Pacific War and the recipe for compelling wargames

Pacific War

This is Pacific War, a 1992 release by Gary Grigsby. I’ll come back to that.

I’m on something of a Pacific Theater kick, for an unusual reason: over at the Something Awful LP Archive, I’ve been reading an AAR by a guy called Grey Hunter. The game is War in the Pacific: Admiral’s Edition, the Grigsby/Matrix magnum opus, covering the whole war in excruciating detail. It’s the kind of thing I would love, if I wanted to drop the $80 on the price of entry, and the several hundred hours it would take me to actually get through the war. Fortunately, I can read the 1,320 entries in Grey Hunter’s AAR much more quickly than I can play the game myself, and so get a feel for the flow of things more than the day-to-day minutiae of supplying the twelve-man garrison on Rarotonga. I’ll come back to that.

One of my favorite wargames, as you’ll know if you follow Many Words Main in the slightest, is the Command Ops series. Its conceit is that, as the player, you have to deal with all the handicaps real field commanders had to deal with. Your orders have to percolate down to your subordinate commanders, and hours pass as they dawdle (from your perspective) to plan a simple attack on a defensive position. You tear out your hair, watching the map as they miss the enemy battalion just behind the hill and happily claim success after wiping out a poor company of engineers. You celebrate your own cunning when your men just finish setting up when an enemy attack lands. It is, as the title says, a compelling wargame. But what does that mean, really? ‘Compelling’ is one of those review words1 that doesn’t mean anything absent a better definition. Let me explain what I’m trying to convey.

Ian W. Toll, one of my favorite naval historians2, wrote a book about the first six months of the Pacific War. I’ve always regarded Toll’s biggest talent as immersion. He writes vividly, with a knack for putting the reader into the mind of the people who were there. Near the beginning, he quotes Chester Nimitz, on his experience in the first few months of the war: “From the time the Japanese dropped those bombs on December 7th until at least two months later, hardly a day passed that the situation did not get more chaotic and confused and appear more hopeless.” That gets at the crux of it, I think. I’m still in the first few turns (weeks) of my game of Pacific War, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more despairing while playing a game. The deck is stacked so heavily against the Allies in the opening weeks: the Japanese are everywhere, and you categorically lack the planes, men, and ships to do anything about it. It has a very strong sense of place, and that is compelling. Command Ops has it, too: in the AARs in the archives at Many Words Main where I follow along in a history book, I find myself worrying about the same sorts of things as commanders on the field did. I find myself feeling exactly how CINCPAC Nimitz did.

I mentioned I’d be coming back to War in the Pacific. As I hinted, I don’t own the game, and I’ve never tried it. It’s possible I might find it compelling in the same way, but reading through Grey Hunter’s AAR, I think it’s not a settled thing by any means. In the course of spending forty-five minutes to an hour working through a single day, I think I might lose sight of the bigger picture, and games about the Pacific War are ultimately games about an entire theater. The sense of place flows out of watching the long arc of progress, and at a certain scale, that’s hard.

So, for me, compelling wargames capture a sense of place. That doesn’t preclude them from being grognardy, but it does preclude them from swamping the feel with detail. Pacific War is just about right, I think—accurate enough to yield plausible results, broad enough in scope to engender the emotional investment I crave.

Pacific War is freeware, courtesy of Matrix Games. You can find it at their website, or at my mirror.

  1. See this video, starting at about 3:00, or 4:30.
  2. Objection, your honor. Relevance3.
  3. Overruled. I want to see where this is going. Counsel, make your point quickly.

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