Today I’m turning my attention, having heavily praised Here I Stand, to a game I got more recently of the wargame persuasion, Asia Engulfed. I must say I would not recommend it to my AT friends here, and only lukewarmly to my wargame friends. I’m not nearly as high on Asia Engulfed as HIS.
It is the sequel to Europe Engulfed, unplayed by me, which many gamers feel is one of the better high level games of the European theatre. By contrast, I find Asia Engulfed relatively boring strategically and occasionally frustrating mechanically. I have yet to determine whether this is because of faults in the game or they are simply problems I have with gaming the overall conflict being simulated, the Pacific theatre of WWII.
I’ll preface all my remarks by saying I haven’t played this game all that many times, perhaps 5-6 full games with a couple of those being small scenarios. So if you want to accuse my review of being uninformed, perhaps it is in terms of my experience, but I have had enough experience not to be terribly excited to play too often but it is a long game and I feel 4 full campaigns is probably enough.
To start with, I’ll talk about the basic mechanics and what the game looks like. Like Europe Engulfed, Asia Engulfed is a block wargame. So all land units are on blocks which are unseen by your opponent and are revealed when they go into combat, allowing your army to surprise your opponent with bluffs. Asia Engulfed stretches this to the Pacific theatre of WWII putting ships on blocks and pasting on a significant set of naval rules to the Europe Engulfed land rules system. It’s relatively middle-high level of abstraction for (obsessive) wargamers, but it does simulate most of the important specifics of the Pacific theatre like the Japanese scarcity of oil, transports and, well, just about everything through specific mechanisms. The chrome level is just about right for me—not too spare and abstract like AVL but not too many “gotta catch em’ all” subbullet details.
In terms of components, it is a very nice package from GMT games. Their production value is undoubtedly improving. The blocks aren’t painted as well as they could be but the map looks very clean and colorful and all the necessary components are present and accounted for. I could use more influence markers though. There are a number of scenarios of different lengths, though by most AT and Euro standards all these lengths are long. Nonetheless, you could probably get a game of the short scenario done in a couple hours, which is always an achievement for a game that also has a meaty, extremely long campaign as its focus in the same box.
Specifically worthy of note, as in FAB:Bulge, I want to call out the designer and producer of the game for absolutely wonderful attention to detail with regards to introducing players and playeraids. The combo of Rick Young and John Foley make sure to include all the necessary play aids(and some unnecessary!) and extremely helpful long play examples in the playbook. There are also 2 copies of all playaids, which sounds trivial to most of readers but in a wargame can sometimes be overlooked. I think it’s a developer thing, but Asia Engulfed is made as easy to get into as any other game I’ve seen of its size and length. So bravo on that, an impeccably developed game. I have said this before, but it makes me far more likely to buy a Young/Foley game again, even independent of game quality.
I’ve got some negative things to say about the game, but let me get my overall comments out front. Overall this is a decent game. Not terrible at all. If I had a friend who loved playing it, I’d play it once in a while. But it’s the kind of game that I wouldn’t accede to every time and I’d have to be compensated for by having him play one of my favorites. Or other sundry compensations. Like pie.
The best way to describe the gameplay would be procedural. It is *extremely* procedural. Timing is everything in this game, and understanding and leveraging it is the key to improving at the game. Essentially what the game is is the Europe Engulfed land system (which I was previously unfamiliar with anyway) with a naval/air system sandwiched around and on top of it. It is obvious that getting it to work right was a design nightmare. To give an example of the (necessarily) bizarre order of play, the first phase of a new turn is naval movement and interception, where fleets sortie out to attack each other. But the attacks don’t happen there and then; next is the long production phase! Only after production and things like submarine attacks on your industry, ground/air/sea unit production, etc, do the fleets who you’ve sortied out actually attack each other! This is very strange, but I must say that it is impeccably designed. Once you grasp the order, it makes sense why it is and has to be so—the order lets you do everything you think you should be able to do in a Pacific War game at the right time. The overall order of play is therefore one of the absolute strengths of the game.
The ground game too makes sense and is very simple. But this is no surprise; this is exactly what everyone liked from Europe Engulfed. There is chrome but it is not too excessive in ground combat. It works as it should and gets rolled up relatively quickly after you count up all the pips in combat.
The strategic warfare parts of the game also work and are easily overlooked the first time you play, and are an easy way to lose the game. Subs are brutal on the Japanese economy if you can jack up the sub levels they are crippling as are strategic bombers if you get close enough to Japan. All works as it should. The Japanese feel the hurt early on the in the game and have to husband their resources.
