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It’s been about a year since I was watching the Showtime version of The Borgias. That show remains available on Netflix streaming to this day but I watched it when I did because of its topicality and because it seemed like the most acclaimed of the several television treatments of the Borgia family story. I had every intention of eventually watching another series, created for European cable/satellite TV, Borgia.

There are plenty of opinions out there on the internet that actual hold Borgia, not The Borgias, as the better of the two series. They were created and aired nearly simultaneously, and so comparison is invited at every turn.

Netflix has now forced me to take on Borgia immediately, as the series will not last the month with them. Like the Showtime version, this series ran for 3 seasons, so I fear I will be hard-pressed to complete my viewing in time.

But we do what we can.

Like the Showtime version, we are treated to nipples in the opening credit sequence, giving us a promise of the sexual content to come. Unlike Showtime, that sexual content is not presented to us as the opening scene in the show and, also unlike Showtime, we’re not immediately dealing with hints of incest. Borgia, being a European production, should come with different expectations when it comes to sexuality. It is at the same time both more explicit and less salacious, if that makes sense.

I was also struck early on by the actors ages, and commented on the choice to have a 23-year-old actress play the 11-year-old Lucrezia Borgia. With Borgia also using Lucrezia’s entry into womanhood as an anchor for the opening of the narrative, I note that the use of an 18-year-old actress (and a young-looking one at that) is a significant production change.

Of the two, Showtime clearly worked with the bigger budget. They used more well-known (by Hollywood’s measure, at least) acting talent and their costume and sets are far more elaborate. Outdoor scenes in Borgia seem tight and narrow, probably as a result of fitting them onto a small set with a limited number of extras. Indoor scenes do better, but none have that stunning beauty that show forth from the occasional Showtime set.

That said, my gut says that this version put more effort into historical accuracy. The scenery is shabbier, yes, but is often portraying poverty and disease. Costumes have less style but (particularly the religious vestments) seem to display a little more variety. Without knowing the details, I get the impression that the different “uniforms” have legitimately different purposes. Likewise the music, which in the Showtime version I heard the occasional anachronism, seems to be correctly matched to the period, especially when the instruments are being played or the singing being done on the screen (as opposed, that is, to background music).

The narrative itself follows a slightly different path. Historicity, in this regard, can be difficult to judge, perhaps more so if, like me, these dramatizations are your first exposure to many of the details of Rome at the end of the fifteenth century. The Borgias featured a cynical Cesare who, from the beginning, commanded the screen and was already working towards seizing power. Particularly when compared to his brother Juan, he clearly was the true heir to Rodrigo. In Borgia, by contrast, Cesare starts as pious and even superstitious, displaying weaknesses and errors that seem to keep him from fulfilling his desires.

This is an intriguing change. From the beginning of The Borgias, it is clear from Cesare’s screen presence (including the look of the actor as well as the focus on his character) that he is going to be the protagonist. Even if we don’t approve of his methods, we know that this going to be the person we should care about. In Borgia, Cesare is difficult to like from the start. In some ways, he seems to be a little more focused than brother Juan, but he is also prone to his own monumental acts of stupidity. Unlike Juan, he tends to fret endlessly over his blunders, reducing his sympathy. I expect it to make for a deeper story moving forward.

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

I had this moment of disorientation when watching the conclave in Borgia. This episode is from 2011, but it seems to be speaking very specifically to current events. It probably didn’t help that someone had just sent me an article from 1990 talking about the methodology of defamation as a political attack. Pointedly, the article explains that the practice of “ritual defamation” is universal;

It is not specific to any value, opinion or belief or to any group or subculture. It may be used for or against any political, ethnic, national or religious group. It may, for example, by anti-Semites against Jews, or by Jews against anti-Semites; by rightists against leftists or by leftists against rightists, and so on.

The story of the election of Rodrigo Borgia to become Pope Alexander VI will often dwell, with good reason, on the politics of Rome at the time. As Borgia explains in its introduction, the “crown” of the papacy was more than just the mitre of a high priest. The Pope ruled, as a monarch, over the Papal States, which was a major player among the competing kingdoms if Italy. Add to that the sway that the head of the Catholic Church could wield over all Christians (monarchs and other men of influence), and you are talking about one of the premier secular positions of power in the world of 1492.

The Pope is supposed to be chosen through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is, he is assumed to be divinely selected. However, given the political importance of the position, we know that politics comes into play. Major factionalizations include both the Italy versus the rest of the world as well as the competing kingdoms within Italy. Within that, the voting cardinals tended, themselves, to be from powerful families and thus voted with the interests and biases of their own bloodlines.

The Borgias focused on outright bribes and Cesare’s role in distributing them. The Borgias also went from the death of Innocent VIII to the coronation of Alexander in one episode. By way of contrast, Borgia takes two episodes for Innocent to pass on and two more episodes to elect the new pope. Also, while a passing mention is made of the bribes that have been distributed, the focus is on the bargaining within the conclave itself. In particular, all sides use defamation to attempt to keep votes away from their opponents.

As described in the article, the veracity of the accusations are often irrelevant. As pointed out recently in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings, these political arenas are not a courts of law. The point of making heated charges is simply to produce enough fear, uncertainty, and doubt to keep a candidate from getting enough votes for a victory. Uncannily, Rodrigo Borgia stands accused of attending an orgy as a young man in his opponents’ most effective attack upon him. He is also accused of having Jewish blood. As described in the linked article, however, his real crime is that of being an outsider. As a Catalan, he does not belong among the Italian elite. That he dares to aspire to its heights is sufficient to justify whatever charge is lain upon him.

Plus ça change.


In ’65 I Was 17


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And in ’65 I’m on my seventeenth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

Men of Valor is a First Person Shooter set in Vietnam. It was released in 2004, two years after the wildly-successful Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Men of Valor is an adaption of that game (which had, itself, already released two expansion packs and one follow-on: Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault) and, perhaps, a bit of an upgrade*.

Medal of Valor begins its story (once you progress through the obstacle course/training sessions of the tutorial) shortly after the initial deployment of Marines to Da Nang. I played through, so far, the first “Operation”, which takes you up to the start of Operation Starlite.

Just like the Medal of Honor titles, each Operation is broken down into several Missions, separated by cut scenes and (usually) some down time. Within a Mission, progress is saved a number of check points.


Déjà vu. I am about to take out a heavy machine gun position with a difficult SKS shot, although I feel like I’ve done this before.

With this, I am reminded of what I don’t like about this genre. The check points are there as the place you will return to when you are inevitably gunned down. The checkpoint system was original forced upon games by the console world, where “saving to a file” wasn’t an option. It persisted in the PC world in a large part to provide more of a “challenge” to the player, who might otherwise beat a game by saving seconds before a difficult part and then retrying rapidly until you succeed. Because playing typically consists of getting killed, figuring out what killed you, and then figuring out how to get past what killed you, when reloading from the last checkpoint you are punished with the added tedium of working your way back up to where you were. Besides playing to the masochistic instincts of the player base, such a format is necessary to increase the amount of gameplay that you’ll get from the game.

