HOW TO PLAY A GAME WRONG AND THINK IT SUX
Finally, Fires of Midway arrives in our local store, albeit face down on the bottom rack of the miniature terrain shelf opposite the Eurogames shelf and one aisle over from the rest of the wargames. It's too late to absorb the rules for game night so we plan on playing next week. The next evening I breeze through the rules.
Normally I play through a turn of the game to soldify the rules in my brain, but this plan was interrupted by my discovery that I had left the carrier cards at home. So I hastily drew up the carrier cards for the Santa Cruz scenario based on the pictures in the rules. I did my best to rate the structure ratings of the Japanese CVs, and did pretty well despite undervaluing the Zuiho, Shokaku and Zuikaku by 1 point each (it didn't matter much). As I finish making these carrier cards, Ed and Mark arrive and it's time to play our 3-player game of Fires of Midway: Santa Cruz. I do my best to explain the rules as we go through the sequence of play. As you will later see it was not one of my best efforts!
In our first turn everyone launched strikes. The four waves of Japanese bombers devastated the Americans, with Enterprise sinking and Hornet in bad shape. The two waves of American bombers damaged the Zuikaku and Shokaku but not too badly. The game was a bit disappointing, a bit low on the decision making and excitement level. It was a bit of a dicefest. Despite the drubbing Mark took as the Americans, he was willing to give the game another try. "There must be something we're missing," he said. As we set up for a second game, an old acquaintance drops by, we start chatting. Meanwhile, Mark picks up the rules and starts picking out things I had misinterpreted or had neglected to explain.
For one, I started the second Japanese player with a full set of 9 cards, giving the Japanese side way too many combat cards to start the game with. In this game, combat cards are key to helping you gain a dice advantage.
Next, instead of having each carrier take its complete turn in inititative order, I had all carriers launch, then all carriers resolved their strikes (e.g. carrier 1 launches, carrier 2 launches, etc. now let's resolve all the strikes simultaneously). So, the inferno the Enterprise had inflicted on the Zuikaku should have reduced its strike force but in our game it didn't because we played it wrong. Big mistake!
Then, though I explained the use of combat cards for the CAP dogfights I seemed to have forgotten to use them in the bomber-ship engagements....
The last major thing I forgot was the fact that smoking bombers did not choose their carrier target, rather the carrier chose.
So, after Mark and Ed had a good laugh at my screw-up of explaining the rules, we set up and had another try at the game.
PLAYING THE GAME AS THE DESIGNERS INTENDED AND HAVING MORE FUN
Once again, the Americans gain the edge and swap for the "1" initiative card (now that we realize that initiative really does matter). They move into the low clouds while the Japanese are split up as if performing intricate maneuvers. Junyo and Zuiho move into a squall while Zuikaku and Shokaku move independently on either side of it, in a display of arrogance.
Enterprise strike puts the Shokaku at Step 3 ruptured with 4 infernos. The Hornet strike goes after the Zuikaku but the AA downs both Dauntless squadrons. The Shokaku and Zuikaku launch strikes in return but the range of 5 causes both strikes to be "smoking" (low on fuel) and the few bombers that get through do little damage.
The next turn, the rest of the Japanese fleet move out of the squall and all will attempt to launch, except the Shokaku who is trying to save herself by sailing into the squall and putting out several of the fires onboard.
The American torpedo planes hit well causing 3 floods on the Zuikaku, with the Dauntlesses causing a few more fires. The Junyo and Zuiho strikes can't navigate the range 4 and go in after the Hornet while smoking. All are shot down and only the Zeroes return. However, a strike from the Zuikaku does sneak through the clouds and cripple the Hornet.
Zuikaku explodes and sinks, and the aircrew carnage has been tremendous. The Americans win by exceeding the Intensity threshold of 7. This game was a lot closer and a lot more interesting.
COMMENTS AND A COMPARISON
My favorite game for the carrier battles of 1942 is Solomon Sea, unfortunately long out of print, though you can still find its also OOP predecessor Victory at Midway available at reasonable prices. I bought Fires of Midway with the expectation that it be faster to play and yet provide a reasonably authentic feel to the period. Happily, Fires of Midway fulfilled the first expectation and was much faster, well under two hours to complete the Battle of Santa Cruz, whereas the Solomon Sea version would require at least four hours.
As for the second expectation (historical feel), I judge Fires of Midway to be successful. The hope that your carrier can get off the first strike or at least survive an enemy strike and launch a return blow was captured well in this game. The search procedure with the layout of cards which decide who has the edge as well as providing a build-up of combat cards along with a layout of the terrain is a very clever way to distill a whole lot of rules into a simple procedure. In contrast Solomon Sea is all about maneuvering your forces on a hex map and playing cat-and-mouse until one side discovers the other and then the strikes start rolling. Solomon Sea's way is more fun but time-intensive; Fires of Midway's method is still fun and extremely quick.
Calculating the arrival and return of air strikes using the simple area map is also well done. Counting the range while taking into account clouds and the hidden status of the fleets gives you a distance number. With this number you draw cards, counting the random fuel icons that appear on them which may deplete your strike force. Any low fuel aircraft returning must make a roll based on this distance number also.
Combat is much more involved in Fires of Midway, with competitive dice rolls and card plays made for CAP, and also for bombers vs. carriers. In Solomon Sea, you resolve CAP, AA, then the surviving bombers simply make d10 rolls based on their strength, a "1" means the bombs or torpedoes got through and you have a hit. In a way it's a bit of a dicefest like in Fires of Midway, but the fun is in seeing that rare big hit come through. Fires of Midway does the same, once your bombers get through, the payoff is seeing the chances on the destruction card and rolling up your bomb dice. A nice feature is that two destruction cards are drawn; which one is used is based on is based on who won the bomber dice test. Another thing we noticed was how much the combat cards added to the game. I think they added an element of control, because it was nice to have a chance to shift the odds your way once in awhile.
In Solomon Sea there is no initiative; if you spot the other guy with your search planes then you can launch if you're in range. Fires of Midway does this much faster with its initiative cards, and it's nice that the player with the tactical edge can steal one card from the other side--otherwise initiative would be totally random. When your fleet activates, the choice between launching and repairing (or both if you use battle stations) can be a hard one if your ship is burning. The "getting your strike in first" is important for the feel of the period and I obviously screwed up the first game by misinterpreting the initiative play sequence.
The damage/repair mechanics feel pretty historical in Fires of Midway; you can't bring a crippled carrier all the way back for example. The choices for spending points to repair are a fun part of the game; even deciding if you want to do a partial launch or full repair is another tough choice.
So, overall, I recommend Fires of Midway as a fun quick game on the carrier battles of 1942. I did not research this game too heavily before buying it so I was surprised to find it covered the major battles of the period including Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons as well as Santa Cruz. It was also nice to see the multi-player rules as well as the solitaire rules. There are also a lot of optional rules you can add to adjust the flavor of the game.
If you want something a bit meatier I would recommend finding Solomon Sea or Victory at Midway. However, I suspect while those games are out of print, Fires of Midway will fill the niche for most gamers.
"Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
hey, this was an excellent review with a lot of interesting comments and observations you made along the way. thanks for posting this. I hope you have written more reviews because I like your writing style.
I'm going to check right now...