Mind the gap – the #wargame paper time-machine of Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988)

JAMES F. DUNNIGAN, ONE OF THE FATHERS OF WARGAMING, is credited with stating that wargames are a “paper time-machine” (1). This is great, but there is actually alot missing here. Let’s look at the full quote which opens Chapter 1 of Dunnigan’s seminal work, The Complete Wargames Handbook:

What is a Wargame?

A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past. A wargame is a combination of “game,” history and science. It is a paper time-machine.

The Complete Wargames Handbook, 3rd Ed, 1.

This week as part of my 2019 CSR Awards Challenge I replayed Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988). At the same time, I took delivery of a new book, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898 – 1945 by Trent Hone (2). Put together, the game and book got me thinking about wargames and what we learn from them.

Much has been written about the role wargames played in educating the US Navy before World War II. Hone tells us how war gaming “encouraged experimentation with new tactical approaches and improved the ability to assess them.” He goes on to state:

The primary purpose of the games, or “war problems,” was to further the education of officers. They gave practice at applying the principles of war, encouraged critical thinking, and provided practical training in the art of command.

Learning War, 98.

I can see that. I definitely agree that wargames are excellent at applying the principles of war, making me think critically, and in a loose fashion exercise command. But it’s not perfect. In his chapter “Heuristics at Guadalcanal”, Hone discusses the Battle of Tassafaronga. One passage in particular jumped out at me:

Prior to the battle Rear Admiral Kincaid had assessed the lessons from earlier engagements and developed an aggressive plan incorporating them. He instructed his destroyers to press ahead and attack them from close range with torpedoes; the lead destroyer would use an SG radar to develop a clear picture of the action and guide the others to the launch point. Cruisers would remain distant, far from the threat of Japanese torpedoes; they would use radar-assisted gunfire as their primary weapon. Like Lee, Kincaid refused to employ Scott’s linear formation.

But Kincaid was wrong about Japanese torpedoes. He expected them to be similar to the Navy’s own. Since ten thousand yards was beyond their effective range but was also the maximum range of radar-directed cruiser gunfire at the time, Kincaid instructed the cruisers to engage from that range. He expected in that way to stay out of “torpedo water” while inflicting maximum damage to the enemy.

Learning War, 203-204.

As we know, the battle did not turn out well for the US Navy. As Hone writes, “Wright’s cruisers opened fire moments after Cole released his torpedoes. Tanaka’s destroyers had already seen Wright’s ships and were setting up their own torpedo attack” (3). James D. Hornfischer, in his book Neptune’s Inferno, called the Japanese attack, “one of the most lethal torpedo salvos of the war” (4). Minneapolis and Pensacola were hit; New Orleans’ bow was blown off. Northhampton was sunk (5).

Norman Friedman, in his book Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War (Washington DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2017) writes in his concluding chapter “Games versus Reality in the Pacific,” that wargaming for the US Navy before World War II had three possible functions:

  • To explore possible wartime situations in ways full-scale exercises could not
  • To teach students how to fight
  • To understand or even predict the behavior of foreign powers (6).

Friedman points out that for the first function military judgement based on experience could often foresee outcomes but not when entirely new technology was involved. This ties closely with the third factor because it required players simulate alien ways of thinking (7).

Just how does this get recreated in a wargame? The problem is that we wargamers often “know” that Kincaid’s initial deployment and battle plan at Tassafaronga is “flawed” because, unlike Kincaid, we know about the Japanese Long Lance torpedo. Therefore, wargamers can consciously (and more often unconsciously) act to avoid the danger. This is what designer Tetsuya Nakamura terms “the hindsight gap:”

The hindsight gap arises because people living through real history do not know the results of their actions, but a player in a tabletop simulation game is aware of these results. For example, the French army believed that tank forces could not pass through the Ardennes Forest, but German Panzer forces did exactly this in 1940. In another instance, the Imperial Japanese Navy was ambushed by the US Navy at Midway in 1942 because they believed there were no US aircraft carriers there. But in a tabletop simulation game, we already know that there are hidden US aircraft carriers at Midway, so players will never fall victim to such a surprise attack.

Tetsuya Nakamura, “The Fundamental Gap Between Tabletop Simulation Games and the “Truth.” Published in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming, Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016). 43.

In many ways Tokyo Express is an excellent combination of game, history, and science. What really sets it apart is how the Enemy AI overcomes some of the hindsight gap. Unlike a game such as Command at Sea (Admiralty Trilogy Group) with its scenarios that try to faithfully recreate the battle, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can operate in “unexpected” ways. Be it the arrival of unexpected forces or enemy operations in ways that are plausible but not historically exact, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can teach a player that has the benefit of the hindsight gap. The science of the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express gets us past the hindsight gap. In turn, Tokyo Express gives us a better understanding of the past making it a better game for getting a jump on the future.


