August 4, 2014 by crew
On June 5, 1944, the exact same day that paratroopers took off for their historic drop into Normandy, another massive invasion force was setting sail halfway around the world. This battle would start ten days later and claim 50,000 lives over the next four weeks. Five Americans would win the Medal of Honor, all of them posthumously. To stop the Americans, the Japanese would send their most powerful naval strike group, triggering the largest carrier battle in history (24 in all) that would finally eradicate any meaningful offensive capability of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
While almost any Beast of War subscriber has heard of the Normandy invasion, far fewer have probably had the opportunity to learn about the invasion of the Marianas Islands, described above. So when the opportunity arose to present some Pacific War wargaming material on Beasts of War, I naturally accepted. I was then asked if there were any upcoming Pacific World War 2 anniversaries we could commemorate in conjunction with these articles. As an American and former US Marine, I naturally proposed Operation Watchtower and the invasion of Guadalcanal (its opening stages carried out by the famed 1st Marine Division). When the article series was announced, however, posts immediately started coming in about the possibility of wargaming or commemorating the vital “Kokoda Track” campaign carried out by Australian troops in New Guinea, which largely took place during the exact same time period (August, 1942). This showed that interest in the Pacific War is more widespread than initially suspected, and that there is a real call on Beasts of War to explore the wargaming potential of this oft-overlooked theatre.
The simple fact is that wargames themed on European, Russian, or North African battles far outnumber those themed in the Pacific. Even when gamers accustomed to European-style wargames give Pacific games a try, they’re often disappointed in how the games play. The games sometimes come off as unimaginative, slow, “un-tactical,” or simply meat-grinder equations of mass firepower and casualties.
There can be an element of truth in this because many Pacific wargames are based on European systems for which “expansion kits” were later released to include new scenarios. This is usually a mistake because the Pacific War was so radically different than the one fought in Europe. To go into a Pacific wargame with a European rules engine is to bring European expectations to the table. Yes, the system may work and deliver “believable” results for your game. But you probably won’t learn very much and even worse . . . you won’t have much fun. A good Pacific wargame requires a rules system built for it, and a general understanding of what made the Pacific War so different.
First of all, it’s important to understand which “Pacific War” you’re interested in. There are several areas to explore, each with its own characteristics. A few of these might be the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theatre, the Southwest and Central Pacific Theatres, and possibly even the “Pacific Steppe” of Manchuria for some Russo-Japanese campaigns. Finally, there are strategic-level games where players can take on the role of Nimitz, Mountbatten, Yamamoto, or MacArthur. “Advanced Pacific Theatre of Operations” offers a comprehensive study on the subject, but can be daunting for newcomers to this type of game. Avalon Hill’s “Victory in the Pacific” stands at the other end of the spectrum, offering a great entry-level portal into the theatre. Decision Games “War in the Pacific” is probably one of the biggest games out there, coming with over 9,000 counters (no, that’s not a typo). Probably not something I would try on a rainy weekend, I’m just saying it’s out there.
For those interested in a field command rather than pushing flags around an admiral’s map, one choice is the often-overlooked CBI Theatre, which basically covers World War II in Southeast Asia. This four-year campaign started when the Japanese attacked British holdings in Malaya and Singapore, and would eventually push all the way through Burma. Allied objectives were to stop the Japanese from invading India, keep a supply line open to the Chinese over the Himalayas, and retake the “Gibraltar of the Pacific” at Singapore. The campaign was characterized by brutal jungle warfare, almost a “Vietnam” without the helicopters or great music.
While there aren’t too many tactical games that deal with the CBI Theatre specifically, one “tactical temptation” might be the use of “special forces,” which the CBI Theatre used in abundance. Famous units like the Chindits, Gurkhas, or Merrill’s Marauders campaigned for months at a time behind Japanese lines, struggling toward targets hundreds of miles in the impenetrable jungle. Players may be challenged to set up a campaign series featuring these units in Bolt Action, Valour and Victory, or Band of Heroes, seeing if they can hold their columns together through such an epic trek of combat, exhaustion, and disease. Hidden jungle clearings were vital for resupply, although seizing Japanese supply dumps was also a vital tactic for survival. These men would also hack airfields from the jungle in order to land transport planes so they could evacuate their wounded. Such objectives could be used to keep the game from getting stale or add a distinctly Pacific flavour.
For a fresh perspective on Flames of War, consider investigating the heavy tank and artillery battles at Imphal, Mandalay, and the British-Indian landings at Rangoon. While Japanese artillery and fortifications are formidable in these games, don’t expect their tanks to play very well. In the Pacific, a Sherman plays like a King Tiger.
Yet another avenue might be to pursue an operational-scale game, where players command the whole CBI region. Because each turn could represent up to three months, the slow pace of jungle attrition would be mitigated while the complexities of executing logistics and communication over such impassable terrain could be highlighted, challenging players to make the most out of very limited resources. Jungle engineering was vital as both sides had to build roads and airstrips, chopping them out of the jungle mountains while slugging it out with the enemy. So intense were rivalries between Americans like “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell and Britain’s Orde Wingate (ferocious enough to put the Montgomery-Patton feud to bitter shame) that British and American teammates could even be given conflicting victory conditions. Decision Games’ “Green Hell: Battle for Burma” takes an interesting look at two important engagements in Burma, both focusing on British-Indian operations.
Another area to explore would be the Southwest Pacific, focusing on the American and Australian campaign in the mountains of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Bismarck Archipelago. This, of course, is where we find the famed Kokoda Track campaign. Taking the Southwest Pacific as a whole, Allied objectives were to stop the Japanese drive against Australia, then fulfil MacArthur’s famous “I shall return” pledge to liberate the Philippines. This was an Army-dominated campaign since the islands were relatively large (New Guinea is over three times the size of Great Britain), making the Southwest Pacific much like the CBI Theatre in many respects. The difference here is that MacArthur also had significant naval resources at hand, and had to land his troops up successive island chains to forge his path toward the Philippines. Control of the air and sea was absolutely crucial, and most often made the actual assault and reduction of powerful Japanese garrisons unnecessary.
From a gaming perspective, these naval and air dimensions can keep your game from devolving into a grind of mass manpower and jungle patrols. Which islands will you take so you can build air and supply bases at the right points, strangling the enemy’s island fortresses while preventing him from doing the same to you? Which enemy strongpoints will you actually have to assault and, more importantly, which can you bypass? Historically, the most formidable obstacle in this campaign was the huge Japanese base at Rabaul. Yet its fortified 100,000 man garrison was ultimately bypassed after a meticulous year-long naval and air campaign of isolation carried out by American, Australian, and New Zealand forces.
The Central Pacific Theatre and naval operations will be discussed in an upcoming article, as well as some more on the Kokoda Track. But for now I hope we’ve sparked some interest into the “other” World War II. So what do you say, Marine? Ready to pack that sea bag and see what’s happening on the other side of the world?
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"...there is a real call on Beasts of War to explore the wargaming potential of this oft-overlooked theatre."
"So intense were rivalries between Americans like “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell and Britain’s Orde Wingate that British and American teammates could even be given conflicting victory conditions!"