Friday, December 3, 2010

Another Review from BROG #2: PacWar Classics (Fresno)

                       MATERIAL GIRL

PACIFIC WAR CLASSICS, Vol.1:  The Island Battles of Tarawa and Saipan; adapted by MIKE CRANE, with TERRY SHRUM


Two 22" x 33" maps, one 17" x 22" map; 960 counters; One Rules /Scenario/Commentary Booklet; 5 Player-aid Cards; 1 10-sided die; $30

Reviewed by PAUL DANGEL

Ever notice how apartment builders always designate everything they rent out as a "luxury " apartment? The appellation is slapped onto anything that could vaguely qualify as habitable, as if no one would ever bother to show up at the leasing office if the 12' x 15' plasterboard box they're about to be shown were to be given any other designation. After about a decade or so of this, I automatically assume that any dwelling that has "luxury" attached to it immediately qualifies as architectural shoddy.  The folks at FGA seem to be intent on doing the same for "classics".

Although FGA made its debut only last July (at ORIGINS '91)  it quickly set two, new publishing standards: dazzling (and sometimes overwhelming) game graphics, and uniformly incomprehensible game rules. Both accomplishments quickly entitled  FGA games to be dubbed the "Dumb Blondes" of the hobby; they're nice to look at, but don't expect any rewarding intellectual interaction with them. Unfortunately, their latest magnum dopus, Pacific War Classics, Vol. I (and one can only pray that that Roman numeral is more of a threat than a promise) doesn't do anything to challenge both aspects of this reputation. That, however,  is not surprising since, apparently,  FGA doesn't think it's doing anything wrong.

Let's start with the first thing you see. The PWC-I box is a perfect example of the glitzy, computer-enhanced confusion that comes out of FGA. On the front we have a bright map and colored counter depicting some part of the game or historical situation. That's probably what got you to notice the box in the first place. It's on the back of the box where the mystery begins. Right off, there's a blurb informing you that PWC-I uses a "system similar to the one Mike Crane and Terry Shrum developed for GMT's Operation Shoestring...".  Hey, must be a good game! The rest of the copy goes on to describe the battle at Tarawa Atoll. Wait a second . . . what about Saipan, you ask? The title on the front says "Saipan". Well, there is a "contents" list that tells you that there are 2.5 maps, over 1400 counters, plus rules and history booklets. With that many maps and counters, a Saipan game must be in the box.

You read on . . . and your eyes bug out farther than Barbara Bush's in a bear-hug. when you see that the map scale is 35 yards per hex and a turn represents two hours!  Oohmigosh . . . Saipan at 35 yards per hex and two hours per turn?  The real battle took almost a month to complete. . .  hmm, let's see, that's somewhere around 720 turns!!! Are they kidding?  You're confused (or ought to be) . . . and if you're smart you'll put that box down faster than a heckler at a Don Rickles concert. I normally consider box covers irrelevant to a game review, but PWC's instantly exemplifies how marvelously consistent FGA is in their scatterbrained, public-be-damned approach to all aspects of game production.

Assuming you go against (y)our better judgement and buy PWC-I, your spirits will be lifted when you see the excellent quality of the maps and counters. There are one and half maps for Tarawa and one map for Saipan (yes, Virginia, there is a Saipan). Saipan on one map at 35 yards per hex?? Well, not exactly . . . the Saipan map scale is actually 1.8 miles per hex. The 35 yards per hex mentioned on the box is, of course, for the Tarawa game. The Tarawa map is excellent. Depicted are coastal gun emplacements, buildings, rifle pits, bunkers, pillboxes, palm trees, the sea wall, piers and several terrain features I haven't stumbled upon yet. The Saipan map looks almost mundane compared to Tarawa's (actually Betio Island), but it still ranks as superior when compared to the industry norm. It is mostly open, with splotches of rough terrain, jungles, swamps, towns, airfields and such, so if Tarawa's congestion bogs you down you can always hit the "wide open" spaces of Saipan.

In this beauty contest the maps get only the "runner-up" prize. The "glitz" crown has to go to the counters, which are by far the best FGA has done. They not only satisfy all normal gaming demands for clarity and  function, but they are a joy to just gaze upon (which, all things considered, is the recommended course of action here). The aircraft counters, in particular, stand out. They are overhead views of U.S. and Japanese fighters, bombers and flying boats done in previously-unseen graphic detail on one-half inch counters. Panel lines, canopy frames, camouflage patterns and national insignias are correct and distinct. (Say, is that Amelia Earhart???) Ain't computers wonderful! The naval units are still done in silhouettes but at least they're done with the correct silhouettes. While the land units are more colorful than what you would expect for WWII armies, they are not quite as garish as those in FGA's Operation Crusader. We do, however, note one of those "mystery embellishments" that dot the FGA landscape, like auto wrecks in a Mad Max movie. The box states that there are over 1400, back-printed counters inside; actually, there are only 960. Given FGA's philosophy to design "games" as opposed to "simulations", that comes as something of a relief. Misinformation, however, seems to be a quasi-Stalinist way of life at FGA. No arguing with how great they look, though.  If the extent of your involvement in this hobby is to set up a game just for its visual impact, you won't be disappointed with PWC-I. If playing is part of your repertoire, that's a different story altogether.      

