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Friday, 29 May 2015

War is never this simple

Launched at UK Games Expo, Red Code is a naval war game from Spanish publisher, Dizemo Entertainment. Designed for two to six players, aged eight and up, Red Code sees two sides go head-to-head in a series of nautical encounters played out over limited terrain. Each side consists of a Submarine, a Destroyer, and an Aircraft Carrier and all three vessels can either be controlled by a single player in a two-player head-to-head game, or assigned so that each player commands one vessel in a multiplayer game. It combines worker placement and card play with simple wargame mechanics, and can be played until one side sinks the other or one side scores enough points by sinking ships.

The game primarily consists of standards-sized cards. The first of these are the map cards, each divided into four spaces. Some of these have islands on them that block movement and line of sight, whilst others have fast currents that grant extra movement.  The map cards are laid out to create the battle area. There is also a single score card, but most of the game’s cards consists of Order cards. These grant extra movement,  better attacks, refreshed crew, and so on.

Each of the ships is a card on its own, with spaces to track damage, crew assignments, and actions or Maneuvres as the game calls them. All three types of vessel have Movement, Repair, Torpedo, and Orders actions—the latter being how a player receives Order cards. Each vessel also has four special actions of its own. For example, the destroyer has Missile, which does one damage to a target two spaces away; Depth Charge, which does two damage to a target one space away; Shield, which cancels the action of another ship three spaces away; and Assault, which does one heavy damage (the equivalent of three standard damage) to a target one space away. Similarly, the aircraft carrier can launch Air Support, Radio Support, and has Medical Equipment and RADAR, whilst the submarine has Immersion, Counter Measure, Heavy Torpedo, and Floating Mine. All of these require a crew member to be assigned to them to activate.

A player’s turn is relatively simple. In the ‘Recover crew’ Phase he places two crew in reserve, recalling them from the order spaces where they had been placed in previous turns. Then in the ‘Management of manoeuvres’ Phase, he can assign any unplaced crew, including these recalled in ‘Recover crew’ Phase on empty Maneuvre spaces and carry the associated Maneuvre. Most require a single crew, but some require two crew. If any Maneuvre has crew on it at the start of the ‘Management of manoeuvres’, that crew cannot act and the associated Manoeuvre cannot be carried out. Each vessel has six crewman. It is also possible to use certain Maneuvres as responses to a player’s Maneuvres, but which ones is not quite clear.

It takes three heavy damage to sink a ship—the equivalent of nine damage. This is the same for the destroyer and the submarine as it is the aircraft carrier. If a simple knock-out style game, sinking a ship means the loss of that vessel, but in Victory Points based game, sinking a vessel scores a player a point whilst the vessel misses a turn and comes back as good as new. Play continues until one side is knocked out or has scored enough points.

Physically, Red Code looks nice, but unfortunately, Red Code suffers from a number of issues, the first of which being the fact that it was originally Spanish and although translated into English, the translation is terrible. So bad that it hinders both understanding how to play the game and the gameplay itself. A simple matter of language localisation would have addressed this issue, though the localisation of board games is a relatively specialised field.

Second and thematically, Red Code pitches the forces of one navy against another, the default indicated by the cards and scoring tokens being the Allies versus the Nazis. Unfortunately, this sets up a number of historical issues. One being that the German Kriegsmarine never deployed an aircraft carrier, but worse, one Order card depicts the use of Kamikaze aeroplanes, which of course were deployed by the Japanese in the Pacific theatre. Similarly, another Order card is called Atomic Bomb, which again was only used in the Pacific theatre and then dropped by the United States Army Air Forces, not by the Navy. Worse, the photograph on the Deserter card looks to be that of Charles de Gaulle—and that is simply offensive.

Third, and sadly, once past the poor English and the uneven theming, Red Code is simply not a good game. It feels plodding when there should be some tension in game from the scenarios it lends itself to—imagine the ‘cat-and-mouse’ hunt as a submarine silently slides into making an attack run on an aircraft carrier protected by a destroyer. Well, that is not present—unfortunately.

Ultimately, Red Code’s design is too simple, its theme is inconsistently applied, and its rules are just not clear enough. Even if these problems can be overcome, Red Code just does not offer enough variety or depth to bear repeat play.