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Posted on Sep 11, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

US Airborne Assaults an Island Fortress in Revolution Games ‘Return to the Rock: Corregidor, 1945’. Board Game Review.

US Airborne Assaults an Island Fortress in Revolution Games ‘Return to the Rock: Corregidor, 1945’. Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

By Ray Garbee

Return to the Rock: Corregidor, 1945 Publisher: Take Aim Designs/Revolution Games. Designer: Mike Rinella. Price $ 33.00

Passed inspection: The game packs a lot of action into a small footprint. It’s a solid 2 player game that has good solitaire potential. Excellent graphics that incorporates a period map. The game nicely captures the asymmetrical aspects of the conflict between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

Failed basic: Nothing that would dissuade you from buying the game. A player aid chart for combat processes and movement costs would be welcome.

The airdrop had gone off without a hitch. The columns of C-47 were right on target over the drop zone and the jump masters earned their pay. The 3rd Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment drifted down on the lightly defended golf course and parade ground that sat atop the western end of Corregidor Island. All the parachute artillery batteries landed in good order! Even the landing craft transporting the troops onto Black Beach had few problems, though two companies and the all-important Sherman tanks were thoroughly disorganized and out of action for the day. Seizing the advantage, the paratroopers moved out to expand their perimeter, encountering only scattered resistance from Japanese troops in fortifications.  As night fell, the US airborne units hunkered down to hold their positions. That is, until the very ground seemed to open up and hundreds of Japanese soldiers came charging out of nowhere, screaming ‘banzai!’ as they smashed into the US positions. Rifles barked, bayonets flashed and grenade blasts echoed across the rugged landscape. When sunrise brought an end to the bloody night, the US troops found themselves locked in a desperate struggle with a determined opponent. This fight was just getting started…

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So ended the first game turn of Take Aim Designs ‘Return to the Rock: Corregidor 1945’ published by Revolution Games. While the initial landings had gone very well and the airborne troops had occupied a fair bit of ground, that success was largely offset by the overnight infiltration of the US positions and determined counterattacks launched by the Japanese. This promised to be a game that would not be over until the final turn.‘Return to the Rock’ details the US assault on the island of Corregidor, defending the entrance to Manila Bay. The US needs to secure the island so that they can begin efforts to reopen Manila Bay and the port of Manila so they can drastically shorten their supply lines on the island of Luzon. The battle is well defined in both scope and duration, which helps define the games playing area and length.  It stands in comparison to the heavy combat faced by the troops of the US XIV Corps as they fought just across the bay to liberate the city of Manila from Japanese occupation.

The assault on Corregidor is an excellent topic for a game for a number of factors. It highlights one of the rare, opposed airdrops in the Pacific theater.  It also highlights how well the US Army and Air Corps could work together in overcoming the technical challenges of using small drop zones in challenging terrain. The attack was also a poster child for what can happen in the absence of accurate intelligence information regarding your opponent.

As with many of Revolution Games products, Return to the Rock ships in a clear plastic zip close bag. Unsealing the bag and extracting the contents, you’ll have the following components;

  • Game cover page / Players Aid Chart
  • Rulebook
  • A 17” x 22” playing board
  • A half counter sheet, plus an additional strip of eight (8) counters

The cover sheet is a nice image depicting the initial US airdrop onto Corregidor. The image selected for the cover does a great job of conveying how small the island was and how hazardous the airdrop must have seemed. The flip side of the cover are all the details for the playing pieces and markers used in the game. It’s clearly laid out and details the unit colors, unit types and the various information printed on the counters and markers. This text is printed in full color and helps to easily identify the units and the information on the counters.

The rulebook is a slim 16-page paperback, saddle-stitch bound, black and white document.  That page count is deceptive. Discounting the front and back of the booklet, the glossary/index and the examples of play, the actual rules only account for about 9 pages. The rules are laid out in the order you will generally need them and are cross-indexed for special cases for each of use. (That nine-page count does not include the back of the cover page – those are also part of the rules, so keep it handy!)

The game board is nicely done. An interpretation of a topographic map is used as a base to convey a sense of the topography and landforms on the island. This is very similar to the game board presentation in ‘Ie Shima’, an earlier game in the series. The map is overlaid with a series of polygons that delineate the boundaries between areas. Each area has a name, an area reference number and Terrain Effect Modifier that are printed on the map. These is done using the style common to other games in the series and can trace its lineage all the way back to Storm Over Arnhem.

The counters are well executed. The larger 5/8” counters are greatly appreciated. The size makes them easy to read and handle. The graphics team under Charles Kibler did yeoman work presenting the game data in an attractive, informative fashion. A quick note: The counter sheet includes a replacement counter for an early game – the ’58 Engineers’ are not used in ‘Return to the Rock’, but are for a copy of ‘Counterattack: Arras 1940’ to replace a misprinted counter. 

