Review – Fire in the Sky, part II

Many of my all time favorite board games, such as Wilderness War, or Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage are geographically constrained. There are limitations for practical approaches and therefore the strategy seemingly revolves around those fixed lines of advance. To a point same is true for Fire in the Sky. For some it may be that those seemingly fixed lines of advance are script that needs to be followed and that they limit the offensive operations but then the player is looking at the limitations and not the possibilities.

Operationally player can do quite lot, limiting factor being the cost of doing so.

  1. Deploy. Units are deployed to forward bases, closer to the field of operations. This cost transport points for each deployment (same unit can be deployed with cost repeatedly if destination is farther afield).
  2. Move operationally. This is the phase when task forces perform operations and pay oil in case of Japan and transport points for air and land units that are shipped about.
  3. Deploy a second time. Basically prepare for opponents game turn, and make sure that reactionary forces are where they are needed. Again, with cost of transport points but units that participated ops cannot participate again.
  4. Return to base. Units that took part in operations now return back to the home base(s) for overhaul. This means that unit that has been operationally active may not be available for reaction following game turn (unless enemy ops are close to home).

There are few important tactical things that need to be considered when island hopping from base to base:

  1. Bases. These are everything. In fact the sea hexes play minor role in the game, and the bases that dot the theatre of war are the points in the map you literally island hop around. One can easily see the probable avenues of advance as strings of bases no more than two hexes apart.
  2. Aircover. Air units are either carrier borne (and do not have separate air unit counter to indicate that) or land based. The tough part is to adapt the thinking that Air steps can only be destroyed in air strike as a target. AAA and air combat only suspend the air points but do not permanently destroy air steps.
  3. Sea control. To attack base, players need to wrestle over the sea control around the base if it has any surface fleet. It is utmost importance if forced landing is attempted because If invading side does not gain sea control, the invasion is done for.
  4. Bombardment. Land defenders can be bombarded to increase the odds of defeating the defenders in the upcoming forced landing.

Together the two distinct parts (deployment-ops-deployment cycle & battle sequence) of the game draw a fine line where player needs to balance. Commit too few a resources and risk of failure increases to unacceptable level. Commit too much to one operation and resources maybe wasted and one may not accomplish all that is needed. There is always factor of luck included but with proper planning the effects can be mitigated. Constant balancing with resources may not be liking of people who’d rather concern themselves with divisions, brigades, individual ships, air groups and detailed tactical considerations.

This is one of the key points where full campaign of Pacific War trips over a bit. Resource allocation is activation point based. Each and every unit needs to be activated separately for certain period of time. HQ ops can last 14, 21 or 28 days and during that time (penalty time excluded) a single HQ can activate units and those activated units can perform actions. Each side place pins for points and higher bidder wins the operation. He will have to spend the amount he pid, while the opponent has no such requirement for reaction. Multiple HQ:s can activate in course of month but not at the same time (two 14 day ops for example). Strategic placement of HQ’s becomes then the key of the game. One finds more often than not that creating a “super HQ’s” that can cover most of the region of operations is essential. Theoretically great, the activation system opens up interesting gaps during the campaign play. 

Tactically there are some really tough decisions when attacking a base in FitS. What is most important? To eradicate the enemy air strike capacity and prevent counterstrike that surely follows given chance? The fleet that threats sea control? The land forces that oppose forced landing? What proportions of the capacity needs to be divided among each? Ignore one, and it may bite back really hard. Add enemy submarine actions into equation and every single attack becomes really tight package of decisions. And there is no magic key that solves the problem.

In pacific war, base control is somewhat secondary to the air-naval combat and pure land combat. There is for example very little incentive to build land based (especially multi-engine) aircraft in the game because there is very limited use for them, and carrier planes are more versatile. ‘Cost’ is practically the same for both. Aerial attack against ports and airfields are mostly pointless exercises in the campaign. Interdicting one gains little benefit in campaign game. Tactical choices are different than in FitS. You will have plenty of tension seeking and destroying enemy task forces, and timing your air strikes but there may not be motive for battle other than to play hide and seek in a long term.

