Of Simulation and Drudgery – A UBOOT: The Board Game Review

UBOOT is immensely ambitious. It’s a tabletop cooperative real-time simulation of German World War 2 submarine warfare. It’s equally electronic and analog driven, with much of play off-loaded to a sophisticated app and yet other elements framed around using realistic period technology such as protractors and targeting dials. All of this occurs within the context of an absolutely enormous three-dimensional cardboard submarine dominating the center of the table. This game, if nothing else, is something wondrous to behold.

UBOOT_Sub

UBOOT feels like someone took the splendid Captain Sonar and totally re-hauled the game to be a three hour simulation. Players are divided into roles so that they can manage different aspects of the crew. The Captain issues orders to the lot, leading discussion and personally taking charge of loading and firing torpedoes. The First Officer operates the application, inputting commands while also maintaining responsibility for first aid and working the helm. The Navigator uses several slick tools to map out the submarine’s path on the Atlantic map, as well as to physically construct enemy convoy approaches, oh and they’re the ship’s cook too. Finally, the Chief Engineer is a manager of manpower, assigning different personnel to perform reports and maintenance.

Let’s stop for a moment. UBOOT is a complex beast, an experience that is equal parts conflict sim and resource management. Those maintenance tasks the engineer must constantly deal with are your first sign. From the initial bell as you leave the port, you will be busy changing seals and cleaning torpedo tubes. Busy-work is constant and the CE is the task-masker keeping everyone focused.

Your primary resources are your sailors and their level of energy. As they perform tasks they become fatigued. After three such actions they are full-up and will no longer respond to orders. This means a helmsman will refuse to dive or a crew member will refuse to load a torpedo if he’s performed three actions already in the game. It will sneak up on you quickly as just a few routine maneuvers will already have the bulk of the sub exhausted. It simply feels wrong.

UBOOT_Box

This is UBOOT’s primary challenge. It’s a game of hunting British merchant vessels and escorts, punctuated by enormous payouts when your salvo of torpedoes land on target, but the doldrums between are full of Euro-style resource management. This feels at odds with the simulation aspect of the game, despite the fact that it does provide for some gripping strategic decisions as you triage problems with limited manpower.

The issue is recognized to some degree by allowing you to overwork your crew at the cost of morale, and this system does work. It alleviates the pressure at a long-term cost, but it also feels like a bit of a patch as if the core of the game is flawed or misaligned. That creaking feeling of a patchwork hull permeates the design, alluding to a rushed product fraught with issues back in the engine room.

These issues are spread like thin cracks throughout the extent of the product. Aspects such as a lack of a save feature during a three hour mission, minefields that are way too dense for any semblance of reality, and a Chief Engineer role whose actions are far more mundane and dull than the rest of the players. These warts are of overall less severity than the fatigue rules at the heart of the design, but they’re absolutely present and will be of varying concern to individual participants.

And that’s the primary hurdle. If you can get on with the central activation system and the constant management of fatigue, you will find the best bits waiting to be teased to the surface and they will be worth the smaller pains.

Moments such as sinking a merchant vessel and finding yourself pursued by multiple escort frigates are unequaled. As you dive you realize they’re listening to your movements with hydrophone, the app measuring the table’s noise output with a flaring meter. So you start talking in whispers, coordinating your next move like a cluster of bodies in the back corner of a funeral parlor. Then they start dropping depth charges and you have horrible flashbacks to Das Boot.

Those moments are special.

UBOOT_App

Similarly, after spending a good half hour tracking a convoy, plotting its course, and preparing your torpedoes for a huge assault, it’s wildly satisfying to actually sink your target. High fives are unleashed and cheers erupt, with the cacophony quickly being hushed by the captain as they usher you back to battle-stations.

This title is full of those little flashes. Getting assaulted by a flight of allied aircraft, running across a stray vulnerable target, and fixing a breached hull by assembling a little cluster of puzzle pieces – it’s all quite fantastic and immersive.

The real challenge of UBOOT is reconciling that you will spend two of the three hours managing fatigue with the remainder spent on those sweet bits of payout. This will certainly appeal to a core audience and this has the potential to be a favorite game. As the application continues to mature–adding a save feature is a must–the release will hopefully come into its own and continue to offer startling surprises and tense interludes.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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  4 comments for “Of Simulation and Drudgery – A UBOOT: The Board Game Review

  1. Jason Nachtrab
    November 4, 2019 at 10:24 am

    So the adage that war consists of interminable boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror seems to hold true here, perhaps replacing “terror” with “excitement” or “suspense”. In that sense, maybe they’ve captured the essence of submarine warfare perfectly. Whether that translates into a fun game is the question – I doubt many submariners pull into port and immediately exclaim “That was fun! Let’s do it again!”

    That said, I almost backed the KS campaign for this and still really want to play it at least once. The stuff they did with the app seems like it has some really cool ideas.

    Like

    • November 4, 2019 at 10:32 am

      We should play this at Geekway mini. I think I’ll be keeping it longterm for now. Haven’t showed it to Aaron yet although I think his enthusiasm has waned hearing the faults of the game. The other three groups I’ve played it with all definitely enjoyed it to varying degrees, despite its issues.

      Like

  2. November 7, 2019 at 9:32 am

    Thanks for article; I was curious about that title

    Liked by 1 person

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