Narrative driven solo games are pretty special. They tell a story and help you to feel like you are a part of that history as you get to control the outcome. I really have grown to like playing solo wargames and found a pretty interesting one recently that takes a look at the experience of one of our Presidents during World War II, when he was a young man. By July 1943, the US Navy, Army, and Marines had worked their way up the Solomon Islands against heavy Japanese resistance. At the height of the battle for control of New Georgia, and more specifically the reduction of the powerful Japanese airbase at Munda, the US Navy established a base for Patrol Torpedo (PT) Boats on Rendova Island. The Japanese, desperately intent on clinging to their position at Munda, were operating a steady line of supplies and troops that staged out of Rabaul. Using barges, and Destroyers of the Tokyo Express, the Japanese poured troops and supplies down “the Slot”, first to Vila on Kolombangara, and then on to Munda in New Georgia. It was the PT Boats at Rendova that were tasked with the dangerous mission of patrolling each night in the Blackett Strait, where they tried to disrupt this Japanese supply line. One of the young PT-Boat skippers was 26 year old Lt. John F. Kennedy of PT-109. This solitaire play game is based on his exploits in the South Pacific during the months of July and August 1943.
The game was originally designed as a part of a larger planned series of games covering key events in the life of President John F. Kennedy.
Here is what the designer Rod Bauer has said about this process:
Over the years I had been very interested in and carefully studied other Kennedy-related events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the US presidential election of 1960. I had sort of forgotten about the PT-109 game idea. Then about two years ago, I designed a very short and simple game on the Cuban Missile Crisis (DEFCON 1). I was motivated to do so after tinkering around with 13 Minutes, a fun game by Daniel Pedersen and Asger Granerud. While working on DEFCON 1, I had the idea of designing a trilogy of very simple and short-playing games featuring events centered around the life of JFK. The games could either be played separately or as a three-game narrative of some major events in the life of Kennedy with the outcome of each game affecting the next game in the narrative. I call my trilogy “Profile in Courage” after the title of a book written by Kennedy himself, Profiles in Courage. Once DEFCON 1 – Volume III of my trilogy despite being the first of the three I designed – was complete, I began working on the design for PT-109, which was to be Volume I. The Election of 1960 (Volume II) is still on the drawing board.
With that background, and my interest in the politics of John F. Kennedy, I was very interested in this game and reached out to Paul Rohrbaugh at High Flying Dice Games to obtain a review copy. The game is a very simplified solo wargame that can be considered someone’s 1st or 2nd experience with the genre. The game is pretty interesting with some very well made systems and mechanics but is not a game that I will find myself playing 20+ times. The reason for this is that I believe the game does well with what it was tasked with doing namely creating a simple simulation of the patrols of a PT Boat in the South Pacific. The game does create some tension and a lot relies on the outcome of your dice rolls so the game is interesting. It feels more like an exercise than a proper simulation but it is affordable, with low rules overhead and can be played in under an hour. There is not a lot of variety in the missions, the enemies you will fight or the number of cards available in the deck. In fact, I feel like this game is an excellent base for someone to build on with some tweaking and amateur design and add in more complexity and options with different cards and enemies, but more on this later.
Overall, as with most of these smaller poly-bag games from High Flying Dice Games, they are an affordable option to someone looking to dip their toes into the solo wargaming genre. Also remember that this game costs $11.95 and you cannot expect super thick counters with a fully mounted mapboard. But let’s take a look at the serviceable components before we move into what I thought about the game play.
Overall, this production is a quality product for the price. The rules are fairly well written and can be played with only a few references back to the rulebook for clarification. The best component in the package is the card sheet that represents PT-109 and its various resource tracking boxes that keep track of the amount of fuel, ammunition and medical supplies the player has access to. This card also contains the Japanese Movement Table that the player will use to move the AI Japanese around the map and the Destroyer Combat Results Chart.
The counters are very simple and represent only a few items in the game, from the PT-109 counter that the player uses to track their location on the square grid board, to the Japanese Naval Unit markers that all look the same but correspond to a hidden (played face down) Enemy Card that the player doesn’t reveal until they come in contact with the counter on the board and the Troops and Resource counters that are used to track where units are and how many of the different resources the player has purchased on the PT-109 Player card. Nothing fancy but very functional.
