Battle of Ia Drang, Campaign Series: Vietnam, Cold War, Operation Silver Bayonet, Stonewall Jackson, Vietnam
This is the eighty-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.
When I first saw that a game called Campaign Series: Vietnam was coming out, I was skeptical. I’ve told you about it before but (at the risk of being repetitive) the reason was I that I questioned the match between the scale of, essentially, the Panzer Blitz games being applied to jungle warfare. I now admit that I was wrong.
The realization came upon me as I tried, in my new game, another familiar operation. I have, in the past, looked across multiple games to help me experience the Siege of Plei Mei and the reactionary campaign designed to first relieve the base and then to destroy the attacking communist elements. Beyond that initial assault, that PAVN initiative, the campaign consisted of three operations. Operation Dân Thắng was the effort to lift the siege and provide a relieve force to the camp. Operation Long Reach was the counter-attack, if you will, consisting of component operations All the Way and Silver Bayonet. The final mop-up operation was the combination of Than Phong 7 (for the ARVN) and Silver Bayonet II (2nd Air Cavalry Brigade). This last phase turned out to be a bit anti-climatic and is not represented in Campaign Series: Vietnam. All in all, the campaign south and west of Pleiku stretched from the October 19th attack on the camp to the wrap-up of the final operations on November 26th.
In Campaign Series: Vietnam the solution is to provide multiple scenarios covering the different phases of this campaign, many over the same map. It is, of course, not a linked campaign of any kind – success or failure in one scenario cannot be fed into the next scenario in the line. However, absent an overwhelming departure from the historical, there wouldn’t necessarily be a need to feed results from one situation to the next.
It starts out with a defensive scenario where the player must fight off the initial assault on the base (see above screenshot). The player then is asked to manage the relief column sent from Pleiku to Plei Me (illustrated below). Likely the main goal of the Plei Me siege centered around the fact that the PAVN knew that their assault would draw in reinforcements from Pleiku. Those reinforcements would inevitably travel a predictable route and, therefore, be subject to ambush. Defending against that ambush makes up scenario #2.
Continuing on finds you playing a third scenario where you are to manage a search-and-destroy effort aimed at identifying the position of the erstwhile-assaulting PAVN units. American command saw an opportunity to engage and defeat the communist attackers in a more traditional, stand-up fight. Assuming, that is, they could find and pin them before they melted away across the border. Inexplicably (to me, at least, and perhaps to Hal Moore as well) the initial effort was concentrated east of Plei Me where the PAVN units were not. The third scenario has the player take command at the point where the search was shifted west, where the enemy actually was.
In scenario #3 (see screenshot below), I see shades of Vietnam ’65, where this operations of this period were abstracted. To the extent that Vietnam ’65 can be tied to a historical battle it would have a lot in common with The Hunt – Operation All the Way – Ia Drang in Campaign Series: Vietnam. For the history buff, a well-designed scenario based on actual events should be far more engaging. Unfortunately, it will not offer the what-ifs, the hypotheticals, or the simple replayability found in Vietnam ’65‘s random map. I’ll repeat, though, what I’ve said before. Campaign Series: Vietnam‘s focus on asymmetric warfare, when managed properly, allows engaging and challenging scenarios to be played along realistic lines without being crippled by the lack of computer-opponent AI capability. My experience with The Hunt suggest that the PAVN are moving along scripted paths. You are challenged, as the player, to get your airmobile infantry into the right place at the right time; not to outwit a computer opponent.
I actually got creamed, points wise, on this one. Of the series, this was my worst performance. I’ll not speculate further on what that means, though.
Rounding out the suite are three more scenarios. Day 1 and Day 2 at LZ X-Ray are modeled separately. There is a third scenario for the battle for LZ Albany. All three taken together, this presents a picture of all the significant fighting in the Ia Drang operation more-or-less to scale with respect to both time and distance.
The scenario map for X-Ray, shown below, matches that for Air Assault Task Force. Like I did when I played that scenario, I began with a preparatory artillery bombardment followed by the close air support followed by a helicopter insertion. It worked the way AATF was supposed to work but didn’t. In Campaign Series: Vietnam, it takes 2-3 turns to move units from Plei Me to X-Ray, leaving the initial forces isolated for the 5-6 turn round trip. This accurately reproduces the feel, as described in the book and the movie, of the tenuous situation along the X-Ray perimeter, isolated as is was from supply and reinforcements.
