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U-boot - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Detailed simulation
  • Reasonably accurate to history
  • Options for realism and micro-management
  • Fast-forward through the down-time
  • Moral and ethical decisions
  • Generous autosaves

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Tutorial doesn't teach how to properly patrol
  • Tutorial doesn't teach how to deal with enemy warships, depth charges
  • Manually buying fuel and supplies every time I return to port
  • Non-officer crew don't gain experience or skills?
  • No option to play as allied sub commander

Overall Impression : B-
Needs a better tutorial before it leaves early-access

U-boot - cover

Developer:
Deep Water Studio

Publisher:
Play Way

Platforms:
PC (via Steam)

MSRP: $30 USD

Original release date:
30 April 2019 (early access)

Genre:
World War II submarine management simulation

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
40+ hours

ESRB Rating: N/A.
MegaBearsFan Parental Rating: Appropriate for emotionally-mature teens because of:
playing as Nazi German sailors,
potential for violence against civilians and non-combatants.

Official site:
playway.com/about-us/10004-games/505-uboot-2

I haven't been able to organize as many board game sessions as I would have liked to over the past 2 years, thanks to the ongoing COVID pandemic. By the time vaccinations were widely available, and we were willing to have more frequent gatherings, many of my board-gaming friends had returned to work. Many work irregular hours, so it's hard to organize games. And despite limiting gatherings, we still suffered our own COVID infections, and several other potential exposures that forced us or our friends into self-quarantine for a week or two, resulting in the cancellation of some board game plans. And of course, having an infant to take care of doesn't make organizing play dates any easier.

Despite not being able to play board games as much, I've still been buying board games, in the hopes that eventually we'll be able to overcome the need for social distancing and will be able to have larger game sessions again. One such game that I bought last summer is U-Boot: the Board Game, which is an app-assisted World War II submarine management game. The rulebook and "tactical guides" are massive, and the game looks lengthy with a steep learning curve. It's not the kind of game that we can play in an impromptu session. It requires preparation, and a lot of time to practice.

As such, I haven't been able to play it yet. I only downloaded the app and played around for a bit to try to learn the rules. Hopefully I'll get to play an actual game soon.

In the meantime, I decided I could maybe get my U-boat fix by buying and playing a totally different U-Boat: the Game, which is an early-access PC game on Steam. It has no relation to the board game, but feels like it could be.

U-Boat is still in early access when I played it. I'm not sure when it's supposed to come out of early access, but it seems like it's fairly complete and should be ready soon. I don't usually go for early access games. As any reader of this blog will know, I take a [possibly overly] critical view of the games I play, and playing an "incomplete" game can be a frustrating experience. I don't want the frustration of incomplete mechanics and frequent bugs to sour my opinion of a game to the point that I'm not willing to play it at all when it is eventually complete. For instance, I never went back to games like No Man's Sky after playing it on release. It wasn't early access, but it might as well have been considering how shallow and incomplete it felt. No matter how much my friends insist that it's better now, I just don't have the motivation to play it again.

I bought the U-Boot board game, and started reviewing the rules, but haven't been able to play it.

But I was itching for some U-boat action, and the user scores looked good, so I gave this one a try. This game is so "indie", I couldn't even find a website for the development studio; just some social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

Early access tutorial

One area that I hope gets a lot of attention before this game leaves early access is the tutorial. Despite taking hours to complete, the tutorial still left me feeling woefully unprepared for the game proper. U-Boat's tutorial teaches the basic mechanics of the game well enough. It taught me how to navigate my sub, how to submerge, how to assign orders to crew, and how to shoot enemy ships and planes using the automated mechanics. What it doesn't teach is any of the actual strategy or technique for operating a World War II submarine, nor does it teach any of the advanced, manual mechanics (like manual torpedo targeting).

How do I deal with escorted convoys? How do I approach without being detected, while still being able to get close enough to identify the ships and attack? Once I launch my torpedoes, what do I do next? Do I wait at periscope depth to confirm the kill? Do I immediately submerge and run away? How do I escape pursuing destroyers? How do I evade depth charges? If I'm hit by a depth charge, what do I do? None of this is explained by the tutorial. I had to spend several Saturday afternoons trying to figure all this out through trial-and-error by save-scumming a single random encounter. It was incredibly frustrating, and I barely had the patience to keep playing.

Tutorial teaches basic mechanics, but isn't effective at teaching strategy.

The early missions don't help ease the player into the game either. I did like 10 patrol missions in "The Black Pit" (the first and "easiest" campaign area), and only encountered a single convoy in the patrol areas, and was only able to sink 1 ship. I would zig-zag around the patrol area, but would never find any enemy contacts. On the way to or from the patrol area, I would often get radio requests to sink a transport with rare tech on board. These would often be escorted by multiple destroyers and a crap-ton of smaller corvettes, and as soon as I would sink one ship, those 3 or 4 destroyers would converge on my exact position and sink me with depth charges.

