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In the wargaming space, it's particularly interesting to see a game that bends the norms of the genre to suit a particular war or ev...

Battle for Iwo Jima Battle for Iwo Jima

Battle for Iwo Jima

Battle for Iwo Jima

In the wargaming space, it's particularly interesting to see a game that bends the norms of the genre to suit a particular war or even specific battle. That's the nature of Battle for Iwo Jima, the new title from one-man operation YoboWargames. As you might imagine this game focuses on just one battle, the brutal struggle for that tiny island in the Pacific. Battle for Iwo Jima takes a look at the conflict through the lens of simple, yet thoughtful game design where each side follows a different set of rules. 

This is a single player only title, where you can only play as the US Marines, and there is only one scenario. This might sound pretty limited in an age where we expect games to have unlimited content and options, but in this case it works in the favor of the game. By designing the entire game around playing this one battle from one direction, the focus is entirely on making that specific experience more interesting. At the same time, the game uses a straightforward and simple set of rules that are more reminiscent of a boardgame than anything else.

Play proceeds through a fixed set of phases. The player controls the US Marines from the initial beach landings to the bitter end of the battle. If you manage to get there! This is not an easy game and it's entirely possible to be relieved of duty after only a few turns if things go exceptionally poorly. Each turn progresses through a series of distinct phases as the player assigns limited support points to units of their choosing, and moves the Marines around (while the Japanese shoot at them), then the Japanese get to hit them with artillery, and attack Marines that are adjacent. Surviving Marine units then get a chance to attack the Japanese units. Afterwards there is a night phase where the Marines can be attacked again by the Japanese. Occasionally a suicidal Banzai charge will occur which is a high stakes affair for everyone involved, but often favors the player. 

You'll notice that the Japanese defenders get many opportunities to inflict casualties on the Marines, while the player's forces only get one attack per turn, if they manage to get into position and aren't so fatigued as to make the attack more risk than reward. The key advantage that the Marines have is that they are highly mobile, able to move as far as they want each turn, while the Japanese defenders are fixed in place and never move. The trouble is, the only way for the Marines to find and close the distance to the defenders is to take fire and hope for the best. Often, if you aren't careful, your Marines will wander into a killzone, taking fire from two or three Japanese units at once. This hazard is at times unavoidable, as the time constraints mixed with the physical constraints of the geography force you to choose between making a safer, yet limited attack, or rolling the dice and trying to overwhelm the enemy.

I will admit that this was a difficult game for me, and I have not managed to win the entire campaign yet. Repeated plays have given me a better sense of strategy and how to deal with the challenges the game deals out, but it's still rough going. The battle also changes as it goes through a couple of phases. Taking the airfield near the beaches isn't too hard, as the Japanese are mostly in the open and there is some room to get at them once you crack the line in a spot or two. The next item on the agenda is taking Mt. Suribachi, which limits the damage from the Japanese artillery and eliminates one front from your concerns. This is a bit harder, as the Japanese are dug in and there is little room to maneuver. After that, the real grind begins as the player must break through and defeat multiple fortified lines of defense to conquer the rest of the island. While the Marines do get several waves of new units and some reinforcement points, they never feel like quite enough for the task at hand. Fortunately, the game does come with a thorough manual that includes a strategy guide, which you will definitely want to read through. 

To make all of this a bit more complicated, Marine units can only fight when they are in range of their HQ, which must by necessity be kept right at the edge of dangerous territory if you want to keep with your timetable. It's very tempting to move them up closer, directly into danger, so that your flanking units are still in contact. You also get several tank units, which can attack directly but are best used to support the attacks of infantry. You have no choice but to send the tanks into harm's way if you want them to be of any use, but you can dedicate your "support" points to them each turn to give them a better chance. 

So that covers most of the gameplay mechanics. It is indeed a relatively simple game that you can learn how to play in a matter of minutes. To win, however, will require you to learn the nuances of the system and how best to approach the problem at hand. Thoughtlessly throwing your Marines at the Japanese defenders will quickly result in them being whittled down to nothing long before you have control of the island. Rather, you must consider the potential risks and benefits of each move, and exploit any seams that appear in the Japanese defenses. You must also accept up front that you will take considerable casualties no matter what. I found this to be a sobering aspect of commanding this particular battle. There is no tactic that allows you to completely avoid taking fire and the accompanying loss of men. You have to put your boys into harm's way in order to achieve your objectives.

Battle for Iwo Jima has relatively simple graphics to go along with its simple rule set. That said, the visuals do have quite a lot of charm to them. The occasional animations bring the boardgame-esque map to life, like when flares go up during the night attack phase, or the occasional flight of US Navy fighters cruises across the map. One clear benefit of the simplicity is that the game has extremely low system requirements and should run on practically anything.

For the very low asking price, this game is easy to recommend to anyone interested in the battle or in the market for a simple, if not easy, wargame. You will get an enjoyable experience for sure, though once you have beaten the game there might not be too much reason to return. Still, this is a nice one to add to your collection whether you are an experienced wargamer or someone looking for an entry point into the genre. 

Battle for Iwo Jima is available on Steam.

- Joe Beard

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