Although the player is meant to feel like he is in an open, three-dimensional world, the game itself is pretty much linear. You are working your way along a pre-determined path and the obstacles you face along the way are fixed, reacting to certain triggers. If it were reasonably doable to make it through the game without being killed, that would severely restrict the amount of play that the game survives. Or to put it another way, once you can successfully complete a portion of the game, there is no reply value. Much of that time-in-game comes from reloading and retrying a difficult portion over and over.

Which then brings to me another source of frustration. I’m sure I’ve encountered this when playing Medal of Honor, but I had mercifully forgotten it. The checkpoints are only “saves” within the context of restarting after being killed. If you decide to wrap it up for the night and play from your save point some other day, you must load from the beginning of the “map” or “mission.” In the screenshot above, I had finally finished the section of the game where I had to clear this village and, as I was thoroughly sick of it, I had no desire to come back to it later. However, right after that, I got myself stuck in another trap. Feeling like I’d already wasted enough time on this for one night, I shut down. Imagine my horror when I was placed back at the beginning of the section that I had finally gotten myself through, only to do it all over again.

Once I calmed down, I could think a little more rationally about the pros and cons of this game. Here and there, I actually feel like I’m playing Medal of Honor with slightly different graphics. For example, in the screenshot above, I find myself using scavenged commie weapons. For whatever reason, I went out on this mission without an M-14 and lacking sufficient ammo for my M-1 Carbine. When the ammo ran out, I had to choose between a wildly inaccurate PPSh submachine gun and the accurate-but-ammo-limited SKS. With the SKS, I had flashbacks to Medal of Honor‘s M-1 Garand with its tormentingly-slow stripper-clip reload. So much so, it really felt like some kind of cosmetic upgrade of the previous model. Likewise, there are places in the game where I feel sure I’ve already done this exact “mission,” but set in Europe, 1944.


Does this look like the bridge in Apocalypse Now? A little?

Another similarity is the reliance on the existing cultural reference points to create familiarity. A bridge looks straight out of Apocalypse Now. Other scenes reference Platoon and Full Metal Jacket.


I was somewhat pleased to see snipers in the treetops, having read about this tactic in We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. But only somewhat, as they kept killing me.

A somewhat strange choice (or artistically interesting choice, depending on how you take it) is to include a strong racial conflict theme current throughout. Perhaps evident from the screenshots above, I am a black man. This is emphasized in the cut scenes. My unit is also mostly black and some of the casual dialog in-game has the black soldiers harassing one of the white soldiers in the unit. Perhaps the statement it is trying to make will become clearer to me as I progress further. Or perhaps someone is just trying to be astute, clever, and politically correct all at the same time. Let’s include racism, but let’s make it reverse racism! That way, white players can see what it’s like to be… oh I don’t know.

I noticed, in particular, two “upgrades” over the Medal of Honor play. For the first, I draw your attention to the medical icon in the bottom-left corner of the screenshots. Like Medal of Honor, each bullet hit you receive will knock a percentage off of your health unit, upon hitting zero, you are dead and the game halts. The difference this time around is that some hits will result in “bleeding” damage, where your health level continues to drop until you give it attention. If bleeding, you have to hold down the ‘F’ key until it stops. Bandaging is most effective when you are still and not doing anything else and, of course, it makes it that much harder to shoot at the charging enemies when you are trying to stop the bleeding. Ignore it completely and even a small injury could, fairly quickly, wind up killing you.

The second difference is in the way the “permanent” injuries are repaired. Maybe I’m misremembering Medal of Honor, but I recall that all injuries were repaired by medical kits, either scattered around a map or “dropped” when an enemy went down. In Men of Valor, the random smattering of medical kits is still a part of the game, but most of the healing (and ammo resupply, for that matter) comes from “searching” downed enemies. Finding that an enemy was carrying canteen can give you a small boost in health and finding a medikit on a fallen foe gives you a large one. As I said, maybe its bad memory, but it changes the feel when you have stop and deliberately search the enemies rather than just charging through a room sucking up “loot” as you go.

Also one shout-out of appreciation. The mouse-button issue is, while not quite non-existent, very easily configurable. My current version of Medal of Honor also works in this regard, but you never know with some of the aughts titles. I was really happy not to have to fight with this particular problem before I could get started playing.

So overall, is this game a waste of time or not?

It is a frustrating game. There are certainly places where, over and over, you have to go back to the check point and try again, only to do even worse on the retry. However, at least so far, the obstacles can be overcome – the game is not impossible. It is also, of course, not realistic. Even a successful run through a village may have shot and injured, almost to the point of death, three or four times but, courtesy of your enemies and their unused medikits, you can completely patch yourself to full health. All this in a matter of a few minutes.

On the other hand, and focusing on the time frame of this Operation, it illuminates a part of the war that, so far, no other game has captured. In the early months after the invasion, “nothing happened” at least from the standpoint of significant operations. That didn’t mean that Marines were idle. They went on patrols, engaged in firefights, and men were injured and killed. This may not be the best representation of this period of the war that I could come up with, but its just about the only one I’ve got.

*I’ve not played Pacific Assault, so I can’t really compare features between the two titles. What looks to me like a new feature in Men of Valor may be old hat.


Up or Down?


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This is the sixteenth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

The next two Operational Art of War scenarios I’ve decided to take on move the focus both up and down a level from my previous try. Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, Vol. 1 is a more focused take on the initial ramp up of troops. Focus both the scale and the shorter time-frame, but also in other ways that I’ll expand upon below. Boonie Rats 1965-1972 is a higher-level look, again both in the expansion in scale and by attempting to encompass the entire war. At least, that is, the war until the historic U.S. withdrawal in 1972. The authors of both scenarios describe how they based their work on the Vietnam 1965-1975 board game, each in their own way.

TOAW Scenarios

Vietnam 1965-1968

Hex side: 5 km
Turn length: 1 week
Unit: Battalion/regiment

Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, Vol. 1

Hex side: 4 km
Turn length: 1 week
Unit: Company/battalion

Boonie Rats 1965 – 1972

Hex side: 10 km
Turn length: 1 month
Unit: Regiment

Vietnam 1965-1975

Hex side: 10 km
Turn length: 2 turns per season
Unit: Battalion/regiment

Let’s start, as I did, with Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, Vol. 1. If not evident from the title, this is an extensive, multi-part scenario development effort attempting to model the full length of the war, but doing so in bite-sized chunks. The creator has, so far, progressed only through the end of 1970, but intends to eventually continue through 1975 and the evacuation of Saigon. Volume 1 takes you from the Marine landings on March 8th through to the 31st of July.

This scenario is designed only for play as the U.S. against the forces of communism, which must be played by the programmed opponent; switching sides or playing against another human player is not supported.  That right there differentiates it from many of the TOAW library, which to emphasize scenarios balanced for competitive play against other players. Even beyond that, though, this one is different than, not only the other Vietnam scenarios,  but pretty much any other scenario I’ve played in TOAW.

