October 18, 2021

The Chaos of Kido Butai: Japan’s Carriers at Midway (Dr. Richter Konfliktsimulationen, 2016)

RockyMountainNavy, 25 April 2021

Back in my U.S. Navy days when I was deployed aboard an aircraft carrier, I became familiar with the Battlegroup Composite Warfare concept. In this concept, different commanders are each charged to independently fight their warfare domain (surface, sub-surface, air) answerable only to the battlegroup admiral who “commanded by negation”—overriding subordinate commanders only when absolutely necessary. Arguably, the most important of the supporting staff to these commanders was the Air Resource Coordinator (AREC) who was charged with allocating airwing assets. It was a thankless job with every warfare commander demanding priority and never enough assets available to fulfill all the requirements. 

In Kido Butai: Japan’s Carrriers at Midway YOU get to be the AREC for the Imperial Japanese Navy carrier fleet at Midway. This title is a 2016 wargame published by Dr. Richter Konfliktsimulationen (DRK) out of Germany where their motto is, “Make games not war.” Recently, I was able to get a copy of this small solitaire game in a trade and experience playing it.  Kido Butai is a quick-playing, low-complexity wargame that focuses exclusively on Japanese carrier air operations at the Battle of Midway.

“Kiddy Butai” For the Road

I almost want to call Kito Butai “Kiddy Butai” because it is so small. The game ships in an A5 size bag (that’s 5 3/4” x 8 1/4” for us Americans). There are 55 counters used on a small 11 7/8” x 8 1/4” map along with an eight-page double-column digest-size rule book. Of those eight pages, two are front/back matter and another two are example of play meaning the rules only really take up (just over) four pages. My copy also has two pages of clarifications and errata on a single sheet printed in landscape orientation. The player has to provide their own d6. 

IMG 1908
Kido Butai out-of-the-bag (click images to enlarge)

 

This extremely compact package makes Kido Butai a great travel game as it is very easy to throw into a travel bag and lay out on a hotel desk when on a trip. Add to this the fact play time is rated 30-90 minutes (though my games all were between 20-45 minutes) and the travel appeal of this solo game grows even larger.

IMG 1891
“Kiddy Butai” – Small footprint


Going to War

Setup of Kido Butai begins with the solo Japanese player laying out their forces at the bottom of the board. There are boxes for the four carriers and a CAP (Combat Air Patrol) box. At the top of the map is the island of Midway. All four carriers and Midway are double-sided counters with a numerical rating reflecting the number of squadrons that can land there. Each Japanese carrier is assigned a combination of fighters (1x squadron each) and 2-3 attack squadrons (dive bombers on one side, torpedo bomber on the other) depending on the particular carrier. American forces are sorted into three draw cups—carriers, bombers, and fighters—each with a mix of real and “dummy” counters.

Like most solitaire games, the sequence of play in Kido Butai is highly structured. Each turn represents one hour of time and there are a maximum of 16 turns in a game. Each turn consists of three phases.

In the Japanese Phase at the beginning of each Kido Butai turn, every Japanese aircraft squadron (counter) may perform one, and only one, action. These actions are defined but not directly named in the rules. Squadrons can Launch, Fly to their target, Attack, Land, or Ready for their next mission if aboard a carrier. 

Here is where a designer choice in Kido Butai becomes a real play challenge. The Japanese player sits with the board in front of them and their carriers arrayed along the bottom edge. Midway sits near the top edge of the map. The compass rose on the map is oriented with NORTH pointing to the left. Using the rules as written, when planes launch you face them EAST (towards the top of the map). When planes fly to their targets you turn them SOUTH (face right). After the attack you turn the planes WEST (facing towards the bottom of the map). Fighters placed on CAP start facing EAST (up) then after one turn are rotated clockwise (right) to face SOUTH then next turn are rotated again (facing WEST). Fighters on CAP facing WEST must land. If (when?) the American carriers are found, they are placed in the large open map area on the left half of the map, or as the rules say NORTHEAST of Midway (or to the left and down slightly). Although this sequence of facing and relative orientation of forces makes sense on some level the use of compass directions in the rules combined with the non-standard orientation of the compass rose makes learning and executing the sequence a bit confusing at times.

IMG 1909
Every geographer is screaming….

 

The second phase of a Kido Butai turn is the Mutual Reconnaissance Phase. The Americans will find the Japanese fleet on a roll of 5 or 6 on a single d6. The Japanese player will find the American fleet on a roll of 6. This phase is discontinued unless game play reveals the American fleet has split in which case searches for the second fleet must commence.

The last phase of a Kido Butai turn is the American Phase. Beginning on turn three (if the Japanese fleet has been found) the Japanese player will randomly draw chits from the bomber pool. If it is a dummy then no attack occurs. If it is a real bomber drawing continues until a dummy chit is pulled. A similar process is then done for fighters to determine escorts. Once the composition of the force is determined the attack is executed.

Combat in Kito Butai is very simple. Fighters engage CAP first. Surviving fighters/CAP then engage bombers. After air combat a round of anti-aircraft fire is conducted followed by the bombing attack.

Within the simple combat model of Kido Butai is where the little, but important, chrome of the design appears: 

    • When launching bombers, the Japanese player must decide if they are dive bombers or torpedo bombers. Dive bombers can only attack Midway while torpedo bombers can only attack carriers. 
    • When attacking the American fleet the first time, after the first carrier is drawn the dummy carrier counter is thrown into the pool. If it is drawn the remaining carriers form a second fleet that must be located separately from the first.
    • American squadrons that survive combat in the Japanese Phase are placed on the turn track three turns ahead to reflect their own cycle times; American squadrons that fight in the American Phase are placed five turns ahead on the turn track.

