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Title: Cactus Air Force: Air War Over the Solomons
Basic information: Designed by Joseph Miranda (Decision Games 2012)
Overall Evaluation: This is a very good game in the “Mini Games Series” although the mechanics need tweaking...and some need more tweaking than others. With some revising, this can be an excellent system for gaming the air war components of many campaigns. Good replayability that could become better with a few modifications. This is a game that many people either enjoy (some with caveats) or dislike. As an avid aviation gamer (note the avatar…) and aviation author, I shall naturally address these differences in opinions in the review under ‘what I like’ and ‘what some gamers (often including me) don’t like.’ Decision Games has a real opportunity here to learn from the various pro and con comments and evolve this air war system into something that can be applied to the air war components of many campaigns. Personally, I would like to see refinement and further development of the system into future games.
Important Caveat: This game was designed to be simple, easy to learn, and easy to play. “Cactus Air Force” is the first of two games (along with “Eagle Day”) in a new Air Wars Mini Game Series. Thus, it was designed to be small, inexpensive, and simple utilizing a system that could apply to many aviation games which would include their own unique modifications of a page for two. “One size does not fit all” in the world of gaming. Some gamers prefer monster mega-simulations; some want medium complexity; others desire low complexity; and there are gamers who demand ultra low complexity (think the classic “Battle Ship”). Thus, there is room for games on the same topic but of different complexities. Personally, I prefer low and medium complexity games while I respect those who demand the mega-simulations with their attention to detail and complexity. I do own some of the latter and deeply enjoy them (“Bloody April” and “Downtown” are two examples). Most of the criticisms of this game involve two areas -- mechanics problems or the dislike of smaller games where actions are handled in more abstract fashions to reduce complexity. There are game mechanics issues in “Cactus Air Force.” However I do not fault this game for its abstractions for the sake of complexity. Instead, I applaud the efforts of the designer to produce a lower complexity series of air war games. When I want to play a simple and fast air war game, I’ll reach for one of my low or medium complexity purchases; when I have more time and am ready for the challenge of a mega-air war game, I’ll pull one of those off the shelf. When school is out, I enjoy a day spent over the dining room table with “Bloody April” and a pot of good coffee. However, most of the time I might have a short window of time on a Saturday morning and I’ll toss “Cactus Air Force” or another game on the table. We should be thankful that “one size does not fit all” and that game developers are willing to design products of different complexity on the same subjects.
Background Theme: “Cactus Air Force” covers the air war component of the campaign to secure Guadalcanal between August 1942 and November 1942. The Americans are struggling to increase air power and defend themselves while attempting to carry the war to Japanese air and naval forces along the Solomon Islands chain. The Japanese are doing their best to destroy American air and naval power in the attempt to clear all American forces from the southeastern Solomon Islands.
Format and Components: The game is packaged in a zip-lock style and includes rules, an 11”x 17” playing map, 18 player cards (9 for the Americans and 9 for the Japanese), and 40 aircraft counters. American aircraft include the B-17, B-25, B-26, PBY, PV1, P-38, P-39, P-40, SBD, TBF, and F4F. Japanese counters represent the G3M, Ki49, Ki48, H6K, B5N, D3A, A6M, A6M2, and Ki43. The counters do not separate easily and care must be taken when removing them. I had to snip lots of corners with finger nail clippers to remove the little tags left hanging on them. The map is divided into a series of square grids with 12 squares along the top and 18 squares running along the length of the map from each top square. In other words, the map grid is 12 x 18 squares. Aircraft holding boxes, turn marker boxes, and a terrain effects chart are located along the edges of the map. Players provide their own six-sided die.
Rules: The basic “Air Wars Mini Game Series” system rules book is 4 pages (8 ½ “ x 11“ inches) and the “Cactus Air Force” special scenario rules are 1 page with a second page of unique charts. The rules are fairly easy to follow and the game is easy to learn. Don’t miss the Errata comments buried into the bottom of paragraph 30.13 (Reinforcement Cards) of the Scenario Rules. Unlike their Magazine format products, Decision Games does not maintain a central collection of errata on their website for their boxed, folio, or mini games.
Abbreviated Play: The game consists of five monthly turns ranging from August 1942 to November 1942. There are 10 hourly periods within each monthly term. Yes, this is a poor way to name them and gives the impression each month consists of a single 10 hour day. Beats me how this got past play testers. Each monthly turn begins with a Planning Phase with players selecting the number of campaign cards equal to their current command level. Reinforcements are then introduced to available airfields. The Operations Phase is next. Very briefly, each hourly period involves an attacker conducting movement, air to air combat, anti-aircraft fire defense, and then bombing. This is followed by the other player and lasts for 10 cycles to complete a monthly turn. The campaign cards play a significant role in driving the game. Some initiate historical battles the require semi-mandatory (based on limited availability of victory points) action by each player. The cards also provide air reinforcements and the repair of damaged units. Aircraft are rated on their range and air to air and bomb attack values. The range factor becomes very important in the game since many planes are not able to remain airborne beyond a single hourly period. Combat is an abstract comparison of attack vs defense values and resulting rolls of dice compared to a chart. Air attacks on naval targets and bombing of ground installations are similar.
Replay Value: Good. The utilization of the campaign cards alters the flow of every game. However, the cards are too few in number and predictability increases with a corresponding reduction in replayability late in a game. As written elsewhere in this review, doubling the number of campaign cards to 18 on each side would greatly increase the replayability throughout each game.
