The Fires of Midway: The Carrier Battles of 1942 (Clash of Arms, 2010) is a Steven Cunliffe designed game that recreates carrier battles in the early days of the Pacific War in World War II. This card driven game (CDG) uses a hand management mechanic where players have Action Cards that can add to fighter combat, bomber strikes, or carrier defense.
Although the game is focused on the great carrier battles of 1942 (Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons or Santa Cruz) there is also an alternative scenario which postulates US carriers attempting to relieve Wake Island at the end of 1941. This smaller scenario pits an American Task Force consisting of Lexington and Saratoga going against the Japanese Hiryu and Soryu.
The American fleet is led by Admiral Fletcher. The Admiral Card for Fletcher is Torpedo Doctrine meaning he must always send a torpedo bomber in any strike. Unfortunately, the US Navy is using the Devestator – an old, slow, limited range airplane. Additionally, the Lex is carrying Buffalo fighters – another old, less effective aircraft. On the plus side, the US task force has nine (9!) squadrons of Dauntless dive bombers. Indeed, the Americans have an abundance of aircraft with two Buffalo fighters, two Wildcat fighters, and three Devastator torpedo bombers to go along with the aforementioned nine dive bomber squadrons.
The Japanese fleet is led by Admiral Nagumo. The Admiral Card for Nagumo reflects his cautious attitude meaning he can never “steal” the #1 Action Card. The Japanese carriers each carry two Zero fighters, two Val dive bombers, and two Kate torpedo bomber squadrons.
The game began with the Search Phase. Each side explores a grid arrangement of Search Cards attempting to locate the opponents fleet. Along the way, the players build their Action Card hand. The Japanese proved much luckier than the Americans and built a stronger hand before the last fleet was located.
In the first Strategy Phase, the order to Carrier Turns was US-Japan-Japan-US.
- US strike from Saratoga. Due to the longer range strike the entire strike group arrives “smoking” from fuel spent. The Japanese do not spot the strikers and there is no CAP launched. Attacking Hiryu, the strike group losses a Devastator and heavily hits the carrier.
- Hiryu launches its own strike package. This group runs into the CAP (Wildcat, Buffalo) and ends up downing the Buffalo but misses the Wildcat. The strike hits Lexington with great damage inflicted.
- Soryu launches her strike. Again, the CAP engages, but both fighters survive. The strike package hits Saratoga, but with only minor damage.
- Lexington launches her own strike. The range means the strike arrives “smoking” which also means the Japanese player gets to pick the target. Seeking to protect Hiryu, the Soryu is struck and, like Saratoga, there is only minor damage inflicted.
In the Admiral Phase, seeing that both sides have exhausted their Action Cards, seek to reload their hand in preparation for another round of combat. In the End Phase of Turn 1, after Carrier Carnage and Explosion Tests have been administered, both Lexington and Hiryu are sunk.
At this point both players look at their situation. The scenario Intensity is 7, meaning 7 VP are needed for victory. The Japanese player is leading 6 VP to the Americans 5 VP. Although both sides have a carrier, Japanese air fleet is half the size (six squadrons) it started with whereas the Americans still have over half their original airpower. To retreat is to give victory to one’s opponent, and the Japanese player elects to fight on. The American gladly obliges him.
In the second turn, the Japanese player steams into an area with low clouds. This means that even if the American player moves closer, the weather will make it more likely his planes will arrive in a smoking condition. In the Strategy Phase, the Americans win the first strike and take it. Although the planes do arrive smoking, they still wreck devastation on Soryu. The smaller Soryu strike gets lucky; the Americans fail to spot the strike and the CAP does not get to jump the the incoming bombers. Although the Americans mount a heroic defense, Saratoga is hit hard. Once again, Carrier Carnage and Explosion Tests are made, and although the Americans have superior damage control and can reroll Explosion Tests hoping for a better result it is all for naught. Both Soryu and Saratoga are sunk.
In the final VP calculation, the Japanese have 10 VP to the American 9 VP. The winning margin is the extra VP scored by the Japanese for locating the last fleet in the Search Phase.
One major lesson learned is the importance of damage control. Neither side really used any Repair Points and as a result the progressive damage of fires and floods made passing Explosion Tests impossible. Additionally, although the Americans have an advantage in aircraft, too many were old relics (Buffalo and Devastator) and to be effective the American carriers had to close – too close to – the Japanese carriers.
In John B. Lundstrom’s book The First Team there is a passage where the great naval historian Samuel Elliott Morison criticizes Fletcher. Following the recall order after the fall of Wake Island, Morison cites an unidentified cruiser captain who said, “Frank Jack should have placed the telescope to his blind eye like Nelson.” (Lundstrom, p. 44) This little scenario shows just how any carrier battle in these early days of the Pacific War could of gone very badly for the Americans. The Fires of Midway, although a seemingly unconventional carrier duel game using a CDG mechanic instead of traditional hex searches across the vast ocean, succeeds in bringing key points of history alive. For that reason above all else this game is recommended.