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Subject: Those Ragged Bloody Heroes - a retrospective Review of Bloody Buna rss

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David Hughes
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I suspect that the majority of gamers outside of Australia know very little about Kokoda – a name second only to Gallipoli in the military legends of the Great Southern Land. It was there – in the dense tropical jungle that festoons the all-but-impassable Owen Stanley mountains of Papua New Guinea, that two raw Aussie militia battalions inflicted the Japanese Army’s first defeat of World War 2. Or so the story goes. It’s a story that plays very well down here. Five years ago Kevin Rudd was just another anonymous, bookish, bespectacled and on the face of it unelectable Labour politician, who managed to persuade one the local networks to film him walking the Kokoda track – 160 kilometres of hellish jungle. I'm sure that's not the only reason, but today he’s Prime Minister.

How hellish is the jungle? American historian Eric Bergerud tells the tale of a fit, tough and battle-hardened English officer who died of fright his first night there – weeks before battle was joined. As Anzac Day approached this year, I thought it would be fitting to play a game about Kokoda, and for that, there’s really only one choice – Bloody Buna.



Bloody Buna the game is almost as obscure as the campaign it commemorates. It was published in 1979 in Wargamer Magazine, and at the time of writing less than 50 BGG members own it. Many of the early Wargamer games are justly forgotten – indeed most Wargamer games from any period are justly forgotten – but not so Bloody Buna. It packs an amazing amount of history into a very manageable package, and unlike many of its contemporaries was robust enough to survive WWW’s trademark publish-what-you-have approach to development. And if that weren’t enough to justify a review, BB is a game personally dear to my heart. You see, back in September 1980, I would play it in the middle of the night while nursing my week-old son. In stark contrast to the unfortunate heroes who fought there, Bloody Buna for me is awash in happy associations.

A Bastard of a Place

On the face of it, the New Guinea campaign was a sideshow, in what Australian historian Peter Brune aptly describes as “a bastard of a place.” In mid 1942 the Japanese High Command, seeking to isolate Australia from the US, decided that an airbase was required close to the north of Australia. The Papuan capital Port Moresby on the southern shore of the country was selected, and the Japanese attempt to take it by direct amphibious assault was turned back in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The second attempt took the Allies by surprise; in late July crack Japanese troops landed on the northern shore, to attempt an overland seizure of Port Moresby. The only troops standing between them and their objective were two battalions of Australian militia – the much derided, neglected and under trained Chocos – so named because, like chocolate soldiers they were expected to melt away in the heat of battle. Fortunately for the Allies – but emphatically not for their soldiers – the route from Buna to Port Moresby lay over some of the least hospitable terrain on the planet. Apart from the jungle, the path crossed the Owen Stanley mountains – in many places literally trackless wastes, 7,000 feet high.



Against all expectation the Chocos delayed the Japanese advance long enough for regular Australian troops to arrive. These troops of the Australian Imperial Force had been the subject of a bitter diplomatic tug-of-war between Winston Churchill and Australian Prime Minister John Curtin. Curtin had the effrontery to demand that Australian troops fighting for Britain in the Northern Hemisphere be returned post haste to defend Australia in her time of peril – a position which Churchill had the hide to regard as treachery. Luckily, and correctly, Curtin stuck to his guns and won the day. Combat in New Guinea proved every bit as difficult for the veterans of the AIF as it had for the raw recruits of the militia, but ultimately they succeeded in turning back the Japanese spearheads at the last ridge before Port Moresby.



Meanwhile, a joint Australian and American force repulsed a Japanese turning movement at Milne Bay – a pestilential swamp on the eastern extremity of the country, which by all accounts would not be out of place in Dante’s Inferno. In the Owen Stanleys the Australians slowly and painfully pushed the exhausted, starving Japanese back the way they came, and the campaign ended early in 1943 with Australian and American assaults on Buna, Gona and Sanananda – assaults where the Allies learned for the first time what would be needed to dig out fanatical Japanese soldiers from bunkers where they would rather die than surrender.

Unsurprisingly, combat in such a desperate environment followed its own rules. Close range firefights were fought out over the occasional jungle clearances, with night attacks, flanking moves through the jungle and ambushes the rule rather than the exception. Commanders at all levels were usually blundering in the dark, ignorant not merely of the opponents’ strength and location, but also of just how to wage a successful war in such a place. It was an infantryman’s war – bullets, grenades and bayonets were the primary means of mayhem. Supply – or rather its absence – defined the campaign. Even where stores were available, the only real means of conveying it to the front line was on the backs of native bearers. Soldiers on both sides fought hungry, much of the time. One of the few Japanese survivors of the campaign recalled an officer who would exhort, “If I die, eat my body and keep on fighting.” The irony was that this officer was always too emaciated to have provided much of a meal. And on top of all this was the ever-present danger of disease. Malaria, Dengue Fever, Dysentery each claimed many casualties on both sides. The reality of this hit home when I read of an Australian battalion which lost 25% of its strength in less than a month – before the combat began, while in Port Moresby, the Australian supply head! All war is hell, but war in New Guinea belonged in the inner circle of Hades.

