This page was last updated on 1 January 1998.

A Play-By-Photo variant for AH's Guadalcanal

by Brian McCue. (c)1997 Permission granted to copy for non-commercial use.

These are the instructions that Brian sent out to players of his PB(E)M gamer of Avalon Hill/Smithsonian Guadalcanal.


These supplement the regular game rules of Avalon Hill/Smithsonian Guadalcanal and the optional Umpire rules in section 18. They are based in part on David Kimmel's PB(E)M rules. The goal here is to play an enhanced version of the game by mail or e-mail, with in-person naval miniatures play (using Armoursofts Shipbase III computerized miniatures rules) used to resolve any tactical surface actions that arise.

My two main goals are to provide a fun game and to simulate history. Since the carrier warfare portrayed in Avalon Hill/Smithsonian Guadalcanal was deeply affected by intelligence and scouting concerns, my main efforts toward simulating history will fall in the area providing information; in other words, I will try to present you with the same type of information that a commander in your shoes would have access to. Your job, then, will be to make decisions based on this (at times limited) information. In terms of providing a fun game, I'll do my best to keep things moving along as quickly as possible and to run the game fairly and honestly (which is not to say that I won't make the occasional mistake).

The call-out-the-hexes search procedure of Avalon Hill/Smithsonian Guadalcanal and similar games has been rightly decried as providing more information to the searchee than to the searcher. An umpire can eliminate this defect, as recognized in the Optional Rules (section 18).

Set up

For each Task Force, players submit a Battle Board set-up right away, not at the time of battle, because in these rules the set-up matters in the Search Phase as well. Note that this set-up must (realistically) be created with all kinds of encounters (air attack, surface attack, and submarine attack (rare)) in mind. Unflipped DD counters may be voluntarily flipped and split, like Scout counters. The unflipped DD counter turns into two copies of its flipped side. Flipped sides being half strength, this does not change the strength of the DDs present but it does let them divide up into two battleboard hexes and thus enables players to make a wider variety of tactical formations, especially formations better suited to surface and ASW encounters. Task Forces that do not move must nevertheless have a facing (N, NE, SE, S, SW, or NW) specified.

Course of play

(Note: See also Umpire rules in rulebook.) Players mail or e-mail orders for movement and other actions such as internal carrier operations. The umpire enacts the movement of ships and scout planes (in that order). If scout planes find TFs, the umpire calls or e-mails the owner of the scout planes to notify him simply that something is in the hex (this is called the "Sighting Call" even if it's an e-mail) and to ask if he chooses to spend additional movement in that hex. The answer, as in the original rules, enters into the die-roll modifiers for how much information the sighting reveals. In-air strike aircraft (bombers, dive-bombers and torpedo planes) can be redirected in response to the Sighting Call. (It is less unrealistic to redirect them at this point than after the scout planes' scouting is complete (as in the original rules): even so, the strike aircraft benefit from some amount of "time travel" in that they don't start their turn until the scouts' turn is partly over.) Note that at this stage the player knows only that "something" has been seen in the hex.

CAP can sometimes (rule 15) shoot down an observation plane. If it does so (the referee will roll for this), then the CAP-owning player is informed and can infer that his TF has been spotted. Likewise, the owner of the destroyed airplane knows that the TF owner knows that he knows that he knows...

After the scouting die-roll, scouting information is provided to the players in terms of photographs (taken by the umpire, using his collection of ship models). Ship identities, headings, sun angle, ship arrangement in the TF, on-board fires, and status of planes on carrier decks are meant to be indicative and can validly be inferred from these "recon" photographs. The giant seaplanes that perform the search mission don't dare get very close, so it is possible that not all the ships in the formation will appear in the picture: the quantity and quality of the photographs are determined by the referee so as to approximate the result of the sighting die-roll and his judgement regarding the effects of sun, etc.. The formation of the ships also influences how easy it is to see them all. Status of cruiser planes in the pictures is not indicative of anything. In these pictures (and probably unlike on the Shipbase III board) the sea has the same 1/2400 scale as the ships, so that ships two hexes apart on the battle board (i.e., as close as they can get) will be 1000/2400 yards, i.e. 15 inches, apart.

