May 22, 2024

Ameritrash Expressions with Task Force: Carrier Battles in the Pacific (Vuca Simulations, 2023)

RockyMountainNavy, 14 March 2023

In “Ponderings of a Metropolitan Elite Wargamer…” published right here on The Armchair Dragoons, I responded to the article “Wargames: simulation or stimulation” by James Buckley and found in C3i Magazine Nr. 36. James took up the issue of how we (hobby wargamers) express ourselves and how we need to drop our pretentious attitude that wargames simulate history.
As James writes, “The games don’t need to change. Just how we express them…I’m not saying the single acts of toning down the scientification [sic] of our hobby will massively reduce the barriers to entry into wargaming…But…it might help a bit.” 

With that thought in mind, I’m going to look at a new wargame historical conflict game that entered my collection, Task Force: Carrier Battles in the Pacific designed by Genichiro Suzuki from Japan and published by European publisher VUCA Simulations (“Engineered in Germany”) in 2023. Task Force is a highly thematic fighting competition game that is well positioned to be the modern successor to that grognard-legend Ameritrash title, Flat Top (Battleline, 1976) from more than two decades before Eurogames graced the shores of the wayward colonies. Task Force is played on a Hexagon Grid and uses Hidden Movement, Die-Rolling on Combat Results Tables, and Worker Placement to create a playable narrative of nautical fighting competition between two imperialistic powers in the dark days of the mid-20th Century.

 

[Insert Obligatory Warmonger History Lesson Here]

At the risk of offending those gamers who don’t want from hear an academic discourse from an amateur historian (though my undergrad actually is in History), I bring your attention to the writings of Captain Wayne Hughes Jr., USN (Ret,) and his seminal text Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (Third Edition, Naval Institute Press, 2018) where he discusses carriers battles of World War II this way:

So in carrier battles, the crucial ingredients were scouting effectiveness and net striking power. Scouting effectiveness came from many sources: raw search capability, including organic and land-based reconnaissance; submarine pickets; intelligence of every kind; all enemy efforts to evade detection; and, not to be overlooked, the planning skill of the commander and supporting staff. Net striking power was made up of raw numbers of attacking bombers and fighter escorts, reduced by the active and passive defenses and the relative quality of material and personnel on both sides. (Hughes, p. 84)

 

Hidden Movement, Combat Results Tables, and Worker Placement

Task Force is, quite literally, a wargame historical conflict game that uses Eurogame-inspired game mechanisms to depict (BoardGameGeek says “simulate”) those two crucial ingredients identified by CAPT Hughes, scouting effectiveness and net striking power, in a very grognard-friendly package that even Spielfreaks can enjoy. The use of Hidden Movement in Task Force allows players (solo or two-player, though teams may be accommodated and no particular gender or other identity is required) to seek out their opponents units. Once they are found, the fighting competition between the two sides is resolved through the use of Die-Rolling on Combat Results Tables which delivers that aura of net striking power. I will also add a third game mechanism here because it seems like every “trashy” historical conflict game covering kinetic nautical competition in the mid-20th Century has it included: worker placement for managing your aircraft. 

 

Reconissnce Reconnosance Looking for My Opponent

Task Force uses Hidden Movement to create an imperfect information game to challenge players. Further, instead of placing aircraft on the game board to scout for the enemy, those searches are abstracted through the use of a Chit-Pull mechanism to determine the results of your search (i.e. scouting effectiveness). For the rules lawyers out there, the rules for Reconnaissance are in rule 4.4 Reconnaissance Phase. In this phase, players place Recon chits against enemy task force (TF) counters in an effort to “spot” the enemy. What these chits represent is never fully explained—it is hoped that the player’s imagination can be stimulated into imagining what they could be! The Recon rules themselves are highly abstracted; some might even call them “gamey” in a fashion because of the lack of detail:

    • Search range is generally 8 hexes from aircraft carriers (CV) or land bases
    • Each CV usually can place 2 Recon chits (IJN can only place one in Midway and earlier battles)
    • There are special scenario rules for different recon situations, such as scenario rule 6.5.2 “USN Night reconnaissance at Midway” or scenario rule 9.5.2 where the Royal Navy gets free searches based on prior intelligence
    • Submarines do not appear until scenario rule 12.4.4 and act as a face-up task force for purposes of reconnaissance.

