The Hunt for Red October – First Impressions

In 1988, TSR published “The Hunt for Red October”, a boardgame based on Tom Clancy’s 1984 debut novel of the same name.

The Hunt for Red October boardgame from TSR (1988)

The book was a tense thriller set in the late Cold War period. It focused on a Soviet submarine captain’s attempts to defect to the United States. Clancy clearly showed a talent for explaining the complex topic of submarine detection and warfare in layman’s terms without condescending to the reader.

The book that started it all.

The book not only spawned a boardgame, but also a computer game, as well as a movie starring the irrepressible Sean Connery as Captain Ramius and Alec Baldwin cast as the main protagonist, CIA analyst Jack Ryan. Clancy went on to write dozens of novels and several non-fiction books dealing with the military before his death in 2013. All of that – the movies, games, and TV series – began with this one novel. So looking at this boardgame as one of the starting pieces of Tom Clancy’s hugely successful career feels a bit odd. As a fan of the novel and the movie, I was always curious about how the boardgame fit into the overall Clancy legacy. Was it an early cash-in or was there some quality here that rubbed off from having the Tom Clancy name attached to it? I wasn’t sure.

Connery as Ramius: “Shome thingsh in here don’t react well to bulletsh.”

The game comes with several high quality components for its time. There’s a 29 page rulebook filled with examples of play, diagrams, and flavorful descriptions of various ships and aircraft of both the NATO and Warsaw Pact. The book has 8 scenarios ranging from short submarine duels to all-out battles of World War III with carriers, fighter planes, subs, and surface ships like frigates and destroyers. Of course, scenario 2 provides the players with the chance to recreate Captain Ramius’ defection as depicted in the novel. One player plays the role of Ramius and secretly plots Red October’s path while the other player uses the entire Soviet navy to try and track him down and prevent him from reaching the Americans.

The board is beautiful and features a map of the North Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian Sea between North America and Europe. The SOSUS lines are indicated on the map with NATO symbols. Shallow and deep waters are colored differently and airbases for both sides are clearly shown. In addition to the map, there aretwo task force boards (one for each player) so as to avoid crowding on the main playing surface. There is also a ‘battle board’ that allows players to place their units according to when they will attack (first or second) in the battle phase and where each piece falls in the composition of the task force (ASW, anti-air, etc.). I was surprised by how good these looked and how large they were. For its time, this game had some very nice components.

The pieces of the game include the naval and air units. The naval units are two-sided. On one side is the name and class of the ship with its detection and attack ratings. On the other is simply the NATO or Warsaw Pact symbol so as to keep the enemy player in the dark about what exactly is out there until successfully detecting the enemy. The game comes with two 10-sided die and two six-sided die.

Los Angeles class SSN ready for action.

Learning the game required a bit of head-scratching due to the poor rules organization. It’s clear though that this was a good attempt at building a fun family game that tries to model the very basics of naval warfare. For those looking for anything more than beer and pretzels depth, this game will be a disappointment. Anyone who just likes the theme of the game and an afternoon of moving around cardboard submarines and ships is probably going to have a good time.

Each turn is broken down into 6 steps. First, both players roll initiative by determining how many detection markers they get beyond the basic allotment of two each. Detection markers are played at various times during the turn to try and detect the enemy’s units. The NATO player gets d10 worth of detection markers while the poor Soviets get only d6 detection markers. Whoever has more detection markers has the initiative.

Soviets roll to get 3 detection markers compared to NATO’s *gulp* 9.

After that, the player with initiative decides who will move their ships first. If a ship moves into the same space as an enemy ship, the enemy has the choice of whether or not to play a detection marker to try and detect the enemy unit. If the opposing player decides not to play a detection marker, the moving player can just keep moving. However, if he does play a detection marker, the moving player can then play his detection markers too. If one or both sides detect the other, naval battle may ensue. Players have to decide whether their units will attack first or second as there are different benefits and drawbacks for each choice.

The battle board – here’s where you make those decisions you live to regret…

The air movement phase comes next. If you want to launch your ASW aircraft or conduct an air raid against an enemy force, this is your chance to get those aircraft on to the board. In the final step, the battle phase, the players get another chance to play detection markers and fight it out again if they so wish. As you can see, much of the game is spent moving, rolling dice, and playing detection markers.

All in! Aircraft and subs go for broke during the Combat step.

It’s deceptively simple but somehow it ends up being more than just the sum of its parts. I’m not sure if its the branding or the optional rules that allow for a more nuanced game (these optional rules include SSM missile defense, anti-aircraft doctrine, decoy submarines, SAMs and jamming to name a few). Judging from the rulebook and the amount of effort that went into designing a simple but fun and playable game of modern naval combat, I don’t get the impression that this was a weak cash-in but rather a nicely put together board game that was primarily aimed at the dad-son crowd much more than a serious simulation of sorts.


  1. If you've played this, I'd be curious to see how you did setting up some solitaire house rules. Eventually, I'm planning on doing a web app that simulates the Red October scenario. Unfortunately it's waaaay down the road.

  2. Hey Mike,

    Funny you should mention that. I have been thinking about the same thing. How could you program a rudimentary AI in python that would handle the location of the Red October? Well, I guess would start by thinking of all the potential routes that the RO could take from its starting point to New York (I think that is the end point?). You could put all the potential routes in a data structure and have the program randomly select one of the routes from a list or dictionary. Throughout the game, the user would input his search attempts in one of the spaces and the program would check the current position and turn to tell you if the RO is detected. I think this could be done fairly easily. What do you think?

  3. Brad,

    You could definitely do it route based. That would probably be the easiest. You could put together several pre-plotted routes and have the program choose. Or my thought was to try to maybe employ the A* (A Star) Path Finding algorithm. I've seen it implemented for square grids and hex grids but not areas. My other thought was to create an array of the spaces and for each space have some kind of weighting system for a most likely, likely, least likely type of choice to move to the next adjacent space employing the rules that the sub has to stop if the area is being searched and it is successful.

  4. Mike, I've never heard of that algorithm but it sounds exactly what you would need here. That would be exactly the kind of thing you could use for programming a rudimentary AI for any wargame, which is one of the reasons I started to learn to program. I'll look it up when I get the chance and try to crank out something. Thanks again for pointing me in this direction!

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