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Posted on Oct 7, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Take Aim Design’s ‘Last Battle: Ie Shima, 1945’ Is On Target. Board Game Review.

Take Aim Design’s ‘Last Battle: Ie Shima, 1945’ Is On Target. Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Last Battle: Ie Shima, 1945. Publisher: Take Aim Designs and Revolution Games. Game Designer: Michael Ringella. Developer: Roger Miller. Price $ 30.00. 

Passed inspection: Easy to grasp area movement game that showcases a smaller battle from late in the Pacific war. Game board really captures the feel of the period. Solid game with easy to read counters.

Failed basic:  Nothing that would keep me from buying the game. It’s possible that single bad die roll can end a game turn early and wreck the US time table. It won’t happen every game and there is a way to mitigate the effect by controlling and using the advantage marker.

As far back as I can remember, I always enjoyed playing the classic Avalon Hill Game ‘Storm Over Arnhem’. Partly it was that the game was released a few short years after the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’ had been on the television, partly that the topic was one of the pivotal actions of the Market-Garden campaign, but a lot of it was that it was a simple, tight game that was loads of fun to play. In high school my gaming buddy Matt and me played Storm Over Arnhem over and over (and over) again. Avalon Hill developed a series of games based on the rules with titles on the battles of Monte Cassino, Stalingrad and Normandy. But Storm Over Arnhem has always been my favorite in the series.

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When my buddy Matt recently suggested we bring Last Battle: Ie Shima, 1945 to the tabletop I was intrigued. When he pitched it as ‘similar to Storm Over Arnhem’, I was enthused. Playing ‘Last Battle’ brought those memories of Storm Over Arnhem flooding back to me. Inspired by those classic Avalon Hill games, Michael Ringella’s ‘Last Battle’ details the little covered operations of the US 77th Infantry Division in securing the island of Ie Shima, from the Japanese Army. While the Marines and soldiers of the III Amphibious Corps fought their way across Okinawa, the soldiers of the 77th Infantry division were tasked with the conquest of the much smaller island of Ie Shima located about three miles off the east coast of Okinawa.

When the United States implemented the draft in October of 1940 it effectively made the Army ‘America’s Service’. It was an egalitarian force made up of men from across the nation. These soldiers were the ubiquitous “G.I. Joe’s” of America, commemorated and documented in the cartoons of Bill Mauldin and in the writings of the popular war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Formed in 1942, the 77th Infantry Division exemplifies an ‘American’ infantry division that owes no lineage to regular army units, nor to state national guard units in Federal service.

Ie Shima is also sadly remembered as the battle in which Ernie Pyle lost his life to a Japanese bullet. A proponent of the front-line soldier, Pyle had only recently arrived in the Pacific theater after years of covering North Africa and Europe. After the battle, the troops of the 77th Division erected a sign where he fell “At this spot the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle, 18 April 1945”.

Though the campaign for Ie Shima was relatively short, the island was a strategic prize with its large airfields and proximity to Japan. Within months if would be host to multiple B-24 bomber groups and hundreds of fighters that would escort those B-24’s to targets over Japan’s home islands. 

The defense of Ie Shima was a microcosm of what awaited the infantry and marines in the planned invasion of the home islands. The Japanese defenders concentrated their efforts in transforming villages into fortresses. At the same time, they created networks of caves and pillboxes across the hills of the island.  The fighting on Ie Shima was a bitter, violent battle with heavy losses on each side. It’s an excellent subject for a war game, so let’s turn our attention to what ‘Last Battle’ brings to the table.

First up, let’s un-box, or rather – un-bag – the game. Like many smaller games from a number of publishers, ‘Last Battle’ ships in a clear plastic sleeve. Inside that, you’ll find a cover sheet with the title and ‘box art’ on the front and a handy quick reference chart on the back. Behind this cover you’ll find a 12-page rule booklet, a half a counter sheet and a the gameboard / map. 

The rule book is a solid, well crafted document. A classic softcover 8 ½” by 11” format, it clocks in at a slim 12 pages from cover to cover.  It’s really even shorter as those cover pages constitute both the table of contents and a combination index and glossary. Knock out the credits and suggested reading and the rules are knocked down to a short 9 ½ pages. The graphics format of the rules reminds me of a lot of the classic GDW games of the 1980’s. Grayscale printing with a focus on the text of the rules with enough graphics for clarity. The rules are laid out in the classic programmed instruction format so that you’ll read the rules in the order you’ll need them in a game turn.

