Latest #Grogpiphany – Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (@gmtgames, 1990) #Wargame #Retroplay

img_2594My 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.

Presentation

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.

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Beachhead (Yaquinto, 1980)

Playability

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.

Mechanics

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.

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Ground Combat Results Tables

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.

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Naval-Air Player Cards

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!

Historical Flavor

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.

Support

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.

Bottom Line

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.

#Wargame #Retroplay – Beachhead (Yaquinto Publishing, 1980)

My not-so-lazy Sunday was capped off by a solo play attempt of Beachhead: A Game of Island Invasions in the South Pacific 1942-1944 from Yaquinto Publishing in 1980. Beachhead came packaged in what Yaquinto called their “Album Game'” format; the game “box” was basically a dual LP record cover. Very thin – so thin you couldn’t store the counters in the sleeves of the “box” without warping the board! Beachhead was designed by Michael  S. Matheny with a gorgeous cover by Roger B. MacGowan (@RBMStudio1 on Twitter). As I replayed this game I discovered it is not the game I remember; in some ways it is better, in other ways not.

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Small footprint – a 3’x3′ table will do!

As I reread the rules before play, several items jumped out at me. The first concerns serious gaming. Production of Beachhead was led by J. Stephen Peek, formerly of Battleline and obviously a serious gamer. So serious he didn’t call Beachhead a wargame but a “simulation”:

 

002 – BEACHHEAD As a Simulation

BEACHHEAD is a small unit level simulation of combat on an island in the South Pacific during the Second World War.

I pulled Beachhead out because I wanted to play a solitaire game. However, I quickly discovered that there is actually a fairly large degree of hidden information making this game not-so-solo-friendly.

4. All Japanese units are placed on the game board and are turned upside down. (102 PREPARING TO PLAY THE GAME-D-4)

2. Flip over all units that will move this Turn. (202 Basic Game Sequence of Play, STEP B.2.)

4. Return the moved units to the Face up [sic] position. (SoP, STEP C.4)

The next rule that was different than I remember is Sighting. The mapboard has many jungle hexes so as I read the rules I expected to see a rule about jungle blocking line of sight. Instead, I got this:

3. Hexes containing trees do not individually block the line of sight. Though the trees may be up to 25-40 feet in height, there are very few of them in each hex and so so not present a problem in sighting. They will present obstacles to combat. However, if the line of sight passes through three Tree hexes the line of sight is blocked. (205 SIGHTING-B-1-3)

This “terrain as combat obstacles” theme is also applied to buildings:

4. Hexes containing buildings do not block line of sight. There are very few buildings per hex and so do not present a problem for sighting. They will still present obstacles to combat. (205-B-4)

I did remember what made Japanese machine guns so deadly – Fire Lanes:

  1. Only Japanese Machine Gun, Infiltration Machine Guns, and Emplacement units have a ‘Fire Lane’ and are called Fire Lane units.
  2. The base of the Fire Lane is the numbered edge of the playing piece.
  3. The Fire Lane extends ten hexes through the hexside to which the numbered edge of the playing piece is facing.
  4. ….
  5. ….
  6. Any American unit that attempts to cross this ten hex line is immediately fired on by the Fire Lane unit. (This means that the American player will be attacked during the movement portion of his Movement Phase…. (205-F)

Another rule I missed many years ago is Aircraft Spotters (207 COMBAT-C). This rule allows one to use Airstrike units as spotters. A simple way to give the American player a complex choice; bombard or spot?

One rule I did remember and still enjoy is how Preliminary Bombardment is implemented in the game. This is another challenging choice; delay the arrival of landing craft to bombard and risk running out of time or land against more defenders? While rereading the rules, I discovered a little wrinkle that I had missed years before and it comes from the fact the Japanese player’s units are face down (hidden) from the American player:

4. In a normal Firing procedure the Firing player consults the Combat Results Table to determine the effects of fire. In Preliminary Bombardment the Japanese player consuls the Combat Results Table. The American player still rolls the dice, but is not allowed to know the odds column being used. (207 COMBATJ. Preliminary Bombardment)

+VL5G3uHRRuvZp8VK9UhrAVictory Conditions (210 VICTORY CONDITIONS) are based on points differential. I really like the flavor text. It ties neatly back to the introduction where there is an emphasis placed on YOU. As the introduction states, “You are, in fact, on the BEACHHEAD.”

In the OPTIONAL RULES there are several items of “chrome” that I remember and really like such as:

  • Randomly rolling to see what size naval guns are bombarding (303 BOMBARDMENT TYPE)
  • Randomly determining what payload airstrike have (304 AIRSTRIKES)
  • The Duke arrives as SGT. Stryker! (308 SGT. STRYKER)

Near the end of the rules in the HINTS ON PLAY there is a section on GAME ABSTRACTIONS. It directly addresses concerns over the game’s realism. It is interesting to read the designer’s perspective that Beachhead is essentially a game of points with units representing those points. It is a useful perspective that conflict simulations/wargames sometime forget.

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They knew…all the way back in 1980

Given the hidden information needed to play, my solo Beachhead game sort fizzled out. These days, this game is ripe for an implementation using blocks instead of face down counters.

More importantly, the rules of Beachhead, in a mere 16 pages, show a great degree of design elegance and certainly capture – and communicate – the theme of the game. The game is a great reminder that good things sometime do arrive in small packages. For some reason, this game, with its mechanical elegance and smaller footprint reminds me of many Hollandspiele games. That’s a good thing because it means there is at least one publisher is delivering elegant, smaller games to this very niche hobby market.

Now, to get the RockyMountainNavy Boys to play….