Like I said, I’m going to play some of these scenarios while reading the appropriate sections from the book The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East, by Chaim Herzog. I’ve just finished the section on the Sinai Campaign and am wrapping up a pair of operational scenarios dealing with that same front. One is in The Operational Art of War (TOAW) and one in Modern Campaigns – Mideast ’67 (ME67) .
The TOAW scenario Sinai 1967 focuses on creating a single-player experience for an Israeli player who must reproduce the lightning campaign through the Sinai desert from the Six Day War. It’s a scenario that’s interesting because of its limitations. The ME67 scenario, Gaza and Beyond, is even more limited but it far more traditional in its design. First to TOAW .
Sinai 1967 has a nicely developed designer-notes package with historical background, instructions, and design philosophy. I’ll try not to simply repeat that information here. Essentially, the idea is to ask the player to repeat Sinai campaign, conquering the entire peninsula in a mere six days. The war opens with a theater-wide airstrike that hands Israel nearly complete domination of the air and, with that executed, the scenario opens. In addition to air superiority, Israel has an opening shock bonus to simulate the surprise of their attack and the confusion of the Egyptian forces.
The scenario is built around the key locations seized by Israel and the resultant shock and confusion this caused in the Egyptian command. If the player takes the historic junctions by the morning of the second day, Egyptian field marshal Mohamed Abdel Hakim Amer will panic and attempt to withdraw the Egyptian forces from the Sinai. If not, the player must fight an alt-history battle where the Egyptian forces contest the Sinai and recover from their initial panic.
Looking at the above screenshot, taken in the morning on June 6th, I am a bit behind schedule. Historically, the Israeli’s had taken Rafah on the 5th and by the morning of the 6th were ready to launch into Al Arish. My forces were still undertaking mop-up operations at dawn in the Rafah vicinity, meaning I had no hope of capturing Al Arish on the historic time table. However, take a look at these dispositions, because I think they will look familiar later on.
This is what creates the depth for this scenario. There are essentially two sets of deadlines. The first is to capture enough in the first day of the war to achieve the requisite “shock and awe.” Depending on whether you have, you then have one of two end games. In one, you pursue a fleeing Egyptian Army towards the Suez Canal, attempting to reproduce the second half of the Israeli campaign. In the second, Egypt has decided to stand and fight, and you see how effective you are against that tactic.
As I write this, I am attempting to get a win under that second set of conditions. What I’m finding is Israel is heavily weighted towards the north. While I am pressing forward there, I am taking a pounding in the south, where Egypt is refusing to turn tail and run. I’m also running against that perennial opponent in TOAW, the supply system. Supply is a critical component of the TOAW modeling and, by the end of the second day, my supplies very much depleted in my combat forces. Resupply is done through the system and is controllable only indirectly, through maintaining ownership of hexes between units and their supply sources. To make a long story short, I’m not sure that I can get my units resupplied in time to be effective in a six day war. Nor am I sure whether my resupply problems accurately reflect the constraints on the Israeli command. Nonetheless, this is a recreation of this campaign that illuminates the historical factors.
ME67 is, at the same time, both a more interesting and a less interesting take on this battle. We see a scale that is still at that operational level, although a slightly finer grain than TOAW. You may recall a discussion on scope and scale when we fought over this very same ground back in 1956. I had been pleased with the explicit treatment of day/night cycles before. While it remains a clear discriminator, I wasn’t as excited about it this time. Is it too much detail to have me engage in a night turn without asking me to explicitly manage how I disengage and then reengage the at dawn? This case makes me wonder if it isn’t better abstracted away?
Another obvious difference is in the graphical interface and the feedback it provides. ME67 abstracts each unit as a primary weapon. See for example the above screenshot (clicking should display full scale), where the 82nd Tank Battalion is represented as 52 Centurion tanks. Compare and contrast that with TOAW. In Sinai 1967, the 82nd is represented as two different counters and details not only the tanks, but the halftracks, armored cars, infantry, and mortars allocated to the formation. The key advantage for ME67 is that the “tank” representation is very visual. As I watch my vehicles fall by the wayside, I’m getting some immediate feedback on the health of my force. TOAW‘s accounting is more detailed (see, particularly, the Loss Report screenshot further up), but it is considerably less visceral. Whether one is a more accurate simulation than the other depends on your thoughts about the relative merits of Tiller’s algorithms versus Kroger’s.
My play was inhibited by a lack of familiarity with the Tiller UI system. It always takes me a few scenarios to remember how the little icons interact with the UI. Worse are the functions that aren’t tied to the little icons. For example, it was Turn 5 before I remembered how to turn on the map labels (and experience I found illuminating enough to include as its own screenshot, left). I continue to have trouble with “on foot” versus “travel mode.” Are they meant to be used separately? I decided to focus entirely on “travel” mode (an icon that looks to me like some sort of Wiccan pentagram), but even then I have considerable trouble remembering to bring units in and out of the mode as I would consider appropriate.
