The gray double-door stands squat in my path, advertising the weight of its steel with utter, dominating stillness. A security pad waits smugly at its side. The muted reverberation of our footsteps down the corridor pauses long enough for someone in our little phalanx to swipe a card and get us in. Beep. The heavy door exhales as it cracks open, and the atmosphere of a control room out of control courses out, engulfing my already taut nervous system in a 100-man, panicked cacophony of frustrated voices asking questions for the third and fourth time and mealy digital phone ringers pealing one on top of another in an anxious cascade. I straighten my shoulders and step in, wondering whether I really have what it takes …to command the entire U.S. war effort in the Pacific Theatre.
In the inexplicable unison of a beleaguered war band waiting for salvation in the form of someone who knows what to do, the officers watching maps and radar screens and giant HD displays of the terrible events unfolding somewhere out there beyond the International Date Line all fall silent at the same moment and turn their heads in my direction, each face a desperate question mark with just a dot of hope at the bottom. Aside from the unknowing hum of the machines waiting for someone to start watching them again, there is not a sound in the vast, screen-lit twilight of the room. I am there because the only men who might have been capable of directing a campaign of such Byzantine intricacy have already been taken out by some stroke of fiendish genius. Someone else now has to choose the strategic goals; order the production of the requisite materiel from the first battleship down to the last fighter plane and landing boat; orchestrate the proper participation of troops, ships and aircraft in the complex attacks that must be launched in order first to stem and then to turn the tide of the enemy’s furious advance; and see to it that all of it is fed and fueled and armed with enough supply to succeed. I am there because I am the best unorthodox solution the government could find. I am there because I have spent years practicing all of these tasks …in games. In various generations of the historical simulation called War in the Pacific, to be exact.
I break the tortured, expectant silence by breathing through my belly and calling out my first command. “Report! Current disposition of forces, Philippines! I need SUBRON Five, Subic Bay!” I strain to sound authoritative, informed, confident. By some miracle, I seem to have started with the right things to say. The room sputters back to life with a relieved chorus of “Yes, sir!” as human motion resumes and everyone gets back to work, but now with the assurance that someone–me–is in charge.
* * *
This very dorky daydream came to me one night while I was indeed playing the computer game War in the Pacific by Gary Grigsby and Matrix Games. It was sort of that same moment you might experience if you have been playing with a flight simulator, when you foolishly think, “Gee, I wonder if I couldn’t fly a real plane now!” What’s true is that all the games in this Pacific War lineage offer the opportunity to control every aspect of WWII between Japan and the Allies down to a crazy level of detail.
My father and I purchased the original maps-and-counters-in-a-box version in San Francisco at a game store on Market Street back in the late ’70s. My father’s young boyhood had played out against the backdrop of the War, close enough in San Francisco to have had blackout curtains and worries about enemy submarines. He turned eight just before the Japanese surrender, so the conflict with Japan was alive somewhere in his psyche. As for me, somehow I too had become fascinated with it at a young age, so War in the Pacific was a logical choice for a game. He and I had already been playing war games (mostly SPI games I became aware of as a ten-year-old member of the United States Naval Institute) for several years at that point. When we brought the huge War in the Pacific box to the register, the storekeeper said something like, “Ah, so you’re going to try this one, huh? It’s a bear! Just remember, it’s all about the supply points.”
Undaunted, we played that game for years. When spread out all at once, the map board measures something like 6’x4′, which meant you couldn’t just leave it out in the living room. I had to design a stacking storage system in my room to keep it going. The rule book is over 50 pages long, and we never did quite master every subtlety. Playing the game was in fact all about the supply points, and the record-keeping required to play was substantial. My dad, who has always loved being cutting-edge, put his new Lisa computer (by Apple, in case you don’t recall) to work with a spreadsheet program to keep track of his capital ships’ refit requirements. In the game you play the whole war, nearly four years’ worth, in turns that represent only one week of time, and one turn took so long that you could really only expect to finish one turn in a night. All in all, it’s so huge that we never got to the end. I clearly recall a moment in my junior year of high school when it occurred to me that we would not finish this game before I left for college. I have always loved my father for playing these games with me nights after work, and of all the games we played, War in the Pacific holds a special place in my heart. Because of the time it took to play, the game became a measure of the time I had left in my childhood at home with my dad.
The later, digital versions of the game have also been a lot of fun to play, for me no doubt partly because they hearken back to the experience with my father. The one pictured at left, which came out in 2004, and its 2009 successor, the Admiral’s Edition, feature, if anything, an even crazier level of detail than the original board game, with turns that represent single days. But they are manageable (to us weird people who enjoy this sort of thing) because the computer tracks and runs many of the ongoing operations automatically, and because the game itself takes up no physical space, a fact that carries some interesting ramifications of its own–but that is a different essay for a different time.
I think there are two main reasons why I have loved these games, aside from the positive associations they hold. One is that every time I “issue commands” and watch their results, my imagination lights up with familiar images of the planes, ships and equipment that were involved in the War. Zeroes and Bettys trying to get through the combat air patrol of Marine Wildcats over Guadalcanal… Obsolescent P-39s and P-40s gradually giving way to more effective P-38s, P-47s and P-51s… The beautiful but ever-shrinking Japanese navy hopelessly trying to keep up with the growing perfection of the American navy… For someone like me who loves the psychological refuge of history and military miniatures, the chance to replay all of these stories is kind of irresistible. The other reason I love these games is that I actually happen to love the planning, management and record-keeping they entail. If you browse through the following gallery of images related to the War in the Pacific games, you will see some Beautiful Mind-esque examples of handwritten game notes that make my wife laugh and feel queasy all at once–but in making them I absolutely lost myself for many enjoyable hours of color-coded pencil on paper, writing neatly between the lines, my mind filled with visions of cool machines and the frightening, inspiring deeds that were done when my dad was a boy.