From TV screen to submarine - creating the board game “THEY COME UNSEEN”.

This designer diary covers a period of 41 years (1974-2015).  On day one of the diary I was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy serving in HMS Grampus, a Porpoise class submarine, as the navigating officer; forty-one years later, and retired, I could call myself a board game designer … albeit on the back of a single title.


1974: The theme and associated mechanics - no dice! (Laying down)


The idea to devise my game came to me one evening while watching the local Portsmouth area TV news.  The particular news item concerned a local man who had invented a board game which had just been published - sadly I don’t recall its name - and his sage advice to others wanting to follow his example was “to choose a theme for your game that you know something about”.  I remember thinking “I could do that” … I knew about submarines!


My submarine experience at this point was purely in diesel-electric conventional submarines but this was fine because they lend themselves well to a hidden movement game owing to their limited submerged endurance.  I wanted to devise a game that as far as possible removed any form of chance other than the luck that a player creates as a result of his or her decisions during the game.  This was because in my younger days I had been brought up on a gaming diet of Totopoly, Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk and had bad memories, particularly of the latter two, when Lady Luck had failed to support my cause; either I had been heading for the library, or similar, to expose the murderer but found myself crawling so slowly turn after turn and always arriving too late … or I was holed up in Kamchatka throwing a succession of defensive 1s - we’ve all been there!  So, rule number one for my own game was that luck, and therefore dice, could not be used to resolve interactions between players or the movement of pieces; instead the use of fuel, be it fossil fuel or battery power, was an obvious way to regulate movement around the board and I immediately realised that this could be done very nicely by using gauges.  Being a game about submarines it would also have to work in three dimensions and a depth gauge would work very nicely for that too as well as two boards to allow for hidden submarine movement.  Areas of different seabed depth would also be required on the boards so that the submarines could evade by using their unique ability: I decided on 250, 450 and 650 feet (the Royal Navy wasn’t metric in those days) and for the submarines to operate 50 feet clear of the sea bed - a safety requirement … it was all coming together! 


I also wanted the game to be interesting using authentic actions but clearly it could never be a simulation and this meant that from the outset I decided that I couldn’t include torpedoes.  Torpedoes are of course a submarine’s primary weapon system but to include torpedo attacks in the game would have meant resolving them with a probability matrix … and the roll of dice … and thereby breaking rule number one!  So I looked to another submarine weapon, the submarine laid mine, which could be a straightforward case of “if you run over the mine you’re done for!” … no dice required.  I then drew on another role for the submarine service for inspiration, that of inserting special forces to destroy facilities and shipping, and the aim of the game was identified.

For the surface opposition, the anti-submarine weapons of the time (60s/early 70s) were generally short-range lobbed explosives (but longer range than WW2 depth charges) set to explode at a preset depth (in the Royal Navy these slightly longer range weapons were called mortar bombs) and so I implemented this capability in the game.

1974-1980: Developing the early version - “Submarine” (Sea-trials)


Later that year (1974) with the basic gameplay mechanics worked out I had the first version of the game drawn up under the (un)imaginative title “Submarine”.  It had two frigates (much later these were changed to destroyers to fit the Soviet setting) and two submarines vying for naval supremacy in a fictional setting on two hand-drawn playing boards (the real-world setting would come later during the run up to publication): one board would be used for actions at the surface and at periscope depth, the Main board, and the other one for submarine actions in the depths, the Deep board.  The movement of submarines across the boards was managed with both depth and battery gauges; a snorting move enabled battery charging and provided the opposition with occasional positional clues to ensure game balance; to provide further balance, the submarines could operate at three possible depths on the Deep board (200, 400 & 600 feet) depending upon the depth of water available.  The frigates had both fuel and mortar bomb salvo gauges and, with the Deep board concealed from their view, they tried to find the submarines using sonar search templates before delivering a salvo of mortar bombs set to the correct range and depth; three accumulated hits being required for a kill. In return the submarines could lay a minefield each as well as trying to achieve their collective objective of destroying four out of the six enemy harbours by landing commandoes and destroying fuel and weapon dumps, and if lucky, a frigate alongside.  


The game had successful outings beneath the waves during the 70s and 80s, most notably in the SSN HMS Sovereign (78/79) where the main board gained a perspex cover and an aluminium base and the game became a regular after-dinner pastime on patrol (see GALLERY).

At the end of 1979 I left HMS SOVEREIGN to prepare for the Submarine Commanding Officers' Qualifying Course - known as COQC or "Perisher" - due to start in January 1980.  I left my one and only copy of "Submarine" onboard for them to 'enjoy' for the remainder of the boat's operational service ... I often wonder what happened to this copy of my game when SOVEREIGN was decommissioned, for the final time, in 2006.


