Saturday 22 February 2020

Fury at Midway - carrier battles 1942

Fury at Midway is the new release from Revolution Games covering the WWII Pacific naval engagement around Midway 4th June 1942. Originally published in Japan by Bonsai Games and designed by Yasushi Nakaguro, it has been picked up by Revolution Games and developed by Roger Miller, who has introduced a second map, so that it can be played as a double blind system.

It is many years since I had the old Avalon Hill ‘Flat Top’ game on the table, enjoying that ‘thing’ about carrier battles of readying aircraft and then sending them out to exploit successful searches, defeating enemy CAP and then going for the ships. It is a unique area of wargaming .... and here we are again, with a new opportunity to game an action in that style.

Please use the ‘read more’ tab for a look at the game.

(Disclosure and reminder - this is not a review site, I just write about the games I like, and I always buy the games I write about. Revolution Games have two of my games in print and working with them has given me some insight into the meticulous care that this company have for their product. Since I am moved only to write about things I like, my posts cannot be relied upon to be critically objective, but I hope the reader still gets a sense of honest writing).

This game is presented as a ziplock package containing two 11” x 17” Maps, a 12 page rulebook, 72 various counters and a small deck of 12 cards.

Midway is a very interesting situation. You have three U.S. carriers, plus the Midway air base up against four Japanese carriers. While dealing with the enemy carrier threat, the Japanese player also has to manage the degrading of the defences at Midway, ready for the assault troops that are on transport ships making for the island.

The unusual thing about this game system is that you always know where the enemy carriers are! There is as little subterfuge, as the American player secretly plots down the movement of their carrier group, the Japanese then openly move their carrier group to a new position and then the American side reveal their movement intentions and execute them, but at the end of all that, the position of both players fleets are marked on both player’s maps.

The engine of this game is based around the number of Operations that each player will get during the turn, which is determined by the search capacity of the fleet (and Midway airbase) and the relationship between that capacity and the distance between the two fleets.

Example - the Japanese search capacity is fixed at 6. It finds itself 3 hexes away from the American carrier force. Deduct the 3 (range) from the 6 (search capacity) to get an allowance of 3 Operations for the Japanese that turn. 

The American player enjoys a slightly better search capacity, so typically may have an advantage in Operation points.
This tracks shows how many Operation points the
players still have.

During one Operation, a player essentially can have any or all of their aircraft do something. This is typically flying out 2 - 3 hexes towards a target or reaching it and attacking it, or moving one position up the ‘readying’ process, so returning aircraft enter return boxes or move from a return box to a hanger, or from the hanger to the ship’s deck or take off from the deck etc.

The number of Operations that each side gets brings about an interplay of having the capability to launch 1st strike waves in the air, 2nd strike waves in the air and the problem of planes still on deck when carriers are attacked and having planes stuck in hangers because the decks are damaged.

What is interesting is that to establish who takes the next Operation, both players roll a die and add their current Operation value to the score. The highest score goes next. So there is a weighting of results towards the player currently with the most Operation points going next ...... but not a certainty. With this system, a player could potentially conduct more than one Operation before the other player gets chance to conduct an Operation. This can bring an emotional connection to the game, as you worry about having planes sitting on the deck, vulnerable to ongoing enemy Operations and the fear of losing your own carrier(s) before getting a chance to harm the other side.

The original design had one map and both players did everything in full view of the other player and you can still play the game like that, but Revolution Games have introduced a second identical map, so that the gamers can play with a screen between them and although ship positions are always known to both sides, the amount of CAP or whether there are strikes on the way to you and the number incoming of strikes / or waves become unknown.

This adds tension to play and the defending CAP will never be sure how much it should commit to defending against a single strike group, in case another strike / wave is coming in.

This will immediately have solitaire players wondering whether they can play this game. The answer, as with many two player games is that yes you can, by managing both sides to the best of your ability - however, there are a couple of caveats to this. 

Even though the game was originally designed to be played on a single map, with nothing hidden, it was still the case that the American player plotted their movement in secret before the Japanese player moved. This does not have a drastic effect on the solo player, but it does have some impact, particularly as the final relative distance between the carriers influences the number of Operations that a player gets.

So you can play this game solo, but it becomes so much more of a tense game when played face-to-face (or rather back-to-back!) with a screen between players and the solo player loses that.

