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Game #43 : Guadalcanal Campaign (1982) – Battle of the Coral Sea

If it was rereleased today, it would probably be as Gary Grisby’s Guadalcanal Campaign

SSI’s Guadalcanal Campaign is the first game by a young designer that would soon become famous among wargamers : Gary Grisby. With it, Grisby created a new category of computer games, a category that remained attached to his name to this day : “monster wargames

Monster wargames” come from tabletop wargaming : they are a catch-all term for the kind of massive wargames that needed weeks to complete and typically involved more than one thousand counters. This trend started in 1973 with GDW’s Drang Nach Osten! (which despite its length and complexity still required two expansion kits if you wanted to finish the war), but no monster game is as famous – or infamous – as SPI’s The Campaign for North Africa, released in 1978 and still legendary today due to the absurd amount of details the players were supposed to keep track of. An often-quoted example is the different rate of evaporation of fuel between the axis (3% a week) and the allies (7% at the beginning, 3% later on) due to the different qualities of the containers but really, the manual has a plethora of similar comically detailed rules. Find your own byzantine rules in the manual here !

Since the length of monster wargames was as much or more due to computation than to actual gameplay, it is quite natural that they would find more fertile ground on a computer than on tabletop. Gary Grisby’s ambition with Guadalcanal Campaign was to cover the entirety of the naval part of the eponymous campaign, which means keeping track of more than one hundred ships, their planes, their cargo and their (localized !) damage. I will give more detail on the historical context in a future post, suffice to say for now that Guadacanal Campaign covers events spanning from the 7th of August 1942 to the last day of December 1942, and that each day is represented by two turns (day-time and night-time), so around 290 turns in total. Each day takes by my estimation a minimum of 5 minutes to play on a modern computer (there is a lot more to do during day-turns than during night-turns), and probably several times that back in 1982 – so we are talking about a minimum of 12 hours to complete a campaign on a modern computer. It does not seem that much compared to our standard, but that’s more than any earlier wargame (Southern Command is the one that took me the longest – 7 hours) and it is also longer than many contemporary RPGs (Ultima I took the cRPGAddict 8 hours to complete).

Guadalcanal Campaign also offers several smaller scenarios (amusingly called “mini-games” even though several of them take more than one hour to complete), and a shorter campaign starting in October. Most of the “mini-games” cover specific engagements of the Guadalcanal Campaign, but one covers a prior face-off : the Battle of the Coral Sea.

This first AAR will be about the Battle of the Coral Sea, because it happened historically first but also because it will allow me to show how the game works in “turn-by-turn” details. This should later enable me to remain very high level when I will cover the 290 turns mega-campaign.

The catalyst for the Battle of the Coral Sea is the Japanese’s plan to take Port Moresby in New Guinea to isolate Australia from the United States. The Japanese wanted to avoid a complicated and long land campaign by making a direct amphibious assault supported by three aircraft carriers : the Zuikaku, the Shokaku and the lighter Shōhō. What the Japanese did not know was that their radio code had been cracked by the British, and their plans intercepted. Port Moresby was seen as strategic to the allied effort so the Americans sent four aircraft carriers to thwart the Japanese plan, though only two of them would get there in time for the battle : the Lexington and the Yorktown.

The map that comes with the game. Only Port Moresby (West, middle), Cooktown, Rabaul and Truk are “active” in the Coral Sea scenario
The in-game equivalent at the opening of the scenario. The Task Force (TF) numbers are not historical

4th of May, 1942

The scenario starts on the 4th of May. Nominally, the objective is to stop the Japanese from landing troops in Port Moresby. But come on, we all know that the real objective of any Pacific War scenario is to sink the enemy aircraft carriers.

For this mission, I have 5 “Task Forces”, two of them include an aircraft carrier :

Guadalcanal Campaign has the historical order of battle, and I can check every single one of my 27 ships :

… and every single one of those ships has its own wikipedia page !

For the less naval-inclined among you, let me propose you a round of naval vocabulary about what the standardized two-letter code stands for :

  • CV = Aircraft carrier, also called fleet carrier,
    • The “C” is for Carrier, whether or not the V is from the French “Voler“(to fly) has been the object of endless debates,
  • CVL = Light aircraft carrier, I don’t have any, but the Japanese have one (the Shōhō),
  • CA = Heavy Cruiser,
    • The “C” is for Cruiser, the A used to be for Armored. All cruisers were eventually “armored” but the code stuck for heavier cruisers,
  • CL = Light Cruiser,
  • DD = Destroyer,
  • TK = Oil tanker,
  • TR = Transport, in this scenario this is only on the Japanese side,
  • SS = Submarine

This is all that we need for this AAR, though there are more types in Guadalcanal Campaign.

Back to the battle – for now I don’t have much of a plan, except heading toward Port Moresby with my carriers. The cruiser force will join with the Yorktown, while the oil tankers will stay close to the Australian coast. I am waiting for some news about the Japanese whereabouts. The game automatically sends floatplanes for this purpose : 10 for each base, and 1 for each cruiser ; they act as a sort of “base reconnaissance”, upon which I send additional planes to be sure to find the Japanese. Of course, those planes will not be available for a strike force if they find anything.