Gameplay is straightforward. A turn represents a complete day of action and consists of the following phases: Reinforcement phase, Day Phase, Night Phase, Reorganization Phase and End Phase.

The reinforcement phase is when you’ll bring some units into play. For the Japanese, these are machine gun and pillbox units. For the United States player these are machinegun, engineers, artillery, and armor units.  

The day phase covers combat during the day. The actions during the day are weighted toward the United States player as they may conduct bombardment as well as benefit from offensive and defensive modifiers. A player takes a variable number of impulses governed by how long they retain the momentum. Once they ‘lose momentum’, their opponent takes impulses until they lose momentum. This goes on until either both players pass consecutively, or neither player has fresh units on the map. During an impulse, a player activates units in a single area, moves any of the units in that area and then resolves any resulting combats.

The night phase favors the Japanese player. This is when the Japanese player can attempt to infiltrate US areas and launch powerful counterattacks under cover of darkness. In execution, its similar to the day phase with each player taking impulses as long as they retain the momentum.

The reorganization phase is where both players review their losses and regroup some units, while removing others permanently from play. For each unit removed, one returns to play. It’s like the concept of half-life. For each unit you bring back you lose one. If you lost your entire force, ½ comes back the following turn. The turn after that you are down to ¼ of your original units. Players can do the math and realize that full bore combat operations will expend their units around turn 5, so each side needs to retain at least some of their units as a reserve for those final game turns.

The end phase is when players check to determine if an automatic victory has been determined. Failing that, there are a number of administrative tasks that are done to prepare for the next game turn.

Granted, this short overview of a game turn sounds pretty dry, but in action it’s much more engaging. Let’s walk through this sample of turn one. The game starts with the US jumping into action with the first wave of the airdrop. Their first impulse resolves the airdrop. Some units may become spent due to a bad jump. Next, the US rolls a die to see if they keep the momentum…and they do! The US takes another impulse where they can either move units out from the drop zone, or start landing units via the seaborne invasion, or wait for the additional paratroopers in the second wave. It would behoove the US player to occupy areas adjacent to the drop zone and landing beach to prevent the Japanese from deploying their machinegun units and shooting up future landings.

At some point the US will fail to keep the momentum. At this point the Japanese player begins taking impulses to deploy their units onto the map. (Like the aforementioned machinegun units!) This cycle goes on until both players pass, or they run out of fresh units.

Now the night phase starts. Assuming the Japanese player retained a number of fresh units, they will begin infiltration attacks on the US units, hoping to use the banzai charge to inflict casualties on the US units.  

Once the night phase is completed, both players regroup their casualties, reset their units to fresh, and check to see if the victory conditions were met.

As with Mike Rinella’s other games, the impulse mechanism does a good job of capturing the friction and chaos of combat. A player is never sure how many impulses they will have. This encourages the players to prioritize their actions. The impulse mechanism is another way of modeling Colonel Boyd’s ‘OODA loop’ process. In any given set of impulses, a player will Observe the situation, Orient their view of the situation to their possible options, Decide what action to take and then Act to implement the…uhh…action.

In game terms, a simple OODA loop would be the US player assessing the correlation of forces, determining what options are available (and the various costs of those options), deciding to execute a naval bombardment of a Japanese occupied area and lastly executing the bombardment (hopefully inflicting attrition points that cause the Japanese units to take losses and/or retreat). The momentum die roll is key part of this process as it sets up who performs the next OODA loop.

How well a player leverages their impulses will determine how successfully they are able to ‘turn inside’ their opponents decision loop by concealing their own actions while moving to achieve their goals.

The game system also does a good job of depicting the relative strengths of each side in the game. I only somewhat facetiously refer to the USA as ‘The United States of Artillery’ as the game does an excellent job depicting how the Unites States relied on kinetic tools such as tactical air support, naval gunfire and good old-fashioned artillery batteries. These tools let the US player do two things – inflict casualties that break up Japanese units and more subtly, discourage the Japanese player from concentrating their forces in the first place. Taken together, these factors do not prevent the Japanese player from massing their forces. What they do is influence the decision-making process that goes into determining when to concentrating those forces. And a big part of that decision will be determining if the goal is worth the inevitable retribution it will most assuredly receive.

To a degree, the kinetic tools available to the US counter-intuitively will encourage the Japanese player to mix it up with the American units and contest areas, hoping you can draw the friendly fire effect for any air or bombardment support. This effect can happen if the US player uses air support, naval gunfire or artillery in a contested space, and both players roll the same value on their dice. (Some rusty, back of the envelope math suggests this could happen approximately 10% of the time.) In this case the US suffers casualties in addition to the other effects of the bombardment mission.