Solo Play: Very Good. “Cactus Air Force” is designed for two players but is easy to solo due to its simplicity and game system. Playing solo does eliminate the rules for decoy aircraft and the radar screen around Guadalcanal. However, these are minor changes for solo purposes. I did make one House Rule to adjust the game to solo play. Rather than draw the number of campaign cards equal to each side’s Command Level, I simply drew ONE card at random for each side per turn. Thus, this one card must be played by each side. This system added to the replayability of the game in a solo format and really made play interesting although not historically accurate. In applying this House Rule, I automatically tossed out the US Morale, Thatch Weave, and Air Ground Coordination cards. For the Japanese, I removed the Morale, Tainan Air Group, and Night Bombing Tactics cards from play.
Evaluation: I found “Cactus Air Force” to be an overall good game.
Here are a few points I like:
a. Easy to learn and easy to play as a game in the Mini Series. Can be played anywhere due to size and each game can be completed in less than two hours.
b. I really like the utilization of Campaign Cards to alter the flow of the game. These add to the replayability even if too few in number in my opinion. A player can have a strategy set for a turn only to have a semi-mandatory naval battle card appear -- diverting air assets to an unplanned battle. Frustrating but fun.
c. I really like aviation games. I really love solitaire aviation games or those that are easily played solitaire. I really, really love aviation games set in the Pacific during World War II. Enough said.
d. Good basic series system that leads to a potential for more games covering the air components of other campaigns.
Here are a few points I do not like (while these are longer paragraphs than ones for points I like, this only means I’m offering recommendations to make the game better):
a. Bombers need to have their bomb values re-evaluated. While the bomb values printed on the B-17s are sufficient for land targets, the aircraft were highly inefficient in the Solomon Islands Campaign against moving naval vessels. Recommend a review and modification to produce a slashed bomb value to reflect land vs. naval targets. For example -- perhaps the existing 4 bomb value for land targets and a single bomb value for naval targets. Greater research into the value of the other American bombers should also be conducted to evaluate whether their bomb values are historically equal for land vs. moving naval targets. The first utilization of B-25 skip bombing was in October 1942 at Rabaul by the Fifth Air Force. Perhaps it would be more accurate to rate the B-25 bomb value against moving vessels as 1 and then increase it to the printed 2 beginning in October 1942. I know B-26s utilized torpedoes without success at the Battle of Midway but am not sure about the Solomon Islands Campaign. Further research is needed in order to properly update the game counters.
b. Each player has only 9 Campaign cards and can hold as many as the current command level which ranges from 1-4. Thus, at a command level of 3, the player is holding 3 cards (⅓ of the total) not counting those that must be played immediately and discarded. While I really like the card driven nature of this game and how it increases replayability, there are too few cards for a really good game. Late in the game, it’s possible to hold over half of the total cards in your hand. Plus, it’s too easy to predict which cards may pop up again. I highly recommend doubling the number of cards on each side to increase the fog of war impact and add even greater replayability to the game.
c. Normally utilizing boxes instead of hexes on the map is not an issue for a game of this scale but the inability to move diagonally does lead to an interesting problem for aircraft. For example, if American aircraft launch from Henderson Field to bomb the Tokyo Express square off Santa Isabel Island, they need three movement points to reach the spot flying 90 degree angles from side of a box to side of a box. However, flying diagonally (as in reality) the aircraft need only two movement points. I highly recommend Decision Games re-look at this aspect of the game. Until then...my House Rule permits aircraft to fly diagonally from box to box.
There are a few points some gamers may not like:
a. Some gamers are not into “micro games” such as the Decision Games mini series. Thus, one should expect an element of simplicity and abstraction in this game. This is a small game with small number of counters. Yet, I must add a caveat for those gamers that for its size, this game packs a big punch. Everyone has their preference for large vs. small games and I certainly respect that point.
b. The battle map is not to scale. It would be challenging to cover the area on this map if to actual scale.
c. Combat is fairly abstract due to the game scale and level of complexity. This is a natural trade off as one decreases in game complexity.
d. Some gamers have complained about a lack of decision making. I agree with them that decision making is minimal. However, this is more of a lower complexity uber-strategic game. Decision making, due to lower complexity, is based more on setting offensive targeting and laying out defenses...and then changing everything when a campaign card dictates a semi-mandatory battle. Players more interested in tactical decisions can be frustrated with the strategic nature of the game.
e. This is primarily a game of opposing air forces flying up and down the Solomon Islands chain to attack ground and naval forces while avoiding air defenses. While possibly frustrating for some gamers, this is an accurate portrayal of the air warfare between August and November 1942 in the Solomon Islands chain.
Bang for the Buck: Very Good. This game packs a good punch for its size despite some problems with its mechanics and is a very good value due to being inexpensive (at the time of this review, prices range from $10-$13).
c The Swamp Hamster
This is a very thorough review of the game. Thanks for putting so much time into it. Based on your comments I plan to purchase a copy.
With interest in the campaign and region, and moderate complexity gaming, this review helps me decide to get this game. I had taken a dim view of hasty, untested, SPI-sucker market DG games for a while, but this could be a low investment return.
Your notes on rules tweaking are very well taken (reinforcing my point) and seem necessary.