Air Assault Task Force, Battle of Ia Drang, Cold War, Operation Silver Bayonet, Seven Firefights in Vietnam, Squad Battles, Squad Battles: Tour of Duty, Steel Panthers, The Star and The Crescent, Vietnam, We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, WinSPMBT
This is the twenty-sixth 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. You could also start with my earlier post on the Silver Bayonet operation
Of all the tactical-scale scenarios on Vietnam, the LZ X-Ray battles were always my favorite. One obvious reason is that we have, courtesy of Mel Gibson, and nice vivid visual representation to connect to. Like Mel, the various scenario builders who have tackled this battle with one engine or another have Hal Moore’s book as a source. There is also the U.S. Army publication Seven Firefights in Vietnam, which was written during the war itself. Enthusiasts have the ability to create very detailed and accurate reconstructions of this battle without an inordinate amount of primary-source research.
For my first step, I returned again to Air Assault Task Force. I had a beast of a time getting it to work for the Battle of Mogadishu. Eventually I got it to do something and I hoped that my experience would improve when it came to other battles in this package.
The game, as distributed, includes a four-scenario version of the Battle at LZ X-Ray, each covering a multi-hour snippet over the several days of fighting. One somewhat-unique feature of this package is that it builds the scenarios over scanned maps of the battlefield so as to provide realistic and accurate terrain. In this case, the game map stretches from the 1st Cavalry staging point at Plei Me, through the fire base at LZ Falcon, onto the area of the battle. Part of the challenge is to manage and coordinate helicopter insertion and resupply across that long stretch of jungle.
Immediately, I’m frustrated by the UI in this game. The game’s first scenario begins with the 1st Cavalry elements on the ground at Plei Me and the helicopter transport and gunships nearby, ready for action. This means that the first order of business is to get the infantry loaded onto the helicopters.
Good luck with that, eh?
As I described in that last article, the insertion mission just doesn’t seem to work for me at all. Manually loading the troops also wouldn’t work. Finally, in desperation, I switched between the multiple versions of this system that I own (namely the newer, but horrific UI, of Air Assault Task Force and its predecessor, The Star and the Crescent). What I found was that, using Air Assault Task Force, I could successfully order the infantry to load up onto the helicopters. I could then save and load back into The Star in the Crescent to manually order my troops to the landing zone.
Flush with success, I sent my helicopters back to pick up more troops and ordered my initial company into a defensive position. The scale of the game doesn’t encourage micromanagement of tactical position. In fact, my initial positioning attempts, for some reason had them wandering off to the north, into the jungle. Hoping to make use of the game engine as it was intended, I gave them the mission “Support by Fire,” to try to get them into the proper defensive position while they waited for reinforcements to arrive. Big mistake.
The system decided that the best way to accomplish such a support mission was to march, on foot, all the way back to Plei Me then turn around, march all the way back to the a position in the jungle near the landing zone and then… well, who knows what would happen then, the scenario would have timed out. I’ll point out that I am explicitly trying to defend the cleared area where I will be unloading my helicopters. Even reproducing this bizarre situation is difficult but what appears to have happened is that, because of the limited capacity of my helicopter transport, I’ve split the command that I gave the order to and so the engine’s first order of business is to reunite the command before moving into position.
After reloading and reissuing all the orders, my initial elements appear to be in a defensive position at the landing zone. While the graphics show them to be standing around in a cluster, their status is actually “defilade.” It also appears that all I’ve got there is a company commander and a weapons platoon. When I tried to bring in another group of troopers, everything seemed to go as before, but it looks like the helicopters arrived empty (screenshot immediately above).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It baffles me as to how this game has survived to this day is this state. My only guess is that with a saintly amount of perseverance, one can learn to overcome the UI and get the game to do something close to what was intended. Once one puts that amount of effort into it, perhaps there is pleasure to be derived from the game. It is hard to see wasting so much time, though, when moves have me wondering whether helicopters are going to unload units or they have once again shown up empty.
Contrast this with a very similar scenario in Steel Panthers. In this scenario also, the clock begins with the 1st Cavalry troopers at Plei Me, ready to be transported, but this time with the first wave embarked. While the map isn’t actually to scale, there is a wide distance between the base and the landing zone, requiring 2 to 3 turns for transport. The victory hexes are awarded largely for gaining control of the landing zone, although there are several more to the west of the LZ. Presumably these additional points represent Lt. Col. Moore’s actual task, which was a search and destroy against suspected enemy positions just beyond his landing site. It wasn’t until after landing that he realized he was fighting a defensive battle against a vastly superior (numerically) force.
As I played this scenario all the way through my biggest regret, I think, came in that opening move. The initial set up not only has the first load of infantry mounted on helicopters but the artillery are loaded-up and waiting at Plei Me also. This is a bit of a departure from reality as one of the LZ Falcon artillery batteries had been in position already for days. The second was to be set-up that morning but planned to land well ahead of the infantry insertion. Not quite realizing what I was dealing with, my artillery was put into place simultaneously with the first infantry landing in LZ X-Ray. I’m quite sure that it didn’t make any difference in the outcome, but I feel cheated not being able to “prep” the landing site with an artillery barrage. That felt import to me.
I also felt the game took a cheap shot at me [SPOILER WARNING – FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH]. There are snipers positioned to hit the in-bound choppers. I didn’t loose anybody to them, but a couple of hits meant that my helicopter “retreated” from the map without having unloaded its troops. The position of the snipers is in a place, and I’ll give it away without being explicit, where the lazy player will get shot up. Problem is, I’m pretty lazy. So even having lost a couple of transports, I continued flying into the same (or at least similar) traps because I wanted to save myself some mouse clicks. Point is, I feel a little cheated in that I was being punished for trying to cut down on the clicking. More clicking is not better gameplay.
