Monday, January 7, 2019

Warlord slightly out of depth with Cruel Seas

A while ago Warlord Games released a game I had anticipated for a while: Cruel Seas. Instead of the numerous (well, if not numerous, at least present) existing modern naval warfare rulesets it would not deal with the Big Ships but with the small fast attack boats and their targets instead. 

A welcome change and a spectacular and favourite theme of mine, having read and re-read "De Engelandvaarders" by K. Norel in my youth; a chronicle of Dutch resistance fighters who fled to England in 1940 and enlisted in the Royal Navy to serve on MTBs among other missions.

Last week I played my first game. It turned out a typical Warlord product in both positive and negative aspects.

The Presentation
As we are customed to by now from Warlord the presentation of the game is splendid. The sturdy box contains all rules, dice, rulers, counters and even a largish paper playmat (both Mediterranean blue and Atlantic grey on separate sides) to play the game as well as 10 plastic ship models. There are even cardboard terrain pieces to represent coastline, a merchant ship (whole and wrecked) and a few German and British airplanes.

The rulebook is a durable A4 full-colour paperback containing the complete rules, complete fleetlists, some background, lovely full colour picture material to inspire your painting and a number of missions to play. As the game is supposed to cover all small ship actions of World War 2 the missions range from the English Channel to the Pacific, as do the fleet lists and background info. For the researchers amongst us an extensive reading list is presented. The box even has an index, which is a big plus as far as I am concerned.

The only thing missing here is a Quick Reference Sheet but that can be downloaded from the Warlord site.

The models

Warlord chose 1/300 scale to build the models in. The starter box comes with 6 Vosper MTBs and 4 S-Boats. Half of the ships are early war types, the other half the later war types like the S-100 Schnellboot and the Type 2 Vosper MTB. Later types tend to be faster, tougher and more heavily armed than earlier types.

The ships are plastic kits on sprue and are lovely. Assembly is easy and a breeze even with the rather sketchy instructions also included in the box. Warlord has announced several releases to expand on the game and the first Japanese, British, German, Italian,Soviet and US fleet packs will hit retail shortly (or have done so already). Fleet packs will also contain larger ships like gunboats, cutters, minesweepers and destroyers, all covered by the rules.

The only objection one can have against these models is that they are too big. Destroyers are over half a foot/10-15 cms and merchant freighters are even larger. A convoy in 1/300 scale will take up a lot of table space,, perhaps too much for any maneuvers to be possible. For that reason only I will most likely play this game in 1/600. But not without some heartache….

The Rules: what is good?
Already mentioned above the layout and presentation are excellent. Rules are systematically explained and illuminated by explanatory illustrations that clarify rules excellently. So what about the structure?

Initiative is determined in the familiar Bolt Action method by randomly picking coloured counters or dice from a bag. If your colour turns up, you may activate a ship. So activation is alternate. Actvation consists of movement, shooting and some miscellaneous actions of which Repair is the most interesting one, executed by the ship or plane of choice. Torpedoes move in the same activation as the ship that fired them.

Movement comes in three speeds: Slow, Combat and Full. All ships have these three speed categories irrespective of size or type. However, movement distances per speed band differ per ship type, merchants being slower than MTBs for example. A ship may make one turn per speed band moved. Large ships must make wider turns than medium or small ones. A ship may slow down or speed up one range band per turn. Handy rulers with turn angles are supplied with the game.

After moving ships may shoot. All weapons on a ship may fire on different targets. Firing is done by rolling a d10, adding or subtracting modifiers for range, visibility, speed of target and shooter and coming up with a 5 or less. A hit does a number of D6s damage (scrap hull squares) where 6es will indicate Critical Hits that may destroy essential ship systems like a rudder or specific weapons. Torpedoes may be dropped into the water in the Shooting phase as well. In a stroke of brilliance one ruler has the most common modifierst printed on its back. Splashes around the target ship from previous misses in that turn enhance the chance of it being hit. The game provides plastic splash counters.

All this results in a fast and easy to play game. But not one that, in my opimion, emulates fast attack boat combat particularly well. I think there are a number of problems. 

The Rules: what could be better?
The random Initiative method is a matter of taste. It defintely results in dynamic and surprising games. However bad luck may ruin the most clever plan. I would prefer alternate activation without the random factor. But I admit this is a matter of taste.