Rules beyond comprehension

US General Stanley Larsen said that WW2 jungle fighting was beyond the comprehension of anyone who had not experienced it. I feel the same way about the Bloody Buna rules. BB is a product of its time and place, and sadly that was not always a good time and place for wargames. World Wide Wargamers was taking its first, tentative steps in a failed bid for world domination, and every game seemed to be trial and error.

There were lots of errors in Bloody Buna. The biggest blunder was reserved for the rulebook, which at 5 pages is a miracle of conciseness – or at least it would be, if it in fact contained all the rules for the game in an easily understandable form. Sadly, it doesn’t. Key rules and concepts, such as virtually the entire air subsystem, are to be found – without explanation – in the charts and tables. Rules applicable to the full campaign are scattered over the rules for the various scenarios, there is no indication how to set up the whole Milne Bay episode for the campaign, there is no CRT for anti-armour combat, despite the claims of the rules, and on and on. No developer is credited in the rules, and that’s no surprise.

The monochromatic counters – tan for the Aussies, green for the US, a very un-PC yellow for the Japanese – with their microscopic font for the mandatory attack, defence and movement factors – look drab and dated to today’s eye. Units are also rated for number of steps, lost one per hit, and for stacking value – 3 for a typical battalion, 0 for a machine gun or mortar section. The stacking limit is 6 per hex, so the support weapons can be very useful – if they survive. The problem is that they are typically only one step strong – and as we will see, in the harsh and unforgiving landscape of the Kokoda track, a one-step unit will not live long.



Things take a dramatic turn for the better with the map – as befits the jungle it portrays, this comes in various, and vibrant, shades of green. I have my usual colour-blindness complaint – many of the place names are printed red on a green background, making them invisible for up to 10% of the population. But I’m counting my blessings – apart from this, the map is perfectly functional, evocative and maybe even attractive to some. In particular the bright-yellow Japanese counters stand out. Apart from two flavours of jungle (coastal and hilly,) the map features hills, ridges, swamps, rivers and the all-important track from north to south. You need to follow the track. Infantry units typically have movement allowances between 6 and 8 (support units a paltry 4.) Dense jungle costs 4 MFs, so it would take a Allied mortar section roughly the whole game to march from south to north off-track. However, as it would likely die at least 20 times over from the effects of attrition on the journey, you won’t spend much time cutting out your own trails. As old New Guinea hand and senior Australian Engineering officer Captain Bert Kienzle said of his orders at the time, “the prospect of quietly building a road from Port Moresby to Kokoda was an impossibility from the start.”

On the surface, Bloody Buna is a pretty conventional, even classic, game of WW2 combat. Units are mainly infantry battalions, with an assortment of support units small enough and portable enough to be hand-carried into the mountains. Map scale is approximately 4 miles per hex, giving a distance from Port Moresby to Buna of 40 hexes as the crow flies. The crow rarely flies in this game though, as we have seen. The system is built on a classic IGO / UGO, move then fight sequence, and uses an odds based Combat Results Table. The defender can choose whether to resolve combat on one of two CRTs (“withdrawal” or “stand,” with the latter more bloody for both sides,) and results are given in terms of steps lost and MFs retreated or advanced by each side. As advances can be as long as 5 MFs (half the map along a corduroy road) you have to place your defending units with some care, lest your opponent gains in effect a double movement by destroying some hapless blocking unit, then advancing. Zones of Control stop advances and movement, require combat, and do not extend into hilly jungle. However, the movement cost of these hexes effectively prevents infiltration; it does tend to allow flanking attacks though – a good thing from a historical point of view.



Up to this point, there is nothing other than topic to distinguish BB from hundreds of other games with similar, simple systems. And then we reach the supply rules – which, appropriately enough, are brutal. Simply put, a unit which marches too fast and too far (more than half its movement allowance) will quickly melt away. A unit which stands in place in the jungle, but is not fully supplied, will melt away even faster. Anywhere more than 4MFs away from a coastal supply source (2 MFs for the Japanese) a unit is at some risk of attrition – at least a one on 6 chance of losing a step, often much more, depending on its level of jungle experience and the terrain. You can mitigate this by the use of supply units, but there are never enough; a single Allied supply unit will feed three units for two turns, and then it’s gone. Both side have roughly 10% of the supply they need to keep their forces fed and watered, so things can go wrong very quickly indeed. One step support units are especially vulnerable. The supply rules have three main effects. First, units will only march more than half their allowance in times of extreme emergency. Second, the campaign is absolutely tied to the Kokoda track. Third, a side which is defending within full supply range of its bases will win the day, unless it is extraordinarily unlucky.