For all of my little blunders, I managed to bring my forces near the last two objectives (just outside of el Arish) on the final turn, having captured the major objectives further to the East. This is very, very similar to the third screenshot from TOAW, above, but (once I get over the non-American date style) exactly one full day behind schedule. Even still, this earned me a major victory.
That brings me to my biggest complaint here. For all that the game/scenario is getting right, in the end it leaves the impression of simply an implementation of one particular battle in the Tiller engine. Whereas TOAW sets the play some specific goals – meeting the historical timetables to gain historical advantages, ME67 lacks that unique feeling. It’s not that its bad. It has the right units, the right map, and a pretty effective scope/scale. But the gameplay style involving the surround of the enemy hex followed by multi-turn attrition of the defending unit – this seems more than a bit out of place in the lightning war that was that of the Six Days.
The human mind is designed to create patterns, even when those perceived patterns don’t really exists. When the world seems to descend into chaos, we will inevitably try to correlate signs that what we are seeing is part of a greater picture – perhaps the end of all things. Just as the coronavirus being coincident with earthquakes awakens us to the likelihood of some form of divine intervention, so it would have seemed, when the chaos of the Vietnam War was spreading to the streets of American and Europe, that a new war in Israel signaled the coming of the Apocalypse. In truth, we were simply seeing flare-ups in the Cold War that were possibility inevitable and mostly unrelated. Small consolation for a public mood already stretching towards a breaking point.
To get my mind thinking about the other side of the world, I decided it was time to do some reading on the subject. When I was creating my Israeli Independence timeline, and while I was trying to find descriptive information on the battles during the Suez Crisis, I encountered frequent references to The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East by former Israeli President Chaim Herzog. At the end of that endevor, I decided to order Herzog’s book. Instead of reading it when it came, I began reading instead The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command and left my thoughts about the Arab-Israeli wars behind me. It’s time I pick that book up.
Herzog starts shortly before the British withdrawal. As such, I was treated to a written refresher of my earlier exercise. In some ways it was just a rerun, although I get a chance to look at things a little differently. Most notably, it surprises me how a loosely-organized citizen militia was able to take on multiple, established nation states and win. In many cases, a couple of dozen armed settlers held their own against regular forces. Herzog also highlights how the earliest attempts at operations by the Israelis were hampered by a lack of professional army discipline. Several times an attack failed because of an inability to coordinate the different pieces of the attack, an operational-planning capability that only came with experience.
As Herzog moves on to the Suez Crisis, he illustrates something that I struggled with when looking at the wargame depiction of this conflict. As I said at the time, it is nearly impossible to reproduce the historical results in a wargame. Israel’s defeat of fortified Egyptian positions was often the result of brilliant tactical maneuvering and “doing the impossible” on top of the factors that can modeled in games. Reading Herzog, I’m also impressed (again) with the difference in motivation between the two sides. For Israel, their struggle was for their very existence – both as a nation and (in the minds of many) personally. For the Arab nations, although many hated Israel and the Jews, they were still conscripted armies under the direction of authoritarian governments. One can imagine that the difference in will was a major factor in the lopsided Israeli victories.
As before, I plan to cycle through a handful of games and scenarios and link it all together with a master post. Herzog begins his 1967 war with the Sinai Campaign, and that also seems like a good starting point for me.
I managed to finish Happy Valley on the last possible night, a night I also completed Volume V of the Vietnam Combat Operations series. This, having just finished, in a marathon effort, another project in right before Covid-19 shut everything down.
Now the rest of the world is finally granting me the social distance that I’ve always craved. Is it wrong to feel a measure of contentedness as the world burns? Probably.
I’ll say, first, about Happy Valley that it was well worth pressing onward and finishing both seasons. The biggest downside is that I struggled sometimes with the northern accent but I refrained from using any subtitles. I think that would have been wrong. That aside, this was a top-notch police drama. Heartily recommended.
As for Vietnam Combat Operations, my final couple of turns provided more action than much of the game so far. There were several areas, particularly near Pleiku (as pictured above, showing part of Operation Francis Marion) and in the Quang Nam/Quang Tin area (Operation Union II), where sizable-looking NVA forces popped up just at the end.
While both these operations saw fairly significant engagement with the enemy, there were no large-scale, conventional-style battles. In both cases, the U.S. command was aware of significant enemy formations in the area, prompting sweeping actions to pin them down and destroy them. Still, as a rule, the communists were able to dictate the terms of engagement. U.S. losses were mostly due to ambush and bombardment rather than set piece battles. As with the war in general, communist losses substantially exceeded U.S. losses, but it was a price that the enemy was willing to pay for victory in the longer term.
