Rifles in the Ardennes

GrogHeads Reviews War in the Wind: The Battle for Attu Island, May 1943

The obscure WWII PTO shootout gets the GrogHeads once-over ~

Michael Eckenfels, 14 October 2017

In June of 1942, as part of the Midway attack plan, Japanese troops landed on the Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska. These two inhospitable, mountainous islands were home to little but cold weather and leg-breaking slopes. The Japanese thought it prudent to occupy for…well, the reasons depend on what source you read. Some think they thought occupying part of a U.S. State would cause a tremendous morale drop among Americans; others thought it was meant to help ‘shield’ their northern flank, because both islands were closer to Japan than Alaska. Regardless of the reasons, the Japanese arrived, found little resistance, and after bombing Dutch Harbor to the east a few times, settled in for a long occupation.

American troops didn’t arrive until May 11, 1943, and were woefully unprepared for it.

That occupation lasted nearly a year. American troops didn’t arrive until May 11, 1943, and were woefully unprepared for it. The troops earmarked for the invasion were training in southern California for operations in the south Pacific – not for operations in near-Arctic mountainous conditions. The powers-that-be thought the attack would be brief, only lasting a few days, whereas when all was said and done, it took nearly three weeks. It might have taken longer had the Japanese not executed one of the biggest banzai charges of the war, costing them half their casualties. The number of troops they lost came close to 2400, with only 28 prisoners taken. The Americans suffered about 550 killed, 1200 wounded, and another 1800 or so wounded due to exposure, frostbite, trenchfoot, gangrene, and a number of other nasty, debilitating conditions. It was by no means a cake walk, though the result was inevitable.

The game War in the Wind (hereafter: WitW) was something I stumbled across while perusing an online retailer. I’d never heard of it before, and was surprised that it came out in 2016. Compass Games slipped one under the radar on me! I’ve found that more and more of late, that I’m interested in more esoteric battles that haven’t received game treatments, such as this arena. I think Lock n Load Publishing is doing a tactical game based on this environment, but I don’t think it covers the level that WitW does. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant discovery, and one I couldn’t wait to take a look at. A caveat, if that wasn’t made clear: I purchased this game myself and did not receive it as a review product.

 

WitW is a game for, ostensibly, two players; one takes the American side, the other the Japanese. I say “ostensibly” because there’s really not much for the Japanese side to do in this game, as you will see in my review. Even the game rules state this quite clearly. The game does, as a result, have a terrific solitaire appeal where if you can play the Japanese to their strengths, you can create quite a challenge. As if there weren’t enough things to challenge you in the game as it was, as you will see. First, though, let’s take a look at the components.

 

 

The rule book is about 20 pages long. The format is nice – it’s two columns, with large-ish print, and full color examples. I only found one sticking point that didn’t quite make sense, but after a couple of minutes of going from the example to the rule and back again, it dawned on me what I was missing (and I’ll get to that a bit further down). I was mildly surprised that there were no designer’s notes at all, which would have been interesting to read for a game like this, but that’s just a minor quibble.

 

 

The counters are good quality with large print, though the formation numbers on the side of the NATO symbol are a little small. You might think the three big numbers along the bottom are, from left to right, Attack, Defense, and Move, but you’d be wrong. In fact, it’s Melee Combat, Ranged Combat (with the superscript number indicating its range in hexes), and Move…so you’d be right about one out of three. Note that I rounded the counters myself using a 3mm cutter, which I know will send some of you into fits, but I rather like the aesthetics myself.

 

 

There are also two full-color handouts, one for each side, though they’re both exactly the same. Considering they both list how the American side sets up historically, it’s somewhat surprising that the other handout doesn’t list how the Japanese side sets up historically. The set-up for the Japanese are in the rules, so that’s okay…it’s just a very minor oddity.

 

 

The map itself is terrific. I really like the colors, which is good, because nowhere in the rules nor on the handouts or even the map does it say what each terrain color means. It’s pretty simple to figure out that they’re different elevations, and that the smooth transitions are slopes while the jagged, black-edged areas are impassible cliffs. The elevation goes from light green, up to darker green, up to dark green, up to brown, and finally up to white. Again, it’s very easy to figure out, but not being explicitly told that causes a bit of hesitation. There’s a FAQ sheet on BGG that reinforces what is logical in your thinking, so that’s a good thing. Again, though, it’s a bit odd that more time isn’t spent talking about this specifically, though the rules do a great job of discussing how terrain blocks line of sight. Once you’re able to easily see the terrain, it’s never a stumbling block.

Overall, the components are rather excellent, with just a few very minor concerns as noted. I like how they look. Now that the looks are out of the way, let’s talk about how it all comes together.

As with most wargames, this one is played out in a series of turns. Each turn represents one day of time, which is recorded on the calendar track.

 

 

Each turn is made up of eight steps, though the first one will determine the course of the rest of the turn. The first step is the Refit Decision phase, where the U.S. player decides to do if they think their side needs reinforcements and replacements. The first game turn actually starts during this Phase so that the Americans can land troops in the first waves of their attacks, so there’s no choice, here. In subsequent turns, they can choose if they want to do this or not. OtSuffice it to say that a Refit Step means none of the following Steps occur, though there’s a lot that goes on during this Step, which I’ll get into more later.

