Island of Death:
Publisher’s Preview

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2016

Once upon a time, I decided we needed to publish a small, introductory game for what would become our Mechanized Battlefield series but at the time had no name (even though we'd published several games in it by then). The series designer, Brian Knipple, offered several suggestions, but made the fatal error of mentioning that he could design a game on the planned invasion of Malta that would not be very large.

Warned that it would make a terrible introduction to the game system - with no tanks and a blizzard of special rules for airborne and amphibious landings - I wanted it anyway. One of the very earliest wargames I ever played covered the 1941 invasion of Crete and included a "bonus game" about the planned invasion of Malta. I played them, I didn't like them, and somehow convinced my long-suffering mother to return it to the toy store where I'd laid down my $12.99 plus tax ($50.14 in 2007 dollars!). And I felt guilty about that, for reasons I've never understood. So to resolve a 30-year-old psychological trauma, I asked Brian Knipple to design a new game about Malta.

He was right. Island of Death is a terrible introduction to the series. But it's a great stand-alone game in its own right.

The Package

Playing the game revealed that Malta is very, very small. And so I decided to double the size of the map, to 22x17 inches, with much bigger hexes so two or three playing pieces would fit (very tightly) in each. Or fingers could easily reach in to pick up a stack of them. That's the instruction I gave the map artist; she was not impressed.

"That's not a map," she said. "That's a flow chart."

And so it was. There are 22 beach hexes on the map, divided into four zones. Each beach hex had a thick black line connecting it to a pair of boxes, labeled "First Wave" and "Second Wave." Each pair of boxes was in turn connected to a large box labeled "Follow Up." The boxes and lines took up just about as much space as the island itself. In play they were very useful, letting the Axis player line up his or her invasion forces and showing the Allied player what targets he could shoot at with his coastal defense guns. But it really did look like a flow chart.

After the Italian landing forces either got onto the island or got themselves annihilated in the attempt, the flow chart became so much wasted space. And so I moved it to its own "planning map," a separate card showing the flow of boxes and where they connect on the island, complete with a small version of the game map. That freed the ocean hexes around the island, which is important because Italian warships have to sail there to bombard Allied positions.

The count of playing pieces went from 280 to 380, allowing all of the airborne company breakdown counters (and there are a lot of them) to be unique. In any game design, it's important to keep to a single line of logic in each function. For example, "high die rolls good, low die rolls bad." In this case, the back of a playing piece can show the unit at reduced strength, or it can show a different unit, but it should not show a reduced version in some cases and a different unit in others. The extra pieces also allowed us to make sure the game had plenty of markers. For some reason I put in 30 "Out of Ammunition" markers when then game only has 10 artillery units.

The System

The game engine is derived from that of Alamein, but despite the best intentions it is not exactly the same. The most obvious difference is the lack of a detailed air game in Island of Death. In Alamein, air squadrons battle for superiority, support their side's ground units and attack enemy supply depots. Island of Death makes the very sound assumption that the Axis would not have launched their invasion without having first wiped out the Royal Air Force presence on the island. Thus the Allied player has no air units with which to oppose the Axis. The Axis player doesn't really have air units either, but instead has three air support markers than can be used to support ground units on the attack. The Axis player can also undertake air strikes against Allied defensive positions to "soften them up" before the landings.

Alamein is a game with many tank units — I'm not even sure how many, but the number of pieces with tank pictures on them runs into the hundreds. Island of Death has three: one German, one Italian and one British. Only two units have anti-tank values. The tank-vs.-tank and anti-tank subsystems of the Alamein game engine are fairly complex, but in the context of a large sweeping clash of armored divisions it's a very valid mechanic on historical grounds and players like it. But the payoff for five units which might meet in combat once per game seemed very small for such an intense process, so we replaced the Alamein procedure with a grossly simplified version. Tanks can increase the combat odds for the attacker, or decrease them (to a lesser extent) for the defender.

In North Africa, commanders had to constantly worry about supplying their troops and the Allied side usually had a definite advantage thanks to their ability to ship materiel to Egypt via the Indian Ocean. Units on Malta still need their beans and bullets, but the game system is not nearly as intricate in this area as it is in Alamein. Headquarters do not have to be prepared to function fully; it's assumed that any formation tasked with an airborne or amphibious landing would be at an even greater state of readiness than that of the "prepared" divisions in the desert game while the garrison is also ready for action. Units still have to be supplied to fully function, but we removed the "isolated" status since on an island this small we found units rarely qualifying for it.

The Game

So after all of those changes, how does it play?

Despite the low price and the small map, Island of Death is not a simple game. The Axis player has three types of landings to execute. First, there are the airborne drops of the German Ramcke parachute brigade and the Italian Folgore Parachute Division. There aren't enough airplanes to drop them all at once, and there's always a chance that their companies can be scattered across the island and into the Mediterranean. But they are both elite formations, and if they manage to gather their strength they can grab and hold ground. Their real task is to get hold of at least one airfield so that that second type of landing can occur: the arrival of the Italian Spezia Air-Landing Division. While not as good as the paratroopers, the glider troops show up intact and are a welcome addition of force.

Meanwhile, the third type of landing is taking place on the beaches, where two Italian infantry divisions storm ashore assisted by a handful of marine companies. The 4th "Livorno" Division's battalions are as good as any in the Malta garrison; the 20th "Friuli" Division is not as capable. But they bring artillery and engineers with them and a dozen battalions' worth of infantry — IF they can get past the Allied coastal guns and beach defenses.

This is where the game will probably be decided. The Italian infantry, particularly the well-led Livorno Division, will grind up the garrison if it gets ashore intact. The Allied player has to throw them back into the sea when they're still weak and separated. If the very capable Maj. Gen. Domenico Chirieleison can get his division's battalions formed up and on the attack, it will be a very dark day for the British Empire. It's possible for the Allied player to still win the game if the parachute landings have been destroyed or contained, but it's the paratroopers who grab the glory while the infantry do the fighting.

The Allied player's goal is to hold on as long as possible, in the hopes that the Royal Navy will intervene or the Italian high command will cancel the operation. The Axis player has to inflict casualties while limiting his or her own, and capture objectives — in particular, airfields and ports.

Fortress Malta

Island of Death covers a battle that never actually occurred, and that allows us to explore variations on the plans for Operation Hercules/Operazione C.3. The book Fortress Malta adds 420 pieces, seven scenarios and a whole blizzard of variants, history and analysis. If you like Island of Death, you need Fortress Malta - it turns a fun game into a deep historical study (that's even more fun!).

Order Island of Death now!

Order Fortress Malta now!

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.