While perusing Facebook a few weeks ago, I came across a neat looking game announcement where the designer was asking for playtesters. The game is called The Whole Sad Story: The Battle for West Timor February, 1942 and is designed by Paul Rohrbaugh from High Flying Dice Games. This battle was one of the most ambitious Japanese offensives in the Pacific, with an amphibious landing supported by tanks and paratroop assaults by the 2nd and 3rd SNLF (Special Naval Landing Forces).
The Allied Sparrow Force, comprised of Australians, Dutch Colonial troops, Portuguese militia and a British anti-aircraft unit, were outflanked and surprised by the scope and scale of the attack. Regardless, the fight was bitter and cost the attackers dearly. However, most of Sparrow Force was compelled to surrender, making this one of the most tragic and bitter defeats in the campaign for the Dutch East Indies. As this game really intrigues me, as I really love lesser known obscure battles that are gamed, I reached out to Paul to see if he would talk with me about the game. The following comprises the entirety of our discussion as the game is still very early on in the design process:
Grant: First off Paul, tell us a little about yourself? How did you get into wargame design? How did you start your company High Flying Dice Games?
Paul: I’m a semi-retired teacher and librarian. I still teach part-time at YSU, and of course, have my game design and publishing work. I’m also writing and researching in various topics in local and military history. I started designing games in high school (mostly tinkering but I was involved in some play testing), and have used games throughout my teaching career. I was first published by the Microgame Co-op in 1999 (Trampling Out the Vintage: The Atlanta Campaign, cover shown to the right is the 2013 version of the game from High Flying Dice Games). I started High Flying Dice Games when Bruce Yearian contacted me and asked if we could start working together. He had been interviewed for the graphic artist’s position at Against the Odds (ATO) magazine, was given a mini-game of mine to “try out” during that process, and really liked it. Although he did not get the job with ATO, we were able to start High Flying Dice Games.
Grant: What is the story behind The Whole Sad Story: The Battle for West Timor? Why did you want to make a game out of this battle?
Paul: I’ve long been interested in the East Indies Campaign and have been researching it since my days in high school. When I was commissioned to do Forlorn Hopes for ATO, I also started work on a host of smaller games on battles from that campaign. Besides West Timor, there are games I have in the works or published on the raids on Darwin and Diego Suarez (for ATO) and several of the surface naval battles for High Flying Dice Games (Badung Strait, Sunda Strait, Balikpapan, Java Sea).
Gant: What sources did you use to get the facts about the game, including the terrain of the island, each side’s force structure and OOBs, etc.?
Paul: As I mentioned, I’m also a librarian, and as such have access to many sources via the university and state of Ohio’s databases. There are also an increasing number of quality online sources, especially some from Australia. The title of the West Timor game is inspired by an Australian veteran’s account of the campaign that was recently posted online. Here is a link to that account: http://diggerhistory.info/pages-battles/ww2/timor.htm
Grant: I see that the game involves paratroop drops for the Japanese. What are the special rules that govern this drop and how does it work mechanically?
Paul: The game is intended to be an introductory level game, so the rules are not complicated. Also, the terrain is rather harsh, so there are only a few legitimate drop zones. Basically, the Japanese player deploys these units and then rolls against his/her morale level to determine if the units land unscathed or pinned.
Grant: I noticed that the Japanese player starts with the Fortunes of War. What benefits does this provide their troops? Can it be lost? Is it more valuable to deny the Fortunes of War to your opponent or use it?
Paul: The Fortunes of War is a bit of gaming “chrome” that players enjoy. The player that has it can use it for such things as re-rolling a crucial die roll, restoring a pinned unit to normal status or some other “fateful” game event. Once the Fortunes of War is used the opponent gets it to use (or not). It is possible for this to switch back and forth numerous times during the game, just once or twice, or not at all (as keeping it and not using it to deny it to your opponent is a legitimate gambit).
Grant: I love mechanics like this (such as the Initiative card in Combat Commander or the China card in Twilight Struggle) as it makes for some really interesting choices as to when or if you use them. How are activations determined for each side in the game?
Paul: Players use a standard deck of playing cards to activate their units. The color of the card determines who goes and the number on the card determines the number of units that can be activated.
Grant: What can these activations be used for?
Paul: It varies, but units can basically do one of several actions such as movement, combat, rally, entrench, and so forth.
Grant: How does combat play out in the game? Do you utilize a CRT? What type of DRMs are included?
Paul: There is no CRT. The attacking player simply designates the attacking and target units and then rolls the die (a 6 sided die). The DR is modified for standard things such as terrain, whether the target is already pinned, or other game circumstances at the time of the combat. If the modified DR is greater than the target’s defense strength, it is hit; if it is less, then the attack had no effect.
Grant: How many turns is the game and how long does it typically take to play the game?
Paul: We’re still working that out. The current draft has too many turns and will likely be cut down to 15 (4 day and 3 nights for each of the three days of the campaign).