Overall, this was a positive scenario from the realism perspective. This wasn’t a precise simulation, but it does tackle the portion of this battle that fit within the limits of the Steel Panthers engine, namely that first hour-and-a-half. It may not, however, be the most interesting part of the battle. While landing, the American forces were slowly realizing the quantity of enemy they faced. This scenario has an unknown quantity and position of the enemy facing you and, certainly, if you push out too rapidly from the landing zone you’re going start suffering losses. The length of the scenario doesn’t give you time for the full encounter to develop and, admirably, the scenario developer didn’t try to squeeze the extras in.
For that we go to Squad Battles.
Squad Battles: Tour of Duty has a LZ X-Ray scenario (as well as an LZ Albany one, which I’ll get to later). It’s purpose is, apparently, to capture the moment of the battle where the first three cavalry companies have landed and fend of the initial NVA assaults. With this in mind, there are no helicopter insertions over the course of the scenario. Also, and disappointingly for me, there is no off-board fire-support either from LZ Falcon, from close air support, or from helicopter gunships. This means that the player has the support from the battalion’s mortar company in addition to direct fire. Furthermore, that direct fire is typically only against adjacent units. This is another scenario set in dense foliage where it is rare to be able to spot enemies across more than one hex.
All of this means we are looking at what I’ve described before as a typical Squad Battles scenario. The choices are few and you’re already in control of the objectives, so there is little in the way of maneuver that makes sense. The biggest choice is the “lost platoon” and the extent to which you try to rescue it. I probably took something close the the historical path in that I made an attempt to get to it and then stopped when I realized that I couldn’t do it. For what its worth (and, hopefully, not ruining the scenario for anyone), failing to rescue the lost platoon, losing it in its entirety plus incurring casualties among the rescuers; this still gave me a decisive victory. Point being, this isn’t a scenario where you have to pull a rabbit out of the hat and do something that was deemed impossible in the real fight. Simply not being overrun, apparently, counts as a win.
As far as the Tour of Duty scenarios go, this one is average. Average in both size and scope as well as in game play. While it is pretty hemmed in, it doesn’t have quite the frustration level of the “take these three victory locations in six moves” scenarios. Still, given my expectations for this battle, I’ve come away from this one extra disappointed.
There is another LZ X-Ray scenario, one built by an end-user, that I played many years ago. Sadly, it seems to have been lost in the shuffling of website ownership (it used to be stored at wargamer.com when Wargamer archived scenario files). I must have the file on an old hard disk somewhere around here but, up to this point, it hasn’t seemed worth booting up old systems to try to find it. It’s a shame to see this stuff vanish from the internet so arbitrarily, especially as cloud storage becomes ever more available.
In this one, the focus is more on that “broken arrow” moment of the battle. The point when things were at their worst and the maximal air power and fire support that the Americans could muster was brought down around their defensive perimeter. Titled LZ X-Ray – First Contact, it struck me as a truly “fun” scenario in a ways that the above version was not. I’m not sure if it is really much of a challenge from the U.S. side, but you sure get to control a lot of firepower. As a challenging fight, it may be more interesting from the Commie side, trying to get your soldiers to survive the American rain of fire, but I never tried it that way.
If I ever find that file intact, I’ll let you know.
By way of contrast, I include for you another screenshot of my Ia Drang ’65 scenario, this time where the clock has advanced to the point where the U.S. has seized initiative and what would be the assault on LZ X-Ray. What we see, instead of a recreation of the historical battle, is a typical TOAW scenario. The forces spread out across the map trying to maintain cohesive lines while simultaneously cutting off and isolating the enemy. Engagements are somewhat limited by the scenario’s withdrawl schedule, but the engine would seem to encourage continuous attack right up until the time limit runs out, so as not to leave any victory points on the table. At least that’s the way I and my computer opponent are playing it.
What should have happened just before X-Ray, I found out by reading Seven Firefights in Vietnam, was that the NVA was regrouping for another shot at Plei Me, likely to take place within a few turns had the U.S. not took the fight to them. Communist forces were largely idle, preparing themselves for their own attack. Likewise, the 1st Calvary units were moving about the map trying to find an elusive enemy, not perpetually engaging them as they retreated or counter-attacked. This lead to a period of relative quiet between the breaking up of the attack on Plei Me and the three days of fighting over the landing zone.
Seven Firefights in Vietnam is, as I said, another reason why this battle gets the simulation love that it has. Reading it, as I did, well after reading We Were Soldiers Once…, it can feel somewhat anticlimactic, but certainly not a complete waste of time. Seven Firefights is but a chapter in a book that’s only 150+ pages total, so you know its going to not have the depth of the later work. It also focus on tactics. It was meant to be a learning tool for the professional soldier about a war that was still ongoing. Moore’s book, by contrast, is in part a tribute to the fallen soldiers of the battle and the war and tends to have a lot more focus on the personal rather than just tactics and command.
Seven Firefights is a nice, easily digestible account of the battle that is made all the better by the fact that is available for free as a electronic book. While mostly encompassed by newer accounts, it still gave me some unique insights into the fight.
Speaking of available for free, the website for the book has battle animations that illustrate the fight in a way superior to most other attempts that I’ve seen. Again, very valuable for helping to all that happened over those three days into a proper perspective.