There are also a small pack of game cards. These do not drive the game, rather, from my limited knowledge of the battle, they are bringing some historical moments potentially into play without any heavy rules overhead, so when a card is played against you, it feels less of an unconnected, unscripted ‘take-that’ moment and more of a feeding of historical narrative. 

Card impact is further restricted because the small card deck is a mix of cards belonging to both players and you may well draw a card that is only usable by the other player - you keep this and in consequence, deny the other player of its use. Again, the solitaire player can manage cards (or I suppose, leave them out of play altogether), but they can dramatically add value to the two player hidden game.

As a graphic example. In our game, Mike attacked and sank the Yorktown. I just happened to have the U.S. card that allows a sunk carrier to instead be treated as though it had been towed away to a port for repair. This of course was not revealed until the end of turn 3 (evening of day one), when the first opportunity to test Victory Conditions for a win is made, based on the number of ‘afloat’ carriers and of course, the Yorktown surprised Mike by still being afloat.  Without checking sources, from memory, I think this is what exactly happened to the Yorktown, so the cards can bring in some really nice narrative, highlighting moments that helped form this battle.
Card play onto the Yorktown

If a victory cannot be called at the end of turn 3, then play continues overnight and into a second day, ending on turn 7. This second day sees the Japanese invasion convoy enter the map and head for Midway. All things being equal, they will arrive at turn 7 and perform an invasion attempt. Whoever controls Midway gets 2 VP’s so it is an important element in the game.

The carrier game is so destructive on day one, that on day two, the play will likely flow faster, with fewer aircraft available to deliberate over and with air units spending several operations simply re-cycling back from mission into the readying process, before they can be available again to take off the carrier decks.
Planes fill the decks of Enterprise and Hornet

This is a relatively short rule book with a helpful example of play in the last couple of pages. There is new stuff here, so I found my first read a bit laboured and had to put the game out and play out the first day solitaire to get an idea of the flow and tempo of the game and to understand the internal relationships between the mechanisms. I then read the rulebook a second time and everything was quite clear and in fact I had made a couple of errors in my test game ..... likely the reason for the very early destruction of the Japanese fleet!

Here are some notes that I took when I played against Mike this week. I am the American player, there is a screen between us, so this account is naturally one sided, from the American perspective and is taken as events occur, so is written in the present tense.

Turn 1 - Morning.
I start with my Carrier Strike Force (containing Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet) sitting in hex G1, five hexes above Midway. For my movement plot, I choose to remain stationary ..... and observe!

The Japanese First Air Fleet (containing Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu) enter the sea zone. Each of my carriers launch 2 air units from their decks (for a total of 6), combining into 3 Strike Groups. They get through the enemy CAP and manage to sink the Akagi.
3 American strike groups

With just one Operations point left, I would like to launch a second wave from my carrier, but the enemy are quite far away and with the turn about to end, I feel sure that the Japanese will manoeuvre to increase their distance from me, so a flight launched now, would never reach them and have to return to carrier and go through the lengthy process of refuelling for no gain.

That leaves me with the worry of not launching and having aircraft sitting on my decks if an enemy airstrike hits me, I have my fingers crossed. Guessing that the Japanese will probably close their distance on Midway, I use my last Operations point to launch the rather inadequate air units located on the Midway runways.

Turn 2 - Afternoon.
I was wrong - the Japanese have not moved towards Midway, so I abort the strike from Midway and they return to base to the ‘Return - 1’ box as they only travelled the initial 2 hexes out. The carriers do launch that second wave. No sooner are those planes off the deck when a significant Japanese strike group attacks the Yorktown, sinking her.

My air strike goes in against the Soryu / Hiryu Division, but I am seriously mauled when discovering a significant presence of enemy CAP. My aircraft losses are so high that my remaining two carriers probably have enough capacity to still manage those remaining air-units originally from the Yorktown (at this point, Mike helpfully reminds me that my carrier planes can also use the Midway runway).

While the Japanese are quite certain that they have sunk one of my three carriers, at the end of the turn, I am able to play a card secretly from my hand to the Yorktown, which converts a sunk carrier to instead having a status of being a carrier that is being ‘towed away to port’. Importantly, this means the Yorktown is afloat. So while the Japanese still believe they have sunk a carrier, though it will play no further part in the game, it will not count as sunk for Victory Point purposes.