Air strikes are handled as follows: the attacker gets information on the defender's set-up in terms of a photograph representing his planes' view. These combat planes are a lot braver than big, clunky seaplanes, so the picture will be much better. The point of view will be that of a dive bomber unless only torpedo planes are in the attack. In the case of the second and subsequent waves in wave attacks, hits inflicted by earlier waves will be denoted with smoke. In addition, the attacker receives a depiction of the Battle Board, with the ship names not shown but with CAP aircraft shown. The attacker figures out his attack, writes it on this Battle Board form, and sends it to the defender. The defender figures out his defense (fighter set-up and AA fire allocation) and sends it to the referee. The referee does the dice rolling, and sends out the results. In the case of air attacks on ships, the attacker is told only "his" die roll, so that he has realistically incomplete information on the damage done to the ship. Damage to on-board or on-ground aircraft is revealed only to the owning player.

Surface searches (as in the original rules) occur after air searches and strikes even though surface movement happens first. To reflect accurately the relationship between formation and detection probability, new modifiers to the searcher's sighting roll have been added. If the TFs meet head-on, or one overtakes another by moving faster, a -2 modifier is applied for each TF in which all the ships are in single file, and a +1 modifier is applied for each multiple of 5 hexes, in excess of the first 5 hexes, spanned by either TF. Depending upon the die rolls, surface search may not have a photography step because when surface ships meet a battle sometimes begins immediately. If the die rolls allow one side the option of giving or refusing combat, that side will receive, as a basis for decision, a sighting picture of the other side's formation.

Non-trivial surface battles will be fought out under the referee's guidance, using miniatures. Players unable to attend should provide brief written guidance to their stand-ins who will command the fleets during the miniatures battle.

Other rules changes

Players and the umpire need to be clear at the outset as to which optional rules are in effect. My own preference is to ignore the Free Die Roll rule and to use all of the other optional rules except for the surface combat rules, which are replaced by the Shipbase III miniatures rules, and the exceptions noted below.

It is easy and beneficial to have each player secretly specify, at the beginning of the game, the turns on which his fast ships will make double movement. For the speed-3 ships, the choice is between the 1,3,5 sequence and the 2,4,6 sequence. Speed-2 ships can have their extra move in any of the six turns, not just the third. Note that players must still pick a choice and stick with it for the whole game.

The submarine rules in the game are a forced fit to the original unrefereed rules. In the PBEM game, submarines can be operated as separate naval forces according to the following rules.

The scenario information will include some number of submarines assigned to each side. These start out in hexes randomly chosen (because historically submarines were usually present for action only by accident) by the following process: roll a D20 for the column, A-T, and a D10 for the row, 1-10. Submarines cannot appear in enemy port hexes: submarines so rolled are placed in the 11th row of the same column instead. Submarines can move 1 hex/turn when surfaced and 0 hexes/turn when submerged. When submerged, they can be at periscope depth or completely dived. Dived submarines cannot be spotted and cannot spot anything. Periscope-depth submarines have a -5 modifier for being spotted and a -2 modifier for spotting. Surfaced submarines have a -1 modifier for spotting and for being spotted. These modifiers are cumulative with all other spotting modifiers, e.g. those for day and night, and especially for being in single file, which submarines always are. Submarines cannot be dived or at periscope depth for more than three turns in a row. (Neither side had yet introduced snorkels.)

Actions of TFs against submarines will be fought out as surface battles, using miniatures.

Wrapping it all up at the end

PBM games require a large investment in time, so I like to reward patient players with a good end-game wrap-up. Such a game summary will especially be valuable in this game, where individual players have incomplete knowledge of the events taking place (even events in which they are participants). To help me with this summary (and to keep me interested as the game progresses), I would like you to include with each turns orders a short (two or three sentences) statement about your plans, concerns, and hopes for the coming turn. It will only take a minute extra, and it will make the summary that much better.

What I don't want

Players clicking into roleplaying mode just because there's a referee. We're going to play refereed PBM Guadalcanal with a few new rules and maybe fight out selected battles in Shipbase III. These games have rules, which we will follow, and limitations, which we will accept. Just because there's a referee is no excuse to try to escape from the rules system and start demanding all kinds of weird things, e.g., "We're sailing nearer to the left sides of the hexes than to the right," "Our lookouts have been eating a lot of carrots so they have better night vision," et cetera ad nauseum.

Brian McCue can be reached at