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Playing some more Fire in the Lake, I had some additional thoughts on the abstractions that make this game.

This is the forty-fifth 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.



U.S. buildup in Vietnam, represented as little square cubes.

The screenshot above shows the second “Coup round.” This is important. The event cards are played in groups called “campaigns” separated by special, non-standard rounds when a Coup card comes up for play. That round has a series of prescribed actions which may result in an end-of game victory or, failing that, involve a sort of restructuring and refurbishing to prepare each of the four factions for the next campaign. When playing either the full war or one of the longer scenarios, after two campaign segments have completed, the players become eligible to play their respective “pivotal events.” (The pivotal events for North Vietnam and the United States are visible in the above screenshots). Before the completion of those first two campaigns, these special, dedicated, extra-powerful events are unplayable under any circumstances. After, they can be triggered by certain other conditions.

To set the stage in the above game, North Vietnam has an event “Easter Offensive” which is triggered when the NVA troops (the red cubes) on the map outnumber the U.S. troops (green cubes). For contrast, the U.S. triggers their card, Operation “Linebacker II”, when the U.S. score approaches the level required for victory (40 triggers the event, 51 wins the game). Historically, these are mid-to-late game events; both cards refer to actions from 1972. Part of this late-game comes from this requirement for the completion of two campaigns before eligibility. However, a campaign (again, per the rules) is meant to represent 1-2 years. Combining that with the events that have already been played in the above game, I would estimate we’re looking at an early-to-mid 1966. Both the Easter Offensive and Operation Linebacker II should still be a long way off.

I’m fairly new to this game, so I have no experience to tell me about what happens typically as a game progresses; whether what we’re looking at is common or rare. What has happened is that as we’ve hit the card-count trigger allowing pivotal events to be played, off the four, only one is even close to be triggered and that’s the NVA’s Easter Offensive. Furthermore, given the situation in the game, the NVA’s offensive is almost impossible to avoid. Up until this point, the NVA have had little interaction with the other players. When given an event, they have exercised it, but have otherwise used their turns mostly to build up troop levels in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  They were also able to improve the Ho Chi Minh Trail to an extent where they could accumulate something close to their maximum allowable buildup.

The turn shown in the screenshot has me, as the U.S. player, executing my “Commitment Phase.” As I talked about in a previous post, the U.S. player cannot purchase reinforcements in the same way the other players can, using operations in lieu of events. The one chance American has to bring in new units is at the end of the campaign turn during this “Commitment Phase.” The player may either send troops into Vietnam, withdraw them, or just shuffle them around a bit geographically. In any case, the total for all three categories must be limited to no more than 10 units. I’ve now found myself, as I contemplate my options, behind the NVA in troop buildup. At this snapshot, the NVA outnumber me (the trigger for the Easter Offensive) but, if I bring in my maximum commitment of new troops, I will once-again out number them.

At first, it seems lucky that I have enough commitment points to stay ahead of the NVA, even if only just. What you need to remember, though, is that the NVA player can continue to augment his forces each time he gets a turn. The U.S. player is mostly restricted to that commitment phase. Therefore, even if I can avoid the NVA triggering their pivotal event on their first turn, they’re bound to get it a turn or two later.

My initial thought when encountering this is “boy, is this game out of whack.” Something that historically occurs in 1972 becomes an inevitability, possibly as early as 1965. Then I thought a little more and realized it does make sense. At the beginning of 1965 it dawned on the top leadership in the U.S. that they were potentially only months away from actually losing the war in Vietnam. The U.S. was aware of the rapid build up of NVA forces and by the Honolulu Conference (February 1966) Westmoreland had specifically indicated that staying ahead of the NVA build-up was a prerequisite to winning the war. It may not have been apparent until later, but the Pleiku Campaign of 1965 may well have headed off, essentially, the Easter Offensive of 1965. The NVA did believe they had the capability to overwhelm the forces of South Vietnam before the U.S. could commit. Both sides, at that moment, had underestimated the capabilities of the other.

Now, a major NVA offensive early in the war may be possible, but it isn’t inevitable. The numerical strength of the NVA developed because they had used their (non-event) turns mostly to infiltrate troops along the Ho Chi Minh trail. In doing so, they did not come into contact or conflict with the U.S. and the U.S. did not attempt any incursions into Cambodia or Laos. A slightly different draw of cards, or even different choices made with the same set of cards, would see us at this same point in the game but with the U.S. easily outnumbering the NVA.