Units are put into place or withdrawn according to their historical deployment to Vietnam. This is done to a finer level of detail than the other scenarios I’ve played so far. For example, the Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which is the organization which lands in Da Nang on March 8th is withdrawn on May 6th and reconstituted as the Marine Amphibious Force. This, in conjunction with the smaller unit scale, means a very detailed order of battle, yet still for the entire Vietnam theater and further one that tries to be very precise.


Mid-April and not much going on. I am tasked with establishing a Special Forces base at Phuc Tuc. My Helicopters fly them out.

In contrast to the Vietnam 1965-1968 scoring, this scenario uses the standard score-keeping system for TOAW to determine victory. Control of the population is simulated by placing victory locations across the map, control of which represents enough of a presence to control those hearts and minds. Each on-map victory points are the equivalent of 10,000 souls and the distribution uses the population numbers from Vietnam 1965-1975. Additional victory hexes are located in the neutral countries (Laos and Cambodia) or in North Vietnam. Taking any of these victory locations is an instant loss for the U.S. side. In other words, they serve simply to balance out the South Vietnamese locations, which are up for control by either side, as well as to (somewhat) enforce the pressure to remain within the international borders of South Vietnam.

The biggest difference in scoring, though, is that your score can be augmented by successfully completing missions. Each turn specifies certain mission, usually in a very detailed fashion. Completing those missions gains you additional victory points. The player is also free to forgo those mission points and repurpose his units towards controlling more victory locations.


June and July of 1965. As you play, you can read about unit deployment and withdrawals, be assigned missions, or just read about what else was going on in the war outside of the game.

To play this scenario, I needed to copy the scenario notes to a tablet and have that next to me* as I executed each turn. For the most part, it is very instructive. With units arriving all over the map, it is otherwise very difficult to keep them in a historical context. It is also very painstaking. In a purpose-built game, these missions would probably be pop-ups in game with some graphical indication of where they are and where they are supposed to go. Using an offline document, I have to go trough each mission’s details, finding the location of the designated unit and the mousing over hex-after-hex until the popup says I’ve found the right target location(s).

Another unique aspect in this one has to do with the “house rules” for this scenario. Most of them have to do with the air assets in the game. Because there is no way in TOAW to designate things like runway length and suitability of an airstrip for different kinds of aircraft, the designer recommends that you always keep your aircraft at the base where they are initially deployed. Furthermore, he asks that you not use the air assistant, not set any units to “interdiction” or “air superiority,” and that you set no more than 10% of your air units to “combat support.” The result of all this is that you, the player, must specifically identify where on the map you are going to use your air assets. Like much else in this scenario, it makes for much more deliberation when planning and fighting a battle.


Par for the course.

I wasn’t quite sure how to play this. At first, I tried to fully use my ARVN units (at least the few that were under my control) to take victory locations beyond those specified in the missions. In particularly, I was trying to “secure” the areas around Saigon and Da Nang. A little further into the game, I realized that any unit that might be needed to satisfy a mission would not, in fact, be available if I set it off on a task of my own choosing. So by the end of the game I was much more focused on following the instructions as given and keeping the immediate area around my forces clear of enemies. The result was a draw, as shown above.

I think the purpose of structuring the scenario this way is first, to allow the player to see-by-doing what the historical utilization of his assets were. Then, perhaps on replay, he could see if varying that script would produce better results. This scenario, which ends before Operation Starlite, probably should not have a lot of aggressive, ahistorical attacks coming from the player. I don’t know what it might take to win this one, and I probably don’t want to be replaying it so as to find out. In that vein, though, having already worked by way through Vietnam 1965-1968, I had a certain familiarity with where some of the tough situations that I had faced in that scenario and thus a sense of the layout of the country.

Scared but Not Alone

In contrast to the above, Boonie Rats 1965-1972 owes an even greater debt to Vietnam 1965-1975. It began as another attempt to port that boardgame to the computer. The most obvious carryover is the map, which uses the same scale as the boardgame. But as the creator iterated in his development, he found areas to improve upon the source material, both in revisions to the map and, especially, in revisions to the order of battle.

The end result is a bigger-picture version of the war than the other scenarios highlighted so far. However, in stark contrast to Vietnam 1965-1975 and some of the other larger-scale TOAW adaptations, the order of battle follows exactly the historical deployment. So there is no variability to deployment based on management of morale, as in the original board game, or on high-level decisions (see Vietnam 1965-1968), or on random events a la Fire in the Lake. Each unit arrives for you when it did back then. The design notes tell of extensive work in getting that order of battle as accurate as possible and I can appreciate that.


Colorful! The American units are color-coded by their withdrawal schedule.

Playing the game, it doubles down on one of the problems with Vietnam 1965-1968. I suspect the idea with month-long turns was to approximate the turn length in Vietnam 1965-1975. The problem with doing it this way is that for the board game, the time in between was abstracted. The correct interpretation is not that an “operation” took half-a-season to conduct, at least not in most cases. It may be an operation lasting only a few days. But units are only prepared to embark on one-to-two large-scale operations during a season, in between which they must rest, refit, and be reinforced. Translating that to TOAW, but adding an extra turn, may get the “rest” periods about right, but it also makes the movements that took a week or so to get in, fight, and get out, last multiple months within this scenarios structure.

Perhaps it is the attempt to model the abstracted turn length but, for whatever reason, the game is actually configured to run 1 week turns. There is a separate reckoning of the calendar reckoning that informs you that each is really one month, doing so in the “news” portion of the game. As a result, if we look at the screenshot shown above, although it says “March 29th, 1965” up in the corner, we are really looking at some time in June. It is mildly confusing and, again, I question if it really is an effective way to do what is intended.

In order to fit my experience in with the other games I’m looking at, I only played up until the beginning of November, at which point I am (historically speaking) about to hit some major U.S. operations. I’ll return to this scenario, to see how it is doing as a strategic representation, after catching up to the in-game date within other more detailed games and scenarios. In contrast to Vietnam 1965-1968, I’m not seeing units deployed ahistorically early. This scenario keeps the schedule tight. Like before, however, I do see a much more aggressive war being fought when I consider what is going on relative to the historical actions. Referring again to the above screenshot, I’m looking at June 1965 and I’ve got NVA regulars in the vicinity of Saigon. Feeling the pressure, I’ve undertaken a major operation to disperse them and this includes the participation of elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade (that forest green 4-3 counter) as well as some Australians (baby blue). While these units were, truly, in country by June, this is still months away from Operation Starlite and even longer until November’s Operation Hump (historically a use of 173rd’s forces for a major operation). While I share some of the blame, having engaged newly arrived troops so quickly, I also think I’m facing an NVA opponent that is accelerating the schedule. Unlike may other Vietnam War treatments, I can’t accelerate my deployment to match.

The scenario is not terrible, but I’m not sure its as enjoyable or instructive as the others available. I will say this. Score-wise, I seem to be doing better and with less stress. Here, the victory conditions don’t involve balancing commitment and morale and therefore don’t have the kind of sudden death conditions from Vietnam 1965-1968. Instead, and I have to speculate here, the tougher part will come at the end of the game when the player is asked to maintain control over country with the U.S. forces being reduced to zero. My decent score, I just have to add, persists despite losing an aircraft carrier.

