“The Other World War 2”: Wargaming in the Pacific (Part Two)

August 11, 2014 by crew

In the first part of this article series, we took a look at a few highlights of wargaming in the Pacific theatre of World War II, specifically the China-Burma-India (CBI) campaign and the South Pacific campaign. In this segment, the Central Pacific is reviewed through the wargamer’s eye, as well as the purely naval aspect of the Pacific War.

As discussed in the previous article, the South Pacific was an Army-dominated campaign fought over the large landmasses of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Bismarck Archipelago. The campaign’s commander, General Douglas MacArthur, was given a significant naval force to support numerous amphibious operations, but the islands were large and relatively close together. Predominantly this was a ground-based jungle campaign fought by Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders against the Japanese, with a heavy emphasis on land-based airpower provided by bases on nearby islands.

In the Central Pacific, the islands are tiny and separated by thousands of miles of water. Here, the US Navy held sway under the inspired leadership of Admiral Chester Nimitz. Most of the ground fighting was carried out by US Marines, and almost all the airpower was carrier-based Navy and Marine squadrons.

Tarawa Beach Landing

Central Pacific gaming probably presents the biggest the “Pacific challenge” to wargamers accustomed to European rules systems and scenarios. After all, many CBI and South Pacific games can be built rather conventionally, set up on battlefields thick with “woods” (i.e., jungles), mountains, streams, and swamps. Central Pacific battles, however, really are a different animal and require substantial investment on the part of potential gamers.

Tactically, the first thing one notices is the tiny size of the battlefields and the incredible manpower densities deployed into them. Whereas New Guinea is three times the size of Great Britain, Betio Island (part of the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands) is just three kilometres long and 350 meters across where the Marines landed. Yet this island was fought over by about 20,000 men. For the invasion of Iwo Jima, 70,000 Marines fought with 21,000 Japanese on an island three miles long, making this tiny island the most densely-populated spot on Earth for the five weeks that fighting raged there.

Panzer Leader Pacific Mod

This density makes the Central Pacific relatively unfertile ground for many wargamers expecting a European-style tactical battle. There is no room to manoeuvre, no flanks to turn. Instead, staggering volumes of American firepower and numbers are pitted against fanatical Japanese dug into impervious positions, presenting a classic case of “unstoppable force against immovable object.” Another challenge is the map. Because these islands were so small, it’s tough to build a generic “Pacific beach” miniature table in scales like 15mm or 10mm, at least one that you could use more than once. Since many European-war gamers are interested in the Pacific only as an occasional change of pace, the work required to build dedicated Pacific tables sometimes seems like too much. Even hex boards present a problem because even moderately-sized island maps will require hundreds of counters representing tens of thousands of men. On the other land, taking just a slice of a given island reduces the number of counters needed, but now the map would encompass only a few dozen hexes.

Valor & Victory

The way to get around this is to change your scale of wargaming. One option is to go for very “small” games like Bolt Action, Valour and Victory, or Lock and Load. With a board or table representing a depth of only 100 meters or so, American players can take a company of Marines out of the surf, across the sand, and into some of the prepared Japanese bunkers and caves. Just remember to give the Japanese very formidable fortifications, and require the Marines to make difficult rolls in spotting them. The Americans should have at least a 2-1 edge in numbers, as well as special rules for huge volumes of firepower coming from off the board. It’s doubtful that the Marine sergeants, lieutenants, or captains would have direct communication with the cruisers and battleships shelling these beaches or the bombers dropping napalm and frag, so their targeting should be somewhat “random” and not entirely at the discretion of the American player.

Victory conditions are another important factor. Japanese garrisons always lost once the Americans landed, and always took nearly 100% casualties. So victory conditions should be based on how long they last. The Americans will “always” win, but were leery of taking too long or suffering too many casualties.

Bolt Action US Marines

Another option is to scale up to operational-level gaming. As discussed in The Four Levels of Wargaming article series, this is where players command thousands of men over days, weeks, or months. By adopting this model, players circumnavigate the brutal Pacific “shoving match” by expanding the game to include the whole island, all its surrounding islands (most of these were atolls and archipelagos, remember), and of course all the surrounding ocean. Which beaches will you land on, and as the Japanese player, which will you fortify most heavily? Airpower has to be coordinated off the American carriers, and if you want anything bigger than a Dauntless dive-bomber, you’d better take some surrounding islands and bring in engineers to build airstrips for larger ground-based bombers. Speaking of land based bombers, do the Japanese have any bases on neighbouring islands, and if they do, how much will the Americans allocate to their seizure? More landings mean more support craft, and more vulnerability for prowling Japanese submarines unless you’ve set up a proper ASW (antisubmarine warfare) screen with your destroyers and Catalina flying boats.

The Japanese Navy has to be considered, not only surface warships (Guadalcanal’s “Tokyo Express” is a great example) but counterattacking carriers as we see in the battles like Santa Cruz and the Philippine Sea. Japanese battleships suddenly appearing amidst a vulnerable American invasion fleet is a nightmare that almost came true at the Battle of Leyte Gulf (largest sea battle in human history). But of course the more naval assets you commit to security of your sea lanes and invasion beaches, the less you have available for shore bombardment and ground support air strikes.

War in the Pacific

Then there’s the topography of these islands to consider. Since most of these islands were part of coral atolls, careful reconnaissance has to be done to see just where these deadly reefs are and which approaches to the target island are really open. Yes, even in the open ocean there is “terrain.” The Americans failed to account for this at Tarawa, resulting in near-disaster when their assault boats bottomed out on the reef and Marines had to struggle ashore through a thousand yards of neck-deep water. So bad was the disaster that the Navy founded Underwater Demolition Teams to map and clear gaps in these reefs before the invasion. These elite units eventually evolved into the Navy Frogmen, and finally the Sea Air and Land teams, more famously known as the Navy SEALs . . . all because of the coral reefs of Tarawa.

Sadly, there are few purely tactical naval games in the Pacific (Clash at Arms’ “Command at Sea” is one notable exception). This may be because most of the major naval battles were fought between carriers, and with the great distances involved these games become operational-scale anyway. Avalon Hill’s Midway is a great entry-level game, although it’s a little simplistic. On the other end of the spectrum is the classic Flat Top, a complex study of the four pivotal carrier battles around the Solomon Islands in 1942 and early 1943. One more option is Decision Games’ South Seas Campaign: 1942-43 (designed by Joseph Miranda), a full air-land-sea study which allows everything from commandos to a potential Japanese invasion of Australia.

Flat Top

In summary, the Pacific War offers a vast new arena for the wargamer to explore. It was very different from the war in Europe, so gamers who bring European rules and expectations to the Pacific do so at their peril. But for those willing to try something new, the Pacific offers depth and scope sure to provide years of great gaming.

James Johnson

If you would like to write an article for Beasts of War then please contact me at ben@beastsofwar.com for more information!

"...their targeting should be somewhat “random” and not entirely at the discretion of the American player"

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"...the Pacific offers depth and scope sure to provide years of great gaming."