I’ll add an aside that I’m getting better at managing my helicopters. Despite the occasional misclick, I managed to avoid running any of my transport or support helicopters out of fuel.
Once on the ground (see below), I had a flashback to the Steel Panthers take on this battle. Like in that scenario, there is a tantalizing victory location forward of the landing zone. It sets up the incentive to send off the soon-to-be-Lost Platoon, racing out into the jungle only to be cut off (and then, hopefully, rescued). Sorry Campaign Series, I’m not falling into that trap yet again.
As I said at the outset, this scale is turning out to be just right for the battle, even though that is much to my surprise. The platoon makes a lot of sense as the basic unit. Fiddling around with the placement of fire teams is too much micromanagement for this battle and you certainly wouldn’t want to get into that with the platoon counters either. So once you’ve set the granularity on unit sizes, the hexes and time-steps have to be big enough to abstract away all that fiddling. This they are.
You might also recall that back a few months, I worried about the balance in this and other children-of-Tiller games. This experience in the Campaign Series has relieved me of that worry. The results feel just about right with regard to lethality of weaponry and the ability of units to take damage. For example, in the first day at LZ X-Ray, my units took losses but not a single one was overrun and none were destroyed. Contrast that with my enemy, whom I repeated watched dissolve under both small arms fire and close air and artillery support. It accurately reproduced my expectations of human-wave assaults against prepared positions supported by air and artillery. This experience translates to the big picture as well. At the conclusion of each of the scenarios, I faced an after-action summary that was always plausibly in line with the historical outcome. Yes, I could have (in most case) done better, and I could have done worse, but each ending struck me as realistic.
I also sometimes talk about interesting sight lines and how that can mean the difference between a fun and engaging scenario and a slow slog across a too-constraining map. Typically I’m talking about the far-finer scale of Squad Battles. Campaign Series: Vietnam seems to figured this aspect of gaming out and got it just about right. Adjacent hexes are always in line of site, but the larger scale means this is less limiting than an equivalent imposition on a Squad Battles jungle map. Beyond that single hex visibility, a map such as the area around LZ X-Ray also shows a number of more distant lines of sight. Much of the Chu Pong massif is visible from the landing zone as are other nearby hilltops. What makes this really work, though, is a different set of spotting rules. Even an adjacent hex, with jungle terrain, could easily contain a stack of units that remain unspotted. Thus, while you can see the mountain-top forests a half-mile or so distant, you have no way to tell whether there are targetable units in those hexes. The key is, once again, that it feels right. Frequently, enemies approach through the jungle, sometimes right to the edge of your defensive perimeter, without being spotted and yet other times they are sitting ducks for all manner of weaponry as they advance across the no man’s land.
My bottom line is this; Campaign Series: Vietnam turned out to be much better than even what I might have hoped for, a few months back. I’m still only a handful of scenarios in, so I reserve the right to complain down the road but, at this stage, I mark it tied with TOAW’s Vietnam Combat Operations for the best historical treatment of this conflict in wargaming.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, of course. The interface is still a polished-up version of Tiller’s East Front. It falls a bit short when compared with the best strategy-game UI features of 2022.
Perhaps my top wish item, if I were able to suggest improvements, is this: historically meaningful causality statistics. The victory computation, in Campaign Series: Vietnam, is based on a point system. Those points are earned through control of victory locations, exits from the map, or elimination of enemy units. In yet another major improvement, “event points” are award through scripted triggers to augment the formulae. So, for example, the shooting-down of an American gunship or the destruction of a VC supply cache might award a chunk of points that far outweighs that event’s worth by the traditional calculations. This is critical to produce a challenging (for the single player) and balanced (for multiplayer) set of scenarios – and it works well in that regard. What is missing is the metrics that we see in the history books – body counts, casualties, and equipment losses. For me, this is an important part of my after-action evaluation. Experience says the point-based victory conditions well reflect the priorities of the day, but it would be nice to be able to compare apples to apples.
Return to the master post or step forward, in time, one scenario on this list.
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