This weekend I got Gregory M. Smith’s Pacific Tide: The United States versus Japan, 1941-45 (Compass Games, 2018) to the game table for another run thru. I started the game in 1941 but this time paid more attention to the narrative of the game versus the game mechanics. Happily, I discovered that the two are actually quite tightly coupled.
I categorize Pacific Tide as a “waro”-style wargame because it uses game mechanics beyond the traditional hex & counter with CRT* found in classic wargames. In Pacific Tide, each player (US or Japan) has cards which dictate movement or attack or reinforcement or the occurrence of events. Cards are arranged by years and broadly cover situations that historically happened in that timeframe. What I really came to appreciate in this play thru of Pacific Tide was how the cards drive a historical narrative that is close to history but not necessarily locked-in by the past.
Here is how my Pacific Tide 1941 played out. The game starts with the Japanese player holding the Pearl Harbor, SNLF Marines, Air Operations, and Yamamoto cards in their hand. The US has only Emergency Evacuation and Air Builds. The Year Card designates Japan as the first player and notes that all Japanese Naval and Land-based air roll 2 die per attack for each unit. On the other hand, US Naval and Land-based air roll only 1 die per unit. This is a nice way to show the relative combat power of the combatants at this time; a period where Japanese naval and land-based aircraft outclassed their American counterparts.
Like history, the Japanese started out with the Pearl Harbor attack. The attack uses the Special Pearl Harbor Attack card which is a 2d6 roll against a table. The US player will be able to strike back using the one Land-based air in Hawaii, but after the one attack the LBA is destroyed. Of the five US Fleet units present, three are sunk outright with a fourth damaged. The US LBA does better than historically and is able to down one of the five Japanese Naval air units. The rest of the Pearl Harbor card allows three areas to activate for MOVEMENT and for ATTACK or AMPHIB attacks in two areas. All these attacks add one extra die (surprise factor?). The Japanese attacks generally track with history; the US Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines is destroyed but the ENTRENCHED infantry remains while Borneo and it’s precious oil falls.
The Pearl Harbor card allows the Japanese player to either PASS the turn to the US or PLAY another card. Being on a roll (literally and figuratively) Japan follows up with the SNLF Marines which adds infantry for an AMPHIB attack – again at a +1 die in combat. In this timeline, the SNLF Marines land in the Philippines and defeats the Americans there. The turn (finally) passes to the US.
The US is totally defensive this year with only two cards to play – neither of which have an ATTACK or AMPHIB action. Historically, the US used Emergency Evacuation to pull out of the Philippines and save the Army. However, this timeline is different with American forces in the Philippines already defeated. So the first play is Air Builds which adds a Land-based air to Midway. Maybe the US was spooked by the Japanese CVs staying in the Northern Pacific areas? Regardless, the card is played after which the Japanese play Air Operations to beat up on Force Z in Singapore.
Now the US has the Emergency Evacuation card as the only possible play; but what to evacuate? Again, not fully thinking the situation through, the US uses the card to withdraw a damaged Force Z from Singapore. A very sub-optimal use of the card for sure. The poor choice is made all the more apparent when the Japanese play their last card, Yamamoto, to invade Singapore (seizing its oil reserves) and strengthen their defensive perimeter by taking Wake.
The end of 1941 in this timeline does not look that different from reality, but there are a few differences:
- The US Pacific Fleet has lost the bulk of its surface force but its carriers remain untouched
- Japan has seized the Philippines and ejected the US Asiatic Fleet and the US Army in the Far East
- Japan control the oil-rich areas of Singapore and Borneo (control adds bonus Build Points in later years)
- Wake has fallen
- In the South Pacific, a damaged Force Z has retired to Fremantle but Japanese Land-based air is in New Guinea while Commonwealth Land-based air and fleets lurk in the Solomons and Timor Sea.
The biggest mistake I see is that the US failed to save any infantry units. This could cause a problem; looking at the cards ahead for 1942 the only way to rebuild infantry is the use of Marine Builds which adds three infantry. On the other hand, Japan gets Fortifications and Garrison Forces and Banzai Attacks as well as Tokyo Express; all cards that build up infantry or make their movement / attack deadly.
In 1942 Japan retains the initiative (first player) but there is tactical parity as both the US and Japan roll 2 die per Naval air unit and one die for each Land-based air unit in attacks. Most dangerously, Japan also has the Midway card for an extra maximum-effort attack. This is important as the Japanese achieve an Automatic Decisive Victory if at the end of 1942 they control their home areas (Japan and Okinawa) as well as Singapore (check), Borneo (check), the Aleutians, Wake (check), and Midway.
Pacific Tide may not be a “traditional wargame” but it certainly builds an interesting historical narrative. There is alot of depth – both narratively and mechanically – in this “simple” game. I also appreciate the fact the designer is very active on the BoardGameGeek forums. His BGG name is Sturmer and he answers many questions – often quickly – and has posted helpful clarifications for the game. This level of attention to his game and engagement with players is a great example of the best the wargame hobby has to offer.
* Combat Results Table (CRT), usually odds-based
Feature image courtesy Compass Games.