Shortly after the the campaign in the central highlands, the Marines in the northern part of South Vietnam organized a search and destroy operation near Tam Ky code-named Harvest Moon. It lacked the major engagements of the Plieku Campaign, but I again found a pair of Steel Panthers/Squad Battles scenarios set within it. The scenarios are, to some extent, speculative and in any case lack the strategic importance of more recent tactical scenarios. Playing them, I consider what works and what doesn’t at this level and in these game engines.
First to the Steel Panthers scenario. The setup is similar to several other base defense scenarios that I’ve played recently. The Marines are in a defensive perimeter around their camp and the NVA infantry, played by the computer, comes at you in a sudden attack. The uniqueness of this one is that the Marines are defending a stone church, giving them a type of fortified position not often seen in Vietnam scenarios.
The scenario takes place in the unlikely village of Bi Phu. I say that because, first of all, I’m unable to find any reference to the village name or to any fighting that may have taken place here. Secondly, if Google translate can be relied upon (which is hardly a given, I know), the name means “tragic,” which would be a terrible thing to call your home village. The scenario notes source this battle from Don’t Bunch Up: One Marine’s Story by Captain William Van Zanten, a book I haven’t read, so I am hesitant to doubt anything about its authenticity. Reports for the unit described in the scenario notes don’t line up with the action reports referencing the unit at that time. Of course, even a minor typo in creating the scenario could just make it impossible to look up the information.
Like many of the base-defense scenarios, the player has little “strategy” to figure out. As the attackers come, you must halt them with small-arms fire as well as a couple of off-board assets. Eventually, you kill them and they stop coming. I think my only move in the whole game was when a section of the church caught on fire and I relocated the ARVN soldiers in that hex out of harms way. I appreciate having a unique village map created but otherwise I don’t see this one does much for me.
Squad Battles: Vietnam models an encounter occurring during the wrap-up phase of Operation Harvest Moon in the scenario The Battle at Ky Phu. A Marine battalion of three companies is returning to base along a road when they are assaulted by the Viet Cong. The placement of victory locations, three along the Marine’s road and three in the VC-controlled bush, incentivizes both sides to be on the attack.
I had just complained, somewhat, about the smallness of the LZ Albany scenario which, essentially has the same order of battle. No off-board artillery here, but the player does get one flamethrower. Accounts of the battle describe the Marines’ use of both Huey gunships and accurate artillery support. Nearly three-quarters of the VC losses were caused by artillery fire.
That said, the setup of this one does make a difference and it is enough to put it over the threshold to “interesting.” I would say the key to making this one worth playing is that, first, the player commands a full battalion. Second, the ground being fought over is varied and interesting. There are hills, fields, streams, and fairly substantial sight distances around the map. Third, the player’s goals are spread out across the map, but not so spread out that there aren’t some decisions to be made. How much do you hold back to defend the victory locations you hold at the beginning? Do you assign, basically, one company per enemy held objective and take them in parallel or do you try to use one company to support another? If you can’t plan to take all of the objectives, should you even waste lives trying?
On top of those details, the programmed opponent is able to do a little bit with this one. Like the player, the program sees it should both attack and defend. Variety is the spice of life.