Battle for Iwo Jima Review04 Mar 2020 0
Battle for Iwo Jima Review
Released 04 Mar 2020
On 4th June 2019, Matrix-Slitherine did something really smart when they picked up the Battle for Korsun developer YoboWargames. While he’s officially working on a port of Valor & Victory for them, if the firm is equally smart they will also immediately pick up Yobo’s latest offering, Battle for Iwo Jima. The studio’s mantra is to build computer games that mimic the fun of hex and counter games during the golden age of board wargaming, beer and pretzel fare if you will. Nevertheless, with Battle for Iwo Jima (BIJ) this little one man shop also shows that you need not design down to the individual bullet complexity to produce a game that is both easy to play and one that completely immerses the player into the historical environment depicted.
Bottom line? This is one exceptionally well put together game, and since it’s cheaper than its predecessor you should buy it yesterday.
Graphics and Such
First, this game will run on anything slightly more advanced than an abacus. It's kind of odd to see graphics requirements listed as ‘Anything in the last 5 years’ or recommended sound card as ‘Any’, but that’s BIJ. With minimum RAM requirements of 2 GB and only 250 MB hard drive space needed, this is not a game that will elevate your monthly electric bill.
The hex map itself is an accurate depiction of Iwo as if it were a color, overhead reconnaissance shot by a satellite. The counters are olive for the US Marines (and I assume the attached US Army 147th Infantry Regiment, Ohio National Guard) and yellow gold for the Japanese 109th Infantry Division. The counters use smartly done tank or riflemen icons vice NATO symbology, and come in three varieties – infantry companies, tank companies and divisional headquarters, the latter for the Marines only. Info markings on the counters are very minimalist, particularly for the Japanese which has but four blue dots indicating how many strength step levels remain. The US counters are similar but with only three step level dots (remember that, three vs four) plus a small bar indicating fatigue level. A small shield will appear if the counter has been allocated air, artillery or naval gunfire support, while a small red Wi-Fi type symbol indicates the unit is out of command radius.
The user interface is also elegantly simple and anything but extensive, primarily because it doesn’t need to be. There is a small mini-map of the whole island and another small corner box indicating objectives the Marines need to control, with a small star indicating success (red, if you don’t do it by the time it happened historically). At the bottom is a disappearing panel that lists the number of fire support points available that turn, and tank or infantry replacement steps as well. The admin bar, which need not display at all, has an icon for the (unnecessary) manual, volume, displaying the mini map, turning the sound effects off and exiting the game. Hell, the only thing in the Settings master menu is whether to go Windowed or full screen.
And no, I wasn’t kidding, you really don’t need the manual because in BIJ the first turn of the game is the tutorial, one of the best I’ve seen, hand holding to the max. A black box tells you exactly what happens to you and what you can do for each phase of each one day turn in the game. Likewise, throughout gameplay BIJ makes it almost impossible to make a mistake procedure wise through highlighting of hexes and such. Say you get 12 infantry reinforcement points this turn. BIJ not only notifies you, but then highlights every counter on the map eligible to receive them.
But it’s the integrated animation that really impressed me. Yes, it's more eye candy than anything else, but it does seem to infuse a distinctive “you are there” ambience. Japanese mortar fire is indicated by realistic explosions, while heavier guns have two explosions with a visible shock wave emanating from the center. Shell craters appear immediately in the hex after. When units fire at each other, tracer rounds are seen, while every so often three F4U Navy Corsair fighter bombers roar across the screen, their shadows seen on the real estate below. Rain is depicted as if the player is in the clouds watching the droplets fall below, while in one case BIJ notified me that one of my escort carriers just got sunk by a Kamikaze and displayed the sinking on the map. This was an historical event with no game impact, but I was impressed.
BIJ is exceptionally easy to play, but a real bitch to win and frustrating at that. The player is always the US Marines in this game, the AI the Japanese. Triumph comes via gaining victory points for destroying all Japanese units and for capturing certain geographic objectives like airfields, Mt Suribachi, or General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s HQ. More victory points are awarded if you capture those objectives before or on the same day they fell to the US historically. Each turn is one day and there are 35 turns in the game. Makes sense because while the US expected to capture Iwo in five days, it took 36.
The game has normal boardgame phases each turn to include steps where the US player allocates fire support points, provides reinforcements, moves, attacks, receives enemy artillery fire, enemy close assaults and even a night phase when the Japanese can conduct infiltration attacks. Banzai charges are exceedingly rare (I saw one in my game), mimicking history as Kuribayashi had broken that tactical code and realized such nonsense was exactly what his American opponents hoped for. Instead the Japanese are locked in their starting positions and simply do not move in the game, ever, but die in place. Given the movement allowance for the Marines is unlimited, the game can look easier to master than it is.
However, then reality sets in. All Japanese units are hidden until a US unit moves next to them or receives fire from as far as two exes away. And trust me, although you can use that mouse to move your infantry company in a wide flanking movement to roar from beach to Kuribayashi’s HQ, every step of the way you will be shot at by some Japanese counter. The way the Japanese are dispersed US forces are always passing within two hexes and the Japanese will always fire, and this is in addition to their artillery which hits in a separate phase. Its Opportunity Fire central and this means losing strength steps and gaining fatigue before the player can launch his first attack.
That is, if he can launch an attack at all. The command radius of a Marine divisional HQ is five hexes and one of the penalties for loss of command-control is you can’t attack. This obviously means you need to keep said HQ safe and this does restrict where it can or can not move. And movement is essential for the Marines from the first turn forward. First, you need to capture the 1st Airfield on Turn 1 and Mt Suribachi by Turn 4 to gain all the victory points associated with these two locations. Capture them later than historically, your victory point reward is less, not to mention the mountain in question is where the Japanese are directing their artillery from. And while getting hammered is bad, not moving immediately inward means there is no room on the beaches for follow on Marine reinforcements, who will be delayed for one of more turns. It's almost as if BIJ forces the (US) player into a never-ending ambush.
Then, of course, comes the real challenge. Swinging all US forces north and advancing through multiple defensive belts of light and heavy fortifications, not to mention some pretty miserable terrain. All the while Japanese counters remain hidden until they shoot or until the Marines run into them. All the while remembering each Japanese unit has one more strength step than its US counterpart and evidently does not suffer fatigue. It makes for a very painful situation, and this is as it should be. Historian James Bradley wrote:
Americans have always taken casualties very seriously. When the number of casualties is too high, public opinion will boil up and condemn an operation as a failure, even if we get the upper hand militarily. Kuribayashi had lived in America. He knew our national character. That's why he deliberately chose to fight in a way that would relentlessly drive up the number of casualties. I think he hoped American public opinion would shift toward wanting to bring the war with Japan to a rapid end.
In the end, Kuribayashi failed, but he gave it one Hell of a shot.
Quibbles and Bits
Battle for Iwo Jima is not a perfect game. I was surprised and disappointed there was no zoom function I could find, and obviously the fact that the player cannot control the Japanese against an American AI is a bit of a downer. Then again, given the nature of the battle, having a human Kuribayashi may well be inappropriate.
However, overall BIJ is an excellent example of the historical depth a simple wargame can have with the right design theory to back it up. I’m not a World War II guy by any stretch, but watching Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (with the superb Ken Watanabe as Kuribayashi) made me jump at this review. Some 21 hours of gaming later, I am glad I did. Easy to learn, easier to play, tough to master and deadly accurate, you will understand why Marine Corps General Holland Smith said:
"I don't know who he is, but the Japanese General running this show is one smart bastard."