“Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you, smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, “Come and find out”.”
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
What must it have been like, standing on the bridge of an American aircraft carrier in the South Pacific in 1942 or 1943? Looking over the vast calm ocean straight to the horizon and knowing that somewhere out there, someone was trying to find you and kill you and the only thing that you could do to avoid that was to find them and kill them first. It must have been terrifying and strange and beautiful all at the same time. Victory Games’ Carrier (1990) designed by Jon Southard, tries to capture this feeling for the player.
So far, I’ve talked about a couple of scenarios in Carrier that revolve around striking the enemy. I’ve had plenty of good luck and fun with sinking Japanese carriers. However exciting that may be, all of that is the end product of many hours of searching, intelligence gathering, and analyzing and classifying information that still may prove faulty in the end.
As a solitaire game, how does Carrier simulate the uncertainty that surrounds this aspect of carrier warfare? It uses an elegant system of chit pulls and charts to determine enemy movement, sightings, and intelligence reports. Scenario 4 shows off this system quite nicely. Although the results of my playthrough were less than stellar, I hope my playthrough helps to show how the game system works.
We set up with two American carrier task forces beside each other. USS Enterprise is in Task Force 16 (hex 2718) while USS Hornet is in Task Force 17 (hex 2717). Both carriers have 4 steps (two counters) of SBDs to use for searching. There are no airstrikes in this scenario. The focus here is entirely on finding out where and what the enemy is.
|Two US carriers with four steps (two counters) of search planes each|
There are 12 markers placed on the map to the north. These represent initial reports of Japanese combat forces (denoted with the “C” on the counter). A marker could turn out to be a carrier force or nothing at all or somewhere in between. We have no idea what these are and it is our job to try and investigate as many of these reports as possible and sort out the good from the bad. If we do find Japanese ships in one of the reports, we need to get a location on them – the more precise the better.
|Initial setup with US Task Forces (blue) and Japanese markers (yellow)|
We do this by sending out search planes. When search planes are launched, they are put on a Search track. Each turn, they move farther out along the search track and can be activated once per turn to make a search roll of all enemy markers within the range stated on their current position of the Search track. This roll determines how much they find out about the enemy marker, which can vary from finding out lots of information (lower die rolls) to merely getting an approximate fix and a vague report of enemy ships to nothing at all. Of course, the planes can’t stay out searching forever, so as they move along the search track they start to come back towards your carrier where you must get them down into hangars and servicing before you can launch them out there again.
|The Search Track|
As the American player finds out more about a certain marker, the intelligence “level” rises to get more specific. So a Level 1 report might reveal that a marker is actually a carrier force. A level 2 marker will reveal how many carriers are in that force and a level 3 marker might tell you what kind of carriers there are (whether they are CVs or CVEs or CVLs) in the task force. A level 4 report will tell you exactly which ships are in the task force as well as air strength and escorting surface ships. The intelligence tables also leave room for levels to decrease or change entirely so that enemy carrier force might end up being an exaggeration by an over-excited search crew. You might end up sending a strike force out to bomb a coral reef. Life is like that.
The Japanese objective in this scenario is known. The enemy ships are trying to get to New Hebrides. This objective determines how the Japanese markers move. There are four phases each turn where Japanese markers move. We start off by rolling a mission movement die and then pulling a certain number of force activation chits as dictated by the record track. When we pull a chit that matches the number on a marker, we move it as directed by both the die roll and the compass shown on the marker’s map section. There are 7 blanks in the force activation cups to make things interesting. The Japanese might be very active throughout a turn or they might move all their ships at the start of the turn or the end of it only.
In Phase 1, we pull 2 chits for the Japanese force and move markers 8 and 5. I decide to move my US task force 16 northwest from hex 2718 to 2619. This gets us a bit closer to the general area of the Japanese markers.
|TF 16 moves up|
I decide to launch two air search steps of SBDs from the Hornet and Enterprise this phase. I could have decided to launch all four air steps together from either or both carriers. As it stands, having only two steps searching on each search track means that I will suffer a +2 die roll modifier for all search rolls. My plan is for the remaining search planes to follow them up after a short time to catch anything the first search planes happen to miss. I am hoping the second wave of search planes will also be able to help confirm sightings on anything that the first ones happen to find.
|Both TFs have two steps of search planes on the first space of the Search Track.|
In Phase 2, C1 moves SE from 1924 to 2024 and the other 2 Japanese chits are blank. The Americans can do nothing right now so it is off to Phase 3. C7 and C3 both move southeast. In the fourth phase, all the other Japanese chits are pulled. C2 moves southwest while C9 and C4 move east.
My search planes aren’t far out enough to catch anyone at the moment so there is little to do but move on to turn 2.
|US and Japanese marker positions at the end of turn 1|
At the beginning of the turn, the search planes I launched in turn 1 have now moved ahead on the Search track to the 4-7 spot. They may now be used once in the turn to search for any Japanese contacts that are from 4 to 7 hexes away.
