A narrative operational multi-domain #wargame in the Pacific in WWII – or – Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (@gmtgames,1990)

Having taken a few days holiday leave, I decided to get the first wargame play of my RockyMountainNavy 2020 GMT Operational / Next War Series Challenge out of the way. First up was Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (GMT Games, 1990). My opinion of this game has evolved over the years; at first I disliked it because, as a naval gamer, it I felt it improperly abstracted away the naval campaign. More recently, I have come to appreciate the abstraction and the designer’s intent. My most recent play reinforced my opinion that this game is vastly under appreciated.

I played the ‘Japanese High Water Mark Scenario.’ This 16-turn scenario begins on Turn 9 of the campaign and goes thru Turn 24. During setup, both players make five rolls on the Shoestring Automatic Victory Conditions table. If either play achieves four of the five conditions at the end of a game turn they win immediately. If neither player achieves their auto victory conditions then victory points determine the winner.

Rule 23.0 Hints on Solitaire Play makes suggestions for playing the game solitaire. I found it mildly insightful that the designer’s stated, “We’re assuming if you’re playing the game solitaire, you’re looking for more of a simulation than a game.” Suggestions range from not using Hidden Japanese Units to different Automatic Victory Conditions to Random Placement of Naval Units. The only suggestion I utilized was no hidden units.

For a game that abstracts and de-emphasizes the air/naval portion of the campaign my play was naval-heavy. Two of the five US auto victory conditions concerned ships (Destroy 2 Japanese CVs or CVLs and Destroy 10 Japanese ship counters). Another condition called for the US to Clear all Japanese units from Tulagi/Gavutu/Tanambago for 2 consecutive turns. Another demanded the US Clear Japanese units from within 5 hexes (inclusive) of Henderson Field.

The Japanese auto conditions were in some ways chaotic and even contradictory. They ranged from Hold US at ‘No Supply’ for 4 consecutive turns (two weeks) to Capture Mantanikau (3417) and hold for 2 consecutive turns. Other conditions all over and at extreme ends of the map; Capture and hold hexes 0502 and 0603 for 2 consecutive turns, Occupy Mt Austen (3425) and hold for 2 consecutive turns, and Capture Volianavua (5613) and hold for two consecutive turns.

As the American player, I first reinforced the Marines at Henderson Field then went after the Japanese Navy. In a series of pitched naval battles I sunk the carriers and other ships needed to win. Like history, I am sure the Marines ashore were very upset with me as they fell out of supply while the Navy dashed about furiously. Fortunately, I was able to sink enough of the Japanese fleet to then resupply Guadalcanal as well as execute amphibious ops against the lesser islands. The US achieved an automatic victory on Turn 22.

All of which leads to my biggest surprise playing this game – the emergence of a real narrative.

There is much hot air these days about narrative in gaming. A good game not only has to be enjoyed it must also ‘tell a story.’ Wargames (even older wargames) can tell stories, but those stories are often stale After Action Reports that retell the battle with a focus on the strategy and/or tactics leading to victory or defeat. In Operation Shoestring I was not expecting the impact Automatic Victory Conditions had on my play. For the US, the game went from one of attrition warfare (grinding down the enemy for VP) to fighting for objectives. On the other hand, the Japanese, with objectives all over the map, focused more on that battle of attrition in an attempt to grind out a win. One game; two different approaches to play with each approach telling a story of how and why they are doing it that way.

I note that as of the time I am writing this blog post (early January 2020) that Operation Shoestring is still available at the GMT website. Too bad; this game certainly deserves an upgrade (ala Silver Bayonet, 25th Anniversary Edition)  because there is alot of good game here in a pretty small package.

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