By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
A long time ago, when the old Avalanche Press still worked the game convention circuit, we reserved a conference room at Origins for a talk on the state of Avalanche Press and all the wonderful games we would publish in the future. And, well . . . no one showed up.
Brian Knipple had these large, rolled-up hand-drawn maps for a Second World War at Sea naval game. Since we now had a large table all to ourselves, he laid them out. A huge and wonderful vista opened up. From the Chinese coast on south: the South China Sea, Borneo, Malaya, West New Guinea, Java, Sumatra and on down across the Timor Sea to Australia. Looking from north to south, the islands looked very different. Alien. Inviting. I knew we needed to publish the game, and gave it the name Strike South (which we were going to use for a Panzer Grenadier game that never happened).
The island archipelago stretching from Sumatra in the southwest to Formosa in the north east, with China on one edge and Australia on the other, is just filled with isolated inland seas connected by narrow straits. It’s a unique overlap of land and sea, and I very much wanted to move my fleets across the interlacing blue and green of the map. Just looking at it makes clear the audacity of the Japanese war plans in late 1941.
That area adds up to two large maps, each 22x34 inches in size with a narrow overlap. We published Strike South at the same time as we released a much larger, limited-edition game called Leyte Gulf. Leyte Gulf used the two maps from Strike South (we printed extras) plus a third one for the seas around and east of Japan. But the really interesting geography is on the two Strike South maps, where you have a lot of blue ocean yet you’re never far from the jungle-green land.
In the game, it’s the Japanese moving rapidly across those maps, in the audacious set of operations known together as the Strike South. While the Japanese had a serious overall advantage in surface ships, air power and submarines, they spread that strength very thinly in an effort to seize as many strategic locations as possible while the colonial powers (Britain, the United States and the Netherlands) remained stunned by the rapidity of their assault.
Speed is the key to the Japanese campaign. Their high command knows they will ultimately be unable to match the resources of the colonial powers. Therefore, they must use their temporary superiority to secure the Western colonies as quickly as possible. That makes for an unusual game: the Japanese can capture anything on the map. But can they do it fast?
It’s not like the colonies are undefended. Britain’s Eastern Fleet, based at Singapore, had a new battleship (Prince of Wales) and an elderly battle cruiser (Repulse), both of which sallied to attack the Japanese invasion fleet and quickly perished following attacks by Japanese land-based bombers. The American Asiatic Fleet had only a few cruisers and overaged destroyers, which fled to the Dutch East Indies to join with the remnants of the Eastern Fleet (also a handful of cruisers and destroyers) and the small Dutch force of light cruisers and destroyers stationed in the colonies plus some Australian warships. This multi-national force fought bravely, but was overwhelmed by the exceedingly well-trained Japanese cruiser and destroyer crews.
The Allied player’s task in the 15 scenarios (eight battle scenarios and seven operational scenarios) is usually built around the need to delay this inexorable Japanese advance. The Japanese, of course, must inexorably advance: they want to seize these resource-rich islands and peninsulae before the Allies recover their wits and their strength and send reinforcements.
Strike South is the oldest of the Second World War at Sea games still in print, and as such it pre-dates some of the later features of the series. Aircraft are allotted to specific bases in specific numbers rather than the semi-random Aircraft Allotment tables of all the other remaining games in the series. I consider this latter method much more historically accurate than “what was really there,” since “reality” gives the opposing player far greater knowledge of enemy deployments than was ever the case, and even gives the owning player more control over aircraft availability than his or her historical counterpart would have had.
I didn’t design Strike South’s scenarios, but at the time we published it I thought the 15 it includes more than sufficient – today you’d still be hard-pressed to find many games from other publishers with more. But that’s not as many as we usually provide, as I’ve since learned that a game’s scenario set can be crafted to tell the story of the campaign or war that’s being simulated. As an old-style disjointed set of stand-along scenarios, Strike South actually does a surprisingly good job of that. But if I had it to do over again, I’d include more of them.
In addition to the two large maps, Strike South comes with two sheets of playing pieces: 140 “long” pieces representing warships, and 280 square ones depicting smaller warships, transports, aircraft and some task force markers. They are the usual Second World War at Sea pieces: the large warship pieces show a top-down view of the ship and her game ratings (for the “visible” qualities: gunnery, speed, torpedoes, anti-aircraft, scout plane if present); the small warships have a silhouette and the same values. Aircraft get a top-down view, and ratings for air-to-air, land attack, naval attack and range.
There are a lot of yellow pieces on those sheets: the Imperial Japanese Navy dominates the set of pieces. It’s not a traditional battle fleet: the battleships that formed the core of the Combined Fleet’s striking power are absent, withheld for the war’s decisive final battle. The heaviest ships available are the four rebuilt battle cruisers of the Kongo class, none of them individually a match for Prince of Wales but a strong surface component as a group.
They’re usually detailed as escorts for the big flattops of the First Carrier Fleet: four of the carriers that devastated Pearl Harbor and now will supply (at least for a brief time) air support to the invasions of the southern island chains. But those vessels (and their big, heavy escorts) make only a limited appearance in Strike South. The burden of the surface campaign is carried by the big, impressive Type A heavy cruisers, with their powerful gunnery and torpedo batteries and the advantages presented by their highly-trained crews. Only the American Houston and Boise come close to matching their firepower once the British capital ships are out of the way.
Just as overpowering are the huge Japanese “Special Type” destroyers, maximized for surface combat with far more powerful guns and torpedoes than any Allied destroyer in the game. And the torpedoes are the extra-powerful “Long Lance” oxygen-fueled heavy weapons (known as the “Type 93 Oxygen Torpedo” to the Japanese – American naval historian Samuel Eliot Morrison coined the phrase “Long Lance” only after the war was over). No Allied destroyer comes close to their capabilities, and the Japanese have a lot of them.
Once the heavy carriers move on, air support is provided by light carriers and seaplane carriers. The seaplanes are not nearly as effective as Japanese pre-war planners presumed, but they do give the Japanese player at least some air cover far from Japanese bases. When close enough to those bases, Japanese land-based air strength is almost always much more powerful than that of the Allies.
All of that makes for a very different game: the forces are unbalanced, but the area is vast and the goals equally ambitious. Each side has enormous challenges, but they can be met with good play.
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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 herds chihuahuas.