Friday, September 19, 2008

Raging Marines

Monday night Mike and I finally got back to our regular weeknight gaming, and it was my choice.

At WBC, I picked up a copy of Multiman's first Operations Special Issue. It comes with a boatload of stuff, and one of the two featured inclusions is Iwo Jima: Rage Against the Marines.

This is a small, area movement game with a few interesting features. It covers the US invasion of the island of Iwo Jima. The home Joe Rosenthal's famous and controversial photograph of six Marines raising an American Flag on the island. What most people don't know is that happened on day 3, while the battle for the island continued for nearly another month. I believe this is still the most reproduced photograph in history.

Anyway, part of the reason the battle for the island took so long was the fact the Japanese were hiding in caves, and the US forces had a heck of a time finding them and then rooting them out. Any game covering this conflict MUST recreate these issues or it just doesn't work as a game. IJ:RatM does this rather well.

The obvious feature of the game is that it has two maps. There's the primary map of the island, then a smaller version of the map that's hidden behind a screen. You can sort of see this in use in this image. The Japanese deploy their units on the hidden map, revealing them throughout the game for a variety of reasons. Once revealed, some units can re-hide themselves, and hidden movement is also possible. This does a great job of recreating the "where the heck are they?" feeling the US troops had.

The American goal for the game is to take the four airfield areas in the middle of the island. They get 2VP at the end of every turn they hold the four airfield areas, with a bonus of 2VP if they hold both areas of the large airfield. The Americans also get a random number of VPs for raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi. This reflects the reason for the invasion – obtaining a forward airbase for bombing Japan. The flag raising is a bit of PR boost reflected in the VP bonus.

The Japanese goals are a bit more basic. Survive, keep the island, and eliminate as many invading Marines as possible. So, they get 1VP for every American step lost, 1VP for every unit that survives the game, 5VP if the HQ unit survives, and 3VP for every one of the 21 spaces on the board that is still controlled by Japan at the end of the nine-turn game. There's also a 10VP boost if the US 3rd Division enter play anywhere but at a beachhead, but that's not something that was in play in our game.

If either side hits 40 VPs during the game, it's an immediate victory. Otherwise, most VPs wins.

The turn sequence is a pretty basic Igo-Ugo system:
  1. Weather – can reduce aircraft available for bombardment.
  2. US Reset – restores units for use.
  3. US Recovery – US can replenish one step in a beachhead area.
  4. US Bombardment – air, naval, and unit bombardment of area islands.
  5. US Movement – this includes Japanese defensive fire. Japanese units co-located with US units at the end of this phase are revealed.
  6. US Assault – close combat.
  7. Control Determination – if areas are now solely occupied by a single side, they're controlled.
  8. Construction – Place Beachhead and “Safe To Land” markers, and flag raising.
  9. Japanese Reset – all Japanese phases are as for US.
  10. Japanese Bombardment
  11. Japanese Movement
  12. Japanese Assault
  13. Control Determination
  14. End Phase – check for game end.
There's only 20-some counters for each side, so the turns go relatively quickly. We took just over 90 minutes for our play, but I could easily see this being a 1 hour game with any experience at all.

The Japanese set up their units on the hidden map, and also 21 cave counters. These can be distributed in any fashion, with no more than 2 in any area. They make it much harder to dislodge Japanese units. The US must then move their units onto the map in landings.

The basic flow of the game goes as you'd expect. The US bombards critical areas, moves in and tries to take them over. The Japanese try to harass and delay as much as possible.

Combat is pretty simple – you total up the strength of all the bombarding or assaulting units, and roll that many dice. 5s and 6s hit. Every cave marker in the area reduces the number of hits, as does the defense value of the area if it's controlled by the other side. This may mean anywhere between zero and five hits are ignored right off the bat. If you managed to do more damage than what's ignored, hits are assigned to units and a cave marker is removed. This has the effect of making repeated attempts on the same area slightly easier.

I took the Japanese in our game, and my strategy was to not contest the landings but fight like the dickens for every other inch of ground. I don't think Mike took an airfield area until turn 4 while I was repeatedly causing step losses. I believe I was well over 20VPs before Mike scored any. However, once he got his armor into the airfields, I had a real hard time slowing them down. His bombardments were having the expected long-term effect and my position started to really crumble fast. Of course, Mike didn't know this as he couldn't see most of my units. However, I suddenly realized that, while I had a large VP lead, he was going to take all four airfield areas quickly, and the 10VP/turn was going to kick in soon enough for him to top 40 before the end of the game. I had to try to recover at least one half of the large airfield to have a chance. If I could hold him out of there, I'd win due to the VPs I'd score at the end for surviving units and controlled areas. Wasn't to be, however, and Mike ended up topping 40 on turn 8, I believe, while I was right around 30. I certainly was hurt in the last half of our game by the rule restricting Japanese movement – you have to roll a d3 at the beginning of the Japanese movement phase to see how many units you can move. I think I rolled a 1 the last three turns. That didn't allow me to counter attack.

Now, there were a lot of things I didn't do well from the Japanese side – I didn't take advantage of the special attack types they're allowed. I forgot that armor couldn't go into the hills, and had put AT units in there. Not exactly useful. So, I definitely could have put up a stauncher defense than I did. With a handful of plays under our belts, this should easily turn into a tense struggle – particularly if the Japanese player takes different approaches.

In our discussion afterwards, Mike commented that he felt he was at a disadvantage as he didn't know the Japanese counter mix to know how many units I actually had left. This triggered a thought or three in my head on how I feel about the game.

First, it's very light, so don't think “simulation” when you're playing. However, it does seem to give a good feel. You have to soften up areas with bombardment before taking them, and the hidden map gives the Japanese side a load of options on attacking the US where they're not expecting it. From the US side (which I haven't played yet, but want to) you have to tread lightly as you simply don't know where the enemy is. Walking into a hornets nest is VERY likely, and the VP conditions make it possible for the Japanese to win a game covering what was essentially a hopeless situation for them. The US was going to take Iwo Jima – it was just a matter of cost.

We found a couple niggling issues – one Japanese counter had too many steps indicated on it's reduced side, and I think there was a rules-writing issue or something, but nothing major. It's a pretty clean game. (Though it could really use a small chart detailing all the conditions under which Japanese units are revealed on the large map.) Mike mentioned that he could see this being a good WBC-West game. I agree – the ~1 hour length and the fact that it's quite different from most other games (how many games really pull off hidden movement well?) makes it a great filler when you're waiting for another game to finish.

There's one thing I'd change, however, to give the game a lot more staying power. Randomization of the Japanese forces. Now, I know they were working under a strict counter limit given the format, but I would have done one of two things to help: either provide a handful of extra Japanese units and randomly remove some from each game, or randomize the Japanese unit strength. Either way, the US player can't say “ah, that's the last of the strong units, I can fan out now.” There's no way they would have known that in the actual battle.

Despite this, I'm glad I own a copy – it's one I'll be looking to get on the table periodically as a nice closer or filler.

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