LNL-Tactical (Modern)

GrogHeads Reviews Fleet Commander: Nimitz

Fleet Commander: Nimitz from DVG (Dan Verssen Games)

Michael Eckenfels, 7 March 2015

 

THE GAME

Fleet Commander Nimitz is a grand strategic game covering the struggles in the Pacific during the Second World War, from the start of 1942 through 1945. This is a solitaire game, where the player takes the role of Chester W. Nimitz and tries to stem the Japanese onslaught. Success or failure is measured by Objectives on the map (such as Alaska and New Guinea), and these change depending on the Campaign you choose to play. Victory is determined by the number of Objectives you hold; the more, the greater your level of victory. However, if you fail in stopping the Japanese tide across the Pacific, failure is not measured by a Japanese invasion of the mainland U.S. or Australia. Instead, interestingly, failure results in you losing your job.

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The game has a ton of beautiful (if at times mystifying) components, a relatively clear rule book, and game play that requires a playthrough or three in order to wrap one’s mind around the concepts. The fact that I have gone back to this game again and again to learn its intricacies is largely due to its magnetic appeal. The game does draw me in, even though it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

COMPONENTS

We previously published an unboxing article; if I repeat myself here, I’m sure you’ll forgive me.

One Campaign Map (26.5” x 22”). This is where you manipulate Japanese and US/Australian forces, moving them across the board to take and hold the Objectives specified for the particular Campaign. It shows the Pacific in pretty much its entirety, from Borneo in the west to the west coast of the U.S. in the east, and from Alaska up north down south to Australia. It looks good overall, but seems undeveloped, in the sense that each Area is essentially island(s), a name, and an airfield and airfield size indicator. There’s no means for keeping track of moved units, or one side versus the other. This can make the map a big mess at times.

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Eight Counter Sheets. With about 128 counters per sheet, that’s over a thousand counters. And when this monster game ships, if the box doesn’t receive a gentle touch, the counters will break free from their sheets. Testimony as to how well DVG cuts their counters – very cleanly so they come off the sprues without need for trimming – but this also means there will be a number of counters loose in the box when you open it.

One Battle Map Board (11” x 17”). This is pretty cool…a full color board with a generic island at top and tables/sequences at the bottom. When Allied & Japanese forces meet in an Area and a Battle is fought, both sides’ counters are moved to this Battle Board to slug it out; survivors are then returned to the Campaign Map.

One Player Log Sheet. This is a sheet for players to record their game results, if they wish to do that.

One Rulebook. The rulebook is full color and does have good examples, but might be somewhat confusing at times. I powered my way through it by playing the game quite a bit, so things fell into place after hitting the wall a few times.

One 10-sided die. Dice are awesome. More dice means more happiness. One die isn’t necessarily happiness, but it’s better than no dice, and this one die is good enough to run everything in the game all by itself. Though you will be rolling it a lot.

 

GAMEPLAY

As mentioned initially, Fleet Commander Nimitz demands that you hold a certain number of Objectives in order to keep your job (there are levels of approval, but the lowest will get you a pink slip and a probable posting to a Greenland fishing fleet). To this end, you maneuver your units (ships, land based air, and ground units) across the map to try to stop the Japanese (comprised of the same unit types). The Campaign map is divided up into Areas with connecting lines that facilitate movement, and the most important Areas are marked as Objectives. At the start of a Campaign, counters are used to designate which of these Objectives are important for the game you’re playing. Each Campaign (there are four – 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1945) takes place over one year, with turns taking two months each. At the end of a Campaign year, the number of Objectives you hold determines your level of victory.

 

Units bear a bit of mentioning. The ship units represent not just one vessel, but the vessel pictured and several support ships (according to the rules). So, the CV counters aren’t just lone carriers, but represent a few escorts as well. There are also BB, CRU (cruisers), DDs, and submarine counters, all of which have named ships on them (except for DD and sub units, which represent a generic grouping of those ships). Carrier air units are generalized and do not come out to ‘play’ until a battle is started. So, specific historical carrier air wings do not exist. However, land-based air units are represented for both sides on the map, and by name. I do not like that naval air is generalized when land-based air has historical roots, but I can understand given the game’s system (more on these later). Finally, there are ground units; each side has battalions and a collection of other units (the Allied side, for example, has regular Army divisions, Marine divisions, and a few Aussie divisions as well).