This lead me to another observation about this game. While activity in the game – building up your own side and taking down the other – comes from use of operations, the advancing of the “story” comes from the playing of events. By this, I don’t simply mean that the context of historical events provides a narrative. While true, that’s also obvious. What I’m saying is the order of the events already played creates the structure that makes one game different from another game. My experience, also, is that while one scores one’s points through operations, gaining the advantage necessary for victory comes from events and the choices made when using them. A particular aspect of this may be seen by contrasting with Twilight Struggle. In Twilight Struggle, high level play often involves forgoing events in favor of operations, which can be directed towards one’s particular strategy. Events, by contrast, are to be used in combination with each other and a greater plan to create a game-changing moves. The advancement of time in Twilight Struggle is often in terms of which of these critical event cards remain in the deck. In Fire in the Lake, the passage of time can be noted through the accumulation of persistent effects, and particularly those produced by event cards. Capabilities, as the long-term effects of cards are called in the rules, more often than not remain for the rest of the game. This contrasts to Twilight Struggle, where that games “underlined events,” as the rules describe them, have a cancelling counter-effect somewhere else in the game. By way of contrast, a Fire in the Lake capability, once put into play, will frequently remain for the rest of the game. Furthermore, these capabilities can accumulate. As a result, an early-war operation will be very different that that same operation in the late war as all the applicable capabilities come into play.

Now for one last, a pretty much unrelated thought.

As I was eyeballing the game, trying to decide whether or not to spring for it, one set of graphics that caught my eye was a user-made sticker sheet. These stickers could be applied to the games blocks, there by decorating and designating those blocks with official unit graphics. They look very nice and would seem to offer an extra bit of historical chrome on top of the game. The more I think about it, though, the less appropriate I find this.

By placing stickers on the units, one designates the (for example) U.S. cubes, not just as “troops”, but as brigades. As I said, initially this made some sense. A brigade was often the core unit when creating an operation to be assigned to a particular command. In many cases, smaller operations would still be managed by the brigade commander, allocating individual battalions, and larger ones would see multiple brigades acting in concert. However, having a little bit of game play under my belt, I now think this entirely misinterprets the meaning of the pieces in this game.

A better way to think of the blocks, rather than as formations, is in terms of command and control. Think of them as the resources necessary to commit to an operation. Those resources certainly would include the soldiers themselves; the count of brigades, battalions, or divisions. However, the blocks also indicate supplies and supply chain support. They also designate the attention of the command structure, which would never be infinite, even in the most leadership-heavy of militaries. In this last, if you are familiar with the now-ancient computer game The Guns of August, think in terms of that game’s requirement to declare which Corps command structures would be active as a prerequisite to using them in any sort of attack.

To give an example, imagine a turn where you move half the blocks on the map from one province to another and then engage in some operation (maybe a sweep or an assault). Should you think of that as physically relocating half of forces currently in Vietnam? Similarly, should you think of the U.S.’s “Available” box as units sitting stateside waiting to be deployed to Vietnam? I think the answer is no and, maybe sometimes, yes. Certainly relocating forces on the map implies physical movement of combat forces. However, I think it is a mistake to think of the blocks on the board as representing the location of all forces. Instead, think of it as representing all the forces which are active. So a unit represented by its block that is given a few weeks of down time might see its block removed from the map to be placed somewhere else representing a different unit which is receiving active direction from the command structure. In that way, “available” could mean available back in the States or already in Vietnam, but currently not being used or at risk of use.

This distinction becomes particularly obvious when you have to work with the Casualties box. Various actions allow the communist players to send U.S. units to Casualties, those casualties being a major factor in chipping away a America’s ability to fight the war. Does it really mean, though, that the 3rd Brigade of the 7th Cavalry was destroyed in the field? Or does it just mean that casualties in that battle were unacceptably high? It should be pretty obvious that the game means the latter. The pain of seeing a brigade disappear from the map would not contribute to the immersion factor for this game.

Similarly even the colors of the blocks can be misleading, at least occasionally. The green irregulars are identified in the rules as “U.S. Special Forces.” Most of the time, however, that means they are native units managed and directed by U.S. special forces. In fact, in some cases there may be only a subtle difference between those green octagonals and various yellow or orange units. The difference may be based on which player gets to control them rather than the actual makeup of the forces. In other cases, the green irregulars are meant to be U.S. units such as U.S. Army Rangers or Long Range Patrols. As in the previous paragraph, a given unit may even swap back and forth in terms of what it represents, without being actually removed from the map. A similar situation applies to the red and blue irregulars. In many cases, particularly when a red unit it substituted for a blue one, the force represented by the block may not change. Rather, it may indicate simply a change in political control; who has the upper hand, the locals or the officials back in Hanoi. In other words, in may cases, the red guerrillas and blue guerrillas both represent Viet Cong recruited in the South. The difference is who is pulling their strings.

I don’t know how much immersion one really gets while playing a game, particularly after one has learned the rules and plays using more complicated plans and longer-term strategies. I suspect that, like Twilight Struggle, the better you get at playing the game, the more you’ll want to ignore the game’s chrome, it being a distraction to your goal of winning. Fact is, I’m not that good. The events still provoke some thought about what unexpected card draws might mean in terms of alternate paths that the war might have taken. Those stickers, though? They do look good you probably shouldn’t be sticking them on.

Return to the master post or remember an old movie with me.