There are two games that I have really wanted to add to my collection. One of them is , perhaps a bit surprisingly, Fire in they Sky – a Japanese take on conflict in the Pacific. I am not really sure why this rather obscure, originally Japanese game ended up in my scope. When MMP published it and when I missed the boat as usual, I have found myself searching for it ever since. I do sort of acknowledge that it would have been way easier to get it while it was still at print but it is not the first time I miss a game this way.
As I have probably mentioned before, I have always appreciated desperate situations, and prefer to play the weaker side of the two. Probably because of this mindset I have tried, liked, and disliked quite few games that take their inspirations from Pacific theater of war. For a longest time, Pacific War fit the bill, but then it does have it’s shortcomings while the gameplay is solid (It may be described as cumbersome or heavy, but solid nevertheless)
What I should say though is that where Pacific War campaign felt a game of micromanagement down to a battalion level, Fire in the Sky is in the other extreme. So, Fire in the Sky is not a game of infantry battling it’s way through China, search of enemy fleets, or operational planning in excruciating detail.
No, none of that really. That said, let’s get going.
Fire in the Sky is unusual game, not only because of the treatment of the subject matter, but also because of the way that the components look like in comparison to other games. First noticeable thing is that the map has clouds. Second is that the hexes are really big. And the third is that Fire in the Sky is in a box that is unusually flat, yellow and with rather interesting art. Then one wonders if something is missing from the box, or if the counter density is really, well, really low.
Map is really pretty (besides of all holding boxes facing one way – odd design choice I grant that), it is functional and spacious (little minus for paper map). However, the big hexes, small map already provide an idea what this game is about and what not. Decisions that are to be made are surrounding key areas in the map shown as bases, and Japanese control of oil resources. Without oil and transport fleets the armies, fleets and air units are unable to get about. Without those resources, the war would be very short indeed.
Pacific War featured these resources also in the campaign game, but in much different manner. It was combination of homeland manufacturing points and oil that were the baseline of Pacific War economy engine.
Counter design is also interesting, and unusual. They are big, (1″), which makes them nice to handle. Too bad though that the information and ship silhouettes could have been clearer. So, a slight minus from that. Everyone who has seen this game knows that Japanese units have cherry blossom on one side and I think it is a proper touch.
Nobody can really argue that map of Pacific War is beautiful. It really isn’t. It serves it’s function, but I still think that the hexes are way too small for the intended use. Counters are quite standard for the time, and probably the nicest components in the whole are the displays that contain essential information about everything.
What it is about?
So, what is Fire in the Sky about? Why to make yet another game that has obtained over the years fanatic following in Japan (or so I have been told)? There are many games about PTO, but only few of them concentrate in the interesting (in my subjective opinion) aspects of that war. Fire in the Sky happens to be one of them. It all boils down to two inescapable facts: 1. Japan cannot win the war. 2. Logistics and resource management may, or may not keep you alive long enough.
So, Fire in the Sky has pretty much every conceivable military detail first removed, dissected and purged down to the essential. This means abstraction, but not in the bad way. Differently than most games – yes. Doomed attempt of Japanese to wage war against US, results necessarily a system where actual warfare can only play limited role, else it would become pointless, one sided slugging fest. Thinking somewhat differently, a fine balance is to be found between preserving stretched resources and swift but deadly strikes to vulnerable parts of the enemy logistics system.
Where Pacific War attempts to recreate the war from soldierly aspect and from the perspective of manpower & technology, Fire in the Sky attempts to recreate the geopolitical aspect for the war, and the very low chance gamble. Considering the difficulties of the PTO, I am inclined to think that it is much more interesting approach. It does not mean however that Fire in the Sky is a war of lost cause in same way as Pacific War. You have realistic chance to win by beating US, or win by outperforming reality.
Fire in the Sky puts you in the boots of the high command. You should not be concerned about tiny details, but instead to the big picture. And then, go to do some gambling.
16 pages of rules, plus some pages of options is not a whole lot to digest but it helps immensely if reader applies selective amnesia before reading the rulebook and starts from the example of play at the end. More there are preconceptions, harder it is to get them right and more odd the design choices feel. There are two scenarios, one starting from the Pearl harbor attack, one from 1942 which assumes that Pearl Harbour and few invasions have gone according to the plan and outcome is historical.
Because of the uniqueness of the game, some of the thinking is not straight forward, even for someone that has seen various designs but they are not totally alien either. In many cases, I can find myself thinking that I would have done it same way, and the mechanisms feel fluent. Fire in the Sky is procedure oriented system, and the procedures are understandable. They do not exit only because someone wanted to have additional chrome.
There are living rules available under version 1.1. and few points have been clarified there. It is recommended to use those.
Comparing to Pacific War which had completely different method it is hard to say which I prefer. Both have their benefits, but because the scale of the games vary (Pacific War has quite bit more than Fire in the Sky) there is no real point of comparing the step by step learning aspect of Pacific War to the Fire in the Sky. That said, Pacific War fits perfectly with the accepted preconceptions and therefore there is no surprises as to how certain things work.
I always found that good games with longevity start this way. Do the setup, look at the units, the map, the whole situation, and then there is creeping, overwhelming question: What now? Knowing the war full well of course gives a hint what to do, but then the constraints start hitting you one by one . So many things to do, so little resources to do them. Then, after the initial what to do phase, the most important – where do I direct the resources? What advantage do I get from Pearl Harbour? Are there other more valuable targets for Kido Butai? Should the invaluable, fragile strike force be kept out of harms way until time is right? Should it be divided to enable stronger attack against oil resources and other strategic targets? Or should it sail to cover the split of US-Australian supply line, or India? All these considerations against an opponent that will, in a shortest time have all the resources ever needed – and more. Time is of essence.
In a very weird way, some aspects remind me of Wilderness War… (haven’t the warmongering developed at all in all those years?)
Japan has two aspects to think about: Oil and Transport points. To bring oil in, transport points are needed. To get the planes, ships and troops deployed and then operationally moved, the same points are needed. Transport points are limited, and they will be reduced by the allied submarines that keep hunting them down. Japan may send destroyers to keep the submarines at bay, but that again will consume oil and the keep the destroyers away from where they might be needed most.
This aspect is actually quite similar to Pacific War, except that there the shipping/submarine/oil/production interaction was converted into command points that one could use to activate headquarters and eventually individual ships, planes and land units. Activation system of Pacific War works remarkably well, but it is subdued in importance. It was possible to completely ignore the submarine threat, and on the other hand, it was possible to wreck havoc among US submarines during the initial Air strikes such way that the economy was temporarily saved.
US has it’s own constraints, but availability of oil is not one of them. And the transport capacity will only increase over time, as will every material benefit one can wish for. This states quite boldly that there are two broad strategies for Japanese player. Either gamble for quick victory or try to preserve forces and keep geopolitical and economical defensive zone around the all essential crude oil, the lifeline of Japan. In either case, oil needs to be secured, then oil needs to be preserved. Without oil, there are no operations, no reactions and no hope for winning.
To be continued…