Reviewed by Ian Bohne
Date of Review: 17 September 2006
Publisher: Omega Games
Designer: Stephen Newberg
Developer: Bill Gibbs
Components (each game)
SimCan’s Line of Battle is a tactical naval combat game of the dreadnought era. The game focuses on surface gunnery in the era from 1914-1925. This Omega Games edition is a reworking of the original 1986 game. The reviewer does not have the original edition, nor has he ever played it, so this review is based solely on the new release.
The game components are of good quality. The rulebook is 45 pages and laid out in a “bullet-subbullet” fashion. This makes stepping through the rules just that, the player steps through rather than reads them. There are few obvious typos or outright errors that are noticeable. The insides cover and back pages of the book also doubles as reproducible play aid sheets. Of the 45 pages, 23 are rules, 2 are designer/developer notes, and 17 are scenarios. There are 15 scenarios total.
The 420 counters are of good quality and a decent color palate. Each counter is small (1/2”) and full of a lot of data, both front and back, that makes for a very crowded appearance. Additionally, since each ship requires its own ranging/straddle marker, the actual number of ships is somewhat less than the counter total would lead you to believe. Of the 420 counters, 154 are capital ships and 26 are lighter ships, making the “tooth-to-tail” ratio of ships to game markers almost 2:3. Nationalities represented are Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Russia, Brazil, Austria-Hungary, Chile, America, Japan, and Argentina.
The map is larger than most provided in games and VERY generic. Nothing special here.
The Play Aid Cards are printed on heavier stock, ensuring that it will stand up to repeated use. The two Unit Reference cards show all the ships arranged by nationality. The bulk of the Unit Reference is a duplication of the data already presented on the counters, along with some “fleet level” data such as fatigue, demoralization, and disorder levels. The other two cards are a Sequence of Play card (four pages) and a Combat Results Table card (four pages). Each of these cards is again arranged in the “bullet-subbullet” fashion.
One play aid that is not listed but should be is the Visibility Aid. The Visibility Aid is a four-page insert in the middle of the rulebook. Why Omega Games chooses to deliver the aid in this fashion is something of a mystery to the reviewer. It forces the player to pry up staples and then carefully reset them.
In his designer’s notes, Mr. Newberg states he intended to depict the history of the event topic and point up “a few key items…that seemed central to the way things happened.” The central item in LoB is the concept of the Immune Zone. The Immune Zone is that range where your armor can defeat enemy shellfire while still being at a range that allows you to inflict punishing damage. As a consequence of this design decision, LoB is a straight-up tactical game of battleship gunnery. Don’t look for planes or submarines in this game. Ships smaller than battleships or battlecruisers are reduced to a few single counters that group multiple ships together. LoB is the first in a two-game series, SimCan’s Battleship being the other game. LoB covers the period from 1914-1925 whereas Battleship goes from 1925-1945.
Each turn in LoB is a five-phase sequence:
This phase rolled for every fifth turn, meaning weather can change every 30 minutes. The Weather Table is chosen based on the scenario location and has the player cross-index previous weather with a die roll. For instance, in the North Sea on a clear day there is a 50% chance of the weather remaining clear. This rapid change (potentially every 30 minutes) seems a bit quick to the reviewer. Maybe every 12 turns (every hour) would be more reasonable.
The portion of the game most directly affected by weather is Sighting. The rules go into great detail in attempting to define the difference between “visibility;” i.e. seeing another unit and “sighting,” or engaging that unit. The rules make it clear that visibility is affected by weather, but the weather impact on sighting is not directly stated. On a clear day units are “visible” at 48 hexes, but can be sighted at only 34. On a clear moonlit night targets are visible at 24 hexes but sighted at 8. The rule becomes confusing when the weather is not clear. On a hazy day, visibility is reduced to 24 hexes. The reviewer’s interpretation of the implied rules here is that sighting range cannot exceed the visibility as long as visibility is less than 34 hexes. This issue is raised because it seems to the reviewer to be a simple concept that should have been stated outright, not subject to interpretation.
With a system that emphasizes the difference between visibility and sighting, it was very surprising NOT to find rules for hidden units. The reviewer expected to find an optional rule specifying that ships visible be identified by type (capital or light) and not by class or name until they are sighted. This optional rule would add flavor and historical value. Is that smoke on the horizon the main body of the enemy fleet or just his battlecruisers? Send the destroyers or light cruisers out to find the answer!