The extreme vulnerability of units, even if doing nothing more arduous than manning a ridge line high in the mountains, has another excellent implication. Units in full supply and out of an enemy ZoC can regain a step per turn. As full supply is only reliably found near the respective coastal bases, it is vital to take battalions out of the line around the time they are down to half strength, to ensure that they will not die a slow attritional death on their way back to (relative) safety behind the lines. I love this mechanic; you are forced to behave in a historic way for good, historical reasons, without any special rules at all. A great piece of design.

A Battle to the Death

Bergerud describes the fighting in New Guinea with forensic and frightening precision. He tells us that the Japanese, combining ethnic arrogance and racism with a fanatical and wasteful battle ethos, created a horrifying battle psychology which transformed “what would have been a cruel struggle into a battle to the death.” To enable the player to refight this struggle, Bloody Buna comes with a number of scenarios, covering the early Japanese advance over the mountains, the late Allied assault on Buna, Gona and Sananada, and the fighting at Milne Bay, but as always real men play the campaign game. This lasts for 43 four-day turns making it a reasonably lengthy game by today’s standards; by the standards of the time, it was positively lightning, as you will manage the campaign in around 10 hours, even first time through. As is typically the case for an invasion game, things start with very few units on board, and so players can make rapid progress through the early turns, even while coming to grips with the game system.

My pre-Anzac Day playing of the campaign was typical I think. The Japanese forces made an immediate dash for Port Moresby, sweeping aside the blocking Aussie militia and on through Kokoda. Australian reinforcements arriving around turn 10 just managed to stabilise the situation between Ioribaiwa and Imita Ridges – ultimately finding a position in which they were – just – in full supply range of Port Moresby. Rather than watch his elite troops starve in the mountains, the Japanese then retreated north, arriving in supply range of Buna around turn 20, with just enough skeletal cadres to rebuild, and man a bunker-based defence line.



This left another 20 turns for the Allies to reduce the bunkers and capture the ports, a task which they had enough force to do fairly easily; however, they are under a difficult casualty cap – they need to end the game with more than 45 infantry attack factors (say 10 half strength battalions,) or else their best possible result is a draw. For much of the end-game, the main tension was whether this cap would be breached. In the end, it was, and though the Japanese were thrown from New Guinea, and the campaign was a strategic success for Australia, the game result was a hard-fought draw. It is of course dangerous to draw conclusions from a single play, but I think that a draw is the par score for the campaign; in the end, the environment, and the supply rules they give rise to, will often conspire to defeat both players.



So, what’s the verdict on Bloody Buna? I am relieved to report that I enjoyed it immensely, and that it lived up to my memories from 30 years ago. I wish I could say the same about every game. It was fun, and pretty easy to learn and set up. Play was easy too, probably because the strategic imperatives for both sides are pretty obvious, and are clearly reflected in the victory conditions. The narrowness of the front and the importance of the track prevented most typical game-type calculation and movement; there was virtually none of the unrealistic on-the-fly, turn-by–turn changes of mission so typical of hex and counter wargames. It provided a very historical narrative – right down to the Australian last stand on Imita Ridge – with virtually no scripting. The supply rules are amongst the simplest and best I’ve seen at this scale, and anchor the design to history in an elegant and seemingly effortless way. Bloody Buna for me is a good example of how to design a wargame which is faithful to history but is able to be played: the designer identified the key elements of the campaign, built the design around that, and used simple, standard, well-tried mechanics for EVERYTHING else. All that’s missing is some fog of war, but Bloody Buna is far from the only game with that weakness.

My main complaints relate to the execution; poorly structured rules, unhelpful charts, missing data and obsolescent components. But there is no doubt the framework of the game is sound, indeed more than sound – it fits the situation like a glove. Bloody Buna cries out for a redo to modern standards, but it will cry out in vain I fear. Even though there is a host of easily available material on the campaign – much more so than in 1979 – what are the chances of a professional-quality game on such an obscure topic? Until then, the horrors and glories of the cruel struggle for New Guinea will remain out of reach for all but 50 BGG members. And that’s a shame.
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Lance McMillan
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Great review of a game (and historical campaign) that deserves more visibility!
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Darrell Pavitt
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I got an errata sheet (including the missing Anti- tank table and setup clarifications) in my copy :

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/filepage/33241/errata-sheet

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c chapman
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Great review David. I too have fond memories as a kid learning/playing this game. If I recall I couldn't deal with the severe supply rules and played with out them. It's a little gem in my small collection today and enjoy it all the more playing with all the rules.
Any interest in a vassal module? It's on my module design to do list and would love to add some graphic upgrades to the charts and counter art.

