I’ve logged an inexplicably large number of hours playing Arab-Israeli Wars lately. It’s not really a good game, in fact, it is barely even a game. The rules are designed to be played solitaire with a custom deck, but I’ve been playing it on the computer. It tends to start up really fast, so it is something I can run while my system is churning away on other things. Add to that, a game can be finished in, usually, 5 to 10 minutes. That makes it ideal when I want to momentarily distract myself while my computer is preventing me from doing anything important but I don’t want to get up an walk away. The fact that at least half of the games are not challenging, either impossible to win or impossible to lose, doesn’t seem to deter me.
I bring this up now, because I’ve just started playing Vietnam ’65 from Slitherine/Matrix Games. As I’ve been thinking about the design of Vietnam games recently, my first focus was on its design.
Vietnam ’65 is also a “solitaire” game, in that it is meant to be played only as the Counter Insurgent side (the U.S.) against the communists. Normally, we would call this “single player only” or some such, but having in my head this explicitly-solitaire game design, I realize the similarities.
Don’t get me wrong. Vietnam ’65 is not a trivial or simple game that I’m trying to compare directly to the first example. There is plenty under the hood to make this game worthwhile and I, for one, find it incredibly addictive. The comparison here is more about game design decisions than the game itself.
Vietnam ’65 is a very-abstracted representation of the Vietnam War some time toward the end of 1965. In fact, pretty much the only way I know the timeframe of the game is that this what it says in the title. When you start the game, you are given a randomly-generate piece of real estate, peppered with villages, roads, rivers and jungles. Obviously, being randomly generated, its not going to correspond to a specific geographic location. Neither does the manual get more specific. The tutorial, however, explains that we are operating in the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands, further fixing time and place to the fall of 1965 and something like Operation Silver Bayonet.
The goal of the game is to achieve the “Hearts and Minds” strategy of the American military. Each of the villages have sympathies that lean toward the Americans, toward the insurgents, or somewhere in between. Throughout the game, the communist units’ activities will attempt to influence village sympathies their way while you must trying to bring them back over to you. Whichever side succeeds in moving the needle wins the game.
Villages are influenced, incrementally, by visiting them. Some villages, when visited by the player, will also give up intel on enemy positions. Greater influence can be had by achieving military victories in the vicinity of a village. Villagers want to be on the side of the winner, so defeating communists near a village will provide a relatively larger boost. In addition to the village scores, the player also manages “political points,” which provides the currency through which he purchases and manages his units. Simplified, when the player operates successfully that allows him to allocate even more resources going forward. But the opposite is true. One can get into a death spiral where failures in the field deprive you of the resources you need to recover.
As simple as it is, the game is (as I said) incredibly addicting. Once I got the hang of it, the 45 turn default game can be run through in one sitting*. Let me get back to what I started off this article with and that is the game’s simplicity and how it applies to the design.
Even after a good many games under my belt, it seems like the win or lose can go either way. In the particular game portrayed in the above and below screenshots, I wound up losing. The winability of any given game is very much dependent on the initial layout of the map plus a dash of luck when encountering your enemies. Good decisions and good outcomes in your combat tend to reinforce success, which you grow to a win. I will add that setbacks don’t have to be fatal, and this is another plus for this game. In some cases, a very bad situation can be reversed and turned into a win.
That initial random setup places the villages, rivers, and jungles and shows it to you on a map before you start. In addition the visible placements there are also”Ho Chi Minh Trail” locations which you can’t see. These hexes are the “spawn points” (to genre-mix my gaming terminology) for the Viet Cong units. Those units are assigned a “mission” which they try to complete, typically moving toward a designated location. A common mission would be to move a unit to a particular (the closest) village, at which point the unit is expended in order to move the influence in the village slightly toward the communists. Another mission involves moving towards an ambush point so as to subsequently attack passing U.S. units.
As the game progresses, the challenge posed by the enemy’s missions grows. The quantity and type of enemy missions conducted against you are determined by the influence score, again reinforcing previous successes or failures. The more successful the enemy was in the past, the more aggressive he’ll become in his future missions.
Executing these missions don’t require any particular smarts on the part of the AI. Having selected the unit and mission, completing them can be very formulaic, as far as the computer’s programing is concerned. There are a couple of missions that involve NVA units seeking out and destroying the player’s assets, but even these don’t involve much in the way of computer player strategy.
In this case, it is the complexity of how a number of simultaneous missions combine to create a hazardous battlefield that creates a tough gaming for the player, not the “AI” of the enemy. In particular, because enemy locations are hidden unless “spotted” by some fairly restrictive sight rules, you are often left feeling around in the dark for the enemy. Because of this, the mindlessness, if you will, of that enemy, isn’t apparent or particularly relevant.
I’m imagining that there is a higher level of gameplay, a strategy of an “expert player” if you will, that works to anticipate the movement of the enemies based on their rules. If I were to try to ferret out the locations of the Ho Chi Minh Trail points and actively interdict them, and then try to intercept NVA movement from their spawn point (the Western edge of the map), I could probably be a much more effective player. As it is, I tend to be stretched thin enough that I’m mostly reacting to the enemy as I find them rather than dealing with them as part of some strategic plan. I’ve handed the initiative over to the enemy and I rely on the fact that that enemy isn’t really capable of much in the way of initiative.
