Coral Sea – Boardgame Review
Coral Sea. Boardgame. Publisher: Avalanche Press. Designers: Joe Keller and Brien J. Mitchell. $29.99.
Passed Inspection: Solid introduction to wargaming; good simulation of strategic movement and search; inexpensive.
Failed Basic: Overly complicated combat sequence.
In the battle of the Coral Sea, two small task forces of American and Japanese vessels engaged each other in the world’s first battle in which the ships of neither fleet actually saw each other. America’s victory kept Australia and New Zealand safe. Coral Sea was Avalanche Press’ first volume of their Second World War At Sea system and—though it’s been around for awhile now—it deserves a look, especially since a number of other titles have been done in the series—and the price is right. Other titles include Arctic Convoy, Bismarck, Bomb Alley, Cone of Fire, Eastern Fleet, and Strike South.
Coral Sea comes with four maps. Two of them form the Operational (strategic) Board showing the South Pacific region of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands; the other two maps form the Tactical Display used for battle. This pretty much sums up the game: naval task forces maneuver along the strategic map, and when they meet each other, individual ships are placed on the tactical display for ship-to-ship combat.
The game also includes two Task Force cards, one Log Sheet for plotting movement (you’ll need to make copies for each player), two Airbase Cards, a Weather Track Card, and a Charts & Tables Card. A rulebook, scenario book, 4d6, and 145 counters (100 one-half inch counters, 45 double-sized ship counters) completes the boxed set.
Players start by deciding whether they want to play a full operational scenario (the Coral Sea campaign) or a battle scenario. There are two operational scenarios—the historical campaign and a full-press, "both sides use all ships" campaign. In the battle scenarios (of which there are also two, Night Attack and Convoy Defense), the game begins with set-up on the tactical display and uses only the battle rules.
In the Operational scenario, each player sets up his ships as indicated in the scenario set-up, and then forms them into Task Forces. Only Task Force markers are moved on the operational map; ships are placed on the Task Force Chart card, aircraft on the Airbase Card. Task Forces are assigned one of four Missions; Bombardment, Transport, Intercept, and Escort. Aircraft units in the Ready box of their Airbase card may be given one of five missions; Sweep, Escort, Naval Strike, Land Strike, or Transfer. (Rules for aircraft are actually part of the Advanced and Optional rules sections, but is it legal to play a WWII Pacific wargame without using aircraft?)
Movement for aircraft is handled by moving the units one hex at a time along the Operational Map; the lowest Endurance Rating of any plane in the flight is the maximum number of turns the planes may stay away from an airbase. Movement for naval Task Forces is pre-plotted. Task Forces given a Bombardment or Transport mission have all of their movement plotted turn by turn at the beginning of the game until they reach their destination hex. Task Forces given an Escort mission move with another Task Force that is bombarding or transporting. An Intercept mission means the Task Force has to plot its movement one turn in advance, so to begin the game the Task Force must mark down its first and second game turn movement.
Movement on the operational/strategic map is simultaneous, with players alternating moving their Task Forces. When a Task Force enters a sea zone that has an enemy Task Force or that an enemy force moved through during the turn, contact may occur. One player rolls a six-sided die and adjusts it by weather, the size of either naval force, radar, etc. A roll of 3 or higher in daytime turns means contact is made; a roll of 5 is needed at night, and a natural roll of 6 means one of the Task Forces (the side without initiative) is surprised and very limited as to movement and actions on the first turn of battle.
When contact occurs, the ships are moved from their Task Force cards and placed on the Tactical Display. First, one player rolls a six-sided die; on a 3 or less the Axis force has initiative, 4 or higher means the Allies have initiative. The side without initiative sets up its ships first, then the side with initiative sets up. There are dark blue hexes that ships must set up in; if the force is large, adjacent light blue hexes can also be used. Ships must be set up at least four to each hex (capital ships count as 2 ships for this).
Combat turns are broken up into 22 mini-phases called impulses. The player without initiative moves his ships with Speed of 4, 3, or 2; then the player with initiative does the same. After movement ships of both sides conduct gunnery combat and torpedo strikes. Then the player without initiative moves his Speed 4, 3, and 1 ships; the player with initiative does likewise. Gunnery, torpedoes, then non-initiative side moves ships with Speed of 4 or 2, then initiative side, more gunnery, more torpedoes, etc. Ships with 4 Speed can move 5 times in a combat turn, while Speed 1 vessels move only twice.