 

 

Step 2 is the Night Turn Decision. Here, the U.S. player decides if they want to make this turn a night turn, which means a variety of environmental restrictions on spotting and combat, but also, it gives the Japanese the initiative. That might sound weird to do, but sometimes it’s tactically prudent to give the Japanese the chance to act first, giving the U.S. player a bit more time to think, or to let the Japanese do something that they might regret.

 

 

Step 3 is Weather Determination. This is actually quite funny, because there’s no such thing as Clear conditions in this game. You have Cloudy, Rain, Fog, and the lovely Williwaw. Each of these presents a variety of die roll modifiers (DRM) to different aspects of the game, with things getting progressively worse from Cloudy to Williwaw. (As a side note, a Williwaw is an insane mess of weather, usually high winds upwards of 120 mph, snow, and thick fog, showing how much Mother Nature loves these islands).

 

 

Step 4 is Airpower Determination. Both sides get a number of air attack factors – yes, even the Japanese, though the chart is skewed to rightfully reflect that American airpower is a bit stronger. What’s interesting to note here is, there’s no CAP or fighter combat. Rather, these points represent attempts to attack the enemy. You declare a number of attacks equal to your airpower factor before you roll, so there’s a chance you get lucky and waste an enemy unit but then waste the remaining factors. What’s even MORE interesting is that if you roll too low, the airstrike hits the nearest friendly unit – even if it’s on the other side of the map. That’s a modified roll, so conducting airstrikes in bad weather (which you can do in any of the conditions other than Williwaw) means a big negative DRM and therefore an even bigger chance of causing friendly fire casualties.

 

 

Finally, we get into the meat of the game – Step 5, which is First Player Actions. Here, whomever is the first player decides for each of their units, one by one, whether they move, declare a melee combat, or declare a ranged combat. Units can only perform one of these actions, so to declare a melee combat, for example, a unit has to be adjacent to the targeted unit. One cannot move a unit and then declare Melee; the unit has to already be there. Melee combat is determined in Step 7, while movement and Fire combat are conducted here.

The next step (6) is the exact same as Step 5, just for the second player.

Step 7 is, as mentioned, where Melee combat results are determined. Units tend to have a much stronger Melee combat strength than a Ranged combat strength. Also, a lone Japanese unit cannot be eliminated from Fire combat; it has to be destroyed by charging in with bayonets.

The final step (8) is Victory Determination. There is more than one way to win this game: through capture of geographic objectives, destruction of the enemy, or for the Japanese, just being able to last until the end of the game (of which the last turn can be variable).

The main goal of the U.S. player is to capture six “Victory Hexes,” each of which is denoted with a yellow star.

 

 

Meanwhile, they want to be sure the Japanese do not occupy Landing Zones D, E, F, and G with infantry, as well as Engineer Hill (a Victory Hex location near these Landing Zones) with either a captured U.S. Artillery unit or one of their own Artillery units.

 

 

As for eliminating the enemy, if the Japanese lose all their units, they’re done of course. They start with 64 infantry units, eight artillery units (four 20mm and four 75mm), and sixteen ‘Unknown’ units. The 64 Infantry units of theirs go right into an opaque cup, while the ‘Unknown’ units go onto the map, face down, while all Artillery units go on the map face up. Unknown units are the ‘gateway’ through which Japanese infantry enter the map. They are revealed just before combat (Melee or Ranged), and as you can see, each has a small table that you roll on, replacing the Unknown unit with a number of randomly-drawn Japanese infantry steps.

 

 

The Unknown unit is placed aside, but as long as there are more than 16 infantry steps remaining in the cup, it can return later during a Refit turn; the Japanese player can at that time place it wherever they want, as long as it is not adjacent to a U.S. unit. If the number of infantry units in the cup dwindles down lower than 16, an equal number of Unknown units will be on the map, matching the number in the cup. So, if only eight Japanese infantry steps are left in the cup, you can only have eight Unknown units (face down) on the map.

 

 

The U.S. player tracks their casualties. If this ever exceeds 30 steps, the U.S. player immediately loses. These losses are recorded on the U.S. Casualties track, but they can be reset to zero if the U.S. player chooses to take a Refit turn.

It all sounds rather straightforward for a wargame, but there’s a number of things going on that make it a big challenge for the U.S. player.

The first one is supply. Japanese units are not affected by supply, so you never make such checks for them. For the Americans, though, you always check just before combat is conducted, or during a Refit turn. An American unit has to trace a supply line as one single ‘standard move’ from its current position to either a Landing Zone hex, or a supply depot hex. The U.S. player can use Engineer units to create supply depots.

You can ‘chain’ supply depots but must do so that the ‘standard move’ is observed for each unit seeking supply. That standard move is a number of movement points that a unit can expend in one turn, and because of weather, this can change drastically, which means you have to try to make the depots as close together as possible. However, you don’t have an unlimited supply of depots; each Engineer unit can only create one. U.S. units that are out of supply suffer DRM penalties only; they can’t be eliminated by being out of supply, but that can make them much weaker in the face of enemy action. Likewise, having a bunch of depots means fat, juicy targets for the Japanese, and therefore means having to guard them, which takes troops off the line.