One final comment about the components. There is supposed to be an Historical Commentary included with PWC-I. The only thing resembling this is a rambling account of the Pacific War's early stages, and a mostly anecdotal description of the fighting on Tarawa. There is no hard data worth reading; no explanation of forces, tactics, or plans, and absolutely nothing on the Saipan campaign. There's as much usable history here as on the ingredients list for Marshmallow Fluff.  Perhaps it was simply a typo: they meant "hysterical", not "historical".  The word from Fresno is that their "historian", Mike Crane, is or was (or wanted to be) a professor of history; he's more of a living argument against tenure.

TARAWA is billed as an introductory level game using something called STS (Simple Tactical System). Hmm, having read the box cover, I thought it was supposed to use GMT's Operation Shoestring system. Oh, well. Anyway, STS is nothing more than a rudimentary form of the Turn-Continuation (TCT) system pioneered by Richard Berg back in 1987. Like TCT, an STS game turn consists of each player alternately performing movement and combat actions, subject only to the turn ending. That happens only when the players decide they don't want to do anything else, or when a player rolls a "10" combat result followed immediately by an "End Turn Check" die roll of a "9" or "10",  a 2% probability rate.  Thus, like TCT the players can never tell how long a turn will last or what they'll be able to achieve during it. Unlike TCT, actions are performed strictly alternately; a player never gets to perform two consecutive actions unless his opponent passes. Also, unlike most TCT-style games, there are no random events - which is neither good nor bad, simply worth mentioning.

STS is successful, in that it gives the game a chess-like feel. Also handled well are beach landing procedures, which in other silmulations are often a game within a game. Units can enter enemy occupied hexes but must pass a "Proficiency Check" to do so. (Ah, at least there's something from the Shoestring game.)  Combat can take the form of fire, or assault when opposing units occupy the same hex, resolved by a ten-sided dieroll result heavily modified for terrain and weapon-types. The American player gets an unlimited number of naval/air bombardment attacks per turn, and there are special rules for Japanese defense installations (bunkers, pillboxes, condos, etc.), American LTV's, and Japanese banzai charges.          

STS does have its drawbacks, however; most particularly with the somewhat annoying "Opportunity Fire", a mechanic that requires players - if successful - to retrace movement paths that can sometimes stretch up to 8-10 hexes. It also seems silly for a stack of units that loses half its strength from an opportunity fire hit to continue on to its destination as though nothing happened!  
All in all, the ST System works quite well. It's fast, the dieroll modifiers are quickly assimilated, and,
except for opportunity fire, the general feel of play is good. So why  is TARAWA another "Dumb Blonde"?
Because, like most creatures of that ilk, the game is so exasperating that it takes all the fun out of the evening. The umpteen rules errors and omissions are so outlandish as to be inexcusable. For instance:
•• Even though the rules state that "each hex will contain only one type of predominate (sic) terrain" many hexes DO contain more than one type. Nowhere will you learn if terrain costs are cumulative where terrain is mixed in a hex.
•• One sentence tells you that, when several  dieroll modifiers apply to a combat, use the one most favorable to the defender. Yet all the charts state that all such DRM's are cumulative!
•• On the firing unit vs target unit modifier chart there are some unit types missing and others not explained. (I guess you have to guess.) 
•• The rules introduction does say that " . . . the rules sections are written in an outline manner and are further defined in the Examples of Play section of the Appendix." Excuse me! What the hell am I paying for here. Let's go back to Business Practices 1a:  "Consumer Pays the Bucks, Producer Does the Work."  You guys miss that class?  (Ed. They probably cut to do research . . . .) In any case, don't bother
looking for those helpful little hints, because someone has performed an appendectomy on the rules book. Seems they called the wrong specialist; what they really needed was a lobotomist.

If you have the time and determination (and the Maalox) to fill in the rules gaps you'll find that TARAWA is an enjoyable game (which only further fuels my anger at FGA's slipshod development effort).  Initial set-up, however, is another hurdle you have to overcome, and a rather lengthy obstacle at that. The Japanese player deploys about 200 infantry, light armor and weapons units sections. To optimize their placement and fields of fire, this takes considerable time. The Japanese weapons inventory rivals that of our local Jamaican drug posse, with everything from 13mm machine guns to 8" naval guns. (Wait a second, didn't the box cover say TARAWA was an "introductory game"?? I guess they also cut the "Truth in Advertising" lecture, too.) To assault this fortress the American player has several hundred marine platoons, artillery, engineer, armor and LVT units. His problem is not firepower; it's time. He has 26 turns to clear the island of every Japanese defender, without eradicating American forces equivalent to the population of Chicago in the
process. The Japanese player simply has to hold out to win a decisive victory. This applies even if the only unit left represents a one-eyed sushi chef armed with Ginsu knives. Tres bushido.