Turn 3 - Evening.
My dread of an enemy attack coming in before I can launch is justified. Japanese bombers strike the Enterprise, destroying both deck boxes, including the aircraft that are on them and trapping those aircraft sitting in the hanger. She is still afloat (just), but this is a disaster. I suppose I am lucky from the point of view that the Japanese strike was powerful enough to have stood a good chance of sinking the Enterprise, the fact it didn’t and she remains afloat, is my only source of consolation. I only have the Hornet as a functioning carrier now.

But how quickly uncertainty in carrier warfare can turn the tables. Again, I launch the weak air formations from Midway, more in desperation than in trust, but they manage to hit the already damaged Soryu and I play the ‘Critical Hit’ card to add an additional hit, ensuring the Soryu is sunk.

Bombers from the Hornet arrive over the Kaga and sink her. that is another two Japanese carriers lost and in short order, both sides now find themselves with just one functioning carrier.
A carrier can take 2 points of damage. A third
hit will sink it.

At the end of turn 3 (end of day one), the sides are obliged to check for victory and one of the conditions is that if one side has at least three times as many carriers afloat as the other side, they instantly win. While we both have one functioning carrier, all the three other Japanese carriers have been sunk, but I have the badly mauled Enterprise afloat and the towed Yorktown counts as being an afloat carrier, so I get my 3:1 ratio for a victory and the game ends.

This was such a tight moment, as it was only chance that gave me the ‘towing’ card to save the Yorktown and it was only good fortune and against all expectation that Enterprise survived her attack. If just one of those things were different, which they could have easily been, we would have moved on to turn 4 to play the night turn and then the next day, playing on to turn 7.

The dynamic for the next day would have no doubt have been a fascinating part of the game. With 1 carrier apiece and the Japanese Invasion Force approaching Midway, every Operation point and die roll would have significance.

Conclusion - We both really enjoyed our game and will be happy to play it again (and again!). I have no experience of the original game, but it strikes me that the involvement of Revolution Games adding the second map to make a double blind system will have improved the player experience of this game.

Once understood, the sub-systems are easy to manage and there is not much referencing to the rules. There are nice historical wrinkles in the game, such as the event related cards and the possibility of a surface action on the night turn, which is pre-disposed to favour the Japanese, though as with other parts of this game, you can’t start something with a certainty of outcome, which helps keep game tension high. Overall, this is a good title that should be able to make regular appearances on the table.

Collection Status - I bought this specifically for our face-to-face sessions, to get a game to the table that can be played fully to a conclusion in a single session and deliver game play that has a bit of depth to it - this does that.

Complexity - This is not a complex game, but needs the players to become familiar with the system, so when we did our first face-to-face, we did a knock-about on a single map for around 45 minutes, so that we were both grounded in the mechanics. This is important, it helps both players understand the tempo and direction of the game and also because with a screen between you, it’s not as easy to help the other player as you might do in an open game, so that you can share the experience of rules precision.   

Size - Each player has a small 11” x 17” map in front of them, plus a single play aid acts as game track etc, so with a screen between you, this easily sits within the kitchen table setting. I put my maps in a large pinboard frame, roughly 24” x 34” and we played across the 34” length. Players could even have their map on their own coffee table or lap and be at opposite ends of the room for privacy instead of the game all being in one place with a dividing screen.

Solitaire - The game can be played solo and there are some things that do help solitaire play, such as dicing for accuracy as to which part of a task force will be attacked and dicing to see which part of a ship suffers the first damage. Also the way that attacks are made, both by air units and the invasion force means that some of these things can be with the dice gods and the player lives with those outcomes. But, with it being developed into a double blind system, I think this is one of those games in which the solitaire experience Vs the face-to-face experience is so far apart, that it would be almost like playing two related but different games, the solo player will not get the full ‘experience’ that the designer intends.

Time - The game is advertised as playing in around 90 minutes. We took just over 90 minutes to play our three turns. I think if the game played on, the second day would be much faster due to the attrition of units during the first day. So, for us, perhaps (especially new players ... me!) putting a time of 120 minutes or so, would be roughly in the ball park.

Resource Section.

My sister webspace COMMANDERS is a bit more snippet based than here. Link.