Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, August 24, 2012

American battleships at Midway

Wednesday afternoon, my friend and colleague Frank H. and I got together after work for our re-match in Midway (designers Larry Pinsky and Lindsley Schutz, publisher Avalon Hill).  We first clashed over the Pacific in June, when I played the Americans and Frank the Japanese.  This time, we switched roles, so that I commanded the forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy and Frank those of the United States Navy.

We also played with a few interesting rules that we did not use in our first event:
  • Midway reduction:  The original game Tournament rules include a provision that requires the IJN to "soften up" the defenses of Midway Island by air attack and/or ship bombardment.  
  • B-17 bomber attacks:  The original rules include an Appendix with a set of questions and answers, one of which allows for the addition of B-17s to the American arsenal on Midway Island.  
  • Transports:  Charles B. Pelto had written a variant, "One Ship Invasion Fleet?" that appeared in The General and that was later reprinted in The Wargamer's Guide to Midway.  We played with a tailored version of Pelto's variant.  We augmented the IJN order of battle with four transports and CL Jintsu.  We held that the Atago was no longer treated as the flagship of the invasion fleet; rather, Jintsu or any of the four transports could fulfill the role of invading Midway Island.  We also required that the invading transports be accompanied by at least one battleship in order to count down the four turns required to complete the invasion.  The transports are quite vulnerable, but this variant mitigates the disadvantage that we believe that the Japanese suffer from being unable to protect the Atago from sinking, which we saw in our last game as rendering a Midway invasion virtually impossible against a focused American defense.
  • Variable order of battle:  Alan R. Moon had published a lengthy set of variants, "The Pacific Theater via Midway," again reprinted in TWGtM.  At the bottom of the last page of this article appears a nifty little tantalizer, whereby each player, before the game starts, can secretly bid victory points to draw random augmentations to their orders of battle.  Frank had acquired some third-party counters and battle board ships for extra scenarios that appear in TWGtM, so we put some of them to use here.
IJN Zuikaku
USN photo.  Public domain
So, with sides chosen and rules settled, we began with our secret bids for variable order of battle.  The first chit draw would cost five VPs, the second ten more, the third would cost 15, etc.  I bid five points (for one chit); Frank bid 30 points (for three chits).  So right away, I started the game with a 25-point lead, but Frank would sail onto the board with some significant bonuses to his order of battle that I would have to discover the hard way.  For my part, the chit that I drew gave me a fifth large aircraft carrier, the Zuikaku, with a full complement of planes - equivalent to a second Kaga.  I was not disappointed.

Wednesday 3 June 1942

B-17s in the Pacific theater
Dan Johnson collection
The Japanese Carrier Strike Force (CVSF) started well to the south.  The CL Nagara had been sent north to serve as a picket search ship.  American searches tracked the CVSF for the better part of the morning, and for this reason I elected not to ready my aircraft so as not to be rendered vulnerable to an unexpected air attack.  Around 0900, Hiryu was set upon by strike force of B-17s and sunk quite unceremoniously.  After that, however, I was more or less able to evade detection, so that I could double-back unmolested and rendezvous with the Mikuma cruiser group at 1500 as scheduled.

Anticipating action, I readied my aircraft, found the American fleet, and was able to launch an attack at 1700.  Pilot reports from this sortie gave me my first indication of just how formidable the USN would be.  A fourth carrier, the Lexington, was at the center of the American formation, apparently not sunk at the Battle of Coral Sea as our pilots had suggested the previous month.  Even worse, the carriers were escorted by the battleships Colorado and Maryland, which Japanese intelligence had believed were much farther east, defending San Francisco.

There was no enemy Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the American fleet, so the escorting Zero pilots watched the battle from the comfort of their cockpits (such as it was).  I focused my attack on the two carriers in the rear and the CL Atlanta.  I was able to sink the Atlanta, but the defending battleships blunted the effectiveness of my attacks, and I only damaged two carriers.

Thursday 4 June 1942

Zuikaku air sortie preparations
Government of Japan photo
Public domain
We evaded each other under cover of night, and the invasion force began its approach at dawn well to the northwest of Midway, as far as possible from the last reported position of the American carriers.  The Zuiho staged its aircraft forward to replace aircraft from Zuikaku lost in the previous day's attacks.  Meanwhile my carrier strike force evaded the American PBY patrols and approached Midway undetected.  My own searches were likewise fruitless, however, despite now having three light cruisers fanned out to attempt to sweep the ocean and locate the American fleet.  At 1300, knowing that the Americans hadn't spotted my carriers yet and gambling that there would be no CAP over Midway, I sent all dive bombers and torpedo bombers (outfitted with bombs) unescorted to begin the reduction of Midway defenses in preparation for the invasion.  The attack was a tremendous success, largely because my strike force surprised on the ground and destroyed fully 25% of the American fighters.  The attack revealed my position, but two hours later I was able to evade American searches again, and at 1700 a follow-up attack completed the reduction of Midway and opened the door for the invasion fleet to take the island.  Also a welcome consequence was the elimination of the B-17 threat.

