The Wargamer's Guide to... The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937 - 45)

By Joe Fonseca 10 Sep 2018 0

The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) is often relegated to the status of ‘sideshow’, only mentioned to better set the stage for the daring exploits of the British Army in Burma or provide context for the brutal struggles that faced Allied forces in the Pacific during WW2.

In reality the war for mainland China was so much more: Battles raged from the Great Wall in the north to the humid subtropics of the South China Sea, fought by millions of soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, Mao Zedong’s Communists, and an eclectic assortment of regional Warlords. It was here that the majority of Japan’s war materiel and active divisions were stationed, here where the hardened veterans that devastated Allied forces in the Pacific first saw combat, and here where the fate of modern China was decided.

It’s not a ‘hot topic’ in terms of computer wargames, so finding credible gaming material is difficult, but we’ve rounded up some of the better and largely modern examples for anyone looking to take an interest in one of the grandest, and most underappreciated, theatres of the larger Second World War.

Order of Battle: World War Two (Morning Sun DLC)

Order of Battle (OoB) remains one of the few modern games that directly addresses the Second Sino-Japanese War. The pros and cons of the OoB system have been detailed in a handful of articles across this website, so I will sidestep a full review. Suffice it to say that OoB’s revised Panzer General formula, especially the addition of a supply system, makes for an elegant, if simplistic means of fighting the expansive battles of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Order of Battle WWII Morning Sun Screenshot

My relatively fresh Japanese forces begin the push over the Great Wall in Operation Charhar.

The missions themselves cover the major beats of the war, with embellishments here and there in army composition and available resource. Oddly, the campaign is topped off by a fictitious final mission that sees your forces seizing Nationalist China’s wartime capital, Chongqing, and (potentially) capturing Chiang Kai-shek himself! Morning Sun is an enjoyable, easygoing look at the Second Sino-Japanese War, though you should keep some reference material on hand to understand when and where the game strays from reality. You can also experience the periphery of the conflict in the more recent Burma Road DLC, which focuses on the British Army’s endeavours in Burma, or Myanmar as it is known today.

The Operational Art of War IV

The Operational Art of War IV is not for everyone. It sits triumphantly atop a teetering tower of manuals, mocking the more casual among us who are put off by the numerous menus and detailed combat formulas. If, however, you are of stout heart and have a hardy grognard constitution, the beast can be unseated, and you can be treated to a thoroughly enjoyable and remarkably deep wargaming sandbox. Among the many scenarios included is a full campaign scenario for the Second Sino-Japanese War.

OAWIV Screenshot2

IJA forces begin to converge on Beiping.

It is set up as a Play-by-E-mail (PBEM) scenario, and it shows. The war is laid out in remarkable depth, and I found myself excited at the lengths to which the designer went. Unfortunately, as I do not have any friends as crazy as I, I could not try out the PBEM mode. Instead I found my AI opponent making odd moves trying to cover so vast a battlefield. If you know someone that shares your love of hardcore strategy, there is probably no deeper an expression of the difficulties of the Second Sino-Japanese War than this scenario.

Hearts of Iron IV (Waking the Tiger DLC)

Hearts of Iron IV (HoI IV) is a fiercely divisive game. Some enjoy its streamlined nature, while others are put off by the simplification of old systems. Although apprehensive myself, and initially put off by bugs and ‘interesting’ AI, I can safely say that HoI IV is now one game that I return to again and again. As for the Second Sino-Japanese War, HoI IV initially missed the mark. I would often see Japan handily defeat the Chinese forces by 1938-9, and HoI IV’s simplified infrastructure and supply systems did not do justice to the immense difficulties facing both sides.

Hearts of Iron IV Screenshot

Recreating the Qing Dynasty is one of the many interesting alt-history options present in Hearts of Iron IV. If anyone can figure out how to pull it off let me know. I’ve let down poor Puyi too many times to count.

The DLC Waking the Tiger made some significant improvements to the theatre, expanding decision trees for everyone in the region and allowing for multiple unique playthroughs in both China and Japan. The game is still not without problems, but I’m rarely dissatisfied with an evening playing HoI IV. As one of the few modern games that dedicated resources and time to (somewhat) realizing the political intricacies and what-ifs of the Second Sino-Japanese War, you’ll rarely find yourself without a new strategy to try, even if the game system itself limits ‘realistic’ supply and infrastructure issues.

Company of Heroes (Far Eastern War Mod)

The scarcity of games covering the Second Sino-Japanese War has not stopped the more talented among us from creating modifications for existing products. Company of Heroes, an aged, but well-loved Real Time Strategy (RTS) is one of them. While Far Eastern War has no campaign, there are a solid number of skirmish maps and two new armies to fight over them. Each unit comes with a minor description indicating its role and utility and both the Chinese and Japanese armies can be refined, as in the base game, into one of three specializations.

Company of Heroes Screenshot

Sichuan Clique recruits cautiously approach a seemingly deserted square. 30 seconds later they tragically discover it wasn’t.

Action is fast and requires frenetic yet accurate clicking to see your forces to victory. Some weapons could use re-balancing, the AI’s pinpoint accuracy with knee mortars, for example. Overall there are few bugs, but the lack of appropriate voices takes you out of the experience. Hearing my Chinese officer urge his conscripted peasants on in a southern drawl was jarring. For a close arcade-y look at the small arms combat of the Second Sino-Japanese War, there are worse places to end up than a lovingly crafted mod for a tried and true game system.

Strategic Command Classic: Global Conflict

The cracks are starting to show in Strategic Command’s older entries, yet the boardgame-like structure in Global Conflict works to create an appropriate vision of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The main scenario, which sees you fight as the entire Allied or Axis commands, forces you to balance preparations for the global war while struggling to maintain or reinforce the battle line in China. By 1939 the Japanese had made significant advances inland.

MATRIX GAMES Strategic Command Global Offensive2

Get used to seeing these lines! They won’t be moving for some time.

The gruelling slog that resulted from the inability of either side to administer a decisive blow meant little change would come until the Japanese Ichi-Go offensive in 1944. Constantly being aware of the cost of maintaining the line in China while trying to plan for future offensives as the Axis player is a daunting exercise but makes Strategic Command Classic: Global Conflict one of the few wargames that seems to appreciate the magnitude of Japan’s commitment in China. As the Allied player you must consider how much to commit to battle in China, as it is difficult to resupply the Chinese forces until the other allies can make some significant gains elsewhere.

Perhaps while gaming the Second Sin-Japanese war, it is best keep in mind an old warrior’s saying: “Keep men, lose land: land can be taken again. Keep land, lose men: land and men are both lost.” -Mao Zedong.



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