Totem’s naval wargaming series occupies a particularly niche-y corner of an already niche hobby. For those enamoured by the sight of sail and smokestack in the era of the ironclad warship, there are few other ports of call. It’s a rare game series that allows players to command squadrons of steam-powered vessels from campaigns as distinct as Japan’s Boshin War in 1868 to the 1898 Spanish-American War.
This latest entry focuses the wargaming microscope on one corner of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. The crucial battles that occurred in the East China and Yellow Sea are not on display here, instead Sakhalin 1904 allows players to try their hand at maneuvering squadrons of torpedo boats and cruisers for either the Russian Empire or the burgeoning Empire of Japan in a fictionalized campaign north of Hokkaido.
The Japanese had considered invading the ill-defended Russian territories to their immediate north but plans for an early invasion of Sakhalin in 1904 were postponed with resources diverted to the more crucial battlefields surrounding the Korean Peninsula. Sakhalin 1904 presents an interesting, if shallow, alternate history scenario in which the opposition of the Navy is ignored, and the resources that led the actual invasion of Sakhalin in the final moments of the war are put to use as part of the opening salvo. It’s a fun scenario but part of me wished to see the larger engagements in the south on display. The limited nature of the resources and the never before seen skirmishing in North-east Asia might very well be deciding factors in interesting perspective players.
Clad in Iron: Sakhalin 1904 is set up in exactly the same way as previous games in the Clad in Iron and Ironclad series, for good and ill. Players familiar with previous entries will know exactly how gameplay is organized in Sakhalin 1904. Those who are not may find themselves in my shoes: interested and eager to learn but befuddled by the esoteric ruleset and spartan presentation. The aim is straightforward enough: wrest control of important harbours from your enemy by defeating them at sea before landing sufficient infantry to occupy facilities. Managing to work out exactly how to do that with the less than clear manual and odd logic is a bit more difficult. Once the player figures out the internal logic of the game, the veil is lifted and reveals that a good deal of tactical fun is hidden underneath.
Play is divided between two layers; a strategic map and tactical battles on the open sea. The strategic layer, this time beautifully rendered as a tabletop map, simultaneously evokes the feeling of an early 20th century war room and a session with Tabletop Simulator. (Clad in Iron could use a frustration satiating ’table flip’ mechanic too… if you’re listening, Totem). This is where the majority of the decision making occurs. Players maneuver individual ships between different ports and sea zones creating squadrons, build improvements to ports, construct and repair ships, and generally do what they can to get the game rolling. It feels as if the strategic layer was implemented just to give reason for the tactical battles, which are the star of the show, but I found myself getting properly invested as I played. After a few hours, I was keen to push onwards towards a final victory with occupation of that out of the way and harsh peninsula.
The tactical layer is difficult to describe. That crusty part of my heart that tells me I was a sailor in a previous life was absolutely enthralled. The battles are in real time, (with pause and double-time hotkeys) meaning it takes minutes of sailing before battle is properly engaged. Minutes in which I fussed over gun ranges, positioning of my squadron, and plotted in my head exactly how I would tackle the current engagement, well aware that any damage sustained and ammo spent here would carry over to the strategic layer. Ships are beautifully and accurately rendered (my less than expert eye didn’t catch many issues, at least) though the addition of totally static sailors broke immersion more than empty ships would have.
The gamer in me must concede though, that this type of game isn’t for everyone. If tonnage and bore diameter mean nothing to you then the Clad in Iron series, and Sakhalin 1904 in this case, are probably not for you. Battles are slow and can last over an hour. Even then, for the first few battles as you work out the combat system, you’ll be lucky if things don’t devolve into a swirling melee as torpedo boats and armoured cruisers circle each other, the steady boom of the cannons accented by the crunch of an occasional unintentional ramming.
I’ve mentioned the oddities of the ruleset several times and it remains the most jarring issue with Sakhalin 1904. The underlying game is quite fun, if simple, but I can see many potential players put off by the inability of the game or manual to effectively communicate how the players can achieve their goals. The manual is full of references to screenshots while only a few are actually named with any readability. Other pictures are covered in numbers, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what each number corresponded to. I learned the game by diving in and throwing ships around before I figured out what blocked what, and how things moved. Additionally, shortcut keys printed the manual didn’t actually work when I played. The tactical camera in fact controlled by the number pad which I didn’t stumble upon until an embarrassing number of hours in.
This, I believe, is due in part to the nature of the Clad in Iron series. There appears to be a dedicated and engaged fanbase that devours each new entry. I’d like to say I can count myself among their number after spending a good deal of time with Sakhalin 1904, but I understand that my newfound appreciation for the Clad in Iron system has come at a great investment of time and effort. There are a dozen places where smoother code or less obtuse design decisions could have made the game more approachable and easier to recommend.
Therefore, if your heart be true to the golden age of steam and sail, and you’re willing to sink a few hours and a few thousand tons of warships (maybe even some of the enemy’s) you’ll find an enjoyable tactical wargame with a strategic layer that, while simple, gives meaning to your actions. The lack of any other options or game modes beyond the two campaigns limits replayability but a game as both sides, playing tactical engagements as they come up, will definitely give you enough time to justify the cost. If you’re looking for something more polished, or with a more intensive strategic layer, or even with larger engagements, unfortunately you’ll have to look elsewhere. Sakhalin 1904 delivers on what its fanbase desired: a new campaign and new ships to command. I suspect you, dear reader, may have known from the beginning whether or not this latest iteration of Clad in Iron is for you.