The next challenge is movement. American units have to spend more movement points to move from hex to hex, whereas the Japanese do not and are therefore much more mobile. This is explained as being because the Japanese are familiar with and acclimated to the island’s conditions and terrain, whereas the Americans are definitely not.

 

 

The U.S. player determining when to take a Refit turn is yet another challenge. While it will reset their Casualty Track to zero, as well as provide replacement steps and reinforcement units if available and desired, it also has some benefits for the Japanese. For one, any of their face-up units not adjacent to a U.S. unit or Landing Zone may flip over to their hidden side. This means the U.S. player better have a good memory to keep track of it all! For another, any Japanese Unknown units removed from play get to make a comeback into the game.

 

Hidden units are definitely one of the major challenges, too. The rules are fairly specific on the fact that you only reveal them just before Melee combat, but I suppose a Japanese player could reveal them any time they wish (I could be incorrect about that, but I don’t see how it would be a restriction). It’s not clear if it should be revealed to conduct fire combat, because Japanese units are mainly 1-hex range in that regard, but a few are 2 hexes. It seems logical that they’d want to remain ‘quiet’ until ready to conduct melee combat (themselves or to receive such an attack). The thing is, an Unknown unit can be eliminated by fire combat or artillery combat; it is not permanently eliminated, but rather, can return later during a Refit turn.

 

 

Since it’s not entirely clear, I’d landed on my own rule to reveal unknown Japanese units if they are going to receive a melee attack, or if they are going to conduct a melee combat or fire combat against an adjacent U.S. unit. For movement purposes, this can vary, though in the spirit of the rules I don’t think you can move Unknown units unless you choose to reveal them first. In my mind, an Unknown unit represents U.S. reconnaissance air missions that show possible Japanese positions, but unknown strengths. If the Japanese start moving, even in bad weather, in game terms I think it’s okay to reveal them and place the Unknown unit aside for future use.

 

Combat can be a bit tricky, too, considering all the DRM modifiers. Weather, terrain, and other factors combine to cause what looks like a sure thing at start become an impossibility. The Melee and Fire Combat numbers on the counter are the number of d10 dice that you roll in combat. A result of 7 or higher is considered a hit (whether Melee, Fire, Artillery, or Air attack), with modifiers included. A natural 0 is always a hit. In the aforementioned air combat friendly fire, a roll of 1 or 2 results in reducing the nearest friendly unit, regardless of distance, by one step.

 

 

Finally, stacking can be a huge challenge for the U.S. player. While stacking restrictions exist on the island and can generally be avoided, landing restrictions cannot. You see, when landing U.S. units from the staging areas, there’s a chance they can scatter and land somewhere else. Each Landing Zone is rated for the maximum number of steps that can be landed, and if you’re unlucky in your die rolls, your well-crafted plans for landing can turn into a disaster. Once you’ve completed landing, if there are any excess steps, they have to be eliminated immediately. Those casualties go right into the U.S. Casualty track, too. While a nuisance at best, it can be a major impact to any U.S. player’s plans if luck is not your friend.

 

 

Combat can be rather brutal, especially melee combat because so many more dice are rolled. The defender in a melee combat gets to roll first, and any losses are immediately removed from the attacker’s forces. Then, the attacker can roll, and casualties are removed from the defender. With so many dice flying about, this can cause melee combat bloodbaths. Ranged combat is a bit different in that the defender does not fire back at all; this includes artillery attacks.

 

 

One thing about U.S. artillery attacks: if you roll a natural 1 or 2 when attacking with one of the 105mm U.S. artillery units, it loses a step. This is because of the soft ground, as the rules state, but I think of it more as the environment just mucking the big guns up. I can’t imagine that a gun that sinks into the sand, can’t be dug out, and these are counted as permanent losses. It’s yet another challenge for the U.S. player, because their artillery is fairly powerful. This balances that power greatly.

 

 

One more word on components, though we did leave that behind a ways up in this review – the game includes three 10-sided dice, which will be more than adequate for most rolls. If you’re anal like me, though, and have a 6-die melee attack taking place, you’re going to want to roll six 10-sided dice, and not three dice twice. Not a big deal at all; I only mention this if you are of a like mind. I mean, any gamer worth their stripes has to have a stash of these things laying about, right?

 

 

When all is said and done, WitW is a good game. I played it solitaire so I did not have the insight from playing it with another person, but I can imagine that a more experienced player might take the Japanese side and get a LOT of entertainment watching the U.S. player struggle with supply, soft sand, friendly fire from air strikes, and other untoward events. While the battle’s outcome was historically more or less not going to result in anything other than a U.S. victory, this game balances things well enough to ensure there’s no foregone conclusions. If luck is not on the U.S. player’s side, it is essentially the Japanese player’s game to lose. While that might put off some wargamers, I think the balance it strikes is perfectly fine.


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