My elation was tempered, however, by events well to the west of my strike force.  The Yamato battleship group had just arrived and was steaming east to join my fleet.  The task group was apparently careless in evading American searches, however, as they were immediately spotted.  The consequences of counter-detection were dire, as I learned why I had not found the American carriers.  They had steamed west in the mistaken anticipation that my fleet would join up with the battleships.  The USN was hoping to ambush my entire Japanese force in a single devastating blow.  As it was, the American carrier air group unleashed its first strike of the entire battle on the flat-footed Yamato group, which was overwhelmed by the concentration of air power.  Air defenses were only sufficient to save one battleship, and the choice was made to let the crews of the battleships Yamato and Mutsu and the light cruiser Sendai give their lives in service of the Emperor while Nagato would remain to escort Hosho away under cover of night.

Friday 5 June 1942

The invasion fleet had conducted only a few evasive maneuvers to throw off the American search planes but now steamed purposefully toward Midway from the northwest.  My carrier force, having completed its mission to prepare the island for invasion, spent the night closing rapidly with the last reported position of the American fleet, well to the west.

USS Yorktown after being
hit by dive bombers
USN photo. Public domain
At daybreak, we spotted the Americans and launched a full-scale attack in an effort to avenge the battleships lost the previous day.  Since my own carriers had again evaded detection, my Zeroes escorted the first strike of the day and engaged the American Wildcats so as to keep the strike force unmolested.  A second attack at 0900 completed the work of the first, and both Hornet and Yorktown were confirmed sunk by the end of the second strike.

The USN managed a counter-strike at the same time, but in anticipation I'd kept my fighters on CAP to protect the fleet.  The damage done to the American fighter force over the previous day became fully evident at this point, as my CAP outnumbered the escorting American fighters three to one.  Most of the Zeroes broke off the dogfight to engage the US bombers and torpedo planes, with the result that the Kaga sustained 60% damage but remained fully battle-ready, and only the Tone was lost.

Meanwhile the invasion force, previously undetected by the Americans, arrived at Midway and commenced the invasion.  The U.S. carriers were too far west to respond immediately, and my own carriers stood between the American Navy and Midway Island.  By 1500, the Japanese troops would overwhelm the defending garrison and claim Midway for the Empire of Japan.

Frank graciously conceded the game once it was clear that the successful invasion was a foregone conclusion.  He still had two carriers - Lexington and Enterprise - but they were each one attack away from sinking.  My own aircraft were seriously depleted, however, so I was only likely to sink one at most before the battleships made short work of my air force.  Nevertheless, we projected the score as follows:

Paul O. - IJN
25  Chit draw at game start
10  Hornet
10  Yorktown
  2  Atlanta
15  Midway invasion
62  Total

Frank H. - USN
  8  Hiryu
10  Yamato
  8  Mutsu
  3  Tone
  2  Sendai
  5  Delay in Midway invasion
36  Total

This was a tremendous game with a lot of firsts for both of us.

  • The chit draw variable order of battle
  • A successful B-17 attack
  • The sinking of the Yamato (for that matter, a full-on air strike on the Yamato group)
  • No carrier air attacks by the Americans until 1700 Thu 4 Jun (due to not having found the Japanese while in range of the carriers)
Frank definitely suffered from being unable to find me for large stretches of the game.  At least twice I was able to execute unanswered air strikes because I'd found him but he had not found me.  The cat and mouse element of the search board is one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking aspects of the game, and in this session it worked well for me.  As we discussed the game afterward, we each identified patterns in the other's movement and search habits, which was a big reason that we lost track of each other's carriers for most of the second day.  (I won't reveal those tendencies here for reasons of operational security in future engagements with other opponents.)  

I do feel, however, that my battle board tactics could bear some improvement.  I did not always exercise good instincts in setting up mutually supporting fields of fire among my AA ships.  On the attack, I frequently agonized over whether to concentrate my strike aircraft on one or two high-value targets (my usual preferred tactic) or to spread out and saturate the air defenses (at the expense of heavy aircraft casualties).  I feel as though I have to re-calculate from scratch how to optimize my deployment, where I think I ought to have better instincts or at least rules of thumb for planning an attack.

We agreed that the variable order of battle is a terrific addition to the game.  I hope to use it from now on.  We also decided that we will incorporate the surface combat rules in our future engagements.  There were several cases where I had light cruisers tailing American carriers like Soviet AGIs, but I would not have been so aggressive if the surface combat rules had been in effect (especially against two battleships).  

We are also interested in exploring some of the other variants that appear in TWGtM:  Leyte Gulf, Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz, and Guadalcanal.


  1. Yes, I had made the mistake of assuming that battleships can take care of themselves. Not necessarily.