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Posted on Jan 21, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

A ‘Flickering, Forlorn Hope’ of victory in War Drum Games ‘Race for Manila’. Board Game Review.

A ‘Flickering, Forlorn Hope’ of victory in War Drum Games ‘Race for Manila’. Board Game Review.

By Ray Garbee

‘Race for Manila: The Philippines Campaign.1941-42. Publisher: War Drum Games (Imported into the US by Quaterdeck International). Game Designer: Yasushi Nakagura (English Translation by Jack W Greene, Lawrence Ho and Lorricount Hall) Price $17.00

 

 

Passed inspection: Great choice for an introductory war game. Well executed map that conveys a sense of space and place. Easy to read counters. Best die cutting on counters that I’ve ever seen. Great insights into an oft-overlooked campaign.

Failed basic: Tough game for an inexperienced US player if they choose the wrong victory conditions. The short game length makes recovering from mistakes very difficult.

 

The American entry into World War II is defined for history by images of the shattered hulls of US Navy battleline in the waters of Pearl Harbor. To a degree the columns of smoke rising from the wrecks obscured the first real test of American combat arms in the war – the Japanese invasion of the Philippine Islands.

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Game designer Yasushi Nakagura brings that invasion to the tabletop with his game ‘Race to Manila: The Philippines Campaign.1941-42’. Published by War Drum Games, Race for Manila (RfM) is described as a pocket game, and is game number two in War Drums growing series of pocket games.

Race for Manila is a small two-player game. It’s small in several dimensions. There are a minimal number of counters, the map is roughly 10” x 17” and the game clocks in at a short 7 turns in duration. Rules are likewise short with the English language edition running a total of four 8” x11” pages. There’s no game box, but a cardboard sleeve protects the components as well as carries the cover art. (More on that later.)

While the map board is a compact 10” x 14”, it packs a lot of stuff into the space. In additional to the map – a hex grid of the island of Luzon, the board contains the usual suspects – turn record chart, combat results table, victory point chart and holding boxes for reinforcements and evacuated units. It’s a well-constructed tool.

The map itself depicts the terrain types that influence combat, in this case the mountains and cities. This representation conveys to the players the key terrain features and sets up the defensive lines that shape the ensuing battles. The long, narrow northern valley feeds into the broad Central Plains that is flanked with mountains and dotted with towns. The detail presented matches the scale of the map.  While I decried the absence of the highway and rail network in Decision Games Luzon Campaign, the smaller scale of the map in RfM lessens the absence of the highway network on the map.

Place names are clearly represented both in Kanji and English, reflecting the international pedigree of the game. Most of the on-map tables are presented in Kanji and are a challenge to use by a non-Chinese/Japanese literate reader. However, a separate English version of the charts and tables is included to bridge that language barrier.

The size of the map is comparable to other smaller games ranging from the vintage Series 120 games published by GDW through current products like Mark Shepperd’s ‘Alfred the Great: The Ethandun Campaign’ published by High Flying Dice Games, or ‘Hindeburg’s Hour’ by Dr. Benjamin Richter.

The counters in Race for Manila are a bright spot. Literally. The counters are printed in clear vibrant colors and all the information they contain is easily legible and well laid out. It’s not ground breaking, but it’s very well executed. Beyond the depiction, marks some of the best die-cutting of counters I’ve ever seen. Even better than the quality work I’ve seen in recent Dan Verssen Games such as ‘Pavlov’s House’.  A light fanning of the counter sheet had counters raining down on the tabletop. With beautifully rounded corners, there is no need to break out the Oregon Laminations corner rounders for this game.

The English language rules comprise four 8.5” x 11” pages. Presented as a very short booklet, the document is executed in a solid workman-like fashion. Cleanly laid out, the rules cover set up, movement combat and victory. After a steady diet of 40+ page rulebooks, the simplicity of the design is a refreshing change. There are a couple of errata points, all of which are already included with the game.

The is classic game play. The game is basically an IGO/UGO format with just a few special rules to capture the historical campaign and relative capabilities of the combatants. The Filipino-American forces act first in the turn and must choose to either move OR attack.  This is followed by the Japanese player turn where the IJA forces may either move then attack, or attack and then move. The result is an enfeebled defender and a nimble, powerful attacker.

That nimble feel is modeled by movement rates which initially have the US forces practically static, or at best very slow. Again, this reflects the historical realty that these units were woefully short of transport and while the infantry could march, the heavy equipment moved at a much slower pace (For example, the World War I vintage 155mm howitzers – though they could be towed by a truck – were limited to 5mph on roads due to their wooden wheels and required hourly rest and maintenance to prevent the axles from failing.) The US player will be heavily leveraging the two first rate formations in their command – the Philippines Division and the 26th Cavalry regiment, while the remaining units are best employed in a defensive posture.