I assume the loss of a carrier would have been a political catastrophe back in 1965. I probably shouldn’t have even risked it. The thing is, with the extra-aggressive operations on my plate, I found myself short of artillery support. To compensate, I moved a carrier group into gunnery range. I was figuring that the escorts could help me out by lending some big guns with relatively little risk. You might notice from the screenshot that I’m playing with the Version IV of TOAW. One of the changes was to try to make naval combat more realistic and part of that was allowing larger ships to take damage rather than just disappear when the get a “bad roll” during combat. So I felt even more secure with this gambit than I would have in Version III. Nevertheless, there must have been some torpedo boats lurking around because I lost a carrier and an aircraft wing while lobbing shells onto the shore.

I don’t have anything really bad to say about this scenario, at least not so far. However, I does point out why, perhaps, games focus so much on the morale and political aspects of the game. It just seems like if, no matter what happens in battle, the U.S. forces are going to roll right in on this preordained time table and then be pulled back out on the withdrawal table, aren’t we missing one of the most important variables in this war?

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, which compares and contrasts how two board games handled aspects of the war.

*Normally, I would simply keep the manual open in another window and tab between them as necessary. However, you may recall my complaint about TOAW‘s problems when more than one program in running.

There Will Be Diamonds


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Maddy: ‘The world is falling apart and all we hear about is blowjob-gate.’

Danny: ‘When was the last time the world wasn’t falling apart, huh?’

Coming of Netflix at the end of September is Leo DiCaprio’s political/action/thriller Blood Diamond. It is a drama set in 1999 during the latter years of the Sierra Leone Civil War.

For many years, I was not inclined to watch this one because I figured it was going to be too preachy. It’s not that I am opposed to making the diamond cartel the villain of this story; that whole industry seems pretty smarmy to me. I fully agree with the point, made in the movie, that it is the market manipulation of the major diamond distributors that drives the price of diamonds so high for consumers. Consumers that buy the diamonds largely because they are so expensive and, therefore, must be valuable. I don’t really want to hear it all when I’m trying to enjoy a mindless thriller, though.

One online review suggested that it is best to go into this film without preconceived expectations. So that is just what I did. I played the movie not expecting event to enjoy it all that much. As such, I was pleased with what I took in as a straight-forward, based-on-true-events action movie.

The political message, of course, has to be front and center. The controversy in the film largely post dates the issues and their resolution. Nevertheless, the film’s release brought broad public attention to an issue that most consumers of diamond jewelry probably didn’t think to much about. It didn’t get too, too heavy handed until the very end, and I suppose I could forgive that.

The lion’s share of the praise (at the time) went to DiCaprio’s performance. Both he and his costar were nominated for Oscars. He was decent in what, after all, was kind of a stock role. The hard-hearted mercenary comes to find his own humanity, and so forth. One scene that I, in particular, appreciated was near the end. Most of the fight scenes I just sat back and watched the action. Toward the end, I decided to count the rounds out of Leo’s rifle. Not only did he do a magazine change at the appropriate time, but I thought it was pretty well executed with good trigger discipline. By my reckoning, he either knows what he is doing or had some pretty good instruction.

All-in-all another one to that was worth enjoying before it was gone.



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Much as with The Accursed Kings, I feel cheapened by the way I found the TV series Dark. It was recommended by a Facebook friend as a new Stranger Things. Albeit, he said, a more “adult” version.

The similarities are there. Even if that worm hadn’t been put in your ear, if you were a fan of Stranger Things, you would probably immediately start to make a connection. Dark is a show set in the 1980s*, with a number of the main characters in their teens and younger. The show has them attempting to unravel the mysteries of and then save themselves from some kind of supernatural happening caused, or perhaps controlled by, a nearby government facility. Finally, of course, they were both created as Netflix Original Series.

To view this new show that way is to cheapen it (and to cheapen myself, having only been drawn in with the gimmick). Dark is no knock-off of Stranger Things. Beyond the similarities stated above, it is a very different story and experience. Dark is a German-language series created entirely for Netflix distribution. Fortunately, when it came to the language, forewarned is forearmed. Netflix supports user-selected combinations of language and subtitles, so I was able to reconfigure my options right at the beginning to use the original dialog subtitled in English. I firmly believe that re-dubbing film in different languages detracts from the original’s quality. I want to hear what the actors are actually saying, not substitute actors reading some translators lines, none of whom are the original artists.

Dark a show with solid acting, well done mystery elements, and plausible science fiction. I was also particularly pleased with the soundtrack. The way the show uses songs helps to orient the viewer relative to the time-travel aspects as well as occasionally hinting at deeper meanings in the plot. It is also a nice mix of classic American/British 80s music with (perhaps equally well known, if you are German) German language songs. This is a well put together series from end to end. I’d be pressed to identify any weak links.

One last bit of similarity between the shows. November 12th, in each of the years of Dark‘s story, is the key and final date of the supernatural occurrences**. In Stranger Things, the climactic shows of season 1 all take place on November 12th, albeit in 1984. In Back to the Future, November 12th (1956 this time) is the date of the dance and the night that the town clock is struck by lightning. The connection hadn’t occurred to me before, but it seems to me that both shows were deliberately referencing the Back to the Future timeline with the dates, if not (more roughly) the years. The “present” of Back to the Future (1985) sits midway between the two presents of those series.

I’m sure its obvious, but I’m glad I watched this one. As much as I complain about the Stranger Things -based marketing, I have to admit that without some kind of hook, I would probably would not have chosen to take a chance on a German-language show, particularly when it is Netflix streaming -only. In the early days of Netflix original content, they had an extremely high batting average, but these days I’ve come to see the “Netflix Original” tag as a somewhat negative indicator. Without the ability to look up ratings and reviews on other sites (and, for me, the Netflix DVD rankings still seem to be the most accurate indicator), you’re stuck going out on a limb.

This time the climb was worth it.

*By even trying to discuss this, I risk ruining several of the “reveals” of the show. Don’t read on if you’re planning on a viewing experience that remains uncorrupted. The show starts out in 2019 and for some time, while there is reference to happenings in 1986, remain set firmly on that date. There are children who have gone missing in the here and now of 2019, despite the foreshadowing of links to the past. Eventually the show makes the better case is that 1986 is the “present” and 2019 is the “future” (of course it is, right? It’s only 2018!).

**Yes, I’m trying to be deliberately vague.

A Justice Delayed is a Justice Denied


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I was reading Facebook. I know, big mistake, especially on the Thursday night after Dr. Ford’s testimony during Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. A colleague of mine said that he was flipping back and forth between Hannity and Maddow, because he likes to hear both sides of an issue. His conclusion is that while Hannity and Maddow were both discussing a confirmation hearing they watched, he thinks they were watching entirely different proceedings.

I had also just read through, also on Facebook, the all-day postings from someone I went to High School. At the end, it was kind of like watching an real-time mental breakdown. Another one of her Facebook friends  (probably former Facebook friend at this point), who happened to be pretty conservative, rather ineptly pointed out some of the faults in her reasoning. Her response filled many pages, without pause for breath or paragraph breaks.

