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.
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 seeing 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.
*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.