I finally swung back around to pick up the last of the large-scale Vietnam War scenarios for The Operational Art of War. This one is called Campaign for South Vietnam and covers the war stretching from May 1965 to April 1975 (give or take, depending on certain scenario parameters). Campaign for South Vietnam takes Operational Art in an unexpected direction, adding in strategic-level decisions atop the operational engine. In fact, one might go so far as to suggest that the strategic level is the game and the actual, TOAW combat resolution is just discovering the implications of your strategic-level decisions.
If this is reminiscent of my commentary on Vietnam 1965-1975, this should be no surprise. Campaign for South Vietnam has its roots in converting the old board game to TOAW. At some point in its development, the TOAW scenario took on is own personality. The mechanics of Vietnam 1965-1975 would never convert over one-for-one and this scenario builder doesn’t try, but neither does he make any secret that he borrowed heavily from the Victory Games design.
One disclaimer I’ll toss in up front is that I am playing with the version of the scenario that shipped with TOAW III. Forums discuss a newer Version 5.1. A notable change has to do with a particular design quirk in the original whereby the on-screen clock ticks by in weeks which are actually months. The update tries to rescale everything to make the scenario calendar match the game engine. I’ve always wondered why it was necessary to fudge the scale in the first place.
That forum also seems to contain some playtesting trial-and-error involved with getting the scenario to run in TOAW IV. As much as that would seem like a great step forward in playability for this scenario, it is not clear that they could get it working. It isn’t included in the installed scenarios for TOAW IV. If problems remain without some version-IV-specific editing, I wouldn’t be surprised. Campaign for South Vietnam tortures strategic-level play out of the engine and there is bound to be some level of reliance on quirks and specifics that throw things for a loop when going to the upgrade.
As a test of all this theory, I did give TOAW IV a try myself and ran into at least one problem. Part of the design of the scenario is that the player can trigger, through the disbanding of dummy units, the deployment of additional U.S. formations to the theater. Once you request deployment, there is a variable (at least, I think it is variable) delay and then the units are placed in a deployment zone in the Ocean. When they arrive on-map, they are only at 50% readiness. The player, therefore, has to make a choice between “rushing” the units into Vietnam at partial readiness or waiting a month and then transporting them at, or near, full proficiency. Neither the delay nor the reduced proficiency are working when I request units in TOAW IV. This could be due to a change in the way something is calculated after the update, or it could be a mismanagement of the game options (which would be my fault, not the scenario’s). At this point I don’t know if it is readily fixable, nor do I know what else might be wonky in the newer version.
I’ll stick with TOAW III.
Like Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations (although in an entirely different direction), this is a unique use of the TOAW engine and one that creates a genuinely novel game. Victory is, like other full-war scenarios, determined by the Engine Event Variable (EEV), but not directly. Victory is governed simply by the victory points as computed by TOAW, although the EEV has a huge role in the course of the game. Management of that variable, furthermore, is simpler than in Vietnam 1965-1968. Changes are driven mostly by what Vietnam 1965-1975 called “commitment”. So requesting additional units and requesting them rapidly will drive up the EEV. Conversely, sending the boys back home (if you will) will bring it back down.
Playing against the management of commitment (via the EEV) are the victory points. Traditional objective hexes, of course, provide victory point awards as do combat results. Thrown into the mix, however, are transient victory points awarded for “pacification.” This variable award is based on communist occupation of provinces. Effectively this requires the U.S. player to not only hold the cities but also actively seek out enemy units concealed in the rural areas. Finally, the losses also get some special treatment. Losses in battle count against the suffering side but the U.S. is much more sensitive to losses in the field. So U.S. losses hit the victory point accumulation disproportionately but they also contribute to the commitment (EEV) level.
The various simplifications seemed to have improved gameplay over the similarly-designed Vietnam 1965-1968. The method of requesting additional forces not only gives the U.S. player complete control, but it is easier to wrap your head around than the Vietnam 1965-1968 method, which uses the Theater Options to manage forces. The tedium of “running the roads” that I complained about before is mitigated by the month-long turns. Movement allowances are big enough to allow U.S. units extensive movement within a single turn. The same movement/turn length also fixes the supply problem. When it only takes a single turn to get into your operational area and start fighting, you don’t need to plan 4-5 turns ahead to keep units resupplied. The unit count also seems more reasonable, which helps reduce excessive counter pushing. Finally that month-long-turn scale again helps to mitigate the issue with turns timing-out before you complete a multi-phase battle. More often than not, you can count on begin able to spread your combats out over multiple rounds according to your plans, not some capricious internal variable.
So, in a number of ways, this seems to get things right where other scenarios struggled. I wondered before if the TOAW engine was capable of handling a Vietnam-style war but, so far*, it seems to be doing well. In particular, the use of the Event Variable to drive events (namely, the point at which the U.S. will be forced to withdraw due to political considerations) is a much better use of the TOAW infrastructure than Vietnam 1965-1968‘s EEV-driven victory conditions.
Since I’m pausing here to keep all my historical what-ifs in sync, I’ll repeat something that is mentioned in the scenario document for Campaign for South Vietnam. The author points out that this game will almost certainly not re-enact the major battles of the Vietnam War. In order to do that, both players would have to be attempting to recreate the historical conditions. In a single-player game, the programmed opponent is going to do things that absolutely will deviate from history and I, as the opponent, will have to react accordingly.
That said, this game really has a feeling that it is guided by meaningful decisions at the strategic level which then are implemented operationally. The operational tail isn’t wagging the strategic dog, as Vietnam 1965-1968 felt like. Neither is this, like Boonie Rats, simply a “grand-operational” game where the units come into and leave South Vietnam on the predetermined historical schedule, all but blind to what is actually happening on your game board. While I don’t expect my game to actually track historical outcomes, I get the sense that attempting to win the strategic game will force me into making similar decisions as happened 50 years ago.
*As with Boonie Rats 1965-1972, I stopped my strategic-level play at roughly the same spot I’ve halted with my other games and reading; early 1966.