Coral Sea: Playbook Edition
Scenarios and History
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The first time I sat down to write this piece, I knew what I wanted to say: that the scenarios in the new Playbook edition of Second World War at Sea: Coral Sea are enormously better than those of the first edition, both as a display of history and in terms of game play. I wasn’t sure why.
Coral Sea’s first edition was enormously popular. It’s the best-selling of the Second World War at Sea titles, and did its job as a gateway game admirably. It was instrumental in making the other games in the series enormously popular as well. It achieved all that with a scenario devoted to the Battle of the Coral Sea, an extended version and a couple of hypothetical battle scenarios designed to introduce the system rather than reflect actual battles.
The difference between the editions is immersion, at least on the design end. Since designing the first edition, I’ve learned to turn off the phone, ignore emails and think only about the game, its history and its presentation. That’s why I do this job, instead of one that actually pays a living wage in exchange for all that productivity-killing stress.
So, if all this effort has been poured into Coral Sea’s new Playbook Edition, what’s the result?
It’s gone from four scenarios, only one of them a true take on history, to fifteen, all of them grounded in the actual events. They tell the story of the war’s early months in the waters around New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (while yes, the Americans were steaming through the Coral Sea, the objectives and the Japanese were all to the north).
The Japanese are on the offensive, occupying the sparsely-garrisoned islands in an effort to erect a defensive barrier against the inevitable American counter-offensive. The Americans are lurking about on the fringes, ready to strike back when they see opportunity.
Playing through the scenarios shows a few things about the campaign. The Japanese achieved a great deal with fairly limited forces, capturing Rabaul, New Guinea and the Solomons with a force built around decidedly second-line forces: Great War-era light cruisers, aged destroyers and minelayers pressed into service as escorts and transports. Later they committed a portion of the First Air Fleet (the heavy carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku) to cover the invasion of Port Moresby on the south coast of New Guinea, by suppressing the Allied airfields in north-east Australia. A new light carrier (Shoho) would be added to the Fourth Fleet forces already in the area to help protect the actual invasion convoy.
The Japanese order of battle is, by itself, a pretty stark indication of the sheer madness of Japan’s war of aggression against the United States and her allies. The brand-new carrier Shoho could operate 30 aircraft, but on her first deployment carried only 18. Shokaku and Zuikaku could operate a theoretical maximum of 84 aircraft each; they brought, respectively, 56 and 53 operational planes to the Battle of the Coral Sea. Five months into a war of choice, the Japanese carriers were at 60 to 66 percent of their capacity. Even that required scraping the depots for planes and pilots; four of Shoho’s dozen fighters were obsolete A5M4 models.
So the Americans hold an edge in the number of planes aboard their two carriers (128 to 109, not counting Shoho) but it’s close enough so as not to make a huge difference. Each side has the striking power to destroy the other – if they can locate the enemy, and bring that force to bear.
At the more famous Battle of Midway a month later, the decisive phase of the battle was over relatively quickly; the key actions all took place in about 26 hours. The Coral Sea campaign stretched out over a longer time frame, taking six days to finally resolve the action from the first American airstrikes against Tulagi to Zuikaku’s fruitless attempt to find and finish off the damaged Yorktown.
That makes the scenario breakdown for the game pretty logical, though I would have liked to have had more pieces with which to work. The first edition map was fine, it’s attractive and it easily covers all of the key areas. For the Playbook edition we’ve gone with a larger paper map that includes some of the game charts along its fringe.
The pieces were printed on a sheet that also held pieces for a Great War at Sea introductory game called Pacific Crossroads (we’ve re-used those pieces in Rise of the Dragon). The mix was designed for just the Battle of the Coral Sea, and while I would have liked to include a number of options and other operations that took place in the area, that does keep the game tightly focused on the Coral Sea campaign (which is as it should be).
We do have two preliminary operations from February 1942. The Japanese landings at Gasmata on New Britain could have been contested by a newly-established Allied cruiser force, but the Allied command didn’t attempt to intervene. The operation allows us to introduce the operational system and tactical combat between surface forces without having to handle aircraft carriers.
Later that month, Task Force 11 (Lexington and escorts) moved toward the Solomons to make a raid on the newly-established Japanese base at Rabaul. Japanese recon planes spotted the Americans, and attacked them with land-based bombers. Lexington’s Combat Air Patrol devastated the attackers, but the Americans broke off the operation. It does form a nice introduction to carrier operations, with only one carrier in play, and an air strike scenario so new players can try out that sub-system.
Most of the scenarios, appropriately, come from the Battle of the Coral Sea itself in the first days of May 1942. We have five operational scenarios based on the battle: one covering the entire battle, and then others picking up the action with the Yorktown’s attack on Tulagi, the American attack on Shoho, the exchange of airstrikes between the big carriers, and finally Zuikaku’s sortie in pursuit of Yorktown. Fleshing out the story are six more battle scenarios covering the tactical actions that took place or could have taken place as a result of those operations.
All of that adds up to considerable play value for what’s supposed to be an introductory game. The new edition of Coral Sea is supposed to be fun for new and old players alike, and it does that. Immersion works.
You can order Coral Sea (Playbook edition) right here.
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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.