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Year: 2024

Guadalcanal: Jungle Jamboree

Guadalcanal by Keinichi Nakamura, 1943

We return to Ark Royal’s Guadalcanal for the second part of the AAR. In the first part, I managed to establish a foothold on the island, rebuild the airfield and destroy 2 of the 6 Japanese depots (“camps”), but constant Japanese attacks drained my manpower and I was forced on the defensive for 10 turns until, finally, I received massive reinforcements turn 25. I had 91 force points shared between 12 surviving Marines units, so less than 8 force points each on average. The 57 reserve points will allow me to push that number to more than 12!

In any case, it has been a while, so a few recaps below:

Status turn 25.
Tactical situation at the start of turn 25. As a reminder, the “P” on the coastlines are depleted units I try to keep out of harm’s way.
I added red circles at the known locations of two Japanese depots.
Making the best of the lack of hi-res graphics

Raid to the East (turns 25-34)

I need to focus on destroying the depots, so instead of allocating replacements equally between all my units, I strengthen as much as possible three elite units (units with 5 experience – the maximum possible). I also turn one of them into a “patrol” which has half-strength but maximum mobility. The plan is simple: the patrol will beeline for the depots with massive air support, while the normal units will shield the patrol from counter-attacks. As for the rest of the replacements, they will be used to buff a few pivotal defensive units.

And off we go. High-experience and high strength points do wonders, with the Japanese attackers receiving up to 10 losses by battle!

Turn 27. My defensive unit (the X near the coast) inflicts 10 damage on the Japanese. You can also see my elite force in the Jungle in the West and the repositioning of all my weak units toward the middle of the map, further away from the area targeted by Japanese bombers.

With the planes scouting the way, my patrol approaches the river depot. I thought it was defenceless but, unexpectedly, a Japanese unit returned (or spawned) on the depot between the moment my plane checked it and the moment my patrol arrived:

One turn later, after more air strikes, my patrol captures the 3rd Japanese depot.

I receive some decent reinforcements turn 30 (25 reserve points), but I feel I still have enough juice in my raid to move directly to the fourth Japanese depot and capture it:

It is now turn 34, and I have 4 more enemy depots to capture – and only meagre reinforcements this time:

Holding the line – again (turns 35-40)

In a back and forth that is now usual in Guadalcanal, the Japanese decide to come back in force from the North and the South. At least, I don’t need to defend the West, because all the camps in that direction have been neutralized:

Turn 38

My defensive units are overwhelmed, which means I must use those badly depleted units I had in the middle of my camp. I lose one of them, but eventually the Japanese are pushed back, in large part because I had accumulated many naval supports and even the most depleted unit can direct this on the Japanese.

Disasters (turns 41-49)

At this point, I know the drill:

  • Detect an enemy depot with a combination of [I]intelligence and air [S]earch,
  • Send a small cadre of units supported by a massive air force,
  • Reach the camp,
  • Reinforce and repeat.

The game itself supports this approach, by giving me another massive wave of reinforcements turn 40. In addition to that, I replenish my Seabees and receive +1 air ops forever (as I do every 20 turns).

Intelligence reported an enemy depot in the North slightly West of the coastline, and another one South near the coast – individual reports are not very accurate, but several reports give me a good general idea of where to send my planes, and indeed I soon find a depot in the North:

In the South, I regrouped a much larger force waiting for my scouts to report the location of a Japanese depot, but I can’t seem to find it – even after enlarging the perimeter of my searches:

Each “/” is a search, so I have been systematic!

As I grow increasingly frustrated with my air searches, I consume more air missions in searches than I should. I don’t care about keeping a reserve for air superiority anyway; I have almost no units left in camp and the occasional Japanese bombers have thoroughly missed so far – so much so that I reckoned the game had a “pity” system (a system that rigs the game in favour of the player) to avoid hitting the airfield too much.

I was wrong:

Turn 43 – 4 hits on my airfield!

That’s not good! What’s worse is that my engineers are currently far away from the airfield, cutting through the jungle, so I need to rush them. Meanwhile, I have half the number of air missions I used to have, which means the Japanese bomb me a lot more.

It is now important to remember that in Guadalcanal enemy movement is peculiar: they move between your own movements, with usually one unit moving one square (sometimes they don’t move at all, sometimes they have 2 impulses in a row). And the fewer units the Japanese have, the more often the surviving units move as the pool of eligible units is smaller. And guess what? The Japanese are down to around 10 units according to intelligence… and two of them are now racing to my HQ, all while the bombers hit my airfield again and again:

Surprise Japanese push turn 45! That unit in the South bypassed my troops by hugging the coastline.