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Each turn, you decide where you want to move your U.S./Allied units before the game system decides where to move Japanese units. Movement is immediate and range does not matter; you can move unit(s), for example, from the West Coast of the U.S. all the way to Borneo if you wish, or just to the Hawaiian Islands. You are, however, limited to the number of units you can move, because each such move costs one Supply Point. Each turn, you receive Supply Points to spend on movement, repair, battle plans (more on BPs later), and even building units. So, even though you have unlimited range, your movement plans can be quite limited, especially in the earlier Campaign games when there are fewer Supply Points to use.

 

Since you have to move before the game system moves Japanese units, you’re not just worrying about how many Supply Points to spend on moving ships, but also on where the game system will move Japanese units. You could move a big, strong stack of ships to one island group, only to see the Japanese go somewhere else and wreak utter havoc, denying you your own ‘decisive battle.’ Objectives will be a good place to gravitate your forces, though the game system can move units to those Areas or to Areas that do not have objectives, so that’s no guarantee.

 

When you move Japanese units, you select an Area with their units and start rolling the die to see where they go, and how many move. Yes – Japanese movement is determined by a random die roll. Japanese orders require a certain number of each unit type to move (ships, land-based air, and ground units), which usually involves one to three or so of each unit type. This means with large Japanese stacks, you’ll roll several times, which can get tedious. I’ll get more into Japanese movement in a bit, but for now let me discuss another option you have as the Allied player: the Scout ability.

 

By paying one Supply Point (yep, there’s even more uses for ‘em) before your movement turn, you can place a Scout token on a Japanese stack. You can Scout Japanese stacks multiple times, or Scout different ones, as long as you pay the one Supply Point per Scout to do so. This can drain you quickly, but helps tremendously in deciding where to move your own units, because each Scout token forces a Japanese order roll BEFORE you move any of your Allied units. So, this gives you some inkling into Japanese intentions (though they are of course randomly determined) and makes them commit to movement before you commit yourself, giving you a good opportunity to pounce on them.

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Scouting, however, is FAR from perfect. While it forces the Japanese to move some of their units first, you can’t possibly perform enough Scout missions to cover everything. So if you Scout a few Japanese units, and they move first, you might think you have the drop on them and commit your forces to destroying their units. The Japanese units that have not been rolled for yet can be your undoing, however. You might find your overwhelming stack ready to tear apart a Japanese concentration, but when you continue to roll Japanese orders, more Japanese units may appear in that Area. Scouting is not infallible, but this is pretty accurate historically when you think about it. How often was scouting a perfect thing in the Pacific War? They might spot a couple of Japanese carriers, but your subsequent rolls might bring more into the Area to contend with.

 

To be fair to the game system, Japanese orders might be determined by random die rolls, but the Japanese Order Table is organized to give a certain amount of method to the madness of fate. Some results require movement towards an Objective, while others might require movement towards Allied forces on the map. Others might require them to hold in place, or to refit (therefore giving the Japanese more reinforcements later). The Japanese orders are mostly focused on either Objectives or your Allied forces, so it does feel somewhat more satisfying than just a simple random die roll result. One important thing to keep in mind is that Japanese units can easily move across the map, just like Allied units can, in order to satisfy their order roll.

 

Once Scouting is done, as mentioned, you commit your own Allied forces to move. Since keeping and holding Objectives is your primary concern, it’s possible to narrow down your focus a bit, though ignoring non-Objective Areas can cause problems. At heart, the random nature of Japanese rolls might more or less guide them towards Objectives, but as mentioned, if you have forces in an Area, they might draw Japanese attention. It’s easy to stress in this game over feeling like you need to cover everything, but this is of course impossible. Luck factors into just about everything, including the moves you make. Anyone who has read the excellent “Miracle at Midway” will have a good idea of what I’m talking about, when it comes to trying to time things perfectly.

