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Posted on May 28, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Slogging Through the Bougainville Jungle: A Step to Victory. Board Game Review.

Slogging Through the Bougainville Jungle: A Step to Victory. Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

A Step to Victory: The Bougainville Campaign 1943-45. Publisher: War Drum Games. (English Translation and distribution: Quarterdeck International.) Designer: Yasushi Nakaguro. Price 11.00

Passed inspection: Colorful map is a clean, effective depiction of Bougainville. Counters are perfectly die-cut, colorful and easy to read.  Rules are clear and to the point. A great game to introduce new players to hex and counter wargaming.

Failed basic: Reinforcement rules are open to interpretation and could use clarification.

Games covering the Pacific Theater tend to focus on either the naval battles or a handful of land battles like the Kokoda Trail, Guadalcanal or the Philippines campaigns. Glossed over in that perception are a number of ground battles and campaigns that were far less glamorous, but just as critical in prosecuting the war against the Japanese Empire. Yasushi Nakaguro has done a good job bringing one of these lesser known campaigns to the tabletop in the form of ‘A Step to Victory: The Bougainville Campaign’. The game was most recently re-published by War Drum Games and imported into the United States by Quarterdeck International.

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A Step to Victory covers the Allied efforts to capture the island of Bougainville from the forces of the Empire of Japan. The game’s focus is exclusively on ground combat. Naval and air actions are well outside of the scope of the game. The Japanese player is focused on preserving their combat forces while at the same time retaining control of the bases that will score them victory points. Conversely, the US player wants to gain early control of at least one airfield on the island while eliminating Japanese combat units. The nature of Pacific jungle warfare imposes a different time scale on the pace of combat operations.  Clocking in with 10 turns, it’s a relatively short, quick playing game that does not dwell on the fact that it covers approximately a year of elapsed time.

Part of War Drum Games pocket war history series of games, A Step to Victory shares similar production values with their earlier game ‘Race for Manila’. The game consists of a small map, a counter sheet containing 27 counters and 9 markers. This English language edition includes two additional items – a translated rule book and a translated terrain effects chart. You’ll have to supply your own six-sided die.

The map is a compact 30cm by 21cm design. For our non-metric audience, it’s basically 12” by 8.4”. The playing space is an attractive rendering of the island of Bougainville. The adjoining islands are omitted as is much of the adjacent ocean waters. The map contain two tracks – one for victory points and one for the game turn as well as the original reference tables (both in Chinese).

The playing space is cleanly rendered. The relevant information regarding each hex is clearly conveyed. The data on the map includes – terrain type (normal, difficult and impassible), geographic features (rivers and coastlines) and the imprint of human settlement (towns, roads, bases and airfields).  The artist, Yasushi Nakaguro, did a great job in rendering the playing surface in an attractive color palette that is evocative of a southern pacific landscape, while still being easy to read.

The counter sheet containing a total of 36 counters, split between 27unit counters and 9 markers. Even that count is somewhat inflated as the Allied player may swap out their units twice over the course of the game (the Marines are replaced by US Army troops, who are in turn replaced with Australian/Commonwealth soldiers). The die cutting on the counters is excellent. Four counters fell right out when I tossed the counter sheet onto the table! The artwork is conventional, but very well executed.

The rules are an 8-page booklet – and that includes the front and back cover. The English translation was done by Jackson Kwan. Mr. Kwan succeeded in crafting a short, clear, well-laid out version of the rules. The rules are basically laid out in the ‘programed instruction’ model with each section laid out in the order you would encounter it in a game turn.

A game turn consists of two player turns – first the Allied player and then the Japanese player. Within each player turn are the following phases;

  • Reinforcement phase
  • Movement phase
  • Combat phase

It’s a very clean and simple structure with a handful of special rules to cover use cases such as amphibious assaults and reinforcements that enter play from off map. The combat system is straightforward with a simple comparison of combat factors resulting in a differential that determines which column on the combat results table is used. The combat model itself does a nice job of capturing both the results of superior firepower and the friction generated from fighting on the undeveloped jungle environment on Bougainville. That effect of friction is modeled through the use of ‘fatigue’ markers. Units that attack get fatigued. Recovering from fatigue requires the unit to rest on it’s following player turn. It can still attack, but with a reduction in its combat effectiveness.

The terrain effect chart included in the English language player aid chart to replace the Chinese language table that is included on the original map. This chart defines movement costs and any combat effects that terrain may incur on attacks made on the hex. It’s a clean and to the point chart.