The counters depict the various units on each side. For the 77th Division, your looking at company level pieces from each of the seven infantry battalions involved in the campaign. Each battalion is depicted with four infantry company counters. Interestingly, there’s no effort to differentiate the three rifle companies from the battalion weapons company on the counters. The counters are color coded and labeled with the unit id so it’s easy to keep units together. These are double-sided with reduced strength data on the back.  Beyond the infantry counters you’ll find a handful of markers used to track the usage of shore bombardment, air strikes and artillery and armor support.

The Japanese counters are similar, bearing a unit id and unit symbol. Japanese units fall into two broad classes – regular troops and special units, which comprise pillboxes, machine gun nests and civilian personnel that have been pressed into service as emergency infantry. The difference in the types really comes out in terms of replacements and reinforcements. In addition to the troops, you gain access to a couple of markers representing artillery support and kamikaze strikes (in the advanced rules).

The last component in the game is the map. This is a real treat. Yes, this is an area movement game and the areas are drawn up to reflect the various geographic areas on the island. These areas range from the coastal beaches to the central plain containing the airfields, to the town and up to the imposing peak of Mount Gusuku in the center of the island. While there’s nothing ground-breaking about the nature of the area mechanic, but where this map shines are that the area boundaries have been superimposed over a gorgeous US Army tactical map of the island.

This is the exact map that the US battalion and company commanders would have used in the planning and executing of their operations. Based on air photo imagery collected by the Navy and Army Air Corps and compiled by the cartographic teams assigned to support the force it’s a brilliant snapshot of the state of US military cartography late in the war. You can easily see the locations of the offshore reefs that shaped the selection of the landing beaches as well the Japanese airfield and runways. From the base map, it’s clear how the terrain and road net of the island shaped the areas that make up the playing space. The addition of elevation contours and the location of known buildings and fortifications really facilitate the players understanding the defensive terrain values assigned to each area.

The beach approach boxes are a nice abstraction that models the space for the incoming waves of assault troops as well as the presence of the transports and warships in support just offshore.

Also included in the game is a flyer for the Ernie Pyle museum in Dana, Indiana. Looks like a nice, small museum remembering the life of a journalist that made a real difference. Stop by and check it out if you find yourself in west central Indiana.

Okay, those are the parts, but how does the game handle on the table top? The good news is that game play is generally straightforward. Each game turn represents a single day and is broken into the following phases;

  • Reinforcement Phase
  • Daylight Phase
  • Night Phase
  • Refit Phase
  • End Phase

The heart of each game turn is in the Daylight Phase. During this phase the players take turns activating units and performing actions. Each set of these actions is an impulse. Within an impulse a player selects one action. These break down into Assault, bombardment, regroup or, passing. There is a dynamic number of impulses in a game turn. The end is unpredictable as it’s based on a die roll. 

It’s a fun experience. The game nicely models the effects of the supporting artillery assets available for ‘bombardment’ along with the allocation of naval and ground based aircraft that can be used to soften up the defenders.  You’ll also get the feel of the assault waves of troops hitting the beaches and how tough it can be to dig out a prepared, entrenched defender.  Even the fickle nature of the weather is baked into the rules in an easy to use manner.

The variable turn length nicely captures the sense of operational friction. The US player will always be trying to do as much as possible with each impulse. Conversely, the Japanese will leverage their strengths – good defensive ground and the ability to infiltrate even into a recently ‘secured’ area. The reinforcement and refit processes do a great job of replicating the tactical surprise faced by the Americans as they keep finding more and more pillboxes blocking their advance.

Underlaying all of this – literally! – is the game board or in this case the map. This is where the game really shines. As mentioned earlier, the base map of the game is an actually tactical map produced by the United States for use in the attack. The base map creates an immersive experience that clearly shows why the area boundaries ended up where they did. 

By eliminating the artificial construct of the hex grid, the map conveys a sense of spatial orientation that is driven by the physical geography of this island. Through the lens of topography, you’ll view the battlefield from a similar perspective as the commanders at the battalion and regimental headquarters.

The base map shows the entirety of the island. However, it also includes enough of the coastal details of reefs and beaches to convey a sense of the ‘near-shore’ space required for the amphibious landing and the domain of your naval gunfire support ships.

