Monday, October 21, 2019

Game 103: Midway Campaign

I’m not quite the model of a modern major general, but I’ve observed a pattern of turning-point battles in the history of war. An aggressor is victorious for months to years, but eventually suffers a failed push, and then because of loss of strategic position, loss of resources, or loss of morale, withdraws, is unable to regain their momentum, and eventually loses the war. Such was the case from Marathon to Borodino (Waterloo was more of a last stand), Gettysburg, the Battle of Britain, and in June 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy suffered irreversible loss of all position, resources, and morale from a disastrous assault on Midway Atoll.

As I mentioned in the last post, details on Midway Campaign’s development are scant. Mobygames releases state 1980 releases for Atari 8-bit, Commodore PET, and TRS-80, and doesn’t list an Apple II release until 1983, but this is inconsistent with the cover art section, where, like B-1 Nuclear Bomber, there is a photo of an Apple/PET/TRS tape copyrighted 1980.

Between these three versions, the TRS-80 version has a slightly different screen layout.

Apple II

Commodore PET


The TRS-80 is more attractively laid out, with aligned columns for the text, but I played the Apple II version anyway, on the assumption that this was a feature added to the TRS-80 version rather than one taken away from the Apple II and PET versions.

As with B-1 Nuclear Bomber, my notes on Apple II emulation via MAME still apply, and you can follow my guide if you want to play too, using the notes on AppleSoft BASIC.

This is a game where you will be completely lost without reading the manual. There are only three pages worth of instructions, but they are dense.

The setup – US codebreakers have intercepted an IJN plan to capture Midway Island and establish naval superiority in the Pacific by destroying the remaining U.S carriers, which form the backbone of the modern navy. On the 4th of June, four carriers, supported by cruisers and destroyers, will approach Midway from the northwest and destroy its underdefended airbase. A support force from the west will then bombard the beach defenses. On the 5th, an invasion force will make landfall, and a second support group will wait in ambush to destroy the U.S. counterstrike force from Pearl Harbor. The US Navy, only able to muster three carriers, their support cruisers, and an undersized force of land-based aircraft at Midway, nevertheless has the advantage of surprise, as the IJN does not expect to face any resistance until the invasion is complete.

You command two task forces on the map, the ‘6’ designates TF-16 (Enterprise, Hornet, cruiser escort), the ‘7’ designates TF-17 (Yorktown and cruisers), and the ‘*’ designates Midway (with airfield and stationary AA guns). The IJN has three; a single carrier group designated ‘C’, and a heavy cruiser group and transport group designated with ‘J’s. You may order each task force to alter its course, or launch aircraft from any individual carrier, or from Midway. Aircraft may be put on patrol to defend their task force, “spotted” for launch, or ordered to attack an enemy task force. Aircraft come in three varieties – fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo bombers, and cannot be launched at night.

A point of confusion in the manual is that “spotted” can mean two different things. A spotted aircraft is one that is on deck, armed, and prepared to launch. A spotted task force is one that the enemy has seen and may attack.

The campaign is over when one side loses their last carrier, or when any task force leaves the map. Once this occurs, the game will end as soon as any ongoing air strikes conclude.

Starting off, the display here shows our task forces to the northeast of Midway. It’s 1200 on June 3, one day before the IJN task force is scheduled to attack. Both of my task forces have their carriers and are headed 205 degrees, roughly in the direction of Midway. This suited me fine, and I called a status report.

I let a turn elapse, and our scouts spotted approaching ships from the west.

This was, no doubt the heavy cruiser group.

The space between two adjacent dots marks 100nm, and our carriers can strike within a range of 200nm, while theirs can within 235nm. In other words, we have a maximum range of two dots, and they have the maximum range of a chess knight.

I was more worried about the carriers, so I kept a steady course, rather than pursue the cruisers.

By nightfall, I lost track of the cruisers.

By 0100 the next day, my ships were on course to sail right past Midway, so I changed their courses to due west, and hopefully intercept the carriers.

At about 0900, Midway was under attack!

There was a pause, and the updates continued:

Kates are torpedo bombers, which aren’t well distinguished from dive-bombers in the manual. My understanding is that dive-bombers are more accurate, but torpedo bombers are more lethal to ships. Fortunately, Midway is not a ship.

A status report showed Midway had sustained light damage, but was down about half of its aircraft. I probably should have assigned its the fighters to patrol the night before, but it was too late.

I put the Midway fighters on patrol, and armed my carrier fighters, as they’d be in striking range soon.

Spotting all of the aircraft on the Enterprise and Hornet

Next round, they attacked Midway again, and we traded a few fighters, but their bombers went largely untouched.

Midway had sustained heavy damage, and was unable to launch its aircraft. I launched a counter-attack with the entire strike force of my carriers.