TOAW is not, as far as I know, capable of explicitly modeling asymmetric warfare. Neither, however, is it explicitly modelling specific tactics of conventional warfare. I did not try to analyze how the casualty rates compare between this scenario and the historical estimates, nor do I think that would be a worthwhile exercise. As I play, I suspect that I react a lot more vigorously than would be historically accurate. When I see an enemy formation on the map, I try to surround and destroy it, even if that means drawing in units from outside the engaged command. As a result, I should probably see higher casualties, in many cases, relative to the actual battles. I actually suspect, if I were to dig into it, that the modelling isn’t doing that badly.
In the end, Vietnam Combat Operations is not trying to predict casualty rates and probably shouldn’t be seen as doing so. Getting lethality wrong, even systematically wrong, doesn’t necessarily destroy the scenario suite’s concept. Every six months (at least at this point in the series) there is a “reset” to bring everything back in line with historical reality. As I’ve said before, from the standpoint of the (U.S.) player, the results do appear correct. Even as an enemy “counter” disappears, what does that mean? PAVN units were rarely “wiped out.” They did, however, get “removed from the map” sometimes for the better part of a year. This wasn’t destruction or surrender – it was the soldiers scattering and then reforming in a remote area or in Cambodia/Laos, to refit and reinforce. The scenario seems to get this right, particularly once you’re willing to interpret what you are seeing in just that way.
As you see from my lower screenshot, I once again scored a draw. As I’ve said earlier, I’ve come to play this series by focusing on the suggested goals first and foremost. While wargaming as a whole is enjoyed as a “what if” exercise, keeping mostly to the script insures that I engage in those fights that the scenario author has prepared for me. As I said, I think I’m a little more vigorous that my historical counterparts. I also try to grab easy victory point locations (if they are nearby), even if they aren’t identified in the historical operations. As such, I think I should be doing better than average, points-wise. It is hard to see how this scenario is “winnable” without breaking the game, but then I sometimes lack imagination.
One thing I can imagine, moving abruptly to my third point of happiness, is the scenario pitched by a Wall St. Journal editorial in this morning’s paper. The authors, who do have a dog in this particular fight*, argue that remote work activity was already in our future. The current lockdowns and precautions will mean that companies and workers are forced to rapidly adopt telecommuting, even if they would have otherwise found it unthinkable. Give everyone a few months and they will learn that the unthinkable is, in fact, reasonable and (for many, even) an improvement over the status quo. They predict that once we all get used to a distributed workplace, nobody will want to go back.
As I stated at the outset, I’ve been social distancing before it was cool, although I probably moved too far ahead of the curve to be good for me. I suspect that while the “new normal” will include a lot more telecommuting, employers will be most likely to trust those with which they’ve had a traditional, cubicle-centered relationship up until recent events. But this isn’t all about me. I will say that, in my experience, a (purely) virtual workplace is healthy, happier, and more productive all at the same time. I wouldn’t be surprised if many more people come to this same conclusion. Let us wait until next fall and see if the authors are right.
*They are management at a company called Nomadic Learning, which has been advocating for the shift for some time.
The Squad Battles: Vietnam scenario Back Door is dated May 20th, 1967. There does not seem to be any particular reason to use that date, as the scenario isn’t meant to even approximate any real encounter. It has the U.S. Marines facing off against a handful of infantry-supported armor in the hands of the NVA forces.
This is one of the scenarios – indeed the first of the Squad Battles: Vietnam scenarios – downloadable from the site I discussed almost a year ago. The author describes it as a “beginner scenario.” “By that I mean that there are all sorts of “support stuff” to use, so that a beginner can get the feel of the game,” he elaborates. What he meant by this is, I think, a little more clear to me now.
This is an interesting deviation from the usual fare given my propensity to complain about the American’s lack of support. This scenario supplies plenty of everything. There is off-board artillery and aircraft (including a AH-1 cobra available as an airstrike – haven’t seen that before). There are Claymores hidden at objective points. As more forces trickle in toward the front lines, they bring with them bazookas and, eventually, a pair of M-48 Patton tanks.
The scenario isn’t for the beginner because it’s easy. Although the scoring is generous, the U.S Marines (which is the recommended side for the player) is outnumbered and is going to take quite a pounding. Rather, the point is to give the player a try at using a bunch of different features, all in one scenario. You have to figure out (possibly the hard way) that you don’t go maneuvering your squads that start next to the Claymores, because they need to be there to activate them. It is also a reminder that a handful of RPG-7s can make short work of your armor. You learn that your off-board support is of greatly reduced value if you don’t have line-of-sight to your target. You’ll also learn how brittle your support is if you do have line-of-sight to your target – one lucky near-miss with enemy artillery can take out your commander, which will then completely nullify all your support. Because without a leader to call in strikes, you’re not gettin’ nothin’. Remember that in Squad Battles, there’s no platoon Sergeant to step up into the breach.
