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04 07 1942 21:36: “Convoy is to scatter”*

August 22nd, 2011 by Bruce G · 11 Comments · Board Games, Design, Wargames

At 11.52 a.m. on 20 September, Rolf Hilse, on board U-48, received a coded message from Günther Prien in U-47. He had spotted a large eastbound convoy heading to Britain, and since U-48 had the latest most advanced radio equipment, he asked her to report this news to Dönitz at his command post in Lorient. ‘We reported to Lorient,’ says Rolf, ‘and the message we got back was, “Proceed to beacon.”‘ This meant U-47’s beacon—U-48 was to converge with Günther’s boat and operate together. Then, at 5.15 p.m., they received another signal, directing four more U-boats towards U-47. ‘Received wireless message,’ noted Rolf. ‘U-48, 65, 43, 99, 100 assume attack formation.’

That’s a paragraph from a book I was reading recently as research for an article I may or may not ever finish. It’s easy to distract wargamers when they’re reading. Or watching some documentary. Or The History Channel. It’s the Touching History™ phenomenon that I mention all the time and which I documented years ago in an article I never published but which is still on my hard drive, called “Everything I Know About History I Learned from the Designer’s Notes.” For some reason, the first thing I always read when I bought a new game was what the designer had to say about how he made it. Often, it was more interesting to read than playing the actual game.

The book above actually wasn’t about submarine warfare at all, but when I read that paragraph, I immediately went off to U-boat land. I briefly considered firing up Silent Hunter III. You can read an excellent game diary about it on Quarter to Three, which does a nice job capturing exactly what is exciting about hunting ships underwater. But it doesn’t speak to the operational issues of submarine warfare, and the larger context of using subs to choke off a nation’s maritime commerce. Strategy gamers love context.

I ended up watching “The World at War, Episode Ten, The Wolf Packs”. But while it was interesting, I’ve seen it a bunch of times. And it doesn’t let me roll any dice.


So I was pretty excited when Chris Janiec’s 2009 game PQ-17, published by GMT Games, arrived by UPS. Subtitled “Arctic Naval Operations 1941-43,” it explores a part of the war that includes some exotic actors: U-boats, German capital ships, and the Arctic. It also comes with a separate Play Book containing the scenarios, and yes, designer’s notes. These begin on page 27. So you might as well just start there.

Janiec notes that he originally started working on the project in 1994, when he was trying to develop a naval system for Columbia Games’ block-system game EuroFront. That’s a long time to work on a game. But I’m sure it gave him a while to think about the choices he made, and he was kind enough to explain some of them in his designer’s notes. Here’s a great one.

Given the large distances and length of operations—typically convoys took 10-14 days and traveled 2,000 miles or more—turns need to be as long as possible to keep playing time reasonable. Since the maximum turn length allowing differentiation between day and night is 12 hours, that was decided upon. Convoy speed throughout 1942 was 8 knots, so the original version had very large 192-mile hexes with convoys moving 1 hex every other turn, submarines moving 1 hex every turn, and (most) surface ships able to move two hexes per turn. While this seemed okay, in tests it meant convoys were rather too easily “caught” and lacked what Jim Dunnigan has termed “the illusion of movement.” Shrinking the hexes on the map and halving them to 96 nautical miles solved this problem, and eliminated the rather unrealistic practice of warships moving hundreds of miles at 32 knots (although players will see this with British cruiser minelayers dashing to and from Malta in the next game of the series).


I love this practice, called “the walkthrough.” I’m terrible at designing games, so I’m usually stumped by the simplest problems involved in making the real world conform to dice and hexagons. Hearing how someone got from surmise to setup and the changes in thinking along the way doesn’t get me any closer to designing my own game, but it does give me some insight into what otherwise seems like a magical process. I found an elaboration by legendary wargame designer Jim Dunnigan on his observation that all good wargames giving the player the illusion of movement

The “illusion of movement” bit came from factor analysis we did on all the games. Those with smaller movement factors were the ones that were less popular and sold less well.

Focus groups confirmed that.

Setting a game’s scale is a pretty fundamental step to designing a game, and in that paragraph by Chris Janiec you got an excellent primer on how to do it.

A lot of wargamers, at least those who spend a lot of time thinking about the way their games were designed, come up with questions or criticisms that might spawn long, drawn-out articles pointing out how maybe they would have done it differently. Designer’s notes can thus serve as a bit of a pre-emptive strike when it comes to genuine questions or just plain nitpicking.

One aspect that may seem counterintuitive is that German air attacks are no more effective close to Norway than hundreds of miles away, while the Allies deliberately routed their convoys as far from German bases as possible. Originally I allowed bombers to attack twice in hexes adjacent to their bases, but that was far too deadly. PQ-17 does account for this, but not always in an obvious manner.


