Coral Sea is the second game in the Campaign Commander series by Francisco Ronco and the guys of Bellica Third Generation. The first one, Campaign Commander Volume I: Roads to Stalingrad (hereafter RtS), was a very good game, with an innovative and refreshing game system, playable in three or four hours and highlighting the logistical problems of a campaign. Now the system goes to the Pacific for a simulation of the campaign in the South Seas between spring 1942 and spring 1943. The system worked extremely well for a land campaign in the Eastern Front. Could it be used with success for quite different a scenario? A mainly naval setting with many scattered islands to conquer and control and with powerful fleets? I had some doubts...
But after a first game the answer is a resounding 'yes'.
One of the criticisms of the first game was the poor quality of its components. The problem has been addressed in this second installment. While not top-notch components, their improvement is clear. The counters, maybe the worst item in RtS, are now much better; the box is sturdier and the rulebook is better laid-out and more easily readable. The addition of a player aid sheet is also welcomed. In summary, the components are:
1. A boardgame: A 80x60 cm map covering the eastern end of New Guinea, New Britain, New Ireland, the Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides and New Caledonia, with a corner box for Australia.
2. Cards: 70 cards divided in a Japanese deck and an Allied deck with some aid cards
3. Two 10 sided dice.
4. 176 5/8'' die-cut counters
5. A rule booklet. It includes the general Campaign Commander series rules and the specific Coral Sea campaign rules.
6. A player aid sheet.
7. Three ziplock bags
The game system is identical to that of RtS, and you can find a more detailed explanation in my review for that game ("A breeze of fresh air on the way to Stalingrad"). I'll just repeat here the main points and underline the differences.
The game is played continously in a sequence of operational "turns" until one of the players completely depletes his card deck or until some special "sudden death" cards are played. In each operational turn each player secretly decides wether he'll conduct operations on the map or he'll play/draw/discard a card. If both players decide to conduct operations on the map, only one of them will be able to act (both roll 1d10, the player with the initative having a +2 modifier: only the higher roll will conduct the operations). If one player decides to conduct operations and the other one to play/draw/discard a card, the operations player goes first. Conducting operations is essential: it's the way of moving and reorganizing your units and of attacking the enemy. The cards are played for events (battle events, strategic events, reinforcements, supply depots) or discarded for placing just one supply depot.
A crucial difference from RtS is that the supply depots can now be transported, embarked on fleets to launch naval and amphibian operations and to keep the troops in distant islands well supplied and ready to attack. In RtS the management of supplies and the timing of operations was very important. Here, in Coral Sea it is even more crucial. In our first session we wasted lots of supplies by bad management of our own resources. You must think twice (better thrice) before launching any operation, otherwise you'll find your fleet and your land troops in a small island without supplies... Your plan must be carefully thought: consider how many supply depots it will cost, how many troops you'll transport and how many troops you'll land in each island. And then consider whether you'll have enough resources to keep the tropps there, and how you'll send reinforcements; and then, can you use your fleet elsewhere leaving the troops exposed to an enemy landing?
Setup in Port Moresby and Australia
Another important difference is the possibility of building airfields (max. 3 per player). Airfields allow air attacks (played by cards) to a radius of 3 or 4 zones and allow the use of some battle chits during battles. This last effect is the same one given by aircraft carriers during battles; and carriers are something like a luxury: they can give you the upper hand in a naval battle (thanks to the additional battle chits you can use) but are somewhat weak against enemy attacks... and losing a CV unit means 3 victory points for your opponent. In our first session we found ourselves keeping our CV in harbor more than once, just for fear of losing them.
Overall, the game is shorter that RtS, mainly because there are fewer battles and the card turnover is faster. You can peform many operations without even approaching enemy positions. RtS was a game of a continous front with almost continuous battles. Coral Sea, instead, is a game of slowly hopping over the islands and securing them, and now and then of scattered but extremely fierce land combats and naval battles.
The VP track
A first gaming session
In our first session of Coral Sea I led the Japanese and my colleague the Allies. The Japanese begins with some forces at Rabaul but not many supplies. I decided not to go for both New Guinea and the Solomons: let's occupy just the islands, secure them and keep them until the end! That could lead to victory, as all the Solomons are worth 12 VP (Guadalcanal is worth 5 VP; Bouganville 3 VP, New Georgia 2 VP, other minor islands 2 VP more).
Well, easier said than done! The first operations were not too difficult: the Solomons are undefended and are an easy target, but the problem is the supply (always the supply!). Japanese supplies are scarce and organizing naval operations to take the islands and holding them soon becomes a headache. I managed to occupy all the Solomons, but not Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides (worth 3 VP). Now I had a lead in VP, but was truly exhausted, and in the meantime the US player had slowly built-up resources and reinforcements. The counter-attack was ready...
I had just time enough for reinforcing New Georgia and its newly-built (and extremely useful) airfield. But the Americans landed at Guadalcanal before I could send any more troops: the fighting was fierce, with many air raids against land troops and against the fleets, which engaged in some tense naval battles. Eventually I was wiped out and Guadalcanal returned to Allied hands. My problem then was that I had lots of reinforcement troops at Rabaul, ready to be deployed, but almost no supplies. I was stuck there! And each card I discarded for getting a new supply depot meant Allied operations!
Reconquering Guadalcanal seemed out of the question, as the operation was extremely expensive in terms of supply and time was now ticking against me. A small opportunity arose when I realised that the northern coast of New Guinea was weakly defended. As I had concentrated on the Solomons I had kept no attention to New Guinea. Both I and my opponent realised this weak spot but the closeness to Rabaul opened the door for a quick Japanese operation: I landed and conquered Lae (worth 3 VP) with three marines battalions.
The game was approaching its end: very few cards in both decks! The last operations would be the key for victory. My opponent then launched a risky operation from Port Moresby for conquering Bouganville. He almost suceeded, but again, the proximity to Rabaul, full of reinforcements, allowed me to quickly react (although at a terrible cost in supplies). Bouganville witnessed the fiercest combats of all the game: the upper hand went from one player to the other many times, air raids for softening enemy resistance were performed, many event cards were played (like a malaria epidemics and some other quite nasty cards). Eventually the Americans were wiped out and Bouganville rested in Japanese hands. The risky American operation was indeed risky, and its price was too high: a naval unit and three land units eliminated.
There was no more time. The game ended at 26 VP for me and 21 VP for the Allies.
As I commented earlier, we made many mistakes in our use of supplies (not rules mistakes, just bad management of our own resources and lack of foresight). I think this game is even harder to master than RtS, as the use and expenditure of supply depots is more involved. In RtS a mistake in one operation could be promptly corrected, at least partially, but in Coral Sea a mistake could leave your troops terribly exposed during many turns. The greatness of the game is that all of this is achieved with very simple rules and with the same system used for RtS.
Now I can't wait for:
1) our next session of Coral Sea;
2) the next game of the series, which not only moves back to Europe but also moves back 2,260 years. The game is Punic Island, a game on the 1st Punic War! Could a system for simulating the Pacific campiagns work as well for simulating ancient warfare? I'm looking forward to get an answer!