In this case, there is no “real life” to compare the results to. I still think that the way off-board support is modeled makes it overly difficult to use successfully. I can’t back that up, though.
Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, for some operational level thoughts at the end of May, 1967. Note also that the previous article, not linked to the Vietnam War posts, was written after I finished reading the Vietnam-related novel First Blood.
Since I mentioned it in the earlier post, I had better follow up. Squad Battles: Vietnam has a series of scenarios portraying the “Hill Fights” near the remote, Khe Sahn combat base. For more than a year, it was clear that the NVA were infiltrating forces across the DMZ and into South Vietnam. While the intense Battle of Khe Sahn was still more than 6 months away, a Marine patrol in April of 1967 encountered NVA units and triggered a preview of the fight that was to come.
The scenarios, a series of five, are called The Battle of the Khe Sanh Hills (parts 1-5). To me, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the scenarios is a typo in the scenario configuration, making it appear that the scenarios span both 1967 and 1968. Going through each scenario in detail, this obviously isn’t the case. The series is supposed to take place over little more than week near the end of April through the beginning of May, 1967.
The first of the scenarios (see previous screenshot) starts out with a very typical setup for Squad Battles: Vietnam. Three platoons are assigned three objectives across rough terrain wherein the defenders remain hidden until they open fire upon you. There is no off-board support and no on-board mortar squads; you advance infantry on the objectives take them. As you can see from the shading, marking my line-of-sight, this isn’t the ultra-dense jungle of some scenarios. There is occasional opportunity for movement of more than one hex at a time and there are areas where enemies can be engaged from a distance. Even still, this is mostly a scenario of advancing units straight at the objectives, to capture them before the scenario ends.
Like other scenarios, however, this one comes in multiple parts. Each scenario feeds into the next to create the larger story of the battle. While this does add something to the experience, it’s worth noting that each individual scenario remains independent. Successes or failures do not carry over in any way.
Scenario #2 is the same terrain but with slightly shifted objectives (see above). There are also more objectives, move defenders, and a full battalion of Marines at your disposal to take the hill. It is intended to reenact, after the first effort failed to dislodge the enemy, a second and successful assault on Hill 861.
Moving on, to both a new scenario (above) and a new hill, the introductory text explains that the “Marines moved in fully knowing what to expect from the NVA defenders there.” They now have air and artillery support (again, so says the mission text). I found the implementation of this to be interesting. If you look at the above screenshot, you see I have two Huey gunships to aid me in my advance. But also look at how the map has been created. The cratered hilltop suggests that this assault was preceded by off-board air and artillery support that simply falls outside the turns allotted for the scenario. I suppose this makes sense. Once the Marines advance into the NVA earthworks, bombing runs and shelling would be risking own-side casualties. Therefore, for the scenario itself, we are given only two helicopters and no off-board support.
Somehow I knew, even as I started the scenario, that my helicopters were not going to make it. I don’t know if the U.S. had air support losses during the actual battle but I did. I always kept my helicopters at a good standoff distance but there seems to be an inevitability built into the dice. Every turn, the NVA is going to make multiple rolls against those helicopters and, in 15 turns, they’re bound to roll sixes at least once. My gaming personality wants to believe that there is a strategy to saving those helicopters, but is there?
Moreover, this middle scenario is the high point in terms of novelty. The rest of the series is also battalion actions against hilltop entrenchments, albeit different hilltops each time, but otherwise a repeat of #2. At the end of it all, what stood out the most was that 1968 scenario date and even this is very specific. In most other battles, I wouldn’t have been fooled by one scenario in the set being a year off. But it would be almost a full year before the Battle of Khe Sahn reached its climax.
As for our Marines, they couldn’t know what was coming. However, having learned a lesson from Dien Bien Phu, they realized that keeping the hills surrounding their combat base was a key component to its defense. The bloody fighting over the Khe Sahn hills was followed up by a long-term effort to keep these hills in friendly hands. Although there were some additional encounters, the area around Khe Sahn would remain quiet for the remainder of 1967. By December, however, the NVA was gearing up for a major assault.
The Half-Life line of games is about to get a new release. Amazingly enough, I’ve never so much as tried a one of them. Luck for me, then, Valve is making all of the series so far free to play for the period up until the games release.
I’m going to start at the beginning which, I’m told, is a very good place to start. The original release, a 1998 product, was reworked in 2004 to run on an updated engine. I’m surprisingly comfortable with 20- (give or take, depending on the version) -year-old sound and graphics. I’m a little less amused with the fidgety jumping puzzles and the frequent tumbles from ladders.
For anyone who has played the game, my comments two decades on won’t signify much. If you haven’t played the game, its probably because you’re not inclined to. I did mention that its free, though – for a limited time only!
As improbable as it may seem in retrospect, there was a time when Squad Battles looked like it could be the future of tactical wargaming.
