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This is the hundred-twenty-sixth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series or return to the master post.

I downloaded the package House to House Expansion Pack from the website of user-made scenarios which I have highlighted (and discussed) several times in the past. Reading the scenario’s notes suggests that this one is a little different that what we have seen before. And that impression is not wrong!

As is evident from the title, the original idea for this package was to create an “expansion” for the original, Tiller-produced Squad Battles game. The story is told thoroughly in the scenario notes, but I will summarize (hopefully briefly but accurately).

House to House is inspired/taken from Keith Nolan’s book House to House: Playing the Enemy’s Game in Saigon, May 1968 (2006). That book covers the “Mini-Tet” offensive, an operation seemingly designed to influence the Paris Peace Talks rather than achieve any military victory. The communists attacks were not decisive or even successful and probably never could have been.

Scenario designer Mike Cox explains that the unique tactical situations and the detailed account in the House to House book inspired him to turn those stories into scenarios for the Squad Battles engine. Unfortunately, Squad Battles did not cooperate by having maps featuring the more urban areas around Saigon, where the book’s fighting took place. The lack of map was all the more disappointing in that Mr. Cox was an experienced scenario designer, working on HPS releases from the inside. His name shows up in the credits for the stock scenarios for both Squad Battles: Soviet-Afghan War and Squad Battles: Dien Bien Phu. Technically, the book and game were an excellent fit but it couldn’t couldn’t without new maps.

– Don’t worry. There is an American mechanized unit nearby.

Fortunately time passed and John Tiller made some Saigon-and-vicinity maps. This opened up the opportunity to cover several of the House to House battles and HPS approached Mike Cox to do so. In addition to the new maps, these scenarios feature some new units and weapons. On top of that, Cox was familiar with the then-state-of-the-art in the game’s scripting and AI and used that to create more interesting and varied situations that were even possible when Squad Battles: Tour of Duty (much less Vietnam) was first released.

The package of seven scenarios provides quite the different environment than your typical Squad Battles scenario. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it offers a unique Squad Battles experience – both in terms of the game and in terms of the nature of the fighting. Like the stock The Battle of West Saigon, the key to victory (both historical and in-game) is the availability of air, gunship, and artillery support. This accurate portrayal of asymmetric warfare can make some of the scenarios feel like a walk-over – but then again it should, shouldn’t it?

The starting positions for 'Firefight at Xom Cau Mat,' the third in the series
– Some interesting scenario design

I will remark, particularly, on the last scenario in the package (screenshot below), Xom Ong Doi. It is both a good example of the departure that this scenario design has followed and, perhaps, the bestests and mostests of the series. Xom Ong Doi (or Boi?) is a 24 turn scenario. While big and long by Squad Battles standards, it feels even bigger and longer that that as you play it.

Squad Battles, as we know, is necessarily limited in scale, scope, and duration by virtue of some of the assumptions in the design. The game does not model, for example, resupply – meaning that the battles have to fit into a certain, limited window. Mix that in with the right (wrong) terrain, and the fighting is often very focused leaving the tactical choices limited.

Contrast this with the below screen where you can see, in the opening turn of Xom Ong Boi, just how large the operational area is. It’s actually even a little larger than that. If you locate the key bridges in the below terrain, you’ll realize the fight is over a somewhat linear path, shaped like a giant “C,” with the blue units being the top and bottom, vertically connected roughly at the left vertical of the red box. That vertical, and the islands to its right, are where the enemy has dug in.

– A Lieutenant is cut down in the opening moments of battle. Although his corner of the fight is limited, look at it in the context of the full scenario (via the jump map). Also note that, before he died, he was carrying a CAR-15. Nice touch!

Xom Ong Boi models the efforts of two companies (2-47 and 6-31) to trap the enemy who had entered Saigon. The “urban” map has good roads with good sightlines, meaning plenty of opportunity for movement and fire coordination, even for rifle teams moving on foot. There is also plenty of support; in the form of ACAV, air support, and artillery and plenty of time to get pretty much any unit to anywhere on the map. Well, almost. You’d be hard pressed to hump it from one corner of the map to the other, but there is also practically no reason to actually do that. The real obstacle is not the map or the turn limit, but the enemy defenses.

Similarly, the enemy exhibits some interesting behavior. It’s hinted at in the scenario notes but it becomes very obvious once you begin. At first, the enemy will make a dash for the exits – trying to rack up some victory points. Quick action is required from the player to halt and annihilate these forces. That done, the player then must move in and defeat those positions where the defenders haven’t fled.

Yes, this is what I imagine Squad Battles should be.

While I’m currently running this approximately 15-year-old iteration through its paces, Wargame Design Studios continues to push out new updates to many of their older, Tiller-created titles. If I’m this pleased with a 2009 facelift to Squad Battles, what might that game look like if it was updated again today? Am I missing anything even now stuck on a 15-year-old patch?

When I revisited Squad Battles: Soviet-Afghan War I explained my (somewhat unwarranted) surprise and frustration at finding that I’d missed the boat when it comes to keeping my old titles current. Given my results with Middle East 67 and some of the sneak previews of the Squad Battles 4.01 Upgrades, I might be really happy to revisit this Vietnam/Tour of Duty exploration within a vastly improved game – should that be what comes out of it. In so many ways, the potential of the Squad Battles system seems there but unrealized in its 20-year-old incarnation. If that were fixed…

Part of my frustration will be that which I found with Middle East 67 – do I really feel right about paying top dollar for a) a game that I already purchased and b) a game (unlike Middle East 67) that I’ve already worked through most (if not all) of the scenarios? Is a Squad Battles facelift really worth it? The House to House package shows of glimmer of how it might just be. But $50-worth-it? That’s a harder sell. A more likely end result is a that a repackaged title from another corner of the Cold War (Modern War?, Falklands?) might make my wishlist. Or I can just hold out for WDS to create something new and different.

Return to the master post for more on the Vietnam War. Continue forward for another comparison between TOAW and Squad Battles.