#WargameWednesday – Reconsidering The Fires of Midway

Courtesy history.com

After sitting on my shelf for over a year, this past weekend I played a game of The Fires of Midway: The Carrier Battles of 1942 (Clash of Arms, 2010). Billed as the War is Hell Series Card Game 2, TFoM is not your usual carrier duel game. TFoM delivers a card game evocative of carrier duels in the early years of the Pacific War but the level of abstraction makes it only a fair simulation of actual carrier battles.

After selecting a scenario, both sides “search” a grid of cards to find the enemy fleet. Along the way, the maneuver map is populated with weather conditions and the starting hand of Combat Cards is built. As the Design Note states:

The Search Phase represents the efforts of dozens of planes, ships, and individuals attempting to locate the enemy in the vastness of the Pacific. The U.S. Navy edge in pre-battle intelligence is accounted for by always allowing the Americans to search first.

Depending on the search results, one side gets the advantage of placing their fleets and a VP bonus. The Search Phase plays quickly and evokes a cat-and-mouse feeling of trying to desperately find your opponent’s fleets in the vast broad oceans.

Play then progresses to what I find the strangely named Strategy Phase. Strange because what the players do is not as much strategy as it is operational orders. In the Strategy Phase, a number of Action Cards equal to the number of carriers are randomly dealt between the players. Each Action Card has a precedence number which determines the order in which the turn will happen. The advantaged player, called the Confident Player, has the ability to “steal” – or trade – an Action Card before strikes are revealed. This simple initiative determination mechanic captures the mad scramble of aircraft as strikes are launched again in a seemingly  realistic manner.

Following initiative determination, carriers are moved on the map. The map is very small, consisting of 18 irregularly-shaped areas. As noted in the Design Note:

The Maneuver Map is an abstraction of the relative positions of carriers in a large expanse of ocean, and not meant to be an exact replica of any one naval battlefield. Each Map Area represents hundreds of square miles of potential hiding places.

Some may find this level of abstraction a bit jarring, but in a game where so much is being abstracted the maneuver map ends up being one of the most “grognard” parts of the game.

Play now proceeds to the Carrier Turn. In the Carrier Turn, each carrier has one phase of action in their order of initiative.

In the Sortie Phase, carriers can launch strikes. The Action Card dictates how many squadrons can be in the strike package. Depending on the range, a number of Search or Destroy (SoD) Cards are drawn and fuel used is determined. The amount of fuel used is compared to the Fuel Rating of each aircraft; if too much fuel is used the planes arrive is a “smoking” condition. The Design Note comments,

Even if you know approximately where an enemy carrier is, finding a moving target is another matter. Strike Groups had a habit of getting lost and burning precious fuel in futile searches for enemy carriers even if the flattops had been sighted shortly before takeoff.

I wish the designer had chosen a word other than “smoking ” to describe fuel-starved aircraft. The word, and the accompanying card art, look more like battle damage and not a plane running out of gas.

Once the strikes arrive at the carrier, a Spotting Roll is conducted to determine if CAP will be ready or if the strikes go straight in to the carriers.

In the Engagement Phase, spotted strikes resolve combat against the CAP. In a CAP battle, fighters take on escorting fighters or bombers. This is where the player’s hand of cards starts counting. Players have the choice of adding a Cockpit Card to their battling aircraft for an enhanced combat effect or to cancel out an opponents Combat Card. Combat is resolved in a very simple, straight-forward manner that is the same for air combat or bomber strikes; both sides roll a variable number of d6 die and compare the results. Whichever side has the single-highest die roll wins. In the CAP battle, the winning aircraft  then rolls a number of d6 equal to the number of Bullet Icons and the results are compared to the Damage Track across the bottom of the target airplanes card. Destroyed aircraft are sent to “The Watery Grave.”

The Engagement Phase also shows how the abstractions in TFoM start creating ahistorical results. Escorting fighters automatically shield the bombers from the CAP. Not until later scenarios where more than one plane can be on CAP is their a chance for the CAP to get past the fighters and to the bombers.

The Bomber Phase follows engagements. In the Bomber Phase, striking aircraft, be it dive-bombers or torpedo planes, attack the carriers. As each bomber starts their Attack Run, Combat Cards are again selected. Striking bombers can chose a Bomber Card whereas the carrier gets to use a Carrier Card. As with Engagements, the Combat Card may offer an advantage to the player. The Bomber Dice Test pits the bombers against the anti-aircraft guns of the carrier. If the carrier wins, damage is assessed against the bomber. If the bomber wins, the carrier is struck.

The Resolution Phase immediately follows. CAP is landed or turned over to their smoking side, and the return strike determines if they make it back to the carrier. Play then proceeds to the Admiral’s Phase. Each Admiral can take one of three actions; Reload their hand of Combat Cards, Recover CAP and replace if desired, or Restore which spends Repair Points for damage control.

Once each carrier has had their action, the End Phase is conducted. Here progressive damage is assessed against carriers see if they sink. Depending on the damage, VP is awarded. Additionally, VP is gained depending on how many squadrons of aircraft are in The Watery Grave. A decision to continue the battle or retreat and end the game is then made. If the game continues the next turn begins with a new Strategy Phase.

TFoM does a decent job of reflecting the widely varied capabilities of combat aircraft of the day. As the Design Note points out:

When it comes to hitting power the Japanese have the advantage with excellent long-range aircraft. The Americans were hindered by “flying coffins” such as the Devastator and the mistaken notion among admirals of the time that the early American torpedoes were good weapons, they were not.

Where I find the abstraction of TFoM most distracting is in the Carrier Turn. Nowhere are the mass strikes of the Japanese carriers allowed. In TFoM a carrier duel is reduced to a sequential I-go, U-go of each carrier individually resolving their strike.

Courtesy BGG

The Fires of Midway: The Carrier Battles of 1942 is an easy and relatively fast-playing game. It adequately replicates the broad brushes of the subject matter. Play this game for fun and understand that what you learn about the history of carrier duels in 1942 will not be too in-depth. For myself, I will be playing with the younger RockyMountainNavy and using it to (gently) explore the very basics carrier combat in World War II.

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