Up until that point, she seems to have spent the day alternating between being glued to the spectacle on TV and writing-then-sending angry missives to her (Republican) federal representatives.

Like the Hannity/Maddow watcher, I’m trying to see this through her eyes. She seems somewhat better informed than the average citizen, so I feel like empathy should be possible. Just as a “for instance”, she had to correct a fellow traveler who chimed in on her feed. Said contributor wrote that the worst part about all this is how clear it is that the “Old Boys” of the Republican party blocked Obama’s Supreme Court appointment for this long, just so they could get Kavanaugh appointed. My friend had to clarify that Gorsuch filled the appointment to which she refers. That what we are actually watching now is an appointment to fill Kennedy’s seat.

Now here is where she and I find ourselves in two different worlds.

In my world, Kennedy announced his retirement, deliberately indicating that he felt an appointment before the midterm elections would help maintain the court’s balance. Trump worked from a short-list of conservative-friendly judges, but picked one that he thought would be somewhat Kennedy-like.

In her world, the appointment coincided with the revelation that Kennedy’s son’s tenure as a senior executive with Deutsche Bank coincided with both Russian-centric corruption and billions in loans to Trump’s business dealings. While she admits that Snopes is so far unable to confirm this particular conspiracy, it all seems like just too much coincidence to not be all related. Thus it seems pretty likely, to her, that Kennedy was forced out so as to replace a moderating voice on the court with someone who would be in Trump’s pocket.

Some of you may live in her world and some of you live in mind. As I try to look into both of these realms, it seems impossible that you can imagine one from where you sit in the other.

What she is seeing, as she watches the hearings, is that Republicans have already made the decision to confirm and there is no information that will make them change their mind. Because of this, the guilt or innocence of Kavanaugh isn’t actually that relevant to her criticism of the procedings. The fact that his involvement can be questioned is proof that the there is nothing that one could accuse him of that would give Republican’s pause. A variation, if you will, of Trump’s campaign pronouncement that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” and his supporters would still back him. Clearly, in her mind, all motivation of the Republicans is purely political.

Of course, back in my world, it couldn’t be more clear that the motivation of the Democrats is entirely political and unrelated to Kavanaugh’s fitness or character. Sitting on evidence for as long as possible and trying to force this confirmation and its attendant chaos to take place in the weeks right before an election seems far more important that finding the truth or, indeed, finding any justice for his accusers. For the denizens of my world, although again no proof will be forthcoming, there seems no other explanation than that the victims in this have been set up by some powerful people, wither willingly or unwittingly, to provide a political victory, no matter whom those in power have to hurt to get there. Will this destroy the accusers along with the accused? Sure, but sometimes you have a break a few eggs.

Part of which world you live in is determined by who you think are the more venal politicians, the left or the right. The small minority who are convinced that everyone is crooked and corrupt aside, I think most people have a good idea who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in this play.

So as she watches the hearings, with mounting horror, the motives of Republicans become ever more clear just from watching them. Everything they do has clear political motivation. We know they put politics over principles when they blocked Obama’s nomination of Garland. This is just an extension of politics as usual for them.

What is special, this time, and what is making my friend write letter after letter to her Congressmen, is that all this dirt, appearing at just this time, means there is a real chance that Kavanaugh’s nomination could fail. All it takes is to have two Republican Senators demure; to feel enough uncertainty to say “let’s slow this down a little until I understand what is going on a little better.” In fact, to her, it would seem like more than a chance. More of a certainty, given the sordidness of these accusations.

But, one may ask, if we’re not sure if those sordid accusations are even accurate, how strongly do we weigh them? The key, in her universe, is that Kavanaugh is obviously one of “them.” The other. Raised in wealth, he went to an exclusive private school where he found himself at the top of the heap. He played football, partied with the cool kids, and got away with stuff that may have got those of us in trouble at his age. At least, those of us who aren’t so special as he was. Whether he did this or that, particularly, is not the issue. We know he did something, and we have every hope that something will bring him down.

Seeing that hope slip away has got to be painful.

Because for my friend and many who share her world, there is no doubt that appointing Kavanaugh is an existential threat to the nation and to civilization. The key seems to be that comment he made about shielding a sitting president from prosecution. From that, it is clear to them that Trump selected Kavanaugh to protect him legally and, like Caesar, Trump would rather put an end to the Republic than expose himself to impeachment and prosecution. Kavanaugh is the key to this grand plan.

Now back in my world, Trump’s selection of Kavanaugh was an obvious attempt at selecting the compromise candidate out of, I’ll admit, a pretty decent field (for conservatives). The willingness to call in a nuclear strike on Kavanaugh indicates that they will never compromise even on the most minor of issues. Furthermore, while the anti-Trump crowd may have specific things that bother them about Kavanaugh, the left stated clearly that they were going to fight whomever Trump nominated, even before they knew who it was. Can we really believe them when they say that this is particular to Kavanaugh when they’ve already said it doesn’t matter who it is?

Clearly there are fundamental world views that cannot be reconciled here. A bigger question is will this eventually pass, allowing us to participate together in the civic process? Or is this one more step down a road from which there is no turning back?

One area we might agree on is what happens if the Democrats succeed and so scupper Kavanaugh’s nomination.

First, those who tend to support some combination of either Trump, Kavanaugh, or Republicans in general will turn, viciously, on each other. While the Democrats engineered and executed this circus, the right will blame each other for the outcome. More accurately, factions within the right will blame other factions within the right. The resultant infighting will certainly hurt the November elections, including races that have nothing to do with Trump, the Supreme Court, or the political questions involved.

Second, we’ll probably get an even better nominee proposed to the Supreme Court, and Republican’s may make an effort to get that done before the November election. Yet another Facebook acquaintance is even of the opinion that Trump is behind the it all, deliberately setting up the Democrats to embarrass themselves with Kavanaugh so that he can get that better choice appointed without resistance (Amy Barrett comes to mind). Also, in this analysis, Trump tricked the Democrats into opening sealed records from the Bush administration; records which cover controversial topics such as Vincent Foster’s death and the September 11th terrorist attacks. Kavanaugh was just a tool to get incriminating documents before the public. I wonder what Snopes has to say about that?

But now, with Kavanaugh withdrawn or disqualified, the rush will really be on to confirm quickly. In Kavanaugh’s case, extreme measures were required to delay his confirmation through the election. But if a new nominee starts now, is it really possible to wrap it up in just over a month? Particularly if the Democrats “win” this round, it would give them momentum going into the next one. And since, going back to my “first” (two paragraphs up), chaos and anger and bitterness are seen to help them in the upcoming elections, this might all feed into a scenario where they can hamstring the Supreme Court with a 4-4 ties throughout the remainder of the Trump administration, and then, after they take him out, they get their “permanent majority” plans back on track with solidly progressive Supreme Court appointments easily confirmed by their new, but eternal, majority.

I wonder what my high school friend would have to say about my world?

No. I am your Father.


