Armchair Dragoons Reviews Wake Island: A Heroic Defiance from Lock ‘n Load

Michael Eckenfels, 1 July 2020

The battle for Wake Island, coming quickly on the heels of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was fought over a relatively insignificant speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The location had been, before the war, an important refueling stop on Pan American’s long-distance routes across that vast, sun-hammered ocean. However, at the start of 1941, the U.S. built a permanent military facility there, which would be a threat to the Japanese strategy of building a fortified system of islands to hold their gains across the Pacific.

The forces assigned to defend the small atoll were not insignificant; the 1st Marine Defense Battalion with some 450 men, and Marine Corps Fighter Squadron VMF-211 (consisting of 12 F4F-3 Wildcat fighters) were present. Also, there were about 68 U.S. Navy personnel and 1200 civilian workers, as well as about 45 Chamorro (natives of Micronesia, whom worked at the Pan American facility there). Though the force was relatively large, there were not enough men nor equipment (most notably the Marines did not have their air search radars present) to cover the entire island. As war clouds gathered over the Pacific, the U.S. commander, Major P. S. Devereaux, did best with what he had to build up defenses; he did not lie back and assume war would never come.

When the Japanese attack arrived, the U.S. forces, including the civilians, put up a major fight that the Japanese did not expect. The Japanese first wave of attacks was defeated – bloodily so – and required a second attempt, which was reinforced by two fleet carriers (Sōryū and Hiryū) that were returning from their raid on Pearl Harbor. The second attempt was not a failure, and the remaining U.S. forces surrendered in less than a day’s time. However, their surrender did not come without inflicting well over 500 casualties on the invaders, including sinking two destroyers, two patrol boats, destroying 10 aircraft, and damaging another 20.

click images to enlarge

 

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The game created by Lock n’ Load to cover this historic battle is small and tight, but carries with it a wealth of enjoyment. The rule book is short and easily digested, though it could stand a few improvements; the counters are nicely designed as are most of the player aids; and the gameplay is fast and furious.

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COMPONENTS

With one counter sheet, one map, and three Player Aid sheets, the footprint of this game is quite small; the map and Player Aids are 8.5” x 11” to help keep everything well within reach. The counters are clean, tight, and easily identified at a glance; they’re also decent-sized and thick, as well as somewhat rounded on the corners. Those with eye or reading issues will find it easier to view and manipulate these counters. The artwork overall is excellent as it’s not too overwhelming, nor too simplistic.

The main map is made up of 15 ‘invasion site boxes’ (essentially, spaces) and five ‘sea holding areas.’ Only Japanese units may enter sea holding areas, and it is from these areas they attempt to obtain a foothold on Wake Island.

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The rule book is short, coming in at 14 pages; the last four are devoted to Optional Rules, Player Tips, Design Notes, and game credits, so the main rules cover much less real estate. They’re well-organized and clear, though there are some points where the rules could have been made clearer. I will get into that more in the review below. To the rulebook’s credit, though, it does say specifically to NOT read more into the rules than what is presented, and that’s good to remind people to not get too carried away. However, wargamers with experience will probably assume at certain points, which is never a good thing, though clarity is easily enough found.

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The game box itself has terrific artwork and is only 1” thick, making it a great-looking addition to any shelf – not to mention not taking up that much room to boot!

 

GAMEPLAY

The sequence of play is simple and once you get the hang of it, you can move quickly through it each phase of a turn. The flow of the game is, first, both sides move, then air power is resolved, followed by naval combat, and then ground combat. A lot can happen on the map before you even get to the ground combat portion of the game, which I find interesting as air power and naval units both have their own dedicated portion of a turn and aren’t just ancillary or tacked on to ground combat; they have a life of their own which makes them just as important as the ground component.

The air power portion is a lot of fun to simulate.

The air power portion is a lot of fun to simulate. Each side has a limited number of points (or factors) that can be allocated to different missions. The more you dedicate, the more chances there are of them getting destroyed. But, they don’t do any good just sitting on the track unused, especially the Marine air power, as the Japanese can target them for destruction. The Japanese get to go first here, allocating as many land-based bomber points (for the first invasion) or both land-based bomber and carrier points (in the second invasion) as they want to use to attack. What exactly they attack is identified now I think, though the rules don’t specify this. In fact, it’s somewhat unclear as to when exactly the Japanese indicate what their targets are, though I believe it should be now as Marine AA fire happens in a bit, and these attack locations (spaces on Wake Island) may be covered by Marine AA units. The Japanese can also attack the U.S. player’s meager VMF factors directly.

Once the Japanese player has identified targets for air attack and committed their air factors, the U.S. player decides how many of their limited VMF Marine air power points they wish to use to counter the Japanese air attacks, effectively intercepting incoming Japanese air strikes. Once this is resolved, the U.S. player must roll a d6 for each VMF factor committed; on a roll of 6, that factor is eliminated. It seems like it’s long odds to lose a VMF factor with only a 6 needed, but you’d be surprised how often that comes up.

Now, Marine AA units get to fire, but only on Japanese air factors that have targeted Wake Island spaces that contain an AA unit or are adjacent to an AA unit. This is where identifying exact Japanese targets are important as you can’t target Japanese air factors without knowing where they’re attacking, of course. These AA units can put a lot of Japanese air factors out of commission, so careful planning by the U.S. player as to where to place them is essential. It’s also on the Japanese player to maybe decide to strike where the U.S. is weakest instead of strongest. This is but one of the many enjoyable decisions to be made in the game.