I had to read on forums that I should be stopping dead in the water during patrols, submerging, and using the hydrophone to listen for enemy contacts at greater distances. Eventually, one of the updates did add a button to the U.I. to automatically go through the process of submerging for a few minutes and using the hydrophone to listen for contacts, so I guess I'm not the only one who was having problems with this. While the missions' patrol routes were uneventful, the random encounters that I did on the side were incredibly difficult. These "easy" patrol missions therefore weren't providing any escalation of challenge that would allow me to learn how to truly play the game. I either had nothing to do, or I would hit an impassable wall of destroyer escorts. There was no in between.

Zig-zagging through patrols to cover the required
distance is the wrong way to play.

Despite not actually being able to complete any missions, I kept earning money, and experience, and reputation, and soon had more than I knew what to do with. Coming back from patrol empty-handed should probably not provide anywhere near as much reward as it does in the current build of the game. But maybe this is something that can be better balanced before the game gets its full release?

I eventually decided to restart the campaign (including the tutorial) in order to try to play the game "correctly" based on what I had read online and learned through trial-and-error. U-Boat improved dramatically after I had restarted with a better idea of how to play. It still took some extra practice and trial-and-error, but I was finally understanding how the game expected me to play.

If I might make a suggestion...

If I might make a suggestion to Deep Water Studio, I think I have some ideas for how the tutorial can be improved before it leaves early access. Part of the problem with the patrol tutorial is that it emphasizes plotting a course through the patrol area with lots of vertical movement. It then interrupts your patrol route with a radio message from HQ. This implies to the player that you should just zig-zag through the patrol route as quickly as possible to cover the required distance, and that any important objectives will come up through the radio.

Instead, I think this tutorial should require the player to stop and camp once or twice to watch or listen for enemy contacts. Preferably, you should stop and listen during the night when surface visibility is low anyway, and then slowly patrol the surface during the day to recharge batteries. Don't just run through the patrol route as quickly as possible to simply cover the distance and complete the "objective". Based on the forums and Reddit posts, I'm not the only one who made this mistake.

A better strategy is to stop during patrols, submerge, and listen for enemy contacts.

After stopping once or twice without finding any contacts, then the game can spawn a transport or small convoy for you to practice against, and then maybe do the anti-aircraft tutorial. This, I think, would make it much more clear how to properly run a patrol.

Secondly, there should be a better tutorial for how to deal with destroyers and depth charges. The current tutorial simply tells the player to submerge in order to escape destroyers. In the actual game, however, simply submerging is usually a sure-fire way to get sunk. You have to slow down in order to reduce engine noise, wait for depth charges to be deployed, and then full throttle in a different direction under the cover of the depth charges exploding, then return to a slower speed to once again reduce engine noise. Or at least, that's what I've read on the forums.

Ah, now I get it!

Once I started figuring out how the game is meant to be played, I actually became quite thoroughly hooked! The simulation is surprisingly detailed, but once I understood the basics, I rarely found it overwhelming, except for the occasional emergency situations.

U-Boat is full of meticulous and immersive detail. First off, when starting a new campaign, you can chose between three options each for "realism" and "crew management". Realism affects how much of the submarine's operation must be manually-controlled by the player, and more realism makes for a tougher game. Crew management affects how much baby-sitting your crew needs. On the higher settings, you have to manually assign them recreation time, meals, and so forth. Again, the higher setting creates more challenge.

The player can take manual control of almost any function on the boat.

Thank goodness there are so many options for adjusting realism and difficulty! I tried doing the manual torpedo targeting, and it was tough. I had to do a lot of save-scumming and wasted a lot of torpedoes. Even with the lower realism settings, the player still always has the option to do things manually. So if you want to learn these mechanics, you always quicksave, practice it, and then re-load and let your crew do it automatically if you failed. It would be nice if there were interactive tutorials for these mechanics that provide better feedback about what the player might be doing wrong.

Regardless of the settings, you'll see your crew basically live out lives within the submarine in real-time. They'll man their stations, and you can baby-sit them during their tasks. Most tasks can even be manually-performed by the player, if you wish. When not on duty, the crew will wander around the boat, sleep, grab meals, socialize with each other, and even occasionally sit down in the bunks for a friendly game of cards.

The crew will socialize and play games when not on duty.

The player will also be in charge of keeping the boat supplied and maintained. Unfortunately, this does mean that some mundane, tedious tasks must be done by the player. For example, I could do without having to refuel my sub between every patrol. It's an easy thing to forget to do, especially after an un-eventful patrol in which I didn't have to fire any torpedoes or consume anything else from my inventory.

Refueling between every patrol can be tedious.

This game punishes mistakes very harshly, and so it strongly encourages very slow, patient, and methodical play. This will likely turn a lot of players off of the game, as it's actually quite time-consuming to survey an enemy task force, find the prime targets, get in close enough for an attack, actually make the attack, and then escape without being depth-charged to death. One screw up anywhere in that process can lead to a cascade of failures that can quickly cause the situation to spiral out of control. Hopefully, if a mistake happens, it happens early enough that a quick escape is still possible.

