Friday, April 29, 2011

War at Sea Starter Set review

A successful starter set for a collectible miniatures games should hit a few marks: It should be affordable; It should provide a taste of the game system and It should provide a satisfactory game right out of the box before a player has to make any other purchases.

It's generally been fairly easy to hit these marks with starter sets for collectible card games. The relatively low production costs for cards makes it feasible to include two playable pre-selected decks with each starter kit. This has been nearly universal practice with CCGs since the beginning and even now, established games such as Magic: The Gathering offer products such as "duel" decks that are not exactly starters (being aimed at more experienced players) but provide a similar experience of a ready-to-play game right out of the box.

The higher per-unit costs of miniatures has made this much harder to do with collectible miniatures games. While a CCG starter will usually include a 100-120 cards plus ancillary materials for less than $15-$20, most CMG's starters only have 6-12 miniatures in them, which is rarely enough for a game. In some cases, such as Navia Dratp, the expectation was that each player would buy his "half" of a starter so that between the two of them a game could be gotten up. In practice, however, most players needed to buy both halves of the starter and recruit a buddy to play, which effectively doubled the price. Early starters for Wizards of the Coast and some other companies included a random assortment of figures in the starter, as well as in boosters. This was a problem because there was no guarantee that the randomized output of a starter pack would provide a balanced game.

Eventually WOTC hit on the idea of non-randomized starters with a specific set of visible figures, leaving the randomization to the boosters alone. This made it possible to insure that the starter was playable out of the box and it also allowed the rule book to use examples of play using the actual miniatures that the player had in front of him.

The current War at Sea Starter set is of this sort, which a specific assortment of 8 miniatures included. The miniatures are all exclusive to the Starter Set, which means there's no duplication with the boosters, but they are all repaints of miniatures that have previously appeared -- no doubt saving on design and production costs.

The 8 miniatures are carefully chosen to provide a chance for players to exercise most parts of the basic game system and also provide a good even match. Besides the 8 miniatures the box includes a rule book, two double-sided map sheets which join together to form the playing surface, a light cardstock set of die-cut markers and four dice.

The rules are a new "improved" version that makes some changes over the original rules based on player feedback. The game's sequence of play is straightforward. It starts with an Initiative phase to determine which player performs actions first in each subsequent phase. In this game "winning" the initiative allows you to go second, which is an advantage because you get to react to your opponent's moves. Next is a Sea Movement Phase where the players move all ships and submarines within their movement allowance. Next is the Air Mission Phase, where players alternate placing aircraft anywhere on the map. This is followed by an Air Defense phase where ships and aircraft attack enemy planes. Planes that are shot down or "aborted" now will not get to attack later. In the Air Attack surviving aircraft have their turn to attack ships and submarines, with damage taking effect immediately. In the Surface Attack phase, surface ships attack enemy surface ships and submarines with gunnery and torpedoes or anti-submarine attacks. In the Submarine Attack phase. surviving subs have their turn to attack enemy ships and subs. In the Air Return phase air units return to their bases (on land or aircraft carriers) and finally in the End of Turn step victory is assessed.

As with all collectible games, War at Sea is a "exceptions-based" game where special abilities can supersede the regular rules.

The "Axis" side is represented by four Imperial Japanese Navy units: The heavy cruiser Haguro, the destroyer Terutsuki, the submarine I-25 and a G4MI "Betty" patrol bomber. Under the game's point system this adds up to 46 points of units with variety of capabilities.

The miniatures themselves have no game-specific information on them, a feature which makes them easily usable in other games. Besides the eye-candy, all the miniature does in game play is show the location of the ship. All the game-related information is on the data card. The Haguro's card shows the ship's name, nationality, service entry date and point cost along the top.

The ship's speed is "2," which means it can usually move two squares on the battle map during the Sea Movement Phase.

The Haguro has four different attacks available to it. The first is its "Main Battery" attack, depicted by a turret icon with the letter M. The power of this attack varies, with the Haguro rolling a number of dice depending on the range in squares to the target ship. For example, if the target is in the same square or an adjacent square the Haguro rolls 10 dice, but if the enemy shp is 3 squares away the attack is made rolling 7 dice. The dice are standard D^, with "successes usually being achieved on rolls of 4 or 5, and a 6 counting as TWO successes. The number of successes is compared to the Armor Value of the target ship, so if the Haguro were firing at a similar ship and it got at least 4 successes it would inflict ONE hull point of damage. The Haguro has 3 hull points, so three hits will remove it from play. If the attack is so successful that it rolls successes equal to or greater than the Vital Armor value (10 in the Haguro's case) then the ship is sunk outright.

The Haguro also has a "Secondary Battery" (shown by a turret icon with a 2) that works the same way, but with fewer dice and a lesser range. Both the Main and Secondary gunnery attacks can only be used against enemy ships, not subs or aircraft.

The third attack available to the Haguro is its antiaircraft attack, shown by an icon of an aircraft in cross hairs. The Haguro can roll 7 dice to attack an air unit in the same square.

The final attack value for the Haguro is its torpedo value. Like gunnery attacks, torpedo attacks only affect ships, but unlike gunnery attacks torpedoes directly inflict hull point damage on the target with every roll of a 6 being a success. Normally torpedoes do 2 points of damage each, but the Long-Lance Torpedo special ability boosts this by one point to 3 points. This is enough to sink most cruisers and smaller ships instantly and is the forte of the Japanese fleet.

The Haguro has no ability to attack enemy submarines, although this will not be a factor in Starter set battles because the Allies player doesn't have a submarine.

