#Wargame #GameNight with #TheFiresofMidway (Clash of Arms, 2010)

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

This week’s Game Night saw the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself playing a 3-player scenarios of The Fires of Midway (Clash of Arms, 2010). The Fires of Midway (TFoM) is a card game of carrier battles in the Pacific during 1942. Although the featured game is the Battle of Midway, we played the Battle of Santa Cruz scenario.

 

Little RMN took the two American carriers, Enterprise and Hornet. The Japanese fleet command was divided with Middle RMN sailing carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku while I sailed light carriers Zuiho and Junyo.

TFoM starts with a both sides searching for the other. This is how the initial hand of Combat Cards is built and determines advantage – the first to find the third carrier gets the first VP. Advantage in turn drives the use of doctrine; the Confident side (leading VP) has to follow their Admiral’s Doctrine while the Desperate side (behind in VP) gets more Combat Cards and doesn’t have to follow doctrine.

At the end of the search phase the Japanese were Confident and the Americans Desperate. This means the US player could have 9 Combat Cards in his hand but the Japanese were limited to 7 – divided between the two players. This in turn meant Middle RMN had 4 cards while I only had three.

With the fleets located the battle switched into launching airstrikes. TFoM uses Action Cards to help determine the order with each carrier being dealt an Action Card. One turned face-up, the Confident player can “steal” one of the opponents cards and switch them. Each Action Card allows for one of three actions – launch full airstrike, launch a partial airstrike and make repairs, or repairs only. Cards earlier in the action order go first but don’t have as many actin points as later cards. This means earlier cards allow for the “first strike” but later cards might create “the heavy blow.” As luck would have it, my carriers drew Action slots 1 & 2, the Americans got 4 & 5, and Middle RMN with the heavy Japanese carriers drew 5 & 6.

Zuiho and Junyo both launches strikes. The American carriers tried to hide in an area of Low Clouds which adds range to strike movement. Even with the challenge, both strikes arrived over the American carriers in a Fueled status. In the resulting battles, the American CAP and Anti-Aircraft fire proved mostly effective and only a lone hit on Hornet resulted. The American airstrikes focused on the light carriers and damaged Junyo. The later Japanese strikes from the heavy carriers succeeded in hitting Hornet once more.

In the second turn, the carriers generally held range, but this time the Japanese heavies and the Americans had the top 4 slots of the Action Order. By the time the round was over, Junyo and Hornet were sunk. With that, the Americans withdrew and the Japanese side was the winner. Close to the historical result, but a bit of a let-down to play.

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A Kate torpedo plane seen dropping a torpedo (Courtesy maritimequest.com)

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

TFoM is a very formulaic game. Each carrier in the Action Order follows a strict turn sequence. In a two-player game this works just fine but in a three-player (or maybe four-player?) scenario there is lots of downtime for the third player. On the plus side, combat is very easy; first compare a pool of combat dice (highest SINGLE die wins) then roll for damage against a damage track found on different cards.

Our gameplay experience was a bit blah. I generally knew the rules but had not played in a while making the first round a bit slow as it was necessary to reference the rulebook several times. Play was faster on the second round, but the formulaic sequence of play made the game feel more like a checklist then a narrative experience. We finished the game but the RMN Boys are not anxious for a replay.

When I first started wargaming nearly 40 years ago I was in it for the simulation. I was unabashedly a simulationist – the more “real” the game was the more I liked it! Looking back, I now realize that the best games I ever played (i.e. the ones of remember) featured great narrative moments (like the one time in Star Fleet Battles I spectacularly lost the battle when I failed my High Energy Turn and tumbled my ship). These days, I seek a more narrative experience in the battle. I have really discovered this with the start of our family game nights; the RMN Boys and I connect better when a game builds a narrative and is not simply a simulation. This may be why games like Conflict of Heroes or Scythe or 1775 – Rebellion are landing on the game night table repeatedly; the gameplay itself builds an enjoyable narrative experience.

The Fires of Midway is not a bad game. Given the level of abstraction represented by the cards and simple map it can hardly be called simulatonist. But the formulaic gameplay makes finding the narrative experience difficult. Maybe if we play it with only two-players and are fully familiar with the rules we might find that narrative experience. Until then there are other games to play.