1981-2013: Further development (& further sea trials)


After the 'gaming' hiatus in 1980 while I was on "Perisher", I went to a shore posting in Submarine Operations in 1981 to await my command appointment due in 1982.  This time ashore gave me the opportunity to create a new copy of my game and I decided to inject further realism by the addition of the logistic fleet of three ships to enable a replenishment at sea option as well as the ability to move fuel and weapons between harbours and regenerate them throughout the game. In the original version of the game the surface ship team started play with a finite number of fuel and weapon containers available to them which they placed at harbours of their choice during the game’s setup.  The warships could then only embark fuel/weapons during a turn in a harbour and once the fuel/weapon containers had been used they were removed from play; this effectively imposed a time limit for the game because of the ever dwindling resource pile and although not necessarily a bad thing (particularly when playing during an off watch period at sea) it also made survival rather tricky for the surface team so the introduction of the logistic fleet improved the game in terms of realism and balance.  


I also took the opportunity to redraw the boards in order to alter the shape of the sea areas of different depths.  In the original version they were purely rectangular so I now gave some of the areas additional sides in order to provide greater scope for tactical exploitation of the depths by the submarines and a further headache for the searching warships.  This updated version of the game received further at-sea testing in the mid to late 80s in a diesel boat and an SSBN, the latter during a number of Polaris deterrent patrols.  I retired from the Royal Navy in 1993 at the end of the Cold War; apart from these improvements "Submarine" remained unchanged … until December 2013. 

December 2013: Developing the game for the marketplace and finding a new name (Refit)


It was after a chance meeting in December 2013 with a fellow villager while out walking our respective dogs that my game came to mind.  He was telling me about an invention he had got into commercial production and as we later went our separate ways I was left thinking how satisfying it would be to have an invention that made it to the marketplace … and then I remembered “Submarine”. 


I retired from the Royal Navy in 1993 after 25 years service, twenty-one in the submarine service, but full retirement didn’t come until 2012.  Full retirement has the luxury of control over how one spends one’s time.  I immediately dug out my game and realised that, while it wasn’t at all shabby, I could apply the benefits of age, wisdom and a few more years experience under my belt playing board games, to give it a facelift … and a new name because I didn’t think that continuing with the name “Submarine” would be punchy or unique for the marketplace.  After ten minutes or so of trying various words and phrases I finally decided to simply give a minor tweak to the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service motto - We Come Unseen - applying the third person to arrive at the title THEY COME UNSEEN (I didn’t feel comfortable using the motto verbatim).  Now to get it published!


January to May 2014: Getting help from the village & at the UKGE (Further ‘sea-trials’)


An internet search discovered that a Game Expo (UKGE) is held each year at a large hotel on the Birmingham NEC ‘campus’ and a quick email to the organiser, Richard Denning, not only advised me about how I could demonstrate my game in a “Play Test Zone” but also gave me a tip about developing a game for the marketplace: play-testing a prototype game almost “to destruction” (to iron out any flaws) before showing it to a potential publisher - obvious really but invaluable.  This exchange of emails took place in early January 2014 and the Expo that year was planned for 30th May so a quick turn around was needed; armed with this information I doubled my efforts refurbishing the game.  One afternoon, a game of “Forbidden Desert", designed by Matt Leacock, proved to be a catalyst for one element of this refurbishment.  After succumbing to the effects of the sand storm, I was hit by the sudden realisation that if ever a game needed to include weather effects it was my game - life at sea is all about working with the elements - and so I devised the “Weather” mechanic to include sea state and thermocline effects.  


By early February I felt that I had a better product in hand and so I sent an email request around the village (there are only about 100 adults living here) for keen board-gamers to step out of the closet to help me to play-test the updated version of my game before I took it to the Expo … and four volunteers stepped up. I plied them with wine, beer and nibbles and they did ‘battle’ on our dining room table while I observed and noted what needed tweaking before the next gathering. One early addition was the “Sonar watch” mechanic to provide some “between turns” continuity in a turn-based game.  In another test session I observed a tactic that had never been tried before.  This was a very negative tactic employed by the Soviet team of simply sitting back and allowing three ice-stations to be destroyed by the NATO submarines while guarding the remaining three ice-stations and all their fuel and weapon resources so that NATO could never win, or would find it very difficult indeed (NATO have to destroy 4 out of the 6 Soviet ice-stations to win the game).  I was rather taken aback by this development.  My fellow gung-ho submariners and I had never considered this very negative tactic and an effective solution was required swiftly to prevent anyone else trying this approach to the game.  It was essential that the Soviet team could not stockpile resources and just sit back and so I introduced the fuel and weapon production and processing infrastructural links between ice-station Echo and the other ice-stations so that NATO attacks anywhere on the board would have an adverse affect on the processing and production of fuel and weapons … this did the trick and highlighted perfectly the importance of testing no matter how long a game has been around. 