The Plotting Phase is an optional rule. Without it, players use an IGO-UGO movement sequence. This alone makes the Plotting Phase a near-mandatory item if players want to get even close to recreating the events of this era. Plotting is done at two levels: the fleet flagship and “formation” flagship. Another optional rule is the fleet disorder rule. Use of this rule with any nation other than Britain, Germany, the US or Japan will almost certainly guarantee that the fleet formations will fall into disarray. The reviewer questions the historical data that supports this severe rule. For instance, the Brazilian Fleet Disorder number is 1-5; meaning if the die result falls into the range the formation falls into disorder. A second die roll is then made and if the formation composition is larger than the die roll the ships are in disorder and move randomly. Since the game uses a d6, any formation (such as historical ones) of 7 or 8 ships will automatically fall into disarray. This seems counter historical to reality, since the idea behind larger formations was to enhance command and control, not place them at risk like this (optional) rule does.
Movement is simple and somewhat generic. All ships, be it capital or light, turn at the same rate. This translates to a 3000 yd turning radius for ships. This figure is probably close to historical for capital ships but too great for light ships such as destroyers. The only difference defined in the rules is in acceleration where light ships can speed up faster than capital ships.
The heart of LoB is the gunfire combat model. Gunfire Combat a two-step process, first Ranging Fire and then Straddle Fire. Once Straddle Fire is achieved, damage is resolved by adding gunfire strength plus a die roll compared against the targets ships defense strength at that range. If the final attack strength is greater than the defense strength, then damage is inflicted. It is at this point that the “gaminess” overcomes reality. An examination of the ship counters can help the players figure out the Immune Zone; a range where your guns are effective but the enemies are not. For example, lets compare HMS Lion with SMS Moltke.:
Lion has gunnery data as follows (read Range Band – Strength (Range in hexes) – Defense Value)
Short 24 (1-6) 9
Medium 19 (7-18) 21
Long 7 (19-23) 5
Moltke has the following gunnery data:
Short 20 (1-5) 12
Medium 16 (6-15) 24
Long 7 (16-19) 4
What this means is that Lion’s Immune Zone is a range of between 16 and 18 hexes (16,000-18,000 yds) against Moltke. At this range, Lion inflicts maximum punishment from medium range but Moltke is firing at long range and therefore has a lesser chance to inflict damage.
This is another case where the counters show too much data. All this gunnery information is on the counter and therefore readily available to the players. Another level of the Fog of War is sacrificed for having the data readily accessible.
Secondary gunfire and light ships gunfire is resolved in a similar manner. Other rules cover mines and torpedoes.
There is no rate of fire rule in LoB. Rather, ships resolve single attacks in their fore or aft areas and two attacks in their broadside area. An optional rule modifies this basic formula to reflect turret placement.
Once damage in inflicted, the specific type of damage must be determined. Damage comes in four flavors, Fire Control, Gunnery, Movement and Flooding.
· Fire Control damage reduces the ships FC number by one for each hit. Ships start with a FC value of between 1 and 3. Excess Fire Control hits are misses.
· Gunnery Damage is represented very different from most naval games. EVERY ship has 6 gunnery hits (excess gunnery hits are scored as Fire Control, then Movement, then Flooding in that order). A gunnery hit on a ship does NOT represent lost guns, but rather every hit reduces the CHANCE of the ship scoring damaging gunfire. For instance, Lion (as above) has suffered FIVE out of SIX gunnery hits and is firing at Moltke. The Lion player rolls a single d6; if the result is 1-5 the shot misses but if the player rolls a 6 then the FULL attack value is used. Yet again, this seems counter historical to the reviewer. The ship has nearly “lost” its ability to fire yet, through luck (represented by the die roll), somehow gets EVERY GUN back in action, if just for a short time?
· Movement Damage starts out equal to the ships movement allowance. Every movement hit reduces the maximum speed of the unit. Excess movement hits are scored as flooding hits.
· Flooding Damage also reduces the movement allowance by one for each hit. EVERY ship sinks when they have more than four flooding damage hits.
· There are provisions in the rules for Special Damage (hit types change) and Explosions.