#WargameWednesday – Reconsidering The Fires of Midway

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Courtesy history.com

After sitting on my shelf for over a year, this past weekend I played a game of The Fires of Midway: The Carrier Battles of 1942 (Clash of Arms, 2010). Billed as the War is Hell Series Card Game 2, TFoM is not your usual carrier duel game. TFoM delivers a card game evocative of carrier duels in the early years of the Pacific War but the level of abstraction makes it only a fair simulation of actual carrier battles.

After selecting a scenario, both sides “search” a grid of cards to find the enemy fleet. Along the way, the maneuver map is populated with weather conditions and the starting hand of Combat Cards is built. As the Design Note states:

The Search Phase represents the efforts of dozens of planes, ships, and individuals attempting to locate the enemy in the vastness of the Pacific. The U.S. Navy edge in pre-battle intelligence is accounted for by always allowing the Americans to search first.

Depending on the search results, one side gets the advantage of placing their fleets and a VP bonus. The Search Phase plays quickly and evokes a cat-and-mouse feeling of trying to desperately find your opponent’s fleets in the vast broad oceans.

Play then progresses to what I find the strangely named Strategy Phase. Strange because what the players do is not as much strategy as it is operational orders. In the Strategy Phase, a number of Action Cards equal to the number of carriers are randomly dealt between the players. Each Action Card has a precedence number which determines the order in which the turn will happen. The advantaged player, called the Confident Player, has the ability to “steal” – or trade – an Action Card before strikes are revealed. This simple initiative determination mechanic captures the mad scramble of aircraft as strikes are launched again in a seemingly  realistic manner.

Following initiative determination, carriers are moved on the map. The map is very small, consisting of 18 irregularly-shaped areas. As noted in the Design Note:

The Maneuver Map is an abstraction of the relative positions of carriers in a large expanse of ocean, and not meant to be an exact replica of any one naval battlefield. Each Map Area represents hundreds of square miles of potential hiding places.

Some may find this level of abstraction a bit jarring, but in a game where so much is being abstracted the maneuver map ends up being one of the most “grognard” parts of the game.

Play now proceeds to the Carrier Turn. In the Carrier Turn, each carrier has one phase of action in their order of initiative.

In the Sortie Phase, carriers can launch strikes. The Action Card dictates how many squadrons can be in the strike package. Depending on the range, a number of Search or Destroy (SoD) Cards are drawn and fuel used is determined. The amount of fuel used is compared to the Fuel Rating of each aircraft; if too much fuel is used the planes arrive is a “smoking” condition. The Design Note comments,

Even if you know approximately where an enemy carrier is, finding a moving target is another matter. Strike Groups had a habit of getting lost and burning precious fuel in futile searches for enemy carriers even if the flattops had been sighted shortly before takeoff.

I wish the designer had chosen a word other than “smoking ” to describe fuel-starved aircraft. The word, and the accompanying card art, look more like battle damage and not a plane running out of gas.

Once the strikes arrive at the carrier, a Spotting Roll is conducted to determine if CAP will be ready or if the strikes go straight in to the carriers.

In the Engagement Phase, spotted strikes resolve combat against the CAP. In a CAP battle, fighters take on escorting fighters or bombers. This is where the player’s hand of cards starts counting. Players have the choice of adding a Cockpit Card to their battling aircraft for an enhanced combat effect or to cancel out an opponents Combat Card. Combat is resolved in a very simple, straight-forward manner that is the same for air combat or bomber strikes; both sides roll a variable number of d6 die and compare the results. Whichever side has the single-highest die roll wins. In the CAP battle, the winning aircraft  then rolls a number of d6 equal to the number of Bullet Icons and the results are compared to the Damage Track across the bottom of the target airplanes card. Destroyed aircraft are sent to “The Watery Grave.”

The Engagement Phase also shows how the abstractions in TFoM start creating ahistorical results. Escorting fighters automatically shield the bombers from the CAP. Not until later scenarios where more than one plane can be on CAP is their a chance for the CAP to get past the fighters and to the bombers.

