In today’s world of board gaming, our attention is typically captured by the overproduced. Glitz and glam is what draws out attention. Custom dice. Neon lights with lots of cool gotta-have-it stretch goals. And miniatures. Lots and lots of plastic. And you would think that a game that features WWII vintage airplanes and Aircraft Carriers would be a prime opportunity for these things. And without them, you might have just overlooked a great thing backing another title that did meet those standards. But, then you will have missed a well designed ballet of mechanics that is expertly put together, rules lite, interesting, highly playable and a deeply strategic air naval wargame.
Early last summer, I saw a very interesting Kickstarter and was immediately drawn to it, because you know, the little cardboard airplanes and ships. But also because I really enjoy air naval games set in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Fighters of the Pacific from Capsicum Games is a simple introductory wargame that covers the major battles that occurred in the Pacific between the Empire of Japan and the United States. But instead of being focused on overproduction, including tons and tons of plastic miniatures, the game is focused on the game play and that really sets this one apart from many such miniatures based aerial combat games that we have played over the years. In this First Impressions post I will share my thoughts about this great design and why I think it is an early contender for my top 10. (Hint because airplanes and ships!)
The Little Cardboard Planes and Ships
As you might expect to find in a game focused on air naval operations in the Pacific during World War II, there are lots of little cardboard cutout plane counters included in the game. The planes are drawn in 1:500 scale and the cardboard counters follow the shape of the plane so that it looks like you are actually pushing a plane on the table, not a counter. This was a really amazing experience for me as we maneuvered dozens of planes through the clouds and along the wave tops to attack targets such as Destroyers and Aircraft Carriers. Of course, there was lots of obligatory vrooms and rat-tat-tat sounds made as we did this and this was one of the best parts!
Surrounding the outline of the plane itself on each counter is a sliver of background with one side having a background that is the clouds in white, to show that the plane is currently at high altitude, while on the other side the background is blue like the ocean, to show that the plane is at low altitude gliding over the water. During play, players will just flip these counters over when they are performing either a Climb or Dive maneuver. Through this simple yet ingenious mechanic is contained the concept of altitude. This really keeps the game on the simpler end as altitude is represented with just these double sided counters. No plastic standees. No confusing relative altitude. Just straight up high or low altitude.
Back to the planes themselves. We played the Core game as we didn’t back the game on Kickstarter (a big regret at this point) and missed out on the two expansions offered that added not only scenarios but additional planes. So these comments will focus on the Core game only. In the Core game there are 6 different types of planes with 3 types provided for each nation. The planes chosen were the 3 typical aircraft types that were utilized on the Aircraft Carriers in the Pacific Theater of Operations including Fighters, Dive Bombers and Torpedo Bombers. The Americans have the F4F Wildcat (Fighter), the SBD Dauntless (Dive Bomber) and the TBD Devastator (Torpedo Bomber) while the Japanese had the A6M Zero (Fighter), the D3A Vale (Dive Bomber) and the B5N Kate (Torpedo Bomber). These are the most iconic planes of the war and are found in droves as each side has plenty of counters of each type and the scenarios differ in what planes are available as well as the number for each side.
The design tries to break everything about the planes down into just a few factors and special abilities called Traits that differentiates them on the battlefield. Each plane has a Field of Fire shown in the front and rear (only if they have tail gunners) of the plane with red hexes. These red hexes coordinate with the hexes on the board in the front and rear of each plane. The planes also each have a value provided for their Speed and Armor. For example, the TBD Devastator has a Speed of 2 (shown with 2 propeller symbols) and 2 Armor (shown with 2 shield symbols). The Speed is how many hexes or maneuvers a plane can take. In fact, this is the minimum movement that is required each turn and players can never move more or less than their values. Certain maneuvers, such as Climb, take multiple Speed icons in movement points while Dive is a free maneuver that lowers the planes altitude and actually moves them forward 1 hex. The key to the game is understanding how your Speed (movement) can be used to place your plane and its Field of Fire into position to take out enemy planes on the board.
The planes are not activated individually but in groups. When a plane is activated, it must complete its entire movement while focusing on their possible maneuvers and their cost in movement points. If a plane has an enemy plane in its Fire Zone at the end of its movement, the plane can take a shot and the target plane has an opportunity to dodge only if it has not yet activated in the turn. If it can’t dodge due to already having been activated this turn, it takes damage automatically. There is no dice rolling. No CRT’s to consult. This game is about positioning and maneuver and not about the luck of the dice. Damage is based on the type of Traits the planes have such as the 20mm Gun found on the Zero. This 20mm Gun will do 2 Damage if it has an enemy plain in its sight and the x2 red hex in their Field of Fire is lined up on the target plane. This was my favorite part of the game and I love that the real challenge lies in getting into the right position to shoot, and if possible at a target that has lost its combat potential or in other words has already been activated. The dodge attempt might be automatic, but in order to succeed, it is necessary to be well placed, because once a first plane has been dodged, a second one may very well be maneuvered by your opponent to take advantage of your activation. Everything on the battlefield boils down to choices having been made and how those choices either set you up for success or place you in harm’s way!
The game also contains Ships for both sides. These include Aircraft Carriers and Destroyers and each has their own unique cardboard cutout showing their historical name on one end and the length of the ship measured by the number of ocean hexes that they cover. Destroyers are small escort ships and only take up 2 hexes while the Aircraft Carriers are large and displace 3 ocean hexes worth of terrain on the board. These Ships are typically targets for the enemy or are the focal point of where certain reinforcements come on the bard throughout the turns. These ships have to move each round as well and just move one hex. The number of hits that they can take is determined by their length so Destroyers take 2 hits to sink and Aircraft Carriers take 3 hits to sink.
