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Fire in the Sky: The Great Pacific War 1941-1945» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Fire in the Sky, Smoke on the Water rss

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Severus Snape
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Fire in the Sky, Smoke on the Water

Introduction:

Warning: the early part of this review will talk about everything except Fire in the Sky; in particular, look for comments about Empire of the Sun.

World War I or II strategic/operational (thinking army and/or corps) level wargames, designs that try to encompass an entire theatre, for the most part are an attractive, often expensive, disappointment for me. Fields of Despair: France 1914-1918, Guns of August, Hitler’s War, John Prados' Third Reich, Stalin’s War, World War II: Barbarossa to Berlin—a real dog among dogs, that—World in Flames, Wendell or Wendell, not withstanding--World War II: European Theater of Operations, 1939-45, Festung Europa, The Lights are Going Out are among those on the casualty list of forlorn hopes that were not to be. I could name more, but I can tell that you are nodding off even as I type.

It seems that the only design that has been satisfactory, to date, is Columbia’s brilliant Front series. And those games and Columbia’s Rommel in the Desert seem to be the only block games that garner my respect; or should I change the topic to that shiny stinker, Fields of Desperation?

For years, ever since the reprint came out, I had sitting in shrinkwrap a copy of Mark Herman’s Empire of the Sun. My experience with Mark’s other CDG’s lead me to think of For the People as a decent game, wacked-out leader ratings notwithstanding, otherwise known as “design for the effect of making people who care about such matters nauseous.” Churchill is a boring bomb of battle of the bots. And then there is that travesty known as Washington’s Wanton Waste of really nice GMT components; but to be fair to Mark, I think the AWI is too difficult for his gaming genius—and he is a gaming genius—to fully capture. Its complexities cannot be boxed into a game. The military and political scope, not just in North America, but on a world-wide level, stretch to the horizon of the gaming imagination.

Returning to EOTS, I was hesitant to break the shrink and not like the game. Having been flamed every time I have been critical of a Mark Herman CDG—note, I do like his France 1944, Peloponnesian War and some others quite a bit—it becomes more difficult to bite the Herman bullet and give his CDG’s a try. But being bitten by the Pacific theatre history bug, and knowing what shiny bits of GMT goodness lay within, I set up the game and began reading the rules. Then, I read the rules. Then, I reread the rules. I then reread the rules again. I looked for threads to answer questions. I looked some more, read some more, and then began playing the thing.

And I like it. It is a very good game. I do think Fire in the Sky is the better game for the topic, and I will explain why at a later time. I think Mark Herman’s Breaking the Bismarck Barrier module is the better way to bring out all the potential in ETOS, but that calls for another review. Having enjoyed ETOS, I turned next to Fire in the Sky. And I turn now to the review of it proper. As I break down its different aspects, various pros and cons will be mentioned.

Components:

Let’s begin with the Map. The 2005 Charles S. Roberts Best Wargame Graphics Winner as chosen by a panel of cats given the quest to find the best material to line birdcages, with noisy birds “chirping” in their opinions. The first time I picked up a copy of Fire in the Sky, I traded it away within a week’s time because I could not get past that map. I was a fool, and not for the first or last time, but that map: it might be a realistic dark blue, but therein lies the problem; the map is dark. Too dark. The clouds add clutter and affect clarity. If “design for effect” is the intention, well the effect does more harm than good by way of seeing what should be seen without having to look twice or thrice. I know. There are people who gush great quantities of visceral emotion over the map; these are the same people who decorate their bedrooms with Andy Warhol images and glow-in-the-strobe-light “things.”

However, to play the game I have to live with what is, like it or not. And, no, it hasn’t grown on me, unless in a yucky, “in between the toes,” type manner.

Next up are the Counters. I like the large size, and one of the map’s few redeeming features are the large hexagons—you could put a block game on this mamma—that hold the counters. The counters are of a Janus fashion. Pretty to see, hard to read. If you play the game enough times, you begin to remember the necessary numbers, and perhaps the amount of time spent picking up and examining stacks is not very much different from any other hex & counter wargame. If the counters came without the beautiful flower and bold eagle, we would be complaining how bland they are. I tell you; you just can’t please some people. More counter-carping to come: stay tuned.