The advantage of the abstraction of reconnaissance in Task Force two-players play a very interesting “hide-n-seek” game without the need to play double-blind; that is, with two boards and a referee (though scenario rule 12.4 “Blind Games” gives players just that option). The search game of Task Force, though abstract, delivers on creating a tense cat-n-mouse game for the players the will undoubtably drive players to act on another of CAPT Hughes’ “Great Constants” of “attack effectively first.” (Hughes, 195)

click images to enlarge

IMG 3772
Search board 

 

Competition Resolution Tables

Without designer notes to reference it is difficult to be certain but from all appearances the carrier strike power in Task Force is highly reflective of the belief of professional naval officers of that time that one air wing strike could sink an enemy aircraft carrier. As related by Captain Hughes:

It may be inferred by reading the views of naval aviators at the time that they believed a carrier air wing would sink more than one enemy carrier on average. It is pretty clear that U.S. aviators thought the thirty-six dive-bombers and eighteen torpedo-bombers that constituted an air wing at the outset of the war could sink or put out of action (i.e. , achieve a “firepower kill” on) several carriers with a single cohesive strike. They estimated the enemy could do the same. They were so obsessed with the need to get at the enemy first, and we need not accept their optimism to see the enormous advantage of striking first. (Hughes, 85)

It is interesting to compare Task Force to the next section of Hughes. Indeed, at the risk of framing Task Force as a pseudo-scientific endeavor, the game almost looks like it was tailor-fit to demonstrate the validity of Hughes’ Salvo Equation Model. (Hughes 86)

    • “The carrier-air-wing effectiveness of every carrier on either side was equivalent.”
      There are no rules for pilot quality or the like in Task Force; strike aircraft have slight differentiation in firepower only.
    • “The defensive features of every carrier and its escorts on either side were equivalent.”
      A Carrier Fleet in Task Force consists of a single aircraft carrier and four “slots” for anti-aircraft protection.
    • “Japanese carriers that are physically separated should be counted. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, they serve as decoys and absorbed U.S. attention and air assets.”
      Each Carrier Fleet in Task Force can consist of one aircraft carrier, though multiple task forces can be stacked together in the same hex.

Resolving competition in Task Force requires the use of one of the oldest, maybe least original game mechanism that those metropolitan elite grognards just can’t seem to get rid of, a Combat Results Table. On the positive side, the maths required here are only addition or subtraction; the use of ratios requiring simple division is very limited in Task Force. Die rolling is required using six-sided dice (provided in suitable colors for each player).

IMG 3775
CRT (but on thick cardstock)

 

In a strike, after the Raiders fight Interceptors and the ships get a chance to defend themselves, the remaining raiders SUM their combat power and then, after applying a few, not very fiddly die modifiers that will add or subtract to the die roll, read across the CRT to get a number of hits. Those hits are applied against the Durability of the ships and, when sufficient hits are scored, the ship is reduced in the actions it is allowed to do or removed from the playing board altogether.

Players of Task Force should be happy that the simple competition resolution mechanism makes figuring out the optimal strategy very straight-forward. An air strike aviation intervention from a carrier consisting of four units (assuming 3x bombers with 1x fighter escort which is the maximum one can have “Ready”) will almost certainly cause at least Significant Damage which, in game terms, means there is a 5 in 6 chance that the carrier cannot launch or land aircraft and will withdraw from the battle (rules lawyers see 3.5.5 Flight Deck / Airway Damage). That same strike is very likely to be able to score Critical Damage which reduces Firepower and Anti-Air Defense to 0 in addition to forbidding all air operations and forcing a withdraw from the battle. When the Amplified Damage rule (3.5.4. for the lawyers again) for loaded aircraft in the Ready section to add damage when a carrier is hit is also considered it becomes likely that the carrier will be sunk moved to the game box outright. While that sounds pseudo-scientific, the die rolling reminds players that this is just a game and not a simulation.

 

Aircraft Worker Placement

It seems to me that you can’t have a carrier competition game these days without having some sort of flight deck display tableau. To reflect the management of your aircraft players use a form of the worker placement mechanism. Sound crazy? Think about it…

IMG 3779
Worker placement tableau

 

Aircraft carriers can store a certain number of workers (aircraft). There are two major types of workers, Fighters and Bombers (with two further sub-types of Dive Bombers and Torpedo Bombers). Every turn, players can move their workers to various locations on their carrier tableau from which they can perform certain actions. Workers in the “Reserve” are recovering from previous actions. Players can move a limited number of workers to “Ready” from which they can then send on a “Raid” to kinetically interact with an enemy or to “CAP” which is a position from which they contribute to the defense of their home (carrier). When returning from a Raid the workers “Land” before moving to “Reserve” and thence on to more missions to gain (or prevent the loss of) victory points. 

