Grab Hold of One Long Sharp Tooth

"Those should be backwards!" —nerds, not realizing that the words The Hunt are printed, ambulance-like, so as to be read forwards in a mirror. Checkmate, nerds.

Wargames are in a period of metamorphosis. One of last year’s most impactful titles was Resist!, a masterful release from Salt & Pepper Games designed by David Thompson, Trevor Benjamin, and Roger Tankersley. Resist! was an exemplar of what I like to call the “human touch” wave of wargames. Rather than fretting over the particulars of military paraphernalia, its interest was more psychological, emphasizing the human toll of insurgent warfare. Every play forced a reckoning. Brought to life by the illustrations of Albert Monteys, its cast of Maquis rebels stared you down as you undertook antifascist assaults and chose who to sacrifice or preserve. Its pedigree owed more to The Grizzled than to Advanced Squad Leader.

That pedigree continues this year with The Hunt, another Salt & Pepper release illustrated by Monteys. Designed by Matthias Cramer and Engin Kunter, The Hunt positions its lens somewhat farther out, encompassing the South Atlantic Ocean and the dueling searches of the German and British Navies.

I once got lost on the Strawberry Reservoir. So, y'know, I'd do great in the ocean.

The South Atlantic is annoyingly big.

The topic, this time around, is that of the Admiral Graf Spee, a German Panzerschiff set loose by the Kriegsmarine in the early days of World War II to strangle Allied commerce by sending it to the bottom of the sea. Its early hits were devastating, prompting the Royal Navy to authorize three groups of hunters to chase it down.

Although Kunter is a newcomer to design, we’ve seen enough of Cramer to know something of his approach. In this case, The Hunt leans closer to Watergate than to Weimar. While its map is more literal in its geography than that game’s tangle of interconnected conspirators, The Hunt is unabashed about using a heady dose of abstraction to depict its contest. Rather than careful granularity, these hexes are large — but there’s no guarantee that a pile of battle groups in the same space will ever come within sight of one another. This is the sea as a sprawling emptiness, so vast as to be nigh-impossible to search even when your foe remains bound to the surface. Suitably, it’s a game of cat and mouse, or perhaps dog and cat and mouse. The Graf Spee is hunting British freight while dodging British hunters, and it’s never entirely clear who’s the bloodhound and who’s the prey.

The place: lots of rivets.

The cards, illustrated by Albert Monteys, convey the game’s sense of place.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the game’s most essential action, the search. Both sides are forced to fall back on this most rudimentary task. The Graf Spee can openly “see” where British convoys will be located, but this should be taken in the broadest possible sense. When it’s time to sink a ship, the German player navigates to the appropriate hex and then conducts a search, rolling a die to determine whether they’ve actually zeroed in on their target. This roll can be massaged via the Graf Spee‘s reconnaissance capability, a single floatplane that requires regular maintenance and is liable to break down entirely as the chase drags on.

Upon landing a hit, it’s time to scoot. That’s because the Graf Spee‘s greatest advantage is that it doesn’t appear on the map. The British Navy, with its superior firepower and multiple task groups, might easily corner the Graf Spee, if only they could actually determine where the rotten thing is located. They’re provided a few helpful tools, discerning how far the Graf Spee must have moved since their last hit, whether she’s in range of the Altmark, the ship she uses to refuel and resupply, and the occasional circle on the map courtesy of the Intelligence Service. But their task is still a proactive one, requiring them to get out there and search one square kilometer at a time. That or stick close to their vulnerable freight ships and hope they can counterattack before the Graf Spee slips once more over the horizon. Even that stratagem carries more danger than one might think.

That danger is the core of The Hunt. It isn’t enough to find the Graf Spee. Once found, it must be destroyed. This launches the game into a brisk final battle. Both players draw back up to five cards for a final duel. Where cards were previously used either for events or action points, now they’re reflections of firepower. Both sides reveal cards together, comparing those action point numbers and doling out hits based on whichever side trumped the other. At the end of five salvos, representing perhaps days or weeks of intermittent fire, the winner is whichever side has inflicted the most damage.

