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Monday, October 18, 2021

Fire in the Sky: A Divine (but tricksy) Wind

by | published Tuesday, September 28, 2021

(I’ll start right off by saying that if you’re looking for a great nuts-and-bolts review of Fire in the Sky I recommend this one over on RPGnet. It covers all the bases and I agree with its overall assessment. I’ll be touching on some of the same points, but in a broader context. OK? OK.)

There are thousands of games about World War 2, from man-to-man tactical streetfights all the way up to global strategic-level simulations of the entire War. I haven’t empirically calculated this, but I’ll bet 99.98% of them were designed by people from countries that were on the winning side of the war. Hardly surprising: history is written by the victors.

Like Germany and Italy, Japan was occupied after WW2 and underwent a concerted demilitarization policy imposed by the Allies. “Serious” wargames were a no-go area representing as they did the kind of militaristic mindset which (as far as the Allies were concerned) had caused the war. In Germany (as I discuss in detail in our Game Changers podcast), this ultimately led to a game design culture which produced Eurogames. In Japan (as I also covered), designers like Seiji Kanai (Love Letter) tended to gravitate to themes which–even when they involved conflict–tended to be based on Japan’s unique blend of Eastern and Western pop culture. 

And so it is that we look today at one of the very few WW2 games out there (that I know of) which was designed by someone on the losing side. Designer Tetsuya Nakamura began his career in the late 1980’s working for Game Journal, Japan’s equivalent to classic magazine-with-a-wargame-inside Strategy & Tactics. Nakamura’s style definitely adhered to what we think of as the Japanese game design “style”, emphasizing simplicity and streamlined gameplay without sacrificing thematic flavour or strategic depth. 

In 2005 Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) released an English-language version of Nakamura’s ambitious Rise and Fall of Imperial Japan, which had been released in a special issue of Game Journal in 1999. This two-player game covered the entire Pacific Front of World War 2 from Pearl Harbour to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–and promised to do it in a single (somewhat long) evening using only one map and less than 200 counters. 

The game was renamed Fire in the Sky and went on to be nominated for best World War 2 game at that year’s Charles Roberts Awards (wargamedom’s Spiel des Jahres), where it lost out to Mark Herman’s take on the same subject, Empire of the Sun. Nakamura went on to win a CSR Award for his 2006 game A Victory Lost, covering the battle for the Ukraine in 1942-3, which was also a reissue (this time from his 2001 game Struggle of Army Group Manstein).

While Nakamura has designed games set in Medieval Japan and the 2003 Iraq War, the vast majority of his work covers WW2. I couldn’t find any interviews or articles about him or where his passion for that era came from, so unfortunately I can’t tell you. But if Fire in the Sky is any evidence, Nakamura has done his research. As promised, the game covers the epic sweep of the Pacific Front and its systems deftly differentiate the different strategic and tactical situations faced by both sides. Plus, it provides plenty of optional rules adding “chrome” like strategic bombing, radar, the Tokyo Express, and kamikaze attacks, helpfully telling you which side each optional rule favours, allowing you to calibrate the challenge according to the skills of each player.

But this ain’t no Axis & Allies. Fire in the Sky might not be as complex as old-school wargames but its rulebook is still as thick and detailed as Twilight Struggle–rewarding for those willing to put in the effort but hardly a “play-out-of-the-box” experience. Unfortunately, hard-core consim players may also find themselves turned off because the game’s quirks, though elegant from a design perspective, come across as ahistoric or unrealistic.

Now, the traditional challenge of designing any strategic game about the Pacific Front is that it involves conflict in the air, on land, and on/in the ocean–with supply issues making things even more complex (compared to your garden-variety European Front game for example). You need each system to feel different from and yet synergize easily with each other. The more detailed you make air power, for example, the more you’re going to have to account for naval carriers, which in turn affects how you treat submarines, and so on. There are limits to how much a player can (or is willing to) keep all those systems in their memory buffer.