One other aspect about the Ships is their ability to utilize flak to create a shield around themselves and force enemy planes to come at them by a certain route to drop their bombs or torpedoes. This allows the defender to know the routes that their attackers might take and plan accordingly by utilizing their planes defensively. All hexes of a Ship are equipped with anti-aircraft defenses and they cannot move although they move with the Ship and change their locations after each Ship movement. These anti-aircraft defenses have a Field of Fire that extends into the 6 adjacent hexes as well as their own hex. As soon as a plane passes through a flak marked square, it automatically suffers damage. Flak does 1 damage so the tougher SBD’s and TBD’s can absorb this hit and continue on to their targets if they were undamaged when they entered the space.
Initiative is Key
The game uses this really interesting concept of initiative to attempt to replicate the chaos of aerial combat and give an advantage to the player who can keep their groups in tighter formations at the same altitude and in good shape. The designer stated that “planes when at high altitude with well organized groups should have a tactical advantage over a player whose planes are in disorder, at low altitude or are damaged.” This is where the concept of initiative comes into the game. The initiative is also somewhat of a game balancer as a player who is in trouble and has lost a bunch of planes wins more easily the initiative and so it balances the game a bit. This reflects the concept of communication and command and control. A smaller force of planes can more easily maneuver and follow orders to destroy targets than can a large, scattered and damaged force at multiple levels of altitude.
First let’s take a look at how Initiative is calculated. Handicap points are counted at the beginning of each round and the player with the least handicap has the initiative for that turn. In case of a tie, the initiative remains with the player who had it the previous turn. Initiative is determined at the beginning of each subsequent turn by counting up the Handicap points. Each of the players will have to count their handicap for all their planes still in
play and these are measured by air groups. Air groups are just groups of planes that are adjacent and at the same altitude. The points are calculated by adding up the totals of each of the different types, which include +1 handicap point for an air group at high altitude, +2 handicap points for an air group at low altitude and +1 handicap point per damaged plane. After this calculation, the player with the fewest handicap points gets the initiative.
Why does this matter? The initiative is very important. It allows you to not only play first and take that decisive move and action to drop a bomb or take out an enemy threat before they can react but also gives you the opportunity to decide to pass and let things play out in front of you before committing to any action. This passing also allows your planes to have not been activated and have the opportunity to dodge when attacked by an enemy plane. Having this initiative just gives the player a lot of options and flexibility to how and when they activate their planes in anticipation of their opponent’s moves and while taking into account things like target location, a plane’s damage status, being near to reaching protective cloud cover, etc. This initiative is really essential in the game to gaining the upper hand and dictating the action of the game. Once we realized how powerful initiative was, we were desperately trying to keep it or take it away during our game. This game within the game was really tense and created a very interesting cat and mouse situation. It truly felt like life and death as some of the planes just cannot survive because they have poor maneuverability, movement or a limited Field of Fire and letting your opponent show you what they are doing is really key to them being able to survive.
Sequence of Play is Fast and Easy
While playing, we immediately picked up the Sequence of Play as it is really very simple. A game turn is just divided into three phases. Phase 1 is when the players count their handicap and determine who has the initiative for the turn. Phase 2 is where the action happens and players take turns activating their planes. Phase 3 is after all of the planes on the board have been activated and then players will have to move the ships, torpedoes that have been dropped and reinforcements will arrive. That is it! They really did a great job of keeping this one simple and to the point. This was mainly accomplished due to the simplified activation system and how other things like altitude are abstracted to either high or low. The Sequence of Play is perfect for the goal of this game which is not so much to be a highly detailed simulation of aerial dog fighting and maneuvers but a simplified skirmish type game that has some heady strategy and decisions while keeping things simple.
I even really enjoy the fact that there are no dice. You either hit or your opponent dodges you. There is no chance. No dice luck. And no frustrating reliance on luck. You make decisions and those decisions seal your fate based on a simplified view of the aerial battlefield. Just a really great experience that I know we will come back to in the future! Remember, there are lots of cute little cardboard planes. And ships!
I hope you enjoyed this very quick look at Fighters of the Pacific. This game was a big hit with us and we are really glad that we spent the $40.00 to get it after the Kickstarter had already delivered. We missed the Kickstarter so we missed out on the extra content but what is in the Core game box is enough to keep any air naval combat enthusiast entertained. The game play with this one is just really smooth and keeps you engaged as each decision, whether made about your planes moving or attacking your opponents planes, is an opportunity. But opportunities are short lived and will not wait on you so you have to be engaged and have a plan in order to survive in the air over the Pacific Ocean.
One thing I wanted to mention is that the game does offer a Solitaire Mode that has its own rulebook. I didn’t yet get a chance to play it solitaire but it does look interesting and seems to work. I will get it played solo sometime soon and do a video review so keep your eye out!
If you are intrigued by this game, there is a Kickstarter that just started a few weeks ago for the European Theater version called Fighters of Europe. You can also pick up a copy of Fighters of the Pacific as an add-on in that campaign. Here is the link to the Kickstarter page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/338597945/fighters-of-europe?ref=mishigeek
I feel the game benefits from a timer of sorts too. If allowed, players can take too long finding the optimal decision.
Also use the “if it’s laid, it’s played” method. Don’t allow players to pick a piece back up unless it’s an illegal move.
Pilots made mistakes too.
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Good point. We found that this was a bit of a distraction as you just don’t want to lift your finger off that counter until you have made sure you are safe.