Review : SGS Operation Hawaii
SGS Operation Hawaii is a “what if” scenario that has the Japanese invade the Hawaiian island of O‘ahu. SGS, The Strategy Game Studio, was founded by Philippe Thibault of AGEOD and Europa Universalis fame. It is in the same vein as the other games in the SGS stable that are firmly grounded in the realm of board games but with a PC interface.
Subject of the Game
The game covers several days immediately following the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941. The Japanese have decided to invade Oahu instead of preserving the Kido Butai strike force and risking it all to knock out the Hawaiian base of operations. However the US Carriers are lurking and once the Americans get over the initial shock of the attack they can bring a good deal of force to bear. The gameplay is fairly linear, the combat is not obfuscated, and the card driven aspects make for some very interesting gameplay.
Scope, Scale, Level of Play
The game covers 16 turns on the island of Oahu. Scale ranges from companies to battalions with squadrons of aircraft available to both sides. Naval units are present but once moved into a “near” box are more vulnerable to counterstrike. The level is about a division worth of units, maybe slightly less.
Units are represented as counters that are drag-dropped from one zone to another. The unit art is simple but gets the point across without being cluttered. The map is smooth to scroll and looks pretty good. The drag-and-drop mechanic also routes aircraft both offensively and defensively.
The designer has focused the game on a narrow window that the Japanese could have invaded Oahu. More of a brazen raid, it strikes hard and strikes fast. Combat, combined ops, and a transparent combat mechanic make for a refreshingly quick gameplay that is still rich with nuance. The card driven mechanic does a great deal to add variety while mixing things up from match to match. I played a “Heavy Seas” card that prevented me from launching any of my strike aircraft from the Kido Butai making for a drastically different scenario had it not played out.
Overall System Description
The system is broken down into discrete phases that alternate between playing relevant cards for that phase, moving offensive air units, moving ground units, moving defensive air units, etc. Each phase works well in compartmentalizing the game play options. I had no issue with any of the phases except for the air phase which on occasion would be skipped or I would find myself unable to route the aircraft onto target. I’m still not clear if I’m not doing it right or there is a mechanical issue.
Combat is a straightforward affair where attacking units have a clear dice roll requirement. At times it feels like a plinko machine as numbers roll past. Units can retreat or rout while seeming to look solid, while a pursuit or breakthrough can end up as a bloodbath for the attackers as they advance into defended ground.
Principal areas of reality represented in the game
The game models combat operations ranging from a naval invasion at one of three locations all the way to defensive and offensive combat air operations. Players can use cards at various points in the round, these do anything from add mortars or a banzai charge, to securing an additional victory point for taking an asset. If you’ve played any modern CDG war game from the last 10 years then you’ll feel right at home.
Naval units are abstracted as counters that may occupy one of two special zones. Supply does not play an impact, though replenishment and replacement can be done using a variety of cards.
The map is pleasant to look at and uses zones instead of discrete hexes. This works very well as it makes more sense to have a city zone for say, Pearl City, rather than several discrete hexes. While there is beauty in a well done hex map, it can be challenging to do well. For movement paths it just feels right, especially the main corridors around the island.
Intricacy of the system and mechanical ease of play
The phased game play makes for fairly easy to digest actions. At each stage it’s clear and easy to know what units can operate, which cards can be played, and what happens next. Applicable cards get a bright green outline. Hovering over the current phase displays all of the phases for the round.
The only failure of this system I found was the difficulty of moving air units. I had to first separate them from the main stack, then drag them off the naval box, then path them across Oahu. It felt clunky and for such an essential mechanic, not well done. The naval units themselves always remained in the “far” box as it was not clear how to bring them in closer.
Evaluation of the systems success at achieving the designers goals and representing the real situation
The gameplay is fluid while being realistic enough to see the aggressive invader suffer as the lumbering US giant pushes them back. The scenario makes it clear that the Japanese are in a smash and bash mission while the US must fight to preserve what they can for later in the war. It is absolutely fun to dash in as the Japanese player and see what you can do before the US punches back.
The American AI had no problem cutting me off if I was overly aggressive. Initially the US AI feels reactive, almost passive. Until turn 10 I was feeling rather disappointed with the AI, and then like a light switch the lumbering behemoth smashed into my degraded japanese units pushing them back with ease. Eventually I lost by a handful of points and realized I’d have probably played the US in the same manner.
One thing I like from a historical standpoint is a Victory Point requirement for the US player to retain garrisons on the island at different landing points. It prevents the player from smashing everything into one doomball while also having a logical reason behind it and not just a stacking limit.
Contributions to the wargaming state of the art
While not the first to model this scenario it’s unique in the way it blends naval, air, and ground combat with the richness of card driven mechanics. Had it been a straight hex-and-counter game I don’t think it would have had the same nuance or richness that the zonal map has with the card mechanics.
The Game in play
There is one scenario : the Japanese invasion of Oahu. You may play as the Japanese attacker or the US defender.
You play as either the commander of the US military or the Japanese invasion force. Command includes everything from naval to air to ground units and even civilian issues depending on if a card is played.
Types of decisions required
The first decision for the Japanese player is where to invade, far off on a safe beach, a mid distance beach, or right in Honolulu. After this it is ground combat with combined ops to drive inwards and destroy / secure as many objectives as is possible. Is it better to move units inland? Or remain on the coast? Does one bring in battleships, or keep them safe?
Eventually I settled on two main thrusts of attack with several units comprising of a weak combat unit and “decoy” units. Air units would be routed to assist in the attacks with several units retained for defensive operations. A brief siege would wrap it up and the units would move inland. My goal was to hit the areas near Pearl and avoid the north of the island. In hindsight I think that was a mistake.
Effects of the game systems mechanical requirements on the players decision making
The cards add some uniqueness but aren’t the core mechanic of the game. They are a well placed addition that is balanced well. At no point did I feel a card won, or lost, me the round but like the “Heavy Seas” card, they added richness.
Combat was quick and well displayed but sometimes I’d win when I thought I should’ve lost, and other times the opposite happened. I think the AI decided to retreat from battle and preserve forces rather than grind down my units.
Evaluation of the players experience
The players experience felt proper. As an invasion force I felt that ground movement and combat went about as well as I could expect. The only part of the phase I did not look forward to was moving my air units, it was a clunky experience and could use some polish. The AI, while initially seeming daft, really smashed me up starting in about turn 13 and I couldn’t do much to stop it.
The card mechanic is excellent and I really wish more war games would add this in.
Does the game work?
Yes, the game works. Mechanically it is smooth with the exception of the clunky air movement phase. I had one occasion where the game was stuck during an AI phase but I reloaded the scenario and all was well. The naval situation is still a mystery though I don’t know if I needed to draw a card to move them closer or if I missed something.
I was hesitant upon seeing the dreaded “Made with Unity” loading screen, but was relieved to see it has the polish of a professional product. The UI and UX is well done, leading to a game that feels like a modern representation of a board war game without retaining the clunkiness.
Is it a good game?
Yes, it is a good game.
Who would be most interested in the game?
Those interested in alternative history scenarios and Pacific theater experts. It does a lot of things well and for the short round length and affordable price I think it’s a great entry to the SGS engine for any war game fans.
Is the game a good value?
At $9.99 (as of December 2021) the game is a good value.