Wargame SITREP 230308 N7 Design: Forgoing Realism in Task Force: Carrier Battles in the Pacific (Vuca Simulations, 2023) with mention of @WriteGameRead

As much as some might protest, wargames and realism have long (supposedly) gone hand-in-hand. From the earliest days of the hobby, wargames surrounded themselves with an aura of realism. In the 1950’s, RAND Corporation referred to wargames as, “rules representing the actual conditions of combat.” James Dunnigan, who straddles both the hobby and practitioner spectrum of wargaming said, “A wargame is a playable simulation.” John Prados, author, historian, and wargame designer, noted that wargames, “uses methods other than fighting to generate plausible outcomes from combat.” So it is with some trepidation that I argue that Task Force: Carrier Battles in the Pacific (Vuca Simulations, 2023) is an excellent example of a wargame that is very playable exactly because it foregoes realism.  

Thanks to a comment by Maurice Suckling (@WriteGameRead on Twitter) I found a term to describe this condition: “Historical Authenticity.” Rather than striving to be a “historically accurate” wargame, Task Force uses abstracts elements to create a strong feeling of “historical authenticity.”

For example, in a wargame where aircraft carriers are central to your force composition, Task Force very lightly defines the differences between U.S. Navy (USN) and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) aircraft carriers. Aircraft carriers in Task Force are essentially reduced to four factors: Durability (aka Hit Points), Anti-air strength, Firepower, and air wing composition. These minor variations for the ship factors in the game gloss over major real world differences, as David Evans and Mark Peattie discuss in Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941 (Naval Institute Press, 1997). Evans and Peattie discuss three distinct difference in aircraft carrier design and construction between the USN and IJN. Looking at those three differences (and a related fourth) helps to see where playability properly trumps realism in Task Force.

“Many planes headed Midway”

The first was maximum aircraft capacity. In the Japanese navy, as in the Royal Navy, aircraft capacity was determined by the size of the hanger rather than the size of the flight deck. From the beginning, American carriers normally parked most of their aircraft on the flight deck and used the hanger below only for repair and maintenance. Japanese carriers, on the other hand, used their hangers as their main storage area as well as for servicing, refueling, and loading ordnance. Because hangers generally provide less storage space than do flight decks, Japanese carriers of roughly the same displacement as American carriers usually had smaller carrier air groups. (Given the use of carrier hangers for aircraft storage it is curious that the Japanese did not put more emphasis on folding wings for greater aircraft storage.)

Evans & Peattie, p. 323

In Task Force the American carriers can carry more aircraft than the Japanese. The mix of aircraft is generic in most scenarios, but there is an Alternate OOB [order of battle] presented in the scenario book with historically accurate aircraft mix. Not that it makes that much of a difference. In another nod to abstraction dive bombers and torpedo bombers are only distinguished by their combat value; the specific type of aircraft has no impact on play (with one notable exception being the early USN TB which has a strike range of 4 hexes rather than 5 in scenarios before Midway).

Task Force Scenario Book

Task Force, however, does not simulate the different aircraft parking arrangements. Both USN and IJN carriers use the same “generic” flight deck handling rules, which I will expand upon below. The generic aircraft approach used in Task Force simplifies the game by focusing on macro effects—bombers versus fighters—and not getting bogged down by details that ultimately don’t make that big of a difference but—if included—would very likely add significant playing time.

Durability and Amplified Damage

The second difference was that hangers in Japanese carriers were enclosed by storerooms, so that their aircraft and ready crews were shielded from wind and weather. Such arrangements would be lethal. In the Pacific War, when enemy bombs penetrated the unarmored flight decks and exploded in hangers, the resultant blast pressures would be disastrous: flight decks were blown apart, and the hanger sides buckled. The enclosed spaces also prevented rapid disposition of fuel and ordinance over the side and easy insertion of fire hoses from screening ships to fight a fire. One of the most serious deficiencies of Japanese carrier design during this period was the vulnerability of aviation fuel systems, a defect that undoubtably contributed to the loss of Soryu and Hiryu by fire at Midway.

Evans & Peattie, pp. 323-324

The Task Force rule covering the possible explosion of aircraft when the carrier is hit is found in rule 3.5.4 Amplified Damage. The rule states:

  • If an attack results in any combat hit inflicted to a Carrier/Land Base that has Aircraft units in the READY section, these aircraft may be hit too and cause more damage to the Carrier/Land base. Just before applying the combat hits to the Carrier/Land base, roll 1D6, and if the result is in the range of 1-3, the aircrafts on the flight deck are striken and explode:
    • All the air units in the READY slot are destroyed
    • Amplify the damage to the Carrier/Land base, adding to the combat hits from the attack 1 combat hit per 2 steps of Fighters destroyed (round up), and 3 hits per 2 steps of Bombers destroyed (round up).

