This is a review of the latest Steve Cunliffe game, the Fires of Midway. Disclaimer: I was one of the play testers and received my copy of the game for my participation.
This review will focus on the mechanics, the historical feel of the game play and the types of strategic and tactical decisions the players will make. The rules are available on line, and I recommend checking them out if you are at all interested in this game as they will give you a good feel for both the game play and the components.
For a detailed breakdown of what comes with the game, check out this review. I will comment that I find the art ranges from merely functional (in the form of most of the counters) to very good (in the form of the cards, especially the aircraft and carrier cards). In many places, historical photographs are used which enhance the feel of the game. If you are too busy to go look at the other review, I'll just say there is a map, four decks of cards, aircraft and ship cards and a simple map, as well as counters for the ships and for marking damage.
Players start the game by selecting a scenario and laying out the forces each will use. Set up is made easy by the coding on the aircraft cards. They are sorted and labeled by flight group, so if the scenario says the Enterprise gets flight group A you just need to pull those cards labeled "A". A given flight group will be between 7 and 11 aircraft cards, each representing a certain number of aircraft.
This points out one of the strong elements of this game: minimal rulebook reference. Once you've picked the scenario, you can put the rulebook away. Everything else you need is on the cards or on each player's play mat. Let me repeat that: everything you need is on the cards or on one of two reference/play mats. I'll explain how this works in detail later, but let me just say it allows the game play to flow freely with minimal interruption.
Once you've got your forces, you need to set up the map. This is done by laying out all of the Search and Destroy (SD) cards in a grid. Each player in turn looks at two and reveals one of the cards. The effect of the card revealed will be be nothing, adding weather to the map, or adding battle cards to your hand. This continues until all three "Enemy Fleet Spotted" cards are revealed. Whoever revealed the last of these gets a VP and the starting edge, which comes with benefits and some limitations. The random nature of this process insures that few games will begin with exactly the same set up. The game play for this segment involves some element of bluffing, as you will often turn up two good cards at the same time.
Once you've built the map, the SD cards are shuffled to form a deck and the players' carriers are put on the map. I say "carriers", even though each carrier card represents a task force. The designer chose not to include non-carrier ships in the game, a decision I applaud. If there are still enemy carriers afloat, no one would be attacking anything else. If the enemy has no carriers left, he's essentially lost decisively and should be fleeing the field.
This design choice reduces the forces represented to those that are relevant; the aircraft carriers and their squadrons. The relevant quality of the escorting ships, how much AA they can put up, is represented on the carrier/task force card. This feels right historically, and from a game component standpoint is wonderful as you don't have to move around stacks of mostly irrelevant battleships and cruisers. This is a big plus from me and the people with whom I've played the game.
Now the regular cycle of game play starts. Action cards are dealt out, one for each carrier in play. These contain the sequence of action as well as the points each action provides. This is the first decision a player will have to make: how to assign these cards. The action number (ranging from 1 to the number of carriers in the game) determines when a given carrier will act that turn. The lower numbers act first but get fewer points whereas the higher numbers go later but have more points for the chosen action. This is not a huge spread (3 flight points versus 4 and 5 damage control points versus 8) but it isn't trivial.
In the games I've played, I've seen people assign late action numbers to damaged carriers so that they may be repaired a little after the enemy has finished all of his strikes for the turn. I've also seen vulnerable carriers assigned low/early action numbers on the assumption they'll be too hammered to be effective if they were to go later in the turn.
Here's where having the edge, being the "confident" player helps out. Usually, the confident player may swap one of his action cards for one of his enemy's. This is done after they've been assigned to ships, and can really throw a monkey wrench into your plans.
Now, in action card order, each ship will act. A carrier first moves one space on the map if it so chooses, and then picks an action. A carrier that isn't on fire may go to maximum flight ops and launch an attack group of 1-4 aircraft cards. A larger strike group packs a bigger punch but is easier to detect on the way, possibly allowing your opponent to launch intercepting CAP fighters. In another nice historical touch, the Americans roll two dice for detecting incoming strikes (radar) while the Japanese only roll one (MK I eyeball and scout planes).
The striking player determines the distance to the target, which is increased by weather effects and for trying to attack an enemy carrier that is currently not located. He then flips one SD card for each point of distance and counts gas cans. This is compared to the fuel rating of each aircraft and if it equals or exceeds the fuel rating the aircraft is flipped to its "smoking" or vulnerable side.
