Sunday, March 30, 2008

Carriers at War


Early Morning, June 4th, 1942

Seaplanes fill the air.

8:40 A seaplane from Midway spots a Japanese carrier group, a heavy and light carrier escorted by an unknown number of cruisers and destroyers, but is this the main group that US codebreakers have been warned about?


Midway command thinks so, for the next 20 minutes the Japanese TF comes under air attack. Heavy fighter cover and AA claims a heavy toll, the CAP accounts for 14 kills and 7 damaged, the AA damages 4 before the US fighters disengage, without a single successful strike.


A Search plane from Zuiho has detected a large US carrier force, 4 carriers. A strike is debated, but there is no way that the planes would arrive before sundown, and the smaller northern force cannot risk its air assets in a dusk strike, and even more dangerous, a nighttime landing.

June 5th


Dawn brings a strike at the Jap seaplane force anchored at Neva shoal....but not before the US carriers are revealed. Nagumo makes a fateful decision, to launch his full strike from the southern carrier force, but at 420nm it would remove 70 dive bombers to wait for his planes to form up, it will not be a cohesive strike.


Just as planes are leaving the Jap main striking force to the south and east of midway, a searchplane is spotted overhead. But it is too late to recall the fighters for CAP duty, the entire strike has been sent to attack the US Carrier force.


The Jap bombardment force, has snuck past the patrols, Midway is under fire, and the carriers Saratoga and Wasp are under attack, with planes on deck! Nimitz is obviously preparing to strike Nagumo's main force.


Yorktown is also attacked, but its planes are up, taking a toll on the strike. At the worst possible time, Jap planes spot Hornet and Enterprise, bombs away! Wasp and Saratoga soon fall victim as well.

The toll, 21 planes downed, 29 damaged...but in return, 3 hits on Saratoga(presumed sunk), 1 on Hornet(burning), the CA Indianapolis also took a hit, but was still under control. Wasp and Enterprise both take 3 hits, and Yorktown takes 4, all three are presumed sunk by the Nagumo's pilots.

The Bombardment force however does not escape unscathed, by 14:45 the Mogami is sunk and all cruiser are damaged, with Suzuya on fire.

Near dusk a strike from the northern striking force reserve goes in. No American carriers are observed still afloat.

June 6

Dawn brings new sightings by the Northern force, now NNE of Midway, only 280nm from American battleships trying to flee.

Confident that the US carriers destroyed, Nagumo launches a full strike against midway from the SE, near Raita bank to relieve the pressure from the invasion force.


A full strike by the Northern force hits home, savaging the American cruisers and destroyers.

June 7

It's all over except the cleanup. The invasion force ships have taken a mauling, but Nagumo takes his carrier striking force in to support them with fighters from his carriers. And before the day is over, Midway is denuded of fighters, and Jap marines are supported by heavy air cover.

After The Battle

Intelligence for the IJN reports 20 US ships sunk.

9 CA – Pensacola, New Orleans, Vincennes, Minneapolis, Portland, San Fransisco, Salt Lake City, Chester, Augusta.

3 DD – Anderson, Clark, Plunkett

1 BB – South Dakota

2 AV – Thornton and Ballard

5 CV – Enterprise, Hornet, Yorktown, Saratoga, and Wasp

They also report 293 Naval Aircraft destroyed along with 111 land aircraft

The IJN has lost 11 ships

4 CA – Mogami, Mikuma, Cuzukya, Kumano

4 TR

1 DD – Hayashio

2 AV

Carrier casualties include 101 Naval Aircraft lost, most in that first disorganized strike that eliminated the US carriers.

For another 2 years, the IJN will reign supreme with air superiority over the Pacific until the Essex class carriers come on line. Nagumo, with Midway behind him, now sets his sights on Pearl, and nothing is going to stop him.

Or that's how it could have gone.

Carriers at War published by Matrix games, this naval simulation recreates the major naval battles of the Pacific theater of war, with plenty of variants and possibilities, it's enough to keep you well entertained. The above AAR was from a random Midway variant, giving the US a substantially larger carrier force than was historically present. Of course, it didn't do them that much good.

The look is very much old school, but pleasant, I'm reminded of a real time version of PTO, except on a more intimate scale. There's no production here, just your carriers and the enemy, and a whole lot of ships, bombs, and torpedoes with somebody's name on it.

The first principle of carrier warfare, is to get in the first strike, as hard as you can with as much as you can before they strike back. And that's apparent in this game, a lucky search plane can turn the tide of the battle, and don't think that all the battles come out as easy as this particular AAR. I actually played through twice, the first time forgetting to take screenshots(Doh!), the first time came out much closer, with an American carrier strike launched at my main carrier force at about the same time as I launched, leaving me with 4 of my 5 large carriers sunk, and further air operations reliant on my light carriers in the northern force.

This is a game where minutes count, and wisely they have a 5 minute count option, not to mention uninterrupted running for the long nights. So I have to say that the AI is adequate, make a mistake and let your carriers come too close without a CAP and expect to get slaughtered, because even a minor mistake that costs you a carrier can turn the battle. On the other hand, don't expect any dazzling tactics from the AI, it strikes hard, and strikes fast, but has a bit of tunnel vision, going after the enemy it can see instead of the enemy it knows should be out there.

