On October 30, 2003, having three persons available, we did an unusual and exciting (for wargamers) thing and played a double blind refereed game of the Eastern Solomons scenario, with Chris Harding playing the Japanese and John Nebauer the Allies. We chose Eastern Solomons because it is the shortest scenario in the game (lasting two game days, about 2 hours in normal ftf play between experienced players), because, since Chris had never played the game and John had not played in a long while, we expected play initially might be slow. In retrospect we played four days after the 62nd anniversary of the battle which would also have been a good reason to choose that scenario.
This was the second try of my "high speed refereed" technique which basically consists of the referee sitting at the end of the row of boxes separating the two players. The players have their maps and status sheets laid out so that the maps are at the side closer to the referee. The referee has a small empty space on his side of the table for rolling dice (for which I used an upright Rommel & Tunisia boxcover) and setting up airstrikes.
P1 | map status sheets R | -------------- | map status sheets P2
The effect of this setup is that the referee can easily see both maps and the usual written communication of searches and results between referee and player can be omitted. The referee looks at the ships and searching planes placed on one player's map, rolls the dice where necessary, and simply places a "Enemy CV", "Enemy Ships", or "Enemy Transport" marker in the correct hex if something has been found. The referee also will make dummy dierolls and, to confound the searched player, place some inverted markers (with their blank side up) - they simply indicate nothing has been found.
We played with the Advanced Rules (as both players were grognards) and two of the rules that hopefully will be in the next edition of Sol Sea: Damage Control, and Waiting for Search Results (although the second rule, in the event, did not come into play). To keep things simple (and the referee workload down : - ) we decided to use the abstract victory conditions only.
The only adjustment of the normal rules needed for refereed play is that every task force and submarine now automatically generates a ship search. (There is always the question of whether players in a refereed game should be given tactical control over submarines - in the case of the VaM/Solomon Sea system, as submarines are very slow, they will only have an effect if they are cunningly deployed, so I decided to leave everything as it is.)
This is a night turn but habitually the time when long range search planes are launched so as to be over their appointed search areas by first daylight. The Japanese bunch their long range searches to the southwest of the Solomons, clearly expecting a thrust in the Coral Sea, while the US aim at widespread coverage. Interestingly enough the US carriers, deployed far in the east, seemed to the referee to be actually creeping southwards, which might hint at a battle in the area the Japanese are now searching at some time on the second day.
As dawn came up, the search planes initially do not report finding anything, a PBY from Port Moresby passing just east of the Japanese transports and escorting groups. However, the cunningly deployed Allied submarines start the battle with a serious scare for the Japanese as the US managed to place their subs close to the Japanese carrier force and a sub evaded the Carrier Force's escorting destroyers, only to have its torpedoes miss when they were fired at Shokaku.
Both sides keep maneuvering waiting for search results, the Japanese carriers moving eastwards, but the American, electrified by the report of the submarine contact, now passing westwards north of the Solomons. The transports, moving southwestwards to get away from the US submarine sightings, are again missed narrowly by a PBY on the westernmost limb if its outward leg from Ndeni.
The Japanese carrier forces have now concentrated in one hex together with the Support force containing the BB Mutsu. They are now due east of Santa Isabel (hex row K), while the rest of their forces is several hundred miles to the west. The American carriers have passed around the eastern end of the Solomons with Saratoga in hexrow M and Enterprise in hexrow N. Wasp is still refueling far to the south. The American carriers have started sending out their own search planes, but on very short all-around range searches (placing the search planes on the carrier hex rather than at their maximum range away). They are obviously relying on the land-based planes to pick up long range threats.
The PBYs from Ndeni, now on their return leg, pass right over the hex containing the Japanese carriers, the detached Ryujo task force, and the force with BB Mutsu. Mutsu is not found and the report of the big carriers does not make it back to the carrier commanders, but the report of "carriers in Hex L2" (actually referring to Ryujo) is received onboard the American carriers and they launch a full scale strike.
