#WargameWednesday – Decision Games Air War Series

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Courtesy BGG

I recently was able to pick up three games in the Air War Series designed by Joseph Miranda and published by Decision Games. These are (in order of publication) Eagle Day: The Battle of Britain (2012), Cactus Air Force: Air War Over the Solomons (2012), and MiG Alley: Air War Over Korea 1951 (2015). The back cover of MiG Alley describes all three games in general:

The game uses the Air Wars series rules. Aircraft are rated according to type. Fuel consumption is factored into the plane types, so a player must manage the available forces to ensure enough combat power is ready when needed. Each player has a unique set of campaign cards generating movement, combat bonuses, historical events, and reinforcements. Playing the right card at the right time is crucial to winning.

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MiG Alley – Courtesy BGG

Each game is packaged in DGs Mini Game Series format. These introductory games come with an 11″x17″ map, 40 (small) die-cut counters, 18 (small) campaign cards, four-page series rules, and two-page scenario rules. Each game is of Very Low complexity and can be played in 1-2 hours.

The timescale is most realistic in Eagle Day (Days-Hours) but more abstracted in Cactus Air Force (Months-Hours(?)) and MiG Alley (Partial Months- Hours). Working past the non-sensical timescale, each turn consists of a Planning Phase (Days/Months/Part Months)  and Operations Phase (expressed in Hours). Each Planning Phase consists of Campaign Card draw (and occasionally play), Replacements, and Reinforcements. In the Operations Phase, players take turns using Campaign Cards, moving, fighting, and bombing.

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Courtesy BGG

Each game is a simple representation of an air campaign, a level of warfare notoriously difficult to game/simulate. In my collection, Eagle Day occupies a similar game space to John Butterfield’s solitaire RAF and Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s The Burning Blue. Eagle Day, and the others, easily falls at the lowest end of the complexity spectrum – like the Mini Games series intends to do.

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Courtesy BGG

Of the three games, I think the abstractions in the Air War series make Eagle Day the weakest game. There is no game mechanic for scrambling aircraft meaning as the Intruder Player the German often can catch British fighters on the ground. In Cactus Air Force, the small unit count (limited by the 40-counter game limit) leads to a very balanced combat situation, and I don’t find the “desperate struggle” like that related in Lundstrom’s The First Team and the Guadalcanal  Campaign or Prados’ Islands of Destiny: The Solomons Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun. On the other hand, MiG Alley seems to evoke the right feeling of the air campaign with few North Korean and Chinese jets beating up on hapless lumbering B-29s while the new American jets – never in enough numbers – try to take over the bombing campaign.

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Cactus Air Force – Courtesy BGG

Each game is very affordable ($12.99 retail). This is both positive (affordable) and negative (limited components). Decision Games is also what I term these days a “classic” wargame publisher. The Mini Game Series are classic hex-n-counter wargames. The only real innovative feature beyond a “classic” wargame is the use of Campaign Cards to create scenario variability and fog-of-war.

 

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Courtesy wargamecenter

(Which makes me think just how great a candidate these games are for the simple “block” treatment. The game is already two-player, and most counters are double-sided with a generic “Based” on one side (representing the planes on the ground) and the actual aircraft on the other. If the board was enlarged and blocks used it would avoid the inevitable ‘gotta flip the counters to see what I really have there’ syndrome by allowing the counters to be stood on edge with the “Based” side facing the opponent while still allowing the owner to see the aircraft. When flying, the block is placed aircraft face-up. Of course, this would raise the price-point of the game but….)

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Courtesy BGG

As much as I sound negative, I actually am very happy I bought these games. The games will serve as good “filler” or introductory (teaching) games and are small enough to travel easily. If one desires simple, small, easy to learn and short to play classic wargames with just a few “innovations,” the Air War series of Mini Games from Decision Games are good candidates to put on your wish list.

 

RockyMountainNavy Verdict: BUY and PLAY for travel games but manage expectations.

#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.