 

A further point on moving large Japanese stacks – needing to roll eight or nine times for them is not unusual (for example, at the start of the 1942 Campaign game, there’s huge stacks in Japan and the Far East Areas). This can make a mess downstream as you move Japanese units, then mark them with the appropriate ‘Moved’ counter, and try to keep them separate from units that have not yet moved. This is where my comment on the Campaign map from earlier comes in – there’s no way to, on the map, neatly differentiate these units. Placing boxes, for example, on the Campaign map might have made the map much more cluttered. However, a better means of organizing units on the map would have gone a long way to making it easier for me. Maybe I’m just too OCD.

 

Once all movement is (finally) complete, battles happen. Areas that have both sides’ units get moved to the Battle map, where things are better organized than on the Campaign map. Units are placed in specific locations on the Battle map, depending on what is deployed there. The Battle map depicts a generic island, roughly shaped like an egg, with locales for ground units and land-based air for both sides. The island is surrounded by a Coastal Area, where ‘big gun’ ships are generally placed. Surrounding the Coastal Area is the Ocean Area, where the carriers of both sides roam.

 

At the start of a battle, the number of rounds that will be fought are randomly determined, so combat hardly ever goes Combat is fought in a specific order, with anti-air fire, torpedoes, depth charge attacks, naval guns, Infantry attacks, fighter and bomber combat, all taking place at their exact times. This makes for some critical decisions in the heat of battle, some of which feel pretty close to what your historical counterpart had to choose from. Do you keep some F4Fs handy as CAP to protect against Japanese aircraft, or send them to help screen your own bombers? Sometimes you’ll take chances, and sometimes it will pay off. Sometimes, it does not, and you get decimated.

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Your choices outline the general course of a battle, but the almighty die roll determines the actual outcomes. Combat, in this manner, is much like Field Commander Rommel or other similar DVG products, where units have a number that you roll or lower to get one hit. Some units have a superscripted number, which gives two hits if it’s rolled equal to or under. One hit damages an enemy unit (Infantry, LBA, or Ship), while a second hit destroys it. There are rules for repairing damaged units as well, but that comes at the end of the game turn.

 

And, just like Field Commander Rommel, there are Battle Plans to choose from. Battle Plans are chits that you, as the Allied player, may select yourself by spending Battle Plan Points. The number of BPPs you get depends on a few things, but you can spend Supply Points to get more. The Japanese get a certain number, depending on the number of Forces they have committed (and furthermore, they get new Battle Plans each new combat round!). Battle Plans are like aces up your sleeve and can save a unit from destruction or heap extra damage on an enemy. The flexibility this gives you can really make a difference in a Battle.

 

Some Battles can be frustratingly short, or long, depending again on the randomness of a die roll. There is a Battle Plan that lets you choose to either prolong a battle an extra round, or shorten it an extra round. That’s about all the control you have over how long a Battle lasts, and even then, it’s miniscule. While it sounds highly restrictive, I can actually dig this aspect; after all, how often did the Japanese or Americans not press advantages in the Pacific War? Given the amount of knowledge you have of enemy intents – you can see the board, but the game system technically cannot, and plan accordingly – this is yet more randomness injected into the game, but it feels right at least.

 

Combat is very strategic in nature. When you’re moving divisions and fleet units representing several vessels, you obviously can’t get into deep nuts-and-bolts this-gun-does-this and that-torpedo-does-that kind of combat. The counters seemed to offer some confusion to some owners, but the rules themselves clear it up – a CV counter isn’t just one CV, it’s the CV and a few escorting vessels to go along with it too. If you’re more into tactical and weapons systems, you might better enjoy a game like Picket Duty (which I’ve reviewed previously for GrogHeads). The strategic aspect of combat in Fleet Commander Nimitz is kind of fun, actually.