As a personal preference, I prefer what is done in ETOS with the naval counters. Whose decision was it in FITS to go with the American eagle? Was this a marketing decision? Of course, the British do get their iconic lion, and the Dutch get something colourful, though I have not figured out what it is (I haven’t done the research, so someone can kindly tell me). As for the Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, and any other nationalities, they get mostly nothing, except for the flags on the two—two—counters that make up the Australian and New Zealand contribution to this war in their front yard. This is a design choice, though it is not clear to me if it comes from the Japanese designer or the American developer (and there are too many time-wasting threads to see if this is addressed on CSW, and it would not be at the top of my “things to cover” list if I were running the show, though I expect I would address it at some point).

The Rules appear to be co-authored by the previously mentioned Janus. Bit by bit, on the surface level, they seem—seem—easy enough to grasp. What takes longer, much longer, is making gaming sense of the individual parts in order to get a sense of the whole. Mark Herman makes no apologies for the complexity of his ETOS, and a part of its rich flavour has to do with making an effort to master—I’ll never get beyond the “effort” aspect—its complexities. Fire in the Sky is a different sort of complexity, one which appears heavily dependent on that slippery element known as “design for effect.” This is where the game truly shines.

My feelings on the Play of the Game:

Once you play it a few (dozen, hundred or so?) times, one sees the nuance, the “fine distinction, subtle difference; shade, shading, gradation, variation, degree; subtlety, nicety, overtone” in how Fire in the Sky handles the Pacific Theatre. I feel that there is a good balance in the game so that either side can win. I don’t have enough experience to state whether early mistakes will fatally cripple the Japanese player, though such mistakes will end the war quickly for the Allied side.

The underdog can show his (or her) teeth and win some battles, despite being outnumbered. In one game, the Dutch fleet turned back the Japanese ships by sinking one and damaging two, at the cost of the Dutch destroyer unit. By establishing control of the sea, the invading Nippon unit did not roll the sixes needed to win, and ABDA lived for one more turn.

Perhaps the best example of the idea of “nuance” in the design is the use of Oil points (for the Japanese) and Transport points (for both sides). This seems to be the power behind the game’s design engine, so to speak. There seems never enough to go around, and the Japanese fleet, which is so powerful for the early years, might find itself impotent just when it is most needed. Bobby Fischer, the great world chess champion (setting aside his mental illness and the terrible things which he said in his shadow years) said that chess is a game where one has to know when to duck, and when to punch. This fits Fire in the Sky very well.

The turn two, January-March 1942, scenario is much appreciated. I have never enjoyed replaying the Pearl Harbor component (though I do want to explore the other possibilities of where the Japanese might use this tremendous opening punch).

I find it fun and satisfying, despite some of my nits and picks, which are to follow. By the way, I have not experimented with the optional rules. That comes next in my play.

The aforementioned Nits & Picks:

1) Let’s return to the counters for another whack. The American Eagle still has me seeing, and hearing, Kate Smith; this is not a good thing. The flowers on the Japanese counters are beautiful; but the often mentioned problem is how small the information is printed on the counters. Play it enough times to learn what most—not all—factors the various ship types are like well make this less of a problem; but why should it have been a problem in the first place?

2) Learning this design shows a less than stellar side of CSW, where you can read through thousands—thousands—of threads filled with repetitive nonsense along the likes of “What are we going to do tonight?” “Oh, I don’t know; what do you want to do tonight?” And enjoy a few swipes from a few of the CSW crowd at the “BGG gamer.” You have to sift through a lot of stuff to find something actually worth reading about the game.

3) Order of Battle: Well, what can one expect in a strategic-level game so dependent upon a high level of abstraction? Better than what we find, one might think. If you are not a ship or an American marine, don’t expect much in the way of historical respect. Yes, the United States is bankrolling the ANZAC war effort, but it was mostly Australians who were doing the fighting and dying in New Guinea. What’s up with giving them and the New Zealanders one regiment each? And why not have the Americal division to add colour? For a change, India has its own Army; about time, don’t you think?

4) The resurrection of the dead. By this I mean how the Malayan Army returns to active service in the Far East two turns after it is wiped out at Singapore. I can see why it returns in order to bolster up British Imperial defences, but might it swing the odds in the Allied player’s favour later in the game? When the Americans finally get a full-court press going against Japan, the British can increase the pressure and, despite the limited number of transport points, land a 4SP unit to outflank the Burma theatre by sea. The Malayan Army will always be around to defend the back door.

