Michael Eckenfels, 6 April 2020
Arguably, the conflict in the Pacific during World War 2 was one of the more complex campaigns that anyone could attempt to simulate, whether in computer or board game format. Some give such a great amount of detail that it almost slows things down to a crawl, while others are extremely simple and easy to play. Pacific Tide from Compass Games is definitely a simpler simulation of this war, which brings a vast campaign into a manageable and enjoyable format. More importantly, it can be played in one sitting. Even better, it’s not just a two-player game; either side can be played solo too.
The map is point-to-point, depicting the Pacific theater of World War II from Singapore and Japan in the west to the west coast of the United States to the east. Each point is a major location in the Pacific (such as Midway, Wake, and so on), each of which is divided into two spaces – one for the Allied side and one for the Japanese side. Each point on the map is either a location, such as Midway or Wake (which can be owned/captured), and others are sea areas, such as “NW Pacific Basin,” and cannot be captured or owned. The overall design is good, as it does not look too cluttered; the colors are well-balanced and contrasting enough to make its features easily visible at first glance.
The counters represent Fleets (battleships, cruisers, destroyers); CVs (aircraft carriers); infantry; land-based air; naval air; and guerillas. Each such counter has a number on it, usually 1 through 5 – and that’s it. These numbers represent the number of dice rolled in combat, and some units have limitations in what they can attack. For example, infantry and guerillas can only fight other infantry units, CV units cannot attack anything, and so on. The ‘to hit’ number is the same no matter the unit attacking, though in some scenarios or due to certain card plays, units can roll two dice per number instead of one.
The cards, which drive gameplay, look great. The backgrounds have this old distressed map look, and each has a flag watermark in the upper corner that makes it very easy to tell which side they represent. These cards drive each side’s actions and indicate what a player can do in a turn.
Pacific Tide has two scenarios – a Campaign Game, which runs from 1941 to 1945, or Midway, which starts in 1942. At the start of the game, players start with cards labeled for that year (1941 or 1942), and shuffle them into two stacks; the player then selects one stack and starts the year with that, incorporating the other stack when they run out of cards.
On the player’s turn, they select and play a card, which tells them exactly what they can do, such as move units, attack, conduct an amphibious assault, and so on. Each such card is, unless otherwise specified, discarded. Discarded cards can be ‘bought’ again later. Some cards indicate the other player now gets to select and play a card, but in some cases, indicate the player should take another turn and play another card. The function of splitting all cards into two decks and starting with one is interesting, though as you become familiar with the game, you’ll have a good idea of which each side’s cards are available in each year and can plan accordingly.
A player may choose to pass instead of playing a card or must pass if they run out. If both players pass, the year is over, and the next one begins. Players then receive all the cards for that year for free and receive a number of Build Points that they can use to buy discarded or unused cards to add to their deck, before shuffling and splitting them into two decks. The Japanese player can get extra Build Points by controlling the two oil areas in the game – Borneo and Singapore. This bonus only applies to the Japanese player but can make a difference for them.
As you might think, card play is somewhat limiting, in that your choices are limited to what you get in your hand. Unlike most wargames, where you move all your pieces, you’re limited to what you can do – which, while limiting, really adds to the tension. While you want to be everywhere on the map and move everything, you cannot. At least, not all at once. Your decisions are then prioritized and will definitely change as your hand of cards changes.
The overall objective is, of course, controlling key real estate on the game map. The Allied player can win by controlling all locations on the map except for Japan and Okinawa, or if they drop the Atomic Bomb on Japan. The Japanese player can win if he prevents the Allied player from achieving his goals by the end of 1945 and can also win by controlling all their original locations plus the Philippines, Singapore, Borneo, the Aleutians, Wake, and Midway. The Japanese have something of an uphill climb to achieve all these goals.
However, the Japanese player has a lot of advantages at first in the early game, and a wise Japanese player can make these victory goals a reality. Of course, luck has a lot to do with this as well, as card draws drives exactly how you can achieve your goals. Being flexible and making good decisions with the tools you have is really the hallmark of success in this game.
Cards also determine reinforcements, and as you can imagine, the Allied player gets plenty of these later in the game, while the Japanese supply of these dwindles quickly. It can be a bad time for the Japanese player if they lose most of their carrier fleet early in the game, so even while they have an advantage early on, they have to be careful with the risks they take. And even being careful can fail in the face of the other player having better cards in their hand.
While the game is two-player, there are reference sheets that lets you play solo. The reference sheet lets you know the other side’s strategic plan (Aggressive, Balanced, or Defensive, which determines their card play in the coming year). Some options during the year for the ‘bot’ player means needing to make choices on how best to interpret the instructions. For example, the 1941 Annual Priority for Japan says to ‘capture Philippines, Singapore, and Borneo.’ It’s left up to the player to determine how best to pursue these goals, which means splitting up forces and making the best choices you can for them.
Pacific Tide is a terrific, simple-to-play game covering a vast and complicated war, which is playable in 2-4 hours according to the box. In my experience, it takes longer at first (as it does with any game when first learning it, for that matter). The limitations of card play forces the player to make creative choices when it comes to where to move and attack, and what units to build. Timing of this card play is, of course, even more important. Building those shiny new carriers is for naught if the other player is just waiting to pounce with a card to deal with them (or try to, anyway). The game ebbs and flows in general just as the war did historically, but there’s enough flexibility in the system to make it feel like you’re guiding and possibly changing that history.