The Bomber Phase follows engagements. In the Bomber Phase, striking aircraft, be it dive-bombers or torpedo planes, attack the carriers. As each bomber starts their Attack Run, Combat Cards are again selected. Striking bombers can chose a Bomber Card whereas the carrier gets to use a Carrier Card. As with Engagements, the Combat Card may offer an advantage to the player. The Bomber Dice Test pits the bombers against the anti-aircraft guns of the carrier. If the carrier wins, damage is assessed against the bomber. If the bomber wins, the carrier is struck.

The Resolution Phase immediately follows. CAP is landed or turned over to their smoking side, and the return strike determines if they make it back to the carrier. Play then proceeds to the Admiral’s Phase. Each Admiral can take one of three actions; Reload their hand of Combat Cards, Recover CAP and replace if desired, or Restore which spends Repair Points for damage control.

Once each carrier has had their action, the End Phase is conducted. Here progressive damage is assessed against carriers see if they sink. Depending on the damage, VP is awarded. Additionally, VP is gained depending on how many squadrons of aircraft are in The Watery Grave. A decision to continue the battle or retreat and end the game is then made. If the game continues the next turn begins with a new Strategy Phase.

TFoM does a decent job of reflecting the widely varied capabilities of combat aircraft of the day. As the Design Note points out:

When it comes to hitting power the Japanese have the advantage with excellent long-range aircraft. The Americans were hindered by “flying coffins” such as the Devastator and the mistaken notion among admirals of the time that the early American torpedoes were good weapons, they were not.

Where I find the abstraction of TFoM most distracting is in the Carrier Turn. Nowhere are the mass strikes of the Japanese carriers allowed. In TFoM a carrier duel is reduced to a sequential I-go, U-go of each carrier individually resolving their strike.

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Courtesy BGG

The Fires of Midway: The Carrier Battles of 1942 is an easy and relatively fast-playing game. It adequately replicates the broad brushes of the subject matter. Play this game for fun and understand that what you learn about the history of carrier duels in 1942 will not be too in-depth. For myself, I will be playing with the younger RockyMountainNavy and using it to (gently) explore the very basics carrier combat in World War II.

#Wargames AAR: The Fires of Midway – Exploring a Wake Island Disaster

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Courtesy BGG

The Fires of Midway: The Carrier Battles of 1942 (Clash of Arms, 2010) is a Steven Cunliffe designed game that recreates carrier battles in the early days of the Pacific War in World War II. This card driven game (CDG) uses a hand management mechanic where players have Action Cards that can add to fighter combat, bomber strikes, or carrier defense.

Although the game is focused on the great carrier battles of 1942 (Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons or Santa Cruz) there is also an alternative scenario which postulates US carriers attempting to relieve Wake Island at the end of 1941. This smaller scenario pits an American Task Force consisting of Lexington and Saratoga going against the Japanese Hiryu and Soryu.

The American fleet is led by Admiral Fletcher. The Admiral Card for Fletcher is Torpedo Doctrine meaning he must always send a torpedo bomber in any strike. Unfortunately, the US Navy is using the Devestator – an old, slow, limited range airplane. Additionally, the Lex is carrying Buffalo fighters – another old, less effective aircraft. On the plus side, the US task force has nine (9!) squadrons of Dauntless dive bombers. Indeed, the Americans have an abundance of aircraft with two Buffalo fighters, two Wildcat fighters, and three Devastator torpedo bombers to go along with the aforementioned nine dive bomber squadrons.

The Japanese fleet is led by Admiral Nagumo. The Admiral Card for Nagumo reflects his cautious attitude meaning he can never “steal” the #1 Action Card. The Japanese carriers each carry two Zero fighters, two Val dive bombers, and two Kate torpedo bomber squadrons.

The game began with the Search Phase. Each side explores a grid arrangement of Search Cards attempting to locate the opponents fleet. Along the way, the players build their Action Card hand. The Japanese proved much luckier than the Americans and built a stronger hand before the last fleet was located.

In the first Strategy Phase, the order to Carrier Turns was US-Japan-Japan-US.

