Review: D-Day at Tarawa

The Battle of Tarawa was fought in late November, 1943. The U.S. Marines stormed ashore, facing for the first time a determined Japanese defense on the beaches. Guadalcanal, fought a year earlier, had been a nightmare, but getting shore there had been a cakewalk.  In the first 76 hours of the battle, U.S. casualties surpassed those taken in six months of fighting on Guadalcanal. Taking the island atoll was the first step in the U.S. offensive in the Central Pacific, a stepping stone toward the bomber bases that would begin pounding the Japanese homeland a year later. D-Day at Tarawa ($24.95) is a PC computer game published by Decision Games, and is virtually identical to the printed board game published in 2014. The system was created by solitaire gaming guru John Butterfield, and was first seen in D-Day at Omaha (which also has a computer conversion).  A third game, D-Day at Peleliu, is also available in print.

The graphics appear to be an exact copy of the printed game.

Tarawa is a battle I have a personal interest in, as my Uncle Cecil went ashore there with the 2nd Marines. I own D-Day at Omaha, so I’m familiar with the system itself as well. This is the first game I’ve installed from a CDRom in years. I’m pretty sure the last was World in Flames in 2013. I’d love to know the truth about why Decision feels I shouldn’t be able to download it from their website like every other modern game company allows. It should be noted that there are only five files. One is the executable itself. There are two PDFs with the game rules and player aids, and a Word file that contains two pages of errata and clarifications. Please note that these are from the actual printed board game version. There is no documentation on the installation or play of the PC game on the disk. The fifth file is an uncommented INI file.

Game options screen

Without further ado, let’s fire up the executable and see what we’ve got. That begins a typical installation sequence. With that completed, the game itself starts with a game selection screen. It appears there are three available scenarios. I choose the fast start and am presented with an options screen. You’ll have to hold the mouse cursor over the individual options to see a very brief description of what they do.

The battle begins as the Marines come ashore

The game itself then appears. The engine is built as a typical windows application. The graphics appear to be identical to what you see in the 2014 printed game. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do, but there is a Help option at the top right that does have some answers. As I try to read that, the game insists on continuing with the landings. My only responsibility at this point is to select which units will take a step loss.

When the landing phase ends, I’m able to view the help information, which does include the PC specific instructions, as well as a list of changes made from the print version. These are few in number and mostly about how the game processes random events and numbers. Moving around the map is straightforward, with the mouse wheel being used to zoom in and out. Left clicking and dragging allows you to move the map.

In the Reinforcement Phase, I’m tasked with selecting approach hex location for five sets of units. After doing that, I seem to be stuck. The Setup in Approach hexes box won’t just go away and the help menu now does nothing. Um. In fact, none of the menu options are available. I dig around in the installed game’s folder structure and find Help.txt. It tells me that to end the Reinforcement Phase, all I need do is “Close the Selection Window to start the next phase.” Sadly, clicking on the X or using the right-click menu does nothing to close the box.  Decision Games support forums doesn’t work (at least today), so I turn to BGG and Consimworld to see if there’s any guidance.  Nope. So, I’m putting the war, and this review, on pause while I seek suggestions from Computer Wargamers group on Facebook. [PAUSE]

[UNPAUSE] So, a couple of hours later, with some helpful suggestions from Thomas Stevenson, and I’m back in business. Japanese fire takes a chunk out of the 3rd Platoon of the 18th regiment’s A company engineers, but return fire disorders the enemy. Further east (the game map is flipped vertically), other engineer platoons move ashore into a building. Next, it’s time to assign LVT’s to the next wave of Marines.  Here I run into the same bug mentioned above, and have to save and restart to move ahead. Then, troops begin the long slog to the beach. Finally, the dreaded reinforcement phase rolls around again and yes, the same bug. This time, I’m able to get around it. [Stevenson, mentioned above was a developer on the game, and I’m waiting for a patch to be emailed to me.]

I manage to play, with some small hiccups, and reach turn 8. The Marines on the flanks are being severely tested, but in the center, I’m starting to build my strength. That’s when a new bug crops up and crushes my game completely. It occurs in the Japanese Fire Phase. The error is Pick_unit: Debug maxScore=0 and EXCEPTION_ACCESS_VIOLATION which leads to a crash to desktop. I try loading the game from the last save with a new random seed, but the bug then occurs every time. So… [PAUSE]

[UNPAUSE]

Stevenson tells me via Facebook the error means I have a zero-step unit left on the map.  So I should be able to go far enough back in the saves and find one before a unit was knocked down to zero steps and left on the map. The game is saved at the end of each phase, so there are plenty of options. But since random events and actions are based on the same seed, the same behavior will occur, assuming I understand the situation correctly. And while there is an option to use a new random seed, I can’t quickly find a save game where the bug doesn’t repeat. So I give up and start over, an option the USMC didn’t have.

Some notes on the issues I’ve encountered.

  • The first bug I encountered wasn’t a show stopper, but it took a while before I felt comfortable getting around it. Stevenson tells me it’s fixed in the first patch, which he offered to email me. As far as I can tell, the patch isn’t found online.
  • The second bug is a show stopper. Stevenson says it hasn’t been fixed yet, which is a shame.
  • The user interface leave something to be desired. Some interface boxes are dismissed with the space bar, others must be manually closed. It’s not completely intuitive, but doesn’t keep the game from playing.
  • Combat is particularly confusing, since it’s not all that clear in the execution of the game what the outcome was and why. It’s also not clear what happens when Japanese units fire on my infiltrating Marines. There is a Log you can access with the L key, but again, I feel the information could and should be more prominently displayed.
  • The Landing Phase is also a bit confusing. I know from the print game what’s occurring, but the information isn’t clear.  See the photo below: The card numbers aren’t relevant if I’m not actually going to see a card. And, it’s not clear, at least to me, what units this results applies to. 

My verdict is D-Day at Tarawa is an apparently faithful adaptation of an excellent solo board game system. The experience of the battle is tense and chaotic, as it should be.  And in this second pass, the Japanese are taking out a lot of frustration on me. Sorry, Uncle Cecil! The western flank is doing well, but the center and eastern beach is a bloody mess. And then the game bugs out again.   But, the program needs more development and testing. I’m the type that will jump in and try to play the game before reading all of the rules. While the automation here is nice, the bugs and lack of clear feedback result in an experience that’s not dissimilar to a scripted, free VASSAL module. As long as everything is working, game play moves along at a nice clip. So, if and when the game is fully developed and tested, I will have no problem recommending it at the $24.95 asking price.   But not yet.