Actual combat resolution is straight-forward with most of the usual range of results. One exceptional feature is the concept of ‘fatigue’ which basically requires the US player to eliminate an IJA unit twice to actually remove it from the game. It’s a way of modeling the resiliency of the Japanese units versus the under-strength and ill-supplied US Army Forces Far East units.  It means that in some cases, the IJA can accept what would be heavy losses, but be able to recover the unit over the following game turn.

While the mechanics of movement and combat are straightforward and easy to comprehend, there’s a separate ‘game within the game’ going on here and it’s focused on victory conditions. Before the start of the game, each player secretly chooses their victory condition. It’s an interesting mix of options that range from a conventional ‘body count’ of eliminated units to how well you can defend (or capture) Manila to how good a job you do preserving your forces for future operations. In some cases, a conventional measurement of success will fail to earn you the victory points you need to win. It’s this sub-game that adds complexity and depth to the game along with generating replay value. It’s a question of how best to met your secret goal while at the same time analyzing your opponents’ actions and deployment to deduce their goal. Once you think you’ve figured it out, you’ll have to act quickly to met your goal and thwart your opponent’s plan.

And you don’t have time to spare! Race for Manila’s short length of 7 game turns mean that in most cases, players will be engaged and invested in maximizing the return from their units in each and every game turn. A mistake by the US player in an early turn will be hard to recover from, while the IJA have a much easier time with their dynamic and capable force pool.

The game gives the players the feel of a high command level experience. Your pushing your units forward with your eyes on your strategic victory conditions. With the exception of Manila, the ports and the airfields, the rest of the island does not weigh on these strategic considerations.

The US player will certainly feel like the underdog. It’s not just the imbalance in raw combat factors and mobility, it’s really tough to eliminate Japanese units from the game. After discussion with Jack and Yasushi, a literal reading of the rules deplcts the IJA as to quick to recover from being fatigued. A clarification is in the works, so look for the most recent errata on either the Consim forums or the Board Game Geek files.

It’s very frustrating for the American player to orchestrate a scenario in which a Japanese unit can be eliminated, but the requirements of the fatigue rule required you to ‘double kill’ the unit. As the US player, I was reminded of how it often felt when playing the French during the German blitzkrieg -this game shares that sense of being on the backfoot and struggling to gain the initiative in the face of an opponent who is faster, stronger and carries an ‘extra life’ in their back pocket.

There are a couple of omissions in the rule booklet, but those are covered by the included errata. In addition, there is an English language version of the Victory Conditions chart and the Combat Results Chart. These carry a note indicating they can be glued over the existing map to update your copy.

I would have like to have seen a detailed example of how the IJA units recover from fatigue and disruption as the description in the rules make it seem pretty easy.  My experience was the replacement tables were not scaled to match the map. It’s only an issue if you really want to attach them to the map. I just parked the English charts next to the map board and got on with the game.

An oddity is the selection of cover art. It’s the iconic shot of MacArthur wading ashore on Leyte in 1944, marking his ‘return’ to the Philippines. I’ll grant you it’s possibly the single most iconic image of ‘Dugout Doug’ in relation to the Philippines, but it is only tangentially related to the subject of Race for Manila. Fortunately, the cover art has zero impact on the play of the game, so rant over – let’s get back to the game!

Race for Manila can be played as a solo game, but at best it’s a marginal experience. As previously mentioned, the real game being played here is the battle of wits regarding each sides victory condition and what they are trying to achieve. Race for Manila has not solitaire bots, ‘AI’ or other rules to provide a single player experience. The heart of the game system revolves around the secret strategic choice that each player makes. While you can certainly change hats and play both sides, having the perfect knowledge you gain by playing both sides will impact the play of the game. Without that tension as to how each side has defined victory, much of the solitaire experience becomes a rote exercise in min-maxing the outcomes.  But don’t despair! Race for Manila is a small game. It can easily be played within an hour by two experienced players and maybe 90 minutes if you have to teach the rules. The lack of solo rules is a great opportunity to find an opponent, sit down at a table and show them that not all war games are dense symbolist tomes.

Race for Manila is a great introductory game. And its proof that good things can come in small packages.  It’s an affordable, entry level starter game that will appeal to those new recruits to the hobby as well as the grizzled grognards looking for a light, quick game. It covers a somewhat neglected campaign (albeit at a high level) and provides good insights into the strategic goals of both sides. Beyond that it let’s you explore other strategic choices. I think Race for Manila makes a great book end when paired with Ty Bomba’s Luzon Campaign (covering the US liberation of Luzon in 1945).

A worthy addition to your game library, Race for Manila will have you, to paraphrase General Douglas MacArthur, “fighting to the end of its flickering, forlorn hope”

 

Armchair General Score: 95%

 

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  2

 

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a Product Manager in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of now defunct hobby magazines.

 

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