South Pacific:
The Game

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2018

As long-time customers know, Avalanche Press went through some very difficult times a few years ago, followed by a rebirth and some slow recovery. We changed our ways of doing just about everything: designing the games, producing the games, printing the games, shipping the games. And slowly, we got better at those new methods and worked through their rough edges, some of them very rough.

All through that time, I held back The Game from production. The Game could not be expended too early, when we still weren’t capable of producing it properly. The Game would have the best maps we could make, the best playing pieces, the best box. It would have the best design and development we could give it, and the best narrative approach. The Game would not be perfect, but it would be a chance for us to show what we’ve learned and what we’re capable of doing. And with our desire for games on the very best topics we can deliver, nothing fits that need better than The Game.

The Game, of course, is South Pacific (that picture and the header sort of give that away) and it’s been on our list for years as something we very much wanted to do, but the time wasn’t right. I wanted the centerpiece of our most popular game system to have all the good stuff we could give it. And I think we’re finally ready.

South Pacific’s theme is one we’ve visited before: the pivotal naval campaign of the Pacific war, the battles for the Solomons. The United States Navy, still reeling from the losses at Pearl Harbor, the Coral Sea and Midway, threw the bulk of its Pacific Fleet into the narrow waters of The Slot, the channel running down the center of the Solomons, to protect the vulnerable beachhead and airfield on Guadalcanal. The Japanese countered by sending the cream of their fleet, the well-drilled cruiser and destroyer forces, into the same narrow waters to isolate and destroy the Marines hanging on to Guadalcanal. Both navies were well-drilled, well-led, and determined. And the Americans ultimately won.

Our old SOPAC game has been sold out for well over a decade and commands astronomical prices on internet auction sites. It covered part of the campaign, but I always wanted to delve deeper. The Solomons campaign really is the turning point of the Pacific theater: it’s the last place where the Imperial Japanese Navy had a chance to influence the war’s outcome with a victory. And the campaign is really interesting in itself, with just about every type of naval action that can be imagined. There are battleships in action against each other, not something that happened often in World War II. Fierce night actions between cruiser-destroyer squadrons. Carrier battles. Supply runs. Mine warfare. The Solomons have it all.

Despite the great setting, we weren’t ready to return there right away. First we had some physical production issues to solve: cost-effective means to produce top-quality boxes, game pieces and large paper maps at reasonable quantities, so we’re not storing games for years. We also needed reasonable prices – we could not have done a game this size with laser-cut pieces. South Pacific is the largest game (in terms of playing pieces, anyway) that we’ve published since the days of the Old Avalanche Press, and bigger than almost all of those, too. The 1,000-plus pieces are the really nice silky-smooth die cut ones we’ve started using recently. Check.

Next, I didn’t want to do the sort of game we did before with SOPAC, a template that other publishers have followed too (if on a smaller scale) for forty or fifty years: a bunch of scenarios drawn from the campaign, each of them pretty much standing alone. That standard pattern has become a rut, even if it is a comfortable rut, and I wanted to break it.

History is a story, and I want our games to tell that story, whatever it might be. Our new story-arc approach weaves scenarios into the historical narrative, and the battle games pioneered in Panzer Grenadier: The Kokoda Campaign – easily adapted to Second World War at Sea - give players an option to play out segment of the campaign or even the entire campaign, rather than just individual battles. Check.

Next, a game this grand needed a rules set to match. The Second World War at Sea rules have remained constant since the early Zeroes, steadily supplemented by special rules in the new games and expansions that have followed. It’s time for a thorough overhaul, and series developer Jim Stear has been working to provide it. Like Panzer Grenadier’s recent Fourth Edition, this new Second Edition will receive full-color play aids including fleet display cards. The new rules will be just as easy to play, and just as intuitive. They’ll work without modification in any of the older games and expansions (though some of the special rules in older items will likely become redundant). Check.

Finally, the game needed to have stuff that was just plain cool. South Pacific will include something we’ve never done for any of the naval games: a full-color Tactical Map of Ironbottom Sound, showing the actual islands and shores. The game will still include the standard blue Tactical Map of Second World War at Sea – there will be plenty of scenarios taking place outside Ironbottom Sound – but playing on the “real” waters off Guadalcanal just adds an extra layer of fun and helps that historical narrative come to life. Check.

South Pacific remains a traditional wargame, but one that melds history and game play together and, much like its designer, manages to look really good while doing it. I’ve always wanted historical games to tell a story, and not just with a background article stuffed into the box: the history should be woven into the game. We’ve done that with alternative-history games like Tropic of Capricorn, but that was a story I made up. And we’ve done it with “real” stories in the last couple of Panzer Grenadier games, The Kokoda Campaign and Broken Axis.

With South Pacific we get to really show off that approach, and finally publish a simple campaign game covering the whole of the Solomons from Guadalcanal to Rabaul. SOPAC was a fine game for its time, but that time was a shocking 17 years ago. South Pacific can’t be just a revised and incrementally improved version of SOPAC; it needs to display all of the hard-won experience gained over that decade and a half.

Because most of all, The Game is going to be fun.

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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. Leopold needs no revisions.