Review of Solomon Sea

by Steve Thomas (from PA #99, as posted by Charles Vasey on consimworld)

Some time ago I made a comment on Consim about the Command game Midway. An excellent little carrier warfare game I always enjoy playing. Markus Stumptner, of PA fame, contacted me on this and mentioned that he had done a game on the Eastern Solomons battles using the same system. He sent me a copy and I put quite a lot of time into doing some playtesting of that. Markus is hoping to get it released in a DTP format soon. Anyone who likes carrier warfare should seriously consider getting a copy.

The map, counters and rules are excellent. The maps really do look like maps from a good quality atlas. The counters use quite detailed pictures of ships and planes. Hopefully the DTP version will live up to the same standard. In my version the counters were double sided but the DTP version will use step reduction markers instead. That should work well and avoids the inconvenience of making up double-sided counters. There are several supporting schedules for aircraft handling and task forces, all very practical and well thought out.

The game uses a double blind system, with each player having their own map. Searching is done by each player announcing which map hexes are being searched and the other stating whether they have units in the hex. Normally this doesn’t really work in a naval game using surface ships as it immediately tells your opponent where your own forces are. Because most of the searching is done by air in the Midway system this is not a problem.

Each side has counters representing individual aircraft carriers, battleships and groups of cruisers, destroyers and submarines. Planes counters represent groups of about 8 planes. Plane counters represent a specific type of plane ie F4F fighters, SBD’s and TBF’s for the Americans. They have; an air to air combat strength, air to surface attack strength and range. Each hex represents 185 kilometres and each turn three and a half hours.

Each carrier can hold from 3 to 11 plane counters depending on its historical capacity. Each carrier has three plane boxes; Ready, Unready and CAP. Thus planes prepared for a mission go into the Ready box. When they return from a mission they have to spend a turn in the Unready box before they can be put back into the Ready box. Fighters can also be put on CAP so they are always available to meet any air attack. Midway had virtually no land based air units. In Solomon Sea however there are numerous airfields around the area. These also have the three plane boxes plus an anti aircraft factor.

The map covers the northern Queensland coast, New Guinea, Truk and New Caledonia. That means it can include a number of different situations and there are four separate scenarios; Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz and the naval battle of Guadalcanal. Each scenario has; historical set up, free set up and several variations regarding units available. We used the free set ups to give some sense of the unpredictability and uncertainty that there should be in a game like this.

Searching in Midway was done by a combination of ship and air search. Ship based searches are only done in the hex the ship occupies. Using surface ships for searches obviously discloses your own presence. Subs can do ship searches and avoid being seen but are too limited in terms of movement. Air searches cover the hex the plane occupies and all six hexes surrounding it. Carrier planes could search out to two hexes and land based planes up to ten. In Midway the American had a limited land based air search from Midway plus that from their carriers. The Japanese had slightly better carrier based search. It meant the Japanese did suffer because even air searches disclosed the general location of their carriers.

Solomon Sea pretty much does away with the latter problem because there is extensive land based air search and the carrier search rules have been improved. Land based air searches can last several turns. Using numbered markers you plot the staging points of you search path in advance. Each turn the plane moves onto the next marker and does a search there. If the plane spots something then it can shadow the ships it has seen but otherwise it must fly the pre-plotted path. There are some neat and easy rules to cover things like communication breakdowns and poor weather. Carriers now have to actually send a plane out on search missions, which reduces their strike capability of course. Carrier based planes are short ranged and each search mission lasts only one turn. The Japanese also have some cruiser-based seaplane and seaplane tender based search capacity.

The combat system takes into account quite a few factors. A side can launch air strikes against enemy ships but those strikes may not actually find their targets. Weather and range influence this. Actual combat involves air to air combat between CAP, escorts and bombers. Then there is anti aircraft fire by the defending ships and then the glorious moment when you try to ‘scratch one flat top’. Carriers really are the key to the game and all attacking forces have to concentrate on any defending carriers present.

The combat system is fairly broad brush, for example all the attacking forces fight as a single group despite the fact that they may have been sent off as separate waves. Similarly with air to air combat and anti aircraft fire the system may be a bit too general for some people. It did concern me a bit for a time. In the end though I realised that while some aspects may not be entirely accurate, the overall result was about right. In the context of the scale of the game and playability it hits the right overall balance. Combat does tend to slow things down a bit as there is a fair bit of dice rolling. Generally however the game rolls along fairly quickly.

The heart of the game system lies in the pre combat manoeuvring rather than in the fine detail of the combat system. Getting an advantageous position is half the battle. Catch the enemy unaware, deliver a first strike, knock out one of their carriers and you probably have won the game. I don’t confess to being an expert on carrier battles but to me this game has the right feel for carrier warfare. For me those carrier battles involved a delicate and skilful hunt. Both sides were trying to second guess their opponent. There is a sense of delicate probing, trying to work out where your opponent is, what their goals are, trying to get into a position where you can launch a strike, keeping just the right number of planes in readiness and on CAP. Even when you spot something you can never be sure it’s the main target and whether the strikes you send off will find the target. For me the game captures the nature of carrier warfare very well.

This was never meant to be a detailed review of the game. Let my enthusiasm ramble on a bit. I thought it was an excellent game and would strongly recommend it to any one who likes carrier games or who wants a fun, quick and challenging game.