Actually we know exactly where it is. Unfortunately, it's two kilometers "south" of where it should be. And I don't mean magnetic south.

Ship missing off the coast of Brazil!

On first blush, this concluding spasm struck me as a fickle way to wrap up the painstaking searches that dominated the game’s first half-hour. Now that I’ve been in the line of fire, I consider it The Hunt’s smartest trick.

Like everything else in Cramer and Kunter’s design, this battle is more about preparation than execution. High-value cards are your watchword. But that means you’ll want to go into the final duel with as many four- and five-value cards as possible. That means hoarding cards rather than using them during the game’s main act, when their powerful events and tumbles of action points are essential for positioning, searches, and recon. The implications ripple backward through the design. As the Royal Navy, you need those cards to shield your shipping and corner the Graf Spee. Too many hoarded cards can prove paralyzing, leaving you reactive and ineffectual as ship after civilian ship are sent to the bottom. As the Kriegsmarine, you need those same cards to stay one step ahead, but you’re also tipping off your rival every time you end a turn near the Altmark to resupply. And, lest you blunder into an opponent’s trap, both sides can make use of events that force their opponent to reveal the sum of their hand’s action points.

In other words, the final battle may be the game’s last gasp, but it’s a gasp into which one can invest significant preparation. Without that, it could be a roll of the dice. Or, if you’ve brought along the right cards, the Graf Spee might transform into a cornered lion, lashing out at its pursuers with crippling rage. Or the Royal Navy might force the scuttling of the Graf Spee in Montevideo, as happened historically.

I'd want to be the seaplane pilot. At least then I could just pootle around the sky and come back and have nothing to report.

Narrowing the search.

In either case, The Hunt is gripping and immediate. Like many of its human-touch peers, its willingness to abstract away the logistical particulars allows it to zero in on its contest of wills. It isn’t as starkly personal as Resist!, but it’s likely as close to personal as naval warfare gets, with its crews of hundreds and durations of months. At every point, its interest is first and foremost psychological. It’s about outguessing your opponent, about sidling in close and then sprinting away, about lurking beneath the shadow of a pursuing hunter, about combing a stretch of sea where the rival lion must be lying in wait. And then, in its final moments, it’s about unsheathing claws and loading cannons, grabbing hold of that one long sharp tooth, and praying you weren’t so busy on the hunt that you forgot to chamber your rifle. There are plenty of wargames. Not many are quite so exciting as this one.


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A prototype copy was provided.

Posted on February 28, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Okay, there’s a lion. But is there a mountain goat?

  2. “…you lose the game”

    I love alternate win conditions!

  3. Possible typo in last paragraph: “At every point, its interest is FIRE…” Interesting turn of phrase but I’m wondering if it’s meant to be “first”?

  4. Thanks for the review! I will for sure back this. I remember seeing a piece of the Graf Spee back home in Montevideo, so this somehow feels close to home. I must say your reviews have really broadened my board game sensibilities and I am super thankful for it. 🙂 Cheers!

  5. As an uruguayan, this story fascinates me. The Graff Spee is the piece of the Second World War that was dealt to us. It’s a small piece, yeah, but it’s the one we got, and it’s a really interesting one. I wish they put this one on retail, because it’s really hard for us to back kickstarters or prepurchase games.

    • It really is a cool story. Fingers crossed. I’d love to see this one made available down there somehow, especially as S&P is a Spanish-language publisher.

  6. Hi Dan, great review, love your writing. It’s given me a whole new way of viewing board games.

    Where’s the title from? I can only find a song by Mountain Goats.

    And yes, Albert Monteys should illustrate everything!

  7. Wow, and a Mountain Goats fan to boot. You continue to impress! (I tried to make a “das boot” pun work but failed.)

  8. Great review. I’ve backed this one, and can’t wait for it to deliver.

  1. Pingback: Something Familiar This Way Comes | SPACE-BIFF!

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