 

Speaking of intents, or strategy – unfortunately there’s not a lot of it. The game is more fluid and slippery than a muddy hog that doesn’t want to get caught. Every time you think you have a handle on it, the random nature of the game system will often catch you with your pants down. In fact, it is impossible to plan for every possible Japanese action. You cannot scout every single Japanese stack and have ‘perfect’ intelligence with every Japanese unit’s intentions (there are never enough Supply Points to do so), so your moves are often going to be shots in the dark. This might be appropriate for the early game. However, a distinct lack of historic intelligence, such as the Americans breaking Japanese codes, and then being able to predict Japanese movements, is not built into the game (unless this is assumed to be part of the Supply Point system). As the Allies, you might have more points to spend on scouting in the late game, but there’s other things, too, to spend them on (movement, Battle Plans, etc.).

 

Another interesting note – Allied ships cannot stay “on station” in an Area like Japanese ships do. At the end of each game turn, US ships must ‘Return to Port,’ which means Hawaii. Infantry and LBAs may stay in an Area, but ships have to go back to Pearl. The amount of time it takes them to return there depends on the Campaign you’re playing, so for the 1942 Campaign game, ships moved out to an Area must spend one turn in transit returning to Pearl Harbor. In the 1943 campaign game, it takes one more turn (two total), the 1944 game requires three, and the 1945 requires four. This makes some sense for the 1942 Campaign game, perhaps too for the 1943 game, but historically in the 1944 and 1945 years of the war, the US had rather extensive facilities throughout the Pacific. I know some damaged ships had to go back to Pearl Harbor, sometimes San Diego, but this rule feels like a player handicap. That’s no doubt the intent, because truthfully, if US forces could remain in an area, the Japanese really would not stand a chance.

 

CONCLUSIONS

Fleet Commander Nimitz is an ambitious attempt to make the entire Pacific War playable to a solitaire gamer in one sitting. In that respect, there were no doubt a lot of design choices to be made, including a random roll for Japanese movement (though to be fair, a roll on a table that does have method to its random madness). The game is pretty tightly designed, but might be so tight that it confuses some players; some of the questions I’ve fielded on the GH forums (and why aren’t you a part of that?) required clarification of rules that referenced a game function on multiple pages. Unless you read through the whole game manual (which really is not that long), and then play through it (and screw it up as I did) a few times, you’re not going to learn it.

 

Many solitaire players want a game that’s easy to learn and quick to play. Fleet Commander Nimitz is not Avalon Hill-levels of difficult, but it’s not Chutes and Ladders, either. It also takes a rather generalized approach to an epic-level conflict, which doesn’t sound like it could succeed. However, I think it did. The Pacific theater in World War II is one of my favorite areas of study for that conflict, probably part of the reason why I keep going back to the game. That, and the very randomness of the game system, which virtually ensures no two games will EVER be the same, makes for a very good time.

 

Finally, the battles are very satisfying to play through, even when they’re not. Wait, what? Sometimes you want to have your fleet carriers in the same spot as the Japanese fleet carriers and have an epic carrier battle; more often than not, though, it turns out to be maybe my one fleet carrier and one cruiser versus their battleship, cruiser, and two destroyers, with a bunch of Japanese LBAs. One moment I’m thinking I have absolute control over the situation, but the next, I do not and am facing a daunting battle. Sometimes it works the other way, and the Japanese suffer in a recreation of the great Turkey Shoot. I absolutely love that these two situations, and everything in between, can happen.

 

The only two things about the game I truly do not enjoy is having to roll six, seven, or eight times for large Japanese stacks, and then having a mess of a board as I try to position and mark units that have moved to differentiate them from those that have not. The other is the lack of clear organization on the board, to manage this massive amount of movement. It can be tiring to roll, roll, roll for Japanese units to move, though there is a lot of tension in those rolls, admittedly, which is itself not too bad. Any game that can make you sweat a little (or a lot!) deserves respect.

 

Bottom line: if you’re a solitaire board gamer, love the Pacific War, and don’t mind an epic-level game with 1,000+ counters, this game is for you. You’d better have the time to devote to learning it, though; the game is an investment of time and money, but ultimately, it is definitely worth both.


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One Response to GrogHeads Reviews Fleet Commander: Nimitz

  1. Mark Brownell says:

    Thank you very much. This review has convinced me to order this game! I play everything solitaire, ( living in the Vermont wilderness! ), so this sounds great. I’m also going to check out Field Commander Rommel. Thanks again. Mark

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