Davells@aol.comA friend of mine pointed me to the Simulations Workshop website, and specifically to Markus Stumptner's Solomon Sea. Being a huge fan of WW2 Pacific carrier warfare, I was determined to find out more.
So I checked it out the website, read everything, went to grognard.com & read the reviews, and I was initially very impressed. Earlier I mentioned that I started out wanting to fix Flat Top, then gave up. Then I found Victory at Midway, liked it & had very high hopes & tried to fix it, but then I gave up. Markus also was obviously impressed with VaM, but he had a much better idea about how to draw out a great game from a merely adequate one.
I wasn't willing to accept the various abstractions, and I designed my game accordingly, but looking back I think I really missed something. And yet, I don't think I would have appreciated all the subtleties & nuances I found in Solomon Sea if I hadn't gone with my stripped down, radical idea for a carrier game. In short, Markus ended up simulating things that I felt were crucial, and with much less effort. Bravo, Markus!
Finally, last December I decided to buy a copy of Solomon Sea. What a great game! If you ever played or saw VaM, you'll notice the similarities and huge improvements over VaM. SolSea is a desktop published game (dtp), but it is an extremely professional work, whose designer obviously put a lot of heart & sweat into it. The rulebook is 12 pages, including play examples, advanced & optional rules. The additional 11 pages cover scenarios notes & setup, design notes, historical notes, and alternate setup options for each of the 4 full scenarios. Quite a well written package in these 23 pages (nice cover, too).
The map is very handsome, especially for a dtp game, and uses one 11 x 15 inch map (set diagonally) to cover much of the area I cover with my two 11 x 17's. I do like my map a lot, I stand by it, and it doesn't take up that much room. But SolSea's map works great for his game - it's very functional & user friendly, it's comprehensive, and nicely captures the essentials. The blue Allied airfields are a little tough to read, but there's only 7 of them & they're in obvious places, so this is nitpicking. There are 2 of them, one for each player, with 5/8 inch hexes marked with an alphanumeric ala VaM.
The counters clearly show the VaM pedigree, and this is good since those were very readable & functional, with a handsome rendering of each different plane type. There are some 160 plane & 80 ship counters, but they are not all used at once. Rather, it reflects the comprehensive air & naval orders of battle for 4 big scenarios: Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz & Naval Guadalcanal. The are plenty of 'info' counters to help play, and the 'search flight leg' markers are especially good - more on this later.
SolSea has Fleet / Task Force status sheets for both navies for each scenario (as well as a generic card for the alternate setups, if players wish). They are easy to read, printed on quality cardstock, and help playability a lot. Very thoughtful & generous, instead of trying save money & force players to use the same display for the very different conditions of each scenario. You can't go wrong with these.
Two game cards with the various tables & modifiers, sequence of play, etc. are also provided. Again, he covers it.
Markus also has a website dedicated to Solomon Sea, and he offers: a nice PBEM map, more counters (you print them out & mount them - they offer good advice how), the latest errata, and best of all: a draft (but neverless comprehensive) set of rules for a grand campaign of the Coral Sea & Guadalcanal campaigns. If players have Victory at Midway (same game system), they can integrate it into the campaign, and if not, no problem - Markus gives you a worthwhile table to roll on based on your performance, and you then move onto the next 3 scenarios! Very cool & thoughtful.
The map scale is 100 nm per hex, and turns are 3 or 3.5 hours, with 7 turns per day, 2 or 3 of which are night turns. Normal ships move every turn, slow ships move every other turn, and subs move every third turn. Easy!
The air combat system has its nuances & works pretty well. I agree with Ethan that the AA flak is too lethal, but this could be fixed. Surface combat & shore bombardment are also covered, although the emphasis on carrier operations.
But here's the best part of all (and given what I've said above, that's saying something): Markus wrote a very thoughtful article comparing the various carrier games & their search systems (so I know he done the same thinking as me on this). You can find it at: http://www.dbai.tuwien.ac.at/user/mst/games/misc/search2.pdf
Markus completed what I gave up on: he created a nice, effective (finds the enemy but doesn't give the searcher's position away) searching system. This includes carrier search aircraft, long-range land based air searches, shadowing, ship searches, and the hitherto puny Japanese floatplanes nicely get their due - they're limited but by no means useless, as is usually the case. It's stunning just how right he got the search system.
Further, SolSea has a useful search table (using 1d10) with modifiers that cover the various situations. Markus took the interesting 'wave arrival' rule from VaM, but he made it much better. It covers the phenomena of maximum launches, shortlegged planes (Japanese are given credit for the slightly better strike range), and allows players to launch a deckload of 'search & strike' mission, a nasty surprise, as well as the unique scouting squadron Dauntlesses with their 500lb bombs. There are rules for tactical intelligence, too.
Solomon Sea is a true gem, one that succeeds on many levels, has lots of replay value and is just a lot of fun. Set up time is minimal, you quickly plan your strategy & play the game. You could get 2 games in for an evening if you don't waste time, especially if things go badly for one side (rematch!) Go out & buy it now!!