Dread None : Atlantic Fleet

 

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Atlantic Fleet
2015 Simulation/Turn Based Strategy, developed by Killerfish games

 

Atlantic fleet is a wargame with an emphasis on the machines that people use to fight a war, rather than the people who use those machines to fight them. It is a game for those people who love and know a lot about fighting ships of WW2, but not necessarily for those people who want to experience every intricacy of war at sea during the nineteen thirties and forties. It is a game which values the player’s time, and knows that they will be popping in and out, and further it is that rarest of things, a wargame which knows how to be both accessible and complex. Recently released on steam as a mobile port, Atlantic Fleet places the players in the boots of an admiral of the Royal Navy or the Kreigsmarine during WW2. I am not exactly sure how to classify Atlantic Fleet. On the one hand it is a detailed and rich historical wargame about the battle for the Atlantic between 1939 and 1945. On the other hand, it is a mobile/tablet game, which is in some ways reminiscent of Worms or Scorched Earth. The game has three primary modes of play, a skirmish mode, a set of linked scenarios dubbed the “campaign” and “the Battle for the Atlantic” a turn based strategic mode, in which one is free to dispose one’s ships around the Atlantic as one chooses, getting in scrapes with enemy ships that happen to be floating past. These scrapes are presented in a surprisingly good-looking 3D engine which, while not as pretty as World of Warships, does a good job of rendering the steel leviathans in all their gun-bristled beauty (esspecially when they explode).

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The “Battle for the Atlantic” mode is undoubtedly the most interesting mode of play, although cannot be played vs a human being (scenarios can be played in a “hotseat” vs mode). Atlantic Fleet’s strategic map (as well as its tactical map) is turn based and separates out the Atlantic—and indeed some of the Mediterranean— into a set of discrete squares. These squares can hold any number of ships, only ten of which can enter battle at a time. However this is not a limitation that should be too worrying, as one will generally only have enough ships to scatter them lightly across the ocean, rather than concentrating them in bulk in one place. The weather also plays into one’s calculations, with ships more easily able to slip away from the enemy in a storm, and likely to have better hunting on a sunny day. In “the Battle for the Atlantic”, as it was in real life, the whole point is convoys. Either escorting them past u-boat and pocket battleship pickets, or sinking them on their way to perfidious Albion. In historical terms the Battle of the Atlantic was in many ways similar to a guerrilla conflict, the British controlled the sea and instead of directly challenging that control the Germans tried to make controlling the sea unbearably painful for the British. This is probably the reason that not so many wargames deal with the battle of the Atlantic, as far as WW2 went, it is not high on the scale of action packed in vs time spent. The asymmetry of this scenario is, however, adds a great deal to Atlantic Fleet’s depth.

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The experience of playing the British and German sides differs a great deal. The British have the advantage that their fleet has a relative freedom of movement, and there are plenty of friendly ports they can put into when damaged. Furthermore, the British gain access to aircraft carriers, which can be horribly, horribly dangerous if employed correctly. It is basic naval military history 101 that the main difference between WW1 and WW2 on the high seas, was the aircraft carrier—which made the battleship obsolete. Therefore one might expect carriers to be an overwhelming advantage. The old chestnut is not, and was not, however, so true of the Atlantic and Mediterranean in WW2. The Germans and the Italians had no carriers while the Royal Navy was too overstretched, often, to use the carrier task forces that characterised the American and Japanese navies in the Pacific. Further, the seas in which the Italians, British and Germans had most call for big-ships were relatively small seas, never really far enough away from land to be completely out of range of shore based aircraft—which were regarded as superior to carrier based aircraft for most of the war. In Atlantic Fleet, carriers are also a huge liability. They can turn, technically, but it is a long and tedious process—this is bad when there are torpedoes around. Further, it takes two turns to get aircraft in the air and on the attack, in which time one’s flight deck might be set aflame by a battleship—stopping one operating aircraft.