Gameplay is quick. The low number of units and the low movement rates mean that you’ll likely spend more time thinking about where to move, then actually conducting the movement. The low movement rates, coupled with the high terrain costs will often result in units moving one or at best two hexes per turn. Between ZOC and fatigue markers, units won’t go zipping around the battlefield. (An exception to that is that both sides can use amphibious movement to land reserves on unoccupied coastal hexes.)

The combat rules restrict each enemy unit to being attacked only once per phase. It’s a simple matter to total the attack factors, subtract the defense factors, apply any combat modifiers and find the results column on the table to use. Outcomes of combat are the classic range of results from ‘attacker eliminated’ through defender eliminated. One nice feature is the ability of a fresh defending unit to convert a defender retreat result into a fatigue marker, paying a steeper cost, but stymieing the attacker from advancing.

The Japanese are playing a long game. They need to retain as many units as possible for the end game, while at the same time preventing the US player from capturing any of the island’s airfields in the first half of the game and bases in the second half of the game. The US need to capture those airfields quickly, and if you need to break a couple of eggs to make that omelet, you’d best remember that the needs of the many outweigh those of the few. (But don’t go callously throwing units away as you will pay a price for those lost units in victory points at the end of the game!)

The game does a good job capturing the ability of the Allies to make good on losses as they rotate units into and out of combat. The Marines get the tough job of performing the initial invasion and advancing to consolidate the beachhead. After a few months you can pull those weary Marines out of the line and replace them with fresh troops from the Americal and 37th Infantry divisions. These Army troops in turn get relived by fresh Australian and Fijian troops who will finish the job on Bougainville.

The movement and combat systems combine to create a process in which units can stumble forward and engage in combat, but then have to take a rest to recover and prepare for the next assault.

If there was one area of the game that seemed a little fuzzy it was the reinforcement rules. Specifically, the rules for replacing the Marines with the US Army troops. As written, it’s unclear if the US Army troops appear at the same locations as the existing Marine units (and must abide by the stacking limits) or if they can appear in any US controlled hex. The fuzziness is confined to this one act. It’s clear how to handle the later relief with the Australian troops.

It’s a straight forward game. It lacks the chrome of air and naval bombardment mechanics as well as any naval combat such as the historic battle of Empress Augusta Bay. It does give the Japanese player enough troops to actually think of counterattacking in the first half of the game. This nicely models historical events as Bougainville was the last Japanese ground offensive in the South Pacific.

But what about that population of gamers that does not have an opponent – the solitaire gamer? Is A Step to Victory a good choice for them? The short answer is yes, it can be a fun solitaire experience. While the game does not have dedicated solitaire play rules, its small size makes this a great candidate for playing both sides. The only thing that is challenging is the Japanese set up which relies on hidden placement. If you play both sides, you know where all the units are. Therefore, you’ll know the best places for the Marines to land. I tried randomizing the setup by flipping the counters over and them blindly deploying them to the map. While it does preserve the element of surprise, it also causes the Japanese defense to be very disjointed and less effective that it will need to be. (It also played out in a major Japanese victory on turn 1 as the attacking Marines managed to roll three consecutive results of ’1’ that resulted in the invasion being repulsed – so don’t say the Japanese can’t win!) 

A Step to Victory is a fun little game. It *is* a little game with a small footprint and a corresponding low number of counters. It’s on a par with Dr. Richter’s ‘Hindenburg’s Hour’ or War Drum Games ‘Race to Manila’. All are small games that are great for travelling and require a small tabletop footprint. But don’t mistake the small size of ‘A Step to Victory’ for a simple gaming experience. In ‘A Step to Victory’ both players will be faced with critical decisions each turn. While those actions may seem individually small, like the butterfly effect, those decisions will resonate across subsequent game turns.

Given its low price point, small footprint and quick playing time, ‘A Step to Victory’ is a solid choice for folks looking for an introductory hex and counter game as well as for veteran players looking for a break from more complex, larger games. Students of the war in the Pacific should definitely pick this up as it is a much-needed game on a rarely covered topic. I’m happy I pulled the trigger on this purchase – it really hit the mark!

Armchair General Score: 94%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  4

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 Owner in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies, Battleline: 2250 as well as 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.

ASTV board and player aid
ASTV countersheet
37th division
ASTV Map
ASTV shortest game possible

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