Paalam, Leyte Gulf

Reading around on the Avalanche Press web site over the weekend, I came across this bit of content discussing the almost-sold-out status of their monster game “Leyte Gulf”. That set my mind to wandering all around the topic of monster games. To wit:

Leyte Gulf's three operational maps

Leyte Gulf: 3 operational maps

While I’ve never considered myself a particularly huge fan of ‘monster’ games, I guess over the years I’ve owned my fair share of them. The fabled Big Table that dominates my home office/game room was, in fact, created nearly 30 years ago so that I would have a place to set up and play a couple of SPI’s best-known monsters: Terrible Swift Sword and Wellington’s Victory.

In truth, after the demise of SPI my attraction to monster games waned. I had the Big Table and (as an official Single, Successful Guy) I had more than enough space, but after SPI blew itself to bits the concept of the ‘big, dumb and fun’ monster game seemed to get lost to history.

Although the ranks of game publishers thinned through the late 80s and the 90s, there were still monster games to be had. But many of them were either too fiddly or simply too monster-y for my taste. Games like (the SPI editions) Wacht am Rhein and Highway to the Reich were physically big, but not all that complicated – especially in comparison to some of the monster-game systems that emerged after them. I’m not knocking complex game systems (hell, I used to play Air War), but the combination of big AND complex just never did it for me.

I guess from a design standpoint, I’m more of an ‘outcome’ guy than I am a ‘process’ guy. Even with a physically big game, I’d rather make a few decisions and see how they impact a game within three or four hours than spend a month of Saturdays¬† immersed in so much detail that I can’t even remember what I set out to do when I finally get to the end of a game turn.

That said, on occasion I am ‘in’ for more than just big and dumb monster gaming. I’ve always enjoyed The Gamers’ Operational Combat Series, for example. Ditto the East Front Series from GMT Games.

[Note: I generally consider that it takes more than two standard-sized maps to constitute a monster game. Two-mappers are just 'big games'. I suppose the number of counters in the game should have something to do with it as well, but to me the 'monster' status has more to do with a game's footprint.]

A number of the games in Avalanche Press’ ‘War at Sea’ series are in monster game territory. Leyte Gulf certainly qualifies with three full-size operational maps and (IIRC) ten sheets of counters. A number of other games in the series (both Second World War at Sea and Great War at Sea) also occupy a significant chunk of table with two (or more) full-sheet operational maps, plus the smaller ‘tactical’ map that is used by every game in the series.

I’ve got darned near all of them (including Leyte Gulf) because the game system is pretty close to ‘big and dumb’. I know some gamers beef about the rather simple buckets o’ dice tactical combat and for guys interested in the details of naval combat, they’ve got a point. But in my mind the focus of the series system is naval operations, so the abstract tactical stuff gets close enough for me. Anything more complicated and we’re back into month-of-Saturdays territory.

Map detail of the home islands

Map detail of the home islands

When I’m thinking about investing in a modern-day monster game – most are darned pricey – one of the big influences on my decision is the level of replayability. In the long run, monster ‘tactical’ games like many of those old SPI titles start to feel a bit limited. While they rarely play the same way twice, they are focused on a singular event with many of the interesting variables (forces, entry points, starting situation and usually reinforcements) pre-determined, or nearly so. Most are big enough that the variables they do address still create some options – but when a wargame has a price tag in the $100-plus range I’m looking for the most flexibility I can get.

Leyte Gulf certainly measures well against my replayability yardstick. The operational maps cover a vast swath of the Pacific and include most (although I’m sure not all) of the air and naval facilities that impact operations in the theater. The counter mix includes naval and air units where were (or could have been) available, but aren’t used in any of the games scenarios – so it accommodates a hefty ‘what if?’ do-your-own-scenario capability.

The major limiting factor, I suppose, is that by the time-frame covered by Leyte Gulf the Japanese were on an irrversible path toward defeat. By the end of any scenario I can imagine, the Japanese player isn’t going to feel he’s just won the war. But the Japanese are still dangerous, possess some effective land-based airpower and have some very dangerous surface units that can inflict painful losses on their opponents. It’s no cake-walk for the USN – especially since most Japanese players tend to be a bit more circumspect than their historical counterparts.

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