The game casts you in the role of overall commander on each side. For the US, you’ll be filling the role of Major General Andrew D. Bruce, commanding the 77th Infantry Division. On the other side of the beach, The Japanese Army under Major Igawa is prepared to resist the American invasion.

From the Army of the United States side of the table, there are several things that contribute to a sense that you are in command. First up is the use of markers to allocate your divisional artillery and armor support help shape your view of the game from General Bruce’s point of view. Next is the combat bonus you get for keeping the companies of an infantry battalion together. I like this rule as you are rewarded for maintaining unit cohesion in an organic way that eliminates the need to worry about different combat ratings for the weapons company. At the same time this gives you a nice bonus for keepings the weapons company in direct support of the rest of the battalion.

Adding to this is your decision of where – or even IF – to allocate the Ernie Pyle counter. While his presence does provide a boost to an attack he’s attached to, that bonus is balanced with the risk of replicating the historical event of his death. (And suffering a victory point loss to reflect the blow to US morale.)

In contrast, the Japanese player is in for a more passive experience.  The nature of the battle means the Imperial Japanese Army is clearly on the defensive. Backing up this perception is the excellent defensive ground and a plethora of pillboxes and caves that multiply the defensive power of your meager force.

But as the Japanese player your role is not passive. You need to use well timed counter attacks to disrupt the American forces. You’ll need to be frugal as you don’t want to throw away your troops for nothing.

Adding more depth to the IJA player’s experience, you can use the advanced rules so that you’ll be able to wield the power of the divine wind by unleashing the kamikaze on the US Navy. You can target either the US invasion transports (disrupting the flow of replacements and reinforcements) or strike at the US naval gunfire group and hopefully cause it enough disruption to silence those big guns for the day.

I found the game very engaging. As the US player, the turn structure delivers a taut experience where you try to maximize your troops efforts every game turn and constantly push forward knowing that with every impulse you are burning precious daylight. I felt the tension of needing my infantry to clear sectors and keep advancing before the sun sets on the day’s events. You’ll feel that frustration when you launch a well-supported, multiple battalion attack, only to watch it be thrown back to it’s start line with heavy losses.

The Japanese have a slightly easier player experience, if only because the geography and victory point awards helps guide your defensive choices.  Like the US player, you’ll face some tough choices. Mostly these focus on how stiff a forward defense you should offer before deciding that the right time to fall back on the natural bastion of the hills surrounding Mount Gusuku.

Last Battle is a fun game. Yes, it has a small footprint and a relatively low number of counters, but it works quite well. I found the game play engaging. A lot of that is the depiction of the map. The historical base pulled me into the experience of the game as it set the place and period of the battle quite effectively. As the US player you’ll feel the challenge of clearing the Japanese out of some very tough terrain while also experiencing the frustration of having infiltrators pop up in recently cleared areas. For the Japanese player, the reinforcement and replacement rules abstract the surprise of finding more and more defenders that seem to be rising up out of the ground.  It may be abstract, but it’s very effective and really frustrating to the American player.

The scale of the game feels right. You will typically want to commit your battalions into action as a unit, just to gain the combat bonus and that feels right from a command control level. The advanced rules for kamikazes, Japanese satchel charges and the personalities of Major Igawa and Ernie Pyle effectively add both period color and tactical depth to the game.

 Last Battle is not intended to be played as a solitaire game. It has no rules for ‘bots or flow charts to direct the actions of either side. But it yields a reasonable solitaire experience if you are willing to play both sides. The nature of the battle actually compliments the solitaire experience as the Japanese forces, the victory point locations and the terrain combine to shape the Japanese strategy. Couple that with the structure of the game turn and you will find a rewarding solitaire gaming experience. 

Last Battle has a lot going for it. I thoroughly enjoyed this small, somewhat obscure battle. While it has a small tabletop footprint, you’ll appreciate that the entire island fits on the map. With first rate production standards, ‘Last Battle’ is taut game play for both players and straight forward easy to grasp rules. With a $30.00 price point, it’s a competitive product in the zip lock bag game category.  Last Battle will appeal to those folks who like a game set in the Pacific Theater as well as those who like a good area movement game that can be played in a relatively quick amount of time.  It’s a welcome addition to my growing game library.

Armchair General Score: % 96

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 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. He continues to dabble with designing 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.

cover art
Ie Shima island map
Mount Gusuku
Second Battalion attacks
Time for the big assault

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