"The Lost Admiral Returns is played on a hex map depicting water and land; pieces move only on water. Cities, with attached ports, are based on land, and are worth victory points. In order to own a city (and thus accrue victory points from it), a player must have a troop transport stationed in the harbor of the city at all times. A city with no transport in the harbor is neutral, and no one gains points from it.
At the end of a turn, up to two friendly ships can share a hex without negative consequences. If ships from opposing teams occupy a hex at the end of a turn, they fight. Ships can move a certain number of hexes per turn; if they enter a hex with an enemy, they must stop. In addition to the two types of troop transports, there are PT boats, destroyers, submarines (both submerged and surfaced), aircraft carriers, cruisers, and battleships. Normally, you can only see enemy ships if they are in the same hex, so the fog of war is heavy and thick. Aircraft carriers can detect enemy ships -- except for submerged submaries -- up to two hexes away.
There is no die-rolling here. Rather, combat is very rock-paper-scissors. A submerged submarine can do substantial damage to a battleship, but the battleship cannot hurt the sub at all. A destroyer can sink a submerged sub in one shot, but the sub can barely dent the destroyer. A battleship can squash a destroyer like a bug; a destroyer barely tickles a battleship. Combat is resolved nearly automatically. There's a little animation of the ships shooting at each other, but there is no dexterity involved (except the occasional need to click on a ship to indicate that you want to target this enemy rather than that one.) Movement between the player and the computer alternates in turns. It can be a bit of a burn to attack a battleship with your sub, only to have the other player move a destroyer in to take you out on the next turn; of course, you're trying to do the same thing to him as well.
Gameplay is fast-paced, for a hex-based wargame, and addictive. I constantly find myself saying "Just one more battle before bed," which is a sure sign of incipient dependency. Battles are wrapped up into a somewhat baroque but fun "career mode," wherein you have an overall rank (based on how many battles you've fought) and class (expressed as a colour, based on how well you've done in those battles). So a blue ensign has fought more battles than a gold master mate, but the latter did better, on average, in his fights. As you finish battles, little medals begin to decorate your career screen. It makes a cub scout's heart glow warmly to see these little merit badges accumulate. If you needed any proof that war is really about boys and their toys, it's right here.
There are nine pregenerated maps, and a nice variety of options to generate random maps. There is also a campaign mode, called "Save the Admiral," where you fight a large number of set-piece and random battles. Sprinkled in among the games, particularly in the campaign, are additional missions where you are responsible for more than simply amassing the most victory points.
The Lost Admiral Returns is not an online game; all battles are against the computer. The AI can be set to one of ten levels; I found level 1 to be trivial to beat, and have slowly been ratcheting the difficulty up. So far, I just barely managed to defeat a level 5 opponent, so the difficulty ramp feels about right. To the best of my knowledge, the computer isn't cheating. After each battle, you are given the option to post your scores on the internet and see how other people did on the same map, against the same AI you played. That can be pretty humbling.
[The big drawback of the game is that] It has a massively overcreated UI. This is constantly with you as you play. Apart from the obvious issue of the buttons not being pretty drop-shadowed Windows buttons, there are other annoyances. The game is full of tooltips which pop up as you scroll the mouse around the screen, sometimes obscuring what you actually want to read. The game pauses and continues during the computer's turn without waiting for user input, but displays a box with a "continue" button for three quarters of a second, just long enough for me to start moving the mouse to try to click it. To select ships, you have to right-click, which changes the display in a manner so subtle as to be imperceptible if you're not paying close attention. Then, to move a ship you left click. I've made bad moves in a couple of battles because I accidentally left-clicked and sent a ship sailing off into somewhere it was never meant to go.
None of these interface issues ruin the game. The developer is aware of them, and is working on addressing the most pressing ones (which you'll read about in the next few days, when we publish our interview with him). I highlight them only because the gap between the superb game design and gameplay and the dowdy, hand-rolled interface is so stark. If there's anything that will turn players off the game, I think it will be the interface.
Lots of information on The Lost Admiral Returns is available at the game's web site. There's a very generous 30 day trial period in which you have pretty much full access to all of the game's features. If what you've read here interests you, I encourage you to download the demo (for Windows PCs only, unfortunately) and give it a try." Highly recommended for fans of "beer & pretzel" wargames, and naval sims in general.