Japan ‘45 Review27 May 2019 2
Japan ‘45 Review
Released 03 May 2019
Wargame Design Studio’s quiet release of Panzer Campaigns Japan ‘45 two weeks ago caught me by surprise. Only really aware of the studio’s work remaking older JTS titles, I hadn’t noticed Japan ’45’s development until the full game was knocking at my inbox’s door. I’m glad it took the time to stop by though. Japan ’45 is a bit of a daring take, focusing as it does on a single short hypothetical campaign, the Allied invasion of the southern third of the Japanese island of Kyushu in November-December of 1945. This plan, Operation Olympic, would have been the largest naval invasion in history had it happened, and has been a fascinating facet of discussion for those interested in the final days of the Second World War, both Allied and Japanese decision making, and the debate surrounding the way the war was ended. I think the gamble pays off marvellously, giving players a chance to engage with both the game designers and the historical record in analyzing a truly titanic ‘what if’ of the Second World War.
As for the core system, it remains a Panzer Campaigns game. If you’re familiar with the John Tiller/Talonsoft system and user interface, you’ll fit right in with Japan ’45. I personally had a great time with Wargame Design Studio’s Battles of North Africa 1941 late last year. The aging system held up and after a bit of learning provided an easy window to the crags and dunes of North Africa and the strategic challenges they presented to both Italian and British forces. Though the scale is different between the Panzer Battles and Panzer Campaigns series, it took few little adjustments and after a run through the brief tutorial scenario, I was ready for Japan ’45. Any experience with a similar game will see you ready to hit the beaches almost immediately. For those who aren’t experienced with the system, the game comes with a detailed manual, a walkthrough-assisted tutorial, and design notes to help get you acquainted with the designer’s vision and decision making, complete with brief historical context and explanation of forces. Overall, an excellent package.
The scope of the game is not as massive as some other Panzer Campaigns offerings. The 44 scenarios included all revolve around the three Allied beachheads and the subsequent struggle to link up and secure the landings. Despite this the game is large enough to keep players engaged for quite a while. Playing the full campaign scenario, involving the simultaneous invasions of three beaches across southern Kyushu by the US Army, Marines, and naval and air support, is involved without being too overwhelming. The first few turns of organizing landing support, getting men on the beaches, and then pushing through the maelstrom to get inland ended up taking about an hour or so per turn, with the AI Japanese resolution taking around 10 minutes to go through all of their return fire and repositioning. Yet I never felt that this hampered the game. I was just as invested in watching my men fight their way onto Kyushu in the large scenario as I was in smaller engagements like the two-day pre-invasion assault on Tanegashima and its radar station.
Japan ‘45 takes great pains to illustrate the difficulty facing any invasion of the Japanese home islands but does so in what I believe to be an elegant way. Rather than individually including kamikaze units and other smaller elements in the Japanese OOB, Japan ‘45 rolls their impact into the US casualty calculations during the landings. It was not uncommon in my playthrough to see casualties in the double digits, or rarely triple digits, as the beaches crowded with subsequent waves, taking fire from Japanese guns, entrenched positions, and the simulated kamikaze strikes by midget subs and aircraft on transports. This means that the lengthy game turns are not bogged down by individual one-use units that the Japanese player must account for, and it also forces this unpleasant and unsettling part of late-war Japanese desperation into player planning without input (or attempts at refusal). It was wasteful and distasteful, even to several Japanese commanders, but sadly it was a reality of the conflict.
The greatest enemy here for players of the US side will be the terrain of Kyushu. US planners were grim in their assessment of the number of men and equipment that would have to be spent to occupy even the southern half of the island, and players will find themselves forced to climb hand over hand to take commanding mountain views while unfortunately relegating their armour to the coastal roads. The Japanese player will have to deal with overwhelming naval and air superiority from their enemy. This reality is reflected in the relative ease with which the allies will take the beach head (and I mean relative!), and supports the Japanese decision to pull most defences back into the hills and mountains. Playing as either side presents myriad difficulties that players will have to overcome. It makes for good gameplay that brings the strategic and logistical concerns commanders on both sides faced directly to the player, but may limit replayability depending on individual player’s commitment to different offensive and defensive plans.
Now, if one is not interested in fighting over the southern half of Kyushu, then Japan ‘45 will not do. There are no diversions to other theatres, like Greece in North Africa 1941. The remainder of Operation Downfall will also have to wait until the hinted sequel Japan ’46. Yet for the price point I believe Japan ‘45 has a lot to offer. Playing through the major scenario alone and then with a friend alone will provide at least a couple dozen hours of content, if my current time investment versus current turn is any indication, while the smaller scenarios break the larger game down into something more manageable for a weekend’s solo play.
The hypothetical scenario is fresh, interesting to explore, and sobering when one considers the abhorrent decisions facing Allied commanders in the failing months of the Second World War. It is a grim scenario, but Japan ‘45 feels to me like it approaches the topic with a suitable level of realism and tact, allowing players to experience a horrible campaign that the world thankfully never had to see, though none of the choices available in the summer of ’45 were pleasant.