In the early 1970s, a series of articles in Hobby Japan about miniatures wargaming in America made a splash among young Japanese people who were looking for something to do with their free time and money. Despite the disapproval of the older generation and a moral panic fed by the media, the nascent wargaming community forged ahead and bonded through meetups and conventions held in Tokyo, the first of which occurred in 1972. (For a closer look at the Japanese reaction to wargaming, check out: “Joy Family: Japanese Board Games in the Post-War Showa Period“)
To feed the demands of the growing hobby, Japanese toy companies like Bandai, Epoch, and Tsukuda Hobby (to name a few) jumped in by creating game divisions. But instead of slowly cultivating homegrown designs, it was found to be much easier and quicker to simply import existing designs from American game companies like SPI and Avalon Hill. Consequently, the 1970s is forever known to Japanese wargamers as “the import era.”
Thanks to the Japanese release of well-loved classics such as Tactics, gamers expanded their concept of wargaming beyond miniatures to include hex and counter games. Sure enough, these “simulation games” took off in popularity too. (Inline source note: “A Brief History of Tabletop Wargaming in Japan: 1972 – 2012“)
It’s important to note that, except for translation of rules and components, there were almost zero changes made to these import games. Map names were altered from Romaji (Roman alphabet) to katakana (Japanese alphabet for foreign loan words) and the cover art was redone – almost always nicer than the American version. But that was about it. Rarely did any of these hobby companies in Japan look at the design with a critical eye and make changes. Although it wasn’t apparent at the time, this would later spell trouble in the years to come.
A Yen for Design
By the end of the 70s, the tide was turning for Japanese game companies. The yen had declined sharply in value thanks to the shift from a fixed exchange rate to a floating exchange rate (source). The result was that it was no longer profitable to import games from the United States. Now the tables were turned as Tokyo-based companies faced high demand from consumers but no products to offer them. By 1980, things were getting desperate.
In hopes of finding homegrown designers, Japanese game companies cast a pleading eye across the land and found…nothing. It seemed that the reliance on import games during the previous decade had done little to stoke the growth and development of Japanese game designers. The first few attempts at designing and publishing new games were ill-received by the gaming public.
Slowly and painfully, Japanese toy companies got down to work and set their sights on creating low complexity games. Not only were they still learning the ropes, but they were also aiming to grow the hobby among school-age kids.
For those who doubt the conviction with which these companies forged ahead, I present Exhibit A: Tsukuda Hobby’s TV commercial, perhaps the only wargame TV commercial in existence.
This is a real thing.
It really happened.
As the decade wore on, Japanese gaming companies nailed down the basics and experimented more and more. Some results were mindbogglingly complex monster games (such as Leopard II, with no less than 3,000 game counters). Other games, like The Amazing Spiderman, were clearly still aimed at pulling in the kids – at least until the Nintendo FAMICON game console came along and snatched the latter demographic away once and for all. Import games were still popular, though they took less and less shelf space as Japanese games improved in quality and quantity.
Operation: October Typhoon shows off what the benefit of eight years of experimentation had reaped for the Japanese game market in terms of design. At this point, the hobby had matured and serious game designers had emerged. No longer were Japanese wargames just emulations of American ones – they were now crafted by talented Japanese guys who understood their audience and were unafraid to try new things. In contrast to the shaky start that characterized the turn of the decade, the designs of the late 1980s seem confident and willing to explore a wide variety of topics.
Enter Operation October Typhoon
October Typhoon’s designer, Makoto Fukuda, had spent much of the 1980s creating wargames that dealt with a range of topics and eras. Two of his World War II games – “Red Sun, Black Cross” and “Normandy: Operation Overlord” were followed up with a pair of designs set in feudal Japan “Shingen Joraku” and “Yukimura Gaiden”. October Typhoon was yet another divergence, this time into a what-if scenario of a World War III operational contest between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in 1980s Central Europe.
By 1988, the Japanese gaming market was no stranger to this theme. GDW’s Third World War series had been imported and localized in the mid-80s along with its tactical World War III game, Assault. Victory Games’ Gulf Strike and Fleet series had also been published and released in the Japanese market. Leopard II, which some regarded as an unplayable and incomplete mess, had been published two years’ prior to Typhoon. So clearly there was some perceived appetite for the World War III Cold War turned Hot kind of game.
October Typhoon takes place in the first half of 1990. It includes two maps (one of Northern Germany and the other of Southern Germany), 1000 counters, 2 pages of quick reference cards, 2 display sheets, and a six-sided die. It features two scenarios – the battle for Northern Germany and the battle for Southern Germany.
Of course, the maps can be put together and you can just play it all out as one big scenario. I am guessing the scenarios are divided into two for the purposes of timely play but also because the maps are quite big and Japanese homes at the time were notoriously small.
NATO counters are primarily battalion level while Soviets are of regimental size. Units are assigned a type, which determines combat power (used for both offense and defense), and a number of steps. All ground combat units have 4 Movement Points. NATO helicopters move up to 20 hexes while WP helos can travel up to 15 hexes.
Electronic Warfare: The Invisible Battle
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much new here. You have your standard ratio-based CRTs, air point assignment, and chit-pull activation mechanic for both sides. October Typhoon is not revolutionary by any means, but it seems like a solid design with a few interesting twists.
Each turn, both players are allotted SEW (Strategic Electronic Warfare) points. These points can be allotted to ECM (Electronic Countermeasures), ECCM (Electronic Counter Counter Measures), ESM (Electronic Support Measures), and EDM (Electronic Defensive Measures).
The outcome of these assignments in relation to the other player determines the number of each side’s Tactical Electronic Warfare (TEW) points. These points can be assigned to individual units to give them a bonus in combat. As a fan of WW3 games of this era, this is the first time I have seen EW take on such an important role. Fukuda’s thesis about the importance of electronic warfare and intelligence gathering is both clear and prescient, considering how much of a role it ultimately played in future conflicts.
Operations Phase: Chit Happens
The Operations Phase consists of the players pulling markers from a cup to determine the order in which each side will conduct ground operations and introduce reinforcements. Each side gets up to 4 activation chits and reinforcement chits in the cup. A player can reduce his opponent’s chits by achieving air superiority in the air stage, and/or winning the ECM battle during the electronic warfare phase. At the time, this probably would have been a very different approach to the standard wargame sequence of play – certainly a departure from the AH and SPI classics of the 1970s.
The results of the air superiority battle at the start of the turn determines how much of your tactical air points can be used for air support. Combat is a straight-up ratio-driven affair with results expressed in step losses or retreats, whichever the owning player chooses. Advance after combat is provided but there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism for breakthroughs. Consequently, it’s likely that Warsaw Pact success relies heavily on exploiting the autobahn and highway hexes.
Operation: October Typhoon is a decent example of how Japanese design had grown over the 1980s. Though games hadn’t strayed far from the familiar hex and counter approach of their American roots, Japanese designers had grown confident and competent enough to create a design that offered something new within an existing genre.
For a brief time toward the end of the decade, there was a faint glimmer of burgeoning creativity just before PC gaming took over and reduced Japanese wargame companies to a shell of their former selves. Lucky for Japan, however, there would be a resurgence in the not too distant future…but we’ll get to that later.
Sources & Further Reading:
- The Rise & Fall of the Wargame Empire (Japanese) by Kazuya Nagahama, 4Gamer.net (2018)
- Makoto Fukuda – Wikipedia page (Japanese)
- Joy Family: Japanese Board Games in the Post-War Showa Period by Nathan Altice (2019)
- A Brief History of Tabletop Wargaming in Japan: 1972 – 2012 by Hiroshi Tamura (2016)