Tuesday 29 July 2014

revisiting Axis and Allies Guadalcanal

Axis and Allies Guadalcanal is a game I like a lot, despite having played it only once, in 2008. That's six years ago! Sometimes I ask myself - what am I thinking? A 6 year wait before playing one of my favourite games again?! I asked Heng to be my opponent, since he's a fan of the Axis & Allies series. He has shared his thoughts on and photos of our game on both Facebook and his blog. Take a look to see the game from his view point. He wanted to play the Japanese (orange), so I played USA (green).

The objective of the game is to gain 15pts. Points mainly come from controlling undamaged airfields, each of which scores 1pt at the end of every round. You also earn points by sinking enemy capital ships (battleships or aircraft carriers). The game board has six islands, five of which are controlled by the Japanese at the start of the game. The Americans have just invaded Guadalcanal and has control of it, but there are still some Japanese soldiers holding out. Both sides start with one airfield controlled, and more can be built by spending supply tokens.

Heng started off heavily reinforcing New Georgia. This was an important move because New Georgia had two spots for airfields. This move set the tone for the rest of the game, as you will see later.

At the start of the game, three islands were in range for amphibious attacks. As USA, I needed to control two more islands to achieve an economic balance. How much money you earn at the end of a round depends on how many islands you control. So I needed three islands in total to match the Japanese income.

I decided to play it safe, and went for the other two islands which Heng did not reinforce - Santa Isabel and Malaita. On Guadalcanal itself, I had three supply tokens which could be used to build a new airfield at the end of the round. The Japanese also had two tokens. There was one token on New Georgia. If I captured New Georgia, I could pool three tokens together to build another new airfield. This was one of the considerations for the Japanese when defending New Georgia.

I sent four fighters to support the invasion of Santa Isabel, while Heng also sent four to defend the island. The air battle went badly for me. I lost quite a few planes. The land battle went well, and I captured Santa Isabel.

End of Round 1 and beginning of Round 2. We had both built one new airfield, Heng's on Choiseul (top row, second island), and mine on Guadalcanal (bottom row, second island, i.e. at the bottom right corner). So we both scored 2pts. We each controlled three islands, so our income was equal. I had purchased a new carrier (still on my base card, off the main board, at the bottom right) to help bring fighters quickly to the front line. Unlike traditional Axis & Allies games, in Axis & Allies Guadalcanal, when carriers move, they carry their fighters along, so the fighters enjoy one extra move.

By Round 2 our two main task forces were already staring down each other at the centre of the board. This was a precarious situation. Both these sea zones were next to islands with artillery in place. Whichever fleet moved in to attack the other would get bombarded by these artillery. So the defender had an advantage.

One of my submarines sneaked among the Japanese ships to attack one of the carriers. To my delight it struck true and sank the carrier immediately! Needless to say it was a suicide mission, but it turned out to be well worth it. Heng had one transport bringing supply tokens to New Georgia so that he could build a new airfield by the end of the round.

I sent an air force to bomb the airfield at Choiseul. In hindsight, this was a rather rash decision. Heng had an anti-aircraft gun, and also could muster more planes than I could. The battle went badly for me. The US started the game with more planes than the Japanese, and by the end of this battle I had squandered away this advantage.

I lost so many fighters that at one point I didn't have enough to fill up my carriers. How embarrassing. At the top right, my transports sent supplies to Santa Isabel to allow me to build a new airfield.

End of Round 2, start of Round 3. I was 6:5 against Heng, the 1pt advantage because of the Japanese carrier sunk. At the end of Round 2, I spent most of my money on fighters (see my base card at the bottom right), to replenish those that I had lost.

Now it was Heng's turn to try his luck with his submarines. Fortunately for me both his attempts failed. His kamikaze subs died for nothing.

I was in a difficult position. Although we both controlled three islands, his three could support five airfields, but mine could only support four. Once we maxed out on airfields, he would outscore me every round. So I was under pressure to attack. This was why New Georgia, having two spaces for airfields, was very important to the Japanese strategy.

It was Round 4 now. I decided to strike! My battleship was first to enter the fray. I knew it was a risky move, but I decided I could not afford to wait. Time was not on my side. I had to gamble. I hoped to score some capital ship hits so that I could outscore Heng before his higher number of airfields left me in the dust.

This was the single biggest battle in our game. That Japanese submarine on the right had intended to sneak up on my carrier, coming from behind Santa Isabel (island at top right). However my fleet moved in to attack Heng's fleet, so that sub came to the party too late. Notice that Heng had retreated his carrier to the left. This was a good move. He kept it out of danger. Carriers have no attack capability anyway. I could have sent some bombers or fighters to attack it, since it didn't have other ships to protect it. However I was already at a disadvantage in the upcoming sea battle, so I decided I could not afford to split my air force.

This was what was left after the dust settled. No capital ships were harmed at all. However my fleet was now obviously weaker than Heng's. My only consolation was I could bombard his airfields using my ships. I got lucky and managed to damage one of them on New Georgia. Heng could not land his planes there or score points from it until he repaired it.

End of Round 4. I was 14:13 against Heng. We would pass 15pt in Round 5, and as long as he didn't score more than me, I would win. My strategic position was bad, and my long-term prospects were poor, so I had to gamble to force a win. It was do or die. I built yet another new carrier, and even spent supply tokens to forward-deploy it, so that I could get it to the frontline, carrying fighters, sooner. All airfields had been built, just that one of Heng's was damaged.

Now it was Heng's turn to go on the offensive. He loaded up his transports and advanced towards my islands. My fleet was no match for his, and I avoided a head-to-head battle. Notice that he had two battleships now. One of them was newly minted. Since he had almost vacated Choiseul, I made a move against it, using destroyers as makeshift transports to send troops there. It was a risky move, but I told myself I had to gamble. Unfortunately it didn't work out. Heng had reinforcements en route too, and my assault failed.

