Saturday, 22 December 2018

A Review of Cruel Seas

Cruel Seas is the new coastal forces game from Warlord, the makers of “Bolt Action”, a set with which it shares a few features. CS brings together a set of fast playing rules and background with a range of 1/300 plastic, resin and white metal models to form a complete game in a box, supported by a number of fleet and ship packs. I was sent a starter set for review.

Nice dramatic box art to set the scene. Not sure what the guy with the grenade is doing though

Opening the box you find it pleasingly packed with “stuff” – the 100+ page rule book is beautifully produced and filled with glossy illustrations of the new models and with pictures from a variety of Osprey publications. The box is reassuringly heavy. You get five sprues of boat – three Vosper “Type 1”, three Vosper “Type 2”, two S-38 and two S-100 schnellboot. Another sprue contains 16 running torpedo markers, and yet another sprue has a host of transparent blue splash markers. There is also a fold out paper play seascape, high quality heavy card counter sheets that include damage markers, top down views of some terrain and a coastal tanker ship, data cards for the ten supplied boats and the tanker. There is also a bag of dice, and “plume” markers that are used to show the speed of craft on the table. All supplied in a decent box, it creates a very good impression of a well presented, self-contained game.

An overview of the card components of the game. All of stout quality. Also shown is the model tanker that is available separately (there is a 2D large counter representing the ship in the starter set)

The rules themselves are quick and simple. The basic rules for movement, gunnery and torpedo attacks are 8 pages long, advanced rules take up another 16 pages. A further 15 pages add terrain, “tiny” vessels, aviation, additional weapons and submarines. The density of information and the profuse illustrations mean that is nowhere near as daunting as it sounds. The rules themselves are simple and straightforward, written to appeal to newcomers to the hobby, and are described early o as “guidelines” – an interesting point that I’ll return to.  The book is “perfect bound”, looks great but even after a week of use the binding is starting to fail and the pages are coming loose. Not good.

The basics of game play are simple. A die is put in a pot for each boat that each side has. Draw a die at random, that indicates which side can activate a boat. Choose a boat, move it, fire and launch torpedoes. In this regard it uses the random draw mechanism that Warlord used in “Bolt Action”, and it works well. Gunnery takes place during movement, torpedo launch when a boat’s movement has completed. Boats sit on “wake” templates that show how fast they are travelling, which is a nice touch, and crossing a boat’s wake can catch out inexperienced crews. Another nice touch. Gunnery involves rolling to hit with each weapon mount, modifying depending on things like crew skill, range, boat and target speed etc. If a hit is scored roll a number of d6 equal to the value of the weapon and inflict that number of damage points. Reroll sixes and in the advanced rules apply critical hits that affect crew, weapons engines and other bits of kit. Craft are sunk when they lose their last damage point. Torpedoes drive across the table at the same time as their launching vessel (or at the start of a turn if “orphaned” when their boat is sunk or leaves the table. If they cross a model then roll to see if they have hit, roll to see if they are a dud and then roll a very large number of d6 for damage. Very quick, straightforward and fun.

Moving on to the models, these are decently produced, well detailed with a minimum of parts that build into good representations of the Schnellboot and Vosper types they portray. A few liberties have been taken, for example the masts on the Vospers look like tree trunks rather than the fine structures that the real boats used – I suggest binning the masts and replacing with dressmakers’ pins with the points cut off – obviously the stocky masts provided are there for sturdiness and to reduce breakage in play but they do detract from an otherwise decent model. The “Type 1” Vosper has an option for a 20mm cannon on the foredeck, which you are going to want to take as the “early” Vosper armed only with twin HMGs is at a severe disadvantage in the game. 