Once the Marine AA fire is complete, surviving Japanese air factors get to attack. The rules specify here that the Japanese player now gets to select exactly where their air factors attack, which again, does not make a lot of sense. It’s not that big a deal though as you may come to the same conclusion I did when playing the game.

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After air power is resolved, the naval phase starts. First, the U.S. player may fire its three 5-inch batteries on Wake Island in an attempt to reduce the Japanese Naval factors. The Japanese start each invasion with 14 such factors, but if they are reduced to four or fewer, the Japanese are forced to withdraw. If this happens in the first invasion, the Japanese withdraw and set up for the second invasion. If this happens during the second invasion, the game is over and victory is determined. In any case, these 5-inch guns the Marines have can be deadly against the Japanese, as they were historically, so it’s on the Japanese player to try to take these out as quickly as possible.

Next, surviving Japanese Naval factors get to bombard Wake Island. They can attack Wake Island spaces with U.S. units in them or attack the Marines’ VMF air factors directly. In either case, it can be a bloodbath to this point. However, only the first four turns of each of the two invasions can have Japanese naval fire occur.

After naval power is resolved, the ground combat begins. The Japanese are equipped with several very capable SNLF (Special Naval Landing Force, their Marine equivalent) units, though not nearly as many as they’d like, no doubt. The 4th SNLF is the force they have to attack for the first invasion, and the 2nd SNLF for the second invasion. Surviving 4th SNLF units from the first invasion (if repelled) can be used in the second invasion. There’s also six DD (destroyer) infantry units represented in the game – the Japanese player has six DD units that can be ‘beached’ on the reef surrounding Wake, allowing one DD infantry unit to join the fray. This comes at a cost, though, in the form of losing one Naval factor for each DD infantry unit so released. While this can give the Japanese player much-needed reinforcements to overwhelm the Marines, it can also spell their doom fairly quickly when their Naval factor numbers plummet. It’s a balance, not to mention luck, in deciding how best to use (or not use) this possibility.

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Ground combat – in fact, all combat – is resolved in a very interesting way. If you’re a wargaming veteran you’re used to the CRT (Combat Results Table), right? When you look at this CRT, you immediately start thinking how you’re going to need to calculate ratios/combat odds to determine what column to roll upon, and all that fun stuff.

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Well, that’s not the case here. You simply total the number of attacking combat factors, find the right column, then roll. You apply modifiers as needed to the die roll (as you can see in the above image), and this nets the resulting losses suffered. The interesting part is there’s no odds calculation nor combat ratio to determine – it’s all about the attacking combat factors. What’s more is, naval combat, air power combat, or ground combat, it all uses the same CRT table, pictured above.

That might not seem terribly realistic for some, but for me it’s outstanding because it’s simple, clean, and allows you to make the best choices when it comes to allocating attacks. Since each column has a spread of two (e.g., 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, etc.), you can min-max things which could be seen as a little cheesy, but in the spirit of this particular game, it works well.

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As mentioned earlier, the Japanese can conduct two invasions, the second occurring if the first fails because of too many Naval factors lost. If the Japanese can control 10 spaces on Wake Island before they lose too many Naval factors, they win. If they lose the naval factors and must withdraw, therefore triggering a second invasion, in that second invasion they must instead control 12 spaces on Wake before their naval factors get too low.

Victory for the Japanese is represented by the above two conditions, whereas for the Marines, Victory Points are calculated. The rules do not specify when this is calculated, so I’ve house ruled that this happens in the Administration Phase, which is the last phase of every turn. From reading the rules, it seems that VPs are calculated at the end of the game, but there’s some things that have to be tracked during the game. For example, each turn any Marine unit survives is one VP for each such unit, to a maximum of 20. Also, each SNLF or DD infantry unit eliminated is one more VP for each, to a max of 24 (nine for each SNLF group, for a total of 18, and then six more for each of the six DD infantry units). While clear, it can be confusing as there’s only one VP marker for the U.S. player, whereas there should really be two – one to track Marine survivors and one to track destroyed Japanese infantry units. This way, both can be combined and the maximums can be seen at a glance, rather than trying to remember or having to write it down on a separate piece of paper (which removes the purpose of a Victory Point track in the first place).

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CONCLUSION

The negatives I’ve written of above are very minor compared to the overall game. It’s quite simple to figure things out (it’s your game after all, do as you will) and very logical…to me, at least. This is unlike some games where rules cause utter confusion and dismay as to what to do next. One of the best parts of this rule book says to not read anything into the rules, they say what they mean. But wargamers being wargamers, we’re going to do that I think. For example, one person indicated on BoardGameGeek that they’d been calculating combat odds by dividing attacker strength by defender strength, a perfectly natural thing for a wargamer to do, though this is not specified at all in the rules. Like it says, don’t read things into the rules that are not there. I’ve had to do just that, though, as indicated above, but they were definitely not anything close to being a deal-breaker or in any way lessened my enjoyment of this game.

It’s very playable solitaire, as there’s no hidden information and the objectives for both sides are straightforward. Doing so is a great exercise to practicing the best tactics for when you do have another player to go up against (if that’s even a thing, pfft).

Overall, this is a very fun, easy-to-play game for both solo and two-player gamers, on a subject that does not have a lot of games (four total, including this one, on BGG that I was able to find) covering the subject. If you have an interest in the Pacific War and an Alamo-like scenario, you will very likely greatly enjoy this game, too.

 


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Armchair Dragoons Reviews Wake Island: A Heroic Defiance from Lock ‘n Load

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