Playings; 3 (12 hours)
Carrier is one of the old school of solitaire games, long and complex. The recent trend (Peloponesian War, Thunderbolt Leader) leaning towards swifter, luck heavy games. To call Carrier a game is stretching the meaning of the word, if a game is entertaining and a diversion then Carrier is not a game, a very clever piece of design perhaps even if the finishing is not up to scratch. Play of Carrier is more akin to the piecing up of a complex jigsaw puzzle (speaks the man who cannot fathom out the kids 24 piece wooden puzzles), than to the play of an A versus B balanced combat game. To keep this piece simple I will call the beast a game although the word simulation or role play exercise would be more accurate. The player is the commander of the US ships north of Australia in 1942 and early '43, the Jap set up and actions are governed by a thick set of rules that are basically common sense but take some fathoming out 1st time.
The all common solitaire problem of trying to find which table is on which chart is made worse here by the rules either declining to say where a chart is hidden or referring the gamer to the wrong place. Drawing heavily on the designer's own Tokyo Express, the level of the Japanese forces is not known initially nor their exact position. The set up for each game is random, so it is possible to roll a hard to win situation before setting up the board.. In Carrier any scenario rolled to occur in early '42 will leave the USA with worse planes than usual and deny the land based aircraft available to them in later periods. I rolled this situation, plugged on and lost, roleplayers usually roll all the stats again rather than venture into a dungeon with such a wimpy party. Having chosen the date of the conflict, further rolls give the Japs 1 or 2 objectives and fix the level of forces involved. The player is told the number of US carriers (2 to 3, if you roll a 3 a new carrier display will have to be made; there are only 2 on the map) to use and given a number of points to spend on supporting ships. At least 6 destroyers must be bought for every carrier, not leaving a lot for other ships. Counters are single ships which is fine for the big ships but having 1 counter for every destroyer is excessive, their aim in the game is to add to the AA fire of other ships and to soak up some of the incoming shells in surface battles. Generally only other destroyers bother firing at them, so what would be the harm of having destroyers as multiple ship units? Likewise all ships are named and individually rated for the game, when the planes start to fly and the guns shoot the difference of a few strength points does not have much effect. Except for the battleships and carriers, use of generic ship types would not change the game play. My award for the worst case of this "every ship is different" approach must go to Pacific War (VG), at whose scale the designer should have known better. Bang all the similar ships into heaps and pull out the required types without regard of the ship being out of action at the time of play.
The Japs start without any ships but have 20 combat and 6 transport chits, colour coded for their ultimate objectives. The player knows how many chits are going for each objective and what the objectives are, armed with this knowledge he sets up his ships (probably as 2 or 3 stacks) in a limited number of starting spaces, hopefully fairly near the objective hexes. Next 8 of the Japanese combat and 1 of the transport chits are placed on the map by rolling on tables for based on their objective. Each turn 1/3rd of all remaining combat chits, plus 1 transport appear at the same group of hexes. The USA uses air units to search for these chits, occasionally revealing 1 to be a dummy and removing it. For the 1st half of the game more new chits will appear than the USA can reveal as dummys, leading to 15-20 Jap units to be moved for 2-3 USA. All surface units move 1 hex per turn, so you will spend a lot of time slowly moving Japanese forces to their objectives and inching USA fleets to intercept them. Most of the chits that clutter up the map will never grow up to be ships, each chit can be at 1 of 5 intelligence levels, from unrevealed chit, through increasing levels of certainty to a complete breakdown of the force in the chit. The strength of chits are revealed by air search, which reduces the number of air units available for CAP and bombing the IJN, by wading into the hex and trying to eyeball the ships (and getting trashed the 2 times I tried it) and by Jap units reaching their objectives or launching attacks on the player's ships.
The system is complicated by 2 limitations. The Jap starts with maximum commitment levels for carrier, surface and transport forces (based on the size of the USN forces), increases in the force levels of the chits (to level 3) will count towards these limits. A level 3 transport may have a value of 2, counted as part of a total commitment of 5 transport points. When a limit is surpassed, no more of that type of force can be brought into play and some chits marked as forces but not positively identified will be removed. The 2nd complication is that IJN carrier forces will try to attack you whether they are located or not. The Jap has no plane units, so the 1st you know of a carrier force is when its air points appear on a friendly force and let rip. The number of Jap air points bearing down over the turns are added up and counted towards the carrier commitment level. I spent an entire game not knowing the exact composition of the force that had disabled then sunk 1/2 my carrier force. Any chit that is not identified as a surface (only) force may turn out to be carriers, thus in the early turns we have the tedious chore of checking every chit within air range of a US unit to see if it will launch planes. If it does we have the limited information that the chit contains carriers but until the number of planes sent out passes the commitment level or our own searchers have found out the number of Jap carriers, we still have to check every eligible stack.
