THE FAST CARRIERS: Air-Sea Operations, 1941-77 is an integrated strategic/operational/tactical level simulation of historical and hypothetical naval air combat from 1941 to 1977. The game was designed by James F. Dunnigan and published by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI) in 1975.


Damaged battleships in Pearl Harbor: The USS Arizona, USS Tennessee and USS West Virginia

At 07:40 on 7 December 1941, a mixed-force of Japanese carrier aircraft composed of 45 fighters, 54 dive bombers, 40 torpedo bombers, and 50 horizontal bombers appeared in the sky over the island of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. This was the first wave of a devastating aerial attack on the American naval and air forces in and around Pearl Harbor. Fifty minutes later, a second wave of Japanese carrier-based aircraft struck the island again in a follow-up raid. As a result of these two short, but devastating Japanese air attacks, eighteen U.S. ships — including seven battleships — were either sunk or so badly damaged that they would be out of action for months. In addition, of the nearly 400 military aircraft on the island, 188 were destroyed, and 159 were damaged. Total American casualties were 3,581, of which 2,403 were killed.

On 6 December 1941, the United States was still a more-or-less neutral, if uneasy, nation. Americans, as a people, were concerned about events on the Continent, but still mainly wanted to stay out of the life-or-death struggle in Europe and North Africa against fascism; a conflict that had already been raging for over two years. One day later, the American people were suddenly, and without warning, catapulted into the struggle they had hoped to escape. On 7 December 1941, the conflict in Europe finally reached around the globe and struck Americans in Hawaii; in the months to come, it would rapidly spread in all directions until it had engulfed the whole of the Pacific.


THE FAST CARRIERS is a historical and semi-historical simulation of the complex air-sea operations carried out by carrier task forces from the beginning of America’s entry into World War II through and until the late 70’s. This is a two player game, with each player commanding either carrier-based or land-based air units. The goal for both players is clear: locate and destroy the enemy force before he can do the same to you. As is typical with naval games, many of the actions performed by both players during a game turn will be executed secretly and simultaneously.

What makes THE FAST CARRIERS particularly interesting from the player’s perspective (as well as challenging), is the melding of strategic, operational, and tactical mission planning and execution in a single all-encompassing game design. This melding of different time scales, however, also significantly slows the action for both players; this ‘slowness’ is, undoubtedly, the biggest shortcoming of the game system. In any case, as the game’s introduction explains: “During each game turn a player may move Task Force markers on the Strategic Map, shift air units on his Task Force Operations Displays, and move air units on the Tactical Display to attack naval units. Ships can bombard shore targets, air units can attack air units, ships can attack air units, and air units can bomb or torpedo ships. Each type of combat is handled separately and in sequence.” Thus, players transition in terms of map scale and time increments as they move from the Strategic Stage (four hours) to the Operational Stage (one hour) to the Tactical Stage (forty seconds).

Given the multi-stage design architecture of THE FAST CARRIERS, it is hardly surprising that the game’s turn structure turns out to be a little unorthodox. Each of the different scenarios is composed of an open-ended number of from one to seven ‘days’. Each ‘day’ is then further divided into five daylight turns, and one night turn. The opposing sides maneuver on one of five different strategic maps, each of which represents a specific geographical sea area. Strategic naval movement is handled using Task Force (TF) markers; and although both players’ markers are always visible on the strategic map, the combination of ‘dummy’ TF markers, restrictive search procedures, and simultaneous movement plotting pretty much eliminates the specter of unrealistic ‘perfect intelligence’ from the game. Each ship counter represents a single vessel, and each two-sided (to represent damaged and undamaged status) air counter represents six aircraft.

"Battle of the Coral Sea" painting by Robert Taylor depicts sinking of the carrier Shoho at 10:40am on 5 4 42 by a squadron from the Lexington.

The game mechanics of THE FAST CARRIERS are probably a little too involved to describe in any great detail, but a brief description of the different phases of each stage may still be helpful in conveying the flow of an individual game turn. The starting point for each game turn is the Strategic Stage which is composed of three steps: the surface combat phase; the strategic movement phase; and the strategic search phase. At the conclusion of each Strategic phase, players transition to the portion of the game directly oriented around carrier operations. This (carrier) Operations Stage is, in turn, made up of four steps: the aircraft launch phase; the change of status phase (aircraft move from hanger to flight deck, fuel and arm, etc.); the recovery (landing) phase; and the aircraft movement phase (aircraft move or set-up for air strikes, etc.)