Two particular rules in Kido Butai are essential to the game system and historical “accuracy” of the design. Again, they are not specifically named in the rules but I refer to them as “Low CAP” and “unopposed bombers.”

The “Low CAP” rule in Kido Butai occurs in the event of an American attack on the Japanese fleet. At the start of the attack, a single d6 is rolled. If the roll is 1-3 the attackers are torpedo bombers, otherwise it is dive bombers (there are no mixed attacks in Kido Butai). If the attack is by torpedo bombers, any Japanese fighter on CAP that intercepts is placed on their “low CAP” side and must remain in that condition for one turn. This means the “Low CAP” cannot be used against any dive bomber attacks even if airborne while in the “low CAP” condition.

In Kido Butai the “Low CAP” rule is essential to the “unopposed bomber” rule. If Japanese OR American bombers attack a fleet unopposed (be it absence of CAP or when attacking with dive bombers when only “low CAP” is present) any bombers that survive anti-aircraft fire attack with the number of hits being the number of pips rolled, not a single hit if a 5-6 is rolled as in normal attacks.

Chaos into Victory

“The unglamorous truth is that the U.S. Navy, at an operational level, fought much of the morning of 4 June sub-optimally in terms of scouting, flight deck operations, and coordinated delivery of firepower. In the process, they dug themselves into such a hole that success could only be bought at the cost of many aviators lives. Managing to prevail despite those mistakes was a testament to the skill and courage of the Americans. But in a wider view, it cannot be taken as some kind of miracle that three American carriers were able to prevail against four of Japan’s.”

Marshall & Tully, Shattered Sword (Dulles: Potomac Books, 2005, p. 436)

Kido Butai leans heavily on the assumption that American airstrikes at Midway were highly disorganized but they got lucky in the “Miracle at Midway” five minutes. In this game version of the battle, the Japanese player must manage his CAP and strikes to ensure that the aircraft are cycled correctly (bombers to strike Midway, torpedo planes to strike carriers) and they never have only “low CAP” over their own carriers if a strike of American dive bombers arrive. 

Pedantic Problems

With a game this small and as simple as Kido Butai is I expect, and am very ready to accept, a great deal of abstraction. Like when an American strike arrives it is either dive bombers or torpedo bombers but never both. That said, the historian in me cried out in anguish when all the American fighters were simply labeled “Buffalo.” Why is there no love in this game for the F4F Wildcat fighter which was the mainstay of fighter squadrons aboard the US carriers? I also cringed when I saw the American bomber counters with “Dauntless Dive” on one side but “Avenger Torpedo” on the other. I wish the US Navy had TBF Avenger torpedo bombers at Midway but, alas, the fleet was still equipped with the slow, vulnerable TBD-1 Devastator. Neither of these names make a difference in game play, and for many players it likely has no impact on their enjoyment, but for me it upsets my imagination just enough that I have difficulty immersing myself into the game. 

I also wish the map in Kido Butai was laid out differently. I personally would have no problem with the Japanese fleet to the left and American carriers and Midway to the right. A series of boxes showing movement across the map instead of rotating counters could maybe work. A part of me wants to use the map from Fury at Midway (Revolution Games, 2020) as it seems more intuitive.

Finally, the rule book for Kido Butai could use another editing pass. This is not an issue of translation; rather, the rules could use a bit better organization and some additional clarity. For example, Section 8 Victory awards points to the American and Japanese sides but the rules as written mix them up. A simple “American earns victory points by…” and “The Japanese side earns victory points by…” would make this section simpler to understand.

 

Flat Top Fury

Kido Butai provides an interesting comparison to other Battle of Midway games. It is so far smaller in scope than classics like Battleline/Avalon Hill’s Flat Top (1977) in that it totally skips the fleet maneuvers and aircraft searches that form such an essential part of the Flat Top design. In many ways, Kido Butai is a “simplified,” one-sided version of Fury at Midway (Revolution Games, 2020) which focuses on the air operations of both combatants. As such, Kido Butai should not displace either of the other games in a collection but can serve as the short, almost “filler” game easily added to an afternoon or weekend of friendly gaming.

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Fury at Midway (Revolution Games, 2020) aka “Kido Butai Times 2?”

 

Kido Butai, the Little Resource Game

Kido Butai is a very simple game that at heart is a resource management exercise. The sole resource the Japanese player must manage is their aviation squadrons. Every turn, squadrons are assigned to missions with the ultimate goal being to reduce Midway and place bombers over the American fleet without CAP while ensuring that American bombers don’t arrive over the Japanese fleet with only “low CAP.” That’s essentially the entire game. 

If you play wargames to gain historical insight then Kido Butai may be a bit of a disappointment. The game’s focus on recreating the “miracle” events of Midway offers little to no insight into issues such as reconnaissance and scouting or even how the carrier battle fit into the entire Midway invasion plan. But if you are looking for a small, short-playing, easy to learn game where your main goal is to avoid recreating the “Miracle at Midway” situation for the American side then Kido Butai might be your game. Heck, even if avoiding those five minutes is not your concern, Kido Butai is still an excellent travel game that is very portable and assured to give you a short evenings diversion.

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