The early game searching of chits is the best part of the game, search planes will give some information on the nearer chits (up to 7 hexes, success based on number of searchers plus a die roll) and may reveal a Jap carrier before it attacks you. Information may instead be of the more limited, small, medium or large level. If there is nothing else in range, you may as well buzz off a few planes as have them sat on the deck but the time taken to fly to the target, return and refuel could leave a chunk of the carrier's air power out of the game for a while. Jap air units might attack at up to 9 hexes, or the guilty chit may be missed by the search plane die roll, so it is more than likely that the IJN will hit you before you find him. If planes are on the deck this will increase the damage of a strike on you but if they are tucked away in the hanger it will be 3/4 of a turn before you can get them into the air. Planes can move 4 times in 1 turn but from landing to take off will need at least 5 phases (1/4 turns), having no plane units the Japs use tables to work out the time period between strikes from the same group of aircraft. All the big game winning decisions take place in this part of the game, how many planes to put on search, how many on CAP and whether the rest should be in the hanger or ready to launch? Having found a possible force, do you go for it or wait until a better target turns up? Soon a carrier chit will attack and then decisions begin to give way to routine. If a chit has launched planes at you it must be a carrier, if it has not been detected all available planes need to get in the air to detect the force. The game requires that any chit needs to be detected by the search planes before a strike can be launched against it, this is separate to the rules for intelligence on Jap forces, after 1 or 2 turns the detection information expires and you have to detect it again before you can launch strikes at it. The target of a strike cannot be changed once the planes are in the air and it is possible for a target to not be detected when the planes get there and possible for planes to arrive at a detected target but still be unable to find it.
The IJN carrier forces must be priority targets because they will be trying to launch planes at you and will only stop if you run away or sink them. As a bonus the victory point awards for sinking carriers and downing planes are juicy for both sides, if you don't run away you should either lose well or win well if you pick a force of carriers, steam towards it and launch planes at it. Alas, if the game reaches this stage enjoyment drops, the player cycles planes towards the Jap carrier, refueling them as they return and sending them up again. The Jap does much the same thing but the timing and number of points in a strike are governed by tables and the carrier commitment limit. The degree of damage that a strike can do will vary enormously, the Japs have better planes but the USA (alone) can repair some of the damage on his carriers. As a rough guide 1 strike of 3 bombers and 1 fighter escort is not enough to sink a Jap carrier, indeed it may do no damage at all. 2 strikes in quick succession should, with luck, cripple a Jap carrier and stop it launching planes, unfortunately many a Jap carrier force has 2 or 3 of the beasts. The IJN strikes are unlikely to sink a US carrier in 1 go but it can mount up, plus if there are planes on deck or about to go up when the strike hits, the loss of plane units may be more of a problem than temporary damage to the carrier.
The chit and search system has a number of drawbacks. A number of chits will represent no IJN ships but remain on the map, move and continue to check for air attacks until the relevant commitment levels are passed. In short this is a lot of work with no prospect of any real game action. The fate of all chits is to plod towards the objective hex but in 1 day (we can play for longer although 1 day is quite long enough) many of the chits will not have time to reach their objectives. Chits can gain Jap victory points if they reach their objective and are not revealed to be dummies, so there is no incentive for the USA to detect and attack chits that will never reach these hexes and not a lot of fun for the player pushing them around.