In effect, the damage in LoB represents what many other games refer to as “critical hits.” This is another degree of abstraction that the reviewer doesn’t necessarily disagree with, but does feel is somewhat oversimplified in this model. The end result of this model is that all ships absorb the same amount of damage, plus or minus one hit for fire control or one hit for speed.
It is in the gunfire phase where all those game markers also get used. Each ship has a Ranging/Straddle marker for its gunfire, and could have also have a Flag marker (if it is a flagship), a Fire Control damage marker, a Gunnery damage marker, a Movement damage marker, and a Flooding marker. Torpedo Salvo markers also are used to note the launch point and current salvo position. Units can only stack two in a hex, but even so this means you could have as many as 12 OR MORE counters stacked into a hex. This sort of counter density makes the “optional” Fleet Records Chart a near-necessity.
The last phase of a turn is the Command Phase. In this phase, players conduct Damage Control, Shift Flags, and check for Fleet Fatigue and Fleet Demoralization. The last two are very innovative ways of making players follow realistic actions and helps avoid the “fight-to-the-death” syndrome in many tactical naval games. Fleet Fatigue represents ammunition limits. Fleet Demoralization represents the morale of the fleet and the perception of the chance for victory. Though the Command Phase is an optional rule, it is actually my favorite rules phase and the reviewer strongly implores players to use these rules.
A Fog of War rule would round out the Visibility and Sighting rules. The Plotting Phase could be further integrated with the visibility rules to show the effects of weather and visibility on signaling between formations. The damage model is very coarse and losses the differences between classes of ships. Another missing piece is in the scenarios. Although there are 15 scenarios in the rulebook, 10 Dogger Bank or Jutland-related, one Black Sea scenario with a total of 4 ships, one hypothetical Indian Ocean scenario with a total of eight ships, one Adriatic scenario, one hypothetical North Atlantic (USN versus the High Seas Fleet) scenario and one USN versus Japan scenario. This leaves a whole slew of ship counters provided in the game unused, forcing the players to develop their own scenarios.
In play, the rules for LoB lend themselves to quick play. Visibility (ships seen) and Sighting (ships that can be fired upon) is resolved quickly and with few die rolls. Movement may be plotted by fleet and formation, making it go quickly if the fleets are organized properly. However, the Fleet Disorder rule can make a shambles out of even the best-laid plans. During movement, events such as mines, smoke screens, collisions and towing are taken care of. Torpedoes and Gunfire is resolved with a few (or, if not using the Fleet Records Chart, then many) counters placed on the map and facilitated by quick reference play aids. Damage is simple and easy to apply. The optional Command Phase is a true necessity as it imposes real-world reality into the wargaming world. The key phrase to remember in any turn is “quick.”
Line of Battle is a gunnery-centric game that emphasizes the Immune Zone concept. Beyond the gunfire system, the game is a collection of simplifications that, while speeding up play, sacrifice realism and in some cases even create results that are seemingly non-historical. That said, the game is a quick, easy to learn set of tactical rules that demonstrates the interaction of gunnery and armor in the dreadnought era. The optional Command Phase imposes real-world realities on players and will often avoid “fight-to-the-death” battles.
Line of Battle deserves a place in every naval wargamers collection. Few games demonstrate so readily the concept of the Immune Zone. However, this game is far from being, in the reviewer’s opinion, a realistic depiction of naval combat. Several of the simplifications, like Gunnery Damage, seem counterintuitive to reality. LoB is a good study aid. LoB is a good quick playing dreadnought game. If this is what you want in a set of naval combat rules, then Line of Battle should be in your collection.
Simple game. Clearly shows the concept of the Immune Zone, but at the expense of realism in other areas. The Fleet Fatigue and Demoralization rules should be ported to other naval combat games.
Components – 3 out of 5 Stars
Rules – 4 out of 5 Stars
Completeness – 2 out of 5 Stars
Game System – 3 out of 5 Stars
Enjoyment – 4 out of 5 Stars
Ian Bohne is a Navy officer, and thus loves naval games. He has been playing wargames for nearly thirty years. For detailed simulation value, the Admiralty Trilogy Games from Clash of Arms is his ticket, but Ian also enjoys the simplicity of FIRE WHEN READY or BATTLEWAGON.