Although it’s about German U-boats in World War II, solitaire boardgame The Hunters (not pictured) is a mostly unadorned exercise in rolling dice to see what happens. To be fair, that description applies to many boardgames. But unlike many boardgames, The Hunters has very little dressing around the die rolls. There is no board, there is no tactical display, there is almost no artwork, and there aren’t even many decisions. Instead there are charts and dice that roll out the highlights of your U-boat captain’s career. Keep rolling to find out what happens. You sometimes decide whether to fire your torpedoes from close range or medium range. Feel lucky, punk? Go ahead and risk a little crush depth. Because otherwise, it’s all in the dice and the charts. You’re just along for the ride.
After the jump, charted seas
Not to say what happens on the charts isn’t of interest. If you care enough to pick up a game about German U-boats in World War II, what happens will roll out an appealing enough narrative. You get your next assignment, you run your patrol, you don’t see any targets, you don’t see any targets, you see some targets, all but one of your torpedoes is a dud, but the one hit hits resoundingly and you mark down a 9600 ton freighter sunk, you evade the destroyers. Rinse and repeat and good luck, Captain.
There is nothing approximating positioning or stalking or evasive maneuvers, at least not in any sort of interactive or detailed way. It’s all very quick, very tidy, very superficial for the most part. The damage charts are actually the most intricate bit of The Hunters, which is an odd choice considering it’s what you mostly want to avoid. You might end up with injured crew members or a busted deck gun or a broken down engine.
At least this approach expresses the brutal randomness of the period’s submarine combat. I have a worn paperback copy of a book called Iron Coffins that details the war from the perspective of one very lucky U-boat captain named Herbert Werner. He’s lucky because he survived. Most of his comrades didn’t. Werner cites an 85% casualties figure for Germany’s submarine force. That would make a terrible chart for a boardgame. The finale of Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot says all that needs to be said about war and chance, and it can play out dispassionately in The Hunters. Here’s how that would look:
Move marker to last transit box of Atlantic patrol,
encounter roll 2,
variable aircraft quality roll 6,
flak attack vs aircraft roll 8,
aircraft encounter roll 1,
crew injury roll 4,
place injury marker on engineer,
first damage roll 54,
place two flooding markers,
second damage roll 21,
place flooding marker,
flooding roll 5,
flooding roll 4,
flooding roll 4,
flooding roll 6,
submarine sunk, game over, career ended, total up your tonnage.
There is almost no ornamentation or atmosphere or meaningful game design around those chart results. There is almost no effort to engage you with atmosphere or flavor or tactical gameplay. This is a “see what happens” RPG that recreates a U-boat captain’s career in about an hour or so. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book that forks off into various directions after you’ve decided whether to fire from medium range (go to page six) or close range (go to page twelve). Like a ship tossed around at sea, buffeted by die rolls.
I suppose that’s the point, but it feels underdesigned, simple, and barely interactive. What’s going to happen is going to happen and it’s just for me to read the chart results. On one hand, I have to admire a game so dedicated to the ruthlessness of randomness that the captain can slip and break his neck, ending your career immediately. On the other hand, this is a game so dedicated to the ruthlessness of randomness that the captain can slip and break his neck, ending your career immediately. But mostly, it’s a lot of looking up stuff.
Unfortunately, for a game that glides so quickly through the months, it’s strangely truncated. It all ends abruptly half way into the war. The designer’s notes cite the increasing complexity of U-boat warfare in the later years of World War II, but if anything, that makes me want to play the later years. Stopping at an arbitrary date in 1943 feels peculiarly unambitious, like making a racing game where the cars can’t go at their top speed.
“Well, things start to get complicated now,” The Hunters seems to say, “so we’re finished here.”
“You heard me. Too complicated. By the way, here’s a list of ten U-boat commanders and their tonnage sunk over the course of the war. You can compare your performance.”
But didn’t those guys get to play until 1945?
“Too complicated. Sorry. We have to stop in 1943. June, to be precise.”
Up until then the changing tides of the U-boat war are presented well enough. Fewer torpedoes are duds, Allied sonar gets better, enemy aircraft coverage presses closer to German bases on the coast of France, destroyer tactics get increasingly efficient, your crew gets more experienced. It’s pretty much everything you’d expect from the axes of experience and technology during the progression of the war. Except for everything after June of 1943 being missing.
Also surprising for such a modest game, it’s got a bad interface. There are lots of charts on various cards with no easy way to lay them all out conveniently. You’ll spend a lot of time flipping around to find the right one. Where’s the aircraft encounter chart again? As for the tactile element, there are just a few chits you slide around the appropriate panels. If you can’t get through it in one play session, a “saved game” can easily fit on a Post-It note, which makes this a convenient game to break down and set up. Eventually, you get a log with a bunch of numbers scrawled in boxes. It looks like an account ledger, which is fitting for a game so comprised of numbers and charts.