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Posted on Feb 19, 2015 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Fleet Commander Nimitz – Boardgame Review

Fleet Commander Nimitz – Boardgame Review

By Scott R. Krol

nimitz-box-coverFleet Commander Nimitz. Boardgame. Designed by Dan Verssen, developed by Holly Verssen, and published by Dan Verssen Games (DVG). $99.99

Passed Inspection: Great components. Clever scouting mechanics. Random nature of the game allows unlimited replayability.

Failed Basic: Vague rules create many questionable situations. Ahistorical gameplay will result in unhappiness for purists.

Over the years Dan Verssen has been responsible for a number of solitaire wargames that thrust the player into a managerial position. Rather than having the player accountable for the use of a single combat platform, the player would be responsible for an entire squadron (i.e., Hornet Leader, et al). By using this approach Verssen’s games could paint the various conflicts they simulated in broad strokes without worrying about the rivet-counting details that would be expected from a single study game.

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Verssen then took the methodology one step further, elevating the player from simply being a squadron leader to an overall theater commander. His “Commander” series of games began with the player taking on the role of Erwin Rommel in the Second World War. Follow-up games in the series expanded the scope even further. An Alexander game shows why Alexander was called The Great, while a massive game on Napoleon covers Le Petite Caporal‘s rise and fall.

The latest title in the “Commander” series is Fleet Commander Nimitz, a solitaire wargame that has the player assuming the role of Admiral Chester Nimitz, overall commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, in World War Two. It’s important to restate that these games are all about a singular viewpoint, so do not expect the game to be about the entire Pacific conflict. Except for a few token Australian forces there are no Commonwealth units. The war in China plays no part in the game. There is no real economic system. Most importantly, you can lose the game in a single combat round, even if you could still win the war.

Nimitz comes in a heavy (and notably thick) box that bears a resemblance to SPI’s detergent boxes that housed their monster games. With eight countersheets that portray capital ships, aircraft carriers, destroyer groups, land and naval air units, ground forces, transports, submarines, and various markers Nimitz at first appears as if it truly is a monster game. Turns out the massive number of counters was done to not only facilitate set up, as Nimitz is a scenario-based game and each counter is marked for which scenario, but also to deal with the issue of unit quality as the war progresses. For example, Japanese fighter groups of Zeroes are rated quite differently in 1942 than they are in 1945.

The counters, using silhouettes, are easy to read. Ships are done as rectangular long pieces, other units as standard squares. The mounted map, covering the Pacific from the American West Coast to the eastern shores of the Asian mainland, could be physically a tad bit larger: Nimitz uses a point-to-point system of island control, and too often these areas disappear beneath stacks of counters. A cardstock battle map, several scenario set-up cards, and a color manual round out the Nimitz package. And remember that thick box? For a nice change of pace from many modern games all the components can be stored inside the original box!

Nimitz plays out in yearly scenarios: 1942, 1943, 1944, and a shortened 1945 game. A turn represents two months, so there are only six turns to a game with the exception of the ’45 scenario that ends on the historical war ending date. It should be noted that there are no true linked campaigns. There is an option to play the entire war but to do this a player is expected to play the four scenarios in order and keep a running tally of scores and compare that sum at the end. And yes, that also means playing in a world where the new year signals a wipe of the map. Suddenly, islands taken by the Americans revert to the Japanese (and vice-versa), while sunken warships and destroyed armies are magically resurrected. Needless to say, not a very satisfying way to do a long campaign.

Initially this lack of a cohesive campaign may seem like an odd choice but after a few plays the decision to break the game down into individual years makes sense when viewed through the lens of solo gaming. By crafting the scenarios this way it provides the player with a respective challenge regardless of the period in the war, as opposed to the historical reality of a fury played out in the first six months of 1942 followed by the attrition of the enemy until 1945. This is not to say that Nimitz is set up as a puzzle game, just one in which the scenarios are tailored to fit the limitations of a grand-strategic solitaire game.

Speaking of limitations, how exactly do you create a solitaire system that can handle the complexities of large-scale air, ground, and naval combat against a living, breathing, thinking human? You stack the odds. And cheat. And, oh yeah, you treat the USN like it is the IJN.

Each scenario begins with forces deployed on the map and a number of territorial objectives noted. These change per scenario, so in 1942 there are overall eight objectives, while in 1944 there are fourteen. The number of objectives held at the end of the campaign determines the player’s overall evaluation (poor, historical, good, great). If the number held falls below a certain threshold during the game, it can trigger a loss and you, as CINCPAC, get sacked.

Regardless of the year played there is always a massive Japanese presence, one that does not follow the same rules as the player. While the USN must head back to its home location of Pearl Harbor at the end of each turn Japanese fleets remain at their locations. American land-based aircraft must adhere to stacking limits in areas while the Japanese can have an unlimited number of aircraft based.

There is a method to this madness though. The overall mechanic for moving the Japanese forces is to go area by area, roll a d10, and consult the orders table. There are some exceptions, e.g., lone units will never give up an area or infantry currently engaged with US forces aren’t included in the roll. The resulting order dictates what the units will do (move to the east towards fellow Japanese forces, go back to Japan for refit, head for the closest objective, et cetera) along with the number of units that will do so. As an example, rolling a seven will send two ships, one infantry, and up to two land-based aircraft to join a nearby battle.

Somehow, probably through the sheer number of rolls and how the order table is weighted, this chaotic method works out and manages to never seem too random. Make no mistake, Nimitz’s Japanese logic will never pass a Turing test nor will it ever surprise you. It is, after all, driven entirely by the fall of a single die. But it is at least a form of controlled randomness, producing interesting gameplay situations. The 1942 scenario may never see the battle of Midway, but it may see a titanic struggle for the Gilbert Islands.

The random nature of the Japanese strategy may sound like the US player, being forced into a purely reactionary role, is unable to create any form of strategy of his own. Thankfully this is untrue, and how the player deals with how the Japanese play forms the heart of Nimitz’s gameplay.

A turn begins with the US player receiving a predetermined number of reinforcement and supply points. Reinforcement points are used exactly as the name implies, while supply points provide two functions. First, each unit moved must spend one supply point to make the move, so the number of supply points dictate the maximum number of units moveable in a turn. (By the way, the Japanese have no such restrictions.) Second, supply points can be spent to scout Japanese forces.

Scouting, though the counter depicts an aircraft, appears to really be a combination of code-breaking, coast watchers, and actual eyes in the sky (or perhaps in periscopes) since you can scout anyplace on the map. There is a maximum of four scouting attempts per game turn, but you can scout the same location multiple times. Because there is no fog of war scouting in Nimitz does not translate into determining the location of the enemy, but rather what the enemy is actually doing.

The US player moves before the Japanese system activates except for when scouting occurs. In each location that is being scouted the player rolls orders for those Japanese units before the US activates, allowing the US player to see where those units have moved. The player can then react to these moves in his turn. The rest of the Japanese forces then move, and a combat phase follows.

The scouting system is clever and can be quite powerful when used properly. The player effectively gets to choose the location and combatants for the upcoming combat phase. Not all, as there will always be far more Japanese units to move than four scouting attempts affect, but you can usually dictate at least the main location of the fight. Understanding how the order system works, and what units are left to move, also allows the player to create soak-off battles.

When combat occurs the action moves from the main map to a battle board depicting a generic island. The map is divided into different zones that determine how units behave. For example, if there are already ground forces on the map these appear in foxholes, while units invading the island must first appear in the coastal zone, before moving onto the beach zone, and then finally entering the foxholes.

Actual combat is pretty straightforward, with a unit rolling a d10 and comparing that to the unit’s combat value. If it is equal to or lower, the opposition takes one hit. Some units have the ability to cause two hits, depending on the roll result. The player can assign hits as he sees fit for his units, while hits on the Japanese forces are determined by a point value. Typically, this means that carriers are the primary targets at sea, while on land cheap generic battalions will fall before named infantry units.

Battles also involve battle plans. The Japanese gain a number of battle plans each turn based on the overall size of the forces involved in the combat, while the American player gets to freely choose a certain number and can purchase more by spending supply points. Battle plans provide strength adjustments, can halt damage, and create bonus hits. The Japanese will cycle through their battle plans each battle turn, while the player only gets to choose his plans once, at the beginning of combat.

Unless the battle is taking place in Hawaii a battle lasts a random number of battle turns rather than until one side is destroyed. It is entirely possible that both sides will end a battle entrenched in the same territory. If it’s in Hawaii, though, the player must destroy all the opposing forces in the first battle turn or lose the game immediately, even if the battle could be won in subsequent battle turns.

After all battles are resolved US fleets go back to Pearl, while the Japanese roll for reinforcements to be brought into the game. Since there are no supply mechanics for the Japanese, but strategic warfare in the form of submarine and strategic bombing is included, this is where the strategic warfare effects are felt. Reinforcements can be delayed thanks to American efforts. Objectives are then counted, and as long as the year is not over and the objective threshold is still in the black, play continues.

Initially, playing Fleet Commander Nimitz is somewhat akin to having a knife fight in the dark. As a player you flail around, unsure of where best to direct your thrusts. Slowly, game after game, things get much brighter and start to make more sense, allowing more intelligently directed attacks. And it will be at this point that you realize that Nimitz exists in a weird, alt-history world where the belligerents’ roles are almost reversed.

Historically, the Japanese overall naval strategy was based around creating a single decisive battle that would destroy the core of the US forces. In Nimitz the player, through the use of scouting, is essentially trying to create his own decisive battle. Additionally, only the American player has his movement limited by supply points, creating a situation where the Japanese have complete freedom of the seas but the Americans can only move a select number of forces.

If either of these concepts is upsetting, then Fleet Commander Nimitz is not for you. This is a wargame that puts the emphasis on “game” and will never be mistaken for a simulation. It is highly entertaining if one is willing to embrace the Turtledove-esque madness of its gameplay.

Armchair General Rating: 80%

Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 5 of 5

About the Author:
Scott R. Krol has been writing professionally about games for almost twenty years now, on both sides of the critic/publisher fence, but has loved them for even longer. He resides in the historic Southern city of Roswell, Georgia, which was surprisingly not burned to the ground by Sherman on his way to Atlanta.

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