By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The low-cost entry point to our Second World War at Sea game series, Coral Sea has been one of our most popular games since its debut. Despite its relatively small size, it delivers a lot of action and shows most of the themes of Second World War at Sea games very well.
The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval battle in which the opposing fleets never actually sighted one another. All of the damage – and there was a lot of it – was dealt by aircraft from the three Japanese and two American aircraft carriers.
The battle took place off the northeast coast of Australia, in the Coral Sea between Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. And that’s the area covered by the 22x17-inch game map, which stretches from Kavieng in the north to the northern tip of New Caledonia in the south, and from Cairns and Townsville in Australia on the western edge to Espiritu Santo and the New Hebrides Islands in the east.
As in other Second World War at Sea games, the map is divided into offset squares, called “sea zones,” that regulate the movement of task forces of ships and flights of aircraft. The scale is 36 miles across each sea zone. Players plot the movement of their task forces (groups of ships) through these sea zones, seeking contact with scout planes and sometimes submarines and surface ships. When contact is made, the player who found the enemy may try to attack them with carrier planes (if they’re in range) or send a task force of surface ships to intercept them.
When aircraft make contact, they have to fight any enemy aircraft on Combat Air Patrol over the task force. Once they get past those (if there are any), the ships in the task force can defend themselves with anti-aircraft fire. And then the surviving attack aircraft can go after the ships with bombs and torpedoes.
All of that’s a bit more involved, but it relies on the simple and intuitive notion of “roll a six, get a hit.” You will roll many dice. You’ll still have to look at some charts, to see what sort of damage comes from a hit.
Ships are rated according to the old warship designer’s principles of “visible” and invisible” qualities (the concept comes from an essay by a famous Royal Navy Chief Constructor). The visible qualities would be things like armament and speed. So those go on the pieces: gunnery, anti-aircraft, torpedo and speed ratings are shown, along with the ship’s name, national flag and ID number. That’s all the stuff laymen care about, the “visible” qualities of the ship.
The ship’s vital statistics are hidden from public view: its protection, flotation and endurance. These are presented on the game’s Ship Data Sheets, which also track damage to those categories plus the visible qualities. A ship’s flotation (the number of hull boxes on the sheet) is a function of size and subdivision, and like other areas is protected by one of three types of armor: heavy, light or none. When a ship loses all of its hull boxes, it sinks.
Aircraft show all of their abilities right on the playing piece: type, range, air-to-air combat rating, landing type (land-based plane, carrier plane or seaplane), maximum altitude (low, medium or high), toughness (a handful of types are harder to shoot down than others) land attack capability, and naval attack capability. Some planes have their attack capabilities further distinguished as dive bombers or torpedo carriers. Aircraft have no data sheets; each piece represents two “steps” of strength.
You use those pieces in the scenarios, which represent situations that happened or could have happened during the campaign. Operational scenarios are more involved, starting on the operational map where you move your task forces and flights of aircraft, then proceed to the tactical map for the actual fighting. Battle scenarios cut right to the chase; all of the action takes place on the tactical map.
Coral Sea comes with four scenarios, two operational and two battle. The main event is the Battle of the Coral Sea, in which the Japanese launch multiple invasions in an effort to seize Australian bases at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and Port Moresby in southern New Guinea. Supporting them is a powerful carrier task force built around Zuikaku and Shokaku, two of the carriers that ravaged Pearl Harbor. The Americans, aware of Japanese intentions, have brought two carriers of their own into the war zone, Lexington and Yorktown. Each player wields a very powerful strike force, and is in turn very vulnerable to attack if the enemy finds them first. There's also an expanded scenario exploring what might have happened had the Japanese mounted a sustained invasion of the region. The battle scenarios are hypothetical – they sort of have to be, since the opposing fleets never sighted one another, let alone fired their guns at one another.
Coral Sea is a small, low-priced introductory game, and this makes it a little different from other games in the series. Most Second World War at Sea games have relatively large numbers of scenarios, sometimes 50 or more. When designing the games, we like to use the scenarios as a story-telling device, letting the players play out the various actions as the tale progresses.
You can also play Coral Sea online – if and only if you own the game itself – with a VASSAL module prepared by Rick Billings. You can download that right here.
You can order Coral Sea right here.
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.