IN 2019 I BIT OFF A BIT MORE GAMING THAN I COULD CHEW. I gave myself three gaming challenges for over 50 different games. That meant the challenge games took up half of my gaming for the year. For 2020, I am taking a different approach and using two themes as challenges. One theme is for boardgames; the other for wargames.
To accomplish these challenges I am going to have to play at least one game from each list every month. The Operational / Next War Series are bigger games so that’s likely a full weekend of wargaming leaving three other weekends for the solo challenge (hmm…a good weeknight event) and other games. My goal is to not to take up too much of my gaming time with the challenges like I did in 2019. Instead, I will have more time to play games that I want to play (or the RockyMountainNavy Boys want to play).
What gaming challenges have you given yourself in 2020?
As a long-time naval wargamer, I have always been interested in naval combat. Most of my games are at the tactical- or operational-levels of warfare. I really enjoy ship-vs-ship combat and seeing how different weapon systems and platforms work out against each other. However, Operation Shoestring takes a very different approach.
In Operation Shoestring the Air/Naval Phase is part of the Strategic Interphase which you execute only on odd-numbered game turns. Given the time scale (one turn per week for the naval interphase) this seems very abstracted and high-level. Surely, one cannot reduce naval combat to something that happens “occasionally?” However, if one looks at the rules you discover that the focus of the Air/Naval Phase in Operation Shoestring is not combat, but supply. The Air/Naval Phase is where players deliver supplies or troops to the island. Deliver too few troops and one can’t go on the offensive (or sustain a defense). Deliver too few supplies and your attacks (and defense) suffers.
That’s Design for Effect. I love it.My biases initially blinded me to the game effects. Reading through the rules I looked closely at 18.6 Surface-to-Surface Combat. The naval battles around Guadalcanal featured some of the most intense surface warfare actions of the entire war. Operations Shoestring surely was going to give due credit, right? But, instead of finding a rich, detailed naval combat system I found ruthless simplicity. The naval grognard in me revolted at seeing the deadly Japanese Long-Lance torpedo reduced to a single -1 DM. Or American radar advantage being shown as as a +1 DM. What heresy is this?
I soon discovered that the most important naval units in Operation Shoestring are actually Transports. During the Air/Naval Phase players must decide if Transports are used to transport companies (reinforcements) from off-map, supply points, or on-map transportation. Of the three, supply points are arguably the most important. The rule book explains why:
Supply played a critical role in the battle for Guadalcanal. The Americans were initially landed with barely half of their supply of munitions, rations, and medical supplies. For nearly a month, Marines who enjoyed a tactically superior situation languished in a “siege mentality” because basic supplies were low. The Japanese were also plagued with all kinds of supply problems. Their medical situation was so bad more soldiers died from disease and infection than from battle wounds. Unlike many games, this game does not require the players to trace lines of supplies. Rather, both sides must fight naval battles in attempts to keep the troops on the islands in supply. This is very important. If a player’s supply level decreases to “no supply” for more than two turns, his chances for victory are remote.
I now see the reason behind the simplified naval model. Operation Shoestring does not attempt to faithfully recreate the operational or tactical naval battles around Guadalcanal but it tries to recreate the effect of those battles. In this case, the effect is the impact of naval battles on supply and troop movement.
Air-Naval combat in Operation Shoestring is an example of where “less is better.” By keeping a focus on the effect of air-naval combat, the impact of player decisions is more connected to the game and the story it communicates. In the case of Operation Shoestring, the importance of supply comes through not with the “traditional” lines-of-supply traces, but from the effects of naval battles.
My 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 Shoestringmodels the battles in an innovative, and fun playing, fashion providing great insight into the campaign.
Operation Shoestringwas 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!
At first look, Operation Shoestringappears 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.