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At nearly exactly the same time as the artificially-constructed post-apocalypse Cuban Missile Crisis, back in the real world, a proxy-war was taking place in Vietnam.

While president Eisenhower had certainly backed the government of South Vietnam’s efforts to eliminate their communist insurgency, it was Kennedy who dramatically increased that effort with both monetary aid and people, the latter in the form of military advisors. The result was a war being fought with US military equipment, but by South Vietnamese soldiers. And this was an army prone to mistakes and mismanagement.

Back when I had the French fighting these same enemies, I thought it might be fun to have John Tiller’s Squad Battles take on that campaign, but didn’t see it being $40-50 worth of fun. Fortunately, quite some time ago I decided that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was worth that kind of coin and I’ve had copies of both of the Tiller/HPS titles; Vietnam and Tour of Duty.

Vietnam was released in 2001 and followed up in 2002 by Tour of Duty. The latter added a broader range of battles as well as a campaign mode, of sorts. The campaign mode never quite flipped my switch but the much larger range of battles made the second title worth it just on their own.

Perhaps surprisingly, given that so many of Tiller’s games are placed in the Second World War, it was Vietnam that launched the Squad Battles product line. Of course, one doesn’t know what’s inside the head of a designer, but it may be that Tiller felt support for squad-level action was seen as necessary to cover the conflict in Vietnam. It was only after both of the Vietnam-related Squad Battles titles were out that the series moved back to the Second World War with Squad Battles: The Proud and the Few. Even still, by taking on the Pacific theatre, we are only creeping slowly back toward the more traditional World War II setting. With the island hopping battles in The Proud and the Few, there is more commonality with the jungle fighting of Vietnam than the post-Normandy fighting in France.

Vietnam (and all of the Squad Battles titles) were somewhat unique when they came out. Coming, as they did, from the heritage of Tiller’s Civil War and Napoleonic games, they had their roots in tabletop and board games. At that time, this meant a more realistic treatment of combat that what the RTS world supplied. Further more, the modelling of the units was down to the individual gun* within each squad. It wasn’t until later that realistic modelling of squad-level combat was approached from the other side – coming from the first-person shooting world, with better game AI allowing realistic treatment of small unit actions.

Squad-based action is certainly an intriguing and, again when it was new, unexpected use of Tiller’s system. Was it an obvious move to essentially take Tiller’s Age of Rifles** engine, wherein the “pieces” represent regiments, and rework it to model the individual infantryman’s gun? Probably not, but much of it works beautifully. I’d say, though, that in this system getting the scenario design right becomes perhaps an even bigger factor than games with a larger scale.

When dealing with individual squads and the fairly short scenario durations, you really have to capture just the right moment in time to make the scenarios meaningful and interesting. There is a quote, likely from the First World War, describing combat as “months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” This description is very apt when describing the experience of the individual rifleman in modern conflict. Small arms fire is not particularly deadly, except when it is. The actual battle of Ap Bac saw the Viet Cong holding out with minimal losses for an entire day, because they were in well-prepared positions. In other situations, a whole board’s worth of soldiers can be taken down in a matter of minutes.

Squad Battles‘ solution to this design problem is to limit the choices for the player. Scenario lengths are short, meaning that in most cases doing anything but getting down to business will mean a loss.

What does this mean to you as a pretend commander? When faced with a new scenario, with the enemy mostly unknown and knowing only vaguely your objective, you probably don’t have time for probing the enemy positions before using that little information you do have on Turn Zero to create an attack plan. In many cases, making the right guesses can mean a win while guessing wrong means a loss. I’ll give an example lower in the article about how this played out in the Ap Bac scenario. Obviously you should try to avoid my ruining the surprise if you mean to play this scenario yourself. Don’t read below the screenshot if you don’t want anything given away.

For me, making the winning or losing of a scenario dependent on factors unknowable to the player is little different than making the outcome dependent on a card draw or a die roll. Your skill has little do to with the outcome if choosing door “C” automatically gets you the goat. On the other hand, your real-life counterpart may well have been ordered to seize an objective within the next 30 minutes and nobody knew until afterwards that there were 3X the estimated enemy defending that position. If your gameplay style is to keep trying scenarios until you figure out the right way to “beat” them, this may be a satisfying setup. And a realistic one, if you liken the scenarios to some sort of training exercise where you learn by experience the range of things that can go wrong with a plan.

In addition to their impact on the player, the tight scenarios also help the AI to perform better. Because the player is very restricted as to what he can possibly do, the AI needs to make fewer decisions. For example, the AI is probably incapable of considering that the player might make an roundabout approach and show up unexpectedly in the rear. But that’s OK, because the scenario length doesn’t allow for that kind of outside-the-box attack plan. I seem to recall reading that the scenarios define a limited set of spaces in which the AI units operate. Such a design prevents the AI from doing entirely stupid things that will get its units in the wrong place, but also places severe limits on the variability of scenarios on replay. The AI often can and will only do one thing.

apbac1

The ARVN “cavalry” has taken the downed-helicopter sites and now moves forward to dislodge the nearby Viet Cong. Unfortunately, they’re really dug in over there.

The “expansion” version, Tour of Duty (really not an expansion at all as it is an independent, stand-alone product), covers only one battle that predates the 1964 escalation of American involvement. No scenarios in the original take place so early. The battle is the one at Ap Bac, fought on January 2nd, 1963. Within that greater battle, the scenario focuses on the attempt of the 4th Mechanized Rifle Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment to turn the tide with a mounted attack on the Viet Cong positions.