Despite being in the same game-box, SAIPAN, an operational level treatment of the U.S. land, air
and naval campaign against the Japanese island in June/July, 1943, uses a very different system! Instead of the STS that TARAWA sports, SAIPAN's turn sequence follows the tried-and-true, "Igo, Hugo" method for the land portion, with an air/naval phase tacked onto the beginning of the game turn.  In one of those unintentionally hilarious statements that are rapidly becoming an FGA trademark, the introduction to the rules says that if you've played FGA's Operation Crusader you'll have no trouble playing SAIPAN. Given that OC featured one of the most disastrously opaque set of rules this hobby has seen in decades (cf. BROG #1), this premise can serve only to strike fear into the hearts of the previously initiated.

As it turns out, the only similarity shared by SAIPAN and OC is the combat resolution method, and even that is stretching it more than a tad. I guess that FGA took the only parts of OC that they could figure out themselves (which eliminated much) and pasted them into SAIPAN. There are no supply units, no supply lines, no fortifications, no unit remnants, no special unit type rules, etc. . . .  Even though the land game rules encompass only two pages, those two pages still leave sufficient room for some remarkably aggravating contradictions! For instance, the assault combat rules say that "Proficiency checks are NOT made . . .".  Yet, on the same page, the point is made that proficiency checks are made in Maneuver and Assault combat. Does anyone at FGA read this stuff? Does anyone at FGA care?

Having run the gauntlet of the land rules, the air/naval rules will then take you to a level of frustration
where no gamer has gone before. As near as I can figure from the sequence of play, each player can move his naval/air units to adjacent sea zones, conduct searches for enemy units, and launch attacks. You'd think that the mechanics for the search procedure, the most crucial aspect of a carrier/naval game, would be sufficiently, if not lavishly, explained and illustrated. FGA, in its infinite lack of wisdom, dispenses with that sort of unnecessary piffle. Explanations, bah. Examples? Why bother? FGA covers it all in two sentences, supported by a table the use of which is never explained!

Air to air combat is resolved by pairing off opposing air units in the same sea zone. How this pairing is to be done is left up to your own imagination (which is probably infinitely more fertile than theirs, so, perhaps, they ARE taking the right approach). Which player gets to decide what air units get paired against each other? The rules certainly won't tell you. Maybe you have to send in for their "Oracle at Delphi" Newsletter (and that'll be $10 please). But the rules do refer  to "holding boxes"; too bad none exist on the sea zone chart. Then again, you will find a "Ground Attack" box in each sea zone . . . but what are you suppose to do with them, since all the ground units are on the Saipan Island map? We are now entering The Twilight Zone of game design.

I did managed to play two turns of SAIPAN, a feat made possible (if not enjoyable) by making up my own  rules as I went along. I gave up on the third turn, when the EverReady Rabbit, wearing a samurai sword, came drumming across the map. The joke, it seems,  was on me.

Who should buy PWC-I, or any FGA product for that matter?  If you're the kind a gamer who loves to tinker with every game you get - even if it's the perfection of design, development, and production (of which this game is the antithesis) - then FGA was created for you.  They probably had you in mind. . .  because they certainly had little else up there in that creative vacuum. As for the rest of you, if you
think you're looking for a good game or a decent simulation for $30, spend your money elsewhere. Oops, I used the word "simulation" and FGA makes a big "to do" about not creating "simulations". They do "games", instead. Could have fooled me (which is their intention, it seems). PWC-I makes distinctions between Japanese "Zeke" and "Oscar" fighters for the SAIPAN operational level design, and provides different counters for mountain guns and field guns for TARAWA, even when there are no mountains in which to use such distinctions. These, along with a counter-mix that would cause heart murmers in a Europa addict, are the marks of a simulation, dear reader, not a game. But no matter, FGA can't design games either. The only designs they have are on your wallet.


Physical Quality: Excellent; far and away, the best in the industry.

Playability: Depends on whose rules you use. If you use their's, the blonde turns real ugly. Be prepared to do your own development work if you want to play this do-it-yourself

Historicity: Hard to say because the rules are so bad you never know if you're playing the game as designed. Then again, FGA says it's a game, not a simulation, so perhaps this is not supposed to matter.

Comparisons:  Decision Games' recent Tarawa: Red Beach One (S&T 142) is the antithesis of FGA's rendition, i.e. physically blah but generally (if not that enjoyably) playable. The old S&T (#92) Iwo Jima, a solitaire game of infinitely greater complexity, is a lot more interesting, and almost as colorful!  (Ed. the designers of IJ, Rohde & Gillette, are fairly major movers and shakers in the baseball stat industry these days.) And then there's Roger Nord's Okinawa (Wargamer #55), of which little is remembered. The old SPI Pacific Battles Quad, although certainly not a raging success, was probably more along the lines of what FGA is looking to do.

Overall: Playing Pacific War Classics, Vol. I is like an evening with Madonna.
It looks great. . . and (but?) you're sure to get screwed.


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