Take note of the Task Force rule that states only aircraft in the Ready section can explode. This is seemingly at odds with IJN carrier design and practical usage. One could argue that a house-rule is needed perhaps applying a modified version of the amplified damage rule against aircraft in the Reserve section too. A very real concern at that point would be to determine if such a rule unbalances the game.

Note also that there is no distinction between USN and IJN aircraft carriers in that rule. While some might argue that the rule is not faithful to history it certainly conveys the effect of the design differences, i.e. it appears to be a rule that is “design for effect” rather than “design for realism.”

This is a good point to also discuss the approach Task Force takes to hit points, or in game terms “Durability.”

Durability: used by ships and land bases as a measure of how many hits they can take before being damaged, sunken, or destroyed.

2.2 Combat Units

Both USN and IJN carriers in Task Force have relatively similar Durability numbers. This is a case in Task Force where the abstraction more closely matches reality. As Evans and Peattie tell us, “Japanese and American carriers both sacrificed armored protection in order to maximize the offensive potential of their aircraft…The Japanese decks were unarmored, consisting merely of wooden planking laid lengthwise over thin steel decks. Like American carriers, hangers were also unarmored.” (Evans & Peattie, p. 323)

Japanese Bomb Impacts USS Enterprise (CV-6) During Battle of the Eastern Solomons (U.S. Navy)

Flight Deck Ops

The third difference lay in flight operations. The American carriers used crash barriers to separate parked and landing aircraft. whereas the Japanese needed clear flight decks during all flight operations. After each aircraft landed, it had to be stowed below before the next aircraft could land. This mode of operations kept Japanese flight decks clear and permitted a fairly rapid launch of aircraft, but during continuous flight operations, elevator cycles governed launch and recovery speeds. In consequence, more time was required to refuel and rearm planes than it would have taken on the flight decks. In urgent combat situations, an attempt to speed up the flight cycles of Japanese carriers was apt to lead to careless rearming and refueling. Indeed, the often-told loss of the Akagi and the Kaga at Midway is testimony to this ominous problem.

Evans & Peattie, 324

The Task Force rules for flight operations, found in rule 4.3 Aircraft Operations Phase, define where aircraft are on the map or aboard the carrier. The rules are the same for USN and IJN carriers, there is no difference in the aircraft handling rules based on which side you play.

When not on a Raid or flying a Combat Air Patrol (CAP), aircraft are in one of four “locations” near or aboard an aircraft carrier:

  • Landing from Map
  • Landing from CAP
  • Reserves
  • Ready

Reserve is defined in the rules as, “An aircraft that has returned from an assignment and is undergoing maintenance, or is waiting in the hanger.” The Ready area is defined as, “A combat-ready aircraft, usually aboard the flight deck…” The Ready rule also specifies that only four “units” can be in the Ready area at the end of the aircraft status step.

April 12, 1939: USS Enterprise CV-6 (maritimequest.com)

Notice that the rate at which aircraft can move is the same for both sides; the IJN are not disadvantaged in Task Force. For a USN carrier, it is also easy to imagine that the Reserve area does not only include the hanger deck, but also the carrier deck area being used to rearm/refuel aircraft. For the IJN the flight deck rules ignore the vulnerabilities and different flight deck handling pattern that Evans and Peattie lay out and instead treat the Reserve area as some sort of damage-protected sanctuary for aircraft. The rules in Task Force simply do not replicate the chaotic conditions aboard the IJN carriers on the morning of June 4 just before the USN dive bombers fell on them. While some might say, “That’s not real!” the overall impact on the game is minor as it preserves playability.

Design for Effect

In the end, Task Force appears to come from the Design for Effect-school of game design.

Design for Effect: When a game abstracts complex procedures for simplicity’s sake so that the players can get straight to the “boom.” 

Alan Emrich (according to BGG)

The fact that Task Force hails from the Design for Effect (DFE)-school is not a negative. Indeed, DFE is exactly why Task Force is a highly playable game. By abstracting out what some might call important details, the elements of carrier combat that Task Force emphasizes, such as using a chit-pull mechanic combined with hidden movement to show the challenges of reconnaissance, shine that much more brightly. While Task Force is no Admiralty Trilogy Games Command at Sea, it is the game more likely to end up landing on the table at game night exactly because it not only is “historically authentic” but it can also be easily be taught, learned, and played in an evening.

Feature image “Damage to Shokaku’s Flight Deck after Coral Sea” courtesy destinationsjourney.com

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2023 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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