Launching from the Enterprise and Hornet. Midway’s aircraft must remain below.

Next round, my strike forces reached their targets.

The Enterprise and Hornet were unsuccessful.

Yorktown was a bit more successful

And Midway took more hits

With my carriers’ entire flight decks away, all I could do now was wait for them to return and rearm.


Second IJN task force spotted


According to the manual, the IJN carriers will prioritize my carriers over Midway if spotted, and prioritize TF-16 over TF-17, so I put the Enterprise and Hornet’s fighters on patrol, and armed their bombers and all of Yorktown’s aircraft for a strike.

A turn passed without incident, and I launched my strike forces.

12 of Enterprises undefended bombers were shot down, and two of them landed hits on Akagi and Kaga.

One of Hornet’s undefended bombers was shot down, and thirteen of them landed hits and near misses on all four carriers.

Yorkdown’s fighters engaged IJN fighters, shooting down 18, who shot down 7 of Yorktown’s bombers and 1 fighter.

The IJN strike force did attack TF-16, whose patrolling fighters shot down an incredible 66 bombers. Enterprise and Hornet nonetheless took multiple hits from 45 bombers that made it through, and Hornet was so badly damaged that its strike force had to land on Enterprise instead.

Hornet was a sitting duck, unable to launch any fighters to defend itself, as the IJN strike force retaliated, and Enterprise’s patrol could only shoot down 27 bombers. 39 bombers made it through, finished off Hornet, and sank Enterprise, along with all of the bombers on it that I had just re-armed.

I had Yorktown launch all of its remaining aircraft. It performed miserably; the fighters missed the target completely, leaving most of its bombers to be shot down by the carrier’s patrol, and the few that made it through did little damage. The retaliation on Yorktown was thankfully light.

Yorkdown launched again. Once again, the fighters missed the target, 10 bombers were shot down by patrol, and the rest did little damage. This time retaliation on Yorktown was heavy, and its returning strike force bailed out.

Nothing I could do now but retreat, which I did safely under the cover of night. As Yorktown fled, explosions from Kaga and Akagi could be detected.

As dawn broke, Japanese ships and cruisers were spotted.

The north “J” were the carriers, which just hadn’t been identified yet.

The carriers continued to batter Midway as Yorktown made its escape. The battering stopped eventually, and we spotted the transports, but there was nothing to be done about it.

The game ended as my task forces left the map, and the score showed a Japanese strategic victory.

There was one thing that puzzled me, and it had been puzzling me even before I had started playing. The IJN strategy involves three task forces, only one with carriers, but all three have a role in attacking Midway. And yet, the combat mechanics in the manual are only described in terms of fighters, bombers, and AA. What do the Japanese cruiser and transport task forces actually do? In my playthrough, neither of them actually did anything except approach Midway. Were they just there as targets of opportunity for my own carriers?

I had another go, to see if I could do better.

This time, I set my task forces to 225 degrees so that they’d both arrive one point west of Midway, exactly in between it and the point where I first spotted the carriers last time.

Before night fell, I saw the carrier task force approaching from the north.

I maintained the course. Night would soon fall, which puts the kibosh on air strikes, but I prepared for morning by arming all of the Yorktown aircraft, the Enterprise and Hornet bombers, and patrolling the Enterprise and Hornet fighters.

My task forces arrived one dot north of Midway at 0300. One point of annoyance is that there’s no way, as far as I can tell, to park your vehicles. All you can really do is reverse their course every few turns so that they stay more or less in place.

Dawn broke, and the Japanese caught me very off-guard by attacking the undefended Yorktown!

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Enterprise and Hornet launched their bombers. Without fighter support, 30 went down, but the rest inflicted hits on multiple carriers, destroying Akagi and Soryu.

My remaining carrier fleet

I launched my Midway strike force, re-armed the fighters at Enterprise and Hornet, and launched them the next turn.

The Midway strike force sank Kaga and Hiryu, giving me total air superiority in the operation. My other strike forces landed hits on the cruisers, granting “victory points.”

The main IJN task force then started to retreat, so I pursued, eager to score more victory points, but the game ended once it pulled out of Midway’s range.

That’s more or less how the real Midway went, but I was eager to see if I could do better. What if Yorktown had been defended by patrols? The fighters hadn’t done me a lot of good in strikes, most of the time they’d just miss their target and leave the bombers undefended anyway, and the bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown did a fine job without fighter escort anyway.

This time, the carriers struck Midway first, before I could see them. The paltry Midway defense force couldn’t do much to slow the bombers, who inflicted heavy damage. My carriers attacked the fleet, but their counter-attacks sank Enterprise and Hornet, leaving Yorktown to fight alone.

Yorktown survived the day and inflicted heavy damage on the carriers, which continued burning throughout the night, but Yorktown was down to its last nine bombers. Soryu sank before dawn.