——

Some Amateur Academic Discourse – Wargaming Flight Decks

As an aside, the amateur historian in me became interested in trying to figure out where the rules for flight deck operations in wargames possibly came from. Avalon Hill’s Midway from 1964 has a very crude version of aircraft readiness rules in them, but by the time Flat Top (Battleline, 1976) the worker placement-like the rules were fully formed. I wonder if popular history books on the Battle of Midway like Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory (1967) that emphasize Nagumo’s hesitancy to rearm the Midway strike aircraft and the subsequent belief that the U.S. dive bombers fell on the Kido Butai as they were rearming influenced the design of the later wargame. As I worked my way back through time in my library of books, I came across this line in Battle Report Series Volume III: BATTLE REPORT – Pacific War: Middle Phase which was “Prepared from Official Sources by Captain Walter Karig, USNR and Commander Eric Purdon, USNR” and published by Rinehart and Company of New York in 1947: “As the Japanese started to take off, our first bomb exploded in the midst of the planes assembled on deck, turning the flight deck into a mass of flames.” (p. 46). A bit later the book talks of victory at Midway, but in somewhat dark tones: 

Maybe history will record June 4, 1942, as the day the United States Navy decided the fate of the Pacific War. In years to come (atomic science permitting) strategists and students of naval warfare will read and reread the official reports, will argue possibilities and potentialities, discuss the pro and con of orders rendered and action taken, as indeed they have debated all decisive engagements of history. (p. 52) 

Don’t forget gamers! Well, at least the grognards…

Just as interesting, the 1936 Maneuver Rules used by the U.S. Naval War College (see Curry, J., & Carlson, C. (2019). United States Naval War College 1936 Wargame Rules: USN Wargaming before WWII Volume 1. LULU COM) have these two rules of relevance under “Section J. Aircraft, General Rules for Airplanes” that show rules for flight deck operations were part of carrier wargames even before the war:

    • Rule J-4 a) “As the space on carriers is limited, players must at all times be prepared to inform the Director as to the location on board of all airplanes, the order in which they are “spotted” on the flight deck or in the hanger, whether any have their wings folded, and which are disassembled. They will also keep record of the fuel in the airplanes and on board, and make proper time allowances for the movement of airplanes between he flight deck and hanger, for warming up, take-off, landing, reserving, checking, etc.”
    • Rule J-7 a) “After completing one flight, airplanes may not make a subsequent flight until sufficient time has elapsed for re-fueling, re-arming or checking, in accordance with the following rules. Re-servicing times indicated include times necessary for take-off and landing, except in the case of carriers.” (Take-off/Landing times are found in rule J-4 l).

——

Rule Book for Lawyers

Rules lawyers will very likely enjoy the written materials for Task Force. Both the rule book and scenario book use a classic Ameritrash wargame numbered paragraph (“case notation”) system. However, the books use artwork and graphical layout elements that are evocative of the historical times which assists players in immersing themselves into their roles.

IMG 3762
Like you were there…

 

Euro-ized Ameritrash

Unlike many Ameritrash-inspired historical conflict games, Task Force features components that make a valiant, very Eurogame-ish effort to bring pleasing aesthetics to your gaming table. The multiple mounted game boards have a nice linen finish and the counters, though thick cardboard and not made of wood or in three-dimensions, have a similar linen finish and separate from the sprue with smartly rounded corners. The use of both English and Japanese ship names in a nice nod to the lineage of the game which originated from Japan. If the components of this already hefty game were to be improved upon, it would probably be through the use of wooden blocks for task forces on the board. These blocks would allow players to easily see real and dummy task forces without having to inspect the face-down chits in game using the Rules As Written.

IMG 3770
Rounded corners? But it’s a WARGAME!

 

A Playable Pseudo-Scientific Endeavor

At this point, I am sure some critics are out there accusing me of confusing elegant game mechanisms with clumsy pseudo-scientific endeavors. But that’s the whole point, yes? Task Force is a boardgame that uses a collection of classic — “tried and true” — wargame mechanisms to thematically portray a battle from nearly 80 years past. It is absolutely impossible to “recreate” the conditions or even to “simulate” them with “accuracy” yet retain playability. Instead, Task Force abstracts real-world combat using several tried but true game mechanisms to give us a game that emphasizes the hunt for the enemy, managing your air assets, and a quick-to-play combat resolution system packaged with the highest quality components.

IMG 3780
Too thick to be a real wargame…

 

Spotify This

I’m told all the cool games these days ship with a Spotify list. While these tracks can likely be found on Spotify for the more age-challenged gamers out there I recommend the Victory at Sea soundtrack, in particular “Theme of the Fast Carriers.” For the YouTube crowd of gamers I recommend watching the complete Victory at Sea episode 4 “Midway is East” (Viewer Discretion is Advised – Trigger warnings for violence, jingoistic language, unbalanced viewpoint, cheesy special effects, and not colorized).  

 


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IF YOU ENCOUNTER A COUNTER CASTING A HEX IN A HEX
AND YOU COUNTER THE HEX WITH A COUNTER-HEX IN THAT HEX DURING THE ENCOUNTER,
AND YOU HAVE TO COUNT HOW MANY HEXES ARE IN THE HEX DURING THE ENCOUNTER
ARE YOU PLAYING A HEX-AND-COUNTER WARGAME?

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