Specsim
W.G. Munro
1987
Strategy: War
£14.95
English
ZX Spectrum 48K
Undetermined

50,51
Philippa Irving
Chris Bourne

The company which produces this game, Specsim, describes itself as 'an extremely small operation' with one previous game - Carriers at Midway- to its credit. I haven't seen this game but although it only sold to a few customers, their enthusiasm spurred on the author to attempt a more ambitious project: Dreadnoughts at Jutland is the result.

Although the material that comes with the program cassette is reproduced in an inevitably basic fashion, it is encouraging to see that for once an amateur concern has taken the trouble to provide the text, if not the frills, of full documentation. Dreadnoughts at Jutland comes with a substantial photocopied 21-page manual. The mechanics of the game and technical details about the ships are well described, but there is no summary of the battle itself. Although one can glean a fair amount of information about it from the rest of the material in the book, this is a serious omission. The author is clearly knowledgeable on the subject: he ought to have indulged his knowledge in condensed form for the benefit of ignorant players like myself!

As far as I can gather, the battle of Jutland took place on May 31st and June 1st. 1916. The First World War has never been anything like as popular with wargame designers as the Second, partly because it (presumably) contains fewer interesting campaigns and partly because it still exists in the minds of most people as an unjustifiable holocaust which ought not to be re-enacted as a game. However, sea-battles are different from the mud and squalor of the trenches, and it was in the First World War that machine first really met machine in combat. No machines were more glamorous than the new 'superships'. The first 'Dreadnought ' was launched in 1906, the invention of Admiral Fisher. By the time it went into actual combat it had been modified into the battlecruiser - a design which relied on heavy guns and speed rather than armour, the theory being that a ship which was fast enough to get out of trouble quickly was at a greater advantage than one which was simply thick-skinned. The Germans also built battlecruisers, but they had fewer guns and were better protected. In battle, they proved to be the more successful design.

Dreadnoughts at Jutland recreates what the designer describes as this 'exhaustively analysed ' battle. A preliminary look at the rulebook is enough to make it clear that this is a game full of grim technical detail, aiming at accuracy rather than playability. Games about naval battles seem to me to be either fatuous and shallow, or overly technical and machine simulation orientated; the only game that I can think of which strikes a balance between the extremes is Silent Service. Dreadnought at Jutland is not a machine simulation - there are no buttons to press, and no control over combat - but it certainly relies on factual accuracy, and focuses attention on the ships rather than the battle.

The player is given a choice between controlling either the British or German forces, or of a two-player game. The British forces are divided into two fleets, under the command of Admiral Jellicoe and Vice-Admiral Beatty, and subdivided into squadrons - the basic units of play. There are nine squadrons on the British side, made up of battlecruisers, which are dealt with individually and do most of the fighting, light cruisers, which have no offensive capacity and are used mainly for reconnaissance, and destroyers, which can only fire torpedoes. Squadrons contain only one class of ship, for the sake of simplicity. The light cruisers and destroyers are anonymous, but the battle cruisers have names and sets of statistics. Each squadron is under the command of a flagship.

The turn sequence starts with movement orders, given to each squadron rather than to each ship. The squadron can be ordered to change direction, by means of a compass bearing and speed setting. The maximum speed of each ship in the squadron can be discovered from the information screen that can be called up at any time, and although a squadron cannot be ordered to travel faster than its flagship's maximum speed, the speed can be beyond the capabilities of certain ships in the convoy. Maximum speed is one of the things that ships lose rapidly when they are damaged, and so it is easy for ships to lose sight of their flagship and fall behind. Keeping a squadron together, particularly in low visibility conditions, is one of the most important tasks in the game.

The main screen is a stylised view from the bridge of the flagship of the squadron currently under consideration. Various pieces of information are displayed in a basic fashion below the pictorial viewscreen: the time of day, the direction of the view, the current visibility, plus the course, speed and position of the ship. The screen shows a visual representation of what can be seen from the bridge, with reference, largely, to other ships. The player can choose to look with the naked eye, or go to two further degrees of magnification representing binoculars and telescopes. Ships seen ahead are identified by name, if visibility is reckoned to be good enough. When it is not, it is up to the player to decide whether the ship in view is friend or foe. There are no visual clues given in the rulebook, so this judgement has to be based on experience.

The position of all the ships on the map-or those, at least, whose position is known - is plotted on a graph, and a reading of this plot is available only at 15 minute intervals. While I accept that the plot took time to prepare, and that it is reasonable to expect to have an update only infrequently, it is frustrating not to be able to refer to the last plot while waiting for the new one. I also found it difficult to make sense of the information illustrated: it is not at all clear what represents what on the on-screen diagram.

There are five scenarios to choose from, even though the battle lasted for no more than a day. Three recreate particular incidents in that period, one allows you to play through something that might have happened, and one, naturally, allows you to attempt the entire confrontation. Solemn realism reaches its height in the scenario 'Night Action', which sounds almost unbearably exciting; 'because of the very poor visibility it is quite likely that there will be little or no contact or action during this scenario...'

Combat takes place automatically when enemy ships are within range of each other, and it is displayed visually after the player has entered movement orders. The chances of hitting the enemy are influenced by various factors, including the visibility (which can be affected by the ship having to fire into the setting or rising sun) and the gunning ability of the particular ship. Confusingly, hits on the player's ships are shown from the enemy's bridge. If visibility is poor and the ship cannot identify a target, the player is given the chance to stop the attack.

Lesser ships - the light cruisers and destroyers -are either sunk or afloat. The battlecruisers, on the other hand, go through a complex damage sequence before finally sinking. Their gun turrets can be knocked out, reducing their efficiency in combat, their maximum speed can be reduced, increasing their chance of accidently breaking away from the squadron, and general damage progresses through five stages from nil to very heavy. When a ship is damaged, the player is given the option of detaching it from the squadron. A damaged ship slows the squadron down, but getting rid of it when its gun turrets are large reduces the firepower.

The range of reality factors 'rulepinned ' is very great, and I know that many people get satisfaction out of that for its own sake. While I like to see complexity in a game of this nature, it is not enough to make it enjoyable to play. I found it very difficult to get any satisfaction out of playing Dreadnoughts at Jutland, as a simulation it lacks atmosphere and excitement, and as a game it is not interesting.

On the other hand, I realise that some people will enjoy the historical accuracy more than I am able to, and there has certainly been a lot of thought, research and knowledge put into a game which, for an amateur production, is well presented. You will, I hope, be able to tell from my description whether this is your sort of game.

CRITICISM

78%
All parts of the program run smoothly. You will, I hope, be able to tell from my description whether this is your sort of game.
87%
Detailed, clear and ample, although there's a lack of broad background.
60%
The views from the bridge are reasonable, if functionally dull. The plots are difficult to decipher.
88%
Convincing
69%
A working model of Jutland, which some players will find intrinsically more interesting than others.