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In the early 1980s, there was great turmoil in the world of games. Throughout the 1970s, the wargame hobby was marked by a rivalry between Avalon Hill, which had published wargames since the 1950s, and the newer Simulations Publications, Inc (SPI). SPI was founded by James F. Dunnigan, who had already created a number of successful titles for Avalon Hill.

This is the fifteenth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.


I was an Avalon Hill fan, myself. Exclusively. One might say, however, that it was SPI that pushed the wargaming hobby, and Avalon Hill along with it, to produce the kind of games that I wanted to play. Through the 70s, the companies were firing off competing designs, often trying to one-up the other with variations on each other’s themes.

SPI’s growth was rapid, particular considering its niche in wargaming. Through the 70s, it passed the million dollar annual sales mark and hit as high as $2 million in gaming revenue per year. The end of the 70s saw a decline in the gaming market, in part due to changes in gaming preferences (e.g. the rise of Dungeons and Dragons) and in part a reflection of the “stagflation” economic woes of that time. Avalon Hill was by then the smaller “wargame” company, although they still had a much larger chunk of the overall games market due to their success with “family games.” In 1980, SPI attempted to emulate Avalon Hill’s strategy by producing fantasy and role-playing games. A disaster involving the licensing of the Dallas TV show characters for an RPG was one obvious failure. In the end, SPI crumbled when sales started to flatten. It had simply become too dependent on growth to sustain its inventory-centric business model.

Ultimately, SPI was gobbled up by TSR (again, Dungeons and Dragons) through the foreclosing of a loan made by TSR to the struggling SPI. The end was acrimonious for those involved and some very talented SPI game designers found themselves on the job market. Enter Avalon Hill, who had also been in discussions with SPI about bailouts and asset purchases. Avalon Hill formed a subsidiary, Victory Games, which they created in New York (SPI’s business location) formed around staff from SPI. From 1982 through 1989, Victory Games produced games in the mold of SPI, but under the auspices of Avalon Hill. The CEO of Victory Games was one Mark Herman. Make a note of that.

One of the ex-SPI designers at Victory Games was named Nick Karp and, at the age of 21, he designed Vietnam 1965-1975, the archetype strategic-level Vietnam game. His boss, Herman, went on to design For the People, arguably making him the father of the card-driven wargame. The COIN series (Andean Abyss and A Distant Plain) from GMT demonstrated the effectiveness of the card-driven design in simulating asymmetric wars. Is it a surprise that it was Mark Herman that put 2 and 2 (and 2 and maybe 2 more) together and created Fire in the Lake?

Design Goals

I’ve not too many details about the lineage from Vietnam 1965-1975 to Fire in the Lake beyond the the designers’ discussion, which acknowledges that such a link exists. However, if I take a look at what’s “wrong” with Vietnam 1965-1975 in reviews and discussion, I can see many of the issues solved in Fire in the Lake‘s design. Just to start at the most obvious place, there is the complexity of the original game. By this, I’m not just talking about its length (although there is certainly that), but also to the number of fiddly components, including paper records to be maintained off board.

What good is a masterpiece if nobody ever plays it?

In my previous article I talked about Vietnam 1965-1975‘s operations and how this novel implementation captures some key aspects of asymmetrical warfare. However, this feature also generates complaints about the sheer number of, often, repetitive operations that must be played through in order to feed data back to the strategic layer. As well thought out as that operation “mini-game” (if you will) might be, it is itself an abstraction to simulate the cat-and-mouse nature of anti-insurgent operations. While it may work, it isn’t necessarily a finer grained “simulation” of said operations.

Fire in the Lake eliminates hexes and the unique counters which represent historical forces. Instead, there are just “troops” and “insurgents,” which have a presence only in a particular region or urban area. This eliminates the on board maneuvering and the semi-tactical battle resolution. As an example, in TOAW, the execution of an individual battle often means the ability to form the six-hex ring that isolates and destroys the enemy. In a more nuanced system like Vietnam 1965-1975, it the execution of an operation may not be so bluntly structured, but it requires an awful lot of calculations to make it work. In removing this detail, Fire in the Lake deemphasizes the small variances between units. For Vietnam 1965-1975 the difference between escaping and being destroyed might come down to a single extra movement point for that unit.

Fire in the Lake also removes the bulk of the randomness that most wargames use for combat resolution. There is the occasional die roll but, for the most part, combat results are determined by the counting the forces involved. It means, contrary to real-world experience, that you can know the results of an action before you commit to it. Or course, it also means you focus solely on the operational picture. Doing so saves you an awful lot of fiddling with your pieces, rolling dice, and looking up results on charts for something that, in the long run, should average out to a fairly predictable quantity.

Having eliminated the lowest level of decision making, we also can eliminate the highest. One of the more interesting design choices is that, in Fire in the Lake, the allocation of U.S. forces to Vietnam is largely outside of the control of the U.S. player. Contrast that to Vietnam 1965-1975 where controlling the allocation of forces is the deciding factor for U.S. victory. Fire in the Lake’s three non-U.S. factions all have available to them one or more operations (a player’s action that accompanies each card) that deploy forces to the map. For the U.S, on the other hand, there are only two methods of adding more units. The first is through events; the playing of the historical portion of the active card. There is also a “commitment” phase that comes once per “Coup!” cycle or “campaign” (see also my overview of gameplay here). This allows the player to increase or decrease forces, effectively managing the “available” pool, which directly translates into the points the U.S. needs for victory.

There is always a tug-of-war between commitment and casualties to fight the “war weariness” (as other games are apt to call it) of a nation at war. The military commanders, given enough allocation of resources, can achieve their goals with fewer casualties. So in the medium term, increasing commitment should reduce casualties and avoid war-weariness. In the short term, however, the increased deployment of troops, the increased military expenditure, and the debate of the necessity for a “surge” will stoke the dove sentiment in the population. A game including “war weariness” as a factor asks the player to balance these competing short versus medium goals. For the long term, the player must conclude their war before being forced into a bad position through the loss of popular support.

In Vietnam there are many who said that the shortsightedness of avoiding commitment up-front resulted in the loss in the end. That is, the failure to risk negative popular opinion by going whole-hog when necessary is what made the war unwinnable. We might also reach the opposite conclusion. The U.S. were forced to withdraw from Vietnam for political reasons long before they suffered any real military loss. So perhaps better management of the public’s expectations, not a more rapid and decisive victory on the battlefield, is what would have made the difference.

Compare and contrast to the commitment and morale tracks in Vietnam 1965-1975. In that game the declining morale will, through the simple math of the game, force U.S. commitment to decline in the game’s later turns. The structure of the victory conditions means that U.S. player can only win by “going the distance,” that is, lasting until the 1975 end of the game. Inevitably, the U.S. is going to be forced into a withdrawal and Vietnamization before it is all said and done. In Fire in the Lake, by contrast, it is theoretically possible to win a military victory at any point in the war. Just doing the math, in South Vietnam, there are a total of 33 population points. If the entire population were to strongly support the Republic of Vietnam’s anti-communist government, that is worth 66 points right there, a good margin above the 50 needed to win. So in theory, the U.S. could completely ignore the other source of victory points for them, those from units in the “available” pool. This tally could be thought of is a measure of U.S. forbearance in not committing every possible unit that could be squeezed out of the American political system.