Movement is at one hex per impulse; the Speed number simply tells you which impulses your ship can move in, and how many spaces on the Operational Map a Task Force can move (fleets move at the slowest Speed of any of their ships).
Ships have up to three Gunnery Factors: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary. Primary guns can fire at 6-hex range, Secondary guns can fire at targets up to 4 hexes away, and Tertiary guns can fire at targets 2 hexes away. A ship can blast away at whatever enemies are in range, though you can only attack one enemy with each type of gun. So if a small ship has only Secondary and Tertiary Gun Factors, that ship can attack two enemies—one with its Secondary guns and one with its Tertiary guns—or it could attack one enemy vessel with both sets of weapons.
Attacks are resolved by rolling one die for each Gun Factor. Any roll of 6 is a hit; for each hit, roll two dice and consult the Gunnery Damage Table printed on the Tactical Display. Hits are to Hull, Torpedo Mounts, Gunnery Factors (Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary), or they can lead to a loss of speed or other critical damage. Damage is marked off on a Ship Control Sheet; sheets for each ship in this game are provided at the end of the Scenarios Book. Boxes represent the various sections of the ship; record damage by crossing off sections matching the damage. Some sections are shaded light or dark grey to represent armor; tertiary guns do not affect armor, and secondary guns only affect light armor. (If you’re familiar with the SciFi game Starfire, you know the basic damage rules for Coral Sea.)
Torpedoes are handled the same way as guns (roll a number of dice equal to the Torpedo Factor, each 6 is a hit). Strikes by aircraft are one-shot (literally) attacks; after AA fire, surviving planes roll a number of dice equal to their Naval Attack Factor against single ships and then pull out of the battle and back onto the Operational Map.
A variety of optional rules provide authentic flavor for the South Pacific, including rules on flagships and leaders, shelling airfields, port combat, submarine packs, and a vastly expanded use of land- and carrier-based aircraft with flights of planes running their own missions, including air-to-air combat. The optional rules on Fuel Consumption are a great idea but maddening in their over-thought complexity; for every 24 sea zones a ship moves it expends (loses) one fuel "section" on its data sheet, but if you move 2 sea zones count it as 3, and if you move 4 sea zones count it as 24. Hunh?
The game plays pretty much as advertised: a good introduction to wargames in general, and World War II naval combat in particular. But while the combat system retains a charm of simplicity, the turn sequence it’s straitjacketed into makes this introductory game overly complex.
There are 22 impulses per combat turn, four combat turns per day (if after four turns neither force has escaped or been destroyed, players move their Task Forces on the Operational Map again before resuming combat and checking for other contacts / combats). Why divide it up that much? Why break the impulses up into Speed 4/3/2, then 4/3/1, then 4/2/1, etc.? A truly basic design would have been to start with Speed 4 ships moving, then Speed 3 and 4 ships, then Speeds 2 through 4, and finally all ships moving one hex; gunnery and torpedo combat would occur after each movement. There, eight impulses, nine if you count initiative determination. That’s basic.
The scenario book is actually only half scenarios; there are four pages of ship logs for recording damage and three pages of ads for the other Second World War At Sea games. Coral Sea was intended as the start of a whole series of games, a fact which is made painfully obvious when, in the Air Search section of the rules, there is an example of a Soviet Task Force being spotted by a Romanian Air Force patrol. Yeah, that happened a lot in the South Pacific.
Coral Sea is a good game, though. The quality of both the game system and components is high, consistent with other Avalanche Press games. The divide between Operational/Strategic and Tactical action is seamless, and the rules for Contact are excellently handled. Combat is fast and easily managed; as mentioned I felt the sequencing of combat is overdone, but the damage system is well-designed. Slap on as many or as few optional rules as you want to make the game fit your own style.
Hardcore gamers will find elements of this game distressing. Axis has initiative on 3 or less, Allies on 4 or more. Really? A coin flip? And even I had my heart set on disliking the "roll sixes for hits" simplicity, but in practice it works out quite well.
If you’re looking for an in-depth tactical simulation of dive-bombing techniques in August 1942, look elsewhere. (Avalanche probably has one of those games, too!) If you want to look through binoculars, launch a seaplane, and sink Japanese subs while seeking their wounded carrier, then this is a game you’ll enjoy at a price you can’t beat these days.
Solitaire Suitability: 2
About the Author:
Sean Stevenson started wargaming with SPI and has spent the past 35 years as a freelance game designer and playtester. When not playing any of the 1000+ games in his personal collection, he can be found reading a book on Colonial America or running one of several Pittsburgh area bookstores.