I love naval simulations. Years ago I used to adore all the ones that used to come from developers like the Strategic Studies Group. I think I played all three volumes of the old Carriers at War game for more hours than real carriers fought in World War II.
However, it’s been a number of years since I played a really nice naval simulation that was turn based. I mean, I got to skipper navy ships in many real-time strategy games over the years, but they were always just a small component of the larger picture, nothing more than fancy looking units that happened to be able to travel over water. I think the real-time craze kind of hurt the strategic genre in general. Sure, real time action is exciting. But it’s really more tactical and less strategic than what I, and I think a large group of war game players, really enjoy.
I had all but given up hope on finding a good turn-based naval strategy game, much less one that focused on World War II, when I suddenly bumped into Battle Fleet 2. This is a sequel to a game that I had not heard of, but I’m really glad I found it. Developer Capital j Media really put all the great strategic gameplay of the past into this game, but with a modern interface and slick graphics.
The game is focused on the Pacific theater of World War II and has three modes, a quick battle simulator, a random battle generator and one where you play the full war on the big Pacific map. In all cases, you can choose to control either the United States Navy (and some ships of her allies) or the Empire of Japan. You can also choose to play against the computer or against a real opponent. If you choose a real opponent, there’s a rudimentary service that allows for matchmaking and live games, or a hotseat type of setup can also be chosen. While we found quite a few willing opponents, a good sign for those who like cunning and unpredictable adversaries, we mostly concentrated this review on AI battles.
The computer is quite intelligent for the most part. At lower difficulty levels it will miss shots on purpose, which is pretty realistic for naval combat of the time. At higher levels it will still miss some, but once it finds the correct range, most of all the remaining guns will lock onto that trajectory and pepper your ship, which again, is realistic for navel warfare before computer guided munitions and radar range finding made hits much more probable.
Battles generally start with the two fleets sitting across from one another, but out of range. There might be open water in between or there might be some islands depending on the location. When playing the full WWII version, there could also be airfields and coastal artillery to deal with, or it might be on your side, depending on who is in control of the location being attacked. Land-based airplanes do pose a serious danger, though coastal artillery is mostly an annoyance unless you are given really bad placement and put in range of a bunch of them to start the battle.
Right now, ships are divided into frigates, destroyers, cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers. There is talk of adding submarines to the game in a future update, though they are not yet included.
Each ship is given a turn in a random order set up at the beginning of a battle. Groups of ships from the same county might all move together or it might swap back and forth between nations. So when it’s your turn, it’s actually just your one ship’s turn. When a ship is selected, it can move and fire in any order. It’s perfectly legal for a ship to fire its front guns and then turn so that the rear turrets can line up shots as well. So this isn’t an action point type of system. A ship can do everything that is possible on its turn, though range and facing challenges mean that firing each gun and torpedo is unlikely.
The one thing I do miss is over-watch. Most turn-based games I’ve played have it, where you can move a unit into position and then tell them to fire should anything come into range. On the one hand, this keeps the mechanics fairly simple so that anyone at any skill level can play. But it also means that charging forward may not be the best plan if that charge keeps you out of range of your enemy, but allows them to sail forward and fire on you first. The one exception to this is that any ship attacked by aircraft can fire their antiaircraft turrets, which makes airplanes slightly less powerful than they could be. In World War II, airpower was unbalancing for naval warfare. Most battleships were sunk by airplanes, not the big guns of other battleships. In Battle Fleet 2, airplanes are powerful without wrecking the game.
One thing that you will find yourself doing a lot is lining up shots and then guessing at the power you should put behind them, just like real gunners in WWII. You have some range clues, like how far out 2,000 yards is from your gun. If an enemy happens to land right along that circle, so much the better for an easy shot. But for the most part, you will be guessing at the range. I got to be pretty good at this and if you are going to be successful, you will too. That is one of the cool things about light turrets, because they can fire more than once per turn. So you can walk your shots into targets with your light turrets and then use your bigger guns (assuming you have them) to decimate enemies once you find your range. You can also launch torpedoes if you get close enough, which generally do quite a lot of damage compared to most guns other than the heavy ones on a battleship.
I have to say that landing a broadside against an enemy is a real treat as you can choose to fire a single gun or every gun on your ship that can reach a target. A salvo is accompanied by a nice sound effect and a booming echo that kind of rolls across the water. There are also little command cards which can be picked up by sailing over floating boxes on the map. These cards have special powers, but are not really too helpful except in rare cases. If you are sailing near one it might be worth a slight course change to get it, but sending a ship out of formation just to run around and pick up cards almost never pays off. Having that ship actively contributing to the battle is much more useful.
You will likely want to practice the random and set piece battles quite a bit before trying to tackle the full war. In the set battles, you can decide both what your opponent and your fleet has to deploy, perfect for devising strategies like how to take down a carrier. Random battles field equal ship types based on points, so you might have to take three destroyers up against a battleship, or it might be an evenly matched fight between cruisers and frigates. It’s nice to play random fights so you can learn how to adjust your tactics for anything.
When playing the full war, you would not be off base if you suddenly felt like William Halsey or Chester Nimitz looking at the big map. Like strategic board games, each territory is worth a certain amount of points, which are calculated at the end of every turn and which can go into building more ships. An important strategic point like Midway is worth 20 points, while a small stretch of worthless sea might only be worth five. Buying a new frigate costs 100 points, while a battleship is 500 points. When buying a new ship, you can customize the types of guns that are on it. Carriers come with four air groups automatically.
You can see how many ships an enemy has positioned in each zone across an entire map, but not what types of ships are there. You get a limited number of reconnaissance flights each turn if you want to peek in on the enemy. Attacking a map square means attacking the ships positioned there. Land-based airfields and coastal artillery will also attack, assuming there are enemy ships in the zone. However, any zone without a ship is considered undefended no matter how many land defenses it has. I learned this the hard way. So don’t leave Australia unguarded thinking the coastal artillery will defend it.
Ships can move one territory per turn, and damaged ships can be repaired to full health by ending their turn in one of the limited harbors in the game, which makes territories like Hawaii and Australia with their ports very valuable. The AI at the strategic level is not quite as good as it is during the tactical battles and seems to almost always favor capturing unguarded territories even if they are not worth that many points and have no land-based defenses. As such, I could lure him into sea zones where he would have no support when I attacked. Even then, it did surprise me once in a while, though human opponents would likely be more devious and could see through those rudimentary strategies.
I happily played Battle Fleet 2 for many hours, winning the war for both sides many times over. The highest difficulty setting is pretty brutal. Expect wars at that level to last quite a while, with many ships on both sides sent to the bottom. Battle Fleet 2 is every bit as good as those strategic simulations of yesteryear, and in many ways much better. This game should be in every armchair admiral’s collection. It can provide a quick strategic fix for a lunchtime battle, or an entire day of fighting over the Pacific. Battle Fleet 2 earns 4.5 GiN Gems, and we look forward to seeing what future updates to this amazing battlefield will bring to the fight.