Grant: I know it is early and it is most likely not pretty, but can we get a look at the map?
Paul: I typically do all of my own game design, including the map and OOB work as well as the rules writing. Please find attached a picture of the game in progress.
Grant: How does Morale Level affect game play? What conditions either increase or decrease this level throughout the game?
Paul: Morale is key to determining victory. If a player’s ML is reduced to zero, the opponent immediately wins a decisive victory. Capturing/holding territory, including towns and the Penfui airfield, and eliminating enemy units are ways to reduce or boost morale.
Grant: How are random events determined and what type of events are included?
Paul: When the first Joker card is revealed from the deck, the player that lost his/her turn rolls a die to determine if a Random Event is in effect for the remainder of the turn. Unless otherwise noted each event can occur as often as it is rolled. Here is a list of the possible Random Events from the rules:
• DR = 1: Allied Bravery: The Allied player can re-roll any one DR for the turn.
• DR = 2: Yamato Spirit. The Japanese player can re-roll any one DR for the turn.
• DR = 3: Soldier Gods From the Sky. Any one Pinned Japanese unit is immediately changed to Normal status (remove the Pinned marker). Note: This event can occur only once per game. Treat as No Event if rolled more than once or there are no Pinned Japanese units.
• DR = 4: Diggers Defiant! Any one Pinned Australian unit is immediately changed to Normal status (remove the Pinned marker). Note: This event can occur only once per game. Treat as No Event if rolled more than once or there are no Pinned Australian units.
• DR = 5: Increased Support. The Japanese player immediately receives 1 additional Air or Naval Support Point for the turn.
• DR = 6: No Event.
Grant: What are the victory conditions?
Paul: The Allied player is seeking to hold on to West Timor for as long as possible and making it as costly for the Japanese as they can. Failing that declaring an evacuation and getting to East Timor to fight another day is another way the Allies can win. The Japanese, of course, have other plans…
Grant: Why did you feel the need to include various special rules such as Tank Fright, Opportunity Assault Fire and Japanese Surprise? Why not include these elements in the base game?
Paul: Since it is designed as an introductory level game, having these as “variant” or “optional” rules helps introduce the concept of wargaming and portraying history in “doses”. To have these included as part and parcel of the “regular” game may make it to intimidating to novices.
Grant: How does the Special Rule Yamato Spirit work?
Paul: Normally the turn ends once the second Joker card is drawn. This rule allows the Japanese player to keep playing but at a victory point cost to the Allied player.
Grant: What is the anatomy of the counters? Can we see pictures or images of one Japanese unit and one of the Allied units.
Paul: That will be up to the graphic artist. The play test counters I made are shown in the picture. The number on the lower left of the counter is the unit’s Attack Factor. The one in the middle is the Defense Factor. The one on the lower right is the Movement Factor. Units also have their historical designations. Most units are companies, while tank, anti-tank and anti-aircraft units are mostly small detachments (3 to 5 vehicles or weapons).
Grant: What has been the response of playtesters?
Paul: So far very good. Stefan Anton Federsel and Brian Brennan are very taken with the game. I’m awaiting the first reports from some other “over the horizon” play testers, however.
Grant: When is this game planned for release? Will it be a poly bag game and what will be the MSRP?
Paul: I anticipate if all goes well we’ll release this sometime in the late spring or early summer of 2018. It will be a zip bag DTP game and probably sell for $11.95 plus shipping (mounted counters will be an additional $5.00).
Thanks for your time Paul and I look forward to playing the game.
To wrap up the interview, I’d like to share the Designer’s Notes to give more of a feel about the game itself. The notes are as follows:
The Japanese assault on West Timor was extremely aggressive, with use of amphibious landings by infantry and tanks. However, the parachute assaults by the 2nd and 3rd SNLF were the most dramatic and potentially dangerous threats to the Allied position. It is a maxim in the military that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and this was especially the case here for the forces of Nippon. After landing, the commander of the 2nd SNLF vacillated between occupying and controlling Penfui airfield, or the Usua Ridge heights that effectively blocked egress and exit from West Timor. As a result the 2nd SNLF spent much of the time marching and counter-marching through the dense forest terrain, losing men and equipment and accomplishing little.
The commander of the 3rd SNLF did briefly take up blocking positions on the ridge, but also began moving towards the airfield when the withdrawing Sparrow Force made contact. If it had not been for a battalion of the 228th Infantry Regiment that force marched to the ridge to head-off the rapidly withdrawing Allied column, who got the order to evacuate to the eastern side of the island, the Japanese attack would have come up empty.
As it was, the Allied forces were caught in an ever increasing vice, with the 288th Infantry and their supporting tanks tightened throughout the 22nd. Despite several attacks by the Allies, including two desperate charges by the Australians that ended in hand-to-hand combat, the Japanese holding the ridge held. By the end of the day over 2,000 Allied troops were force to surrender at Usua; only about 240 were able to escape to wage a guerrilla war against the Japanese. Only a pitiful few were rescued in August 1943.