Midway Deluxe Edition:
Design Notes, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
For many years, I hesitated to design games on well-known topics. I didn’t like playing in the same sandbox, and sought out unusual yet interesting historical conflicts instead, like the Mediterranean in World War One (The Wine-Dark Sea). Or those that should have been well-known, like the twin battles of Brody-Dubno (Fire in the Steppe). There’s not a topic much better-known than the 1942 Battle of Midway, and designing a game about it turned out to be just as satisfying, and fascinating, as one about the 1941 Battle of Kishinev.
The Battle of Midway has been overhyped; it wasn’t a victory won against overwhelming odds. The odds were just about even, with the Japanese holding a serious edge only in surface combat power (a dubious advantage in a carrier war), one more than balanced by their position at the end of a very long logistical line. The impressive victory may have advanced the American timetable for striking back against the Japanese, but the Americans would receive massive reinforcements over the next three years that would have turn the tide of the war even if the entire American fleet had been annihilated at Midway for no Japanese losses.
The Americans won because the Americans struck first, and destroyed three of the four Japanese heavy carriers. The carnage could have ended there, but the Japanese obligingly offered up their fourth carrier to American strike planes as well. It’s a battle that turned on decisions made by both commanders (Chuichi Nagumo and Frank Jack Fletcher) at crucial moments, and that provides the background for what I consider the best part of our new Midway: Deluxe Edition.
When I started designing naval wargames, long before there was an Avalanche Press, I gave each operation its own scenario. The forces started where they started historically, and the players had the objectives of their historical counterparts. It was all very . . . historical. But they didn’t always play out the way the operations did in the actual reality, because early on the players made different decisions than the admirals and the battle developed in a very different fashion. Those choices were open to the admirals at the start, but it meant that the players didn’t always see those crucial turning points that they’d read about in books.
As we did with the second editions of Eastern Fleet and Bismarck, Midway Deluxe Edition has scenarios much like those old-style ones, with both fleets entering the battlespace (or beginning in port) at the places they occupied when the action began. And then, for the Battle of Midway, I included shorter scenarios picking up the action at the key points: just before the first devastating air strike, the counter-strike by Hiryu, the aftermath.
I thought that approach worked really well for Eastern Fleet and Bismarck, but Midway is perhaps even better-suited to it. The Germans were never going to accomplish great things with the voyage of the Bismarck; the mission itself made little strategic sense. The British were not likely to inflict much damage on the Japanese First Air Fleet, and Somerville’s nearly-suicidal approach to the Japanese carriers could easily have doomed his Eastern Fleet.
Things were very different at Midway. The Japanese suffered a spectacular defeat, but could well have scored a signal victory instead. The battle really did turn on a handful of key moments.
The operation also could have played out very differently based on the forces involved, and I wanted to look at this as well. After the battle had concluded Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese Combined Fleet commander, summoned the two light carriers detached to the Aleutians and contemplated renewing the struggle with those flattops, the two small carriers attached to his battle fleet, and the seaplanes of his large seaplane carriers. Those ships together could loft a fraction of the aircraft carried by the heavy carriers, but the Japanese admiral knew that his enemies had suffered enormous losses in planes and crews themselves. So we get to try that out in the game.
Unknown to Yamamoto, while the carriers Junyo and Ryujo steamed southward, the American carrier Saratoga with replacement aircraft as well as her own air group plus the three cruisers and seven destroyers of her escort group had arrived in the area the day after the battle ended. Another task force built around the carrier Wasp and battleship North Carolina would leave San Diego a week later, while Task Force One with its seven unwanted old battleships, eight destroyers and lone escort carrier steamed off the northern California coast.
On the Japanese side, Yamamoto pushed the operation ahead without waiting for the two remaining carriers of First Air Fleet, Zuikaku and Shokaku, to complete refitting and repair after the Battle of the Coral Sea in May. The Americans rushed Yorktown, damaged far more heavily than Shokaku, through emergency repairs in time to participate; Zuikaku simply needed her air group replenished rather than structural repairs. The Japanese also divided their forces in front of the enemy, detaching Junyo and Ryujo to the Aleutians.
Those possibilities - none of which require much imagination to see occurring, some of which were probably more likely than the actual events - yield a wealth of additional scenarios. Other games have included some of those as “options,” but I wanted to explore them in more depth and so we have complete scenarios of the different ways the Battle of Midway might have unfolded.
To do that, I’ve once again used battle scenarios (the ones that take place solely on the Tactical Map) to help advance the narrative in addition to providing more ways to play the game. As in the last few games, we’ve got air strike battle scenarios as well as surface battles; in the case of a massive carrier battle like Midway, these are absolutely necessary to tell the story of the battle.
And so Midway, the game, gives you many different ways to play out Midway, the battle. Over the last couple of years, I’ve become enamored of the idea that a wargame can be used to test out historical theses, and I may have gone a little overboard this time. We try out a lot of “what would have happened if . . .” questions; the outcomes can be radically different as well. Japan could have brought six heavy carriers to Midway, and easily have lost them all and the war in a single afternoon.
All of that means that I’m really pleased with how Midway turned out, in particular with the Battle of Midway scenarios. Next time, we’ll look at Midway’s non-Midway scenarios.
You can order Midway right here.
Please allow an extra eight weeks for delivery.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
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