#Wargame Wednesday – Air/Naval Combat in Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (@gmtgames, 1990)

THE NEXT GAME ON MY 2019 CSR CHALLENGE is Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (GMT Games, 1990). This game won the Charles S Roberts Award in 1990 for Best World War II Wargame. I played Operation Shoestring in the past year so it was a bit fresh in my mind. For this play I decided to focus more attention to the Air/Naval Phase.

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.

16.0 Supply

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.

Design for Effect. Simple complexity. Elegance.