Practically speaking, the U.S. victory will come from balancing the two conflicting goals. The U.S. will want to win the support of as much of the population as possible while committing as few troops necessary to get the job done. Combined with the late game events, this will tend to push the U.S. player along a similar arc as in Vietnam 1965-1975 and the war itself. When that happens, the U.S. likely will have to engage in a systematic withdrawal of forces in order to get enough “available” points for a victory. Note, in particular, that the point gain from a withdrawal is always delayed one full campaign (set of cards) before it counts towards victory. Scoring takes place at the beginning of the Coup! round, not at the end. This means the U.S. has to survive at least one campaign with the reduced levels of commitment before using those points to go for a win.

So, once again, the Fire in the Lake design seems to have found a way to reduce the complexity of morale, commitment, and deployment -level management from the complex equations that are used in Vietnam 1965-1975. Players will appreciate the great reduction in game time as well as the simplified tracking. A downside, however, would be the risk of losing the character of the decisions that, in Vietnam 1965-1975, are attached to the commitment or withdrawal of each named unit in the game. Not only is commitment and withdrawal generic, but so are all the units. That missing flavor must be supplied by the events.


As I said, Events remove the player from the highest level of decision making – the level at which the President or Congress might be critical in determining the outcome of the war. Using the event cards, the game models the political forces as mostly outside the control of the player. As an early example, the Gulf of Tonkin incident will give the U.S. air strikes (representing the immediate retaliation of Operation Pierce Arrow) and the deployment of U.S. forces to cities in Vietnam (representing the initial ground force build up of early 1965). As the U.S. player, you can’t explicitly “request” the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade be deployed to Vietnam. Even still, as the player, you do have some input into the political aspects of what happens.


Gulf of Tonkin, Fire in the Lake style.

The U.S. player has three choices when the Gulf of Tonkin card comes up for play. He can choose that the U.S. reacts historically to the incident in the Gulf with airstrikes and troop deployments, although the “free” airstrikes can be used or not as the player decides allowing for more nuance to the response. Similarly, the player can chose to deploy ground troops either to the historical locations or to other cities. Beyond that, the U.S. may also choose to avoid the Gulf of Tonkin as an “incident.” If one assumes that the engagement of the USS Maddox is out of his control, he might (by choosing to play a limited operation instead of the event) take a path where Johnson ignores or downplays the confrontation rather than use it to ramp up the effort in Vietnam. The U.S. player might also decide to forgo the event of the card and instead undertake an operation. Perhaps the U.S. player is not eligible for the initiative. Under these circumstances, the control of this event shifts to the North Vietnamese player.

Under the control of the North Vietnamese, the outcome of this event can be interpreted as one where the minority voices in American politics actually triumph. We might imagine that the second “battle” in the Gulf of Tonkin is exposed as a fiction and, as a result, not only does Pierce Arrow not occur but U.S. funding for South Vietnam is reduced. Of course, a U.S. player could, himself, chose to take this peaceful road, but one assume he wants to win the war, not make a philosophical statement. Similar to the U.S. choices, the NVA player could chose a limited operation to make the event “go away.” This would simulate the North deciding to never engage the Maddox in the first place, so that there is no “incident” from which to escalate. Or the North could choose to cede initiative to South Vietnam, who now can mold history similar to the U.S. choices of the previous paragraph.

So timing is controlled by the card draw – the Gulf of Tonkin card may show up early or late, relative to other cards played, or it may not show up at all. The highest level political decisions can be influenced by the player, although only partially. For example, while under some play combinations the NVA can “choose” never to participate in the Gulf of Tonkin, in others they don’t have that choice. Perhaps, one supposes, the U.S. can force a Gulf of Tonkin incident, one way or another, given time an opportunity. If the NVA torpedo boats hadn’t attacked on August 2nd, 1964, there still would have inevitably been some kind of confrontation between the forces of the U.S. and the forces of North Vietnam that could have provoked a similar reaction.

This is all a fair balance between a system where the political attempts are preordained to follow their historical path (i.e. on March 8th, 1965 you get the Marines at Da Nang) and the algorithmic-driven decisions of Vietnam 1965-1975, with all its attendant computational complexity.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, which compares and contrasts how two board games handled aspects of the war.



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This is the fourteenth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

In an earlier post, I talked about the suitability of tactical-level games for looking at the War in Vietnam. This is one interesting way to view this war, but obviously not the only one. And while there are board game treatments of the Vietnam War involving tactical, squad-level combat, I have taken an interest in those board games that look at the big picture. There may be a handful of choices when it comes to table tops and cardboard counters, but on the PC (as far as I know) this is the exclusive domain* of The Operational Art of War.

There are a series of multi-year, operational-level scenarios for the Vietnam War available in TOAW. I started with Vietnam 1965-1968, in part, because it was one of the first chronologically. Also, it seemed to be intermediate in terms of detail, and I felt it might introduce me into how TOAW works (or doesn’t work) for this conflict while at the same time easing me into the big picture of this era and the decisions that are important at a high level. That, in turn, should help me understand other games and other scenarios. I play as the Americans, and my comments therefore reflect only the experience of that side against the Programmed Opponent (PO).

Now I seem to recall, years and years ago, playing a TOAW Vietnam scenario that was implemented rather conventionally. Or maybe I just tried to play it conventionally and therefore couldn’t understand what it was supposed to do. Thinking back, I cannot remember which scenario that was. Maybe I’ll run across it as I try others. My point being, I had this negative view of Vietnam and TOAW – a feeling that the engine was not suited to the war. Is my feeling accurate? Is there a way to match the engine with the war? There certainly have been a few concerted attempts at it.

To simulate what is essentially a counter-insurgency operation with TOAW, one has to color a bit outside the lines. In this go around, the scenario uses turns lasting a week and hexes covering 5 km. South Vietnam is covered as well as portions of the neighboring countries. In addition, there are a handful of abstracted spaces representing U.S. air and naval bases in the Pacific.  The scenario asks the U.S. player to get roughly through the historical Tet Offensive without suffering the political loss that stemmed from that operation. To achieve this, the U.S. player must make it through 180 turns while facing an ever-growing tally of setbacks. These points are tracked separately in a variable which can range from 0 to 150 points. The tally increases in instances such as when the U.S. loses control of the area surrounding cities. Other event-based factors, such as at what points the U.S. requests more resources be allocated to Vietnam, will also raise the marker. If the value of that variable hits 100, the North Vietnamese player wins. If the U.S. can make it all the way to the turn limit, the game will use TOAW‘s victory conditions which, in my experience, always results in an overwhelming victory for the Americans.


Col. Hal Moore and his 1st Battalion lead the Garry Owen brigade into Camp Holloway to clear away some insurgents. Unfortunately, this is mid-May 1965. The airmobile unit wasn’t constituted at Fort Benning until July and didn’t reach Vietnam until September.