In 2001, when Squad Battles first came out, we may have finally moved past that quest for the holy grail of a computer version of Advanced Squad Leader. 1996’s Close Combat began its development path as an explicit attempt to create such a beastie. 2000’s Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord was an attempt to get right what Close Combat did not and, once again, was first conceived as a direct conversion. Neither actually wound up as computer versions of ASL in any sense beyond the obvious overlap in scale, scope, and content. 2000 also finally saw a release of a licensed version* of Squad Leader – apparently thoroughly forgettable. So while the dream was still alive, it was just no longer on the front burner.
Close Combat shifted the playing field to a “real time” focus for grognard-level tactical gaming. This seemed a more natural fit for a computer platform, solving some of the development difficulties for both AI and UI. Combat Mission saw the real time and raised its own 3D representation, if nothing else**, using the power of the computer platform to solve the “line of sight” conceptual problem. It’s worth recognizing that both of these franchises are going strong, even after all this time.
Squad Battles, by contrast, was not (as far as I can recall) marketed as an ASL conversion, but it certainly looked the part. No 3D and no real-time here, just hexes and counters. Close Combat and Combat Mission notwithstanding, sharing the look of a classic, numbers-heavy board game was, at that time, strongly indicative of authenticity.
Remember, too, there was little else by way of competition. Steel Panthers was out there, but side-by-side, Squad Battles looked like the future while Steel Panthers was looking more and more like the past. While I recall complaints about aspects of the HPS series that weren’t open to modding (relative to Steel Panthers, I suppose), the game was intended to accommodate the needs of modders and scenario builders. On top of that, Tiller is nothing if not prolific, so once he released a pair of Squad Battles, we all anticipated many follow-ons.
These days, with the scenarios that were created slowly disappearing, it may be hard to imagine the time when enthusiasm and optimism reigned. In my earlier article, I mentioned a website maintaining links to older scenarios. Today I try one of those scenarios, created back when this world was new – a user-made scenario for Squad Battles: Tour of Duty called 3 Down River by long-time series contributor Frank Harmon.
This scenario is a hypothetical encounter set near the Marine combat outpost in the area of Khe Sanh. Date-wise, it precedes the the “Hill Fights” of April, 1967 by a couple of days. It images a platoon on a sweep operation that is redirected to a crash site to secure the area until a rescue helicopter can arrive for the downed crew. Unfortunately for everyone involved, a company (?) -sized unit of NVA are also moving in toward the crash site, intent on capturing or killing the pilot and crew.
What makes this special is evident in the above screenshot, if you know what you’re looking for. As I said, this is a platoon on patrol – but just look at all those units! This scenario was created to have each “counter” represent, not a squad but a (four man) fire team. I’d like to detail all of the implications of this, but it looks to me that some of the documentation is lost to the interwebs. I believe this may have been part of a larger project with an accompanying web page but, even if that once existed, I can no longer access it. From inspection, I see two major changes – the four man “fire team” counters, of course, plus a lower level of leaders; corporals and sergeants, availabe to help organize the platoon and squad structure.
In his notes, the author says that his goal was to temper the lethality of the Squad Battles scenarios, an issue I mentioned briefly in my previous article and before. It also creates a little more “game” for a platoon-sized encounter, as you have the maneuver units and leader availability of a much larger scenario. It does not appear that anything was changed with the scale or the map design. It’s just more and smaller units.
It’s an interesting variation and, like many user-made scenarios, a more difficult one. Victory points are awarded purely on casualties, although, to win, the U.S. must additionally “rescue” at least one of the one of the downed crew. I find it difficult to give as good as I get, much less have the kind of kill ratio necessary to claim a victory. Of course, I don’t think I’ve quite figured out the “trick” to this game. Every scenario I play seems either to be a cake walk or impossible. If I experience an impossible scenario, that might just mean it is well designed.
*Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader itself was probably less faithful to the board game original than the two that didn’t make the name licensing cut. It went down some of the same paths as Close Combat and Combat Mission, but perhaps would be best thought of as an X-Com or Jagged Alliance, pitting the player’s squad management skills against scripted challenges. This is not what we ASL fans wanted. No, not at all.
**Let’s face it. At least half of us got into computer wargaming as an extension of the desire to push toy tanks and tin soldiers around the basement. Watching 3D models respond to our orders is hugely appealing.
In February of 1967, preparations began for what was to be one of the the largest operations of the Vietnam War, code-named Operation Junction City. The offensive targeted the communist stronghold referred to as “War Zone C” with a massive invasion intended to trap and destroy what was referred to as the “mini-Pentagon,” an informal term for the Central Executive Committee of the People’s Revolutionary Party. This was the administrative headquarters directing the anti-government forces in the South.