As stated above, the Haguro's armor value is 4, which is the number of successes needed to score one hull point of damage on it, while its Vital Armor is 10, which means 10 successes are needed to sink it at once. It can take 3 Hull Points of damage, which is typical for cruisers in the game. The first hull point loss has no game effect, but the second one causes the Haguro to be "crippled" which reduces its speed, armor values and attacks by 1. The third hull point loss removes the Haguro from the game.

The destroyer Terutsuki is similar to the Haguro, except smaller and less capable in most ways, although it does have an anti-submarine attack value, depicted by the depth charge icon. This works similarly to gunnery, but only affects submarines. The Terutsuki also has Long-Lance torpedoes, however, giving it a dangerous punch despite its small size. Like most destroyers the Terutsuki doesn't have much staying power. It's easy to damage with an armor value of only 2 and with just two hull hits it's easy to cripple and sink it.

The third unit in the Japanese fleet is the submarine I-25. Although submarines are obviously vessels of war, in game terms they are not "Ships" but a separate category of unit. Submarines cannot attack planes and cannot be affected by gunnery attacks or most torpedo attacks. They also attack in their own phase of the turn. Like most subs, I-25 can use its torpedo value to attack an enemy sub in the same square with its "submerged shot" SA. This is the only way torpedoes can be used against submarines. Like all submarines in the game, the I-25 moves at speed 1, just 1 square per turn.

The weakest unit in the Japanese array is the "Betty" patrol bomber. It has an ASW value of 2, which it won't get to use in Starter set battle due to the absence of Allied subs, but it also only has a torpedo value of 2 -- and these are not Long-Lance . The biggest challenge for the Betty will be surviving long enough to get off a shot, however, as its defense of 4 and vital armor of 6 are low enough to cause it real problems. Damage to aircraft is handled differently than damage to ships and subs. All aircraft have just 1 "hull point." Achieving enough successes to match the Armor value "aborts: the plane, essentially canceling its attack for the turn. Matching the Vital Armor removes the plane from the game. On the other hand, like all aircraft, the Betty has a Speed of A, meaning it can be placed in any square. However, being land-based. after flying a mission the Betty acquires a "Rearming" marker which it takes a turn to remove, so generally the Betty can only be used every other turn. It does have a special ability, though, called Excellent Endurance, which allows it once per game to remove the rearming counter and therefor fly on consecutive turns.

So the Japanese starter squadron comprises a dangerous surface action group accompanied by an effective submarine but supported by a fairly weak air arm that will have to be used cautiously.

The Allied fleet poses an interesting counterpoint to the Japanese force. The lead unit is the USS Montpelier, a Cleveland-class light cruiser from the United States Navy. Compared to the Haguro, the Montpelier comes in at one less point. It has a flag icon with a number 1 which indicates it's a "Flagship" and gets +1 on initiative rolls. Compared to the Haguro the Montpelier's ,main guns are somewhat weaker while its secondaries are stronger, but its Special Abilities go a long way toward evening things up.

Extended Range 4 allows the Montpelier to fire an extra square so long as it's undamaged. Combined with the Flagship bonus, this means that there's a good chance to Montpelier will be able to shoot at Haguro on occasion without the Haguro being able to shoot back. Radar Fire Control allows the undamaged Montpelier to fire using an extra die as well, further evening the odds. Finally, the Montpelier has Heavy Anti-air, which allows it to affect aircraft in adjacent squares as well, making life even more difficult for the Betty. The Montpelier's edge is reduced when damaged, but its armor value is 5, better than Haguro and giving it some chance of avoiding damage even if the Haguro gets a long-range shot at it.

The biggest weakness of the Montpelier, and one it shares with almost all USN cruisers, is a complete lack of torpedoes.

Aiding the Montpelier are two Allied destroyers. One is the USS Taylor, a Fletcher-class destroyer, at 9 points, and the 8-point Australian destroyer HMAS Nizam. Both have very similar values, with the Nizam a little stronger in gunnery and the Taylor better attacking aircraft. The Taylor is a little tougher with an armor value of 3, but both ships are vulnerable. The Taylor has the same radar fire control ability as the Montpelier, and a Sub Hunter SA that makes it more likely to find an enemy sub to attack. The Nizam has an SA that lets it place a smoke screen which blocks line of sight and makes ships in the same square harder to hit.

The fourth Allies unit is a TBF-1 Avenger squadron. This plane is worth almost twice as many points as the Japanese Betty and is all-around a more formidable unit. It has an ASW vale of 3, making it a threat to I-25 and also a torpedo value of 2 making it a danger to surface targets as well. Once per game it can perform a bomb attack with 6 dice instead of its torpedo attack, which is especially threatening to the Terutsuki. Perhaps the most frustrating thing for the Japanese player is that it will be very hard to make the Avenger go away. Its armor value is a 5, making it hard to abort for either Japanese ship with average luck and its Vital Armor of 8 mean that even good luck will rarely shoot the Avenger down.

The total point value of the Allied force is 45 points, although the Avenger may be slightly overcosted because it's normally carrier-based (which allows it to fly every turn) but the Allied side has no carrier in the starter set so the Avenger is forced to fly every other turn instead. That said, the Allied force is a well-balanced and efficient force that will give the Japanese a good fight.

The mix of forces and the interaction between the two squadrons provides fodder for various tactics and strategies and the chance to exercise most parts of the game. In that sense I think this is one of the best starter sets ever designed because there's considerable replay value within it and it gives the purchaser a very good sense of what they're getting into. Even if the purchaser never buys any boosters, he still has a playable small board wargame with some cool bits.

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