Friday, May 9, 2008

Shipbase III still useful

Fifteen years is an eternity in the world of software, so it might seem strange to write a review of a DOS-based computer program that first came out in 1993, but the game-assist program Shipbase III is still a great way to play detailed naval miniatures with a minimum of fuss.

The game is a text-based computer program with minimal graphics, but that's OK because the graphics are provided by your miniature warships in any case.

The game comes with a rule book explaining the manual procedures needed to move the ships and determine what data to enter into the computer to determine firing and damage. There's a second book listing hundreds of warships in game terms and counters for six battles so you can get right into the game without acquiring miniature warships. The six scenarios present a good mix of eras, sizes and ship types to provide a feel for the game's potentials. (The battles are Santiago 1898; Tsushima 1905; Jutland 1916; Denmark Straits 1941; Coral Sea 1942 and Komandorski Islands 1943.)

The turn sequence follows an intuitive order of movement, air ops, gunnery, torpedoes and end-of-turn status. Scales are completely adjustable by the player, making the game easy to use for any sized ships and floor space. I've used 1:4800, 1:2400 and 1:1800 ships but any size is possible.

The computer system can take into account most of the usual factors affecting naval combat such as smoke, relative angles, salvo chasing and the like. With one person handling the computer the rest of the players can simply concentrate on playing and command issues. Rather large battles can easily be fought in a short period of time, especially compared to rules of similar detail.

The game includes rules for playing at the strategic and operational level, but this will require considerable prep by a game master. While the game accounts for the shape of the Earth, it doesn't account for shores, so the game master will have to ensure players don't take shortcuts across landforms.

The game is best for resolving tactical level fights, however, and I've routinely run battles involving a couple dozen ships during a single four-hour convention time slot to a conclusion, including set up, rules explanations and tear down.

Although elderly for a computer program, it can be run by Windows machines off the DOS prompt and is very stable. I've never had it crash during a game. The program comes on a 3.5-inch floppy, so you'll need a floppy drive. The program is not copy-protected (honor system) so you can make a copy on a DVD that will work just fine on newer machines.

The program is very flexible and the scenario designer can modify ships as needed.

Light ships seem to be too vulnerable, however, and the game master may wish to incorporate house rules in order to keep battleships from unrealistically sniping at destroyers at long range. The game program seems to underestimate the difficulty of targeting very small ships at very long ranges.

Overall the game still works remarkably well and is still a unique product. The designer had started some work on a Windows-based successor, but no final product ever emerged.

Despite the passage of time and software generations, Shipbase III is still a winner.

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