The board covers the area of the Solomon Islands from Rendova at the bottom of the map, to Gizo and Kolombangara at the top. For game purposes, the top of the map is considered North and the bottom South and this distinction is important only when the AI moves their forces around. You simply move down, left, right or up based on the direction given when a movement roll is made.
The board is clear, if not a little bit bland, but admittedly I have never really seen a great map for a naval game as there is always a lot of blue. The board does include some historical nuances including names of the islands and other geographic features in the area (check out Plum Pudding in the upper left). The game uses a square grid and it boils down to a calculation of your available fuel and how many squares you can move to reach your goals for that turn. We will discuss this later.
You will notice the numbers printed along the left edge of the board and the capital letters printed along the top. These numbers are used when placing the Japanese units on the board at the beginning of a turn based upon the Mission Card that is drawn. It will provide coordinates in the form of A1, B1, C1 and so on.
Cards are a big part of the game and are used to represent missions, enemy forces and different events that happen throughout the game. The game includes 24 cards and each is broken up into different Card Types including Rendova Cards, Mission Cards, Barge & Patrol Boat Cards, Air Attack Cards, Destroyer Intercept Cards and Neutral Cards. There are 6 Rendova Cards, which are special events that are pulled at the beginning of the round and effect what happens in some way, 5 Mission Cards that identify what the player is expected to do this turn and the makeup of the deck, 8 Enemy Cards that include Barge & Patrol Cards, Air Attack Cards and Destroyer Intercept Cards and then 4 Neutral Cards that have PT Boat icons on them that act as space eaters that can provide a positive event or simply act as nothing.
My copy of the game, which was a pre-final copy used by the development team, had cards that were miss cut and had the bottom of another card (with its color) at the top. They just hadn’t been well laid out on the computer before printing out and I am sure in the final product the cards are all well aligned.
The game is not an overly complex one and involves the player drawing a Mission Card, adding the specified enemy unit counters onto the board in the identified locations on the square grid and then the player moving to the objective and accomplishing what they need to before their fuel and their activations run out. The AI for this one is tied to a table found on the PT Boat Card called the Japanese Movement Table and consists of the player rolling 2D6 and then consulting the table to see where Japanese units on the board will move. This movement may take the Japanese units closer to the player’s PT Boat but also can see them moving further and further away and making it more of a challenge to get to and engage. Also, if the Japanese units’ movement would take them into contact with an island or land, this means that a Troops/Supplies counter will be placed there in that square and will ultimately take away Victory Points from the player at the end of the Turn. If too many of these get deployed, it could make it impossible to finish certain missions.
These units are hidden to the player and are tied to 1 of 5 face down Enemy Cards that are laid out to the side of the board. I really liked the fact that you don’t know what is under each of the counters located on the board and it is always a surprise when you turn over one of the large Destroyers and have a major fight on your hands. It also can be a big disappointment when you turn over a counter and realize it was simply a ruse or tied to faulty intel and there is nothing under that counter. This hidden factor keeps the player guessing and gives the rote process some tension and excitement.
One additional comment about the Japanese Movement Table. If the player rolls a 9, the result will be to remove the unit from the board. This is indicative of them catching site of the PT Boat and bugging out or once again bad intel. This seems to happen more than you would think but I shouldn’t be surprised. When you roll 2D6, the standard distribution of results would tell you that you will see results of 6-9 more often than not. The result of 9 is on the higher end of that spectrum but it does seem to come up more than I want it to. Why is the 9 coming up and a unit getting removed from the board a bad thing? Well, it takes away opportunity to gain VP. And I will tell you this makes it very hard to meet the goals each turn and overall will make it so you cannot win the game. This is a random element, and I know why it was included and actually like that it was, but man my dice luck just sees it come up way more than I would like it to.
Overall the AI is functional and the Japanese units don’t need to do much as the action will come when the unit is encountered by the PT-109 counter on the board and then the action can turn to a fight. Keep in mind that this game is designed as a simple exercise and is not a game that you will play until it is worn out. The rules are simple, if not simplistic, and can be played by anyone.
