Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 129 / MAY 1991 / PAGE 104

In harm's way. (computer game simulation of the World War II Convoy PQ-17)
by Richard Sheffield

The fog was so heavy that the crew of the SS Carlton could barely make out the stern of their ship. Yet despite the fog, the Carlton and 34 other cargo ships were headed single-file out of the harbor at Hvalfiord, Iceland. They were moving toward the Soviet coast with $700 million worth of war materials.

The Carlton had been unlucky ever since she left Philadelphia several months earlier on Friday the thirteenth. She was towed back from her previous attempt to cross the Barents Sea as a result of a near-miss air attack. That's when her gunner managed to shoot down a British Sea Hurricane aircraft. Now she was headed back out as part of the most disastrous convoy of the war, Convoy PQ-17.

It seemed that no one was very keen on the Iceland-to-Russia convoys, from the British Admiralty, who called the operation unsound," to Seaman James Atkins, who would write, "We were loaded with ... 450 tons of high explosive, loaded fore, aft, and amidships: they were not taking any chances on our getting through to Russia."

But Roosevelt, who provided most of the material and ships, and Stalin, who needed that material to stop the German advance along the Russian front, put enormous pressure on Churchill to get the convoy moving, though they had intelligence that the German navy was cooking up something special for PQ-17.

It was probably too much good intelligence that led the British to believe that the convoy was in imminent danger of attack by a strong surface force. Believing they were out-gunned, the British gave the disastrous order to withdraw the covering warships and disperse the convoy. Starting Over But what if things had been different? Two new simulation games let you set up PQ-17 and see how it plays out. In fact, Wolfpack from Broderbund and Action Stations from Conflict Analytics let you set up just about any scenario, real or imagined.

The ability to make up your own scenarios finally frees the game player from the designer's view of how the game should be played. Canned scenarios are nice, but once you've played them once or twice, the game starts to lose some of its zip. When you can make up new scenarios and rewrite history, a game can remain interesting almost indefinitely.

With WolfPack and Action Stations, you can cover both ends of the spectrum when it comes to scenario building. The Mission Construction Set in WolfPack is mouse driven, highly graphic, and easy to use; but it's also rather shallow in detail. The Scenario Builder with Action Stations, however, is complex and highly detailed, but it's more difficult to use.

Though the Germans' plan was to destroy PQ-17 with a surface force, they also had 11 U-boats (code-named the Ice Devil pack) in the area to track the convoy. What if the Germans had decided to attack the convoy early with Ice Devil instead of tracking? You can easily set up and play this scenario with WolfPack. The only problem is the size of the forces and convoy. WolfPack tends to slow down when a large number of ships are used. Fortunately, this is easily countered by reducing the forces on both sides by half.

Actually building the scenario is very easy. Using a point-and-click operation, you just pick a patch of ocean and populate it with ships. The convoy of 20 ships is set up to follow one ship as a leader, so you only need to plot the course for that one ship. Around the convoy are placed seven destroyers, either in repeating patrol routes, which move with the convoy, or in advance positions on their own. Then it's just a matter of placing the six U-boats and picking their captains. This feature lets you choose how the U-boats will function when you're not controlling them. Some captains are relentless attackers, and others won't attack at all.

Put the U-boats on an intercept course with the convoy and start the action. Once engaged, you can take control of any U-boat in your group or watch them operate on their own.

Though the setup is easy, there isn't a lot of detail that can affect the outcome. Wolfpack makes no provision for setting the level of visibility or sea state. And the convoy doesn't change course or disperse once the attack starts. Call to Action Action Stations, on the other hand, presents a much more balanced surface battle-which the Germans had code-named The Knight's Move. Actually, convoy PQ-17 is one of the scenarios that comes with the game. This turns out to be a good thing, since building the battle from scratch is quite a lengthy and complicated process. Very little is overlooked in the building process. The details include sea state, wind direction and speed, sea direction and speed, day and night visibility, time of day, and optional storms and squalls. And that's before you ever plot your first ship.

There are also quite a few details to fill in for each ship you include, but the most complicated process is placing the ships on the map. Instead of pointing to where you want the ship to be on the map, you provide x,y coordinates without even seeing the map. It's best to follow the manual's advice and first plot the whole thing out on graph paper.

Because PQ-17 is one of the 30 scenarios included with Action Stations, it's much easier to use the Edit function to change a few things in the way the scenario is set up. The scenario comes set up with two German battle groups placed together, attacking the convoy from the south. Set up this way, the British must hold off the Germans until the covering cruiser force can arrive from the north. Playing this way, I got an even battle with heavy losses on both sides.

But when I play what if and use an alternate German plan of an enveloping attack, things shift a little to the Germans. In this setup, the German force that's positioned around the battleship Tirpitz comes in from the north. Before it can attack the convoy, it engages the British covering force. By staying at long range, the Tirpitz can keep this force occupied while the Second Battle Group, consisting of the pocket battleships" Lutzow and Admiral Scheer, attacks the convoy and destroyers with I I -inch guns.

You can't add or remove ships with the Edit program, but a program on the optional Utilities disk will let you do this. Using the Swap-Add program, you can really start to play what if What if the Bismark wasn't sunk in 1941 and was available for The Knight's Move? What if the convoy had twice as many torpedo-carrying destroyers or a King George V-class battleship? The possibilities and replay value of the game are endless.

Scenario builders are becoming so popular that they're almost a must for new military sims of this type. But if the idea is to play what if, I'd like to see the publishers go a step further. They could let you set up a battle, sit back, and watch the computer play both sides. You might even be able to watch the action from a number of vantage points, as in MI Tank Platoon.