Therefore, base control In Pacific War seem to revolve solely around land units slogging it out, usually mass of expendable poor troops lead by one or two marine battalions to gain benefit from both quality and quantity. Aerial supremacy plays little role, and bombardment is rather inefficient (as it probably should be). However, there is little incentive to implement true combined arms strategies because capturing ports and airfields do not really depend on it.

While the lines of advance may be obvious in Fire in the Sky (Manilla-Port Moresby-Guadalcanal-Fiji to cut Australian supply line for example) – simple geographical constraints barring some audacious ones, the way to utilize those lines of advance is anything but scripted or straight forward. The pressure British can induce on the Japanese southwestern frontier is not something that can be taken lightly or ignored. Way to India is a gamble – risky alternative route to quick Japanese victory. Level of commitment may become overwhelming if British presence becomes too strong.

Lines of advance are not that well defined in Pacific War, because one can construct ports and airfields on any atoll or island. However, most efficient routes correlate with the ones in FitS. There is only little alternative routes that would prove beneficial. India on the other hand is quite easy to take in Pacific War campaign game, if compared to FitS and should be primary target for war because destroying China and India are factual shortcuts to victory.

Rinse and Repeat?

FitS battle sequence is very clear and fluent, and same steps are followed every time around. operational moves are interfered by enemy reactions, battles are fought over the base control and progress is made, or stalled by alert enemy. Seems awfully much like rinse and repeat? Answer is yes and no. In short term it seems that every game goes along the same lines. Thinking of the restrictions, instead of thinking about the possibilities may direct player to seek out tested routes: Attack Pearl Harbour -> Push for Guadalcanal -> Try to severe Australian supply link etc. There is no real incentive to attack Pearl Harbor for the classical sense of destroying couple of obsolete capital ships, except it being conventional starting move. However, there is possibility for a gamble if US carriers appear in Pearl Harbour during the reaction move. It is one opportunity to eradicate 1/3 of the US carrier forces which may carry the game far for Japanese, but it does include risk since US can muster up to 8 steps of air against Japanese Kido Butai.

Except: I have never attempted, but have contemplated about knocking out Pearl Harbor but so far have not been able to determine method to do that without it being fittingly suicidal. Obviously one could stack up carrier TF, reinforce it with another surface TF or two to fend off sea control, and infantry but even then it would need island hopping over Wake and Midway before becoming viable.

So, if prone to conventional thinking, FitS will feel same every time. Changes in strategies may feel too subtle – it is because the changes in strategy may not be evident immediately but become apparent with delay. Preserving little bit of resources here and there, from turn to turn versus living on the edge all the time will make interesting difference on the longevity of Japan but has little effect on how dramatic battles become. In a way there is no grandeur drama in FitS – it is too subtle for that. For US/British, there are more options to weigh and being stalled in critical bottleneck is a serious threat. Japan can either expand the perimeter to maximum without being able to severe the US/Australia link, or India and then slowly collapse together again, or Japan may attempt to find fine balance between expansion and interior lines – and/or attempt some additional gamble or ruse in between. US on the other hand would need to figure out what the actual Japanese strategy is in order to dedicate right resources to the right place at the right time. First half of the game decides a lot for the second half. In rough terms, Japanese hold the initiative at first, and US/Birtish in the latter and both have their own separate difficulties  when tables turn.

When most of the information on board is available freely to both players, there is only limited possibilities to pull out ruse, yet it is essential part of Fire in the Sky. Because all operations have a more or less hefty cost, planning operation that has no purpose work as well as decoy counter. It is always hard to believe that Japan – with the resource limits, would perform offensive operation which has sole purpose of drawing away enemy from the real theatre of operations.

In short, FitS rewards longer term strategic thinking over ad hoc decision making but also does not include many low level tactical ‘Wow!’ situations – yet every action counts and none of the actions feel like you’d rather preserve resources once committed. Partially because of the grave disparity in forces, prudence may take Japan further than reckless exploitation of a moment – yet, every now and then those moments need to be seized.