The riflemen of the the 4th Mech. ride into battle on U.S.-supplied M113s. The M113 is an Armored Personnel Carrier that entered U.S. military service in 1960. It is an all-terrain vehicle constructed with aluminum armor. The aluminum protects the occupants against small arms fire while leaving the vehicle much lighter than the Korean-war era M75 that it was replacing. The lower weight allowed it to float in water and enabled airlifting of the vehicles. The M113 saw extensive service in Vietnam, where it was sometimes referred to as an Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle (ACAV). The M113 remains operational in today’s military although it’s role as an assault vehicle has been replaced by the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Experience with the M113 was that its deployment against the Viet Cong was decisive. In previous engagements, the insurgents fled when facing these armored vehicles. On this day, however, the Viet Cong were intending to defeat the South Vietnamese, not to escape them. Further, they knew that defending from their prepared positions was their best chance at victory. Once they started to retreat, the superior equipment of the ARVN would prevail. So running from the M113s wasn’t an option. They had to take them on.

The 4th Mech. was originally planned to be held back as either a rapid reaction force or, hopefully, to be available to run down the fleeing enemy after the battle was won. Once the attack began to go wrong, however, the American advisors decided to commit the ACAVs to reverse their fortunes. The attack was plagued by chain-of-command issues between the Americans and the South Vietnamese. When the attack finally came at 1:30 PM (nearly 10 hours into the battle), this new ARVN advance suffered from poor tactics. After three hours engaged, the 4th Mech. was withdrawn without success.

In the scenario, shown in the screenshot, the player commands the M113s and crews and are required to advance on the helicopter crash sites and the Viet Cong positions beyond. Winning will mean a quickly succeeding where the real-life counterparts faltered. The victory locations are set up as 3 crash sites with 3 higher-value victory locations behind them. The attacking force is organized into 3 rifle platoons backed by a mortar unit.

The fog-of-war setup means you have no idea where the enemy is. It would make sense that they are defending the victory locations, but their deployment and even their total strength is a mystery. With three pairs of objectives and three attacking units, it would seem like the obvious solution is to hit all three simultaneously. At Ap Bac, the ARVN made their first error in approaching the battle in column and their momentum was quickly halted by enemy fire. Few players would make that mistake. For my part, I began by cautiously approaching the helicopter landing sites deployed in line.

What I found [and here is that complete spoiler I warned about above] is that the helicopter crash sites were undefended and I quickly controlled them. Moving forward from there, I attempted to seize the Viet Cong strong points. As I moved in, the hidden enemy were able to pin down my approaching troops. In one of their three defensive formations, they had anti-armor capability and that did some damage to my vehicles. In others, they managed to stop my attack before I could take the objectives and time ran out. Now, part of my problem is I had forgot the morale/rally mechanic of this game. Specifically, rallying pinned or disorganized units must be a deliberate action by a commander in the same hex. Once upon a time I knew this based on many hours spent with this series, but this time I forgot. I assumed that the proximity to a commander was the key to morale management (as it is with many games of this type). This user-error probably slowed down my attack even more than it should have. On top of that, another part of my problem is that by spreading my forces out to engage all the enemy forces in a broad front, I didn’t have enough local superiority at each location. The game was a draw, by points.

So I played again.

Staring over, I knew a few things. I now knew that the Viet Cong were not defending the helicopter crash sites directly, so I no longer had to approach them cautiously. Second, I knew I wanted to hit the enemy, not simultaneously, but in sequence. I started from the South and worked my way North, deliberately leaving myself with insufficient time to actually take the northernmost position. I did control the other two, and that, along with fewer losses than the first time through, meant that I scored a major victory in points.

So what to make of my two tries? Some minor issues aside, I don’t think my decision on the first play-through was really a failure of command. Neither I nor my historical counterpart had any idea that the enemy force was too strong for us to hit it head on. In fact he, even more than I, would have assumed that the M113s would dominate the battlefield. So I don’t think I really had a “mistake” to learn from.

Maybe a different way of looking at the experience is more one of learning about different tactics and what works with this technology in this time and this place – one could certainly interpret it this way. A good commander should be thinking through all the possibilities and what would work better when. In a game that takes 20-or-so minutes, it makes sense to try a couple of different approaches. The problem is, once I played it the first time, there were these spoilers – key bits of information that I now knew that there should have been no way to anticipate. The position of the enemy line, for example, that was back at the rear objectives and not at the forward ones. The location of enemy anti-armor recoilless rifle is another, which meant an instant loss of a vehicle when I just stumbled upon unwittingly. The equivalent vehicle was saved when the AT gun could be anticipated in subsequent run-throughs.

Here the game as a exercise in command study displays a weakness. There is no variability in setup and little variability in AI decision making. Therefore once you know what the surprises are, well obviously, they won’t be surprises anymore.

But for all my complaints, this scenario isn’t half bad. Possibly because of the mounted, mechanized units, there is a little bit more time for maneuver than with a purely foot scenario. The win is certainly achievable once you do it right. Critically, I don’t have to feel that I have to “roll a six” just at the right time. My victory was achieved by hitting the enemy positions with concentrated attacks. They actually didn’t even go that well. I lost several commanders to enemy fire, meaning the forces that I had intended to attack with became unexpectedly unavailable. In one case, I had to overrun the objective hex with an M113 directly in a sort of ad hoc backup plan. So this scenario is, perhaps, a better example of this system’s ability to entertain.

To dig into this more, I’ll try again on a battle that has been modeled across a number of different games, and we can see how this one lives up to its potential.

*For clarity, when a squad carries multiple weapon types, the weapon types are grouped together. In the examples, we see that the South Vietnamese infantry squads have a mix of M-14 rifles, sub-machine guns, and Browning Automatic Rifles. The fire of the 7 M-14s can be directed independently of the machine guns (or all can be fired together, at the player’s choice).

**Squad Battles was created at what may have been the peak of the popularity of the hardcore historical wargame. HPS, itself, was releasing titles expanding on its American Civil War and World War II lines.