Dawn broke, and the enemy carriers continued burning, too badly damaged to launch bombers, but my scouts didn’t spot them until 1732, at which point it was clear they were retreating.

Night fell soon, and the Japanese carriers escaped, heavily damaged. The game ended, and declared the battle a marginal Japanese victory.

It seems there’s a lot of luck involved here. In my second game, leaving the Yorktown undefended turned out to not be a good move, and likely cost me the ship, and yet I came out ahead because the strike force targeted it with everything they had, leaving their carriers underdefended, allowing me to cripple them with my remaining combined forces. It was better that Yorktown be a total loss, than allow my other two carriers to be damaged, and luck plays yet another role in determining how effective your strikes are. A lucky round of bombs will completely prevent them from launching their aircraft, all but ensuring U.S. victory, while multiple less lucky bombings may only scratch the paint job, allowing them to retaliate. Luck further determines how late in the day you spot the carriers, and whether you spot them before they hit you can make all the difference in the world.

That said, for a game designed to run on a 16KB machine without a floppy drive, it packs quite a bit of sophisticated war simulation into this svelte size, or at least a pretty good illusion of it. Decisions feel meaningful in spite of randomness, and watching the outcome of your strikes is suitably tense. There are limitations, of course. I’m still convinced that the Japanese cruiser and transport task forces don’t actually do anything, and carriers are the only ships that matter. Ship-to-ship combat doesn’t happen at all, battleships don’t even exist, and all the cruiser escorts do is impotently fire on the aircraft dropping bombs on their carriers.

Historically, the carriers won Midway, and the destruction of the Japanese carriers, which had carried a major tactical victory at Pearl Harbor six months before, doomed Japan. Earlier naval battles in WWII had proven that battleships, long since a symbol of naval dominance, were obsolete, and that victory at sea was no longer possible without air support.


  1. Midway was a famous board game that used hidden movement to great effect. It was a cat and mouse game as each side tried to detect the other and launch strikes. I don't know if this is an adaptation of the board game or an independent effort. It looks like the board game, but perhaps because there aren't too many ways to represent this battle.

    Midway is a carrier battle, the cruiser forces don't do much. Perhaps if the Americans are foolish enough to let them get in gun range of their carriers. The surface forces are there to bombard the island and carry troops for the invasion.

    No sending out searches? Being spotted or not is HUGE in any carrier wargame. It's the primary thing you care about, honestly.

    You can already see the benefit of the computer game as the strikes are rendered at the single plane level. This would be way too much dice rolling for a paper board game. Roll for every plane being attacked by CAP, AA, doing its own attack, and parting shots from the AA. No way. But the computer does it all effortlessly.

    The Kates configured for the Midway attack carried bombs and acted as level bombers. Funny this game correctly calls the fighters Zekes instead of the cooler-sounding Zero. Also the game mimicked the disastrous strike by VT-8 from Hornet when the entire squadron was shot down. I don't know if it was by script or because the TBF Avenger has such a lousy rating in-game.

    You're putting victory points in quotes? That's the standard way that wargames determine a winner, if the outcome is not crystal clear.

    1. "The surface forces are there to bombard the island and carry troops for the invasion."

      That's what the manual says, but I never saw it happen in three playthroughs. I don't think they programmed this.

      "No sending out searches? Being spotted or not is HUGE in any carrier wargame. It's the primary thing you care about, honestly."

      Searches are performed automatically, and it doesn't seem like the player can do anything to influence them. According to the manual, US searches are based out of Midway, and IJN searches out of their cruisers, but for all intents and purposes, it seems to just come down to a random chance each turn whether you get spotted or not.

    2. So I tested this game (also for my blog), and some notes :
      - I indeed saw the cruiser fleet bombard the coast, though as far as I remember it only brings VP, I am not sure Midway can be destroyed this way (usually, by the time the cruiser reach Midway, it has been bombed by the Japanese Strike Force, except if the Japanese strike force is destroyed, in which case the other Japanese fleet retreat). On the other hand, I did not see troops landing.
      - There is a HUGE standard deviation in the damage dealt by planes. I have had case where I lose 35 fighters to the zeros, other where I lose 8...
      - The game pretends to be realistic and all, but there is no plane management, a carrier can carry two carriers worth of planes on deck (it happens if TF-17 is attacked while the planes are away and one of the carrier is destroyed), etc... Very unsatisfying game.

      The game is mediocre, bad even. It is a bit more playable on Atari has all information are on one screen.

    3. Ah, almost forget. The Atari version has the Light Carrier Zuiho, which escorts the Cruiser fleet, in addition to the four "main" aircraft carrier. The Zuiho rarely has any impact, as most of the time the US Task Force and the Main Japanese force attacked each other before the Zuiho is even in range, and everything is determined by that point.


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