Turning circles do not work right and are the same width no matter how fast or slow your boat moves. This more or less cancels any effects of speed on turning which in my opnion should have been essential in a fast attack boat combat game. Tighter turning circles for slow moving ships would have been much more interestiung and really would not have been hard to implement. Besides that, all ships may make a turn when stationary, which makes large ships incredibly maneuverable. Finally, as one acccustomed to boats I get hung up on the fact that in CS ships turn around their stern, while in reality ships with steering rudders will turn around their bows unless they have bow screws.

The effect of splashes is very pronunced as any splash of a larger calibre miss increases the chance of a subsequent hit with 10%. In reality this effect did indeed come into play between capital warships but had no effect at all amongst the agile and fast moving small attack boats that left splashes behind very fast and mostly engaged in flat-trajectory fire anyway.  

Airplanes may attack boats but strangely enough may not strafe them, which was the most common form of airplane-to-ship attack.

Purists may also want to alter the effects of certain weapons and weapon layouts. However CS is a fast flowing game and should perhaps not be cluttered by too much detailed ruling. But the problems with turning circles, splashes and strafing attacks  should have been solved. Some excellent houserules to complement (and/or complete) this game with can be found at this link.

The rules also already know an extensive Errata list, which could have been somewhat prevented by better proof reading. It can be found here.

Cruel Seas is a beautifully executed and promising game that is enjoyable to play straight from the box. But it would have been a much better game having benefited from rules that emulate fast boats better and some more proof reading.

The choice for 1/300 scale will produce some stunning naval modelling but will run into its own limitations in larger scenarios as soon as the recommended 3x4 table is stuffed with ships actually too big to fit on it.  


  1. A really good review. I share your thoughts on the scale..way too big for convoy level actions, which is what it's all about really.

  2. Grondige recensie, dank daarvoor. Drie vragen 1) Jij hebt ook Jutland gedaan als ik me goed herinner, welk systeem is beter? 2) Enigszins sceptisch vraag ik me af of grijze bootjes op een blauwe zee wel 'stunning' kan zijn - vergeleken met het kleurenpalet van fantasy, Napoleon of SF. Ik heb geen enkele ervaring met naval wargames, alleen maar vooroordelen :-). Dus hoe valt daarin jouw vergelijking uit? 3) Ik ken X-Wing zo'n beetje, net als CS ook met korte en lange bochten en manoeuvreren zodat de ander in schootsveld komt, in hoeverre is CS een soort X-Wing op zee, of omgekeerd, hoeveel lijkt X-Wing op naval wargames?

    1. 1. We played Jutland with the General Quarters 2 rules augmented with a strategic ruleset of my own hand.

      2. Visual effect of a naval game is of course largely a matter of taste. However, well-painted ship models and coastal terrain will produce a pleasant looking table in my eyes. Of course very little in wargaming would beat Napoleonics when it comes to colorfulness :)

      3. X-Wing doesn't use various speed bands if I remember correctly and uses movement templates instead of measured distances. So the mechanics are different. However, most rulesets for space warfare would be reasonably suited to play naval games simply using ships and sea instead of starfighters and space. Just don't expect specifics.

  3. Interesting review, thanks! Might give it a whirl...

  4. Thanks for the review, I took a quick look at a game store on Saturday and declined. I don't need a new project and tend not to like Warlord Games rules.

  5. Excellent review. Am still yet to try the game however I am busy painting up ships awaiting a corrected reprint of the game. Interested to see how those modified rules play out.

  6. Hi fellas nice review..fair and balanced.. Not so sure that convoy attacks is"what its all about" though. Its not.Its for smaller encounter and scenario actions, that is what it has been designed for. I heartily agree its not about destroyer actions or operation Pedestal battles its about a very few boats or ships fighting with a purpose. convoy actions and destroyer stuff is definitely best left to smaller scale ships... best wishes john stallard author of said game...

    1. Thanks for your response. I noticed I was not the first to want to change the running circles. I hope to find out what your rules can do with smaller scale.ships.

  7. Thanks for the review I found it useful and agree with many *if not all) of your points

  8. Try their Black Seas rules. I have played both and I prefer Black seas to Cruel seas.

    1. Thank you. I will try them out when given the chance. But I will not buy them anytime soon. Cruel seas was a bit of a disappointment and BS material appears very expensive to me.