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

August 18, 2014 by crew

Welcome to the Jungle

In our previous two articles on Wargaming in the Pacific, we’ve looked over some of the key arenas of the Pacific War, and briefly discussed their different characteristics and how they pertain to wargaming. So let’s get “stuck in,” as they say, with some actual examples of what a Pacific wargame might look like.

In this article, we’re “headed to the jungle,” walking through a potential Pacific campaign step-by-step, with what I hope are helpful ideas, suggestions, and examples along the way. Since our first article was about the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theatre and the South Pacific, let’s start with a theoretical campaign that shares characteristics with these arenas – large landmasses, dense jungle, long campaigns, and rugged mountains. My hope is that players interested in recreating the exploits of the Chindits, Gurkhas, Merrill’s Marauders, or the Australians of the Kokoda Track will find this material helpful. A similar exploration of the Central Pacific and naval operations will be outlined in our next article.

Pacific Theatre Films

Naturally, the first step in setting up an effective jungle campaign is to pick a location. To free ourselves of as much “historical baggage” as possible, I’ve selected a jungle campaign that never happened, an Australian-American invasion of the island of Celebes. This frees us to set up whatever kind of forces we want and delve strictly into gaming. For our campaign, we’re saying that the Japanese have built a large airfield in the northern highlands of Celebes, one which has to be taken to support the bigger Allied drive on the Philippines. The airfield is inaccessible from the north or west, so the Allies must land an invasion force to the southeast and embark on an epic jungle trek to knock out this vital airfield.


In setting up your campaign, it’s important to decide who is on the attack and defence. In some cases, such as a Chindit raid or a Merrill’s Marauder operation, the Allies are on the attack the whole time. The Japanese player wins simply by stopping them. In contrast, the Japanese started out as the attackers along the Kokoda track, but were eventually put on the defensive by counterattacking Australians. To a certain extent these campaigns are epic wilderness treks with a little combat thrown in, and you need definite “anchor points” at either one or both ends. In a “double ended” model (such as Kokoda Track), not only does the initial defender have to stop the attacker, but then carry over the offensive and take the initial attacker’s base.

Operation "Beasts of War"

So our Australian and Americans have each landed a regiment of about 1600 men (eight companies each), set up a base of operations, and begun their trek toward the airfield. By this point you should have chosen what gaming model you’re using, either for tactical or operational-level gaming, or both. One familiar choice for tactical battles might be Bolt Action. Warlord has all kinds of great infantry miniatures available, and the game is flexible enough to support Pacific infantry battles as well as European. Flames of War might be a tougher sell, since tanks and heavy equipment are such big draws for that game and honestly, the trackless jungle isn’t the best place for tanks. Valor and Victory is another great tactical choice if you just want to experiment with the Pacific without up-front investments for miniatures. Our group has experimented in the Pacific with modified versions of Avalon Hill’s Panzer Leader . . . with mixed results. However, Panzer Leader counters would make great force markers for your operational map. The Kokoda Track campaign started out with just 1000 men or so, which equates to just 20 Panzer Leader counters. A huge variety of counters is available for download at Imaginative-Strategist.com, and they’d provide a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to track operational movements, allowing you to focus on the tactical action.

Panzer Leader Tokens

This isn’t to say that armour and vehicles have no place in a jungle setting. The legendary British General William Slim found tanks to be surprisingly useful in certain defensive aspects of jungle warfare, covering the retreat of withering British and Chinese infantry divisions in Burma during the dark days of 1942. As would be seen later in Vietnam, tanks can play the role of “goal keepers,” locking down important roads, firebases, airfields, and ports. If an enemy infantry force has just slogged for weeks through mountains and jungles, equipped only with weapons they carried on their backs, the last thing they want to see at the end of their trek are your tanks defending their objective.

The Campaign Begins

Other vehicles should not be underestimated, all the way down to the lowly bicycle. The Japanese General Yamashita famously moved 70,000 men with lightning speed down the Malaysian Peninsula through the use of 20,000 bicycles. This seems impossible, given that there weren’t even enough bicycles for all the men to ride. But they slung their 40-kg packs on the bikes and walked them down the jungle trail, thus multiplying their marching power while the British had to carry their packs in the suffocating jungle heat. Conquering half of Southeast Asia with bicycles may seem funny, but the 92,000 British forced to surrender with the Fall of Singapore found nothing humorous in Yamashita’s “bicycle blitzkrieg.” The Americans of Merrill’s Marauders, meanwhile, were famous for their use of lowly mules, hardy enough to carry hundreds of kilos through even the steepest of Burma’s jungle mountains. Still not sold? Remember that bikes and mules don’t run on gas, and remember how difficult supply in the jungle can be.

Brennon Bay Assault

So our Australian and American regiments each send one battalion (600 men, or three companies) up the jungle trail, with the rest of the men establishing a defensive perimeter around their base and starting the construction of their airfield. In our example game, we’re saying that each company of men that stays in the base can supply one company of men in the jungle. This way thousands of Americans and Australians can’t just pour out of their ships and stomp off into the rainforest. However, the Allies have kept even more of their companies back at the base. Part of this is for security, but they’re also using these surplus supply points to begin the construction of an airfield which will yield and extra ten supply points per turn if they can get it built. Building mechanics like this into your game encourages resource management, logistical planning, and rear area security.

Marine Spotting!

The game might also allow for operational-level counters to be played on the map inverted, so the opponent doesn’t know what exactly is in each force. Aerial reconnaissance, patrols, or even friendly locals might pick up an enemy column in the jungle, but knowing exactly what each enemy force has is probably impossible until the forces collide and the shooting starts.

Deadly Engagements

So at the end of each operational turn, opposing counters that are in contact with each other are flipped up and revealed, and miniatures games are run to resolve the action. In each tactical game, available forces are based on the strength of the operational-level counters in question. But wait . . . perhaps the Japanese player has set up a screen of multiple weak companies to dupe the Allies into attacking straight up the trail, only when the counters are flipped up does the Allied player see there are only sacrificial platoons. Meanwhile, a single powerful counter (perhaps a whole battalion) is swinging around the side, hoping to avoid battle completely and make a run for the Allied base. Maybe the Allies use some of their air assets to try and attack or locate this force, perhaps forcing the Japanese player to flip it up during a “reconnaissance phase.”

Trying Out Tanks!

One phase you definitely should have in any jungle game, however, is a supply phase . . . and it needs to be tough. If either side is never really stretched to keep their men in food, clean water, and medical supplies, consider tightening up the system. Units that are not “in supply” shouldn’t automatically vanish, but instead suffer a harsh penalty on some kind of “Disease Table” that tracks the unit’s effectiveness against malaria, dysentery, and malnutrition. Spend more than one turn out of supply or get a bad roll on that disease chart, and yes . . . units can simply vanish, “swallowed” by the jungle that is equal enemy to both sides.

Japanese Bolt Action Army

Needless to say, this is only scratches the surface of what building an actual CBI or South Pacific jungle campaign would be like. I’m hoping people start posting below, because there are mountains more to say on the topic. Air supply drops, supporting amphibious landings, the Japanese Navy landing additional troops or using submarines to interfere with the Allied support fleet, the possibilities are endless. So “Welcome to the Jungle” as the song goes. Don’t get lost in here. We may never find you.

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!

"...the last thing they want to see at the end of their trek are your tanks defending their objective"

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"“Welcome to the Jungle” as the song goes. Don’t get lost in here. We may never find you..."