The incoming strike must then run the gauntlet of any CAP that is orbiting in the target area. This allows two carriers traveling together to protect each other. It also forces the striking player to include a fighter escort, as the CAP gets an extra attack if there are no escorting fighters.
Combat between aircraft is handled by an aerial combat test. Each aircraft has a certain number of battle dice based on whether it's fueled (full strength) or smoking (vulnerable). These dice can be increased or decreased by the play of battle cards by each player. Each player rolls the battle dice and the whoever has the highest single die wins (much like The Hell of Stalingrad's break test). Whoever won the test gets to roll dice based on his aircraft's bullet rating (again possibly modified by the battle cards played). He then selects one of those dice to be applied as damage to the losing aircraft. The damage chart for each aircraft is printed directly on the card, and an aircraft receiving damage may be unaffected (if the winner is unlucky), flipped to it's vulnerable side or destroyed. Since a smoking aircraft can't be flipped again, any effective hit destroys it.
After CAP has done its part, any remaining bombers face off versus a carrier. Just like the aerial combat, each side rolls battle dice and a winner is determined. If the bomber wins, it ignores AA fire and will likely have a better damage table on which to roll. If the carrier wins, it will have a chance to damage or destroy the bomber with AA and it will likely have a safer damage table applied to the bombing attack, assuming the bomber survived.
Attacks on carriers are resolved by flipping up two SD cards. Whoever won the bomber test gets to pick one of the cards to use as the damage table for the aircraft. The tables on the ships consist of no effects, torpedo hits, bomb hits and critical bomb hits. Bomb hits start fires, torpedo hits cause flooding. Critical hits move the carrier closer to sinking. Torpedo hits are automatically critical hits, and flooding is harder to stop than fires are to extinguish so torpedo bombers may seem "better" than dive bombers. However, dive bombers usually roll more damage dice than do torpedo planes so they both have their place.
If any planes get through, especially if they win the bombing test, the target carrier is in serious trouble. The carriers of this period were terribly vulnerable to bombs and torpedoes. Damage in this game is lethal, and it will be a rare carrier that survives more than a few successful bombing or torpedo runs.
An interesting point here is that the carrier damage has been toned down considerably from the original design of the game. The designer includes as supplementary material the "historical" rules which he feels reflects a more realistic approach to various game mechanics. Given how dull a game would be where carriers can't survive more than a single bomb or torpedo, bursting open like an aviation gas filled pinata, I think he made the correct game design decision. After all, you can always play with the historical rules if you like.
After the striking player has had his fun, dropping bombs and launching torpedoes, he has to get home. Every aircraft that is smoking must roll a die and beat the true distance back to its home carrier. If it doesn't, it plops into the sea and is heard from no more. If it rolls a one, it staggers back home only to crash on deck, destroying itself and starting a fire.
In addition to launching strikes, a carrier may instead try and repair damage. Damage control points are applied to extinguish fire and patch leaks. There aren't many DC points available, so a solidly hit carrier is likely to sink despite your best efforts. However, modest damage may be contained, especially on the American carriers which have their historically superior damage control ratings.
After each carrier has acted, there is an admiral phase wherein each player must choose between refilling his battle card hand, recovering and launching CAP or a little extra damage control. This is often one of the hardest decisions of the turn as you really want and often feel like you must do ALL of the options!
After the admiral phase, all carriers with damage counters on them see what happens. Each fire/inferno and leak/flood counter has a number of dice on it. These are totaled and the dice are rolled, with each roll equal to or greater than the damage control rating of the carrier scoring a critical hit. As I noted above, each critical hit moves the structural damage (bulkhead) counter one closer to sinking. Each carrier only has six spaces, so it doesn't take many critical hits to doom a ship.
This is generally harder on the Japanese. There poor damage control ratings mean even a few hits can be crippling. A crippled Japanese carrier is essentially doomed unless enough damage control may be applied to remove all the damage counters. Even just a few fires or one good flood may suffice to send it to the bottom.
After all the damage is applied, victory points for damaged/sunk carriers and destroyed aircraft are totaled. Each player has the choice of withdrawing (with an accompanying VP penalty). If neither player withdraws, and if the VP cap for the scenario hasn't been reached, you play another turn.
So how does it play? I would describe it as fast, smooth and fun. You really never need to pick up the rulebook once you've learned the game (which takes about 10 minutes). It is definitely not a detailed paper simulation of carrier combat, but it does feel true to the era. The longer range of the Japanese aircraft give them options denied the Americans, while the fragility of both Japanese aircraft and ships will claim its due when the dice go against them.