If and only if, an airborne strike force arrives over its target do operations shift to the game’s Tactical Stage. At this point, assuming that an airstrike is not going in against a land base, the attacking player must determine whether his striking force has found its target. And this is where playing THE FAST CARRIERS is anything but fast. Finding or not finding the enemy fleet depends on two factors: the number of ‘waves’ (determined at the time of take off) conducting the airstrike; and the range flown by the attacking aircraft. A quick word of explanation: ‘waves’ can be comprised of from one to three aircraft counters, but must always be composed of the same type of aircraft. Assuming that part or all of the strike force actually locates its target, then the attacking aircraft and their escorts enter from one of six sides of the Tactical Display and proceed to run the familiar gauntlet (one wave at a time) of enemy CAP, followed by naval anti-aircraft fire. Once these steps are completed, the attacking waves of aircraft can finally conduct their runs against individual enemy ships. Dive bombers, not surprisingly, must approach their targets at higher altitude and then dive to attack from the stern; horizontal bombers perform their attacks after completing a straight, high altitude bomb run; torpedo planes, on the other hand, can attack from any angle, but must fly three hexes in a straight line before attacking the enemy vessel from an adjacent hex.

Combat results are computed using a ‘differential’ CRT, and, since attacks are resolved wave by wave (up to a maximum of six waves) and negative differentials have ‘no effect’, the combat system occasionally leads to some very odd situations. Ships are damaged as a result of hits (four hits being necessary to sink a vessel); aircraft counters are inverted to their ‘damaged’ side to show hits, and damaged air groups are eliminated if hit again. One perverse aspect of this combat system, particularly for a player like me who cut his ‘carrier game’ teeth on Avalon Hill’s original MIDWAY, is that it requires multiple attacks to sink ANYTHING — even a carrier with readied planes on its deck.

The other really cumbersome element in THE FAST CARRIERS is the seemingly interminable quasi-abstract Search subroutine. Searches are conducted on the players' Search Charts, and search aircraft, once launched, are committed to their search area for the entire day. And searches, as might be expected, can be conducted with varying numbers of aircraft, using different search patterns, and at different ranges. Not surprisingly, the more aircraft searching a sea area and the shorter the range, the better the prospects are of locating an enemy force. Unfortunately, even when the enemy task force is found, a randomly drawn chit will still determine how effective the search actually turns out to be. This process is both predictably time-consuming and, more often than not, incredibly frustrating for the player conducting the search.

Winning is determined by comparing victory points at the end of the scenario being played. Victory points, of course, are typically accumulated by inflicting damage on the enemy force.

USS Neosho refuels the USS Yorktown before the Battle of the Coral Sea, May, 1942

THE FAST CARRIERS offers five historical, and four semi-historical (hypothetical) scenarios that simulate air-sea operations from the start of World War II up to the 70’s. The scenarios follow the chronological order of the naval actions they recreate; they are: Pearl Harbor, 7 Dec.’41 (this is the only solitaire scenario offered); the Coral Sea, 8 May ’42; the Battle of Midway, 4 June ’42; the Eastern Solomons, 24 Aug. ’42; Santa Cruz, 26 Oct. ’42; Northern Solomons, 1943 (hypothetical); Action Off Korea (hypothetical); Action In the Tonkin Gulf (hypothetical); and Action In The Denmark Strait (hypothetical). In addition to the various scenarios, THE FAST CARRIERS also offers an optional Weather rule (which is actually a whole weather sub-routine), and a rule on Oilers, for those players who don’t think they already have enough to keep track of.


THE FAST CARRIERS is a detailed and, in several respects, really quite an ingenious attempt by Jim Dunnigan to simulate carrier operations. As such, it does a pretty good job at the strategic and operational level. Where the ‘wheels come off’ the design is in the tactical portion of the game system. Conducting air strikes — in my opinion, the whole purpose of setting up and playing the game in the first place — are tedious to execute and, against undamaged ships, surprisingly ineffectual. The built-in limitations of the game’s tactical combat system inevitably lead to some odd and unrealistic outcomes. For example, the Arizona was sunk, and the flight deck of the Akagi was turned into an inferno by lucky hits from attacking dive bombers; neither event can really be duplicated in THE FAST CARRIERS. This means that — in this game, at least — carrier engagements tend to require multiple attacks in order to bring about any sort of decisive outcome. Ships are just very hard to knock out of action or sink.

Still, the game, despite its several flaws, is probably worth a look from players with an interest in air-sea combat operations. In that context, THE FAST CARRIERS is really at its best when simulating World War II carrier actions; the hypothetical ‘modern’ scenarios, on the other hand, have that distinctive SPI “let’s throw a few extra game situations in at the last minute” feel to them. Moreover, the ‘introductory’ Pearl Harbor solitaire scenario is actually unplayable without the inclusion of the game’s follow-up Errata.

