Iwo Jima, a volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean, was the site of a pivotal, infamously bloody, World War 2 battle.
During a 4-week period between February and March 1945, US Marines fought the Imperial Japanese Army to secure one of the final stepping stones towards an allied invasion of mainland Japan.
That invasion never happened. However, the battle of Iwo Jima became known throughout the world following the publication of one of military history’s most famous photographs – the raising of the US flag on Mount Suribachi.
Iwo: Bloodbath in the Bonins, from Decision Games, recreates that battle in a small footprint Hex and Counter game for 1 or 2 players.
My Little Wargame
I have circled the rabbit hole of the ultimate niche within our niche hobby for some time now. Increasingly heavy, increasingly confrontational, games brought me to the edge – all I needed was the right game to convince me to jump feet first into the world of Hex and Counter wargames.
That game needed to be relatively inexpensive, relatively simple, relatively widely available and playable solo. After a long search, I chose a game, jumped…and was quickly lost in the subtle world of Charges, Counter Charges and Opportunity Charges.
At Any Cost: Metz 1870 chewed me up and spat me out…and I loved it. One day I hope to understand it enough to review it.
Like a moth repeatedly burning itself on a 100-watt bulb I returned to this strange world of combat modifiers in search of something…a little simpler, a little shorter. Something a little less like an interactive history lesson and more like a game.
Entirely by accident I discovered the ‘Folio Series’ published by Decision Games. These are small games simulating individual battles that riff on variations to the same base rule set. Designed to be shorter, simpler games suitable for beginners or veterans looking for a break from bigger games. The Folio Series includes games covering the battles of WW2, the Napoleonic era and ancient conflicts. The series even has the occasional sci-fi entry.
Sounded perfected and I eventually settled on Iwo – Bloodbath in the Bonins Feb – March 1945.
Reverse Tower Defence
The premise for Iwo is straightforward: clear the map of all enemy forces before time runs out. A tower defence game in reverse. Unsurprisingly, this is more challenging to do than it is to say.
Each turn the player (ignore the player count; this is primarily a solo game):
- checks the weather status,
- moves US forces,
- directs artillery fire,
- moves and assaults a second time without the benefit of artillery.
Each unit in the US Marine force is represent by a double sided – one side full strength, the other reduced strength -cardboard chit with three values. Attack strength, defensive strength and movement allowance.
Different types of terrain will affect how many hexes a unit can move while the attack and defensive strength are used as the starting points for combat resolution.
Combat is a case of rolling dice, checking tables for the effects of terrain and other circumstances that modify the dice roll and applying the result.
So far, so very typical of the genre. Where Iwo stands apart in my, admittedly limited, experience is in the actions of the Japanese forces.
Dug in Defenders
The Japanese forces on Iwo Jima were well trained and determined defenders. A network of tunnels and trenches criss-crossed the island enabling them to easily reposition their forces in relative security, only revealing themselves as they charged out of the tunnels into the American lines.
This was a major threat to the Americans who struggled to gain ground over difficult terrain and under heavy artillery fire.
To replicate this Iwo: Bloodbath in the Bonins, resolves combat against the Japanese forces in such a way that anything except total destruction of the unit results in the defenders moving position. A defeated defender is often replaced with another from elsewhere on the map. Even the weakest Japanese unit can be a challenge to dislodge. The US Marines also face the risk of a failed attack leaving them in the open, exposed to withering Japanese artillery fire.
As the game progresses the AI for the Japanese forces modifies. Japanese artillery fire effectiveness reduces and, as larger map sections fall under US control, there is an increasing likelihood of a Japanese ‘Banzai’ or suicide attack on the US front lines.
Not only is this a historically accurate depiction of the actual events, it also presents a welcome mid-game change for the player.
The historical wargaming genre gives the impression of being as concerned with the accuracy of events depicted as it is with playability. In Iwo, it makes for a challenging entry barrier.
For example, counter iconography is largely based on the ‘NATO’ system of unit identification. Not that this is made clear in either of the two rulebooks, as far as I could tell. The ‘series’ rules provide a useful identification table for tanks and infantry. However, Iwo contains a host of units whose symbols are neither in the series rulebook nor the ‘scenario’ rules modification.
After much searching on the internet I was able to find a guide to these extra units and discovered, to my great frustration, that they had no bearing on the game.
Some of the Japanese unit chits blue, the rest are red? Why? It turns out that the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima contained naval units and so are represented here. This fact is irrelevant to the gameplay. Historically accurate maybe, but very confusing for the beginner.
The slow inch by inch grind to gain ground shows the difficulty the US forces faced to take control of the island. However, it does make for repetitive gameplay. This is exacerbated by near constant dice rolling.
Dice are omnipresent in Iwo, influencing everything from artillery to the weather.
Many highly strategic games use dice for combat resolution. However, Iwo is essentially a move and shoot game and any strategy in combat feels overwhelmed by the dice factor. Particularly when, after manoeuvring units in position for a substantial combat differential advantage, the dice show the poorest result possible. Fog of war maybe, but so, so frustrating. Just. So. Many. Dice.
The other significant issue that renders understanding Iwo a beginner's challenge is the rules. Two booklets of three columned, single space type do not a happy learner make. Particularly as the scenario rules are a modification of the series rules and there is a need to cross reference both. Also, the errata. Let's not forget the errata that had me searching for an FAQ after hunting for a hex that didn't exist.
Light at the end
However, please persevere. Initial hurdles aside, Iwo has much to enjoy.
The components, particularly given the price point, far exceeded my expectations. Hex and Counter war games give the impression of having lower component quality compared to the more popular Ameri-trash or Euro games. Compare A Feast for Odin or Gloomhaven to a similarly priced wargame for sense of what I mean here.
This may be an unfair comment given the costs involved in designing, developing and releasing historically accurate niche titles with low volume print runs. however, I do feel an element of ‘oh, is that it?’ whenever I see a wargame unboxing.
When Iwo dropped through the letter box in a Zip-Lock polybag my expectations of component quality were low. However, the paper map and cardboard counters are on a par with the more expensive war games I have seen. The main cost corners cut seem to be no box and a need to supply your own dice. Neither are insurmountable issues.
The map itself is clear and features a selection of very helpful play aids. The game flow is much improved by these reference tables. If only the rulebooks were as clear.
It is also, despite the initial learning curve and confusion, a relatively simple game. One that introduces genre concepts without an avalanche of exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions.
Combat, for example, is a case of adding the attacking strength values together deducting the defending strength value and modifying for terrain effects. There is no need to worry about lines of sight, supply or the effects of weapon classes. OK for beginners, and experienced wargamers are likely to have no trouble.
A Good Place to Start
From my beginner’s perspective, Iwo contains elements of the best – and worst – that Hex and Counter games have to offer.
For every fascinating historical detail and challenging tactical decision there is a frustratingly confusing rule or luck dependent outcome.
Iwo will not be for everyone. However, being relatively inexpensive, relatively simple, relatively widely available and playable solo, Iwo is a good place for a budding wargamer to start.