Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Mar 25, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

RETRO REVIEW # 1 – Running Wild for 6 Months: A look back at GDW’s ‘1942’. Boardgame Review.

RETRO REVIEW # 1 – Running Wild for 6 Months: A look back at GDW’s ‘1942’. Boardgame Review.

By Ray Garbee

“1942” Publisher: Game Designers’ Workshop.  Designer: Marc W. Miller. Price $17.00 – $75.00


Passed inspection: Fast-playing game, good introduction to hex and counter gaming while still offering challenging game play for veteran players. Good overview of the war in the Far East.  

Failed basic: Allied player is constrained into a passive defensive posture with limited decisions.  


“Retro Reviews” is a new feature here at Armchair General.  Each Retro Review will look at a classic (or not so classic) game from yesteryear.  So jump in your “way back machine” (or if you are like me, your Tardis) and check out 1978’s “1942”!



Remember the movie “The Final Countdown”? You, know – the one where the USS Nimitz travels back in time forty years and (spoiler alert!) wrestles with whether or not they should change the course of World War Two in the Pacific? That movie was on my mind during my play through of GDW’s board game ‘1942’. Not only are the players also looking to change the outcome of the war in the Pacific, but we’re also going back forty years to revisit a game first published in the year 1978.

1942 entered my game collection in the past year through sad circumstances. My long-time friend and gaming buddy Bob passed away unexpectedly. Bob’s passion for board games was as deep as it was enduring over the years. His game collection reflected this and rivaled the inventory of a well-stocked game store.

His wife, in a very generous act, invited Bob’s friends to help give his extensive game collection a home where we would both appreciate the game but more importantly, be reminded of Bob’s friendship and the comradery we had shared over the years. That’s how a copy of 1942 came to my table. But even with that, I was surprised when I opened the box and found what was for all intents and purposes a brand-new game that had been silently waiting 40 years for someone to bring it to the table. That time is now.

It also fit a need I’d been discussing with Rick Martin about working in some older ‘vintage’ game titles that provide context and comparison to today’s modern board games. Published in 1978 by Game Designers’ Workshop (also known as GDW), ‘1942’ was a product of what I consider the first golden age of board gaming from the late 70’s to the mid-1980’s.

But enough digression! Like the crew of the USS Nimitz in the Final Countdown that was transported back forty years to the start of the Pacific War, let’s step back forty years to 1979 when GDW’s ‘1942’ was on the shelves of game stores everywhere.

1942 was part of what GDW called their ‘Series 120’ games. GDW’s goal for these games was to “provide a short, inexpensive game without sacrificing historical quality or gaming excellence.” While the goals were not always met, the games provided a reasonable balance between size and cost. (As a teenager, I owned several of the Series 120 games and have fond memories of playing Agincourt and Dark Nebula.)

Opening the box, you’ll find the following components. A game board (i.e. – the map), a counter sheet, a rule book, a single six-sided die, one page of errata and a post card.

Back in the day, the post card was how you could communicate with the game company and let them know which game you had purchased, what were your interests and if there was a local store that didn’t carry the company’s games. Compared to today’s 21st Century data privacy and analytics practices, it seems downright quaint to have you share your name and address and ask to be sent updates and catalogs as they became available. Oh – you paid for the stamp too!

Okay, back to the game. The game board (henceforth referred to as the map) is a single 17” by 22” sheet depicting the region covering the South China Sea from Indochina to the Banda Sea. The map is an unmounted sheet of lightweight cardstock with the details printed in color. Coming from a background of Avalon Hill games in the 1970’s, the unmounted map definitely felt ‘cheap’ in comparison to the heavy-duty maps, but it was a way to keep down the weight and cost of a game. The unmounted map board was a standard feature of GDW games and you saw comparable maps from other companies such as SPI and a little later, Victory Games.  This trend appears here to stay and you continue to see unmounted maps with a lot of the modern tabletop games.

The map covers the ‘Far East’ theater including part of Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. It’s interesting to note that Marc Miller’s approach to the region of the South China Sea known as ‘Dangerous Ground’ was to make it impassible for naval movement. Peeking at current events that region is where you’ll find the Spratly Islands, a current flash point with China. But in 1942 it remained an uncharted region which prudent mariners gave a wide berth.

The map is overlaid with a hex grid to regulate movement. Scaled at 85 nautical miles to a hex only broad, general terrain types are displayed. Swamps, clear ground and rough terrain are the landforms you encounter. In addition, you’ll find the human overlay of cities and roads that existed across the region.

Tucked in a corner of the map is a game turn record chart. Otherwise, the map is all about the game space.

The counters are simple and functional. There is a total of 120 counters on a single counter sheet. These are the old school ½” counters which were the norm at the time. Printing was only on one side, leaving the back a solid white field. Given that all units were assigned the same movement value, the counters depicted a unit symbol using the standard US Army unit symbol set common in war games and used to this day in many games. Units have their designation and occasionally a parent unit is displayed. Prominently featured at the bottom of each counter is the combat factor used when calculating the attack and defense factors of each side’s forces.

Counters are printed in color, enabling you to track the forces of Great Britain, the United States, Japan and the Netherland’s government in the Dutch East Indies.