Overall, the feel of the game conveys the setting of the Vietnam War. Changes have been made to default settings, particularly in terms of combat and supply, reducing the rates of both. The idea was to simulate that fights were not terribly destructive, in terms of lost manpower, but that even victorious units would be eventually worn down. This forces the U.S. player to manage his units for the long term. The, dare I say, excess of helicopter transport resources means that airmobile units can range virtually anywhere on the mapboard, which gives the U.S. great power when he decides it is time to exercise it.

I’ve also run into a few hitches with this scenario. The question I have is whether we’re looking at fundamental problems with TOAW as a vehicle for creating these games or something that could be fixed with a different scenario design. In other words, am I see the limitations of TOAW when it comes to Vietnam, or just some unfortunate scenario design decisions?

In addition to supply being restricted to more appropriate levels, you are playing a scenario that is fundamentally a different kind of war that TOAW‘s usual World War II. There are no front lines and there is little-to-no vying for territory. Nominally, the government of South Vietnam controls all of the country. Contrast to, say, an WWII Eastern Front scenario where managing supply often comes down to maintaining a contiguous front line and making sure that pockets or your units are not isolated. In Vietnam, units were isolated. Placing of remote outposts in unfriendly areas of the country was part of the strategy to disrupt the enemy. What this means for supply is that, in addition to trickling in due to a lower resupply rate, supply lines will be cut and need to be restored. This adds an additional layer for supply that the player needs to understand and manage.

Remember, we are using week long turns and a 5 km hex grid so when you embark on an operation, it is fairly fine-grained. Now couple this with the supply issues and U.S. player faces a problem. The U.S. has coastal strongholds where supply is high. Units resting there can go from depleted to completely refitted in a couple of turns. The problem is, that’s not where the fight is going to be. To control Vietnam properly, you’ve got to project that force along long, rural roadways into areas where supply is poor. Moving through these areas will slowly but steadily deplete your units’ supply and fighting in these areas will often wipe it out. Thus, after a few weeks “in the bush” you have to be bring your forces back to those well-controlled, well-supplied areas. For those that are airmobile, and round trip and a short, sharp battle can be accomplished in as little as 2 turns. For units moving by truck, the cycle stretches out to 3, 4, or more turns one-way.

So far, this might not seem too bad. In fact, it would seem to describe exactly the challenges with which operations in Vietnam would have had to contend. The actual timing, as we convert calendar weeks into game turns, might end up a bit on the long side. For example, an attack typically requires a minimum of three turns (one to move in, one to destroy the enemy, and one to move out), which automatically pushes you toward the “one month” range (week long turns). I also have no way to tell if the supply model has been perfectly tuned in the scenario, particularly as TOAW has been tweaking the supply system in each new version. For the moment, lets just stipulate that the modelling is good. Even then, you are left with the tedium of conducting operations by moving units, counter-by-counter, into and out of battle zones after which you must manage them to allow for some RnR. It may be realistic, but is it fun?

Think, too, that this is only one aspect of it. In addition to any active battles in a given turn, you should probably be running the rail lines to make sure their aren’t guerrillas preventing transport along them. You can also ride your river boats through the Mekong Delta to sniff out any VC encroachment there. On top of that, those long roads have periodically got to be traversed to make sure supplies still pass safely along them. As I said, it is all pretty plausible, but it is all outside of the decision making and planning that make for a good game. Maybe there is a bit of gameplay in the margins – you have to decide whether Route 4 or Route 9 is the one which is going to be cleared this month. But having made that decision, you’ve got 4 or maybe 5 turns of running some mechanized unit back and forth, back and forth. In other words, while the larger “game” may be fine, there is an awful lot of mouse-clicking required to support a fairly small decision.

I’ll also critique the particular use of the Event Variable to govern the victory conditions. It is hard to keep track of. Loss of points is generally tied to an action at a particular city. News updates at the start of your turn tell you which cities are threatened and indicated where those threats have resulted in loss of points. I think it would take a great deal of study to make full sense of this.

The reporting for this scenario, and the use of such an extensive map, makes clear that TOAW could really use a way to link a message about a geographic location to the geographic location on the hex grid. Even at times when I think I know the location of some South Vietnamese village, it seems to take me forever to actually locate it on the map. When I do, having located may or may not be useful. If I don’t already have enough units there, the enemy units that provoked the warning message may or may not be visible. If I need to repurpose units, there is a good chance that I’m several turns away from being able to organize such an effort. So if I’ve already lost the point, there is no use in reacting to it. If I haven’t lost a point yet, I may or may not be able to react before I do so. In the meantime, many other messages will beg for my attention. In the end, I mostly ignore the news messages. I think to use them would entail keeping an offline diary. Too many historical games already feel like playing a spreadsheet. The last thing I want is to set up a separate, off-line** spreadsheet to help me play.

My point here is that the use of the Event Variable to track a standard victory condition is a good start, but the implementation here makes it difficult. Again, I must ask the question as to whether TOAW can be modified to work in this way and, if so, is there are way to make it easier on the player?

Likewise the supply issues could really use some better tools to manage them. The supply units themselves are not (unless I’m missing something important) actively engaged by the player. In this type of military situation, the “commander” should expect that his logistics people will report when problems with the supply lines crop up. The computer knows, I would think, that it is trying to get X supply to unit Y’s remote position and will know when that task becomes curtailed by enemy control of spaces. Combine this with a “click to go to” feature on messages, and responding to supply line issues could be made a lot easier.

I’d probably need to do some reading on how these things were actually managed by U.S. leaders at the time. I would think there is a better and more accurate solution than what is required in TOAW. When it came to keeping supply open on a roadway, it seems unlikely that moving a battalion back and forth was a solution. A more sensible implementation, not to mention one that could be far easier on the player’s mouse hand, would be if a unit could be assigned “patrol” tasks. Modeling could essentially diffuse the unit through its area of operation, which could be areal (a certain number of hexes) or linear (along a defined stretch of road). This, I’m pretty sure, is outside the scope of the TOAW engine, but done right could solve most of my issues with this scenario.

In the end, while the scenario does produce the right feeling for the Vietnam War, it falls a little short in execution. The mechanics which seem to drive the war’s escalation too fast mean that the player will not experience the historical arc of the first couple of years of the war. The victory calculations using the Event Variable mean that defeat sneaks up and then ambushes you, like some kind of Viet Cong punji stick trap. Taken as a whole, the scenario becomes unnecessarily hard, not only to win, but to explore the alternatives that might improve your chances of winning.

As an introduction to what’s possible in TOAW and as a comparison to other attempts, this is a good choice for a scenario. As an experience unto itself, it is probably not the best. But we shall see.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, which compares and contrasts how two board games handled aspects of the war.

*The only alternative that I can find on the internet is an old DOS/ Atari/ Amiga game called ‘Nam 1965-1975. Not to say I couldn’t have missed one. For what its worth, that one can be downloaded and run in DOSBox.

**Using other programs in conjunction with TOAW more often than not causes problems. The biggest is that, with something else running on my machine, the graphics and the calculations seem to lose touch with each other. As a result, the graphics freezes for the minutes that it takes to calculate the PO moves. In a scenario like this one, where units are often only detected as they are moving, and are not visible at all during the player’s turn, this can be a big problem.