For convoys going to/from Arkhangelsk, the farther from Norway they are, the fewer hexes they must transit within range of German air reconnaissance and bombers. More subtly, the air combat model is based on a historically correct one attack per 12-hour period. The Germans could not sustain this pace over a period of several days, but could and did for 24-36 hours, which is about all the weather normally allows. The Axis advantage attacking closer targets was not because of a significantly higher sortie rate, but because the bombers could loiter to attack under better conditions. It ends up about even, because when the convoys were steaming closer to Norway because of ice, the weather and lighting conditions were generally poorer and the Luftwaffe crews needed that extra time to mount any sort of decent attack at all. The single most successful attack of the war was in hex 0314—at maximum range. So if anything, the game is deliberately biased to limit the effectiveness of attacks close to German bases rather than leaving those at long range too successful.

That’s called “exposition by detail” as well as “landmarking.” All the stuff about Luftwaffe maximum efforts only being sustainable for 24-36 hours, bombers loitering to get better attack opportunities, and comments on lighting conditions are things you wouldn’t necessarily get out of the game without explanation, but immediately become integral parts of your understanding (and enjoyment, I think) of the game system. The reference to the Goldene Zange (look it up) against PQ-18 in terms of its map location instantly connects a historical event to its cardboard counterpart. It’s the best kind of touching history I can think of.

Northern War

Back in 2001 the University of Kansas Press (known for its military history studies having published several books by David Glantz) published Adam Claasen’s monograph Hitler’s Hitler’s Northern War. I bought a copy for some reason. It came packaged in shrinkwrap, and I put it on the shelf and kept it that way because I didn’t get around to reading it immediately. After a couple months, it became kind of a joke. After a couple of years, it became a talking point. If someone noticed it on the shelf, they’d usually ask, “Why is this in shrinkwrap?” or “I see you read this one a lot!” To which I’d reply something like, “I can’t read it — it contains forbidden knowledge.” Given the number of books I have about the Luftwaffe and/or Hitler, I’m not sure what knowledge it could have had that wouldn’t have been available in twenty other places within arm’s reach, but that was my story. It became a kind of a touchstone, and I distinctly remember unpacking it when I moved a few years ago, putting it on the shelf in its shrinkwrap, and feeling like the universe was still in order.

PQ-17 made me open (and read) Hitler’s Northern War.

I know that for you, this is less significant than what you are going to eat for lunch tomorrow. But for me, it was a big deal. That book has sat there in shrinkwrap for years. Chris Janiec’s opus told me it was time to take the next step, and actually read the thing.

Now all you jokers tell Troy to buy the game so we can play it by email.

PQ-17 rules
Extended example of play

*Order given by the British Admiralty on July 4, 1942 to Archangelsk-bound convoy PQ-17 on the mistaken belief that the convoy was about to be attacked by German surface raiders including the battleship Tirpitz. The subsequent loss of cohesion led to the sinking of 23 of the convoy’s 35 ships, and a loss of 65% of the convoy’s gross tonnage. It was the worst defeat suffered by an Arctic convoy during the war.


11 Comments so far ↓

  • Skyrider68

    Oh no! Sucked into the maelstrom of another naval wargame by a seemingly innocent blog post. Links included = gotta check it out.

  • NotreBen

    I would love to dive head first into PQ-17, but the rulebook size and obscure theme make it unlikely I would ever be able to force any of my friends to give it a shot. I’d be very interested to hear if game makes for a good PBEM experience.

  • Fraser

    Designer notes = best bit.

  • Fraser

    To clarify: I suck at board games, any strategy game really, but I love the mechanics, the translation of Real Life to the mechanics, the compromises, and the insight into other people’s thought processes.

  • vyshka

    You might want to check out Silent War and Steel Wolves from Compass Games.

  • tareq

    This is a very good post. As a big strategy game fan, I always wanted to get into board games especially war games but I never had the proper introduction or the company to pull me into it. I wonder if troy or maybe some of the readers can recommend a good board war game for beginners yet experienced RTS players.

  • notreben

    Any of the Command and Colors series are good intro wargames: Memoir ’44 (for WW2 fans); C&C: Ancients (for the spears and sandals crowd); Battle Cry (American Civil War); C&C: Napoleonics (for you War and Peace readers); and FFG’s Battles for Westeros (for you Game of Thrones peeps). All are in print and readily available.


    Oh… and reconsidering my earlier comment… A good portion of anyone’s wargame hobby time can be just about collecting games, playing with the boards and bits, studying the designers notes, looking through the rules… Actually playing isn’t always necessary for significant nerd gratification to occur. This can, of course, be taken too far with some of the fetish-level monster games.

  • Bruce

    Troy tells me he will buy the game when he gets back from PAX. We may be able to PBEM it.

  • NotreBen

    We’ll anxiously await the AAR.

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  • Adam

    Yes but did you read the claasen book?