One of the scenarios in Steel Panthers is a fairly obscure battle which took place in December of 1964. It is a portrayal of a Viet Cong (VC) attack on an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) base during the period where the communists were moving towards a strategy of more direct military engagement on the battlefield. It is suggested that, against the AI, the player take the side of the ARVN.
The source material is a little thin on this assault, which took place near Tam Ky. That said, the size and scale of the Steel Panthers implementation seems about right to fully and accurately portray the battle. The game lasts for an hour and a half of real time, a reasonable duration to depict a sudden and overwhelming attack. The ARVN, at least (I don’t think the VC order of battle is in any way documented), is represented fully in a one-to-one ratio.
Being on the defensive, the player’s decisions are greatly simplified. Mostly, whenever it is your turn, you just have to designate targets for each of the units on your side. Occasionally it is necessary to pull a unit back out of an untenable defensive position, but for the most part remaining dug in is preferable to maneuvering around. As I’ve said before when it comes to Steel Panthers, managing the individual weapons and vehicles can be fun, but it gets tedious to visit every unit on every turn for, in this case, up to 31 turns in a row. To add to the tedium, the computer turns are incredibly long. As each VC attacker advances, they come under fire from multiple defenders. For all of the clicking and shooting, though, not much is really happening. Most of the time the VC units are halted and pinned down by our defenders.
This got me to thinking how this should be done right, given the capabilities of modern games. I’d say the scenario demonstrates that this is a very good size and scope for portraying Vietnam engagements. However, if a game simply brought the Steel Panthers graphics and UI into the current era, it would still suffer the tedium of all that micromanagement. Putting this scenario into an RTS would certainly move things along, but then you lose most of the fun (actually getting involved with the individual weapons) and create a click-fest hell for the player. There is a reason almost every RTS has a unrealistically small unit count.
The key here may be to simulate command, communications, and control in a realistic manner for the time and technology.
One example that might work with a turn-based game, otherwise mostly similar to Steel Panthers, is what is used in Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm. That system uses a special form of “WeGo.” That is, orders are entered, and then the resolution of those order are resolved for both side simultaneously. The catch in Flashpoint Campaigns is that the two players don’t enter their commands simultaneously. There is variability on how long between “turns” each player has, as well as a limit (not known upfront) as to how many units can be commanded.
In Flashpoint Campaigns, it is ostensibly modelling curtailed communications due to the jamming of signals on the World War III battlefield. Of course, this isn’t an effect that has actually happened, so we aren’t trying to accurately simulate the resulting communication issues. Rather, it is a matter of what makes for kind of a nifty game mechanic meshing pretty well with something that may well have been a major factor on the battlefield, had such a battle actually occurred in that time and place.
But what if we looked at the actual communications issues during the Vietnam era. For this case, let’s rely on the the LZ-XRay battle, because we are familiar with the issues of command having read the book. In that fight, Hal Moore had limited ability to command his platoons. He knew where he had sent them, but the details of his intentions were left to his captains and lieutenants to carry out. In the case of the “Lost Platoon,” the execution of the command was quite a bit different then the formulation of it. Further, once the chaos of battle hit, communications were dependent on radios and their operators. The radios could fail, sustain damage, or just not work properly. Operators could be injured or killed and then replaced, or not.
I can only begin to imagine what the details might look like, but it seems that a good system, based on commanders and communications, could simulate the tenuous ability to control across an entire battle of the size in these Vietnam fights. The added bonus is that the micromanagement goes way down and the amount of thinking and planning goes way up. If you are unsure whether you’ll be be able to command your units in the next round, or even when that “next round” will come, you have to be judicious about what commands you give.
Another possibility is the First Person Shooter (FPS). At the time Steel Panthers was fresh, the height of FPS technology was Doom II. Fast-forward 10-20 years and the FPS genre now encompasses commanding squads in a way that rivals an RTS treament of small-unit actions.
