You’re not wrong, Simon – it seems clear that the unit costs in the official board games were chosen by intuition, and that they don’t match up with any kind of consistent theory or system. If you look at earlier versions of the game, ships were even more expensive than they are now, so the prices seem to be moving in the right direction, even if they’re still not quite right yet.
It’s clear that cruisers are overpriced; people very rarely want to buy them. What’s less clear is how to fix the problem or what kind of theme or niche cruisers are supposed to fill. In real life, cruisers were simply one of many economically efficient ways of getting guns into the water – it’s not obvious that a navy primarily composed of destroyers and battleships would fare noticeably less well than a navy that had a mix of destroyers, cruisers, and battleships. People have suggested that cruisers have an anti-aircraft bonus, or that cruisers be better at shore bombardment, or that cruisers be able to move through 3 sea zones, but none of these are obviously historically accurate: cruisers were an all-around average ship that had average performance in all of these areas. They were fast enough, powerful enough, and cheap enough to be worth building, but they didn’t seem to have any unique strengths. Cruisers carried larger-caliber guns than destroyers, but the damage inflicted by the gun was often a matter of range, accuracy, how many shots you can get off before being sunk, and so on – it’s not as if a battleship could sit quietly next to a destroyer firing all its guns at point-blank range and invincibly absorb the damage. Any type of ship could and did sink any other type of ship.
Personally, I favor something like:
Submarines – 2 offense, 1 defense, 5 cost
Destroyers – 1 offense, 3 defense, 6 cost
Transports – 0 offense, 1 defense, 7 cost
Cruisers – 3 offense, 3 defense, 8 cost, bombards
Battleships – 4 offense, 4 defense, 14 cost, bombards, 2 hits
The idea here is to showcase cruisers as the cheapest surface ship that’s useful on both offense and defense. It sets up what I hope is an interesting rock-paper-scissors dynamic. You need transports to get your troops to their targets. If all I have is transports, you can build subs that can cost-efficiently kill my transports…but if all you have is subs, I can build destroyers that can cost-efficiently protect the transports…but the destroyers aren’t quite good enough to proactively hunt subs on their own, so I might also want a cruiser to help give the destroyers some offensive punch – but if the warring fleets get large enough, then a fleet that’s anchored by a battleship will have more staying power and outfight your cruisers – but a fleet made up of nothing but battleships will be too expensive for its role.
If we’re just sticking with out-of-the-box rules, I’d say the only point of having a cruiser rather than a fighter are that (a) the cruiser can hang around in a sea zone to help guard transports even when you don’t have a carrier handy, and (b) the cruiser can lend offensive punch against a land zone even when the land zone is protected by AAA guns. I don’t necessarily want to invade Northwestern Europe with fighters every turn because it often has an AAA gun – sending in 2 infantry and 2 fighters against your 1 infantry and 1 AAA gun is not particularly cost-effective for me. I’ve got a slightly-better-than-1/3 chance of losing an infantry and a 1/3 chance of losing a fighter, so expected net losses of about 5 IPCs just to kill your 8 IPCs’ worth of units and take your 2 IPC territory.
On the other hand, if I send in 2 infantry with 2 cruisers bombarding, that gives me about a 50% chance of losing an infantry and 0 chance of losing the cruisers, for expected net losses of 1.5 IPCs to kill your 8 IPCs’ worth of units and take your 2 IPC territory: a much better profit margin.
If you see that I have zero cruisers and zero battleships then this kind of defensive strategy can start to look attractive to you. Maybe you start putting 2 infantry + 1 AAA gun to guard Northwestern Europe instead of just 1 inf + 1 AAA gun, and now I need to bring either more planes to take it reliably (more expensive losses for me) or I need to unload more infantry there, which means I need more transports (more up-front investment costs for me).
So cruisers aren’t literally useless in 1942 Second Edition – they’re just severely overpriced and lacking a theme.