History to #Wargame: Discovering how much went into Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo – Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid, Tokyo Raid, 1942 (@gmtgames, 2017)

This being April, we are approaching another anniversary of the Doolittle Raid of April 1942:

The Doolittle Raid is the popular name given to a mission flown by members of the United States Army Air Force and Navy.

Lt. Col. “Jimmy” Doolittle flew their B-25 Mitchell bombers off of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) in the first strike against the Japanese home islands. The Doolittle Raiders attacked military and industrial targets in several Japanese cities and their surprise attack on the previously untouched home islands of Japan is considered by many historians to be a primary cause of the Japanese decisions that let to the Battle of Midway during which the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers. It was also symbolic as the United States first major strike back. (Courtesy doolittleraid.com)

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Courtesy GMT Games

Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid, Tokyo Raid, 1942 (GMT Games, 2017) is a solo game but with very strong narrative elements. With the Coronapocalypse shut-in I took the opportunity to explore the game more deeply. I am happy to say that the more I play, the more I come to appreciate the game and the challenges faced by the Doolittle Raiders.

Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid is not your usual wargame. First off, its solo. This usually means you can expect a very systematic (formulamatic?) approach to execution of the game mechanics. The Doolittle Raid avoids this pitfall through the building of a narrative where player choice matters and game mechanics that introduce randomness (Hazards) at the right time and in the right amount.

The full campaign game of The Doolittle Raid is composed of six segments, each of which builds the narrative of the story as you, the player, makes decisions.

  1. Planning – Starting in January 1942 the player, most closely personified as Lt. Col James Doolittle, has to make decisions that will impact the execution of the mission. Who do you tell? What modifications do you make to the aircraft? How closely do you guard the crews? Each decision will factor into the success – or failure – of the mission.
  2. Naval – Once the raid sails you have to get to the launch point. What dangers lurk on the high seas? Will you make it to the launch point undiscovered? Will all the refueling go as planned? What do you do if you are discovered early?
  3. Ingress Flight – This is the part of the mission between launch and arrival in the target area. Hazards can appear randomly (although the planning that you did may mitigate some of them). What is the weather? Your flights are lost and don’t have a radio to form up with, or do they? Did your crews have a bit too much liberty and talk to the wrong folks who passed whispers to the Japanese who now are ready?
  4. Over the Target – This segment is the heart of the game. Indeed, most of the scenarios in the Scenario Book depict the events of a single Flight over their respective target area. This is the tactical portion of the game – fighting your way into and out of the target area and delivering ordnance. Again, Hazards can appear and like before your planning and preparation influence how many and your ability to handle them. That decision in January to ask for Chinese help and then building air bases to land your bombers at may have tipped off the Japanese who increase their air defense readiness. This means you face more fighters and flak. Did you take off the upper turret and tailgun to save weight? Really wish you had it now!
  5. Egress Flight – Now that you left the target area you have to get to safety. Again, did you bring enough fuel? Are Chinese bases ready for you? Are the Japanese still in pursuit? Once again, decisions made long ago influence the Hazards you encounter along the way.
  6. Debriefing – Also called the Denouement. In this segment you look back at the mission and try to divine the political and military impacts. Just how successful were YOU?

The game rules for The Doolittle Raid offer a programmed learning approach. Play the Historical Scenarios to learn the Over the Target segment, then add the Flight segment, then the Naval segment and finally play full up from the beginning with Planning.

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Full game board courtesy GMT Games

For myself, I played several of the Historical Scenarios first to get the Over the Target portion of the game down-pat. I then skipped to the full campaign and started with the Planning segment. I adopted a very conservative approach, using a high degree of Operations Security (OPSEC) and avoided briefing people until the last second, avoiding the use of the telephone, and keeping the crews tightly controlled. The impact was less Chinese preparations to receive the planes, less Navy cooperation, and less crew Morale (leading to a few training incidents).. I modified the aircraft with an eye towards reducing weight through less armor & armament (also removed the Norden Bombsight) but with more fuel.

In the Naval segment I didn’t have as much Navy support but the OPSEC got me to the launch point before discovery. The Ingress Flight faced weather which forced me to use more fuel. Over the Target was lightly opposed but actual damage delivered was minimal. For the Egress Flight I tried to get to the few Chinese airfields but weather again played havoc with my plans. Of the 12 planes launched, seven made it to the Chinese mainland, three were lost somewhere, and two were interned in Russia. For the Denoument the raid was barely considered a success given the losses against damage delivered.

In the ad copy for The Doolittle Raid, GMT Games writes:

The Doolittle Raid remains an enigmatic and contradictory episode of World War Two, defying easy interpretation even to this day. Was it a victory or a debacle? Was it a minor footnote in the annals of that war or a significant military event? Was it a desperate bid to avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor, or, a harbinger signaling death and horror soon to visit Japanese cities from the sky?

Playing Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid taught me that this mission was far from simple. It is very easy, even in this game, to focus solely on the tactical events (Over the Target). Arguably, the most important part of the mission is not the time over the target, but the Mission Planning that goes into getting the raiders to that point and then getting them out. The Doolittle Raid is a complete package as it shows the impact of strategic choices and operational effects on the tactical delivery of ordnance. The Denouement segment is pure genius; you may discover that what is in one view a tactical failure over the target is in reality a strategic victory. Few games can deliver those lessons as effectively as Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid does in less than 3 hours.


Feature image U.S. Navy (photo 80-G-41196)

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