Strategy and Gameplay
As I mentioned earlier, this game boils down to a calculation of your available fuel and then counting how many squares you can move before you run out. Sometimes due to the random movement of the Japanese units, they will get out of your range for that turn and you will have to try again next round.
The PT Boat has an intrinsic strength of one Ammo factor, a load of torpedoes enough to conduct two attacks, and fuel enough for a range of 30 spaces on the map. Each fuel counter can get 1-3 squares of movement after which it is discarded. At the Rendova base, the player has an additional 5 Resource points available that can be allocated to fit the situation. These include extra fuel, extra ammunition, medical supplies in case the crew suffers casualties, and a 37mm anti-tank gun (if the right event card is drawn) that can be Frankensteined and mounted to the bow section of the boat to provide extra punch in combat versus barges. If the chosen Mission requires PT-109 to conduct a long-range patrol that could extend beyond its cruising range, some Resources of extra fuel might be valuable.
Any time Japanese destroyers are likely to be encountered, the PT Boat might come under heavy fire, so medical supply resources could be added to heal your wounded crewmen before you return to base as these wounded crew will take away VP. There is always a chance of attack from Japanese planes during any Mission as well, even more so in Rescue and Fire Cover Missions. Each time the 109 combats planes they use anti-aircraft ammunition, so loading extra ammo resources might be helpful to ensure that they don’t run out of ammunition. Without anti-aircraft ammo, the PT Boat is defenseless, should any enemy planes appear.
There are five different Mission Cards included in the game, which I frankly think is not enough but during any given game, only 4 of these will be drawn as one mission is drawn for each of the 4 rounds. The different Missions included are called Night Patrol Duty, Rescue Coastwatchers, Intercept Japanese Destroyers, Provide covering fire for US forces, and Anti-Barge Mission, which attempts to prevent the carrying of supplies or troops to Japanese positions on the various Islands. These Missions are well rounded, some including lots of combat, some including move to a point and collect a counter and make it back, etc. There is variety in the type of Missions but my major complaint is why not include a few more?
I know that with the way the game works it would be hard to include a lot of extra Missions but you could balance it out and get at least 3-4 more Missions to choose from which would improve the replayability quite a lot. The trouble in simply adding in new Missions is that the 5 included are balanced out to provide the opportunity for the player to win the game by collecting enough VP. If you water down the mix, the player could potentially draw 4 of the very low VP Missions and will not have the opportunity to win. I say that might be a problem but so be it! I would like to see more Missions and more variety, even if it means that you have less chance to succeed. The law of averages would say that you will have the chance to win more often than not, especially if you have properly balanced the Missions and their VP reward.
Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of the game in the Operations Phase, of which there are three. The first two are repeated for ten turns that make up each round and include Movement of Japanese Units, and Movement of PT-109. The third phase of operations occurs anytime the PT Boat makes possible contact with the enemy and is called Resolve Contact (this may result in combat). This is where the danger for PT Boat patrols is at its highest. PT-109 might make contact with barges or patrol boats which leads to combat, although not as intense as when contact is made with a Japanese Destroyer which can outgun the PT Boat. Remember, the fate of PT-109 was to collide with a Destroyer which sent her to the bottom and caused the crew to have to swim to a nearby island earning JFK the Navy and Marine Corps medal for “courage, endurance and excellent leadership [that] contributed to the saving of several lives and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service”. Japanese Zero Fighters might strafe the PT Boat as well, which can cause casualties, or the PT might be bombed by a Float Plane which can cause casualties and heavily damage the boat, or even sink it.
The most difficult units the PT Boat will run up against are the Destroyers. These ships are much larger and more greatly armed than is the PT Boat. Notice that two of the possible cards in the original 10 for this mission are Air Attack cards (A Zero that could strafe the PT Boat, and a float plane that could bomb the PT Boat). Notice also that there are 4 cards that have PT icons on them. These cards are essentially “False Sightings” cards, so they may appear to the player to be Japanese units moving across the map. However, in reality, they are simply shadowy shapes that turn out to be nothing due to faulty intel or changes after sightings were made.
