Legacy Review: Supremacy at Sea WW2

When I heard we were doing a series of reviews covering ‘forgotten gems’, I dashed to the CD shelf in my computer room blew the dust off some cases and had a blast reliving my youth… well, my younger days, for sure! Some of the games were fun (the early missions of SWAT4 are amazing), some a big disappointment (despite trying everything I couldn’t get Fighting Steel to run on Windows 10), but some were really surprising. Supremacy at Sea WW2 (SAS) is one of the later.

SAS is a WW2 naval war game from Naval Warfare Simulations (NWS) that first appeared in 2008. The really interesting thing that sets it apart from every other naval game I’ve played is that it focusses on the strategic aspects of running a naval war. There are air, land and naval battles and you can intervene in the operational aspects of things, but the player’s attention is always driven back to the strategic level – can I afford to keep taking losses to supply Malta?; can I wait two years to build a battleship or can I make do with more cruisers?; what bases should I defend and which should I attack and when?

SAS offers three main campaigns (US vs. Japan in the Pacific, Britain vs. Italy in the Mediterranean and Britain vs. Germany in the Atlantic) as well as a simplified Pacific campaign to support the tutorial. The campaigns aren’t completely historical as they’ve been tweaked to improve ‘balance’ – for example the Italians are given aircraft carriers in the Med. The game does come with an editor so it’s relatively simple to adjust the campaigns to suit individual preferences. The campaigns model the entire war and can reach 1950 if the situation doesn’t resolve itself. The campaigns proceed in a turn-based manner which defaults to monthly turns but can be altered to weekly or fortnightly if desired.

Documentation is good. There’s context sensitive help in every dialogue and there’s an on-line players manual available on the NWS site. The NWS site also has a ‘play through’ of several turns of the Mediterranean campaign that’s quite interesting as it shows the planning that has to be done to do a decent job of playing the game. Once a campaign is chosen SAS drops the player into his Admiral’s office.

The blackboard on the left of the office acts as a menu to allow the various planning tasks to be accessed. The map on the wall allows the player to study the deployments and bases and also allows the player to create naval task forces and missions.

On starting a new turn, it’s always worthwhile having a look at least at the main headings in the briefing. This is presented to the player in a fun format that actually looks like a formal report. The important information is always summarised at the top of the report, but it’s possible to drill down to get very detailed information (like the war records of individual ships) if that’s what you want.

Once you spent a few minutes (or hours) considering the briefing it’s on to building stuff. To do this you need to use the games currency of resource points (RPs). These points are produced by factories at the player’s ports and can also be produced by importing raw materials, giving the player a reason to run convoys. RPs are consumed to supply troops, refuel, repair and rearm ships and to do various sorts of construction. The system is much simpler than in many strategic games that model multiple types of resources, but it works well in the context of a naval game – it doesn’t matter too much what the stuff is but you do know that it needs to be moved from A to B.

The build menu allows the construction of infrastructure, ships, troops and planes. The build menus are also the first place you’ll meet your second-in-command. The 2IC allows the games AI to help you in the build stage by suggesting appropriate construction. The behaviour of the AI can be adjusted by altering the overall ‘strategy’ (from ‘Very cautious’ to ‘Very aggressive’ in four stages) and for some things (like aeroplane builds) can be tweaked to prioritise some builds over others. The player is free to reject the 2IC suggestions and pursue their own ideas – sometimes you just have to do this to show who’s boss! Without the 2IC the game would be a beast – there are just too many decisions that need to be made to make the process fun. The 2IC generally produces reasonable results leaving the player to make relatively small adjustments when desired.

Construction of ships and infrastructure take place over realistic time periods. There’s no point in ordering a Battleship and expecting it next turn: it’ll take a year or so to appear. It’s also possible to ‘design’ your own ships, but the vast selection of historical designs make this something I’ve never used. There’s also a huge range of aeroplanes that can be built with new models appearing as aviation technology is developed. The size of the forces that can be deployed in this game are historical and massive – hundreds of ships and thousands of aircraft.

