Monday, July 18, 2016

Two-dimensional Banzai

I got around a bit on Saturday. I meant to start earlier and be even more adventurous, but this Saturday I needed a little more easing into the day than usual. I'd arranged with Dave Schueler to play Guadalcanal at Meeples Games in West Seattle, starting at 10:00, just when they open. Plan A was to go to 8:00 Mass at Blessed Sacrament in Seattle, then a bagel and coffee at Eltana Bagels. However, I was too lazy to get moving this morning, so I went with Plan B, which involved rushing out the door with barely enough time to get from Lynnwood to West Seattle.

Col. Ichiki was not entirely successful

The Guadalcanal scenario we played was the Battle of Alligator Creek. This was the first Japanese counterattack on land in the battle. Japanese destroyers landed an advanced detachment of about 900 men 21 miles east of the Marine perimeter. The intent was to pierce the Marine defenses and overrun Henderson Field, the Marine airfield (completed on what had been an unfinished Japanese airfield) that was the central point of the fighting on Guadalcanal. It had to have been conceived as a suicide mission. There was the whole 1st Marine division ("The Old Breed") landed on Guadalcanal. Even though its 11,000 men were spread out in a perimeter, there were 3000 Marines of the 1st Regiment on point at the Tenaru River. (The Marines names it "Alligator creek" even though it wasn't a creek and there were no alligators in it.)

The 900 men landed by the Japanese navy were supposed to be followed up by another 1200, but the commander of the Japanese troops, Col. Kiyonao Ichiki, was impatient to sweep away the Marines, whose numbers he greatly underestimated. Ichiki was a bit of a fire-eater. As a company commander in Manchuria Manchukuo, he was involved in the "Marco Polo Bridge Incident," which started the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45.

The Japanese attack started at about 2:00 AM with a rush of about 100 men over the sandbar at the mouth of the river. The Marines were dug in on the west side of the river with a 37mm anti-tank gun, well-supplied with cannister rounds for anti-personnel shooting, and a platoon of machine guns. This attack was wiped out by intense Marine fire. A second wave of about 200 men met the same fate.

Attack across the sandbar
At this point the Japanese stayed on the east side of the river and engaged in a firefight with the Marines until daybreak, when the Marine 1st battalion counterattacked in an envelopment that brought them south and east of the Japanese positions. Five M3 Stuart tanks trundled across the sandbar to join the fray and the Japanese troops were pretty much annihilated. In all the Japanese lost more than 700 men to the Marines' loss of 43 men. Col. Ichiki died in the battle, but it's not clear if he died in action or committed suicide because of his failure.

The Tenaru today. No sandbar and the runway of  the Honiara International Airport
 (formerly Henderson Field) extends right up to where the Marines were deployed on August 21.
The attack at the Tenaru was the ground offensive for Operation Ka, which was the Japanese riposte to American seizure of Guadalcanal. It was a complete failure. In his report to higher command, Col. Ichiki's superior admitted only that the attack was "not entirely successful."

The refight

Dave opted to play the Japanese, so I played the Marines. Initial set-up locations were determined by the scenario. The Japanese first wave was massed just east of the sandbar; my Marines were spread out covering the length of the river.

The scenario was 6 rounds with the first three rounds being night. Initial visibility for round 1 was 2 hexes. For rounds 2 and 3, we rolled a D6 with the result being the visibility for that round. I rolled a "1" on both turns. I was frustrated that my visibility was hampered, but the low visibility probably hurt Dave more than me. He had no recourse but to move up close, which gave me an advantage in close-range shooting.

The course of the game pretty much followed the historical fight, except Dave managed to overrun the 37mm gun position that covered the sandbar. I managed to take the position back in the next round, so it was a short-lived triumph. That was with the first wave. The subsequent waves that came on board rounds 3 and 4, did not make massed close assaults. My round 4 reinforcements came on the south edge of the board and by round 5, I had two Stuarts rampaging across the sandbar into Japanese territory.

It was touch and go for a while. Dave made good use of his little grenade launcher units. They don't have much pop, but they negate covering terrain. Combined with other units in a group fire, they can be very effective against units you thought were safely hunkered down in deep jungle. But Marine firepower won in the end. I lost 5 counters (both my 37mm guns plus three rifle squads), while Dave lost all but two of his units. I was lucky in my die rolls; Dave was lucky, initially, in pulling "no hit" counters for hit results, but his die rolls were pure poo.

It turns out, too, that we counted points wrong. The scenario gives 2 points to the Japanese for each Marine unit eliminated and 3 points for possession of each of the control hexes. That meant only five fewer points for me, which wouldn't have changed the outcome

Dave hadn't played the Conflict of Heroes system before. I hadn't played in a few years. Even then, there were some new rules for this expansion that took getting used to. Unlike previous games, the hit counters for the Japanese and Marines are different. The Japanese can have up to five "no hit" counters that do no damage (there were four in this scenario). The Marines have none.

