable situation, is utterly compelling. The level of depth and accuracy it goes into with the background is akin to the GMT games I love so much. Each of the SLC operators even has their photograph on their card, which adds a personal connection that’s often abstracted from even the most hardcore wargame. It feels poignant, and losing an operator during a campaign mission is devastating.
Theme aside, the game itself is great. There’s no such thing as a dead turn, or a brief respite. If you want a break to repair or recover someone, you need to find somewhere relatively safe to do it, and waste a turn doing it. Don’t even get me started on the tension when your ballast is broken, leaving you unable to submerge, with HM Navy bearing down on you. It all evokes a sense of drama and claustrophobia, especially once you make it inside the harbours and look to detonate your warheads.
If you’re a solo gamer looking for something a bit different, go and buy By Stealth and Sea. It’s as simple as that. It’s an experience you’re unlikely to find in any other game. The game isn’t difficult to play, but it can feel punishingly unfair to try to do well at. Far from being a condemnation of the game, it’s one of its greatest strengths. The stories the game weaves as you struggle your way through the years of war, combined with its deep roots in real history, make it a game not to be missed. Incredible stuff.
Review copy kindly provided by Dan Verssen Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.