The nature of chit detection and Jap carrier attack means it is the chits that are closest to US forces that are going to be tested. As dummy chits are pulled they are set aside and the chance of a force being real increases. This adds up to the real IJN forces being most likely to be among those nearest to the US ships, using strikes to increase intelligence levels of these chits will increase commitment levels and decrease the likelihood of other chits being genuine reports. Also only chits that are in range of US ships and bases are tested for air strikes and count towards the carrier commitment limit. This all adds up to the IJN ships being most likely to be where you look for them, excepting a few dummies pulled early in the game. In other words if the IJN is in 2 or 3 basic huddles of chits, as it tends to be, the player would do well to concentrate on 1 group. As chits are revealed and removed and intelligence increases, the amount of available Jap forces for the other groups will drop to insignificant levels. In practice keeping US stacks together and concentrating on 1 group of chits is better play than allotting 1 stack for each IJN grouping, having tried both systems I agree with this theory. A larger group of IJN chits means a greater chance of each chit being detected and eating away at the Jap commitment levels, so given several groups pick the biggest unless the Jap carriers turn up in a smaller nearby group (this is statisticaly less likely).
The objectives of all IJN forces are Island shores that they sail up to and bombard or unload troops on. Not surprisingly these coasts are surrounded by areas of shallow water because of the danger of submarines no carriers of either side may enter these shallow waters. In the game as soon as an unidentified Jap chit sails into a shallow hex, left alone they all will, it can no longer be a carrier force. A player pursuing a policy of sinking Jap carriers can afford to ignore chits after they have passed into shallow hexes, these can no longer be carrier forces, ergo, same must be elsewhere. If the Jap carrier force has been found and the player is clearly winning the air battles, some strikes can be diverted to unloading Jap transports, sinking these will prevent the IJN from gaining victory points for unloading troops. Given the choice of unloading transports and detected Jap carriers, priority must go to damaging the carriers.
The vagaries of statistics and die rolls mean that the most likely events may not happen. It is possible that no IJN carrier will be found. If the US stays away from the main Jap chit areas it is less likely that Jap carriers will be found because the chits are heading towards set objectives this is most likely to happen if the player also stays away from these areas. In such a case the Jap carriers, if present, would not need to reveal themselves and the player will not only lose the game but deserves to be cashiered for not protecting the enemy objectives from attack. The Jap surface forces will not play a big part in the game if the player is careful and planning to win. These forces are hard to beat in a surface battle, sailing into them tends to lead to a net loss of victory points. If the Jap force is much smaller it will tend to evade the player's ships but even a similar sized force will have a combat advantage over the USA. The alternative is to send air strikes towards surface forces but the highest yielding victory point ships are hard to sink and these air strikes are reducing the number of air units available to attack carriers. The use of air strikes against surface forces is best reserved for when no enemy carriers are revealed. The occasions when a Jap surface force will be significant is if a US force steams towards a Jap transport or carrier force, both targets well worth attacking and low on surface combat ability. IJN surface units will move towards the threatened carrier or transport force, instead of towards their objective, possibly forcing the player to fight them instead of the target stack. In conclusion many of the Jap chits, if not dummies, will turn out to be surface forces unlikely to have an effect on the carrier battles. The purpose of surface forces could be factored in having some chance of a surface force appearing in the same hex as the US stack if it is closing in (1 hex away) on an IJN transport or carrier force. This is a lot less accurate than the system given in the game but sometimes accuracy has to face up to playabilty.
I hope I have not made Carrier seem too interesting, frankly after the initial period of searching and the very 1st air attacks the game sinks to a predictable routine (if you are playing to win, a few stupid moves can liven things up). Out of 10 daylight turns, numbers 1 and 2 restrict the amount of searching so are no problem but by the half way mark the game outcome should be fairly clear, if not in terms of who will win , at least in the means of what ought to be done to make the best of it. The game sorely misses some way of being able to stop at turn 5 or 6 and compute the eventual winner. As a bonus the game length would drop to a manageable 2 or 3 hours. Barring a successful player search and attack game, leading to sinking all Jap carriers and forcing the IJN to retire (possible but luck dependant), the word for the 2nd half of the game is dull. Carrier comes dangerously close to the Sports Replay sort of game, the after game thinking about what happened outweighs the enjoyment (if any) from the game itself. In short one for the Arnold Rimmer types.
Carrier is indeed a replay sort of game. I confess that I like that type of game when I am in the mood and it is probably something to do with the fact that I play a lot of sports games of a similar nature. Yes the system is far from perfect; yes some elements of it can be boring. For me, however, the most difficult part was the programmed instruction nature of the rulebook. I tried to make my way through these and was ultimately thwarted. However, David Hughes and (I think) Simon Prior and Mike Siggins went straight ahead and read the whole book and had a much better time of it. Its very much horses for courses." ZOCo, I made my way through the programmed instruction system but wish I hadn't.