Game of the Week – Pacific Fury: Guadalcanal, 1942 (Revolution Games, 2015) – Theme & Game Mechanics

I love war-games on naval warfare. The Admiralty Trilogy Games (Fear God & Dread Nought, Rising Sun, Harpoon) are amongst my favorite wargames of all time. I tend to like the more tactical-level of naval combat but always am on the lookout for games about other levels of war. I have most of the Avalanche Press Great War at Sea / Second World War at Sea series in my collection that try very hard to marry tactical combat resolution with an operational-level campaign game – and ends up doing neither very well. Thus, it was with both hope and trepidation that I picked up Pacific Fury: Guadalcanal, 1942 (Bonsai-Games/Revolution Games, 2015) a little over a year ago. I need not have worried; Pacific Fury delivers a highly thematic game using a set of game mechanics that doesn’t emphasize combat, but planning. If that sounds boring to you and you skip this title then you actually are missing out on a great game that is not only fun to play, but provides a unique view into a pivotal naval campaign in the South Pacific in late 1942.

Pacific Fury is played out over four turns with each turn composed of five phases. The simple sequence of play builds a strong campaign narrative each turn through the interaction of four key rules:

  • 8.2 Form Task Forces
  • 9.7 Counting Operations
  • 10.7 Applying Hits
  • 10.8 Return to Base (Forced Return)

8.2 Form Task Forces

This rule is really the heart of every turn. In this step players have to plan their turn – everything after this is execution, not planning. Players plan their turn by forming either Amphibious, Bombardment, or Carrier Task Forces (the Japanese can also form the special Tokyo Express). Each Task Force (TF) is placed in one of seven Operations Boxes. The Operations Boxes are the order in which the units can enter the map (9.1 Sortie) during the turn. Need a carrier? Better hope it’s the next up on the track!

9.7 Counting Operations

In every Operations Phase a TF can “Sortie” to enter the map. The TF in the lowest numbered box on the Operations Track enters the map. Other possible actions, “Move,” “Landing,” Naval Bombardment,” or “Air Strike” can only be used by TF already on the map. When taking an action other than Sortie, every TF in the current Operations Box is “bumped” up the track. It is possible to actually “bump” TF off the end of the Operations Track, meaning they won’t ever get a chance to enter the map (Sortie) that turn! This simple mechanic of Counting Operations creates a compelling dilemma for players; do you enter/sortie a TF or use one already on the map? Is the one on the map the right one needed for the mission? Do you lose time getting the right one in position? Or do you fight and maybe never get the right one into the battle?

10.7 Applying Hits / 10.8 Return to Base (Forced Return)

These two rules go hand in hand. 10.7 specifies that any ship hit but not sunk is “damaged” and placed on the Turn Track to return later as a reinforcement. This removal of the unit from battle occurs after each round of combat. With only four turns, damaged ships may, or may not, return in time for a later turn.

The Forced Return rule is also very important. Under Forced Return, the attacking TF MUST return to base after the second round of combat or after the first round if there are no targets. This means attacking TF never hold ground. A defending TF that suffers no hits in either round of combat may remain. However, if the defending TF suffers even one hit in combat it MUST return to base. Combat in Pacific Fury becomes a game of damaging, not sinking, ships. Sure, sinking a ship is best (it cannot return) but often times it is enough simply to damage a ship and force a TF to return to base.

These four rules make Pacific Fury a much different naval combat game from many others. The game mechanics do a very credible job of reflecting the theme of planning a months-worth of operations by forcing the player to sequence the arrival of their forces. The challenge is not only to sequence their arrival, but to do so while trying to ensure the right units are available when needed. It is very easy to build one mega-TF with all the carriers together that will sweep the sea areas early in the turn…but once it attacks it returns to base and leaves the map – potentially depriving another TF of vitally needed cover.

In Pacific Fury choices really matter. The choice of what ships go into what TF, the choice of which Operations Box a TF is placed, the choice of what action to take, the choice to engage in combat – every choice matters. By emphasizing planning, the real objective of the campaign is brought to the front. The game highlights quite clearly that it is not the number of ships sunk that matters, but only who controls Henderson Field at the end of the game. The winner in Pacific Fury will be the player who plans the use of their dwindling forces the best.

