Having been researching Kokoda rather intensely for the past few weeks, I really wanted to run a campaign which represented the exploits of the 39th Battalion before the AIF got involved. I also wanted a campaign which focussed on the track itself as well as some of the more well-known set-piece engagements. There were several options, but I decided that the fighting between Deniki and Isurava offered the best options.
After the fall of Deniki, the Australians began digging in around Isurava with their position between the two creeks. Keen to ensure that the Japanese could not scout out their new positions with impunity, they placed an outpost on the track about 45 minutes trek to the north as a blocking position. After a break in their advance at Deniki, this outpost was attacked by the Japanese and held out briefly, repelling several “skirmish attacks”. I liked the idea of this as a staring point as it provided a potentially simple scenario to start off the campaign, with the Japanese forward platoon scouting forward and bumping into the Australian outpost. It’s always good to have a simple warm up match as the first game to allow the players to feel their way into the characters and environment.
As a result of the “outpost versus scouts” nature of this action, I decided to keep it very simple. Both sides would field one platoon. That was it. I allowed the Aussies two entrenchments, so they could have one section dug in and, just for fun, I gave them a Papuan Scout Team. With the Jungle Warfare rules, troops with no training or experience of fighting in this environment find wandering around in the jungle somewhat problematic. They can get lost and, more likely, become exhausted in what is an extremely hostile environment for men with no idea of what they are operating in. There are loads of accounts of men of the Royal Papuan Constabulary and the Papuan Infantry Battalion serving as guides and scouts where they are entirely at home in the jungle (precisely because it IS their home!) so I decided to let the Australians have one of them. Just three men, but they could range freely in the jungles and possibly frustrate the Japanese.
I then made an error of judgement in that whilst I didn’t allow the Japanese any support units, I gave them two Ruses to choose from during play. Anyone who has studied the Japanese at war will realise that in the early years they were veery focussed on attempting to overcome their opponents by any means. At Milne Bay a whole company of Australians withdrew from their positions after a rather well-spoken Japanese soldier ordered them to withdraw in very plausible English. Japanese Scouts would expose themselves to danger in order to draw fire from their opponents so they could pinpoint their positions; selected men would crawl forward an inch at a time before launching a barrage of grenades just before their comrades launched their attack. Men impersonated local labourers or local troops to infiltrate positions on the basis that the Commonwealth and American troops thought (dare we say it in 2022?) that “all foreigners looked the same”. Such a statement may be loaded with political implications today, but it worked so we must draw our own conclusions.
Anyway, enough of such matters, suffice to say that a Japanese commander planning an attack sought to include two elements in his plan; some kind of ruse or clever trick which proved his smartness as a commander, and an opportunity for his men to do something heroic so they could prove their devotion to the Emperor. As a result, the Japanese have what could be a playbook of Ruses that they can select. Think Shabby Nazi Tricks but with a dollop of Far Eastern hyper-nationalist fascism. Each ruse is a small trick which can give the player a small advantage in a tactical situation. No ruse will guarantee a win, but it can tip the scales at key points. If you can cleverly combine two ruses (and they cost Chain of Command Points to use as well as the support points before the game) the two can end up creating an effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. From a game design perspective, it’s about encouraging the players to think like the Japanese commander and try to construct a clever ruse that will show what a smart arse he is.
On reflection, I was wrong to give this option to the Japanese in this situation. This game should have been about the Japanese beginning their advance from Deniki after a break while they consolidated, rested and replenned with supplies. The game should have been about a platoon sized fighting patrol bumping into the Australian outposts. In that situation the Japanese commander should not have had a prepared plan but should have been reacting and responding as he developed a picture of the enemy. It was an error as the game that ensued was not the one I wanted to play. But hey, that’s why we playtest our Pint-Sized Campaigns as all that glitters is certainly not gold.
Having made one design error, I then compounded that by giving the Japanese a red Command Dice. Those who have played games using the 1940 handbook will be familiar with the red Command Dice. Suffice to say that for all of the reasons above, I do not think this was the right thing to do. The red command dice represents a leader with an outstanding grasp if what is happening and their ability to make decisions in a prescient manner. Again, this should not be the case when one side blunders into the other. This was not just a double whammy for the Australians, but a triple whammy on top of the two ruses. Mea Culpa.
So, accepting the fact that I had buggered up the scenario design, we must presume that the clever Japanese had some advanced warning of the Australian positions and had scouted them thoroughly before then putting in a well -planned attack. It’s not what I wanted, but it’s what we got. And yes, I am still kicking myself and will continue to do so. Scenario design is not a simple matter and small decisions can tip the game out of kilter. Lesson learned.