Playability, well it's not a very steep learning curve in my opinion. The controls are very intuitive, left click to select, right to order a move, or else select an option from the dropdown menu. Your options are a bit limited by the scale, and that's good for the most part, since you don't have to worry about the minor details. In fact the best way to learn is to play through a game or two. Set your search rosettes, order about your task forces, and learn the value of cloud cover and a CAP(combat air patrol) the first time an enemy strike blasts your carriers out of the water. Or if you're lucky, you can deliberate over the difficult choice of striking as soon as you spot an enemy force, or waiting to get closer(at extended range your planes will have only a fraction of their maximum payload). To leave your planes below decks until the strike, or to arm them beforehand and leave thousands of tons of live ordnance up on your decks for an enemy strike to ignite. To send your fighters in armed with bombs or to have them fly escort. To take the time that you may not have and send them in as a cohesive strike, or let them fend for themselves, winging their way towards destruction as soon as they clear the decks? Once you send your strike off to that suspected enemy contact all you can do is hope and pray, as your brave little simulated pilots dive towards victory or death. Once there your pilots will select their own targets and report back(which can either be accurate or not depending on your options) on their suspected kills. But be warned, I've lost more than one game to an enemy carrier force that I thought sunk, so it's up to you to try and get your ships back under cover of a squall or storm while your planes rearm.

On the other hand, this abstraction and hands off approach does have a few downsides. Your surface fleet fights in much the same way, you tell your fleet elements to get closer or further away and select a main group of targets for their guns and that's it. You get a few seconds of explosions and that's it. This however, doesn't happen that often to begin with, so it might be forgiven, the only time I actually had a surface engagement was when my ships and the enemy's tried to use the same squall as cover during the night and more or less ran into each other. Other times one side or the other would usually see the odds and be able to retreat.

Also, your taskgroups are relatively fixed, you can dispatch a ship to retreat or scuttle it, but other than that you are unable to split or combine TG's. Something which is especially useful as Japan who tend to have all their carriers in a single large TG, making it very vulnerable, whereas until the late war the US nearly had a TG for every carrier, making it a bit slow to coordinate strikes. Of course, in my opinion this can be forgiven due to the creator's wish to avoid ahistorical hindsight tactics, but it still would have been a nice feature.

In addition, you'll eventually get tired of the same plane attacking random ship/plane shot down by CAP/AA, and ship showing damage(signified by a fire and estimation of its health) animations, and be ready to just see the results. So be warned that this isn't a showy game. Speaking of planes, I would have liked a little more detail on the search plane routes, the rosette is user friendly, but I wouldn't have minded being able to modify the standard search pattern or order additional planes out. And part of the abstraction is the need for your carriers to more or less stay in one place once planes are launched, I seem to recall the Japanese coordinating rendezvous points so that their carriers didn't have to remain stationary(correct me if I'm wrong however, since this is from half remembered history courses taken awhile back). So the ability to estimate and place a landing/retrieval point would have been nice.

Another thing that history doesn't exactly give us, is balance. There are playing one side or another will be decidedly easier depending on the scenario, shifting from Japan to the US respectively. Though the variants do a good job at providing alternate orders of battle(Playing as the US at Midway in the historical scenario for example or as Japan in the Philippine Sea scenarios, you realize how desperate the situation can be, outnumbered, outgunned and outpositioned, but not out of the fight). Fortunately, it ships with a very functional editor, and if you wish you could create scenarios to your heart's content.

The one thing I would have liked, is a way to tie the scenarios together in a campaign. Though I'm sure that'd be difficult given how ahistorical things can get if one side gets in a lucky strike. Imagine the US carriers wiped out at Pearl, the entire war would have changed, not just the order of battle for the next mission. So I can understand why it's presented the way it is, with the main battles(Though conspicuous in it's absence is Leyte Gulf, which is surprising, it would have been interesting to replay the harrowing trial of Taffy 3) and variant scenarios.

Now, the pricetag, at about $50 I found it a bit on the pricey side. For $50 you can get a new cutting edge, graphics out the wazoo, computer game, or an epic, down to the last faulty instrument panel on that plane sort of game, and this isn't an epic, battles usually take between half an hour to an hour if you play like I do, but it does what it needs to. Provide some real good edge of your seat tension, which is all too often missing from a strategic wargame. This feels like a beer and chips game, one that you don't have to devote a whole night playing, and it doesn't require a degree in logistics and a MENSA membership to enjoy the heck out of it.

The question however, is it worth the money when other independent games usually tend to run about twenty bucks less. Well, when I first started playing and realized the limits to my options I was almost ready to say no, but then I kept playing, and kept playing, and kept playing. I was hooked, an hour free here, an hour free there, in fact I was even dreaming about search rosettes and torpedo strikes for a few days! And now after a week or so of buying it, I'm convinced that I got my money's worth, because I know I'm going to keep on playing. I do feel that a more detail oriented grognard may be disappointed, but if you want a fun carrier game that doesn't take forever, then this is a good buy.

No comments: