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Posted on Sep 4, 2018 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

One Eye on Manila and the other on Tokyo. Decision Games Luzon Campaign, 1945. Board Game Review.

One Eye on Manila and the other on Tokyo. Decision Games Luzon Campaign, 1945. Board Game Review.

By Ray Garbee

Luzon Campaign, 1945 (World at War, issue #59). Publisher: Decision Games. Game Designer: Ty Bomba. Price $ 39.99

Ray Garbee

Passed inspection: Short rules with lavishly illustrated examples of play. Easily understood map that captures the major land use features on the island of Luzon. Quick playing solitaire game covers the majority of the campaign.

Failed basic: Combat is somewhat abstract and focused at the divisional level. The resulting mechanism lacks the gritty details of the engagements documented in the historical accounts of the campaign and feels like a dry G-2 daily brief summarizing the progress of the 6th Army’s combat formations.

In January of 1945, soldiers of the United States 6th Army landed on the Philippine island of Luzon. The ensuing eleven-week campaign would see US soldiers battling through a diverse landscape experiencing beach assaults, air drops, river crossings and prepared assaults on urban built up areas. The campaign culminated in the all-out attack on the Japanese defending the capital city of Manila and the combined amphibious/airborne attack on the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay.

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It was one of the rare times that the United States could deploy the 6th Army as it was intended to function – controlling multiple corps in combat across a front. Throughout the campaigns leading up to the Luzon assault army commander Walter Krueger had found himself mostly in the shadow of the publicity-hungry theater commander Douglas MacArthur. Not as flamboyant as a Patton or a Clark, Kruger was an able strategist and logistician, who kept his divisions focused on the task of winning the war.

Ty Bomba’s Luzon Campaign 1945 puts you in the role of the 6th Army commander. Playing the game, you’ll get a glimpse of the strategic challenges General Kruger faced. Over the course of the game, you’ll watch the campaign unfold and see how your decisions fare compared to General Kruger’s historical choices. The Luzon Campaign 1945 game is included as part of Issue # 59 of World at War: The Strategy and Tactics of World War II.

Luzon Campaign 1945 consists of an unmounted map sheet, a rulebook (a removable insert in the magazine) and a tad more than a counter sheet’s worth of counters.

The color map depicts the island of Luzon with a hex grid superimposed on the terrain. The hex grid scales out to be 11 kilometers to the hex. High level terrain depiction is on the predominate land use type and ranges from landing beaches through cropland to urban areas and mountains. No transportation network is depicted. The accompanying background article discusses how the road and rail network had fallen into disrepair during the Japanese occupation and what little remained was the target of US airstrikes, rendering it of little value.

The top of the map includes a turn record track, offshore reserve units’ box and ‘operations point’ tracks for all the US units in the game.

The counter sheet contains counter depicting the major US formations participating in the campaign at the divisional and regimental level. One exception is the 6th Ranger Battalion which is the only American battalion sized unit in the game. The US counters are a simple depiction of the unit name and designation with no other values displayed. The back of these counters list either a set up hex, or the turn they enter the game.

There are counters for the Imperial Japanese Army troops. Mostly these depict the units of the Shobu Group, while some are ‘generic’ Japanese battalion sized formations and a few represent the static garrisons of Manila and Corregidor Island.

The vast majority of the counters are control markers used to denote which side controls a hex. These display either the Rising Sun for the Japanese or a white star in a circle for the Americans. Using these markers, you’ll track the area under US control during game play.
The 14-page rulebook comes as part of the magazine, but can be easily removed. It lacks a rigid cover and if you remove it, you should consider finding a protective cover for it. The rules are relatively clear and cover the asymmetrical nature of the conflict and include a good walkthrough of game play with examples of four game turns.

You’ll need a number of d6 at various times in the game. You could get by with one, but you’ll need a maximum of 6 dice if you want to roll them mostly at once. (There’s a couple of unique cases involving attacks on Manila that could use more than 6 dice.)

Luzon Campaign 1945 puts you in the position of leading the United States 6th Army. As the army commander you give objectives to your corps and you know where your divisions are in terms of achieving your objectives. And you have a lot of objectives in this game. You need to liberate Manila, protect your landing beaches, and then fulfill several additional from a list of possible goals. Theater commander General MacArthur demands a lot of you and your troops. With the finite number of divisions and independent regiments at your disposal, you’ll have your hand full trying to meet all your objectives.

Each unit has a number of operations points (OP). These OP are a representation of the friction incurred when the unit moves or fights. Terrain costs and control impact the Op Point cost of each hex. When a hex is defended by the Japanese, they may generate ‘hits’ which cause more Op point losses. When your unit reaches zero Op points, it’s done moving and fighting for the turn.

Designer Ty Bomba set out to create a game that models the decision making and point of view of the United States 6th Army commander. From that lens, Luzon Campaign, 1945 delivers what it promises. You manage your divisions as well as your support units. You have to decide where your increasingly rare reinforcements and supplies are directed to advance your troops in reaching your objectives. The game could be a case study in the effects of friction. Forget the Japanese, in Luzon Campaign 1945, friction is your biggest enemy – it gets progressively harder to move and attack as entropy and lengthening supply lines get worse every turn.

As a solitaire game, Luzon Campaign 1945 plays out mostly as a narrative in which you push your units towards capturing your key objectives and hope the units can move fast enough and resistance is light enough that the timetable is maintained. It’s a reasonable approach for a game depicting the actions of an army. But there’s a sense that it’s a low risk environment. For the most part, your units are in no real danger, regardless of how heavy the opposition they encounter. As a result, there’s no sense that the stakes are very high. The game comes off as a ‘race’ in which you try and get enough troops to the Manila Bay region as quickly as possible, while staying on mission to achieve enough victory conditions to win. At worst, you’ll feel that your troops are ‘bogged down’ by heavy resistance, but actual losses come off as feeling light.

The exception to this is attacks on the city of Manila. Here it’s possible that a hasty attack on the city will be thrown back and shatter a lone division. But unless your timetable really gets disrupted, you should have enough time to bring in a full corps and launch a supported attack to clear the city.

There’s an interesting interplay in the game as the effectiveness of any defending Japanese garrison that is encountered is heavily dependent on the terrain it occupies. Try and liberate a town and you could lose a bit of time. Try and occupy Clark Field and you may run into the teeth of a tough Japanese defense. It’s a unique approach to modeling the static defensive posture of the Japanese (crippled by a lack of fuel and pinned down by the ever-present US air cover). While at first, I found it lacking in the detail I was expecting, after chewing on it for a while, I think it does a reasonable job of depicting the myriad of regimental actions in places like Santa Fe, San Manuel and Munoz as well as capturing the nature of the protracted fight for the Clark Field region.

While it’s not a complex game, there were a few items in the rules that could have been more clearly conveyed. The turn sequence lists a Random Event Phase. It took a bit of reading and time before the formatting of the rules revealed that the random events referred to the following two checks in the game turn. A simple indent or bullet point would have helped clarify this to the player.

Part of the time boxed nature of the game included the increasing effects of friction modeled through a steadily growing reduction in your operations points each turn. Now while some friction is good, by turn 5 this starts to feel excessive as a single bad roll of the dice here will cripple your turn 6 operations.

The defensive capabilities of cropland hexes are puzzling. This is the second most agriculturally productive land Luzon, trailing only the Central Plains. But cropland generates a LOT more defending Japanese units than the Central Plains, rough terrain or ‘other towns’. Offsetting this is the generally poor combat ability of the Japanese units in the cropland hexes. The net effect is to produce a narrative that implies that the attack units are being heavily engaged, but are facing overly effective defenders.

The use of division level counters gives a front (one hex) that feels too narrow. For the most part, you can’t break the divisions down into their component regimental combat teams, so you end up advancing along narrow corridors that feel like your flanks are hanging out in the open. Part of that feeling is what makes the dash of the 2nd Cavalry brigade into Manila feel so valuable and bold. But in Luzon Campaign, there’s no threat as your flanks will always be secure with the exception of the threat of the Shobu Group’s counter attack.

Separate regiments have half the OP points of divisions. This makes them not as useful as a full division. It’s a neat way to model the synergy that the division brings to combat as it’s component regiments are more effective and the division more resilient than the stand-alone Regimental Combat Teams.

I was puzzled as to why the 13th Armored Group has its own counter. Historically, an armor group was generally used as an administrative headquarters. It rarely executed its own combat operations and instead usually farmed out its units in support of the other large combat units in the area of operations such as the infantry divisions and cavalry. Yes, the group could nominally collect all it’s units for an army level task, but doing so should be done at some loss of combat efficiency to the units no longer being supported. But after consulting my copy of General Kruger’s memoir on the Pacific campaign (‘From Nippon to Down Under’. Battery Classics, Nashville, TN. 1989.) I found that the 13th did in fact operate as a combat formation (with some sub units detached). Well played Mr. Bomba!

Luzon Campaign 1945 is a game with lots of appeal for the solo gamers. After all, it’s totally a solitaire game. I wouldn’t dream of trying to play this as a multi-player game. The entire decision cycle is based around US activity. The Japanese hardly get a vote, outside of some random die rolls and the execution of the army level banzai charge. It would not be a rewarding multi-player experience.

The Japanese defense is represented through game mechanisms that could be described as a bot, but to do so would imply more strategic awareness than what is offered. Defensive combat is driven off die rolls. The dice might suggest more defenders in certain terrain, but it still feels very random. In action, encountering a regimental sized Japanese formation in the clear or rough does not really feel like a huge bother for the Americans. You don’t often get that feeling of the stiff fights at small towns like San Manuel or Munoz. Part of that could be a function of the time scale of the game. If you think of an op point as a day’s activity, a battle inflicting 2 or 3 op points starts to convey a better sense of the cost of the operation. Clark Field and its surrounding landscape do feel like the historical experience with a single bad die roll conveying the sense of having to stop and root out a stubborn, entrenched defender.

The Shobu Group offensive is a separate bot, but with a very fanatical, linear objective focused on reaching the beachheads. If the Shobu Group pulls the trigger and attacks, you are engaged in playing out what is essentially an army level banzai charge. The Japanese will attack…and attack – and keep attacking until one of two things happens – all the Japanese are eliminated, or the US units are overrun and the Japanese reach the beachhead. Either way, the game just ended with a climactic battle.

Outside of this climactic event, the game feels something like an army level map exercise. There’s little sense that anything is at risk, outside of attacking Clark Field and the Manila region. Most terrain only features light resistance. A typical combat often feels like a speed bump, it might cost you’re an op point or two, but that does not feel like a big impact.

The Big attacks on Manila are really the only time anything is seriously at risk. One bad die roll here could cause heavy losses – but even if you lose a division, it does not affect the victory conditions outside of you failing to take a city hex.

At first glance I was unimpressed with the game. It just didn’t seem like there was much game there. Part of that perception was the paucity of units and the large number of control markers. Some of it was the lack of having the major highways and the smaller towns depicted as they are often referenced in the Army’s official history on the campaign. Another factor was my expectation (based on substantial reading and gaming of the campaign) to see not just local places depicted and named, but to dig into the character of the order of battle through depicting the various regimental combat teams of the Americans and the specific defending units of the Japanese.

But after reading the rules and playing the game, the spirit of the design began to reveal itself. Reading the supporting articles by Ty Bomba and Joe Miranda in the accompanying copy of World at War also improved my perception of the game as the summary of the campaign identified the key features and decisions that are being modeled on the tabletop with the game engine. You need to remember that you are functioning as the army commander and the old ‘two down’ rule should apply – give orders one level down and know where your units are two level down. So you issue orders to your corps, but you know where each corps’ divisions (and separate regimental units) are located on the battlefield. With that mindset, you’ll grasp the nature of the conflict from General Kruger’s position.

If the battles in the Philippines are a subject of interest or if you are a solitaire wargamer looking for a different challenge, Luzon Campaign 1945 might be the game for you. It’s dynamic nature in representing the battles of the divisions and regiments mean no two games will play the same. Beyond that, the game includes three variants that can be ‘stacked’ that create successively more challenging games through exploring ‘what ifs’ on both the Japanese and American approach to the campaign. It’s a solid overview of the challenges faced by General Kruger’s 6th Army and an oft overlooked chapter in American military history.

Armchair General Score: 89% (1% to 100%)

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

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 defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

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