THE FAST CARRIERS is certainly not for everyone, but it does introduce several novel concepts into the design mix of carrier-based combat operations; so for naval buffs, at least, it might not be a bad choice. Novices and casual players, on the other hand, should definitely give this title a pass. Finally, from a purely ‘game design history’ standpoint, this title is an interesting elaboration on previous Dunnigan air-sea simulations and, as such, probably represents a worthwhile addition to the collection of anyone who specializes in naval or early SPI games.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: Strategic Stage (4 hours); Operational Stage (1 hour); Tactical Stage (40 seconds)

  • Map Scale: Strategic Map (90 Nautical Miles per hex); Tactical Display (1000 yards per hex)

  • Unit Size: individual ships, aircraft compliments of six aircraft

  • Unit Types: individual ships, carrier based-air, land-based air, and information counters

  • Number of Players: two

  • Complexity: high

  • Solitaire Suitability: low (except for the Pearl Harbor Scenario)

  • Average Playing Time: 4 + hours

Game Components:

  • One 22” x 34’’ hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with various Strategic maps, the Tactical Display, Terrain Key, Turn Record and Sequence of Play Track, and various Combat Results Tables incorporated)

  • 800 ½” cardboard Counters

  • One 8½” x 11” Rules Booklet (with Surface to Surface Probability Table, Strike Contact Table, Wave Arrival Table, Anti-Air Combat Results Table, Anti-Ship Combat Results Table, Anti-Submarine Contact Table, Jet Age Strike Contact Table and Scenario Instructions incorporated)

  • Two 7¾” x 12” Search Pattern Templates (one for each player)

  • Sixteen 8” x 11¾” Task Force Operations Displays (eight for each player)

  • One small six-sided Die

  • One SPI 12 “x 15”x 1” flat 24 compartment plastic Game Box (with clear compartment tray covers) and clear plastic game cover with Title Sheet

Recommended Reading

See my blog post Book Review of this title which is strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background. A Glorious Page in Our History: The Battle of Midway, 4-6 June 1942; by Robert J. Cressman; Pictorial Histories Publishing Co; 1st edition (June 1990); ISBN-13: 978-0929521404

Also, see my blog post Book Review of this highly recommended title: Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson; Anchor Books (August 2002); ISBN-13: 978-0385720380


  • Still another impressive post on an Dunnigan's great game !
    Your work is really well done !

  • Greetings Again Jean-Luc:

    Thanks, as always, for your kind words; I sincerely appreciate your interest in my wargame commentaries.

    On another topic completely, I recently visited your own blog and, time permitting, will probably install a link to it sometime today.

    Finally, if there are any specific titles or other game-related topics that you would like to see discussed on 'Map and Counters', please don't hesitate to suggest them. While I typically have a number of different projects working at any one time, I am always interested in new ideas from my readers.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Hi Joe !
    One of my favourite oldies is Franck CHaldwick's Citadel on the battle of Dien Bien Phu 1954. Have you a copy of this subtle system ? I would be delighted to see this good simulation being reviewed. But I know this is not usually a good topic for american guys !
    Have a nice day !
    and thanks for the link !

  • Greetings Again Jean-Luc:

    Alas, I have never owned or played 'CITADEL'; so, I cannot offer any commentary on this excellent game. However, I do understand your frustration; for reasons that I don't understand, there are currently no really detailed reviews of Chadwick's game at any of the regular 'gaming' sites. It's truly a shame.

    And you were right to enquire; by all rights, given my wide-ranging interests, I should know something about this title. After all, the Siege of Dien Bien Phu (March-May 1954) has been a subject of at least passing interest to me ever since I read Xan Fielding's translation of Jean Larteguy's 'The Centurions' back in the late 1960's. At the time, it was one of the very few books that even mentioned Vietnam, and since my unit was operating in the I Corps region of South Vietnam near the DMZ, I couldn't resist the French take on our (then) mutual foe.

    Nonetheless, Frank Chadwicks 'CITADEL' (1977) is one of the very few GDW games that I never owned or had an opportunity to play. In retrospect, I really wish that I had invested in this award-winning title when it first came out. Unfortunately, at the time of its original publication, I and most of my wargaming friends were heavily invested (time-wise, at least) in East Front "monster" games; titles such as: GDW's 'DNO/UNT' and SPI's 'WAR IN THE EAST (2nd ed.)'.

    Moreover, once our 'Russian Front' phase finally passed, we all shifted our attention pretty much exclusively to the 'big' Napoleonic games of the period like SPI's 'WELLINGTON'S VICTORY' and GDW's 'BATTLE OF THE MOSCOWA'.

    When I finally got around to looking for a copy 'CITADEL', it was no longer in print. And, in the days before eBay, out-of-print games -- particularly those in mint or excellent condition -- could be very hard to locate and buy. Nowadays, of course, copies of Chadwick's design periodically show up -- like almost everything else -- on eBay, but they tend to command a little higher premium than I am presently inclined to pay. Such is life, I suppose.

    In any case, I'm sorry that I can't be of more help on this particular game.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Don't worry Joe because I have a copy of Citadel by myself ! Am I not a lucky guy ? I would have appreciate your analysis on it. But for me, the subject and the system remain one of my favourites !

    Kevin Boylan is talking about to produce a further edition ... for years (see on CSW forum).

    Truly yours,

  • When my parents saw I was so enamored with Avalon Hill's MIDWAY game, this was the next title they purchased for me for my birthday as they saw this game in Brentano's bookstore at Wheaton Plaza Mall in Maryland. You reactions to the game precisely mirror mine. I sold this game two years ago at a PrezCon auction and I don't regret letting it go. While I loved the operational system, the tactical game just fell flat and I too didn't like the more "modern" situations in Korea and Vietnam. Sigh.

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