Courting Disaster

So what finally happened to the real-life PQ-17? After the order to disperse the convoy, things got bad in a hurry. Without destroyer cover, many ships were taken individually by U-boats and bombers. A few seaworthy ships were beached and abandoned by their crews on the first patch of dry land they found. In all, 24 ships and 153 Allied seamen were lost.

The SS Carlton was torpedoed the day after the convoy scattered, and most of her crew members were taken prisoner. The crew's bad luck continued when their transport ship hit a mine and sank. Having been through this before, the crew of the Carlton distinguished themselves by calmly handing out life preservers to the panicked German ground soldiers on board and organizing the rescue. They were later thanked by the ship's captain for saving the lives of hundreds of men.

Das Boot Richard Sheffield

Das Boot puts you in command of a German Type VII U-boat, the scourge of the Atlantic during World War II. Type VII boats were responsible for sinking millions of tons of Allied shipping. Had they been used propand in greater numbers, " might have affected the outcome of the war.

The name Des Boot comes as a pro - I tie-in with the book (provided free with the game) and movie of the same name. But it should be made clear that there is no attempt made in the game to recreate to action in either.

Learning a game like this is usually very difficult, what with the various statons and moving around in ft boat. But Das Boot has an excellent training mode that lets you operate each battle station in an arcadelike combat sequence with plenty of targets. In the training mode, you can use the antiaircraft gun against Allied planes, shoot the deck gun, make surface and submerged torpedo attacks, maneuver through minefields, arid practice sub-versus-sub warfare. The practice sessions are scored to let you know how wen you did.

After a little practice you are ready for your command arid one of the five missions. From the Arctic to Gibraltar to the North Atlantic to Norway to the Bay of Biscay, you'll find no shortage of enemy contacts. Allied bombers are a constant threat. There are three levels of difficulty, and to introductory level is definitely recommended for new players. You can further fine-tune the difficulty using the Historical Accuracy selections. Torpedo performance, on-board repairs, and newequipment introduction can be tailored to make your mission easier or more difficult.

The game fully supports 256-color VGA and does present some interesting graphics. But they fail to take full advantage of this high-powered video adapter by using digitized images of enemy ships as do some of ft other sub simulations. Sound-board support includes both Ad Lib and SoundBlaster and is well used. The mouse interface also works well Gameplay was satisfactory, but I had several system lockups and a recurring bug: The bottom portion Of MY screen would not paint until I moved the mouse back and forth over it,

Actually, ft biggest problem with this game is what is left out What's there works pretty well but seems incomplete. My biggest complaint is ft lack of a Save Game feature. With the ability to call for Milch cow resupply sub, some of these missions can go on for hours. Asking the player to complete them in one sitting is just not realistic, and forcing him or her to scuttle the sub to quit in the middle is downright mean. Also missing is a campaign/career mode along with promotions or medals. It would have been great to see how victories at sea affect the ground war as you sever the Allied supply lines. The manual could use some work as well.

The work completed on Des Boot is well done, but she seems to have been launched a bit prematurely. Until a few more hatch doors are installed, I'm afraid that she will leak rather badly when compared to other World War II sub simulations.

Product List

Here are the products used by Richard Sheffield, and some other submarine combat products you might enjoy.

Action Stations

Conflict Analytics

395 Del Monte Center, Ste. 189

Monterey, CA 93940

IBM PC and compativles, 640K RAM, CGA;

mouse optional--$49.95

Utilities disk-$12.95

Ancient Art of War at Sea

Broderbund Software

17 Paul Dr.

San Rafael, CA 94903

(415) 492-3200

IBM PC and compatibles, 256K RAM,

graphics adapter mouse or joystick option


Apple II version-$44.95

Macintosh version-$44.95

Des Boot


2402 Broadmoor

Bldg. B, Ste. 201

Bryan, TX 77802


IBM PC and compatibles, 640K RAM, CGA

(10-MHZ 286 or better with VGA recom

-mended); Microsoft mouse supported but

not necessary-$49.95

40 Great Submarine Simulator War



324 W. Wendover Ave., Sts. 200

Greensboro, NC 27408


Use Silent Service to re-create great World

War II submarine battles--$14.95



2402 Broadmoor

Bldg. B, Sts. 201

Bryan, TX 77802


IBM PC and compatibles, 640K RAM, CGA

(286 or 386 with EGA or higher recom

-mended); Microsoft mouse recommend


Amiga version-*9.95

Macintosh vesion--$59.95

Hunt for Red October

Software Tookworks

60 i Ct

Novato, CA 94949

(415) 883,3000

IBM PC arid compatibles, 512K RAM, OGA

or EGA; mouse supported $29.95

Amiga version-$29.95

Apple II version-$29.95

Atari ST version-$29.95

Commodore 64 version-$29.95

Macintosh version--$29.95



180 Lakefront Dr.

Hunt Valley, MD 21030

(301) 771-1151

IBM PC arid compatibles, 256K RAM, CGA,

EGA, arid Tandy 16=&-W.95

Amiga version-$44.95

Apple II version-$44.96

Atari ST version-$44.95

Commodore 64 version-$44.95

Macintosh version-$59.95

Silent Service II


180 Lakefront Dr.

Hunt Valley, MD 21030

(301) 771-1151

IBM PC and compatibles, 640K RAM, CGA,

EGA, VGA, and Tandy 16-color; supports

Ad Lib, SoundBlaster, and Roland sound



Broderbund Software

17 Paul Dr.

San Rafael, CA 94903

(415) 492-3200

IBM PC and oompatibles, 512K RAM,

graphics adapter, mouse or joystick option


Amiga version-$54.95