Most folks know I’m a miniatures guy, so it makes sense that I gravitate towards computer games that mimic the graphics and play thereof. For me, this means Game-Labs and any product that has the word “Ultimate” in its title. Ultimate Admiral Dreadnoughts is the latest entry into this series of tactical, real time wargames, and I’ve been lucky enough to be playing it for a while as an early backer of the product.

Now, its not ready to go yet (still in Alpha) but changes and additions have been coming left, right, and crooked, so the Boss has deemed it complete enough for a first look. I totally agree, but don’t expect this little tome to be a full-fledged review of how it works and so on. That comes later. Instead, here are my thoughts as to what surprised me as I rolled steel on the way to building the ultimate battleship. World of Warships this is not.

In the Dockyard

The current Alpha of Ultimate Admiral Dreadnoughts (UAD) presents three modes of play, of which two are currently activated and usable. These are Naval Academy, Custom Battles and New Campaign, with the latter not working yet. Sure, Naval Academy sounds like a tutorial, but only the first few of 29 missions are really teaching session; the rest being legitimate battles where you try to sink convoys and the like. Custom Battles are basically pickup games where you can choose a country, a year, starting range to the enemy and select a fleet, or have the AI generate a flotilla for you. The scale is one unit equals one ship, real time, from 1890 – 1940 with the fleets of the UK, the US, France, Italy, Imperial Germany, Spain, Austria-Hungary, Japan and Imperial China.

However, the wrinkle of this game is the default setting that mandates a player build his ships constrained by technology, available industrial resources, budget and weight. Get ready for some culture shock, especially if you’re expecting to design the Yamato, because the biggest limiting factor for me was…

Weight! No, I’m not kidding here. It was not the budget as one might expect, particularly if you’ve handled resource management in other games. Because my generation was inundated with the glories of the “Greatest Generation” of World War II, I like my gaming to normally be as far before that as possible. This means pre-Dreadnought and early Dreadnought eras. Heck, even Jutland comes off a distant second for my tastes. Trust me, this makes a difference.

Bottom Line? These ships are small! I’m talking the USS Missouri 1890’s edition at 13,600 tons as opposed to the 1945 version at 58,400 tons. What this means is that as you add mandatory items (conning towers, smoke stacks, etc) to build your battlewagon, then options and then technology upgrades, you are constantly going overweight and the AI will not let you launch. I always wondered why ships of this era seems to have so few guns and now I get it. Trying to add anything over two turrets with two barrels each invariably caused the ships to go overweight, and often even that minimum was too much. Then try adding the little popguns you often see poking out the sides or upgrading to Krupp steel. Once again too much weight. This brings us to the second mind warp, which was…

How many guns these ships did not have! After playing several scenarios it soon became evident that when building your fleet, the best path was to build as big as ships as possible and maximize armor protection and weaponry. Quite frankly, there are a bazillion or so options to place on your ship, like standard loading or upgrading to a fully automatic loading system if allowed. But all of these come with a weight cost, some double as if you want that nifty new loading system you also have to build hydraulic turrets and so on. The result is that there is precious little left for big guns with big shells and long range. The result is setting sail with a vessel that is not going to raise Bismarck level Hell when it comes to inflicting damage. Try as I might, I found it nigh near impossible to beat the unofficial two turret, four gun tubes weight restriction.

On the High Seas

This is where I talk about why I think guns and armor are the best deal going back at harbor. It also shows why this game, as a real time product, plays markedly different from a board or miniature version of the same subject. So, let’s start with…

Maneuverability. There isn’t any. These buckets are very slow and their turning radius extremely wide. And while you could have upgraded the engines back at the dock, doing so doesn’t give you much – say 17 knots as opposed to 15 – making it an additional weight cost you won’t need. You won’t need the extra speed because you’ll be dealing with long range fire from ships that are also moving, bobbing up and down in the water and likely don’t have an advanced rangefinder (extra weight). Regardless of how fast you’re moving the probability of getting hit isn’t great.

Damage. The ships I gamed with may be buckets, but they are very well-made buckets and very tough to sink. Remember this is the age when designers start doing things like designing ships with compartments and double bulkheads. It’s also an era where safety protocols are coming into vogue, to include specifically trained teams that deal with repairs in battle and dousing fires. This last situation really caught my eye. I can’t count the number of times I set one or more sections of a ship on fire, only to have it extinguished within minutes. On the other hand, smaller ships such as light cruisers, destroyers and torpedo boats don’t have as much armor or compartmentalization, and so a direct hit from a 12-inch gun is often catastrophic. Overall, I managed to pound several enemy capital ships into a melting mass of burning scrap, but I could never sink one.

Ranged Fire. OK, I’ve already covered this, but let me reemphasise how inaccurate the fire from the heavy battleship guns really are. This is long range stuff and you are talking hit probabilities in like the 5 % arena. One big reason it’s hard to sink one of these boats is due to the low number of shells that actually hit something, even with the most advanced rangefinder (again, extra weight). This is a total reversal from Ultimate Admiral Age of Sale where broadsides can be “up close and personal” and there are always wood splinters flying everywhere. Instead, position your screen camera on an enemy battle cruiser running for its life while you throw everything but the captain’s fine mess china in its direction.

Every couple of minutes or so you’ll see your own shells spin by, falling to the left, the right, behind and in front of the beleaguered target, but rarely a hit. Lobbing as many shells as you can as fast as you can would seem to be the solution but in another wrinkle, reloading rates are painfully tedious and slow, regardless of that ultra-modern auto-reloader you put on your ship (if you could spare the weight). This is one aspect of naval warfare you really don’t see directly with turn-based board or miniature games, but UAD really educates you on this subject very quickly. Now, if you close the range to two km or less, that’s different, but you really want to think long and hard about that decision.

And that is why, young Padawan, you need armor and guns. No armor and one hit could be a disaster if you are so unlucky as to get hit, but otherwise you’ll survive. More guns because with the limitations above, you will want to put as many rounds down range as you can and do it consistently. And oh yes, pray that one of the shells hit the target’s engine because all this becomes a lot easier if it can’t move.

Back at Anchor

I enjoyed my past few weeks with Ultimate Admiral: Dreadnoughts. Not is it only an excellent, very historically accurate game, but an education as well, teaching me a whole lot about the era and shattering more than one misconception as well. It was definitely a different gaming experience, and I like different. Some may think my description indicates a slow and boring competition, but you can double and triple the time rate without any issue at all for an easy, built in solution. I look forward to what’s next.