Balanced against these devastating kinetic weapons of war, the Japanese have a different set of skills. These revolve around starting the game with a large pool of hidden units and the ability to infiltrate and launch surprise night attacks (referred to as a ‘Banzai!’ charge.) This is the single most effective tactical tool that IJA player has at their disposal.

These infiltration attacks can pack the same punch as a US airstrike or naval bombardment. The threat of a banzai charge should have the US player thinking carefully before committing all of their units to combat. Spent units are easy targets against a ferocious banzai attack.

Taken together, the asymmetrical strategies of kinetic force versus close combat do an excellent job of replicating the historical tactics of each side. The Japanese own the night while the US will dominate during the day.

Return to the Rock is an engaging and fun game. But there are a few things that would make it an even better game. One thing that the game could have really used was a player aid chart. It was a bit of an annoyance to consult the rules to check movement point costs and the combat impulse process. Fortunately, if you check the listing for the game on Board Game Geek, you’ll find a player’s aid chart in the files section. Do yourself a favor and download a copy.

While making that copy, you might want to make a backup copy of the cover sheet player aid. You don’t want to lose that cover sheet as the information on the playing pieces and markers is *not* replicated in the rulebook!

Playing through the first impulse of the game, there was an expectation that the US airdrop was too generous in allowing the relatively safe landing of the first wave of the Third Battalion, 503rd Parachute Regiment. In reading the detail of the first wave’s drop in E.M. Flanagan’s book ‘Corregidor: The Rock Force Assault’, it was indeed a harrowing experience, but tactical surprise and solid planning, coupled with the superb command and control exercised by the US during the jump meant that the lead elements landed in good order (and not one paratrooper ended up in the water!). With the element of surprise lost, the follow-on waves did have a bit more difficulty landing, mostly due to the volume of fire the Japanese brought to bear on the planes and parachutists. The game captures this with effective rules that reward the Japanese player for getting their machine guns units deployed adjacent to the landing zones.

The combat system is built around the concept of opposed dice rolls, with modifiers. This is the heart of the combat system, as it has been for similar games all the way back to Storm Over Arnhem. While this mechanism is designed to generate a curve of results that are clustered around an average result of seven, it also allows for occasional great disparities in combat results. For example, naval bombardment can become a game changer with one extreme outcome.

What this mechanism does do it encourage each player to maximize their tactical choices. When defending, hunker down in the good ground. When attacking, concentrate your forces and try to ensure you are using combined arms for an additional bonus. Because once you roll those dice…the die is cast!

Or is it? Return to the Rock features another familiar rule from previous games in the series – the advantage marker. Having the advantage allows a player to do a number of things, but one of the most common is to use it to force a re-roll of both pairs of combat dice. That really impressive combat result you just rolled? Turns out it didn’t happen. The advantage can be used like a hammer to beat down some of those extreme combat dice results, keeping things closer to the average die roll distribution. This has the bonus of rewarding sound tactics – every die roll modifier is critically important!

But using the advantage this way carries its own opportunity cost. Because if you are wielding this hammer to force a reroll of the dice, it means you are *not* using the advantage for any of its other nifty capabilities like resetting the impulse clock for the turn, or assisting with unit reorganization.

In some ways, the advantage marker is the real heart of the game engine. The marker is a ‘jack of all trades / master of none’ in the sense that you can use it to do many things in a game turn.  In addition to forcing a re-roll, or resetting the impulse clock (a very powerful option!) it can also pull an eliminated unit back into the game without discarding a unit in the process. The advantage marker may only be used 14 times during the game. (Once by each side, per game turn.) and at best seven times by each individual player. This can be reduced by ‘hoarding’ the counter and accepting some adverse results in the name of denying your opponent access to the advantage counter. But the opportunity cost of not using the advantage marker can be high.

‘Return to the Rock’ 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. Yet like ‘Ie Shima’ or ‘Patton’s Vanguard’, this game 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 defensive strategy. As the outcome of combat actions are dynamic, a solitaire player can leverage the advantage to offset an extreme die roll. Couple that with the structure of the game turn’s impulses and momentum and you will find a rewarding solitaire gaming experience. 

Return to the Rock: Corregidor 1945 is an engaging game and a worthy addition to your game collection. Its relatively small footprint makes it perfect for those gamers lacking a large table. This compact footprint carries over into storage as this is a thin package that won’t crowd your shelf for space.

The rules are accessible and easy to comprehend, yet the game play is deep and rewarding. Though it uses common processes for each side, game play is somewhat asymmetrical as each faction has unique advantages and disadvantages to be leveraged in order to win the game. It’s an excellent choice for gamers new to tabletop wargaming or for grognards looking for lighter fare for a shorter game.

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 over four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines.

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