Pacific War does feel different, but from the tactical perspective. Seeking enemy task forces, decoy operations, and operation bidding keep the game in constant flux and the tension high. Air strikes can be dramatic events, or as well completely ridiculous flops. Great for limited scenarios but in campaign a bit tiring after you realize that during your ops, a whole carrier TF air group has been eliminated by AAA and not a single hit has been inflicted to anything. Or when both sides have completely intact but empty carriers are sailing close to each other after few unsuccessful strikes.

Once player is proficient, strategy tend to go in direction of severing China and India mid term, followed by reactionary naval operations that concentrate solely on hunting and destroying enemy carriers and troop transports. Key for Japan is to severe China supply link (in a way it is scripted in the game due to defenseless critical point on a map) at the very beginning and keeping the blockade in place. Once done, it is only matter of time before China falls and India will then soon follow. Only relevant bases are the ones the supply oil, and as long as Japanese Kido Butai remain fully operational and the HQ’s are not overextended there is actually little US can do but to link up with Australia, and then advance towards Guadalcanal -> Manilla and eventually Japanese mainland. On the other side there is little practical point attacking capital ships at Pearl Harbour (they would provide some strategic initiative points, but carriers are much more viable and valuable targets). As we have found, the primary target would be either the submarines that can quite severely would US capability to inflict long term losses on the commercial fleet, and/or initial US carrier task force.

Conclusion then?

FitS is a game that divides opinions and rightly so. If one is looking for grandeur drama and epic battles, ship versus ship, or if you wish to be able to pick your target ships individually and fight land battles in battalion level, it is almost certainly not interesting. Micromanagement is entirely absent and FitS focuses quite solely on resource management in vast scale. Firstly oil and transport capacity, and then battles where you again need to manage resources by allocating attacking planes, ships etc against various target elements. Abstract? Yes. Too much so? No, or yes depending on the preference. How ever, non abstracted oil and transport management may not be interesting either…

It is said that FitS is too sterile and it maybe true in some respect. Yet it is not generic, but has very distinct (and distilled) feel of PTO to it. There is very little rough edges, and system is honed down to essentials. FitS maybe dull, if expectations are ill defined. It may be rewarding, if you expect game that requires long term planning, strategic insight and a scale where game turns are months and not days. FitS is not filled with chrome or huge amount of details but there is just right amount for the scale and recommended optional rules add some details that are both interesting and fun.

FitS plays fairly quickly, considering the magnitude of conflict it represents, yet the thinking that is required does push the game length beyond the described “completed in an afternoon”.

Pacific War is a great game there is no denying that and it has stood the test of time. It really does very good job in the smaller scenarios where you have certain preset resources in your disposal, and limited scope. I would play any of those at any time.

However, the campaign game feels like addition that probably should not have made it (probably not part of original plan anyways). Grand strategy is quite thin, and besides of Japan gaining the key resource hexes there is little else and game easily evolves into hide and seek that lasts for a very long time. However, if micromanagement of details is what one wishes, and focus on the operational considerations, or tactical battles instead of strategy, Pacific War campaign fits the bill very nicely. You can have all the goodies there, named individual ships, fog of war, decoys, search and memorable air strikes. 

However, it is quite critical to do something about the China/India situation because it is way too easy and it does destroy the campaign game (few people wish to spend months on the game to figure out that there is a bug that trashes it all).

That said, I would pick Fire in the Sky for strategic PTO, and let myself to contemplate about the resource allocation there and have Pacific War for the times I feel like playing  operational scenarios where it really excels. That said, I have always looked for grand scale PTO game that attempts to represent the conflict in the form that it is interesting for me –  the geopolitical and logistics challenges.


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2 Responses to Review – Fire in the Sky, part II

  1. Prufrock says:

    Really interesting review again, thanks. Might have to pick this up if the chance arises. Cheers!

    • Tichy says:

      I think it is worth to get if you find good opportunity. Good luck for that.

      I am not sure how well it survives the test of time – e.g. how fast it loses replay value but at least now I think that it is not one of those games that die off quickly.

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