5) The possibility of historical anomalies. For example (one referred to on CSW), could the historical battle of Midway occur in Fire in the Sky? Some things to consider. First, Carrier groups (the fly-boys) and Bombardment groups (the big-boys) are placed in separate Task forces (and never the twain shall meet). Second, the Carrier battles are “one and done” after you have named your targets for your air strength points. Your available air points might want to do any of the following:

Hit the enemy carriers

Hit the enemy battleships

Offer ground support for the invasion of Midway as attacker or defender
But to try and do them all will mean using penny pockets of air points to a likely minimal effect. The Bombardment beastie-boys are allowed to fight until sunk or withdrawn; the carriers are not allowed another go in this battle.

This does seem odd, if practical, from the standpoint of not turning the Pacific War into a Richard Berg version of The Rise of the Roman Republic; and will he ever complete the 2nd Punic War? But I digress. As mentioned on CSW, the Japanese, if they win the battle for sea superiority with their Big Boys, can continue the invasion of Midway using the battleships and heavy cruisers for ground support.

In such a case, unless the Japanese are carting the Dutch East Indies oil fields in their back pockets, they won’t stay on Midway for long; look for an American tsunami in response. However, this back and forth, take, hold, lose, take it back, lose again, toing and froing is just the kind of thing that can win the “long game” for the boys from Nippon.

6) One quirk the cranks me a bit is there is no qualitative distinction between the Japanese and Allied air forces as the war progresses. The fragility of Japan’s superior pilots (there is an optional rule for this which I have not explored), and the superiority of Allied planes and pilot training (as Japanese loses increased) is not addressed. Battles involving naval or land-based planes are based on raw numbers and the luck of the die.

It needs to be noted that as Japanese loses pile up, there are fewer replacements; perhaps this is the “design for effect” aspect to what I have just discussed. Mark Herman’s ETOS gives a positive die-roll modifier to the Allies as the war goes on, which I imagine is his way of trying to address the issue without increasing a complex game’s complexity.

7) When it comes to the recipe book, this game is heavily procedurally—I hate using back-to-back adverbs like this—based to a point where it seems that time is slowing down. This can work to increase fun and positive tension, or it can feel like die-rolling tedium. Fight a large naval battle where an invasion is at stake and see what’s in store.

8) The Example of Play is an example of how not to write an example of play if the intention is to provide something that helps more than it hinders. I don't expect Adam to give away all of his Turn 2 secrets for the Japanese side, but what's up with sending all of that Japanese naval muscle to Truk only to have it come home having done nothing? If this is so that we can go, "Oh, I can do better than that with my Transport points," just tell us up front and do something exciting. Invade Guadalcanal maybe. And why not have an Allied follow-up? Given that you wrote the Japanese moves in about five minutes, five minutes more could have be spared to show us an Allied response.

I don't want this to come across as mean; if Adam or anyone things so, then tell me. In light of Adam\s stellar development, we have this great game. I just think he could have done a stellar job at his example of play.

Conclusion, or some such reasonable facsimile thereof:

Once, once, once, once, once, you get the jigsaw pieces figured out--"I can see! I can see! Lordy, I can see!"--there is a brilliant strategic level game. All wargames are abstractions--my poor puns are distractions--and Fire in the Sky almost crashes and burns from its high level of abstraction. Almost. Which then leaves you with a most satisfying experience (unless you lose early in the game and have to hit restart).

I will have to think how I want to word why I like Fire in the Sky more than Empire of the Sun; I've rated both games a 10. More thought is needed.

I will return to make corrections and editing. Of course I will!

goo
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Paul Borchers
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Quote:
I don't expect Adam to give away all of his Turn 2 secrets for the Japanese side, but what's up with sending all of that Japanese naval muscle to Truk only to have it come home having done nothing?


The forces that Adam moved to Truk arrived there during the First Deployment Phase, and therefore are on their Deployment Side (cherry blossom showing). During the Return to Base phase, those naval units that used Operational Movement or reacted must return to their home bases (14.1). These ships would have their ship profile showing, not the eagle or cherry blossom. The rules are clear; Adam is a little less explicit in how he states it, but basically just a few ships on the map are on their Operational Side at the end of his example, and they're all Japanese. Those are the ones returning to Kure or Yokosuka. The rest, including those at Truk, stay where they are. He's deployed them there for future action, but we won't get to see that happen unless we get more turns in an example (or see that force react to Allied moves). Note too that the ships at Truk deployed all at once, but if they had used Operational Movement they would have been in four-ship task forces.