The table for our game represented the trail running, more or less, from one end of the table to the other across a steeply sloping table. The Japanese were meant to be blundering into the Australian position, so obliging them to fight along the table rather than across it meant that the Australians were better able to block their route and make a fight of it. With the jungle warfare ratings the Japanese are typically able to deploy on a broader front (if they get their Patrol Phase right) but on a tighter 4’ frontage that is less helpful.
Whilst the table can be described as ‘jungle’, there is actually some variety in there. The tall thickets of bamboo represent impassable areas, whereas the areas of dense kunai grass have low visibility but do not hamper movement as much as the denser secondary jungle and also benefit from being able to see the sky; handy for the Japanese Type 89 grenade dischargers (or ‘knee mortars’ if we want to use the vernacular). The track itself counts as broken ground as it was notoriously difficult going.
The Patrol Phase proceeded as normal but with some very minor tweaks to represent levels of jungle training after which the Australians were able to place two areas of open terrain. This was to represent the fact that they had been in the area for a week and knew the lie of the land. These ‘native gardens’ are areas of cultivated ground where the locals grow their sweet potatoes, yams and other vegetables. During the campaign they were constantly referred to as they represented some of the few areas where defending troops had a reasonable field of fire. As a result, these fire-breaks in the jungle serve, to a degree, an obstacle to the attacker. Such is the crazy mixed up world of jungle warfare!
The Japanese began by sending forward two Scout teams. The Australians countered by deploying their Papuan scouts who killed one Japanese scout but, more importantly encouraged the Japanese to deploy their Grenade Discharger squad and an Infantry Squad to take them on but then melted away into the jungle before a shot could be fired at them. Such were the “Green Ghosts” of the Papuan Infantry Battalion. Frustrated by the locals, the Japanese pushed on and in turn obliged the Aussies to deploy.
Corporal Bruce Ellosis and Sergeant Les Patterson deployed to cover the native garden to the East of the track, down the slope from it, whilst Corporal William “Bluey” Burke deployed on the Track and atop an outcrop of boulders. Fire from a Tommy Gun saw a Japanese scout drop, but Snowy Chambers on the Bren was heard to cry “I can’t see the bighters!” and held his fire.
The Japanese scouts abandoned the road and shifted down the slope. It was looking like the Japanese main attack would be in that area, but now Kendo Nagasaki, the platoon commander, shifted the weight of his attack by sending a scouts team to the high ground to the west. The jungle slowed the movement allowing the Australians a chance to deploy to protect their Jump-Off-Point on that flank, but the commander was keen to keep one section off-table as a reserve. In the next phase the Japanese scouts moved forward, shutting down the JOP, but there was more. The scouts had been leading forward a large group of two Japanese Squads, unknown to the Australians, and these now deployed on the ridge. One squad struck out south to encircle the Australians while the other drove eastwards towards the Track.
Lieutenant Jack Duggan now deployed with Corporal “Bunny” Hare’s section but rapidly moved to the track to try to move back to keep his potential line of retreat open. Now, came the sounds of shouting from the jungle as Hirohito Nakamura stormed forward. “Fire!” Bluey Burke called to his men (playing a CoC dice to interrupt the charge), but faced with a wall of green the fire was wild and ineffective and the Japanese bayonets flashed. Big Reg Morrant wielded his Tommy Gun and cut down several of the attackers but he went down with a bayonet to his stomach and the rifle team were wiped out, Bluey Burke being killed.
At this point the Japanese played a Chain of Command dice to end the Turn. Two Australian JOPs were removed and, with a Junior Leader dead and a team killed their force Morale (only 8 to begin with) collapsed. Fortunately for Jack Duggan the Paupan scouts were on hand to lead the force out before Hari Tosis and his squad could cut the Track and block and withdrawal.
An interesting game even allowing for my design errors. The conclusion was rapid and cinematic in the extreme. What had seemed to be a small Japanese patrol was the bulk of their force which in just two phases surged through the Jungle and overran the Australian centre, breaking their enemy’s Force Morale. In campaign terms, the fact that the Japanese were still on a Force Morale of nine at the end of the game means that their losses were a grand total of ZERO! The Aussies had actually lost just six men plus a Leader so they lose three men permanently, two will miss the next game and two will return immediately. That’s according to the rules in At the Sharp End. I may adjust the way these figures work for this campaign as being wounded in this environment, with intense heat, raid and a horrific journey along a track that prior to the campaign had been considered almost impossible for Europeans to traverse could well mean that losses should be worse than they would be on European battlefield. The issue of prisoners needs to be considered as, frankly, there weren’t any taken. On either side. But that’s for another day.
Of course posting this will now mean that lots of people will say “when is the handbook being published” and the truth is that it’s still a work in progress. This has been the hardest game design journey I have ever been on and, as many will know, it’s been a long time coming. We still need to playtest lots of different theatres, but we have made immense progress on this in the last few months and I am now at the point where we know it will work. It’s a long journey but one Hell of an interesting and enjoyable one.