In Phase 1, we pull 3 chits for the Japanese. C4 moves southeast from 1715 to 1815. The Japanese are slowly getting into search range now. One thing to note here is that the Japanese might move differently around US air sources such as carriers and US airfields. If the Japanese are 8 hexes from your carrier force at the start of their move, you need to compare the mission die roll to the distance at which they begin. If the Mission Die Roll exceeds the distance in hexes between the Japanese counter and the US air source, the Japanese might not move at all or they will attempt to move laterally so as to keep their distance from the US air source while still heading for their objective.
For this reason, it is sometimes better for the US player to wait for the Japanese to slowly enter his search range rather than try to barge ahead towards Japanese contacts. Presumably, they are aware of possible US forces out ahead of them and are reacting to your movements at the same time too.
I moved TF17 northeast to 2617 but I am not sure if this is a smart move as now C4 and C3 are within 8 hexes and may refuse to move into my search range. On the other hand, the US player can only move a task force in phase 1 and phase 3 of this turn so it is now or never if I want to move both carriers this turn.
TF16 and TF17 both launch their next two steps of search planes. The SBDs go up on the search track in the 0-3 hex box.
|Search tracks with SBDs at different ranges.|
In Phase 2, the Mission Die Roll is mercifully low and the Japanese will follow their assigned mission movement. C8 and C9 both move southeast. Hornet may be able to catch them if I can get it moving up soon enough.
In Phase 3, the MDR is again low (result is a 1) and the 2 chit pulls send C2 and C7 southeast. Task Force 16 (Hornet) moves Northeast. It is now in search range of C7. TF16 is in range of C7 C8, and C1. My gut tells me to pull the trigger and make my search rolls now but there is always the chance that C3 and C5 will come into range next phase if the Mission Die Roll is low enough.
In Phase 4, we get a 4 for the Mission Die Roll, which is great. We pull all the rest of the Japanese chits and C5 and C3 move southeast into our search range. Now it is time for us to make our search rolls.
The Enterprise searches roll lousy and miss 3 of their searches. They manage to approximately locate C7. Since this is a level 0 force, we get to pull a chit from our other cup to see what it is. It is revealed as a dummy – a false report, a day dream, a mirage. C7 is removed from the map.
Hornet’s search parties have better luck. They locate C3 and find out that it is a surface force. It’s bittersweet though – the victory conditions double your points for finding a carrier force. Oh well. Maybe next turn.
|C7 is revealed as a dummy force while C3 is located and appears to be a Japanese surface force.|
In this turn, the Japanese get 3 chit pulls in the first phase, 2 in the second, and 3 in the third. The Americans can move one ship in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd phases. Hopefully, we can catch the rest of the undetected Japanese forces and sort out what is happening out there.
Our search planes in the 4-7 box move to the 1-3 box as they are returning to the carrier. Our second wave of searchers is now up in the 4-7 box.
In Phase 1, C5 and C1 inch closer to our task forces, probably oblivious to our presence.
In Phase 2, it seems we have gotten as good as it is going to get with Task Force 16. No other forces will be moving into search range this turn, so it makes sense to see what is out there. We go ahead with our rolls and find out that:
C1 is a Medium-sized Japanese force. Whether it is a medium-sized carrier task force or surface force or (in the standard game) a transport force, we have no idea. We just know that there seem to be quite a few ships in this one specific area.
The next two rolls for C8 and C5 are blown.
C4 is revealed as Surface force. It is only approximately located so if we were playing a standard game, an air strike would need to more accurately locate it before they could try and hit it.
In Phase 3, C9 moves southeast to 1924. TF17 responds by moving northwest to 2517. It is now in search range of four forces. It manages to accurately locate the C4 surface force but no further information is found out. The other rolls are unsuccessful in either locating or further identifying the other contacts.
|End of turn 3 search results. I sure hope C1 isn’t a carrier force!|
Although it doesn’t really matter at this point because we have no searches left, we move the rest of the Japanese contacts. C4 moves to 1914 while C2 goes to 2011 and C8 moves Southeast to 1922.
We managed to accurately locate three forces (C4, C1, and C3) at level 1 intelligence for six VPs. We get one additional VP for finding a dummy force.
According to our result table, we get: “Your inept searching allows the Japanese to hit your fleet with a surprise attack, in which you are killed.” Oh boy!
|“Hey guys! Let’s shift the search patterns a bit. I think there’s something out there!”|
I think the biggest problem I had here was with how I used my search planes. By only sending out 2 steps at a time to search, it really hurts your results on the search die roll table. It would have made far more sense to have the Enterprise send out two steps at a time as we did but to have the Hornet follow up behind with a four-step search team to help further identify and classify what the first search team found. Using teamwork, I think the carriers could have focused in on half of the contacts out there and coordinated their air search and movement together.
I have played this scenario a few times now with varying results. My best scores (which are still not that good) usually happen when search planes are launched with four steps and at varying intervals. This is a tough scenario though! I played through to 6 turns once and managed to identify only half the Japanese forces on the map.
At the very least, I hope this playthrough gives you a better idea of how Carrier works and you can see the elegance of its core design shine through.