As was common for the Series 120 games, the rule book is 16 pages long. Sounds like a lot, but these small games had 5.5” x 8.5” pages, so that’s more like 8 standard pages. The rules are done in a straight forward minimalist fashion. Printed in an era before affordable desktop publishing, the cost of typesetting meant almost all rules were a black and white production with a minimal amount of graphics included.  Using today’s basic tools (like MS Word) you could easily create a more complex document in short order.

The rule book provides a short background on the campaign and includes the rules that govern the turn sequence, movement, combat and how victory is determined. From a technical writing standpoint, the rules could use some clean up. They are not organized in a programming instruction format (the set-up rules are placed in the back of the rule book) and there’s a host of special rules buried in the middle of the book that really needed a separate chart or easier access on the back of the rule book.

There is a single sheet of errata, of which most is concerned with defining unit types for stacking and the movement effects of terrain.

Game play follows a fairly rigid IGOUGO format that was quite common for the time.

First the Allied player takes a turn, then the Japanese player takes a turn. Each turn consists of a movement phase covering first, land movement, then air movement and lastly sea movement. Following movement is a combat phase in which the active player may attack with as many of their units as desired.

There area number of special movement cases covering amphibious assault, naval movement air assault as well as the complex movement within the numerous island chains on the map. Units can ‘island hop’ through the small island chains with an assumption that they leverage local small boats and the like to move the short distances between islands.

Next up – the combat phase! Combat is a straight forward odds calculation accompanied by rolling a d6 against the appropriate column on the combat results table. Again, this a pretty old school mechanic that you still see today. One thing unique to this game is that success is not assured at 3:1 odds. You’ve got at best a 50% chance of success and that’s before any negative die roll modifiers are applied. In a break with tradition, terrain is not a die roll modifier to combat in the game.

That’s not entirely true as there are two unique terrain feature that do influence combat. These are the two fortresses of Singapore and Corregidor. Each allows unlimited stacking allowing the defender to create a very strong position. While the fortresses may be attacked, you have to attack ALL the defenders, which can make for a very tough assault. The Japanese can also opt to starve out the defenders, but that’s an approach which they may not have time to implement.

So, what works with the game? Let’s start with 1942 mostly captures the feel of the period. The Japanese start with a powerful army that is likely to drive back their opponents. Air support is important but can often be countered. The Japanese can leverage their carriers to gain local air superiority in support of an attack, but cannot use the ships every game turn. The game does a great job in recreating the prediction of Admiral Yamamoto who warned his fellow countrymen: “We can run wild for six months or maybe a year…”

Conversely, the Allied player is on the back foot. At best they can mount a powerful defense designed to slow the Japanese advance. It becomes a question of how soon do you fall back into your fortresses and hope you can hold out until the end of the game.

What feels a bit off is how the game does not really capture the Japanese ability to move faster than their opponents as seen in both Malaya and the Philippines. Also, the lack of terrain effects modifiers feels wrong. There’s absolutely no value to defending in rough terrain or swampy terrain. It appears that most of the terrain exists primarily to confine the movement of the mechanized combat arms of armor and artillery while allowing the infantry to breeze on through.

While it does not feel wrong, the quantity of special rules feels cumbersome. But, in an age before the card driven game, it’s all these special rules that provide the flavor and character in the game while still allowing the game to be constrained by the core rules.

There’s a lot of what I’ll call “tabletop archaeology” on display in 1942. You can see some of the same game mechanic concepts at work here that you’ll find in other GDW games of the period. For example, two-week turns were a showcase feature in the Europa series of World War Two games. The single combat factor mechanic could be found in both Imperium and Dark Nebula. Collectively, you see a lot of the design thought that was shaping a lot of the successful products GDW was producing in the late 70’s and well into the 1980’s.

Some readers will want to know if 1942 a good candidate for a solitaire game. Let’s start with this – the game includes zero rules for solitaire play. However, given the relative lack of options available to the Allied player, with a little work the solo gamer can get this game on the table if they are willing to hot seat between the two sides. Focusing on the Allies, you can certainly explore the differences between a strong forward defense, a weak area defense and a strategy to immediately retreat to the fortresses in the face of the Japanese attacks.  You’ll have the ability to test out a lot of different Japanese operational plans ranging from a historical approach to focusing on either Malaya, the Philippines or the East Indies. So, there’s a number of reasonable solo play options. But bear in mind that victory in the game hinges on control of the two fortresses.

If it was 1979, I’d tell you to run out and buy a copy of 1942 from your local hobby shop. But it’s not 1979 – it’s forty years later. As a result, you’ll have to work to find a copy of 1942. It’s a good introductory game covering an under-represented campaign. In addition, it can be a reasonable solitaire game. Also, it has a high nostalgia factor for the veteran gamers of the late 1970’s and 1980’s.

But be aware that the game mechanics are a bit dated. Beyond the rules, a bigger challenge is that 1942 is long out of print and can be hard to find. If you do find it a copy for sale, you might be competing against the die-hard collectors so the price may be high. But if you find a cheap copy in good condition, seize it for your library.


Armchair General Score: % 88

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  3


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.

1 Comment

  1. I remember playing this game and spent hours of good fun playing it. Thanks for the Great Review!