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This being the case, Atlantic Fleet remains mostly a game about the battleship, the destroyer and the submarine.  The primary strategic dilemma that faces the British in Atlantic fleet is that the ships that one must use to break a submarine blockade are more expensive and easier to destroy than submarines, so every loss is difficult to recoup. It is not often recognised that Britain fought a poor man’s war in WW2, constantly short of up to date supplies and machinery. In Atlantic Fleet the player feels this vulnerability markedly. One may have many ships, but they are almost all old or not fit for purpose, but one must make do and mend. This is especially the case because, in Atlantic Fleet’s version of the war, apparently, the Admiralty will not allow one to have the use of more ships until one has sunk a certain tonnage of enemy ships. This makes the German Pocket Battleships a priority target, as they generally travel alone and are packed with sweet, sweet warship tonnage. There is a desperation inherent in chasing them, as if one was chasing victory itself, trying to earn back just a little more hope in the encroaching darkness that floods the sea. However, if one goes haring off with one’s heavy ships across the Atlantic in  pursuit of the Graf Spee or the Dutschland, one may find one’s now lightly defended convoys come face to face with a modern battleship like Scharnhorst, and in that case one will certainly have a fight to remember on ones hands. Either that or, possibly worse, one’s battleships might be intercepted by a wolf-pack of u-boats and quickly sent beneath the waves. The big, old, battleships of the British fleet are constantly under threat from a submerged enemy—and losing them is terrifically bad news, it means more enemy submarines. Strategic and tactical choices abound as the British, none-of which, at least for the first half of the war, come without grave and possibly terminal peril. The fight is, as it should be, a desperate one. One is cast as  an old behemoth, stalked by a young and vital hunter. In a direct fight the hunter will lose, but he may never give you that direct fight, and he can harry you down over time. There is however, a hope that lies over the ocean. If one can stay in the fight for long enough, one will finally be able to muster one’s strength and bring the full force of one’s old fleet into play, allied with the new and shiny fleet of one’s American cousins.

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On the German side of the fence, the war is very different. The start of the war brings what German sea-men dubbed the “happy time”, where the u-boats essentially have free range over the sea. For a long while one’s u-boats are simply better than the British destroyers that oppose them, in addition to being cheaper (the destroyers are not aided by their AI in this regard). Add to that the fact that one has at one’s disposal a small force of ferociously powerful cruisers and battleships and the Germans start off strong. However, that strength is fragile. While the Germans have a few strong ships, one can never have many—and Atlantic fleet drives this home with the sharp restrictions on the number of big-ships the Germans can possess. The problem for the Germans is that month by month, everything slowly gets worse and worse. One by one, to accident and folly those big ships will, if one is not very careful, sink beneath the waves—and there will be no re-enforcements to replace them. Of the famous pocket battleships, one can only ever have three, and when they are gone, they are gone forever. While the British have an almost endless supply of battleships and carriers. Further, while one has powerful ships as Germany, Britain dominates the skies around all of one’s important ports, and so it is not unusual for a ship to get attacked by aircraft on the way home to resupply and have to spend eight odd weeks in port. Until 1941, every mission to go and repair one’s ships is fraught with the danger of running into the British fleet and air force, who can knock out one’s big ships as quickly as one’s submarines can knock out theirs.

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The strategic map is as interesting for the things it leaves out, as for what it includes. Ships do not take fuel to run, they only need to be resupplied with ammunition. For instance there is no attempt to model the exhaustion, or need to return to port for R&R, of the men aboard ship. Indeed it is in some ways easy to forget that there is such a thing as a crew supposed to be on-board these ships at all—one’s only reminder of it being the few men that are modelled on the ships themselves, who are immobile and hilariously impervious to gunfire. This is a strange, empty, space to leave in such a deep wargame. Life aboard a destroyer or submarine in WW2 was a hard slog, they were cramped, cold and dangerous places to live. One not only had to be always vigilant for an unseen enemy, or unsuspecting prey, and one should bear in mind the exhaustion and privation of the men who served in such machines. The freezing Atlantic winds, and the constant physical danger involved in using the kind of heavy machinery a warship represents, took a heavy toll on crews. People can, and did, crack under this pressure and it was an acknowledged fact that the men should not spend too long at sea, especially under fire. Whereas ships were always hungry for the fuel they burned en masse every voyage. Part of the point of the blockade of Britain by Germany was to starve the Royal navy of fuel, so that the channel could be crossed without opposition. In Atlantic fleet one is denied the pressure of seeing one’s reserves run. One is also denied the ideas and opinions of politicians, which were occasionally damaging for both sides. There is no great political impact to the sinking of a great battleship, or the destruction of a large convoy, beyond the state of a bar at the top of the screen which tells one how close to winning or losing one is.

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The human element is also left out at a tactical level. One of the dilemmas that faced those who were shepherding convoys across the Atlantic, and those who were preying on those convoys, was what to do with the survivors of a torpedo attack. Eye-witness reports frequently mention the mass of human beings that scramble from a sinking ship, and as a commander, one would have to weigh up the risks of going and trying to save some of that mass, against the risk of being torpedoed while doing so. Destroyers were often detached from a convoy to pick up survivors, which effectively put them out of the ongoing fight. The lack of such a human element also makes damage to one’s ships an annoyance more than a tragedy. An engine might break, or a rudder, and that may mean that one loses a destroyer or a battleship. One further loses the “experience points” which that ship has collected via hitting other ships, but one never loses a beloved commander or a well seasoned and well liked crew—they were not around to be lost in the first place. If one is very invested in the name of a ship, having that name sink to the bottom might cause one some pause, but more likely the feeling that one will possess is simply the annoyance of being denied a useful tool. At least no one suffers.