I made a grave mistake here, leaving two carriers undefended. Heng grabbed the opportunity and attacked. Thankfully he didn't manage to sink either carrier. I think only one was damaged and sent back to base for repairs.

Notice that in the background I had one submarine. It had just gotten lucky and destroyed a Japanese carrier. My subs were amazingly lucky in this game. Both of Heng's carriers were killed by subs. The required die roll is 1.

The Japanese had landed at Guadalcanal, screaming revenge. I lost control of the island, since Heng had a larger presence, but I still had troops guarding the two airfields. Heng would need to kill off all my remaining defenders to take control of the airfields.

At the end of Round 5, we had both passed 15pts, and we had the same number of points! The situation was bleak for me. All my gambits amounted to a painful draw, and my strategic position was only going to get worse now that Heng was making more money than me. I thought hard whether to concede, but eventually decided to just try one more round and see whether I could make a breakthrough. So we proceeded to Round 6. Although Heng had captured Guadalcanal, it was much easier for me than for him to reinforce it. He couldn't kill off my remaining defenders yet, and I couldn't easily kick him off the island either.

I thought hard about how to reduce his point-earning ability. I could bombard his airfields. I could attempt to outright capture his islands. I could try to target his capital ships. However at the same time I knew he could do the same to me. So much to think about, both offense and defense.

I had two transports each carrying one infantry positioned to invade the two lightly defended Japanese islands. However Heng had many transports ready to reinforce them. The turn order is quite important in this game. It alternates every round, and the start player is usually at a disadvantage because he has to commit how to move his units first, while his opponent can react to his actions. Heng had tons of planes coming at my battleship and two carriers. Instead of using my fighters to defend the fleet, I sent them to bomb the airfields at Bougainville. It was a crazy decision, but I knew I had to go for broke. Amazingly none of my capital ships were destroyed, although all were damaged. So they returned to base. I managed to land units on Choiseul (second island) but did not manage to capture it. I managed to damage one of the airfields on Bougainville.

Off the coast of Guadalcanal, Heng sent three cruisers to attack my small fleet trying to reinforce Guadalcanal. I only had one cruiser and one destroyer to try to hold him off, but I did have one bomber from Guadalcanal which could help.

I was lucky in that although all my fighting ships were damaged or destroyed, neither of my transports were hurt, and I managed to reinforce Guadalcanal. I still held on to those two airfields.

After completing Round 6, I found that we were still tied! All that struggle, and still a stalemate. However I knew by then I had little hope of turning the tide, so I conceded defeat.

By the time we ended the game, we had not done the aircraft landing phase. Heng had four operational airfields in range, so his eight planes were OK. I only had one carrier in range, so one of my fighters would crash into the ocean.

We did not fight a single battle on New Georgia (island in the centre), but it was pivotal to our game because of its two airfields. A very strategic location indeed! Perhaps next time I play I need to try attacking it.

Axis & Allies Guadalcanal is a game with much attrition, especially for airplanes, because every round it is the airplanes which get shot at first. Only when they survive they get to participate in attacking sea or land units. The money you earn helps, but after one or two big battles, both players' unit counts will be diminished. So conserving units is important (says the guy who threw tons of units into dubious assaults).

There is some luck in the game, and I mean it in the best possible way. Unlike other Axis & Allies games, it is the dice which determine which unit is hit, and not the defending player. You can do much to mitigate bad luck, but sometimes bad luck just strikes and there's no stopping it. Just ask Heng's aircraft carrier captains. Luck in this game throws in some unexpected results, sometimes good, sometimes bad. That's war. That's real life. However you do have much control on how big a risk you want to take. Just be prepared that nothing is 100% in your control. I like this. This is excitement.

At the moment I feel uncertain about the winning condition being victory points. At times I feel like I'm chasing points and not properly fighting a battle. I'm building airfields for the sake of points, and not for landing planes. It makes the game feel artificial. Perhaps I'm the one putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps if I learn to use the airfields better, it will feel much more natural - the airfields giving me an edge in the battle, as opposed to being just a scoring tool. In our game, I sometimes felt I was gaming the system trying to force a win, throwing caution to the wind. I didn't really care about my longer term position, because I was putting all my chips on one big bet - that I could score well in the current round and win the game. After that I wouldn't need to worry about how many units I had wasted. In real life that may not really make sense. I would be sending people to die just so I could have a few more airfields. I don't have a conclusion whether this is a problem. It's something to ponder. But overall, I had a blast with this game.

P/S: After writing this session report, I realised I might have mistaken the round numbers. I rechecked the photos and tried to remember exactly what happened, but I couldn't tell for sure whether this account of events was entirely accurate. Sorry about that.


Aik Yong said...

I think round 5 was when you retreated your task force from Choiseul sea. Since there weren't any action, we did not take any photos. Otherwise your Battleship couldn't have moved twice to above New Georgia.

Airfields are important as alternative to carriers. Since our planes were being destroyed faster than our replenishment rate, maybe we didn't feel it. Also, you had too many carriers!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

So we played till completion of Round 7 right? Not Round 6? Damned! Then we actually tied three times! After Rounds 5, 6, and 7. Ha ha... it's amazing how my good luck and my rash decisions balanced each other out and I managed to last till end of Round 7.

Indeed I had too many carriers. I built the 3rd and 4th mainly because I wanted to forward-deploy them carrying fighters to the front.

One other angle to consider is an airfield costs $6 ($2 x 3 supply tokens) and involves the logistical trouble of transporting the tokens to the island. A carrier costs $7 but is mobile by itself.