Vosper "Type 2" (actually a 73' Type 1)

Warlord's display S-38 and S-100 models 

Closeup of one of Warlord's S-38s

The S boats have no options, the S38 has a 37mm gun aft, the S100 a flakvierling, despite the 37mm or 40mm being the more common weapon and the data card supplied being for a 37mm armed boat. Its easy enough to play with whatever you would like to assume the aft gun is, but there is plenty of space on the sprue for an additional gun or two (a 37mm and single 20mm would have made a whole range of options available). The introduction to the rules says that 1/300 was chosen in part because it allows crew figures to be added and boats don’t look right without them – but none are supplied. Some “figures” are moulded in with their weapons but these are just blobs that look more like seats than people. No doubt accessory packs will be available to upgrade models in the future. One omission though – no assembly instructions included, which makes fitting the “crew” difficult, and the arrangement of some weapons not obvious. And beware looking at some of the “official” photos of assembled models online as they have weapons in the wrong places (37mm guns mounted in the 20mm “pulpit” on the S38/100 for instance, and the 6pdr guns on the Fairmile D - part of the Royal Navy fleet pack - reversed, the shielded manual gun at the bow, the automatic gun at the stern). Despite these issues the models do look good, they are quick and easy to assemble and will get the newbie playing very quickly.

A close up of the tanker model, available separately

Ship data card for the S-100 Schnellboot

So, all looks good, but when you get into the rules themselves a few cracks start to appear. The biggest one, and the area that has caused most controversy in the first few days of release is in movement, something that should be easy. 

Movement is simple, but the way that turning is resolved means that a large merchant tanker moving at its full speed (say 12 knots) is considerably more manoeuvrable than a schnellboot at the same speed. The rule itself is ambiguous, it is supported by an illustration that doesn’t match the text – but the clarification that confirms this odd situation appears in the gunnery section several pages on. And stationary ships can turn 90 degrees on the spot, regardless of type. This allows an interesting counter-torpedo strategy where a ship stops and simply pivots on its stern to avoid all but the best-aimed fish.

There are many other examples of “oddness”, things that are missing, inconsistent or just wrong”. In no particular order:

Warlord have introduced their own descriptions of the Vosper MTBs with the 70’ type described as a “Type 1”, the 73’ as a Type 2” (the “Type 2 actually being a 73’ Type 1, the Type 2 having 2 torpedo tubes and an automatic 6pdr). 

The rules on minefields are missing a critical table with hit probabilities. Magnetic mines hit every time of craft on a “1”, despite separate lines in the text for tint, degaussed and other ships – obviously each should have a different number. Pressure mines can be avoided by travelling fast – in fact the opposite was true.

Russian ships are not allowed gunnery directors (or fire directors as they are referred to here). But Tashkent (included in the data tables) and other Rusian destroyers were equipped with directors. And radar.

S Boats carry reloads, but no guidance on how long to reload.  

Fighting in darkness was a key feature of coastal forces actions, yet the rules covering this are extremely limited and don’t reflect reality. The searchlight rules for example suggest the rule writer doesn’t understand how they work, nor the tactics that governed their employment. 

There is an interesting selection of additional weapons, including a German AA flamethrower which the text said aircraft flew through with impunity, but which as a 10% chance of downing an aircraft. The selection of additional odd weapons is predominantly German though – no Blacker Bombards or Holman projectors, which would have been a nice touch.

The Fubuki destroyer is described as large but was bigger than several of the ships listed as Huge.

There a re a host of errors in the ship data tables. For example, Flower class corvettes are listed as having 3" guns rather than 4", Marinefahrpram and MZ ZMotozaterra should be Shallow draught, Italian MT explosive boats are referred to in the data tables as Linse, and they don't even get  mention in the rules on "Tiny boats", despite the MT explosive boat being the most well known - and successful - craft of its type.

Several vessels that were armoured to some degree aren’t listed as such in the data tables – the “Type 2” Vosper for example featured an armoured bridge, as did the Russian river gunboats (as well as armoured turrets and machinery spaces). But the effect of armour, at least in the case of the S-100, seems overblown, able to resist 40mm HE shells. 