With the UKGE fast approaching I now duly booked a Play Test Zone session, through Rob Harris of PLAYTEST UK, and a hotel room close to the venue. 


May 2014: Finding a publisher (Squadron allocation)


My “zone time” at the UKGE was booked for the Sunday morning and so I spent Saturday checking out the trade stands and helping to play-test other designers’ games in the Play Test Zone - it didn’t seem right to me to turn up to just test my game and then leave although sadly none of the designers whose games I helped test on the Saturday shared the same view … none of them stayed on for the Sunday session!  Unbowed, I laid out my game on a table in the Play Test Zone on the Sunday for my booked test slot. While waiting for testers to arrive I introduced myself to the man at the table immediately next to mine in the PlayTest zone - in a nice twist of fate he turned out to be Matt Leacock (his business card resides in my “Forbidden Desert” game tin).   A game of “They Come Unseen” soon got underway and two hours later with my “zone time” completed and a 10/10 review from the test game, I packed up and checked out of the Zone.  As I did so I was handed a business card that had been left by the game developer of a publishing company looking to start a range of strategy games that would suit the family market … a company whose offices, I discovered, are in Oxford just 15 miles up the road from our village - what are the chances; the phrase “right place, right time” sprang to mind - the game developer was Duncan Molloy and the company, of course, Osprey Publishing.

June 2014: Contacting the publisher (In contact!)


As soon as I was back home from the Expo I emailed Duncan and a day or so later he replied: “We’ll have to get you in. In the meantime can you send the rule sets over for me to look at?”.  I duly emailed him my 42-page rulebook only to receive a few days later a kindly worded rejection: “Thanks for being so comprehensive with the rule sets you've sent through! I've had a look at the game, and unfortunately will have to pass on publishing”.  Duncan went on to say that my game appeared to be too complex to fit comfortably into their planned portfolio of family games; he added the kind offer that he would be happy to see any future games that I devised. Undeterred I thanked him for giving it consideration, blamed the verbosity of my rule book for hiding the simple game that lay behind it but said that having taken 40 years to get this far, any future games were unlikely!  I then asked him if he would be prepared to give me contacts for other companies whose portfolios They Come Unseen might match - I received a brief reply: “Give me a day or two and let me come back to you”. 


June to July 2014: Streamlining the rulebook (Essential maintenance)


I now set about streamlining the rule book to make it more accessible to any other publishers that might ask to see it … I reduced it to 27 pages and included several diagrams of example moves. Two weeks went by and having heard nothing further from Duncan I sent him the new streamlined rule book as a way to re-establish communications, saying, slightly mischievously: “I’m not chasing you for a reply. [I was] Just for the record …” and went on to say that I wished I had had this more concise version of the rules available when he had asked to see them.  Within two hours I had had a reply: “I haven’t had a chance to look through the new rulebook you’ve sent through but I’ve been thinking a lot about the game and I’d really like to play it. I think there are problems with it as it was presented, but I suspect they’re solvable. Are you free next week to drop into the office? Any day bar Thursday should suit.”


July to October 2014: Demonstrating TCU (Work up)


I duly took my game along and Duncan enjoyed playing it. This demonstration took place on 11th July 2014 and I left my prototype with him and his team for further analysis.  Another three months would go by before I received news from Duncan:  “I’m just writing to let you know that They Come Unseen has passed our internal publishing processes!  I’m delighted to say that we will be progressing with the game as one of our flagship titles for our launch. Congratulations.”   In the hiatus that followed Duncan offered me the opportunity to add some personal and technical background about life at sea and submarine warfare strategies; this subsequently was published with the game as the “History & Strategy” booklet.


October 2015: Published (The commissioning ceremony)


And so, in October 2015 THEY COME UNSEEN was published a mere 41 years after I had drafted my first set of rules for “Submarine”.  Osprey Games did a wonderful job bringing my prototype to life; I’m delighted by the finished product and I hope that it brings table-top joy to many gamers around the globe … when there should always be plenty of discussion about the weather!


Andy Benford, Designer: THEY COME UNSEEN