Here starts the cons, however. First and foremost I find the fleet action very frustrating at times. It is slightly complex but that is not really an issue. My biggest beef is with the air combat during naval encounters. Keep in mind that this is probably the most important part of any Pacific War game, so problems here are big problems. In particular, I feel that air combat is underpowered in many ways and leads to very conservative air strategies, in addition to the overly aggregation assignment mechanism.. AA is extremely strong for big fleets—each 2 pips of fleet power give a 1/6 chance of shooting down a step of attacking air. To say nothing of the enemy actually having air power and protecting their ships in addition to AA. I found myself, with any reasonable size CV fleet level (say 3-4CV pips, sometimes more), often doing just some damage to the enemy fleet while having almost my entire air force shot down just trying to attack enemy ships. The hidden chit air selection game plays into this—forces have to choose between protecting their ships, shooting at enemy planes or attacking enemy ships and cannot do more than one. The problem with this is in most non-Armageddon battles with huge numbers of planes to assign you only have 3-4 plane units, making these choices extremely discrete! In practice, the smaller fleet rarely attacks with anything, just turtles, and the attacking fleet sends everything away to get shot down and perhaps sink 2-3 pips of ships. I was frustrated to see multiple times a reasonable size 5-6 block fleet with decent air cover meet a similar size solely surface fleet during the day at air range and sometimes lose more WERPs in planes than the opponent lost in ships. After whining about this online a bit, I actually took the time to look it up—it appears this is historical, as 50-60% of air losses were to AA, disputing the myth of the all powerful aircraft. Nevertheless, for me, it is an extremely unsatisfying mechanic.
And this leads to another undesirable behavior from the system, which is amassing huge fleets and blobbing them together, especially from the Japanese. The Japanese cannot afford to sortie very many times because of oil. So they sit as a deterrent with the huge fleets in port. The US player can’t challenge those fleets until late in the game, so they have to wait until middle of the game on and nip at the corners of the Japanese Empire. I heard someone describe it as “WWI at sea” and that is much how I felt much of the time. The designer even put in a requirement that the US sortie a decent size fleet into combat range of the Japanese. While I can’t say exactly why, I suspect it was to combat this WWI at sea theme. In addition, the AA system means that huge fleets are far, far more secure, even with no aircraft carrier support, than small fleets to air. Which leads to a stockpiling and hoarding until perhaps the two huge fleets face each other later in the game.
There are a number of other niggling irritations, like the sometimes questionable use of tactical submarines, the grinding endless warfare on port spaces but not island spaces but nothing comparing to what I found as a very frustrating central mechanic for air power in naval battles.
All that said, my biggest beef with the gameplay and why I find it rather boring probably has to do more with the strategic situation. I can boil both players decisions down in a couple sentences: the Japanese take the East Indies. They then decide one of four things: attack Burma, attack Australia, attack China on land, or do nothing and hope for marginal victory. They pursue that for 4-5 turns and find out if they won. The Americans then have only one option: defend for the first 1/3-1/2 of the game and then go island by island wasting WERP after WERP in troops and hoping for 5s and 6s in combat, after a huge superfleet battle that they (hopefully) win. Of course, you could flippantly describe any wargame in such broad strokes, but ultimately I don’t feel the game has enough tactical richness to make that process interesting. Should a game be punished for modeling a conflict well? Probably not—and what I described is probably a good general description of the historical situation. But it basically ends up meaning two players sit for a long time in a long game, with one player being fully engaged and attacking for 1/4-1/3 of the game and the other having the initiative the rest of the game. There aren’t enough interesting options on the defense to make the process interesting when you aren’t on the move.
Overall, this is a good production and a well designed game. But a game that I’m finding boring and frustrating. My primary design beef with it is the air naval combat, a pretty core problem with the game, and an unintuitive (but really amazing) procedural ruleset. More than that, I suppose I am being critical of the strategic situation, and that really isn’t being fair to the game. On the other hand one might argue that it is the designer’s responsibility, if they deign to make a game on such a situation, to make enough choices in that game exciting. I feel there is little comparison in the level/number of decision making to another Young design that I love, FAB:Bulge. Overall, on The Other Game Site I have this rated a 6/10 and I think that’s about right. That may go up or down as I play more games, but my overall motivation level to play more games of this is subsiding also.