The critical hit table reads OK for hits on small craft but doesn’t work so well for bigger ships. Are all weapons on a destroyer going to cease fire for a turn because of a critical LMG burst? 

Torpedo critical hits cause significant damage but only cause a single torpedo tube to be lost – fine in an MTB, but in a destroyer or torpedo boat with triple or quad tubes the damage would cause the other tubes in the mount to be lost. A simple change, but it would have been good if it had been there from the start. 

Mines cause serious damage, yet no critical hits. And the German Navy is credited with the first use of magnetic mines (actually the RN in WW1, first use in WW2 was by the Luftwaffe).

37mm and larger guns that miss cause plumes around the target that obscure it (this wasn't really an issue in coastal forces actions, but anyway...). Three or more plumes gives a +1 to hit, making it easier to hit the target.

Surfaced submarines are listed as Small in the text, Medium in the data tables. Which means they are invulnerable to torpedoes using the rules as written (Medium and smaller craft, and shallow draught vessels cannot be hit by torpedoes, although modifiers are included to allow it). 

Aircraft are included but air attacks are limited to bomb and torpedo attacks. No strafing or rockets (the former a particular gap since strafing attacks were a significant cause of damage to coastal craft , especially when caught in daylight). Later text suggests that strafing attacks may have been included but were omitted. Aircraft can be attacked out of sequence by a vessel’s “flak” guns – but the rules and tables don’t define which guns they are. And can a weapon used previously in the turn for anti ship fire be used as an AA weapon in the same turn? Or having fired at an aircraft can a surface target be engaged? Instinctively the answer is no but the rules don’t say one way or the other. 

Players roll to determine whether a torpedo that hits a ship is a dud – the table in the quick play sheets at the back is different to the table in the rules. 

Semi automatic guns cause 2 extra damage points – what constitutes a “semi automatic” gun? Apart from the Molins 6pdr none are mentioned. So what about 40mm and 37mm guns? Are the ones listed in the rules automatics? Semi automatics? Assuming they are automatic what happens with a craft armed with a non-automatic version (such as the 37mm guns on the MO-4, US anti tank guns on PT boat foredecks, some early British 2pdr/40mm guns on MGBs and MLs?)

The selection of boats in the starter set is odd if you know the subject but understandable – MTBs vs S Boats. That’s OK I guess in that it “pings” the most popular types, except the RN built and operated MGBs to engage S boats, so the mix is historically wrong. Even worse, none of the short RN MGBs are included in the data tables (the only MGB is the Fairmile D in its MGB/MTB guise).  The other issue this causes is that, being way more heavily armed, the German boats eat the Vospers in the introductory scenarios. Mixing a 72’6” MTB with options and an early MGB with 40mm and 20mm fore and aft would have made for a more realistic and playable mix as well as providing a new different hull with a host of variant possibilities (several gunboat options, MA/SBs, cut down to make ASRLs etc.). 

The Soviet list doesn’t include MO and BMO type gunboats despite them being used extensively at sea and referred to extensively in the historical discussion. Yet the Soviet list includes four varieties of riverine gunboat – all with errors (57mm guns? Armour?). 

The British section of the data lists shows which Large craft are treated as shallow draft. But similar information is missing from craft of other nations. Meanwhile the monitor Abercrombie is listed as shallow draught (and so “immune to torpedoes”) whilst the Flower class corvette – with a shallower draught – is not. Here are other errors, simple enough to fix, but these examples set the tone. And there are oodles of errors. Many of the Osprey boat illustrations have incorrect captions, misprints abound.

This is a selection, there are others.

A selection of S-100 and S-38 class boats. One of the S-38s here (left) has been converted into an S-30, with the 20mm moved aft and the 37mm gun used on one of the S-100s in place of the flakvierling

The S-30 and S-100 conversions

A couple of Vosper “Type 1” MTBs. Both sport the optional 20mm on the foredeck. The model on the left also has a spare 20mm in place of the HMGs to make a late war model. Masts have been replaced with pins.