The omission of the human element, and the need for fuel, are no doubt because neither of these factors are necessarily “fun” or easy to balance—especially in the less serious side of wargaming. The logistical and human side of war is always its most complicated and difficult aspect. However, the fact that they are not present also signifies a couple of important design choices. The lack of need for logistical basing, apart from the repair and re-arming of ships, makes fleet-sized engagements much more common—as does the fact that the ships run themselves. One can keep battlefleets “on station” in the operational area almost indefinitely, while submarines do not often need to make the risky run back to a friendly port. Thus after a relatively short time it is possible to have a substantial force of both raiders and defenders in the Atlantic. This is important, because the campaign spans almost the entire war, with every turn taking half a week (that is, 520ish turns).  This also tips Atlantic Fleet’s hand when it comes to understanding what kind of experience the developers were going for. Atlantic fleet is a game that one jumps into and out of over the course of a long time, not a game to marathon. Over a gaming marathon Atlantic fleet will lose its flavour for someone looking for a serious wargame, because while there is an element of long term planning at play, generally speaking the game is about making short term plans and putting them into action. Jumping in and out over a wargame over a period of time makes long range strategic planning difficult in any case. There have been times where I have booted up a game of Hearts of Iron 3 after a week’s break, and had to spend the first hour remembering why I left an infantry division there, why I am launching a massed attack on that enemy division, and exactly why I was building those divisions. The “there”, “that” and “those” questions are easy to answer in Atlantic Fleet. My ships are near the convoys, I am massing my fleet on the enemy I can see and since there are no build queues in Atlantic Fleet (you go to the shipyard and instantly turn enemy tonnage sunk into new ships) I am probably saving my “renown” for a big old battleship or carrier.

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There are many indications that the game is aimed at the more casual wargamer, not the least being the fact that all aiming in the battle encounters is manual—aside from anti-aircraft fire. Thus the cut and thrust of most of the gameplay is similar to something like Worms—carefully positioning one’s ships and then making a judgement call on the angle that one will need to elevate the guns to make a hit. Each shot is recorded by the game and can be reviewed by the player on subsequent turns, so a great deal of the game hinges upon how well one can judge the alterations to elevation required to bring guns on target. It is when the guns do finally find metal, instead of water, Atlantic Fleet switches back to its identity as a serious wargame. Damage is intensively modelled. Ships do not take “damage” per se, but rather, as they are hit by incoming shots, their buoyancy reduces and their subsystems get smashed up. Take a 15” armour penetrating shell to the rear quarter of one’s cruiser, and one will find that not only is she now sitting with the stern low in the water, but she has also probably had her rudder locked. This adds an element of strategizing to firing at enemy ships—does one aim underneath the heavily armoured turrets in the hope of exploding a magazine, or does one direct one’s fire onto the enemy’s engines in order to slow him down and possibly set him up for a torpedo attack?

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Again, this kind of gameplay has its best effect when played in short bursts. The tactical challenge is deep enough to sustain half an hour, but more than that and one might start feeling as though something is missing. There is indeed something missing, a human element. The war portrayed by Atlantic Fleet is one that is empty of human beings, and rather lacking in stakes. One can care about the progress of the war only so much as one can care about the future of a flag or a ship. This is somewhat disappointing considering the subject matter. The Reich was a horrific and terrifying entity in real life, it deserves to be so in a computer game. Atlantic Fleet however is a game about machines hitting machines with guns and torpedoes—with none of the messy blood or politics which concerns human beings so much. There are no named characters in the game, no captains, no individual ship behaviour even. One will come to fear the Scharnhorst and the Bismark, but only because they are big and dangerous machines, not because they are particularly aggressive or elusive—or because they cause fear in one’s crews. Indeed the game itself evinces a general lack of personality which, while not problematic from a gameplay perspective, occasionally reminds one that one is interacting with a piece of software, rather than a game with a real sense of identity or (dare I say it) an artistic vision.

Every interface is workmanlike and easy to navigate, although clearly designed for mobile devices, made to be used with a finger rather than a mouse. Of course, this is understandable when one understands the price point (seven pounds) and when one factors in the tiny, by today’s standards, file size of only three hundred-ish mbs. These conservative design choices are also a boon for older machines, on which one will still be able to get the full experience of Atlantic Fleet, as a modern computer hardly notices that the game is playing at all. Atlantic Fleet is not a bad game by any stretch and it has an interesting asymmetrical wargame at its core. It is, for all that, a game that it is difficult to become obsessed by. I am glad that I have it sitting on my computer, and occasionally I shall put to sea aboard its magnificent ships. When I do so, I shall be impressed again by the campaign map, and the way in which the strategies of two nations warring at sea are mapped. Then again I shall always wish for something more, a little humanity, some personality beyond the war that the game wears like a mask.

 

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Dread None : Atlantic Fleet

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