While there is FPS coverage of Vietnam, it is a little sparse. A 2004 release, Men of Valor, attempts to port the Medal of Honor style of gameplay from WWII to Vietnam. This is a treatment where a the player follows a scripted story; it is not means of reproducing battles. Several of the open-ended FPS games do have Vietnam mods for them. Notable to me is the project in ARMA, a user-created mod called Vietnam: The Experience. Notable because I’ve played ARMA. Red Orchestra has also been modded and released as the product Rising Storm 2: Vietnam. I note this one because it is a current and popular game. Unlike ARMA (in any of its versions), Rising Storm 2 is meant only to be an on-line multiplayer game. There is no single player.
While the sandbox style of ARMA provides a fair basis for a Vietnam mod, the issue of command and communication probably cannot be properly addressed without changes in the way ARMA does things. In ARMA 2 and 3, we are dealing with approximations of current or near-future wars. It makes sense that the ability to track and chat with your fellow players is an approximation of the technology available on the modern battlefield. In a Vietnam setting, would the same level of omniscience detract from the simulation aspects? Would it ruin a game if we had a heads-up display of how many of the “lost platoon” were still alive at any given point? Or is it still a decent approximation of how, via radio communication, information on battlefield communications was already coming into the modern age?
I’ll make an analogy with CMANO and its use for air and sea battles shortly after the end of the Second World War. The interface can still work provided that it is used only to show the lesser amount of information available to, for example, the Korean War commander. In this way, the game’s UI still approximates the level of information and control that that a real commander might have, using radio and a team of controllers. However, unlike the in a modern battle, where the CMANO interface closely approximates the computer display which a commander might be watching, the graphical UI in the context of the Korean War is simply that – a convenient interface. It detracts, rather than adds, to immersion.
So is it possible to create an immersive “commander” interface using a first-person display? What if you modeled the existing communications and the limitations that the radio places upon them. What if you were able to approximate the information flowing to and from you, as the commander. One might imagine an experience similar to the Scourge of War series. In the Civil War, you are commanding a Division or even a Corps, and the interface is more RTS than FPS. But in a small unit action, the first person interface might make sense. A Captain or a Major might even, if necessary, pick up an M-16 and fire some shots. Given a choice between the command interfaces of Scourge of War versions ARMA, I think I’d prefer the latter. This assumes, of course, that an era-appropriate method of simulating the difficulties of command and communication can be inserted. Dispatches are no longer sent around by riders on horseback, but there was still a reliance on “running” orders that should not be ignored.
The other part of the battlefield that I just don’t think ARMA simulates correctly is close artillery support. In We Were Soldiers Once…, Moore attributes his victory to his ability to direct artillery fire and air support. Doing this right would be a major step in moving away from a “Shooter” and towards a simulator of small unit actions. Doing it right might even trump what is the norm for tactical-level strategy games currently. Steel Panthers (and Squad Battles, too, for that matter) uses the system that exists in most World War II board games. There are spotter units on the board who, with line of sight to a target hex, can order in indirect fire. That fire comes with uncertainties in both timing and accuracy. Against a moving enemy, indirect fire is often ineffective. Contrast that to the descriptions in We Were Soldiers Once… of the use of Forward Air Controllers to bring support fire accurately and efficiently onto enemies with which the ground forces are directly engaged.
So while nothing out there is right on the money, it wouldn’t take that much to make an ARMA (or Rising Storm 2 perhaps*) into something that would allow the player to command small unit actions. Would that be a better interface than a traditional RTS (with which ARMA has some overlap, I might add)? Would it beat the traditional hex-and-counter implementation?
There must be a way to do this that is more fun than slogging it through, bullet by bullet, in a Steel Panthers scenario.
*The focus on ARMA, in part, are examples of custom scenario designs made for that engine. The continued relevance of Steel Panthers stems from the ability of users to create scenarios for an unlimited variety of situations. The key to a better future would be retaining that important aspect of the past.