By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Our second Second World War at Sea game, Eastern Fleet, was always a personal favorite and for a long time one I hoped to have the chance to revise. When we came across a supply of playing pieces, I knew it was time to bring those plans to reality.
Eastern Fleet covers the 1942 Japanese carrier raids into the Indian Ocean in March and April 1942, and the British response to them. The Japanese are at the peak of their efficiency, with the carriers and air groups that devastated Pearl Harbor and would in turn be devastated at Midway a couple of months later. The British are badly outnumbered but have a few surprises in store for the Japanese.
The Japanese raid on Ceylon is the core of the Eastern Fleet game. The Japanese have five fleet carriers, each with a powerful air group, and one light carrier, plus a quartet of supporting fast battleships with escorting cruisers and destroyers. The British counter with two fleet carriers of their own – each sporting an air group less than half that of the big Japanese carriers – one capable battleship, four floating coffins classified as battleships, and some cruisers and destroyers.
The first edition covered those operations, and a little more. We expanded that with the new edition, going from 11 to 24 scenarios – 15 new ones, since we deleted two from the first edition that required pieces from a long out-of-print game. These days, every boxed game we release stands alone; you only need maps and pieces from that game to play all of its scenarios.
Eastern Fleet remains a nice-looking game, starting with the striking cover showing a Grumman Martlet on the deck of HMS Formidable during her 1942 Indian Ocean operations. Inside the box are 210 playing pieces: 70 “long” ship pieces and 140 square ones for airplanes and markers. These are the older-style, glossy die-cut pieces - we have plenty of them in stock from the first printing. They’ve been in sealed containers since their manufacture and look as bright and shiny as the day they first arrived.
Eastern Fleet’s map covers the Bay of Bengal and points south, including the entire island of Ceylon, the southern tip of India and some of the island chains to the south of those. It overlaps the map from Strike South, allowing you to combine them and steam from Madras to Manila. We made a few fixes to ports and airfields but otherwise the map is that from the first edition.
The main event is the Japanese raid on Ceylon. The Japanese are out to cause damage through air raids, but the operation is actually a diversion to allow the safe movement of a large troop convoy from Singapore to Rangoon. The British are badly outnumbered but the troop transports are fantastically vulnerable if the Brits can somehow slip past the huge carrier fleet, and the Royal Navy is richly rewarded for inflicting damage on the transports or Japanese warships.
Building on that, we look at Japanese plans to invade and capture Ceylon, a notion turned to smoke by the Imperial Japanese’s Army’s refusal to make troops available (possibly fearing being trapped in a political bait-and-switch that would see them committed instead to some made scheme to invade Hawaii or Fiji). There are options to assault the big island instead of attacking Midway, which gives the Japanese a serious edge in firepower despite the British having foreknowledge of exactly where the First Air Fleet is headed. Or the Japanese can try their invasion plan after the Midway disaster, when the odds are closer to even (but still not even – Midway damaged Japanese carrier air power, but did not destroy it). The Japanese have only two fleet carriers available while the British have picked up a third carrier, but the Japanese have better planes, better pilots and bigger flight decks.
Other scenarios cover the initial Japanese moves into the Indian Ocean, with invasions of Burma and the Andaman Islands. We’ve retained “Come in Rangoon,” since it bears the finest title in the entire series and is Kristin Ann High’s favorite. It’s just a small action but a very tense one, with the British and Japanese both needing to run troop convoys to Burma and needing to balance their efforts to protect their own soldiers and threaten those of the enemy.
When we first brought out Eastern Fleet, Avalanche Press had no real plan behind its game publishing: we brought out the games we thought might sell, and sometimes we brought them out to placate someone’s tender ego (that latter still happens in this industry way more than anyone likes to admit). We published Eastern Fleet because it “fit” in an empty space on a press sheet of playing pieces, and as an afterthought it never had the sort of marketing push it deserved.
This time, we’ll try to avoid that sort of mistake. Despite the lack of marketing love, Eastern Fleet’s first edition sold very well and that gives us a solid basis on which to build. Eastern Fleet is perfectly-sized to serve as an introductory game, with the right mix of forces and scenarios: there are carrier battles, without a huge number of carriers, and opportunities for surface action including battleships against battleships. The series already has such a game (Coral Sea), but it can certainly use another. Eastern Fleet’s scenario book has features new to Second World War at Sea: for the first time we have true introductory material modeled on that in Panzer Grenadier’s introductory games (Invasion 1944 and The Kokoda Campaign), in which each aspect of the scenario instructions is explained along with the basics of play.
Eastern Fleet will also be the first game to carry the Second Edition rules for Second World War at Sea. These incorporate the special rules added in numerous games over the years since the series debuted with SOPAC in 2001, making the game far easier to play (and it was already pretty easy).
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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.