In gaming terms, I had some high hopes for this operation. It is covered by scenarios in three (or four, depending on your counting method) games; Vietnam Combat Operations, Volume V in The Operational Art of War, a scenario in each version of Squad Battles, and a campaign scenario in Radio Commander. In some ways, it provides an unprecedented opportunity to compare different games and different scales while looking at a single battle. The key is the scale of the operation. Junction City itself lasted for 82 days and that can be pushed to over 100 if you include preparatory operations such as Operation Gadsden. The U.S. forces committed included much of the 1st Infantry and 25th Infantry Divisions, the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. This is potentially 30 turns in Vietnam Combat Operations with a maneuver area this actually meshes well with the TOAW mechanics.
As I’ve explained, the scenario manual instructs you which units were historically involved in the operation in question and directs you how to place them historically. Satisfactorily doing so will earn you victory points as well as help match your play with the built-in triggers. You are, of course, free to deviate from the historical path in whatever ways you see fit.
Operation Junction City consisted of a horseshoe-shaped static perimeter intended to isolate the area containing the mini-Pentagon and to prevent enemy from escaping the operational area. With the perimeter established, a massive mechanized force entered the open end of the horseshoe from the south, sweeping north. They would either engage the enemy forces and annihilate them or force them against the waiting forces of the prepared perimeter.
The problem was, the communists, perhaps alerted to their vulnerability by sources inside the South Vietnam government, were able to move their logistics center to Cambodia and avoid being trapped by the operation. What engagements there were resulted in lopsided American victories, but the large scale battle where the U.S. expected to have a clear advantage did not materialize. While casualty ratios (per U.S. estimates) were on the order of 9:1, that did mean a non-trivial loss approaching 300 American servicemen in addition to equipment losses. In this, the scenario accurately recreates the operation. Besides a few inconclusive (and obscured by the game’s fog of war) battles, my only result was the location and destruction of an enemy supply center.
Absent a major, defining battle, one probably can’t expect the tactical-level games to integrate in any way with the operational treatment. For the Squad Battles scenarios, there is really nothing about them that gives a uniquely “Junction City” feel to them. In fact, the first of the two fits in just as well with one of my previous articles as as it contributes to this topic.
March 20th, around about midnight, saw a VC assault on a Fire Support Base 20 near the village of Bàu Bàng. Such an assault was anticipated by the American command, due to its proximity to a known communist stronghold, and so forces (3rd Squadron) from the Fifth Cavalry Regiment were deployed to defend the artillery. This fight is sometimes designated as the Second Battle of Bàu Bàng, the first having been fought in November of 1965. When I played a (First) Battle of Bàu Bàng in Steel Panthers, I suspected that a research error had caused some M48 Pattons to incorrectly make it into the order of battle. It is this, the 1967 scenario where the defenders have a mix of M113s and M48s and the Squad Battles setup accurately provides them.
Now, for all my complaints about deviation from historical lethality, my results in this scenario were very much matched to the historical results. I wound up losing only one AFV (it happened to be the one highlighted in the above screenshot) whereas the U.S. lost two vehicles to enemy fire in the portion of the actual fight modeled* by the scenario. Although the ability to rapidly react and to establish and expand a perimeter was a key element in the U.S. victory, I mostly fought from fixed positions. In any case, the scenario gives the (American) player a nice mix of armor and artillery. It’s a slaughter, but that’s the reality. The real-world casualty ratio was pushing 100:1.
Move ahead a day, and we get to the next of the Squad Battles scenarios. This one was part of the Squad Battles: Vietnam package, as opposed to Squad Battles: Tour of Duty, but like the first it is a fire base defense scenario. In this case, the defenses are manned by dug-in infantry of the 4th Infantry Division. What’s special about this scenario is that it (as seen in the above screenshot) models the direct fire capability of the artillery batteries using flechette ammunition, also called “beehive” rounds due to the buzzing noise they produce on their way to their target. Direct fire from defending artillery was often a factor when defending a fire base and this scenario allows the player to experience this capability hands-on.
As with the previous day’s action, armor was a factor. The player is granted four tanks to rush toward the sound of the guns. Moving them at maximum speed, they can engage the enemy for the last few turns of the scenario. In my case, they may have contributed to the salvaging of one of the victory locations, although it is hard to tell. I also lost a tank to RPG fire during the advance, which is consistent with the historical results. It was a hard-fought battle, but it is an easy win in game terms.
On to my third tactical scenario, this one from Radio Commander. First off, the campaign sees fit to address some of my open issues from previous steps. The cinematic intros continue, this time via commentary from a civilian reporter. We’re now clear on Coleman’s educational background and rank. What I don’t understand is whether or not an officer, provided they lead troops in the field, would have qualified as a “grunt.” Was this how the term was applied 50+ years ago? Besides that, I finally have my company up to full strength. I’m in command of three platoons instead of the usual two.
