Friday, December 16, 2005

You Sank my Battleship! (Midway:Avalon Hill)

Is it just me, or are wargames making a comeback?

So many blogs I've been reading seem to be focussing on them lately, I can't help but think that their popularity is slowly resurfacing. Personally, I haven't ever played them, but I am curious. I was therefore fairly excited when Kozure suggested that we play Avalon Hill's early 90s wargame "Midway". This particular battle involved the Japanese trying to take control of the island of Midway for use in the war. The Americans were defending. He introduced it as a game specifically designed to appeal to less "hardcore" players... a good thing since we were complete newbies. Note: It's supposed to be a 2 player game, but we played it 4 player by forming teams.

First reaction: Hmmm. Lots of tiny cardboard pieces. Very low production quality. Poor graphic design. Not a good start. Still, it's an older game, and a wargame at that. I was willing to get past it.

There are three gameboards. 2 are identical maps of the waters directly surrounding the island of Midway. Similarly to Battleship, players each secretly set up their pieces on the board, with some constraints (A gamescreen showing turn order and game modifiers keeps each player's board hidden from the other). The third board shows a magnified view of a section of water, for use during battles. Many counters make up the carriers, battleships and airplanes (though I bet it's a very small number by wargame standards).

Kozure and I played the Japanese, leaving Luch and Shemp as the Americans.

The bulk of the first few turns involves each player sending out planes to "scout" the ocean, trying to pinpoint the location of the enemy. Once located, fighter planes, Dive Bombers, etc can swoop in and attack the carriers. The game takes place over 4 "days" (approximately 20 turns) and victory is determined using VPs gained by sinking opponent's ships. The searching and sneaking part I enjoyed, the combat...not so much.

It became immediately clear that the Americans had far superior reconaisance capabilities. They swept the board looking for us, and we could only go so long before they did. Scout planes seemed to outnumber ours 4 to 1! Still, we made some headway before they cought us. We managed to have our inferior forces sink some of the American boats, without getting hit too hard in return. When we called the game, we were ahead in VPs, giving us a technical win. I'm sure that the tide would have swung the way of the Americans had we continued to the end, however (we were simply too outnumbered... made worse by the fact that we lost many planes to get what we did).

Impressions: For wargamers, this may indeed be light fare. For eurogamers (... me anyway), the fiddliness and lack of polish took it's toll. My biggest problem with he game was the constant shuffling around of the tiny stacks of cardboard from one map to another. I didn't like that I needed to do it, and I liked even less that it didn't seem like the location of tokens on the enlarged board mattered much. To compound the problem of shuffling pieces around, the fact that the "home location" of the tokens isn't always indicated makes it easy to misplace parts between turns.

Disclaimer: We didn't finish the game, and surely many potential events didn't happen. Any of those things could have explained the necessity of some of the design decisions I am questioning. Also, right to the end of our game, I wasn't clear on how our goal was supposed to play out (was the battle at Midway, had we reached it, going to be the same kind of sea battle we had been doing the whole time? Would we win automatically if we reached it? Would the enlarge map be used differently in such a ship to ship combat?

I think that a modern redesign of the game could yield a very fun, and much faster, version of the game. For instance:

1) Revamp the graphic layout of the tokens, reducing their number and making them somewhat larger if necessary. Each should now have symbols to represent the purpose of the stats.
2) The 4 step turn order was not terribly useful, but waiting on each other for each step took a fair amount of time. Since both teams are operating in secret, it would be much faster to simply call 1 phase "upkeep", then handle searches according to initiative (and combat if necessary).
3) The balance of the d10 rolls seemed wrong. When the game hangs so much on whether you've matched, doubled or tripled a result, it seems odd that this die is used. You don't need to roll particularly well to triple a 1, but a 10 is an entirely different story. The roll is entirely secondary to the bonuses. Now that I think about it... that's proabbly the point (though it's not how I percieved it as I was playing)
4) In practice, the action on the enlarged board was fairly repetitive. Carriers were always placed for maximum coverage by other ships, and they were almost always the target of attacks. There is therefore very little difference between this and having just one token representing the entire fleet and adding a bonus to represent the remaining firepower of the fleet. As the fleet is damaged, the coverage bonus would dwindle (representing the loss of those allied ships defending the carrier). The enlarged board could be eliminated entirely! This would reduce the game to two boards, a dividing screen and the tokens representing the fleets (the tokens representing individual planes and ships would be eliminated). Markers for "scouted areas" would make nice additions. I bet that game could be played in under an hour.

Now, I know that the multitude of counters (and the particular stats of each chit) is part of the attraction for wargamers. Clearly, that's not who I'd be aiming for here.

Anyway... I enjoyed trying one of these types of games, even if it didn't turn out to be my cup of tea. Did it dampen my enthusiasm to try out other wargames? No. Rather, I would say that it added "focus" to my search. Having read the rules to a few "block" games, I think that they might do exactly what I enjoyed about this game, while avoiding much of what I didn't. Besides, they are interesting as history lessons if nothing else.

1 comment:

  1. a vistor to the web1:19 AM

    hell man, played this in a war game tournament almost 30 years ago in a war game convention. You had to play both sides against different opponets. when I was the japanese, I didn't take midway, but I sank all three american carriers and their eight cruisers. When I was the Americans, I sank five Japanese carriers and five Japanese battleships. The high point was sinking the Yamato. I won the tournment. But it is really cool that someone actually likes to touch real game parts rather than deal with impersonal keyboard.