And you will throw a lot of dice playing this game; if that is a drawback for you, look elsewhere. There are so many dice that luck really should even out; judicious use of your battle cards and aircraft should determine the winner, not luck. This is on the lighter end of the complexity scale, but that's a good thing. There aren't many games on this subject, and very few indeed that play this easily. Despite the lightness of the rules, there are a lot of serious decisions for the players to make that will have a substantial influence on the outcome.
I would add if you liked The Hell of Stalingrad, you will probably like this game. Some of the core mechanics are similar, and the use of historical photographs is again very effective at promoting the theme. I think that this game is a superior game to HoS; it offers more play options (4 scenarios plus a campaign game) and I think it does a better job at immersing the players in that which it portrays.
Bottom line: this is a good looking, fun, easy to play game of a unique and somewhat neglected area of WWII combat. If the subject appeals to you, I strongly suggest you give this game consideration for your collection.
BONUS DRINKING GAME:
While watching episodes of the excellent "Dogfight" series, my friend and I noted a certain repetition in the accounts of combat versus the Japanese. While other nations' aircraft would sometimes suffer structural failure or perhaps have a pilot casualty, Japanese aircraft would "explode into flame". This of course was a product of the lightweight design philosophy of Japanese aircraft, eschewing armor and self-sealing fuel tanks in order to save weight. We decided that if one had a drink handy, one must drink if a Japanese aircraft "exploded into flame".
You can do this while playing Fires of Midway, too! The damage cards for aircraft feature a fireball symbol to denote a destroyed aircraft. If a previously undamaged aircraft is destroyed in this fashion, one must take a drink. I recommend all of the "beverages around game table" precautions one would normally take, with an extra level of caution due to the potential for many, many drinks being taken. Enjoy!
The damage cards for aircraft feature a fireball symbol to denote a destroyed aircraft. If a previously undamaged aircraft is destroyed in this fashion, one must take a drink.
Excellent review. This really gives a feel for how the game plays and feels.
Getting very close to "must have"
Thanks for this fine review. Given the fact that the battle manuals, plus Steve's excellent Training Manual are available on BGG (along with this review), potential buyers have all they need for making a decision on whether or not to buy this game.
I was Marstov's Target Thrall for two of these games the other night, and I'd like to add a couple of points and reinforce one.
This game is FUN. You can have the beer and pretzels (or rum & cokes) to hand and still get results in-game that can set off a fun discussion of the WWII Pacific Theater.
U.S. damage control is more effective than the Japanese, and that's reflected not only in a slightly favorable number to roll against to see if various fires (annoying) explode into infernos (glub-glub-glub), but also the ability to re-roll any actual "boom!" results, one time. So if you have better dice luck than I do, you CAN save a seemingly-doomed U.S. CV from Davey Jones.
Startup can be wildly different and lead to wildly different gameplay. Our first game it took us several card flips to find each other, and so we each had a few chances to place weather in zones and add a few cards to our (initially SPARSE) hands. In the second game we found each other effectively immediately, gaining neither weather nor cards.
Once battle was joined in that first game we each had a healthy mittful of cards to play and cards that, when played, gained us more cards. The second game... We each were down to no cards for most of the game, I think. Can't say which is better or if there is a better, but the two games played out very differently.
Note 1: I lost both games as the U.S. - first game was pretty one-sided to the Japanese. Second game was bloody and fiery for both of us, but the Japanese did have a CV left at the end of it.
Note 2: If I remember correctly I did most of my damage in the second game from Midway Island. There is a ton of striking power at Midway, so ignore it at your peril!
- Last edited Mon Aug 16, 2010 7:50 am (Total Number of Edits: 2)
- Posted Mon Aug 16, 2010 7:48 am
Mr Serious Garner.. Thanks for your review.
It confirmed what I suspected.. the game is gonna be great, and I have ordered it already!
I love the HofS, along with other games that have excellent game mechanics and are fun but nicely themed... Warrior Knights, Game of Thrones, Arkham Horror... but WW2 is always my favourite genre.
Steve.. it would be quite easy to use the mechanics of the two card games you have out, and put out one or two supplementary games based on the core rules of HoS and FoM, for those like me who'd love to see the action extend to other WW2 land and naval battles. I guess the real costs is in the cards, and production, so they may end up being not much cheaper than the two existing games... but I'd love to see one on D-Day, Arnhem, Berlin, and ... wait for it... The Battle of Britain?!!!!