When these units are encountered, typically the player will be instructed to make a die roll and then refer to a list of options on the card that will provide the results. A myriad of things might happen as a result of these die rolls and they are always made with the player holding their breath, or at least that was what I felt. For example, if you encounter a Zero, the dice roll could result in the plane being shot down if you have ammunition, or might avoid that fate and be able to launch attacks on the PT Boat. In that case, if a hit is recorded, this can cause casualties to the crew or cause the boat to be damaged or sunk. Damage to the PT Boat could be to its gunnery, fuel factors, or engines, etc. and can change your plans as you might now not have enough fuel to complete your Mission or may have lost your ammo and cannot risk encountering a barge.
If the player rolls well, Japanese naval units could be damaged or sunk, or might get out of the fight totally unscathed. If PT-109 is sunk, or Kennedy is killed, the game ends immediately. The player scores Victory Points of varying amounts depending on damage inflicted on the enemy, shooting down planes, sinking ships or barges, carrying out successful rescue and fire cover attempts, etc. There are times when even if the PT Boat can hit its target with a torpedo, the torpedo may be a dud. (Historically this happened often, if not most of the time.) Victory Points are deducted from the player for loss of life of crew members, the sinking of PT-109, and failure to stop the landing of Japanese troops or supplies.
After the Operations Phase, and if the PT-Boat makes it back to the base at Rendova the Mission is completed and the round ends. Depending on how well the player did in achieving successes in the mission, Victory Points are tallied and recorded on the Turn/Score track on the bottom of the map. Points are awarded to the player for damaging or sinking Japanese ships, shooting down enemy planes, rescuing coast watchers, or providing covering fire. Points are subtracted if the PT Boat runs out of fuel before making it back to Rendova, or if PT-109 suffered any KIA results among its crew. At the end of Round 4, the game ends, and a die is rolled for each Japanese Troop/Supplies counter that has been landed on any island during the course of the game. The results of these die rolls will subtract a specific number of Victory Points from the player’s total. This represents the Japanese (AI) having accomplished some of its objectives.
That is it. The game is very process oriented and your choices come at a few points, including when you loadout your PT Boat prior to a patrol starting and then how far you push your luck and whether you have enough fuel to make your destination and then make it back to base.
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
One of the things that I really like about this style of historical solitaire wargame is that you not only play a game, trying to learn the rules, the system and develop some strategy to meet your goals and win, but you also get to learn about the details of history. After playing this one, I believe that anyone who plays it might find themselves wishing to learn more about young John F. Kennedy’s exploits in the South Pacific and about WWII in the Solomon Islands.
I also really like some of the Rendova Events as you gain different benefits, such as finding an old 37mm anti-tank gun that can be mounted on the boat adding a punch to your combat rolls or if you develop Kennedy’s Charisma (by drawing the appropriate Rendova Event) adding a +1 DRM to each of your combat rolls, but also learn about this story.
I found the game to be easy and fun to play, and it also creates some tension and excitement in your choices. The other good thing about the design is that the historical information and the game procedures are found located on the cards themselves, rather than tucked away in obscure charts and a long set of rules. This makes the game play fast and furious and I appreciated that. Furthermore, the game weaves a narrative and ultimately creates a story that is interesting enough that winning or losing the game would not be the focus as much as just enjoying the story. The game can also be played in under an hour, with an easy and quick set up time. The game uses only 23 cards, and a couple dozen counters, and includes a nice large overhead view of PT-109. This game is a solid solitaire play experience and requires the player to make some tough choices about how to spend their precious resources at the start of each Turn. It’s greatest strength though is in the press your luck aspect of the game about whether you should try for the most difficult and far away missions or simply go for the easy to reach ones.
I feel that this game could really be taken to the next level and bits and pieces could be added into the design to increase the complexity and improve the tactical nature of the combat. But, that was not the design focus and I can appreciate that. As I have always said, complexity doesn’t always improve a game experience. But in this case, some added variety in extra cards and some options for tracking damage on the PT Boat Card and some crew options in the form of skills would make for a more compelling narrative experience.