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I’m a rather brilliant surgeon.

This is the twenty-third 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 Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, Operation Hump takes place over two turns. Typical of the smaller operations in this scenario, once I found the enemy (predictably, I figure in retrospect, located at Hill 65) there was only one other turn of combat. The “battle” ended with the VC unit being removed from play through the TOAW event system.

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Fire from the skies. I’ve isolated the enemy at Hill 65 and I’m fixin’ to rip him a new one.

Playing at this operation back-to-back with the Ia Drang valley lead-up, another strength of this scenario series is demonstrated. Any number of the battles in Vietnam are familiar to me through my reading or (as likely as not) other games, but I don’t have it integrated into a comprehensive picture. This scenario does that for me. It helps place battles in their chronological order and their proper scale (both time and distance). This allows me to get a better sense of how two different battles in different parts of the country might compare, contrast, and relate.

In the case of this operation, it puts into perspective a Squad Battles: Tour of Duty scenario that would otherwise be, pretty much, without any anchoring reference.

Tour of Duty has a fight from the greater Operation Hump battle which, at least if you go by the introduction to the scenario, is used in that game to introduce American participation in the Vietnam War. It is, date wise, the first Tour of Duty scenario between U.S. forces and the North Vietnamese Army, although only by a matter of a couple of days.

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I encounter the enemy with what I presume is the head of my column. Casualties come fast and furious.

The battle, actually, could be one of many, many patrol/ambush situations throughout the Vietnam War. The player starts off with what looks like a pair of companies moving along a jungle trail. Not that they are really moving; the scenario begins with the Americans already located at the scenario objectives. I only know this is Operation Hump because of the scenario description. Neither the units or the terrain have any unique features that might otherwise place them historically.

I contrast with the Steel Panthers scenarios. Where as Steel Panthers tends to have big scenarios that try to capture as much of the interesting parts of the the battle as possible, Squad Battles tends to have very small and tight focus. Part of this may be the Steel Panthers is drawing from a user-made library and hobby scenario builders have a habit of going big when they model a favorite battle. Whatever the cause, the fact is that Squad Battles scenarios tend to be much more limited than Steel Panthers, despite the scale between the two being very similar.

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Through the fog of war, I make a decision. It looks like the enemy is attacking from the north, so I’m throwing everything I’ve got in that direction.

This scenario is all about the enemy’s hidden movement. The uniform coverage of jungle in the battle area means that the enemy can only be spotted when they are adjacent to one of your own units. You don’t have the mobility to do much in the way of scouting, so your job is to anticipate where the enemy are going to materialize and then react or not as necessary (or possible).

While I may well have played this scenario before I had no memory of how it went. So I’m going into the setup cold and, I think, that’s how it must be. The initial contact comes (see first screenshot) down and to the left of my column (WSW, if you assume the map oriented with North being up) and, combined with the assumption that this is “forward” in terms of my column facing, I begin to try to deploy in line facing where I think the enemy is. As I move, I being to encounter more enemy all along my column, but always to the “north” of the trail. In the second screenshot, I’ve made the decision to engage the enemy forward of the objectives, assuming that I’ve come in contact with the bulk of who is out there.

The end result was a minor victory. Despite the devastation of a couple of my squads and the loss of one of my company commanders (a captain) to friendly mortar fire, my kill ratio was high enough to call this one a win. At the end, the game does a complete reveal of all hidden units. Surprisingly, the were two intact enemy companies with good morale located on the final map and, I might add, not quite where I thought the remaining enemy would be. I’ll not show a screenshot of that position because it will ruin this scenario for anyone who is intending to play it. Also, without many replays through the scenario (which I don’t intend to do), I’m not sure if the enemy positions are more-or-less determined or whether some random AI factors put them where the ended up.

Even so, this clearly highlights the two criticisms I have of Squad Battles scenarios in general. First, replayability is low because the tight scope of the scenario often allows only for a single solution. Second, the AI is weak relative to the task its required to perform, standing out in this regard even among its peers. I’ll grant that the non-cheating AI couldn’t have known I’d left all three victory point locations relatively open. Given that it had two uncommitted companies left over at the end of the game, it seems that it should have at least been making a play for those points.

The problem may be in the requirements. The HPS line of games seems to cater, first and foremost, to players playing each other rather than solo play. This requires that scenarios generally be equally winnable by both sides. Gamers in general, but particularly wargamers, also don’t like AIs that cheat – giving the non-player side an advantage by knowing things that a human playing that side couldn’t possibly know. In some ways it seems like, given the impossibility of making an effective computer opponent under these circumstances, the developers may have given up even trying.

Contrast that to the last game I played, where virtually no fancy footwork is required due to the design of the game purely as a single-player experience. But in that case, there is a distinct lack of connection to reality and no battles are “simulated.” Is there a way to have our cake and eat it to?

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, about a base-defense scenario to the north of Saigon.