Chris
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David Hughes
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Thanks Chris

If you are thinking about a vassal module, then Sydneysider Mark McGilchrist
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has redone the map, I seem to recall.

A mod for any game is a good thing, but given the paucity of BB owners you'd want to be sure you're going to use it yourself.
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bart brodowski
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Campaign Scenario help
I'm posting this question here for lack of a better place. I figured that at least one or two of you have played the Bloody Buna campaign game and might be able to help me.

I'm having a problem integrating the Milne Bay scenario into the Campaign Game, since they start on different turns.

The biggest problem is whether the allies begin the campaign game already set up at Milne Bay per the Milne Bay setup? If so, can they move and pay supply for 8 whole turns before the Japs appear? One thing that might indicate otherwise is the fact that both the Milne Bay setup and the turn record track call the 18th British brigade. According to the former, it starts set up. According to the latter, it arrives on the August 9th turn. Any help would be appreciated.

Thanks in advance. I've already started playing, but I found that I had to make stuff up as I go. The Milne Bay question, however, is a game stopper.

Sincerely,
Bart Brodowski
Columbia, SC
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Ian Raine
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bongina wrote:
I'm posting this question here for lack of a better place. I figured that at least one or two of you have played the Bloody Buna campaign game and might be able to help me.

I'm having a problem integrating the Milne Bay scenario into the Campaign Game, since they start on different turns.

The biggest problem is whether the allies begin the campaign game already set up at Milne Bay per the Milne Bay setup? If so, can they move and pay supply for 8 whole turns before the Japs appear? One thing that might indicate otherwise is the fact that both the Milne Bay setup and the turn record track call the 18th British brigade. According to the former, it starts set up. According to the latter, it arrives on the August 9th turn. Any help would be appreciated.

Thanks in advance. I've already started playing, but I found that I had to make stuff up as I go. The Milne Bay question, however, is a game stopper.

Sincerely,
Bart Brodowski
Columbia, SC


Bart, the 18th Brigade AIF (there were no British units in the PNG campaign) arrived at Milne Bay beginning 12 August 1942. So play it as a reinforcement.
 
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Mark
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One of the best reviews I've seen on BGG!

I bought the game at a FLGS way back when. I knew very little about the battle. In the pre-internet days, finding information on obscure subjects was not a casual endeavor. I remember being completely confused trying to integrate Milne bay into the game. I also remember the slow advance to the crest of the Owen Stanley's, and then the brutal retreat. The supply rules made me feel guilty for drinking a coke and eating M&M's during the game as troops on both sides withered away.

Too bad Bloody Buna can't get a facelift.
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Roger Morley
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ZombieMark wrote:


Too bad Bloody Buna can't get a facelift.


I have heard it may be earmarked for updating
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Do tell!
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Mike D
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A remake would be great. This one was on my wishlist for years and I had to make my own map and counters. Here's a link to my version of the map, reconstructed from the nice but colorful cyberboard version.

I have a soft spot for this one - played it when I was in Port Moresby last year and have flown over this terrain. It's a really good game.

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Thanks to the original poster for a wonderful review. I've just discovered the Board Game Geek website, and this typifies everything that is good about it.

I got BB as part of my Wargamer subscription. I was blown away by the map, and by the magazine's bravery in taking on what was, to Europeans, an obscure subject. After all, how many games based on the Eastern Front or in NW Europe in 1944 do you really need?

(Which reminds me - can anyone recommend a good simulation of General Slim's Burma campaign?)

The sketchy rules of BB didn't worry me; after all, as a Wargamer subscriber, I had already seen much worse. (One word - Kesselring!) My main problem with the game was that it always played out exactly the same, and exactly as described by the original poster. I never got the Japanese into Port Moresby, they were always stopped at the last ridge. The combination of the terrain (as you say, there is only one path you can take between Buna and Port Moresby,) the reinforcement schedule and the supply rules means players have little choice about how the game is played out.

My conclusion was that BB is a fantastic technical exercise and would be a great teaching tool, helping students understand just what happened in New Guinea in 1942. However, I cannot say I found it to be an enjoyable game.
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ZombieMark wrote:
One of the best reviews I've seen on BGG!



Hear! Hear!
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Glynr wrote:
ZombieMark wrote:
One of the best reviews I've seen on BGG!



Hear! Hear!


If only all reviews were even half this good.
 
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A lovely review. I used to own this game and loved the supply rules. I wonder how hard a copy would be to come by...
 
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leroy43 wrote:
A lovely review. I used to own this game and loved the supply rules. I wonder how hard a copy would be to come by...


I've been looking for a few years.

As of today, the 2 copies I can find are US$95 and US$116.
 
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Michael Myers
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I have a son born in September 1980, too.
 
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