The Wildcats were the primary fighter planes of the US Navy in 1942, the Dauntless were dive bombers, and the (B-17) Fortress high-altitude bombers.

Some of my planes actually find something : a small Japanese fleet with an unidentified aircraft carrier !

That’s some daring long-range reconnaissance by whoever found that fleet.

The enemy task force is out of range for my planes, except my B-17 taking-off from Port Moresby and Cooktown. The enemy air cover is lacklustre (only one B-17 is shot down), but B-17 are very ineffective against ships and they cause no damage. At least I have a confirmation that I found the Shōhō, the Japanese Light Carrier. There are two Japanese fleet carriers still unaccounted for.

The Shōhō

The Japanese launch an air attack on Port Moresby with G3M2 Nell from Rabaul. Those almost obsolete bombers are ineffective, but there are 48 of them plus escort so they still cause some damage, destroying 5 planes on the ground.

5th of May, 1942

The following day, the sailors from the Yorktown wake up to a surprise :

The Japanese carriers are right there, with the Shōhō 5 “tiles” (or 300 nautical miles) North of the Yorktown, and the other carriers 5 tiles North and 3 tiles East of the Yorktown (350 nautical miles), so the equivalent of 5.8 “tiles”.

This is some incredible luck for the Japanese navy, because the American dive bombers happen to have a range of exactly 300 nautical miles, whereas the Japanese dive bombers and torpedo bombers have a range of 360 nautical miles. In other words, the Yorktown is in range of the Japanese fleet Carriers, whereas the Japanese fleet carriers are not in range of the Yorktown.

This leaves only one target for the Yorktown : the Shōhō. The American dive-bombers (SBD Dauntless) are immediately sent, while I leave very unwisely the Torpedo bombers on deck. A significant chunk of my fighters is left flying over the Yorktown for cover.

The American bombers reach the Shōhō first. The enemy air cover is not enough to stop my bombers !

And then, the attack :

The Shōhō received some serious punishment, but as my planes leave she is still floating somehow…

The Shōhō after my attack, probably

After that, it is the Yorktown‘s turn to suffer attacks by planes coming from 3 different Japanese aircraft carriers !

It turns out only one aircraft carrier – the Shōkaku – was needed. With all those Devastators on deck, munition loaded, enemy bombs are indeed devastating my carrier :

Leaving the Devastator on deck for a “counter-attack” was a stupid decision, no Japanese carrier was in range anyway. But then it was my first real game, and a good way to learn.
Historically, it was the Lexington that got sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea, so just imagine it is the Yorktown above.

The following Japanese attacks from the Shōhō and the Zuikaku, are less effective : without an obvious target, the attacks are spread out across several ships. Finally, my B-17 attack the Japanese fleet carriers, without effect.

At the end of the day, I learn that the planes from the Shōhō had to ditch in the sea, which means their carrier is either sunk or too damaged to be a threat.

That’s all for the day. During the night, one of my submarines manages to send torpedoes at the Shokaku, but they don’t explode – the American torpedoes at the beginning of the war were famously unreliable.

With one aircraft carrier sunk, I am lagging significantly in points :

My only chance is to sink one of the remaining enemy carriers with the Lexington. Sorry Port Moresby, I’ll let you fend off whoever is on those transports !

6th of May, 1942

During the night from the 5th to the 6th, I regrouped the remains of the Yorktown task force, the cruiser force and the Lexington task force in one group : the Lexington will be outnumbered so I need as much AA as I can muster. In addition, I move the Lexington close to Cooktown, so Wildcats from Cooktown can support the Lexington.

The Shōhō has disappeared from view, but the Shokaku and Zuikaku are still around. The Japanese transports are now half a day away from Port Moresby. Hopefully the folks there will manage because I decide to attack the Japanese fleet carriers ! I send the bombers without escort – I need all my fighters to protect the Lexington.

My 36 bombers meet some 20 fighters defending the Japanese aircraft carriers, but miraculously I only lose 4. Now it is time to attack :

Two hits on the Shokaku and one on the Zuikaku ? Uh. Disappointing. The B-17 as usual will do even worse.

Now it is time for the Japanese to attack the Lexington. The good news is that I positioned the Lexington task force very close from Cooktown, which means :

  • Some of the Cooktown’s planes allocated to long range air patrol will support the Lexington. The percentage of planes effective in defense depends on their distance to what is being defended : 73% at range 0 (for instance if two task forces are on the same tile) to 15% at range 5. At range 1, it is a bit more than 40%,
  • Should the Lexington be incapacited, the Lexington planes will not have to ditch into the ocean but will be able to land in Cooktown.

The number of American planes makes a significant dent in the attackers – I shoot down more than 20 planes. But the not-yet old adage “the bombers always get through” remains true and the rest of the Japanese planes attack my fleet. Initially, the Lexington is lucky. A couple of bombs land on her deck, but the Kate torpedo bombers from the Shokaku attack a destroyer for some reason. That destroyer is less fortunate, and sinks immediately.