If the Japanese reach my HQ, they will drain my supplies and my future replacements, so I can’t allow that. But what do I have to defend you ask? Well, my Seabees, which are not prime combat units, and who are not repairing the airfield when fending off starved Japanese.

The rest of the Japanese seem to be in the South aggressively attacking my Southern group and causing some significant damage because I can’t punish them from the air and I am all out of naval support – and yet I have to pull some of my units from that group to rush to the defence of the airfield. My losses are catastrophic!

The only silver lining is that I find one of the Northern depots, with intelligence immediately telling me that there is another nearby:

I destroyed the depot where my # unit is, and intelligence gives me the general -location of the remaining with this “?”

When the Japanese offensive finally runs out of steam, I’ve lost 4 combat units and one unit of Seabees. The rest of the Marines are not looking much better:

Fortunately, the war on the sea must have gone better, because the supply ship brings me more men than it ever did! I still have a chance!

If “Field Strength” had fallen below 45, it would have been an instant defeat

Alternate reality (turns 50-60+)

Well, the Japanese yelled their last Banzai, and they are down to 5 units.

On my side, I am now racing against the clock. It is over for a “decisive” victory (I would’ve had to win in fewer than 45 turns), but I can still achieve a “conditional” victory (fewer than 60 turns), or at worst a “marginal” victory (fewer than 75 turns).

I eventually find another Northern camp…

… but I still can’t find the Southern ones. They are not where it they are supposed to be according to intelligence. I spend more than one hour trying to be smart, requesting more intelligence, sending air searches in a systematic pattern and, as I found out to my dismay, fending off new full-strength fresh Japanese troops that soared their “total number” to 11. And yet, I can’t find any of those stupid depots! I eventually grow frustrated, move the game to warp speed, and go full stupid:


I start to wonder if the missing two depots might be in the middle of the sea, or maybe off-map. Speaking of off-map, I check whether the map can go further than it can scroll. I send a patrol to the border of the “scrollable” map and, what do you know, the map scrolls further. It scrolls for 2 more lines of jungles, and then enters bug world:

A few reloads were involved, that’s why the “search” dash disappeared.

I comb all the new “jungle” squares, but still find nothing. There have been quite a few bugs already: patches of jungle being replaced in the middle of nowhere by “clear” terrain, letters which don’t signify anything appearing in some other places, so I reckon there is another bug that makes the game quite simply unwinnable.

Still, just in case, I send a patrol to the general area where the intelligence tells me one of the depots should be…

… well, I find it. Between two air searches that never revealed it.

I reload one of my early saves to check (turn 8!), and I am not mistaken: air search never revealed the existence of this specific depot. The manual never hinted that air search could fail (“any Japanese camps (reverse ‘O’) or units (red checked) located in the 3 X 3 search pattern will briefly appear“) so it is a bug in my book. I reload to turn 50, which is when I had started to really push for the Southern depots.

The real (?) end (turns 50 – 56)

I am now armed with the knowledge that air searches are not 100% effective (and, to be fair, with the exact location of one of those depots). I easily cap the closest depot and then send patrols in the general area of the last intelligence report. I find my target on turn 56:

This random “Q” out of nowhere is one of the bugs I was talking about.

That’s a conditional victory:

I never managed to rebuild the airfield, the Japanese kept bombing it

Do I deserve this victory? I am not sure. The manual made it clear that the invisible Japanese camps could only be a bug, but maybe I should have been more suspicious and sent a patrol in the general area where intelligence told me there was one. I would certainly have done that, I think, if I trusted the game and Ark Royal games. But if your games are riddled with bugs or design oversights, I am going to assume by default that the issue is with the game, and not with me.

Ratings & Reviews

Guadalcanal, by Philip Keller, published by Ark Royal Games, USA
Genre: Land operations
First release: April 1984 on Color Computer
Average duration of a campaign: More than 3 hours
Total time played: 5 hours
Average (2/5)
Final Rating: Two-stars
Ranking at the time of review: 25/121

As with all the Ark Royal wargames, I could not piece up much about Guadalcanal – I could not even find a review for it. All I can say is that Philip Keller must have been happy with it, because it was one of his few games with a re-edition (1987 according to the manual), and the one he earmarked to be distributed in shareware – if you liked it Keller asked you to “make a contribution (no more than $10.00) to Ark Royal Games, POB 14806, Jacksonville, Fl, 32238.” Unfortunately, a quick internet check reveals that Ark Royal Games has moved, so I am not able to send the 10 dollars.

