30 March 2010


I first learned of Compass Games' Silent War: The United States' Submarine Campaign Against Imperial Japan, 1941-1945 a couple of years ago, very shortly after I started spending lots of time browsing BGG and other game sites. I imagine that most anyone who's reading these words probably is familiar, at least in passing, with the game. For the completely uninitiated, here's the publisher's synopsis:

Silent War is a solitaire simulation of the United States' Navy submarine war against Imperial Japan in World War Two. You serve as Commander of Submarines, US Pacific Fleet (ComSubPac). Your mission is to deploy your boats with maximum effect to destroy Japanese shipping, while limiting your own submarine losses.
Featured scenarios cover actions ranging from famous short single sub patrols, through small campaigns of about a year of the war, ending with the grand campaign covering the entire Pacific War....
Now, to say that this game is right in my wheelhouse would be a colossal understatement. The subject matter is one of my favorite historical topics -- I own probably a dozen or so books on the subject (though, in truth, it has been many years since I last read any of them). Heck, I could make about twelve different "you had me at hello" jokes working with the first sentence of the synopsis alone. Let's break it down:
  • "solitaire simulation" (yes, please);
  • "United States Navy" (definitely, yes);
  • "submarine war" (yes, yes, yes)
  • "against Imperial Japan in World War Two" (please take my money now)
Kidding aside, this game immediately went onto my "I will definitely own that, eventually" list, but somehow, I went a year or so without actually getting around to pulling the trigger. One game after another managed to nudge it out of the top spot on my wish list, and I ended up spending a fair amount of money on things that I absolutely should have known would not interest me as much as Silent War. Why do I do things like that? Beats me.

Then one day late last summer, for whatever reason, I found myself musing again about the game, and in particular, the allure of simulating the entire submarine campaign, spanning the entire duration of the war. That facet had always held enormous appeal for me -- but, out of the blue, I had a new thought: December 7 was just a few short months away. Would it be feasible to start a full Silent War campaign on that day, and play it out in real time?

I was immediately captivated by the idea. What would it be like to play a game -- one iteration of one game -- for literally years? Could there be a better way to drive home the timescale of the war than to experience a simulation in that way?

I double checked and, indeed, game turns represent one week of time (OK, more precisely, it's four turns per month, but the week/turn relationship is close enough). That seems just about perfect for real-time play: you never have to go too long without having something to do, but conversely, there's no real problem with taking a few (or several) days off. You don't lose interest, but you don't get overwhelmed either. Plus, from the pictures on the 'Geek, it didn't look like the game's footprint was that big, so I figured it wouldn't be too much of a problem to find a spot to leave it set up for a long (long) time. I decided to give it a shot.

I placed an order for the game a couple of days after the real-time idea occurred to me, and had it in hand a couple of days after that (thanks, Wargame Depot!). I immediately started prepping the game -- punching and sorting the counters and learning the rules. It's not an incredibly complex game, so I got to grips with it relatively quickly. I played several practice patrols -- every single one of which ended in disaster, as I recall -- and I was ready to go.

The only problem was that there were still several weeks between me and the Day of Infamy. In the interim, a funny thing happened to my leisure time, and I found myself very distracted from Silent War and practically everything else. I had originally intended to keep a running narrative of the game, either as a blog or maybe a series of BGG session reports. But, as December '09 dawned, I realized that wasn't about to happen right then. I seriously thought about dropping the idea, and maybe taking a crack at it again next year. At more or less the last minute, though, I decided to give it a shot. I set the game up, and true to my original intent, started pushing cardboard on December 7, 2009.

Despite that inauspicious start, things have gone well, and I have found the process to be extremely rewarding. I believe I'm actually enjoying it significantly more than I expected. There's something about this method of play that lends a remarkable gravity to practically every in-game event. Knowing that every decision and every result might still be felt years from now has a way of focusing the mind. When I play this game, I am never rushing through the turn to get to the next one, because the next one comes when it comes. I am never just going through the motions.

And now, I am finally getting around to getting that narrative I mentioned in place. I will start out with a series of retrospective overviews of what's happened so far in the first four months of my war. Once I get caught up, I'll try to make more detailed (and timely) postings.

In the meantime, though, the dark days of sixty-eight Decembers ago have returned (at least to a corner of my mind and my game room). Battleship Row is on fire. The Pacific Fleet has been wrecked by an enemy who appears, by every piece of evidence available, to be invincible. Presently, a stunned nation will throw its small and untried submarine service into the heart of the fray. Its men and machines are untested. Many of its boats are obsolete even now. Worst of all -- by far -- is the insidious fact, completely unrealized at this early date, that the service's primary weapon system simply doesn't work.

They were never meant to be more than bit players in the war the Navy envisioned that it would fight in the Pacific. Necessity has now elevated them to stars, for better or worse. The desperate weeks and months ahead will tell if they are capable of bearing the burden thrust upon them.

And they won't have to wait long to start trying. USS Pollack (at sea in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands as the IJN launched its attacks on Pearl Harbor) has sighted warships on the horizon...

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