  1. Dunnigan, James F. The Complete Wargames Handbook (3rd Ed. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2000), 1.
  2. Hone, Trent. Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018). The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral John Richardson, recommended Learning War to new Admirals, Retired Flag Officers, members of his staff, and other naval officers. It reflects the strong emphasis he is placing on command in 2018 and it is now part of the CNO’s reading list. ( There is also another notable wargaming book on the list. See Philip Sabin’s Simulating War: Simulating Conflict through Simulation Games (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)).
  3. ibid, 204.
  4. Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 390.
  5. Hone, 204.
  6. Friedman, 161.
  7. ibid.

Feature image Battle Display from Tokyo Express.

Game of the Week – or – Visiting Neptune’s Inferno with Tokyo Express: The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign, 1942 (Victory Games, 1988)

For most of the campaign, Guadalcanal was a contest of equals, perhaps the only major battle in the Pacific where the United States and Japan fought from positions of parity. Its outcome was often in doubt. – James D. Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno, Prologue.

pic360048From the perspective of game mechanics, Tokyo Express: The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign, 1942 (Victory Games, 1988) can be a real chore. This solitaire game leverages a heavy workload on the player to not only make decisions for their own side, but also to run the opposing AI. However, once you make it past the initial (steep?) learning curve, the game opens up a narrative battle experience unlike so many others.

In a way it is unfair to call Tokyo Express a historical game. Yes, there are scenarios that replicate the starting conditions of many battles, but the real power of Tokyo Express is how it make the unknown a part of the game and forces the player to deal with it. What may be the two most important rules in Tokyo Express are not what many grognards would think. Rule 6.0 Detection and 7.0 Japanese Hidden Forces are the parts of the game that make the narrative come alive.

Before you can open fire, you must see the target. That is the crux of 6.0 Detection. Be it visually or by radar, the importance of detecting the enemy first is a core game mechanic in Tokyo Express. When taken in combination with 7.0 Hidden Japanese Forces, the game creates it own unique narrative of battle ensuring that no two games are ever alike. The Design Note for 7.0 actually frames the entire game and brings the drama of the battle to the forefront:

The game begins with you patrolling Ironbottom Sound, looking for the Japanese who are somewhere off in the darkness. The Japanese appear initially as blips on your long-range search radar. Hidden forces represent anything your radar operator thinks might be a Japanese force. Sometimes it will indeed be warships; other times it will just be a “radar ghost.” You find out by detecting it.

In Tokyo Express, game designer Jon Southard captures the most important elements of the naval battle around Guadalcanal. In his Design Notes he makes no excuses for the difficulty of the game. In some ways Mr. Southard was ahead of his time when he designed Tokyo Express to be an “experience” and not a “simulation.” He especially makes no excuse for the difficulty of winning:

In your initial encounters with Tokyo Express, you will, I hope, feel some of the frustration and awe the American admirals did. The objective throughout the design process was to give you their bridge-eye view. You may be defeated at first, but you should find your own solutions, as the US admirals finally did.

8575701By making its core design feature “find your own solutions,” Tokyo Express takes what many wargames do, challenging players to find a path to victory, and elevates it to the highest levels of the hobby. It is a testimony to the power of his design that 30 years after its initial publication the title is worthy of a reprint. Pairing this game with James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno: The US Navy at Guadalcanal (Bantam Books, 2011) allows one to not only read the history, but then take the same human drama Hornfischer relates and make it come alive.

Featured image courtesy BoardGameGeek.

Why Navies Fight – #PacificFuryGuadalcanal1942 (Revolution Games, 2016)

One of the smaller games I got last year was Pacific Fury: Guadalcanal 1942 from Revolution Games. After my first play thru I took issue with the historical accuracy of the game but generally liked it. This past weekend I pulled the game out again and ran thru the campaign again. This time I payed more attention to the rules. After this second play thru, I see a lot more depth in the game and like this particular design a lot more!

Pacific Fury simulates the naval battles off Guadalcanal in late 1942. Each turn is a month, and each player must allocate his forces to up to seven Operations each month. Once Operations are allocated, the forces can only enter in that order. But operations can be more than just a Sortie to enter the board; to move and fight also takes Operations. Every Operation is a choice – enter more forces or execute an action with a deployed force. This is one layer of depth that makes Pacific Fury an interesting game; the timing of forces entering and (usually combat) actions. How long do you allow for the carriers to clear the area? Will that bombardment mission disrupt Henderson Field and allow a follow-on landing? Do I have a strong enough force to hold Ironbottom Sound? what about the Tokyo Express?

