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SOPAC to South Pacific

In rebuilding Avalanche Press over the past few years, I've also had the opportunity to rebuild a number of our older games: Defiant Russia, Winter Fury, The Kokoda Campaign. And now we've taken on what has to be the most anticipated of them: the replacement of our old SOPAC game with the new South Pacific.

SOPAC launched our Second World War at Sea series, and it was very popular. We printed an enormous number of them, and the game sold out at least a decade ago. Before we announced South Pacific, you could find SOPAC offered on internet auction sites for over $200. Hopefully those prices have crashed now.

For South Pacific, I've worked to maintain what made SOPAC popular, while smoothing some of its rough edges and replacing some things that simply needed replacing. Here’s a look at the differences.

The Map
One of SOPAC’s strengths is the small map, which focuses tightly on the Solomons. The game fits neatly on a kitchen table for ease of play. And both the operational map and the tactical map are hard-mounted, which is pretty cool.

One of SOPAC’s weaknesses is the small map, which does not connect with the maps from Strike South. The mounted maps have become immensely expensive in the decade-and-a-half since we launched SOPAC, while shipping costs have skyrocketed (and mounted maps are really heavy).

South Pacific has a much larger map area, a full-sized 22x28-inch paper map by Guy Riessen that overlaps with the eastern edge of the Strike South maps (so you now have all of New Guinea at your command). That’s also important for the expansion of the campaign into the Upper Solomons and the New Guinea campaign.

And there’s a second map in South Pacific. For years I’d wanted to create a “real” Tactical Map in a Second World War at Sea game that displayed an actual location instead of the generic blue field that we use in all the series games. I never came across a candidate that really called for its own map, since it would need to be used in many scenarios to justify its existence (and added cost). There was really only one such location in the Second World War: Ironbottom Sound, just to the north-west of Guadalcanal. And since we had included the battles fought over Ironbottom Sound in SOPAC, there wasn’t an opportunity to go back and create the map.

Now we have that chance, and it makes the South Pacific battle scenarios (and sometimes the battle segment of operational scenarios) really unique in the series. The scenarios don’t play all that differently from the standard tactical map with special rules for land and islands, but even so, seeing the islands on the map is a completely different experience. It’s more fun. And that’s the entire goal.

The Rules
SOPAC, as the first game in the Second World War at Sea series, marked the debut of the first edition series rules. The layout changed at some point when the files became outdated, but the rules themselves remained pretty much the same. While Brian Knipple did an outstanding job crafting serviceable rules, it’s been 16 years at this writing and they are ready for a thorough overhaul.

Jim Stear and Robin Rathbun, along with a host of helpers, have given them exactly that, bringing in the scads of additional special rules that have cropped up over the intervening years and codifying what had arisen as common practice. The new set, which we’re calling the Second Edition, is far easier to play with (as well as fully backward-compatible with older games in the series).

Campaign Coverage
SOPAC had twenty scenarios: ten battle scenarios and ten operational scenarios. All but three of them were based on actual engagements/operations, though a couple of the smaller battle scenarios were kind of stretching the envelope of fun.

The SOPAC scenario set includes an operational scenario for the Battle of the Coral Sea (but no Coral Sea battle scenarios). That won’t carry over to South Pacific, since we have a very fine stand-alone introductory game for the series based on that battle. And it didn’t really fit the rest of the SOPC game anyway. The rest of the scenarios begin in August 1942 and end in November.

August is a good date to start the game – that’s when the Americans showed up to begin Operation Watchtower, the invasion of Guadalcanal. But November only marks the last of the battles in Ironbottom Sound. Many more naval battles took place afterwards: the battles of Kolombangara, Empress Augusta Bay, Vella Gulf, Kula Gulf all took place in 1943. The last naval battle in the Solomons, Cape St. George, occurred on 26 November 1943, a little more than a year after the final battle of SOPAC’s scenario set.

With South Pacific, we’ve extended the scenarios all the way out to the actual end of the campaign. The Americans land at Guadalcanal and fight their way up the Solomons chain, with the Japanese attempting to stop them and to bring supplies to their beleaguered garrisons in the desperate missions they called “rat transportation” and the Americans labelled the “Tokyo Express.”

The History
Throwing a bunch of scenarios into the box isn’t enough for us anymore. South Pacific’s scenarios are tied together with historical text (as we’ve done with alternative-history projects like Triple Alliance) and with sets of operational goals for several series of scenarios that tie them together in play.

While a wargame isn’t a work of history – the act of translating historical data into game information alone does away with that aspect – they certainly provide an opportunity to weave the story into the game. Our long-established habit of providing large numbers of scenarios gives us a fine framework, in which the scenarios advance the narrative of the campaign story. You can play along with history if you like, or just read ahead and pick out the battles/operations that interest you the most.

SOPAC follows the traditional wargame formula in which the scenarios stand alone, totally divorced from one another other than sharing a set of pieces and maps. South Pacific is very much a holistic design approach, in which each scenario – though fully playable by itself – is very much a part of the whole. You don’t have to play all of the scenarios – there are more than 60 of them - but you’ll want to.

From a design perspective, that’s a lot of work. The result is pretty rewarding though. We want our game line to be unique and this aspect helps the games stand out.

The Pieces
To support all of those scenarios, we need a lot of pieces. The Imperial Japanese Navy didn’t increase its force pool all that much after November 1942, relying on many of the same ships to carry on for the next year.

It’s a very different story for the United States (and its allies). More aircraft carriers arrived as the Essex class finally began to enter service. They even borrowed a carrier from the Royal Navy. New fast battleships and cruisers showed up to escort them. And large numbers of new destroyers also arrived – many of Arleigh Burke’s “Little Beavers” that fought the battles of the upper Solomons were still under construction when American Marines landed on Guadalcanal.

And there are the airplanes. SOPAC’s design was badly constrained by a shortage of aircraft pieces – a large campaign game initially included in the design package had to be scrapped for their lack (though it didn’t work at all, so it was no great loss). South Pacific follows the semi-random aircraft allotment procedure that Second World War at Sea games adopted with the publication of the old Bomb Alley. It’s far more historically valid than the precise identification of aircraft and bases, since commanders never had such detailed information even for their own air assets, let alone those of the enemy. But it requires more pieces, since the number drawn can vary from game to game, and may exceed the number historically present. Plus, many additional types of aircraft came into service during the course of 1943, and those are present here as well.

The Package
South Pacific is a big game, with over 1,000 pieces (the die-cut, silky-smooth type we’ve been using for a while now) and a couple of map plus a very fat scenario/history book. We had to have our accountant/advisor in here the other day to go over just how we’re going to produce enough of them to meet demand.

We are fortunate to live in such times. This is going to be fun.

Don’t wait to put South Pacific on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before anyone else!

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.