One last point about this game. I’ll not go into too much detail here, although it might perhaps be worth returning to some day. On one hand, this is a very abstract game, difficult to connect in any significant way back to the historical operations that it approximates. At the same time, it captures certain essential features of counter-insurgence warfare and aspects of the asymmetric nature of the fight between the U.S. and the NVA/VC. Bottom line, I think there is more to this game, perhaps, than meets the eye.
As a point of comparison, the alternative for operational level Vietnam warfare is The Operational Art of War. At the same time I’m looking at Vietnam ’65, I have my tablet out so I can work through the Silver Bayonet operation as presented in the Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations series of scenarios. This puts the operation in the context of the larger war and gives the perspective as to which units were allocated into and out of the particular theater of operation.
Playing this scenario takes some effort. Each turn requires the review of the notes and careful plotting of the historical movements. Having completed the first volume with a rather unsatisfying draw, I’ve been making an effort to take victory locations beyond what is specified in the narrative, if I can do it without significantly re-purposing units away from their historical assignments. At the same time, though, I am still trying to accomplish every mission that the instructions designate plus satisfy the described historical actions, even when they don’t count for points. The uniqueness of this scenario design makes for a nice compare-and-contrast with another TOAW scenario covering Operation Silver Bayonet.
One of the original scenarios that came with TOAW was Ia Drang ’65, a treatment of Operation Silver Bayonet at the operational level. As one of the original scenarios, it is limited and focused in its scope. By contrast, so many of the user-made scenarios lean towards the monster end of the scale. Ia Drang ’65 also makes use of a few of the special game features (reinforcement/withdrawal and hidden objectives are two that stand out) without trying to force the game engine outside of that which it is capable.
The map is limited to Pleiku (City), Plei Me, and the Ia Drang Valley westward to the Cambodian border. Units under control are only those that were tasked to the operation in question and the game engine takes care of adding and withdrawing those units as appropriate. Game turns are half-a-week and are played on 2.5 km hexes. In a sharp contrast to my recent immersion in Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, units are represented per company rather than battalion, making for finer grained command.
I’ll come back to this all to discuss the intense fighting that took place in mid-November during the two battles detailed in We Were Soldiers. Commenting merely on the province-wide, operational-level representation of Vietnam in 1965, though, we’ve got some different methodologies that produce very different experiences.
Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, with its focus on reproducing the historical war, still makes for the best historical experience but at the price of the effort the player must put into bookkeeping. It is also somewhere between the strategic and operational levels (albeit with much of the strategy suggested to you via the accompanying narrative). It is a country-wide simulation at a scale where the real drama of a particular operation might come and go in a turn or two and with most of the action taking place off-line (e.g. Silver Bayonet is completed, +5 victory points is not as satisfying as directing the units as they duke it out).
Ia Drang ’65 both gets down to a more interesting level and gives you much more control, but the price here is that you quickly fly off the historical rails. Like I’ve said about other TOAW Cold War treatments, the turn length and TOAW system doesn’t quite match Vietnam’s fighting style. TOAW tends to drive you towards continuous and maximized operations up through the end of the game. While rest and resupply are a factor and must be managed, actually having units sit idle just means you’re leaving victory points on the table. Contrast this with a the way Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations regulates the country-wide allocation of units. At any given time, in most of Vietnam, units are just sittin’ around. You are neither driven to move everything into the “front line” or constantly get yourself prepared for the enemy to pop up out of nowhere. Ia Drang ’65 gameplay doesn’t match the cat-and-mouse nature of most of this campaign. Once the sides are engaged in this fight, it’s pretty much a month-long engagement using traditional hex-and-counter methods until units are eliminated or withdrawn per the rules.
This brings it back to the unique place that Vietnam ’65 fills as an operational simulation. This one really gets you away from that opposing lines of counters situation that most operational boardgames (and their digital equivalents) seem to exhibit. The intention of the game is to integrate a much fuller gamut of actions that might have been taking place in an active province undergoing counter-insurgency operations. In TOAW, unless at least company-level engagements are taking place, actions would be “below the radar” on the map. In Vietnam ’65, on the other hand, we have to send troops out to try to intercept enemies. Even if we’re not actively finding the enemy, we need to just to drop in on the villagers to ask for information about recent enemy movements. This is integrated with a representation (as abstract as that may be) of larger unit engagements with the NVA and the penalties that escalating commitment imposes on your ultimate victory.
I’ll end with a thought experiment for the reader, albeit a reader who has some familiarity with Vietnam ’65. What would an LZ XRay/Albany engagement look like implemented in this engine? Is it even possible? Or is it the best we can do with this game, when we want to approximate an NVA major operation, to toss in a tank and call it good?
Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, taking it back down to the tactical level, albeit for a different battle. You may also jump ahead to the tactical article on the LZ X-Ray fighting.
*There’s a saying that any pizza is a “Individual Pizza” if you’re willing to apply yourself. Likewise, its less that the game length is all that short than that I seem to be unable to get out of my chair until I’ve finished.