  1. US strike from Saratoga. Due to the longer range strike the entire strike group arrives “smoking” from fuel spent. The Japanese do not spot the strikers and there is no CAP launched. Attacking Hiryu, the strike group losses a Devastator and heavily hits the carrier.
  2. Hiryu launches its own strike package. This group runs into the CAP (Wildcat, Buffalo) and ends up downing the Buffalo but misses the Wildcat. The strike hits Lexington with great damage inflicted.
  3. Soryu launches her strike. Again, the CAP engages, but both fighters survive. The strike package hits Saratoga, but with only minor damage.
  4. Lexington launches her own strike. The range means the strike arrives “smoking” which also means the Japanese player gets to pick the target. Seeking to protect Hiryu, the Soryu is struck and, like Saratoga, there is only minor damage inflicted.

In the Admiral Phase, seeing that both sides have exhausted their Action Cards, seek to reload their hand in preparation for another round of combat. In the End Phase of Turn 1, after Carrier Carnage and Explosion Tests have been administered, both Lexington and Hiryu are sunk.

At this point both players look at their situation. The scenario Intensity is 7, meaning 7 VP are needed for victory. The Japanese player is leading 6 VP to the Americans 5 VP. Although both sides have a carrier, Japanese air fleet is half the size (six squadrons) it started with whereas the Americans still have over half their original airpower. To retreat is to give victory to one’s opponent, and the Japanese player elects to fight on. The American gladly obliges him.

In the second turn, the Japanese player steams into an area with low clouds. This means that even if the American player moves closer, the weather will make it more likely his planes will arrive in a smoking condition. In the Strategy Phase, the Americans win the first strike and take it. Although the planes do arrive smoking, they still wreck devastation on Soryu. The smaller Soryu strike gets lucky; the Americans fail to spot the strike and the CAP does not get to jump the the incoming bombers. Although the Americans mount a heroic defense, Saratoga is hit hard. Once again, Carrier Carnage and Explosion Tests are made, and although the Americans have superior damage control and can reroll Explosion Tests hoping for a better result it is all for naught. Both Soryu and Saratoga are sunk.

In the final VP calculation, the Japanese have 10 VP to the American 9 VP. The winning margin is the extra VP scored by the Japanese for locating the last fleet in the Search Phase.

Lessons Learned

One major lesson learned is the importance of damage control. Neither side really used any Repair Points and as a result the progressive damage of fires and floods made passing Explosion Tests impossible. Additionally, although the Americans have an advantage in aircraft, too many were old relics (Buffalo and Devastator) and to be effective the American carriers had to close – too close to – the Japanese carriers.

prd333620In John B. Lundstrom’s book The First Team there is a passage where the great naval historian Samuel Elliott Morison criticizes Fletcher. Following the recall order after the fall of Wake Island, Morison cites an unidentified cruiser captain who said, “Frank Jack should have placed the telescope to his blind eye like Nelson.” (Lundstrom, p. 44) This little scenario shows just how any carrier battle in these early days of the Pacific War could of gone very badly for the Americans. The Fires of Midway, although a seemingly unconventional carrier duel game using a CDG mechanic instead of traditional hex searches across the vast ocean, succeeds in bringing key points of history alive. For that reason above all else this game is recommended.

Wargame Wednesday – Fires of Midway 22 Sep

Following my (disappointing) play of the Battle of the Coral Sea using the Second World War at Sea system, I tried out the same battle but this time used Fires of Midway (FoM).

Whereas SWWAS focuses on the operational aspects of the battle, FoM is a straight-up carrier battle.  The fun part is the card-driven aspects.  Cards drive the search phase.  Cards are used for combat and damage resolution.  There are few counters but many colorful cards used by both players.

Like the historical battle, Lexington was sunk but unlike history the Japanese escaped with light damage to one carrier.  The US player started confident and tried to strike early, but low clouds and heavy fuel use meant the first strike arrived with little behind it.  The Japanese player waited until the range closed and launch devastating strikes that hammered “Lady Lex” and sent her to a watery grave.   This scenario was a very effective illustration of the importance of the first effective strike over just having the first strike.

All together this smaller scenario took about 1.5 hours to play.  Set up was so fast it really added little time.