Bushidō points didn't factor too much in the game. Positive points were gained for getting units across the Tenaru river and negative were incurred whenever a Japanese infantry unit started its activation not as part of a group action. Dave gained a few in the initial rounds, but then lost them again after his losses chopped up cohesion. He never fell below his initial CAP allowance because the Japanese don't lose CAP for unit losses, only the Marines do. (Too bad they don't have gung-ho points for the Marines...)

Closing thoughts

I like the nuances to the system for Guadalcanal. It's not a paradigm shift, but there's some adjustment to make if you've been playing previous Conflict of Heroes games.

The scenarios do a good job at making the Japanese behave historically. Had Dave been able to just sit back and engage in a firefight, he might have out-gunned me. But his need to get units across the Tenaru, perform group actions, and take (and/or hold) the control points forces him to move en masse and get in close. The limited visibility of three night rounds also inhibits his ability to sit back and shoot until he's lost enough units to give the Marine's a big advantage after their reinforcements come in. (Also, if he sits in place too long, the Marine artillery barrages can hurt.)

I didn't use my artillery well in the game. The first rounds I either forgot to plot a barrage or the barrage I plotted missed because the Japanese didn't wind up being where I'd plotted the barrage to land. The single success came on round 6 when Dave's remaining units were clustered around the control point in the palm grove on is side of the river.

The 37mm guns were pretty crappy. The game has a cannister card that gives the guns a little bit more effectiveness (but not much). However, the scenario doesn't give them. So the 37mm gun, which is the only unit holding the key bunker/control point has its wee +2 pop. In the hitorical accounts of the fighting, the 37mm guns shooting cannister did a huge amount of damage to the waves of attacking Japanese.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Well, finally

Last week, to my wee, humble doorstep came Academy Games' latest (last?) extension of their Conflict of Heroes series: Guadalcanal 1942 - The Pacific.

I was honestly on the verge of giving up ever seeing this. I'd pre-ordered it years ago, then pre-ordered it again (also years ago), then was contacted that my credit card info was out of date (the card had expired in the interim), then finally heard that it was shipping. Now it's finally in my hot little hands. Whew!

Was it worth the wait? Well, yes, but maybe not worth the anxiety (is anything?).

The game looks very nice. The artwork on the game components is beautiful, especially the map boards, of which there are four: a coastal board, a river board, a jungle board and a hilly board. There is also a sheet of double-sided overlays for two different river mouths (the Tenaru and the Matanikau), village buildings, jungle patches, and smaller hills.

The hex side markings blend in very subtly with the artwork on the boards. They're easy enough to see if you're looking for them, but disappear enough to give the impression of a free-form kriegspiel.

The counters are the standard big size, die-cut and double sided. The mix is mostly infantry and infantry support weapons. Each side has a few tanks: US M3A1 Stuarts and Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go and Type 97 Ch-Ha tanks. There are also US landing craft and an M3 GMC. Because I pre-ordered (twice), I got an extra set of counters that have the Marine 2nd Raider counters, US Army regulars and National Guard counters, another GMC, and two M2 .50 cal. counters. There are also some Melanesian police counters. The extra counters can be used in scenarios that are downloadable from the Academy Games website.

There was one hiccup in the box. The die-cut counters are easily removed from the frames, perhaps too easily. There were a lot of loose counters in the box. One counter, used to count victory points, got smushed on one side.

A bit worse for wear
Just a touch of diluted Mod Podge with a small brush, press the counter under some weight for a while, et voilá!

All better
The box also comes with an expansive counter tray that keeps everything in nice and snug.

The game is standalone. No previous CoH games are needed. The rules are the same as for the entire series except for the Bushidō rules. In addition to tracking victory points, the Japanese player tracks Bushidō points. The Bushidō rules are intended to encourage the Japanese player to employ historically aggressive Japanese tactics. Each scenario awards Bushidō points differently. For example, in some scenarios the Japanese player gains +1 Bushidō points for every unit he loses in hand to hand combat or to point blank fire. In another scenario, the Japanese player loses -1 Bushidō points for every counter that doesn't start its activation as part of a group move.

The effect of gaining/losing Bushidō points is to increase or decrease the the number of command activation points (CAP) that the Japanese player has available. There may be other scenario-specific affects of having positive or negative Bushidō points. It looks like an interesting rule.

With the amount of time (years!) that it took to get Guadalcanal released, I fear that Acadamy Games has moved on from this series. At one time, there seemed to be many extensions in the works: Normandy 1944, Blitzkrieg 1940, Crete 1941... None of that appears to be on the horizon any more. I'd love to see more extensions to the series, but given the time it took to release Guadalcanal, I'm starting to think I won't live long enough to see them (and I'm only 55).

As a pipe dream, it would be interesting to see Academy Games strike while the Pacific War iron is hot and do a Tarawa 1943 extension. I've long been fascinated by that battle and I think that CoH is a great system for creating some good scenarios for it.

I have yet to play a game of Guadalcanal, but I'm looking for the soonest opportunity (Dave Schueler are you reading this?).