The back of the Dutch ship counters is a rather abstract red lion rampant, facing right, with a sword in its paw and apparently fighting a serpent, all against a Dutch flag background. I had a hard time interpreting that one at first, too.

I played this game a bit when it first came out, but it never fully clicked for me. I started re-reading the rules a couple of weeks ago and am starting to understand it again. The rules are one thing, getting a handle on "how much is enough" for attacking and reacting quite another. I don't think poor play necessarily shows up immediately, either - I think you have to play well into the game to discover if you've used your limited transport points and/or oil wisely.
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Severus Snape
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Pascal said, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."
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I understood that the trip to Truk and the return home was just an example of how they move and use transport points. I just thought more could have been done with this display of muscle to get the first-time player's pulse racing. Still, this is a quibble in a great game. It is history, unless Adam choses to revise the rulebook--this would be most helpful--but this would only happen if there were a reprint, I would imagine.

Thanks for the Dutch lion information. I'll have to look it up.

goo
 
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Mike Hoyt

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Surely it is a Chrysanthemum?
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Paul Borchers
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The IJN used a gold Chrysanthemum on the bow of its capital ships as a symbol of the emperor's dynasty, but the cherry blossom was chosen for the game. The latter is more associated with the samurai tradition and was often used for "kill" marks on Japanese fighters.

https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/753708/fire-sky-great-pa...

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-dQ2iKO9nW8Q/UF-om0FkyJI/AAAAAAAAOz...
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Mike Hoyt

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mr_peabody wrote:
The IJN used a gold Chrysanthemum on the bow of its capital ships as a symbol of the emperor's dynasty, but the cherry blossom was chosen for the game. The latter is more associated with the samurai tradition and was often used for "kill" marks on Japanese fighters.

https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/753708/fire-sky-great-pa...

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-dQ2iKO9nW8Q/UF-om0FkyJI/AAAAAAAAOz...


Ok, thanks!
 
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Gary Krockover
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I'm disappointed that the map that printed wasn't the map that was advertised before its release. I don't know what map you're looking at but the one that shipped with the game had light blue water where as the pre-production "beta" pictures showed it with a deep, dark and eerie ocean. It was that dark ocean that lured me in to the game (and what I went with when I redrew the map for the VASSAL module). Did you review the actual boardgame map or the one that is in the VASSAL module?
 
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Severus Snape
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Pascal said, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."
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Gary, I have a boxed copy of the game, so everything in the review is based on the physical components. I guess we would have to discuss just what is "dark blue," and go on from there.

goo
 
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Stan Hilinski
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Quote:
2) Learning this design shows a less than stellar side of CSW, where you can read through thousands—thousands—of threads filled with repetitive nonsense along the likes of “What are we going to do tonight?” “Oh, I don’t know; what do you want to do tonight?” And enjoy a few swipes from a few of the CSW crowd at the “BGG gamer.” You have to sift through a lot of stuff to find something actually worth reading about the game.

My all time favorites:
"I just sent you a private email."
"I got it. I just sent you a private response."
The world needs to know.
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Gary Krockover
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This was the original flyer about the game before it was released. I really preferred this blue for the water but to each their own.

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Marty M
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bentlarsen wrote:
that slippery element known as “design for effect.” This is where the game truly shines.


One of my favourite examples of this is the use and positioning of the impassable hexsides on the map. Their position is clearly extremely well thought out, and they make it impossible to make logistically unrealistic invasions on (for example) New Guinea & India. They do this efficiently and elegantly by avoiding extra chrome or rule exceptions & restrictions, and by using an extraordinarily simple and beautifully executed mechanic.

I doubt very much if I'm articulating this satisfactorily if you've never played FiTS, but it's another of those 'Yes! I GET it!' aspects of the game which takes a few plays to appreciate.

This is a great game.
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Severus Snape
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Pascal said, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."
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GaryJK wrote:
This was the original flyer about the game before it was released. I really preferred this blue for the water but to each their own.



I like what you are showing here better than the physical components of my copy, the counters as well. However, I imagine other people will feel differently.

goo
 
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