There’s also the decision about when to begin and end the story. Although many current Americans tend (for obvious reasons) to think of that “day that shall live in infamy”, December 7, 1941, as the start of the War, Japan’s Imperial expansion began when it invaded Manchuria in 1931, almost a decade earlier. Even less well-known is the fact that, two days after the first atomic bomb landed on Hiroshima, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and itself invaded Manchuria (still occupied by Japanese forces), which along with the bombing of Nagasaki pushed the Japanese leadership to accept terms of unconditional surrender. 

The earlier a game designer decides to begin the action, the more strategic choices the players get–which inevitably adds complexity. Start in 1931 or 1937 and the Japanese player can pursue other paths to satisfy its economic and political goals–but then you have to include economic and political subsystems. Start later–Pearl Harbour being the natural choice–and the game is more focused but locks down Japan’s strategy, challenging the Japanese player to simply “do better” militarily than his historical counterparts. 

Pacific War games also have a cartographic challenge in dealing with the epic geographic scale of the conflict–much of which took place on tiny islands in the world’s largest and widest ocean. You have to account for the vast distances that forces (particularly American) had to travel to get to the frontline. And inherent to this are the logistical issues of keeping those troops supplied, almost entirely by sea. 

I haven’t even touched on the dilemma of how to deal sensitively with the ferocity of the conflict, particularly the treatment of non-combatants. Japan has spent decades apologizing (or not-apologizing, depending on how you parse things) for atrocities committed by its soldiers in China, Korea, and Burma, but the Allies have a share of blame as well. And the whole world still grapples with the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that Fire in the Sky doesn’t mention any parts of these stories; practically no modern wargames do. In the case of Fire in the Sky it’s at least arguable that the operational scale of the game is not appropriate for including this aspect of the War. If you’re looking for a game like that I can only recommend (once again) This War of Mine

Let’s move on then to looking at the game’s visual presentation. There’s no question that the Phalanx edition is overall far superior to the MMP version in making life easier for the players. The map is very easy to read, the recording track helpfully has various significant point milestones on it (though why it has Oil Points initial set to 60 when no scenario gives Japan that much seems like a mistake). It’s also confusing that Singapore and the Netherlands base in Indonesia are iconified as Home Bases even though they don’t function like them; I think they should have been given unique labels instead.

On the other hand, the editing definitely could have been better. Although the rules themselves are relatively well-organized, error-free and unambiguous, the extended example of play is riddled with mistakes and makes the mistake of demonstrating a turn which tries to duplicate the historical timeline instead of introducing players to the game’s tactical and strategic nuances. Two copies of the player aid are provided but one is on the back cover of the rules when I think it would have been better two have two separate copies. And it would have been nice to put the reminders for Japanese VP triggers on the Reinforcement summary along with everything else. Finally, the scenario setups in the Playbook are laid out in a way that makes it difficult to impossible for the players to set up simultaneously (because instructions bleed over onto the other side of the page).

The scenarios themselves are fine but I question the wisdom of making the learning scenario so full of rules exceptions–and requiring optional rules. Players learning a game should not have to learn extra things (or worse, unlearn things) for their first game.

In terms of gameplay, Fire in the Sky doesn’t replace Victory in the Pacific as the introductory Pacific Front game (hey, sometimes classics are classics for a reason). It follows a traditional turn structure with the Japanese doing all their stuff first followed by the US player (who also controls British, Australian, Dutch, and miscellaneous Allied forces). So although combat is definitely interactive, there’s a fair amount of downtime for the other player, especially during the planning phases–not unusual for wargames, but definitely more than your garden-variety Euro.

This potential for analysis paralysis is particularly true for the Japanese player. If you’re playing Japan, you’re going to have very little margin for error in her planning. This is because after combat you get a chance to exploit your victory in a second deployment phase–and here’s where your planning either does or doesn’t pay off. In a very counter-intuitive (no pun intended) design choice, all naval forces that participated in combat that turn teleport instantly back to their national home base. Then you have to spend transport points (and oil, if Japanese) to re-deploy them back outward to protect your new conquests–but you also need to leave some transport for next turn to bring oil back to the homeland. Otherwise, all your shiny new island bases will be in danger of being recaptured–because the US player, unlike you, doesn’t have to worry about silly things like oil.

