Picket Duty, a solitaire wargame from Legion Wargames, puts you in charge of a Fletcher Class Destroyer in the Pacific tasked with defending Okinawa and the vital U.S. foothold there from Japan’s most desperate last defense: Kamikaze attacks. Originally published in 2013, LGW recently put out a Second Edition which is currently available. I was offered a trade for the First Edition and was happy to oblige as I’d had my eye on it for a good few years now. Reviews I had read were mixed, mostly to do with the rulebook, so I was glad to dive in and tackle it head on and see for myself. So here are my thoughts.
Unlike other chart rolling games I’ve played, this one has a decent sized map to go with it, which I really like for solo play. I think it’s entirely mental but there’s something about sitting in front of a big table pouring over a big map and charts that makes me feel like a real commander. Seriously, I like my solo games to give me either that commander in chief type feeling, or be a deep, rich tactical puzzle. Double points if you can do both. Picket Duty does the first very well. It’s effectively a tower defense style game where you’re attacked by wave after wave of Japanese fighters. Your job is to shoot them out of the sky and to keep yourself afloat, if the worst is to happen and you get struck.
Now, a lot of chart rolling games are more role-playing games than wargames, in my opinion. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I love playing games like Silent Victory and Target For Today. But with Picket Duty, it felt less like an RPG. Sure, you have no control over the planes that come at you, but you have much more in the way of choice of how you defend yourself. Target For Today, for example, you just say “I point as many machine guns as possible at the Messerschmidt that’s coming towards me!” Picket Duty on the other hand puts you in control of a full Destroyer, so already you have a significantly larger weapons array. The firing arcs on most of the guns give you some great, yet tough choices, and you also have three different calibre guns each with their own effectiveness at various altitudes and ranges.
The combat, then, is already immediately more meaningful in my opinion. It’s also much more survivable – you’re a Naval ship after all. When you take damage, you have full repair crews to pump the bilges, put out deck fires and try to keep everything operating, you’re no good to anyone at the bottom of the Pacific, or limping back to port. I would recommend playing at least some of the advanced rules, even right off the bat, because of what they do to the game. There’s a few extra rules for special attacks, where there were some traditional dive bombers and torpedo planes mixed in to the attacks. But mostly I think you should play with the List/Trim rules.
These rules add an extra tactical level to the game once you start to take on water. The ship will start to list and as such the angles of elevation of your guns will change. Suddenly you can’t level your big 5 inch cannons on low flying aircraft and you’re significantly more vulnerable as a result. And it’s the nuances like that which make the game really interesting and tense. Suddenly pumping water and getting your self level becomes much more important.
Combat, unsurprisingly is resolved by rolling on a series of charts. The charts though are very thoroughly detailed, which is a big plus for me. Each different gun calibre has it’s own chart which gives the results based on altitude of the target. You also use 2d6 to attack with so the variety of options is much deeper than the old “try and get a 6” in other games. I already mentioned the variety of weapons you have at your disposal but trying to assign them properly to maximize potential hits is good fun.
There’s also a ton of combat. On a given assignment you might have one of the three action phases have no attacks, but most days you’ll encounter at least two waves of fighters, and typically many more. I’ll be honest, I have no idea how historically accurate the volume of attacks is (The game seems well researched and Steve Dixon always does a tip-top job) but I’ll be damned if it isn’t unrelenting. At times, the furious assaults can feel overwhelming – which is a huge tick in the positive column for Picket Duty. The constant threat of danger is there, and whilst the likelihood of catastrophic damage and failure is extremely slim, the accumulation of damage and fatigue can be lethal.
Something to note in Picket Duty, is that you will tear through the Japanese aircraft if you plan well, and make good fields of fire. I quickly discovered that in shooting a lot of the planes down that I was still in some pretty big danger from time to time. Any planes you do not utterly blow up will still smash their flaming hulks into your ship. It’s really hard to dodge when you’re a U.S. Navy Warship. Luckily a flaming ball of steel with no living pilot is pretty inaccurate, but you still have to roll on a table to see if you get hit by an aircraft you have downed.
The odds of them doing anything severe to you are pretty slim, but when you calculate the odds based on just how many aircraft you shoot down, there’s almost some inevitability that you’ll at least get peppered from time to time. All in all, I found the combat to be much more satisfying than a game like B-17 Queen of the Skies, because there was a) a lot more of it, b) there were more decisions to be made about targeting priorities and c) you are always at risk, but not coin-flippingly random risk.
Should I get this game?
If you’re a solo gamer then the answer is absolutely. Like a lot of these types of games, the more you put in the more you get out. You have a crew with counters that you will name and that you move around the ship to do repairs, gain bonuses and other bits and pieces. The more attached you get the better your experience is from an immersion/story standpoint. With that being said, you don’t need to in order to play the game or enjoy it. In other solitaire games, I feel like that stuff is the crux of the game, trying to push your luck and see the stories that come out of it. In Picket Duty there’s more meat to the game, and you’re around much longer, typically speaking, so all that narrative stuff comes out naturally.
I had a great time playing Picket Duty, and was pleasantly surprised at how much meat there was in the game, considering what it is. I’ll be playing this one regularly because the decision making is a little more meaningful, and when you take damage you actually have a crew to work with. Sure, you’re rolling on a lot of charts but this game doesn’t feel like you’re rolling on charts all the time.
I felt like the tension in this one was very palpable, because whilst it’s easy to swat away incoming fighters, the ones that would get through can make your situation turn on a dime. If you’re inclined I’d get the new edition that was released this year as a good, and thematic addition to any solo collection.