Hello everyone. I have enjoyed some of Mr.Cunliffe's earlier games so when I saw this on the shelf at my FLGS, I decided to check it out. This review will focus on the games and accompanying article, ignoring the rest of the magazine's content. It is a long review, because those are the kind I like (and I enjoy the sound of my own voice a little too much). If you can't be bothered to read all this, here's the short form: The games are light but fun, and well designed (especially Peleliu).
Islands of the Damned is pair of games concerning two different island assaults in the PTO of WWII, linked by the common aspect of an invader who seriously underestimated their opponent. On Wake Island, you are defending against a series of Japanese assaults, the first of which will almost certainly fail and the second of which will almost certainly not. On Peleliu, you lead a combined force of Marines and Army versus some Japanese who are dug in so as to foreshadow Iwo Jima and Okinawa. You must root out all the defenders without taking ruinous casualties before running out of time.
To start with, these are not deep solitaire games that will take days to complete. Fields of Fire and D-Day at Omaha Beach these are not. They aren't trying to be, either. They have a lot more in common with something from Victory Point Games than anything else.
The art design is simple, clean and functional. Everything is very clear and easy to decipher. Counters are sturdy and well die cut, while the maps are glossy stiff paper. It comes with a counter tray and three dice.
This simplicity and clarity extends to the rules. As this is often the Achilles heel of wargames, especially solo versions, let me compliment the Mr. Cunliffe and associates on writing a concise, clear and unambiguous rule set. Once you've grasped them, the only time you'll need to look at anything other than the board and counters for Wake Island is when you're scoring the game at the end. Peleliu is only slightly more complicated, with a one page player's aid containing a few necessary charts and reminders.
As with other games by this designer, combat is resolved by the (small) "bucket of dice" method. In Wake island, both your forces and the Japanese roll a number of d6 based on the unit's attack factor. Dice that hit are rolled again to assess damage. The more powerful the Japanese unit, the less likely it is for a hit to prove telling. All hits on Wake island will damage something, either destroying material or wounding and dispersing your garrison.
On Peleliu, you roll a number of dice based on your strength relative to the Japanese unit with which you are fighting, adding in bonus dice for artillery support. At least one of your dice must equal or exceed the strength of the Japanese unit, in which case it is destroyed. If you fail to destroy it, one of your units takes a step loss and the unit commander, if present, may be temporarily knocked out of action.
For both games, everything you need to know is on the counters, maps and player's aid sheet.
I played Wake Island first. It plays a bit like a classic arcade top to bottom shooter, with the Japanese invaders appearing at the edge of the map and moving closer and closer, becoming deadlier the closer they get. Allow them to get too close and the battle will be over swiftly as naval gunfire rakes Wake leaving nothing but ruin behind. Your primary means of offense are three shore batteries of five inch guns, each of which is almost equivalent to a Japanese destroyer division. You will also have four Wildcats that can dive bomb and provide CAP, though they are not long for this world when the elite pilots of the second attack wave appear.
The attack waves are resolved by pulling a varying number of counters from the appropriate wave stash. In the first wave, most of these are supplies and other resources for Wake. There is a modest number of relatively weak (destroyers and light cruisers) ships as well, but they lack determination and will retreat when damaged. Damage or sink a total of six of them and they will call off the invasion. All is well, right?
Well, no, because Imperial Japanese Navy officers don't take that kind of defeat easily. In the second wave, the Japanese show up with more and heavier ships and, fatally for Wake, air support. The Zeroes will clear out your Wildcats in short order, which is unfortunate because your four planes are your only weapon that can strike the Japanese before they unleash at least one volley against you. Also, the second wave is determined to avenge the humiliation of the first and thus will not break off the attack until they're dead or you are.
As they bombard the island, you will lose points from your garrison track and also resources such as ammunition and fuel. If ever your garrison track hits 1, your ability to resist has been destroyed. Likewise, if your garrison is ever lower than the combat strength of Japanese ships in Wake coastal waters, the invasion has succeeded and Wake falls. One of these two will almost certainly happen every time you play.
So how do you win? Victory is assessed by comparing your performance versus that of the historical defenders. Do substantially better than they did by sinking a few more heavy ships and you may end up shortening the war due to the snowball effect of those ships not being around at critical points later.
I enjoyed Wake island, though it is the shallower of the two games. You have only a few resources to manage, and your main decisions will be target selection for your shore batteries. However, you can set up and play it in under an hour which is nice for people like me who have limited gaming time.
Peleliu is a bit deeper. At the game's start, there are 30 Japanese units distributed everywhere except the beaches who must be eliminated to claim victory. You have the 1st Marine division and, later, elements of an Army division as well. The base units are battalions grouped into regiments. Each turn will consist of you activating each regiment in turn. As the game goes on, you will be assigned divisional support elements like artillery, armor and pioneer units equipped with the indispensable flamethrower. You also have a morale track which serves as another level of granularity in tracking losses as well as reflecting the grueling nature of the battle. If your morale ever drops to the minimum, you have lost. You also lose if you run out of time, so you must balance these two critical factors in order to win.
When you activate a regiment, you pull an Intensity chit, which will have some beneficial event like naval bombardment or some supply points. Intensity chits also serve as time keepers. Once you've cycled through them four times, it's game over.
Once activated, you move the units of the regiment. If you enter an area with a Japanese unit you stop and fight.
When you first encounter such a unit, you reveal the counter and one of four enemy tactics will be applied. The Japanese are more deadly by night, so creeping into unknown territory in the dark is dangerous! You can increase your chances with naval bombardment (which adds dice to your side) and napalm (which lowers the enemy's strength making them easier to kill). Once revealed, a unit stays that way and doesn't get to trigger it's special tactic again.
Combat resolution I described above, but I want to make a point of the interesting way Mr. Cunliffe tracks casualties. Light losses are indicated by losing a point off of your morale track. Heavy losses result in a step loss to a battalion with a significant reduction in their combat power. You also lose morale when leaders are killed or injured, and when the sun rises (as the days were very, very hot with the weather adding to the misery of the Marines). You can regain morale by decisively eliminating a Japanese unit (rolling a six on one of your dice) or by expending precious supplies, but over time you will bleed morale beyond your ability to recover it. Once it falls below the halfway point, you will lose some additional combat effectiveness.
For such a simple game, Peleliu really captures the feel of this kind of warfare. Many of the Japanese positions were heavily camouflaged and thus came as lethal surprises to the Marines. You will find there are positions in this game which cannot be carried on your first attempt. Only after you've paid a price in blood to expose the position can you bring sufficient resources to bear to destroy it.
If it wasn't clear from the tone of this review, I liked both these games. Peleliu is deeper and more interesting but Wake is just plain fun. Having a Wildcat sink a heavy cruiser with a dive bombing attack (which is less than a 1 in 12 chance) is immensely satisfying, even if the other ships of his fleet are still going to shell the stuffing out of you. I have yet to win Peleliu, but I suspect winning that will feel more like a (fun) ordeal survived.
There is also the magazine article, which serves as a fine introduction to these two battles with references for those who wish a deeper understanding. If you enjoy solo games and are at all interested in the PTO of WWII, by all means check these games out.
Great review! Thank you for taking the time to write this up. I think some of my money just left my wallet...
Thank You for your review..the review coupled with Stuka Joe's recent gameplay video, made this an insta-buy for me....