Rule the waves and the skies
Developer: Avalon Digital,
Publisher: Avalon Digital
Release date: 5 Jun, 2020
The Asia-Pacific theater of World War II saw the clash of two of the world’s largest naval powers, the US and Japan. And central to this conflict as a relatively new type of ship, the Aircraft carrier. Having only been introduced about 20 years prior, these ships were now arguably the most important ships of any fleet, dethroning the old king of the sea, the Battleship.
And it’s these behemoths that Carrier Battles 4 Guadalcanal (from here on just Carrier Battles) are focused around. In Carrier Battles you control fleets of either the US, or Japan in a series of scenarios, with the mighty aircraft carriers being the most important ships both you and your opponent has, and also the ships you have the most control over.
Carrier Battles is a rather niche game, even by strategy game standards, as it skews even more towards planning and forethought than what is the norm. You don’t just click on what you want to attack, and see the results, even planes take several turns to reach their destination, and during that time, you can just hope you made the right choice to send them out. That said, this is still not an overly complex wargame, it just requires a different approach than most other games of its type.
Despite having Guadalcanal in its name, Carrier Battles is not a game that’s just focused on that the famous Battle of Guadalcanal, but rather covers a fare few engagements, from the Battle of Wake Island in late 1941, up to the earlier portions of the Bougainville campaign, starting in late 1943 (with the DLC that’s available at launch). You’re not given a whole lot of information about these battles in the game itself, just a few sentences giving a very quick summary. In fact, when it comes to giving you the historical background, the game is very sparse.
That’s not to say that it does a bad job at representing history though. There’s a staggering amount of different historical planes and ships in this game, and the scenarios do a decent job at portraying the different battles, at least from the perspective of a naval commander. And some of the decision making you have to do are likely a bit more realistic than that of a lot of other wargames.
Carrier Battles borrows some of its aesthetics from hex & counter board games. You’ve got square counters with an image and several numbers that represents each unit. The playing field is also split up into hexagons, similar to a lot of tabletop wargames. But there’s some more visual flare here than normal. The water (of which there’s a lot) looks reflective, even if it’s actually not, and depending on if it’s day or night, it changes colour. There are also other things, like clouds, that hovers a bit over the map, and makes it look more alive. This might not be a graphically intense game, but it does have some nice visual touches that sets it apart from many other games that go for a kind of tabletop game look & feel.
Sadly the indicators for scouting that gets overlaid on the map do give the game a cluttered appearance, and generally don’t look very good. But on the other hand, without these clear visual indicators, the game would be a lot harder to read, and thus they do a lot for the playability of the game.
The interface has the look of a smartphone or tablet game, which makes sense, this game started its life on the iPad, but it’s easy to read, and navigate, and the only thing that feels a bit off is some button placement, but even then, it’s not bad, just not perfect.
In terms of sound, there are some sound effects for when you do things that give good feedback, but they don’t do much more than that. They’re fine, and without them the game would feel worse to play, but they won’t impress anyone. The music is a bit better, it sounds suitably bombastic, which fits well in with the military theme.
Carrier Battles is a relatively light hex-based wargame, where you control a fleet of ships and airplanes, and try to sink the enemy’s ships, and shoot down their planes. Many scenarios also have other objectives, like trying to land troops in an important location. The game is turnbased, and every turn represents 15 minutes, although the game uses the term turn a bit differently (it’s the time between being able to give orders to units). Most scenarios lasts 3 days, so that’s in theory quite a few turns, but the game lets you give orders and then let things play out for a set amount of time, or until something important happens.
What really sets Carrier Battles apart from other hex-based wargames is how it handles giving orders to your units. The maps of this game covers a lot of space, so the kind of instantaneous movement you often get in strategy games would not give a realistic representation, at least not without a lot more hexes. So you can only order your ships every few turns. More interesting are your planes, which you assign missions to. Instead of treating them like units you move separately, for each carrier or air field, you have the choice to assign your planes to a few different types of missions. This can be scouting, attacking specific targets, relocating to another carrier or airbase, or defending the carrier or airbase they’re on. Different planes are of course better or worse at different things, and some are excluded from certain tasks. Once you’ve assigned your planes, they’ll leave their base, and then they’re out of your control, until they get back. And it can take a while before they return, depending on the mission.
Scouting is incredibly important. You don’t just know where the enemy fleets are, so you need to send out planes to try and find them. Scouting takes a while, so these are planes you won’t be able to use to attack the fleets you discover, but send out too few scouts, and the information you’ll get about the enemy will be spotty at best. When an enemy fleet gets discovered, you’ll not necessarily have perfect information about them. You might just know that there are a few enemy ships in an area, and not their type, or you might know that there might be a carrier or two lurking in a hex, but not what kind of escort they have. Just sending out your planes to attack something you don’t have much information about can be risky, but it’s also a risk you’re sometimes forced to take.
When sending out your planes, you’ve also got a few options, and things to consider. Planes landing at night have a high risk of crashing, and different types of planes have different ranges. You might also need to send your planes out in waves, rather than in one large clump, as to not overload the runways. The game does a good job at always giving you enough information to make an informed decision here, and will warn you if the return time for your planes will be at night.
Once your planes meet the enemy, or your fleet sail into an enemy fleet, a battle will start. The two sides will shoot at each other, and you don’t have any real say in what happens once combat has started, but the weaker side will usually come out worse for wear than the stronger side. The game does not just treat hits on units as kills, but much like in real life, warships can take quite a beating before going down. Thus there are degrees of damage to ships. Some kinds of damage is worse than others, and a ship that’s on fire will likely go down after a few turns, if the crew can’t get it under control. A carrier that sustains damage might also be unable to have planes land on it for a while, which is particularly bad if your planes are returning, and running low on fuel.
Apart from the tutorial scenarios, all of them let you pick between either playing as the US or the Japanese. In most of them, the Japanese forces felt like they had a small advantage though, which might be a leftover from when this was an iPad game, as back then the Japanese side was not playable (at least not at launch). You do have some alternative “what if” options for the scenarios that can make them easier or harder though. These can be things like the carrier Enterprise being available to you, as it was not part of a historical engagement elsewhere.
The games tutorial leaves a bit to be desired. It’s there, and for a game that plays so differently from the norm, a tutorial would almost be necessary, but it feels a bit bare-bones. The two tutorial missions have their own objectives, and the game teaches you the basics in a few short videos. These videos are a bit too slow, which makes them somewhat boring. It would have been better if the game took a more direct approach with its tutorials, telling you what to do with your first few moves, and letting you familiarize yourself with the interface at your own pace. Other than the tutorial, you also always have access to an in-game manual, that’s neatly organized by category, so it’s usually easy to find the information you need.
I have never played a wargame quite like this before. One that really asks you to commit to your actions, and that’s mostly about indirect control of your units. And it’s fun! I do suspect that this will be a love it or hate it kind of game though, those who find the idea of indirect control of your units, really committing to your actions, and always thinking a few turns into the future will likely love it, but those who need to see immediate results of their actions, and who don’t like the slower pace and who don’t like getting punished for a mistake they did 15 turns ago will probably find it more frustrating than rewarding.