Now, I think I understand what Nakamura was up to here. Normally, what happens in a wargame like this is that units return to some local base after combat, and then either have to be in supply or else return home. This can be very fiddly. So instead, Nakamura set up something functionally equivalent (but easier to implement) but thematically very weird. Grognards will find this whole rebasing/2nd deployment thing very artificial and nonsensical, and I wish there had been some designer’s or developer’s notes to explain this.

Another rule that felt unintuitive was that the non-phasing player can only react with naval forces. Given the time and geographic scale, wouldn’t armies and planes be able to respond to attacks just as quickly? From a design standpoint I can understand the choice–it helps to streamline play, keeps the focus on naval combat, and incentivizes both players to spread out their land and air forces to be able to respond to attacks, thus cutting down on Huge Stacks Of Death. But it just feels arbitrary and weird. Again, lack of designer/developer notes was a lost opportunity. 

As for combat, the core mechanic of any wargame, Nakamura definitely went for a streamlined approach: all combat except ship-to-ship is a dice-chucking affair where firepower/effectiveness = dice and you hit on a 5 or a 6. This makes things on the one hand very straightfoward and on the other hand almost abstract-seeming. It also makes combat very swingy and unpredictable–which forces players to gamble, because there just aren’t enough resources to overcommit. To me c’est la guerre, and as long as you go into Fire in the Sky knowing that and just let go, you’ll be alright. It helps that in almost all cases damaged and destroyed ships simply return as reinforcements later, so it’s more about the ebb and flow of relative strength over time than permanent destruction. But obviously seeing a single destroyer take down a battleship, a carrier, and two cruisers through sheer luck feels pretty rage-quitty.

As a step up from introductory-level wargames, then, I think Fire in the Sky does at least as good a job as games like Pacific War, but old-school grognards will find certain aspects maddening, and the game doesn’t do itself any favours by not giving context to its design choices with designer or developer notes. 

In terms of providing a uniquely Japanese perspective on WW2, I’m hard-pressed to see one here. The scenarios all basically start either at Pearl Harbour or just afterward or at roughly the midpoint of the war, just before the Guadalcanal Campaign. The geographic focus is the Pacific Ocean along with a bit of Southeast Asia and the northeast rump of Australia. In the main scenario the Japanese player earns VP from the capture of bases and cutting off the supply line to Australia, and gets dinged if he doesn’t capture Manila or Singapore quickly enough. The game can end immediately if the VP level gets high or low enough, otherwise the Japanese player wins if he can hold on with 21+ VP by game’s end.

This setup–along with the fact that Japan needs to capture certain bases to assure itself enough oil for supply purposes–takes the “locked-in, try and do better” strategic approach. Players looking for a wider scope should look at Pacific War, Asia Engulfed or Pacific Victory–which unsurprisingly are much heavier and longer games. By starting the game in December, 1941 Nakamura is able to keep the scope of the game relatively small–and also, intentionally or not–sidesteps the bigger questions around Japanese strategy and foreign policy. All of that is “taken as read”. The players are put in the usual military armchairs–as they are in hundreds of other conventional conflict simulations. All I’m saying is that Fire in the Sky breaks no new ground in its scope–which I’m saying not as a criticism but as a lament on a lost opportunity. 

I started by wondering whether a WW2 game by a German, Japanese, or Italian designer might look and feel different, and would that perspective have any value to us as gamers. My tentative answer to both questions as they apply to Fire in the Sky would be, “yes, and yes”. The whole point of studying history is to learn from it (at least in theory, but that’s a whole other enchilada), and that it’s not only possible but valuable to look at the world from other perspectives–as long as we don’t cross the line between empathy and sympathy. By which I mean, I still think it’s useful to understand how other people think without celebrating or endorsing those thoughts.

Thank you to Phalanx Games for providing a copy of Fire in the Sky for this review.

2 thoughts on “Fire in the Sky: A Divine (but tricksy) Wind

  1. Scott Muldoon says:

    For a different Japanese perspective on the same conflict, see Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere by Bonsai Games (Yasushi Nakaguro). It starts in 1937 and runs through 1944 (when the war was more or less decided), includes the China/Burma/India theater, a potential offensive against the Soviets, and does it all in about 90 minutes with less than 50 pieces on an A3-sized map.

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