I can’t knowledgeably comment on the historicity of this scenario. The action is too small and, frankly, too uneventful to be notable. It is certainly possible that something very similar happened at this time and place, but to verify or disprove that would take more effort than I’m willing to put in. I strongly suspect, instead, that this is yet another example of making a scenario that encapsulates key points from the larger battle, but at a scale more appropriate for the game.
Operation Junction was the largest airborne operation in the Vietnam War. By Vietnam, the U.S was seeing the need for parachute drops being, well, dropped in favor of helicopter insertions. The drop of 845 paratroopers was only a small part of the overall operation, but a noteworthy part. In my (above) operational game, I missed my chance to use the 173rd in their paradrop role. As I was reading the instructions, I actually inserted the second battalion of the 503rd via helicopter before I realized they were supposed to use an air drop. I probably lost some mission points for this, but given that I had more than enough helicopter transport to go around, my way was likely more effective otherwise.
The Radio Commander scenario, Hammer and Anvil, has an early AM drop of your subordinate company. Once in position, they are to push the enemy toward waiting mechanized elements of the 196th Brigade. This small-scale drop takes place about a month after the historical airborne operation. My gut tells me there was nothing that actually corresponds to this configuration of forces.
That aside, the scenario is an interesting in terms of its different approach. In this go-around, the objective is not to engage and defeat the enemy, the trick is to force them to move in the direction that you want them to. In doing this, there are plenty of things that can go wrong. You can miss them entirely, as you pass by them in the jungle. They can slip around your flanks or through the holes in your forces, escaping out of the operational area. They can achieve sudden, local superiority and teach you a nasty lesson. In short, it reflects the experiences of America’s large-formation operations against the insurgency.
There also seems to be, tucked away, a scripted event meant to advance a story line about war crimes. I’ll avoid commenting too much… for now. I will say that fictional battlefield atrocities seems like a cheap way to make a point, particularly if it is untethered to reality either through actual events or at least statistical occurrence.
That bit aside, I’d say all four of these scenarios provide some useful insight into various aspects of this operation, even if none of them are quite the gaming challenge that one might be hoping for.
*As is often the case, it is hard to pin down what segment of the battle, exactly, is represented by the scenario. The battle went on for something like 4-5 hours before massive air power drove off the VC. Despite the effectiveness of mechanized units against the assault, it is estimated that the bulk of the enemy losses were due to airstrikes.
Today’s journey starts nearly two years ago when I read an article in the Wall St. Journal about historical board gaming. At the time I owned none of those games. Since then I have made a pair of purchases. After buying 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis based on the discussion, I wrote a bit about it and particularly the derivation from Twilight Struggle‘s design. I dwelt on the similarities and differences between 13 Days and Twilight Struggle from both a gameplay standpoint and a design standpoint. That obvious connection between the two irked some folks on the discussion boards – they felt that 13 Days was a little too derivative and that perhaps there was some impropriety in “borrowing” from the Twilight Struggle theme without due deference to the original designers.
Meanwhile, there was a particular name whose heavy influence these titles I had also been discussing; that of designer Mark Herman. He designed Fire in the Lake as well as having a deeper historical connection to its development. His creation of We The People in 1993 is often cited as the origination of the Card Driven (War)Game (CDG) as a genre. That ties him, at least spiritually, to Twilight Struggle (and, therefore 13 Minutes via 13 Days), Freedom: The Underground Railroad, and 1960: The Making of the President. Throw in my spurious connection between Richards Berg and Borg, and we’ve drawn a line between Herman and Memoire ’44 as well.
You see, it was Mark Herman that took back* the Twilight Struggle baton from 13 Days.
In his “Designer Notes” Herman writes how he had an interest in smaller games in the late 1970s, but various pressures had shifted his focus to the big games. Without mentioning 13 Days by name, he indicates that its use of his own (We The People) mechanics and the Twilight Struggle theme motivated him to get back into small, quick games using the CDG mechanic. He thought of his follow-on to We The People, the Civil War themed For The People, and how it neglected to model the run-up to the firing on Fort Sumter. The result was a 20 minute game, Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis, 1860-61, intended to the first in a series of smaller games.
Elsewhere, Herman makes a comparison relative to theme with Twilight Struggle. Specifically, he is saying that “games on this period have an advantage” when it comes the inclusion of history in that the players have, themselves, lived through some or all of the events depicted in the game. To me, this seems another reference to 13 Days. Because, you see, the two games are structured very much alike. The both games consist of three hands, where all but one of the cards are played – either for the “event” printed on them or a (usually lesser, but more flexible) number value. The last card of each hand is then saved for an “aftermath.” There are differences between the two games, of course, and some of those differences, while minor in and of themselves, make for a significantly different feel in terms of game play as well as in terms of the theme.