In the meantime, unbeknownst to them (one of the joys of the refereed game), the position of the Saratoga task force has been radioed in by a submarine north of Malaita. The Japanese only send a small strike of 27 torpedo planes and 9 dive bombers escorted by 18 Zeroes, with many planes kept ready on deck waiting for more sightings.
We rolled for sequence of strikes, this was when a queasy Allied player realized that a Japanese strike might actually be coming for him at the same time.
The Japanese strike is met by 18 F4F Wildcat fighters. The Japanese actually gain initiative, but bad shooting robs them of their initial advantage and the Zeroes are mauled (3 steps lost). However, many of the US fighters then do not manage to catch up with the bombers (i.e., they rolled high), although about half the dive bombers are shot down. AA fire, although helped by the fact that the Japanese go for an anvil attack, does little damage and the 18 attacking torpedo planes put two hits into Saratoga. (With the normal game rules this would be a sunk carrier, but with damage control there is a small chance that she may survive.)
Meanwhile, the US strike contacts the Japanese, both the Enterprise and the Saratoga wave reach the target. To their surprise they find multiple task forces of similar overall size, but the one with two carriers in it is easily identified as the main force and is attacked by both waves, 18 fighters, 36 dive bombers, and 36 torpedo planes in all.
This time, the Allies win the initiative. The 18 Japanese CAP planes are surprised by the escorts, many are shot down, but they manage to shoot down a few torpedo planes. This is followed by incredible shooting from Japanese flak so that only half the torpedo planes actually survive to launch their torpedoes, scoring no hits. The dive bombers remain unmolested though and plant hits on both Shokaku and Zuikaku (one hit on each, which could of course represent multiple actual bomb hits). The strike disappears on the horizon.
On both sides, damage control crews now race to try and save the damaged ships. The American side still has an additional problem. Another another Japanese submarine from the group that sighted the Saratoga force embarks on an attack run as the stricken carrier comes to a smoking halt. However, the sub is driven off by the escorting destroyers.
According to the damage control rules, the two torpedo hits on Saratoga mean she is marked with two Flotation (F) and two Engineering (E) hits. Unless one of the F hits is repaired she will sink and unless one of the E hits is repaired she will keep burning until she either sinks (at which time the US player will lose victory points when playing that way unless she has been abandoned and her crew taken off) or the situation stabilizes. The outcome is soon clear though as the damage control crews are unable to stem the inrush of water (the roll of 2 results in removal of a deck hit, but there are none so there is no effect) and the carrier slips beneath the waves before 1800.
On the Japanese side, the direct damage caused by the dive bombers is less with one Deck (D) and one E hit on each of the carriers, and the hits are not lethal by themselves. However, since both carriers have ready aircraft on deck, they have to deal with the resulting widespread secondary damage (apart from losing all the planes that were on deck). Indeed after suffering damage from which she would otherwise have recovered, the fires raging on Shokaku's deck and hangar cannot be controlled and the ship is abandoned (a roll of 2 being reduced to 0 due to the ready modifier with other modifiers canceling each other out, results in a F outcome - fires out of control). For Zuikaku, a roll of 7 was reduced to 5 - no effect. The crews on Zuikaku obviously managed to extinguish the fires, but the ship retains its deck and engineering damage. The D halves her operating capacity and the E means half speed, no launching of planes but landing is possible. Zuikaku can take the remains of the returning strike on board but then will have to retire.
Neither side can launch a strike (Ryujo only carriers fighters), and we examined the status of the game. As we were playing with the simpler victory conditions (no detailed counting) the Japanese had missed their chance at victory by this time, in particular since the early submarine scare caused their transports to veer off course to the point where they could no longer reach Guadalcanal to unload in time. Likewise, the US by losing a carrier could no longer win and we ended the game with a draw.
We had played through most of a game day (5 turns) in two hours, with one rusty player (hadn't played in two years) and one who'd never seen the game set up. Overall, not bad for speed.