The Russel. Historically it survived the war.

Sadly, the pilots from the Zuikaku are a bit better at distinguishing an aircraft carrier from a destroyer…

… but not that much better. Two more destroyers receive bombs. The Lexington survived the encounter ! I am guessing that after this attack, the Japanese distributed ship recognition guides to all their pilots :

I am French so I draw in cursive

Still, the Lexington is quite damaged, and now unable to send or receive more planes. Her bombers are forced to land in Cooktown. The two attacked destroyers are also crippled, with a top speed of 5 knots. I detach them in order not to slow down the rest of the task force.

There is no point in remaining in the area. I head South, as far away as possible from the Japanese carrier.

During the night, the Japanese transports disembark some troops and supplies, but not everything, as in the morning I find them on their way back already.

7th of May, 1942

On the morning of the 7th, I find the Japanese carrier fleet still relatively in the same location, with the transport fleet returning already :

I immediately order an attack from Cooktown. Sending all my planes, the Japanese defence is easily passed, and my planes attack the Japanese carriers :

I hit the Shokaku 3 times and the Zuikaku one time, sinking neither. The two aircraft carriers escape in the night

8th- 9th of May, 1941

All fleets are now out of range of each other, and nothing more happens.

End result :

This is a clear defeat for the American forces, and I am not looking forward to explaining to Admiral Nimitz how I lost one aircraft carrier and got another one disabled :

138 point difference. The manual states that anything above 125 is “decisive Japanese victory“.

The game offers to check the forces of the Japanese at the end of the game, and doing so I realized the Shōhō was slightly less damaged than I expected (either that, or it repaired).

The task force is also out of fuel, hence the speed of 5 knots

On the other hand, with more than 25% damage, the Shokaku was also disabled and unable to launch or receive planes – the planes themselves had transferred to the Zuikaku.

The result feels quite historical, just worse than reality for the US Navy. In real-life the Americans lost the Lexington and got the Yorktown lightly damaged, I lost the Yorktown and got the Lexington significantly damaged. The Americans lost a destroyer and a tanker, I lost a destroyer. The Japanese lost the Shōhō and got the Shokaku disabled, I disabled the Shōhō and the Shokaku. The key differences are that historically the Japanese did not land anything on Port Moresby and lost a few smaller ships.

After Midway Campaign, it is my second defeat against the Japanese. I will make sure there is no third defeat as I play the full campaign !

5 Comments

  1. baud baud

    Nice.

    > The Japanese launch an air attack on Port Moresby with G3M2 Nell from Port Moresby.

    I think the Japs are coming from Rabaul here.

  2. Gubisson Gubisson

    Re your intro on monster wargames, now I’m kinda dismayed to learn that the infamous pasta rule in Campaign for North Africa (the fact that Italian troops need to be distributed 1 extra ration of water to boil their pasta) was meant to troll players rather than to be taken literally!

  3. Harland Harland

    Oh, you can’t mention Campaign for North Africa without mentioning the pasta rule. See, water is precious in the desert and players need to keep track of it. But Italians eat pasta, and pasta has to be boiled in water. Therefore Italian units consume water at a greater rate than other units.

    This is a great example of the galaxy brains in charge of wargames in the 70s. The Italians didn’t eat pasta in the desert, they ate army rations like everyone else. But someone had a great idea and *just had* to put it in the game.

    Love that map that comes in the box. Pretty.

    Zuikaku is the bastard that sent my Granddaddy’s destroyer to the bottom at Guadalcanal. Sad to see it got away.

    Do you always have to play the Americans in single player? The Japanese computer player seemed to be able to carry out a successful offensive. It’s funny, these ancient games that run in 64k seem to have decent(ish) computer opponents while games of the 90s and later had computer players that could hardly move their pieces and often just sat still while the player attacked.

    • – Yeah, the infamous “pasta rule” is mentioned in the article I linked to. The designer claims that it was a joke because look the Italians cooked their pasta in the tomato sauce by directly heating the can, m’kay. Given the attention to details for every other rule, I suspect the designer only claimed it was a joke when people told him, as you say, that Italians did not consume more water than anyone.

      In any case, browsing through the rules is pretty interesting. For instance, you have extremely complicated rules about vehicles breaking down or destroyed, and in the case of trucks how to transfer the load from one vehicle to another, and then rules on which vehicles can be repaired in the field and which vehicles need to be towed (either to a “temporary repair station” or a “main repair station). Of course, you have rules about towing, and also the rules about repair are not exactly the same whether you are British, German or Italians. Oh, and the weather has an impact on both repair and towing.

      – Which destroyer was your father on ? The one destroyer I could find whose destruction is 100% attributed to the Zuikaku is the USS Sims, in the Battle of the Coral Sea

      – Only the Americans are playable in solitaire. Initially, the game was multiplayer only, but Billings told Grisby it would not do.

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