My plays this week of Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (GMT Games, 1990) gave me my latest Gropiphany. In replaying the game after many years I discovered a real gem. The back-of-the-box claims in this case correct; an innovative combat resolution mechanic integrated with a naval and air game combined with just the right amount of chrome rules makes for a very thematic and replayable game. Bottom Line – Operation Shoestring models the battles in an innovative, and fun playing, fashion providing great insight into the campaign.
Operation Shoestring was published near the beginning of the GMT Games era. The components are not exciting but functional; a paper 22″x34″ map and 600 counters (a bit thin for my taste). The rule book is 24 pages, double column, with few illustrations. The player aid cards are dead simple. The box itself is the GMT standard 2″ deep; which is 1″ more than is needed even with an enclosed die! There is also this LAST MINUTE ERRATA AND NOTE (p. 18) that I find quite humorous and shows that GMT was still learning the ropes of publishing wargames:
You’ll note that we put the Victory Point Track in a really DUMB place. That’s right — on the Japanese Hidden Movement Chart!! So how’s the American ever going to know what the score is? Sorry, this is a definite screw-up, but the cards area already printed, so do this: photocopy or cut the Victory Point Track from the Japanese Hidden Movement Chart and place it where BOTH players can use it!
The box art is recycled Rodger B. MacGowan art. I first this saw this art on Beachhead (Yaquinto, 1980). It is one of my favorites! I don’t mind the recycled usage of this great art; for me the art of Rodger MacGowan is synonymous with wargames.
At first look, Operation Shoestring appears to be classically daunting hex & counter wargame. The ‘wall-o-text’ rule book and several pages of charts and tables, along with multiple player aids and 600 counters makes the game look complex. The real gem of game design is in how all the game mechanics integrate together into a smooth system that covers two levels of war; an abstracted higher-operational level look at naval & air combat and a lower-operational level treatment of the ground war.
Operation Shoestring is in many ways two games in one. The main game actually is the ground combat on Guadalcanal played at the operational level of war with Company-size units fighting in 1-mile hexes over the course of 3-1/2 day turns. The second (and secondary) game is the Naval-Air game, played only on odd turns (weekly), that simulates the naval and air battles around the island. Operation Shoestring is part of the GMT Operational System which focuses on the interaction of the maneuver, bombardment, and assault combat systems. Units are rated for morale and efficiency which are just as important as formation strength in combat. This is the same system used by Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965. As the Designer’s Notes put it:
In order for players to use this combat system to best advantage, they will need to become proficient at utilizing all three types of combat. Knowing when, where, and how to declare combat is the key to doing this. The sequence of play forces the attacking player to make irrevocable combat declarations. Tis roughly simulates headquarters’ final attack orders which commit troops to combat. Manuever combats can force the enemy to retreat, become fatigued, and, depending on the terrain the enemy occupies, possibly lose troops. Assault combat will eliminate units, pure and simple, but can be very costly to the attacker as well. Bombardment combat represents the predatory bombardments which inevitably precede an attack. Ideally, all three types of combat should be brought against a defending hex.
Maneuver and Assault Combat use different Combat Tables. Maneuver Combat is uses a classic combat odds ratio table. Only the Attacker fires. Combat results are expressed in terms of retreat, step-losses, and Fatigue. Assault Combat uses pure combat strength. However, unlike Maneuver Combat, the defender gets to fire first and there is a chance (based on the Efficiency of the involved units) for a second round of combat. Assault Combat results are all expressed as step-losses.
The second game is the Naval & Air game. Naval-Air play happens only on odd-numbered turns in the Strategic Interphase. The naval and air rules are abstracted to a degree, as explained in 18.0 Naval Units:
Although aircraft carriers and battleships were the largest and most fearsome weapons of the day, the Guadalcanal campaign had its share of cruiser battles and submarine attacks as well. Even the lowly DDs and Trasnports contributed mightily to the naval aspects of the campaign. We have chosen to represent all these types, some abstractly, to give players the “feel” for the challenges both sides faced at Guadalcanal. In essence, the “raison d’être” for both navies was to get troops and supplies to Guadalcanal. The essential strategy ws much more than “Let’s go sink the other guy’s ships.” Players who don’t recognize this and play accordingly will soon find themselves with armies that are dying on the vine on Guadalcanal.
The Air/Naval Phase is not played on the map but on separate Player Aid cards. The most important results of the Air/Naval Phase are the naval and air units “bombarding” Guadalcanal; that is, those available to provide bombardment or combat support during the next two Player Turns. Additionally, the number of Transports that make it though determine the supply status of the units on the island.
I usually don’t like supply rules in my wargames, often because it can be an administrative burden that interferes with my enjoyment of the game. In Operation Shoestring, supply is a vital factor like in the historical campaign and to get the historic “feel” of the battles supply rules are needed. Fortunately, in Operation Shoestring the most burdensome aspects of supply are abstracted and the effects of no supply are concentrated on. Basically, during the Air/Naval Phase of the Strategic Interphase, both sides try to get supply to the island. Depending on the volume of supplies delivered, units are either in “Full Supply,” “Low Supply,” or “No Supply.” This supply state affects combat (16.3) and the die roll for Attrition and Disease (16.4).
The “chrome” rules in Operation Shoestring are not burdensome on the game. As with most Pacific War games, there is the obligatory Banzai Charge rule (14.3). The game is designed for hidden movement but can be played without it with little lose in flavor. Another rule that makes for great replayability is the variable Automatic Victory Conditions for longer games. Basically, each player draws a number of chits from his group of 10 Auto Victory Conditions. Depending upon the scenario, if the player achieves X number of the conditions, they win regardless of Victory Point totals!
We have found that the naval units are ABSOLUTELY the most important ones in the game. One look at the vicious supply and attrition/disease rules should convince any sane player to make a major effort at sea. When to make that big effort, and how long to sustain it, is each player’s choice. (Designer’s Notes)
If naval units are the most important units in the game, why is the naval-air game secondary to the ground? That’s because this game gets the relationship right; the naval and air forces are there to enable the ground units. By focusing on the ground units, the players experience the vital need to control the seas and air around the island to deliver supply and troops. Even a superficial reading of books like Neptune’s Inferno: The US Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer which focuses on the sea battles or The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign by John B. Lundstrum that focuses on the air campaign reveal that those battles were fought in support of the boots on the ground.
Limited. There is a virtually inactive section on CONSIMWORLD forums devoted to Operation Shoestring, and the BGG forum sees no real real activity either. That’s too bad. A sister game, Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 got an updated reprint in a special 25th Anniversary Edition. Given a graphic overhaul, Operation Shoestring could be brought up to “modern” standards and make a great game.
I first rated the game on BoardGameGeek 12 years ago. At the time, I rated it a 6.5 (6 = Ok – will play if in the mood) and really only remembered it for its Air-Sea-Land interaction. At the time, I was almost exclusively a naval wargamer and focused on that part of the game. Given this was not a “pure” naval game I knocked it’s rating and set it aside.
That was a mistake; a tragedy in many ways.
Operation Shoestring, though focusing on the ground combat with an abstracted naval-air system added on, captures the main themes of the campaign well. It is probably the most complete, and playable, operational-level of war depiction of the Guadalcanal campaign in wargaming. The desperate defensive battle on land, supported by naval forces attempting to deliver supply, with limited air power available to both sides, is represented fully. There is much to learn about the history of the battle from this game, and much insight to be gained as to the proper role of naval and air power in a campaign.