Thankfully, the fast-forward function is very fast, so the downtime between encounters passes very quickly, and it doesn't take long to get back into the action. The game is also very good at automatically slowing back down to normal speed if anything potentially interesting happens.

There's a decent variety of mission types available (for an early-access game), as well as several ambient events and encounters that can show up on the open ocean. I might get a request to search for a lost U-boat near its last-known coordinates, or I might find an un-escorted neutral freighter to inspect and make sure they aren't working for the Allies. There's also missions to deliver spies to the enemy mainland, sink high-profile ships, and so forth. There's quite a bit more to do here than simply patrol after patrol.

There are a handful of different mission archetypes.

There's also several different campaigns with different boats that you can play. Each one has different crew with different skills, and starts at different points of the war with different global circumstances that affect what missions are available and how difficult they will be to play.

This U-Boat of Mine

I'm not sure how fully-implemented all of this other content is yet. For example, I've yet to encounter a neutral freighter that was working for the allies, and which I needed to sink. So the few diversions from regular patrols that do exist will get fairly rote after you've seen them each a few times.

The game also throws the occasional ethical or moral dilemma at the player. In addition to deciding whether to torpedo a neutral or unidentified freighter, approaching a sunk freighter will allow me to interact with any escaping lifeboats. I can capture the sailors or officers as prisoners of war, give them supplies to help them survive till they are rescued, ignore them entirely and let them fend for themselves, or just shoot their rafts and kill them all, or even some combination of those options. In many cases, the escaping crew of a sunk freighter will be civilians.

You'll have to decide how to treat the stranded sailors of ships you sink.

I'm not sure if there's any consequence to the player for being more or less humanitarian with our victims. The only reward so far is that I do gain extra money and reputation from turning in captured sailors and officers when I return to port, so the game does encourage treating your victims with some dignity, respect, and compassion. But I'm not sure if routinely giving supplies to lifeboats and sparing neutral ships might do things like affect crew morale, increase Germany's diplomatic relations with neutral nations, make future inspections easier, or have any other emergent effects.

It would be nice to see this get fleshed out a little bit more. Maybe this sort of stuff does come into play with the more advanced realism and crew management settings, but I didn't experiment with those enough to find out. It would be nice to see crew members who agree or disagree with my decisions regarding the treatment of civilians and enemy combatants, such that certain decisions might impact morale or lead to a mutiny or force me to have to fire an officer for insubordination. Or maybe that rescued tanker crew might occasionally rise up and try to take over my boat. This might force me to have to assign guards to watch them, which takes crew away from other assignments that might help my boat run more efficiently, and so I would have to weigh the risks and rewards of taking on the burden of prisoners. These boats don't exactly have a brig to lock prisoners up in.

Another area of the game that I really hope sees improvement before UBoat leaves early-access is the crew promotion mechanic. The game allows you to promote crew members to officers. It is very cheap to do this, and you can assign the promoted crewman to any officer specialty you wish.

The non-officer crew does not gain experience, or level up, or acquire skills at all. So there is no attribute (that I'm aware of) on any of the crew that might make one crew member a better officer than any other crew member, or that might make him better specialized for a given role over any other role. It's completely arbitrary who I promote and what role I assign them. When recruiting new crew, each prospect will have a brief bio, and these seem to give some indication of what skills the character may start with if promoted to an officer. But once the sailor has been recruited onto my crew, I can't find a way to access that bio, so I have no idea which sailor(s) have which potential traits.

Sailor bios disappear after they are recruited, and they don't acquire experience or skills until promoted.

The ability to cheaply hire new crew and promote them to officers really deflates the reward of acquiring new officers from completing missions or finding an officer to hire from the pool of recruits. it also means that there's very little to manage about your extended crew. No one sailor seems to be better at any particular job or role than any other sailor. So it doesn't really matter who I assign to my ship, or what I have them do. It is only after they are promoted to officers that crew have any specialization at all.

I could totally see this game excelling as an emergent narrative generator, if it didn't so severely punish mistakes and would take some lessons from This War of Mine. If they biographies for officers and sailors were viewable throughout the game, and updated as major events occur, these crew could easily become legit characters. This might be well beyond the scope of what Deep Water wants to do with its game, but I think it would add a lot of heart and personality to an experience that is currently very detailed, but kind of dry and matter-of-fact.

Probably something I'll come back to again

U-Boat is still a little rough around the edges, and the tutorial could definitely use some work. But for being an early access game, I've been pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of U-Boat. It's certainly one of the more complete and polished early access titles that I've ever played. Normally, I wouldn't even bother reviewing an early access game because of how crude they tend to feel, but U-Boat really feels like it could see a full release now and be a solid game. Honestly, I'm not sure what Deep Water is waiting for before they do a full release of this game. I've been playing it since November, and even 6 months ago, I thought this game was pretty much retail-ready.

This is a game that I will definitely revisit again in the future. There's not a whole lot like it out there -- and nothing that I'm aware of that is as detailed. Hopefully, my experience with this video game will come in handy whenever I finally get around to playing the table top board game.

U-Boat is one of the most complete and polished early access titles I've played.

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