A half flotilla of Vosper “Type 2” MTBs. Again, masts replaced with pins.

Quality control has been an issue on early supplied sets, many coming with missing components. Fortunately, Warlord have a good rep for dealing with these issues so a quick email to the company should bring the missing bits. And later sets seem to be free of these issues.

The upshot of all this is that, to a seasoned campaigner, the game appears rushed, thin on playtesting, thin on proof reading and organisation, and lacking review by those with more than a passing interest in naval wargaming. And getting the detail right, removing ambiguities and soforth is essential in a game that is being presented in part as a starter set for newcomers to the hobby and the genre. 

Warlord have produced some excellent land games and the models and game components are well up to that standard, but in the rules they have attempted something out of their comfort zone with a lot of things that are just plain wrong – and which could have been made right before publication with just a little effort.  Cruel Seas is, I think, an excellent introduction to naval wargaming and judging by the interest on Facebook and elsewhere it is proving to be a popular seller, and as an ardent supporter and promoter of naval wargaming I really wanted this to be great. But those with some knowledge of the subject will be annoyed and put off by the errors (see the extensive Facebook discussion on the topics highlighted above and more), and newcomers run the risk of believing “that was the way it was” because the rules said so. Shades of Warhammer Trafalgar.

So in summary, a good start, plenty of issues, hoping the second edition will clear these up at tome point in the future. And at the time of writing Warlord have just released a ten page errata sheet where some of the issues above have been addressed, 13 days after release of the rules. You can download it here:


  1. Nice review a David. We had a couple of games last night, my first time with CS. Fun game, but don’t think too hard over it. We had the same play balance concerns withSboats vs Vosper.

  2. There is an errata sheet already, not downloaded it yet so don't know what it addresses

    1. Yes, thee is a link to it at the end of the review

  3. I did wonder if the rules were rushed. I got the feeling that a deadline for production was set for all of the releases and the rules had to be ready for then, no matter what. I'm not completely impressed by Blood Red Skies either. Too many grey areas, appalling production of the initial models - very strange movements (as if they were trying their hardest not to be like X-Wing when so many other aspects were like X-Wing). More of this on my blog. Anyway - a brilliant review which makes my decision to wait for a couple of years and finish other projects seem like wise one. I might then look at seeing how Cruel Seas looks then.

  4. Thanks for the review David. The models look excellent but the rules do sound disappointing to say the least. Hopefully my copy will turn up from Santa on Xmas day and I'll be able to have a good read through buy it sounds like I'll be sticking to 'Action Stations.

  5. David, thanks for a very comprehensive review. Like you, I really wanted this to be great. Whilst I can't deny it's apparent commercial success and applaud Warlord Games for introducing what is (let's face it) a niche genre to a more mainstream wargaming audience, I am disappointed that appears to have so many issues.

    I will no doubt still get a copy, but my excitement is tempered somewhat by the knowledge that it is a flawed product. Here's hoping Warlord sit up, take note and address some of the areas for improvement (though I won't hold my breath).

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  7. If there is so much errata, complete consistent living rules should be posted on the website. BEAUTIFUL models! :-) (Lou Coatney)

  8. Pretty much sums it up for me too. Some good bits, but really inexplicable that an established company should release a set of rules that were clearly not ready for publication. Still, nice models, and the core game is solid and fun

  9. Warlord had similar problems with Black Powder 2, it looked they forgot to proof read it! They got a set of errata out quickly for CS but not for BP2.

  10. Very detailed review, much needed. Any chance you will compile a suitable amendment article to improve the rules?

  11. Nice review. I ran my first game yesterday, and all had a great time. I'll be mulling over your comments here, and your house rules also. Still a fun game, so I'll persist with it.
    Jager on the Aerodrome