Yeah Magazine #10

GrogHeads Reviews Picket Duty

Dive into this solitaire WWII game and stave off the attacks on your destroyer.

Michael Eckenfels, 3 August 2014

 

Picket Duty is a solitaire board wargame that focuses on giving you ‘spiritual’ command over a Fletcher-class World War II destroyer during the Okinawa campaign. Your job is to guide the crew as it fends off wave after wave of Kamikaze and ‘special’ attacks while at its duty, or picket, station. Most Fletcher-class destroyers served in this ‘Picket Duty’ capacity to provide early warning to the larger and more valuable fleet targets, such as aircraft carriers, supply ships, and troop ships. So, of course, Kamikaze planes sometimes focused on these destroyers to pave the way for other Kamikazes to get a good shot at those targets.

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The game, unfortunately, focuses on little else other than Kamikaze and ‘special’ (or, normal) Japanese aircraft attacks. There is no surface-to-surface combat action, nor DD-vs.-submarine action, or any land-based fire support. Given the complexity and amount of work put into this title, though, it’s hardly a surprise. I just wish it might have done a little more. For the purpose of fighting off hordes of Kamikazes, if you want to feel like you’re the only ship in the American fleet and getting all the attention of these deadly attacks, you’ll very likely love this game.

COMPONENTS

Overall, Picket Duty is a gorgeous game. It is well designed, has colorful graphics, tons of tracks and counters, and most important, has some beautiful counters that represent the Japanese planes attacking your destroyer. (Ed Note: we also have a gallery of the ‘unboxing’ of Picket Duty)

Box. The box is thinner than ‘normal’ (that is to say, Avalon Hill-ish sized) wargame boxes. This is something of a pain, because once you finish playing and pack everything up, including your photocopies of all the pages you need copy in order to play, there’s probably a quarter of an inch to half an inch of overflow that makes it impossible to close the box. Maybe I’m just bad at packing, which is entirely possible.

22”x34” Map. This map is almost overwhelming to look at. The bottom half has a nice top-down view of a Fletcher-class destroyer, with gun mounts labeled (for placement of gun mount counters). There’s also eight ‘attack zones’ from which Kamikazes may attack, each labeled with a bearing (315, 180, etc.) and three altitudes – High, Medium, and Low. The top half of the map is a veritable cacophony of tracks, tracks, and more tracks…which record just about every bit of data you’d need to know, including ammo, fuel levels, compartment damage, flooding, and many others. The funny thing is, these are NOT all the tracks you’ll need to keep track of your ship. More on that later.

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160 1.2” Game Counters. These are the Kamikaze planes, for the most part – as mentioned, very well done. One important thing to know about them is there is virtually no difference between any of them when it comes to attack, although some are marked with a ‘Special Attack’ marker, indicating it is an Ohka, or that it is making a regular torpedo or bomb run on the ship.

240 0.6” Game Counters. These are the various record-keeping markers, each well-designed and easy to tell apart.

Player Aid Charts. These are actually record-keeping forms, which you’ll need to make copies of before you play as only one of each is provided. They’re well designed, but finding some information is an exercise in trial-and-error that will only breed familiarity through experience.

Rulebook and Book of Charts. Hoo-boy, where do I begin. Well, regarding the rulebook; if you’re familiar at all with Picket Duty, there was quite an issue with the set of rules that were originally shipped with the game. Confusion apparently abounded with it, so the designer rewrote the rules; this unfortunately took many months. Since I knew a 2.0 rule book was in the works after I purchased my copy, I didn’t even touch the game nor look at the Version 1.0 rules, except a few times where 2.0 confused me and I needed to compare to see what I was missing. Yes, unfortunately, 2.0 isn’t entirely perfect, but it is apparently much better than the 1.0 rules. The Charts Book was changed as well along with the rules, and there are a LOT of charts in this game. More on all this later.

 

GAMEPLAY

Experiencing Picket Duty is like running an old PC game’s tutorial mission via the rule book. Remember those days? You’d play the game, but have the manual open in front of you, and the manual told you what to do – none of that in-game tutorial stuff, not for many years anyway. Picket Duty reminds me of that, as you’re constantly flipping from (a) the Sequence of Play to (b) the specific rules they cover to (c) the Charts and Tables book to make rolls that sometimes reference (d) other Charts and Tables. So, you not only have this game spread out in all its glory in front of you, but you also have a rules book cradled in one arm while flipping trying to locate the right chart to roll on in the other.

 

Now, to be fair, that’s not surprising. There are plenty of solitaire games like that, such as B-17: Queen of the Skies (which is a game I constantly thought of while playing this). There were a lot of design components from B-17 that I thought would have improved the logistics of getting through a game of Picket Duty, such as color-coding sheets and printing the appropriate tables on them to make it easier to locate. This would have the added bonus of grouping tables together that are often rolled on one after the other (e.g., determining Japanese attack waves, then determining their number and direction they attack from).