Game of the Week – Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 – 25th Anniversary Edition (GMT Games, 2016) – Game Mechanics

The 25th Anniversary Edition of Silver Bayonet is a substantially updated version of the original game that first appeared in 1990. Designer Gene Billingsley calls Silver Bayonet “my first published game” even though it appeared alongside two sister titles, Air Bridge to Victory and Operations Shoestring (which I talk previously talked about here).

According to GMT Game ads, Silver Bayonet is an operational game that features, “innovative combat resolution, integrating maneuver combat, close assault, artillery bombardment, gunship rocket and air support into one easy to use system.” All that certainly sounds like alot. So just how does it work?

SilverBayonet25-ban1(RBM)
Courtesy GMT Games

To explore this question and learn the game I followed the advice in the Standard Scenarios portion of the Rule Book. The part I focused in on was this passage:

The scenarios are numbered in chronological order. To play them in an order that gradually adds size and/or complexity, use the following order: 6a, 6b, 3, 5, 4, 1, 2, 7. These scenarios all use the Standard Sequence of Play.

Scenarios 3, 4, 5, 6a & 6b are intended to be played directly on the scenario cards provided.

In general, Standard Scenarios do not use Helicopters, Patrols, Observation, Ambush, or Hidden Movement, although they may use a form of these concepts (Rule Book, p. 29)

The “innovative combat resolution” system is the heart of the game design and models the interaction of Bombardment, Maneuver Combat, and Assault Combat. Although I had exposure to this system in Operation Shoestring I did not fully understand how it works until the far easier to understand rules and player aids in Silver Bayonet taught me.

Maneuver & Assault Combat

530_6_
Courtesy GMT Games

In a typical turn, following the placement of reinforcements and movement the active player must declare his combats. This phase involves more than just pointing to a stack of units. The type of combat (Maneuver or Assault) must be declared. Maneuver Combat can be thought of in terms of levering a unit out of a position. In game terms the possible combat results are fatigue, retreat, step loss, and elimination. Assault Combat is in many ways a frontal assault; possible combat results are step losses and elimination. Both combats use a different CRT. Maneuver Combat uses an odds-based CRT with the attacker resolving the combat with a single die roll. Assault Combat rolls on a different CRT using straight combat strength with defender, then attacker, both getting rolls.

Bombardment

In Silver Bayonet, Bombardment is performed by artillery, some helicopters, and abstracted air points (air support). Bombardment can happen at three different points in a turn. Regardless of the firing platform, or when in the turn the bombardment happens, all use the same Bombardment/Support Table. While the table is the same the results are interpreted differently depending on the type (Offensive, Defensive, or Maneuver Support). This is a very interesting model of how artillery and air support work in combat. Although at first glance one might think that resolving bombardment at three different points in the turn is cumbersome, the use of a single table with common DRMs but different interpretation of results actually makes resolution quick and (mostly) painless.

Efficiency Rating

Rule 2.4.5 defines Efficiency Rating as:

The efficiency rating (ER) of each unit represents that unit’s level of training, effectiveness, and cohesion. The higher the ER, the better.

ER is used at several points in a turn, most importantly during Combat Refusal, Attack Coordination, and Maneuver Combat. ER is what makes units really distinguishable; a Attack Strength 3 units with an ER of 5 is a much different animal than Attack Strength 3 with and ER of 3.

Hidden Movement

Hidden Movement is actually a Campaign Scenario rule and admittedly much harder for me to fully explore as I am learning the game by playing against my evil twin, “Mr. Solo.”

Creating a Battle Narrative

The combination of the Bombardment-Maneuver-Assault and Efficiency Rating mechanics creates a “battle narrative” that feels thematically correct. It is possible in Silver Bayonet for that 100-man US infantry company to hold off that NVA regiment given enough artillery and air support. It is equally possible for the NVA or PAVN to ambush the US or ARVN and then fade away into the jungle. For a great example of a how Silver Bayonet builds a “battle narrative” look at the original COIN game designer Volko Ruhnke’s (@Volko26) Operation Silver Bayonet (Part 1) AAR on the InsideGMT Blog.

The more I play Silver Bayonet the more the game is growing on me. I am pretty sure I am going to place this game in my personal Top 10 wargames. In this case, the innovative mechanics just “fit” the campaign and make the game come alive for me like few cardboard simulations have before.