A. Presentation: Very poor. I forgive the lack of graphics for a game that represents well the campaign of Guadalcanal, but I cannot forgive the many bugs of all sorts.

B. UI, Clarify of rules and outcomes: Very poor. I am still upset at either Keller leaving a critical bug in the game or not being transparent about the real efficacy of air searches. Beyond this, a myriad of UI issues and inconsistencies – individually too small to cover – plague the game due to their sheer number. In addition to this, after having played a full campaign, I am still not sure about the role of the Japanese camps beyond being objectives: do they generate new units, or do they only refill existing units, and if the latter under which constraints?

C. Systems: Good. The game shines in this category. I am particularly impressed at the number of options that the game gives to the players, with most of them involving a sacrifice of some sort. For instance, let’s talk about the Marines:

  • Marines can attack at close range, which is efficient but costly in strength points,
  • Alternatively, they can use their mortars, which are much less efficient and drain supplies – it is an option I seldom used early on because in my test game I ran out of supplies and got paranoid about this,
  • They can also do some intelligence, and the closest they are to the enemy the better the intelligence is (but then a unit close to the frontline could have done something more useful),
  • They can order naval support – air support on the other hand is a free action,
  • Finally, you have the option of turning them into patrols, making them much weaker, but incredibly mobile (12 movement points instead of 6, and no terrain penalty when moving),

Similarly, Seabees should certainly be allocated to the airfield in priority, but once it is built, you have the choice between clearing the jungle (which means they are going to take some time to return to the airfield if needed) or using them as weak combat units that you recover every 20 turns. As for your air assets, every air search or air attack you use increases the chance of a Japanese air raid on your base – and keep in mind that if your Seabees are far away from the airfield, you really, really don’t want a Japanese raid on your airfield.

At the strategic level, you have another layer of decisions: how to allocate the reinforcements, where to push and where to defend, but also when to push given the fact that the Japanese attack by waves and given the supply ship schedule, a schedule which can be perturbed if you lose air superiority, so another element to take into account.

I liked the fact that I could “change” the terrain, an option rare in this kind of game but which makes total sense in this context.

I feel the game is weaker at the “combat” level:

  • no armour or special weapon – Seabees and the regular Marines fight in the same way, the only advantage of the regular units is that their maximum strength is much higher – at some point it gets a bit monotonous,
  • only one terrain bonus (“behind a river”, which rarely happens) and no entrenchment either,
  • weird “retreat” and “zone of control” behaviour, for instance the Japanese just waltz through your lines because they don’t always retreat after combat and can move several times in a row

D. Scenario design & balancing: Adequate. The scenario is well-designed, alternating moments where you go on the offensive and moments where you are trying to hold the line. Still, the game could have been much better with more diversified terrain (too much jungle, not enough rivers to make the difference).

The AI is not as good as I first thought: contrary to my first impression, it does not consistently retreat to refill its troops, what’s more likely is that depleted units are not selected by the AI for movement and keep retreating when attacked, so they disappear from sight. When there are a lot fewer units to choose from, the AI attacks with its depleted units, stupidly losing them.

The campaign was a bit too long: toward the end it felt as if the game forgot about the expectation it had created about Japanese behaviour and started creating enemy units out of thin air. I reached a point where I wanted to finish the game as soon as possible, and the last turns were about abusing the patrol mode and allocating all my air assets to air support. I liked the game, but I would never replay it.

E. Did I make interesting decisions? Every turn until almost the end, with almost every unit.

F. Final rating: Two stars. I was so frustrated with the “invisible depot” bug that I almost tagged the game “obsolete”, so I forced myself to wait a bit for the frustration to mellow before writing this review. Looking back, once you know about the issue you can consider it an impromptu feature (“the Japanese hid those depots particularly well“) and the combination of intelligence and patrol mode is efficient enough that you have a fall-back solution when air search fails. Therefore, I don’t think this bug should weigh too heavily against the game, which is otherwise original and well thought-out, as marred as it is by dry graphics, sub-par UX and a throng of odd bugs and game behaviours. It definitely activated my “just one last turn” neuron for a good chunk of the campaign.

Phil Keller was certainly a better designer than a coder, and I am looking forward to his next games. I am lucky: he released no fewer than 6 historic wargames in 1984!