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I’m not complaining about the heart of the game – just the logistics of it. And part of that is, in all honestly, learning a new game system and having to flip and flip and flip until you wear the pages and bend their corners in new and creative ways and finally start to have it all sink in. Then, you know where you need to go without referring to rules, or the sequence of play. However, since you still have to access these tables, I think the separate-page design (which you can easily do yourself, but of course it would have made more sense had they done it) would have made it much easier to navigate the labyrinths of this game.

 

That all said, let’s take a look at what you do. The set-up is pretty simple, but there’s a few things that bear mentioning. One, you’ll need a large playing surface. While the map itself isn’t that big, you will need a big bowl/container to hold all the Kamikaze counters, and another (smaller) container to hold chits. Then you’ll need space for other markers, such as hit markers, damage markers, and others. Not to mention someplace convenient to put the rule book and chart book. There are not that many steps to setting up the game, except organizing all the pieces to it, which requires some storage-fu skills, but if you’re anal about that in the first place, it shouldn’t be a problem.

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Once set up, you decide if you want to play a scenario, of which there are eight, or a campaign, of which there are two. The scenarios are fairly short but give you a good grasp of the basics of the game, including dealing with attacks and repairing damage. The campaigns are, of course, longer; the Mini Campaign lasts either three or five days, whereas the Long Campaign consists of five, 5-day long mini-campaigns.

 

Winning scenarios and campaigns usually involves survival, or at the very least, staying on station for the entire length without getting so badly damaged you have to return to port. The Long Campaign has an interesting victory condition in that it states “[h]istorically, eight (8) [destroyers] were sunk off of Okinawa during the campaign. If the player loses less than 8 ships, he is declared the winner.” If that might seem a tad bloody to you, you haven’t seen anything yet.

 

Each game turn is made up of three phases – morning, midday, and night. In each phase, you’ll check for attacks on your lonely little destroyer. If you’re really (un)lucky, you’ll feel like you’re helming an Essex-class carrier with the number of attackers you get. According to one table, you can have as many as 18 attackers in one phase (I’ve not experienced that bad a roll yet, thankfully), or as few as zero, giving you a little bit of a breather and a step closer to survival and victory. The attacks are usually broken up into ‘waves’ which I assume was built-in to avoid a suicidal overwhelming attack. There’s only so many gun mounts to go around, after all.

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Fortunately, no attacks are a rare thing, and would of course ultimately make this game very boring if nothing happened. It seemed that on average, for me at least, I’d get four to five attackers in one or two waves. This function very much reminds me of how Luftwaffe aircraft were assigned to attacking a player’s B-17 in Queen of the Skies; tables tell you how many attackers, tables tell you from what direction and altitude they attack, and then you assign gun mounts and other assets to try to take them down.

 

Your Fletcher-class has seventeen weapon mounts – five 5” gun mounts, five 40mm gun mounts, and seven 20mm gun mounts. All can only fire in finite directions – none are omni-directional, so there’s always some hard choices to make when it comes to assigning them to incoming attacks. And, these guns’ effectiveness can vary by attacker altitude, also. For example, 5” guns are pretty powerful if they hit, but they stink at hitting low-flying aircraft. Forty-millimeter guns are great at hitting low-flying aircraft, but stink at hitting high altitude aircraft. Twenty-millimeter guns are about 50/50 for low and medium aircraft, and can’t hit aircraft at high altitude at all.

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However, you have other assets, maybe, that can help – although they’re not very good at what they do. You can determine how much Air Fire Support (AFS) and Surface Fire Support (SFS) you get during each phase. SFS is more under-the-hood, as it affects how many attackers hit you in the first place. AFS on the other hand are actual counters you place with incoming Japanese attackers to attempt to physically shoot them down, but they don’t succeed unless you roll a 6 on a 6-sided die.

 

Of course, if AFS shoots down an incoming enemy, your ship doesn’t get credit for the kill. This can impact the number of kills your ship’s individual gun mounts gets, of course, and if any one mount gets five or more kills, it gets ‘ace’ status and a +1 bonus thereafter when shooting at enemy planes.

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Other bonuses can come from crew members. You have six officers, including a Captain, XO, and Damage Control Officer, and three repair crews, each led by an NCO. Before you begin your game, you draw chits that have values from -2 to +2 on them, and write these down for each officer. These are your modifiers for when an officer performs a task suited to them, such as damage control, morale checks, or gunnery. These crew, including the officers, can die rather easily, as their bodies don’t react well to bullets, Kamikazes crashing into the space they’re in, or extra damage done by spilled fuel, bombs, torpedoes, and other fun flying-through-the-air stuff. In the basic rules, damage is simulated much more generally, and repair crews do not fix secondary spaces.

 

Yep, extra damage. This was a little thing I missed in my first go-round, then I realized that when a Kamikaze manages to get through the gauntlet of air support and your ship’s plethora of weaponry – and trust me, this happens often – you roll not once, but twice, to determine how hosed you might get. Granted, even on the ‘Hit’ tables, there are ‘Miss’ results, which will make you breathe a sigh of relief as you can virtually visualize the plane just barely miss your ship and plow untouched into the sea.