After the building choices for the turn have been made the next job is to move onto deployments (an Admiral’s work is never done!) Deploying aircraft involves simply moving them to and from a reserve. The 2IC does this for you for land bases (although some of its placement decisions are strange and may need tweaking), but for some reason doesn’t bother with aircraft carriers. Transfer of aircraft is unrealistic in that it is instant and completely range independent – you can move aircraft thousands of miles instantly. It’s a shame as it makes the replication of historical missions like the ‘Club Runs’ to Malta impossible. I suspect that the way missions have been structured in the game makes aircraft ferry transfers impossible.

Deploying ships involves the creation of task forces from reserve fleets at the player’s ports and then assigning these to missions. It’s possible to hand everything over to the 2IC, or take complete control, or do something in between. I tend to create a few task forces for missions that I think are really important and then let the 2IC use the remaining ships to perform other missions (like offensive patrols and minelaying). The 2IC is guided by the strategy that is currently selected and which specifies which classes of missions should be undertaken and their relative priority. The player is free to add or remove missions from this list or to adjust their positions in the priority order. The player can also adjust 2IC generated missions by changing their paths or ROE, or by cancelling then entirely.

After deployment has been completed the turn can be run. The turn proceeds in hourly intervals for the turn period that has been selected (a week, a fortnight or a month). It’s possible to move through the turn an hour at a time, but it’s more usual to allow the turn to run until something significant happening stops the execution (the user can choose what is significant e.g. enemy sightings, naval battles, etc). The player can leave the operational AI to manage task force responses and airbase operations or can take a more active role in managing selected task forces and bases.

The game continues in this manner until the calendar hits 1950, or until the game decides you’ve done (or not done) enough to win (or lose). Every January the player’s economy is compared with that of the enemy and a decision of a win, a loss or to continue is made by the game.

To get the game running in Windows 10 I had to fiddle with it a bit. At first sight the game looks great even on a high resolution monitor (2560×1440) but I found that some of the control buttons were clipped at the edges. I had to drop the resolution to 1600×900 to see all of the buttons. The games response to mouse-clicks is frustrating. It often takes repeated clicks to get things to happen, and even when buttons appear to depress, they sometimes don’t do anything. You do get used to it but it isn’t ideal. For some reason the game doesn’t respond to the numeric keypad, but does accept the numbers along the top of the alpha numeric keyboard. Sometimes the close button on a particular dialogue disappears and the only way to get out is to ALT-Tab and close the dialogue manually. The game is Java based and you need to use the 32-bit version of Java to get it to run.

There are slight irritations in the gameplay too. The 2IC isn’t perfect and has to be kept an eye on. It doesn’t seem to pay too much attention to RPs when planning missions, sometimes creating huge repair bills that bankrupt ports for a turn or two. On supply transport missions I’m sure that the tons that get shipped are never exactly the same as those that arrive. To get the best out of the game you need to be prepared to wade through the whole manual, although this isn’t as bad as it sounds as the supporting materials are well written and full of insights about the various design choices that have been made.

Getting hold of the game isn’t as easy as it could be either. Support of the game by NWS has now stopped, as the designer seems to have some other issues that he had to deal with. As a result NWS don’t seem to be pushing the game and are selling off their remaining CDs for $10. This is a great deal for players in the USA, but shipping costs makes it less attractive for gamers elsewhere. There’s currently no digital download, which seems a bit silly to me as the game files are only about 80MB. Perhaps we can put some pressure on NWS to offer a download option?

The thing that has surprised me about this game is that, despite all the technical and gameplay issues, I love it. SAS has been created by someone with a passion for the subject matter and with real vision on how to recreate it in a computer game. The game is packed with historical detail, but never overwhelms. The 2IC function actually helps immersion in the game as you feel that don’t have to sweat the small stuff – you’re the boss and you have lackeys to do that for you.

Bottom Line? This game it is a work of art: If you are interested in the strategic aspects of naval warfare then it’s definitely worth having a look at.