Sunday, October 26, 2008

Virtually back to Iwo Jima

This past week Mike and I finally got back together for some gaming. My family schedule had rearranged a bit, so there were some delays after my business trip earlier this month.

We had also had a bit of a miscommunication on what we were doing Wednesday night. I thought we were playing Iwo Jima again (this time with the correct rules as opposed to how we botched it last time), and Mike thought we were doing a Vassal walkthrough. Given that the Iwo Jima Vassal module had been released earlier that day, we decided to combine the two. I'll talk about Vassal first, then Iwo Jima.

For those that don't know, Vassal is an aid for playing games online. Exactly what games you can play completely depends on people writing modules to support them. These generally can only be distributed with permission of the publisher as there's a need for copyrighted material to be included. Some companies, however, are extremely friendly to this sort of support, and may modules include the actual game art (in digital form, obviously) within the module. This comes as close as is possible to replicating the on-the-table experience on your monitor.

The level of detail included within a module is pretty much up to the module designer. Some (such as Afrika II) are very basic while others (Devils Cauldron, for example) provide so many aids and utilities, they actually improve the gaming experience. TDC's module, for example, allows you to do things such as display a leader's command range on the map, and highlight all units that are a member of the currently activated formation. Things you have to track manually when playing the physical game.

Vassal is one of a handful of gaming aids. Others include Cyberboard, Aide-de-Camp, ZunTzu,, and more that aren't coming to mind right now. To the best of my knowledge, Vassal is unique in that it combines two major features – it's written in Java so it works on any platform that supports Java, and it supports both live and play-by-email (PBeM) modes. The latest version (currently in beta – and the version we used last week) also imports Aide-de-camp modules. Vassal is available at If you want the latest beta, click the forums link, then I believe the top forum area contains the link to the latest. Many modules are accessible from that website as well.

Mike had tried Vassal a while ago, but didn't enjoy the experience. At the time, the tools were relatively crude, and the smaller screen resolution gave him the feeling of looking at the game through a porthole. Not the best experience by any means.

Given the number of great longer games fighting for time and table space, PBeM is one of the ways to get these games played. Mike figured it was time to try it again, and wanted to walk through the system together so questions are more easily answered. I've been involved in email games quite a bit (including a handful of tournaments) so I was a natural to help him learn the system. The one thing I'd never done with Vassal, though, was play live – everything I'd done had been PBeM. So, it would be a learning experience for me as well.

The Iwo Jima Vassal module has a couple nice touches added to it. Concealed units appear about 50% translucent on the Japanese player's screen, and are (naturally) invisible to the American player. Moving a concealed unit using hidden movement also does not create a visible log entry. Finally, there's commands that reset all “fired” markers and return all American naval and air units to the support box. Nice time savers that we didn't actually notice until about halfway through. Also, each unit has a “lose one step” command that will move the unit to the eliminated box when it loses its last step.
In the actual game play, I decided to try a Japanese strategy I'd read on CSW and attempted to implement in our initial game. (And it would have worked better last time had we read up on the errata/clarifications.) Basically, don't directly contest the beaches – instead shell those areas mercilessly with all the artillery you can bring to bear. Ditto with the airfields. Fight for those, but shell them as well. As a result, I placed nothing on the beaches, but surrounded the beaches and airfields with artillery.

Mike started off with a very successful shelling of the landing beaches, and followed up with his invasion – I shelled and managed to keep beachhead markers off the map for most of the first three turns. After Mike's initial good results, his barrages started to tail off. In fact, he wasn't able to clear Mt. Siribachi until turn 7, the point at which we quit. The score at that point was something like 32-5 for the Japanese (40 is an auto-victory) and the Americans had no chance to come back.

There's errata on the game that says regardless of the terrain value of an area, getting a single artillery hit on an area is enough to remove Safe to Land and Beachhead markers from the board. Unless the US is able to clear the artillery from the adjacent areas, this is a rather easy target for the Japanese to reach. There are probably a number of ways for the Americans to combat this, but it seems to be a very tough go. Of course, the real thing was as well.

I want to give this game a few more chances – looking at the relative ease in which Safe to Land markers can be removed (and this is the primary way in which the US gets VPs) it looks to be slanted in the Japanese favor. It may simply come down to how effective the US artillery is in the first three turns. If the Japanese can simply have their artillery survive long enough, it becomes too hard for the US player to score enough points to catch up.

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