Another layer of depth – and one I misplayed my first play thru – is Hits and Sunk ships. The combat system is very simple – for each “firing” unit roll d6; if the number is less than or equal to the Combat Factor THAT NUMBER OF HITS is scored. Hits are then apportioned by the attacker with the number of hits allocated to each target compared to the Defense Factor. There are two possible results: Sunk (removed from game) or Hit (moved to Turn Record Track to return later).

The practical impact of this game mechanic to strategy is very important – although sinking ships is good to simply “damage” the ships might be more effective. The Japanese player can return ships two turns later meaning a ship damaged in Turn 3 will not return before Turn 4. In contrast, American ships with better damage control and closer repair facilities return the next turn. Thus, like the real battle it portrays, Pacific Fury becomes a furious battle of attrition.

Another design decision in Pacific Fury that makes it very interesting is the victory conditions. There is only one way to win this game; control Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. This may seem like blasphemy to a naval gamer – many of whom only think in terms of sunk ships – but it actually reflects the reality of the battles fought from August to November 1942.

As I recognize how these game mechanics reflect aspects of the campaign often overlooked (or glossed over) in other games both my respect and enjoyment of Pacific Fury has increased. In my most recent campaign play the result was a draw. Actual losses on both sides were small; the Japanese lost Zuikaku, Shokaku, Ryujo, Nagato, and Nachi while the Americans lost Saratoga, Wasp, South Dakota, North Carolina, San Francisco, and Chicago.

End of Game Condition

The Americans were actually a bit lucky that they were able to even get the draw. On Turn 3 (October 1942) the Japanese had retaken Henderson Field but at a cost a many damaged ships – ships now effectively “out of the game.” In the Event Phase of Turn 4, the Americans rolled IJN Overestimated which returned a “destroyed” carrier to the battle (incidentally, a carrier originally destroyed in the Event Phase of Turn 2 when the Japanese rolled three (!) Torpedo Hits and elected to sink that carrier). With the Hornet back, the Americans were able to use airpower to destroy the Japanese force patrolling Ironbottom Sound and get a bombardment force in to disrupt Henderson Field just in time for an amphibious force to land in the very last Operation of the game.

Courtesy  goodreads.com

Pacific Fury reminds me that it is not enough to just “learn the rules” but it is also important to step back and understand the “why” of a game mechanic or rule. Usually these are hinted at in Designer’s Notes but in Pacific Fury such notes are lacking probably because the original game was published in Japanese. So in this case I had do do a bit of (enjoyable) discovery on my own. I am glad I pulled this game out again as I have deepened my understanding of not just the game but of the entire naval campaign for Guadalcanal. Pacific Fury is actually great compliment to what has to be one of the best books on the subject, James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno. Enough so that I need to stop typing away here and resume my reread of that book….

#SciFiFriday – Chain of Command by Frank Chadwick (@BaenBooks)

Courtesy Baen.com

Military science fiction is often a hit-or-miss proposition to me, even more so with space combat which is often so “fantastical” that it becomes unbearable. But I am also a longtime fan of Frank Chadwick’s games (see his BoardGameGeek Ludography) and seeing how his latest book, Chain of Command, is being published by @BaenBooks (whose military science fiction I tolerate more so than other publishers) I gave it a try. It also didn’t hurt that I listened to the Bane Free Radio Hour (Episode 2017 09 29) where Mr. Chadwick discussed his book.

What really drew me to this book was Mr. Chadwick’s inspiration. As he writes in the Historical Note at the end of Chain of Command:

The inspiration for this novel grew from James D. Hornfischer’s stirring and detailed account of the naval campaign in the Solomon Islands (including Guadalcanal) in the second half of 1942–Neptune’s Inferno, but I never intended to shift the events of that campaign wholesale into deep space. A few incidents may be familiar to students of the historical battles, but my main interest was in how officers and sailors–as well as the admirals who lead them into battle with varying degrees of success–responded to a war which took them unaware and psychologically unprepared.

Mr. Chadwick goes on to list several books that further influenced the story. I was very happy to see Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea listed for I had thought nobody actually read these books anymore.

With all that in mind one could be forgiven for worrying that Chain of Command is just another “WW2 in space” story but I am happy to report that the book successfully overcomes that challenge. The science fiction technology tends a bit more towards the “hard science-fi” edge with just enough handwavium to explain away the science fiction. In many ways, the fantastical technology in the book traces its lineage to today’s technology which makes it all the more believable and relatable.

If military science fiction is your thing and you have even a passing interest in World War II naval combat, then Chain of Command could make a good addition to your reading list.