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That’s fortunate, because when they do hit, they do damage. Sometimes, lots of it. There are spots on the ship called Primary Compartments (with somewhat important names as ‘Fuel Tanks’ and vaguely premonition-like names such as ‘Fire Room’). These Primary Compartments can take two, three, or four hits (depending on the space), and these can be destroyed or flood, both of which are detrimental to a healthy and happy destroyer. The ship itself has tracks to count up flooding results, maneuverability (which can take a hit from getting, say, your rudder blown up by a “near miss”), and other factors, all of which can make it much harder to make the ship defend itself or live long enough to see through to the end of the game.

 

There’s also Secondary Compartments, which includes locales such as ‘Crew Head,’ ‘Storage 3,’ and ‘Ice Machine,’ among many others. These can be destroyed as well but do not seem to affect the ship much (beyond nebulous and not recorded morale detriments to losing ice or a place to potty efficiently). They can, however, be flooded, which – you guessed it – can sink your ship if it happens enough times. Like Primary Compartments, their Secondary cousins can either be above or below the waterline, and being below the waterline when interdicting a large airplane full of explosives and suicidal pilot(s) can, again, cause you problems.

 

This all adds quite a level of realism, especially when you’re playing the longer scenarios or campaign games. The damage adds up, but in all honesty, beyond flooding and the possibility of blowing up spectacularly if one gets a lucky hit on your ship’s magazine, there’s little in the way of loss when ‘Fruit/Veg.’ gets destroyed. Certainly, it adds flavor. Certainly, in a freaky and non-fetish-for-destruction way it’s kind of cool. But it affects the game not a whit, if there’s no flooding involved. I understand that a generic ‘damage track’ that you filled in with each hit until your destroyer fails its saving throw vs. righteous IJN wrath (not a real thing in this game, sorry) is not nearly as flavorful as this, though – so I don’t mind it. It just seems off a bit to me.

 

The ‘Advanced Rules’ are interspersed throughout, but are not entirely clear as to what is the Advanced Rule, nor how far it reaches. It’s rather jarring to read multiple pages of Advanced Rules to realize they don’t apply to the ‘Basic Game’ you’re desperately trying to play. It would have made much more sense to me to put all of the Basic Rules into one section, and then maybe make a note saying which Advanced Rule to refer to if you wish to have more challenge with that particular rule set. It’s too confusing to mix it all together, especially considering the state that the 1.0 rules were considered to be in. But this may be just me channeling my inner technical writer. I would have loved a chance to have a crack at these, to re-design and re-layout the rules.

 

If your ship runs out of ammunition or fuel, or loses too many crew, or you feel your ship is too damaged to carry on effectively, you can retreat to replenish and repair. Certain times call for this to happen even if you don’t want to leave, including having both your engine rooms destroyed, having the hull integrity drop to zero, or any number of other causes – but if any of that happens, you lose the game. Repairs can take from one to four weeks (more table rollin’ goodness), or can be so badly damaged it can’t be repaired and has to return to Ulithi and then the United States. This counts as losing a ship and makes you, of course, continue with a new one. This is obviously more of a big deal in the Long Campaign game, although getting a break for repairs for a few weeks can push the campaign much further along. Time is your friend in that case (much like it is in the solitaire game RAF – if you survive, the enemy doesn’t win, in general).

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CONCLUSION

I might have sounded unappreciative of the dice rolling and table-referring scheme, but I’m not. I actually love that kind of thing (B-17 is a favorite of mine). The only thing that drove me mad was the constant page flipping; I might go design my own charts to make it easier to refer to them. Then again, I might not do any better. But I frustratingly feel that trying is necessary, because I really do want to love this game. What’s not to like? Excellent components, a good premise, and control over a Fletcher-class destroyer in the face of Japanese air attack. It just hasn’t felt entirely right in all my play-throughs, and that bothers me greatly, because as I said I want to love this game. I will keep trying, but I can’t quite get there yet.


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3 Responses to GrogHeads Reviews Picket Duty

  1. Very good review. I now may wait until better rules are available before buying this game. Love the idea of the game!

  2. Robert B Makowsky says:

    I have and enjoy this game. I got the first edition rules and had no problems playing through. They were not complete hand holding rules but worked just fine. It is a fun simulation of this aspect of combat.

    I do find it interesting that your review of a game about destroyer picket bemoans the lack of surface or anti submarine combat. I think that negative comment early in the review is unhelpful. The game is only about this picket duty so should not try to vear off into ASW or surface actions.

    I found the game worked well to give me the feeling of the command of the guns and the damage control of these type of ships. Watching wave after wave come in and then hoping the leakers miss our ship or hit non vital areas kept the tension ratcheted up.

    With the follow along aspect of solitaire play this game is easy to play and it is simple to add the advanced rules which give a bit more granularity to the combat.

    Thanks for the review it had me wanting to put the map on table again. As you state the version two of the rules do clarify some things.

  3. […] 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, […]

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