Both 13 Days and Fort Sumter start with each player secretly choosing an objective (from a random 3 in 13 Days and a random 2 in Fort Sumter). The big difference is that in 13 Days, you know which three cards your opponent has and vice versa. In Fort Sumter, you have no idea except to say it is not the same two choices you have (or, in later rounds, those that have already been played). Furthermore, Fort Sumter has more spaces to choose from – four trios of “dimensions” instead of just three. At the same time, you only get four cards (three playable) instead of 13 Days‘ five. The end result for all of this is that in 13 Days, the key element is bluffing. You already have enough information about your opponents choice that you might be able guess what objective the other player has, by watching his play. If you are correct, that could translate to a decisive advantage in scoring. In Fort Sumter, on the other hand, you mostly have to concentrate on your own goals. There is some opportunity to counter the moves of your opponent but, for the most part, you neither have the knowledge nor the opportunity to do so.
Critically, this makes 13 Days much less feasible as a computer game. I talked a little in my previous article about how a 13 Days “AI” might be structured. Most of your decisions revolve around how your opponent is going to perceive your moves and how much you react to (or ignore) your opponent. This has a decidedly psychological angle. Decision-making in Fort Sumter, in contrast, will be much more focuses on the player’s own goals. Automating that decision-making is aided by the relative simplicity of the game. Perhaps its not so surprising then that, approximately a year after the board game was released, a computer version also became available.
Fort Sumter‘s digital version was developed and published by Playdek, the same development house responsible for the well-received Twilight Struggle conversion. Several years later, Playdek and GMT (publisher of the physical Twilight Struggle) announced a partnership for the development of multiple games from the GMT catalogue. Specific projects in the announcement included a computer conversion of Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?; a yet-to-be-published title, Imperial Struggle; and unnamed games from the COIN series. The first two are reworking of the Twilight Struggle game structure to model the post- 9-11 world and the English-French rivalry leading up to the American Revolution. The COIN games, I have opined, trace their lineage from Twilight Struggle, through Labyrinth, and into that ever-expanding COIN series. You can easily see the appeal of extending the Twilight Struggle (computer game) engine into a portfolio of games. Lots of releases from a core of common code.
At the time of the announcement, the first product of this partnership was going to be Labyrinth, albeit without a target release date. To date, I’ve not seen updates on Labyrinth‘s but, in the interim, we’ve had last year’s release of Fort Sumter. Given the lineage between GMT, Twilight Struggle, through to Fort Sumter, clearly this seems like a positive (if small) step in that “generic engine” direction.
I do not have the Fort Sumter board game and so I have no experience playing the game against any opponent other than the Playdek AI**. Overall, it seems like a simpler game when compared to 13 Days. I’ve gone into some of that simplification above. Another key component, present in both games, is the idea of a escalating crisis. Fort Sumter‘s version of DEFCON is considerably simpler. Rather than actions indirectly or directly increasing tension, the equivalent consists simply of the blocks that have yet to be put in play. The combination of simplified features makes the game feel that much shallower.
The one area where there is a little bit more to the game, relative to 13 Days, is the “Final Crisis,” or what 13 Days calls the Aftermath. Recall how I discussed that the 13 Days Aftermath is a similar mechanic to the Space Race in Twilight Struggle. You can either put cards in the Aftermath to gain points for an end-of-game scoring opportunity (+2 VP to the side with the most points), or you can dump cards into the Aftermath to avoid having them played during the regular game. The problem is, “spacing” opponents cards in this manner adds to their point total in the Aftermath.
Fort Sumter avoids this dilemma by having two separate card functions, depending upon when the card is played. The event, including to which side it belongs, and the play-value of the card are all irrelevant in the Final Crisis resolution. All the matters is its color. Thus, while the “aftermath” is still a good way to get rid of cards from your hand that you don’t want to play – there is just no downside to doing so. This simplification is balanced by the fact that the “Final Crisis” play itself is active. Each player secretly sorts their hand, and then with the order so determined, plays their held cards one at a time. Each play entitles the player to move or remove up to two cubes targeting the “dimension” indicated on the card. If, however, both players target the same dimension in the same round, they both must remove their own tokens. This takes most of the strategy away from cards themselves and makes it (almost) a straight-up cube placement mechanic. Given the number of strategy cards, there is no way to predict what your opponent might have and so the chance of a match is almost entirely random.
So 13 Days is probably the more interesting player-versus-player game while Fort Sumter makes far more sense as a computer game, although definitely a fast-and-easy one. But what about the historical angle? When I originally looked at 13 Days, I made a distinction between that game’s integration with historical theme versus Twilight Struggle. While none of these games is meant to be either a historical or military simulation, to me, Twilight Struggle integrates the historical theme much more than the other two. On a sliding scale, however, Fort Sumter seems the most to consist of a generic mechanic with the historical stuff laid upon the top.
As with the other two, the historical background in the accompanying Playbook is a good read. I agree with Mark Herman’s comment – that part of the Struggle (tee hee) is that we are an extra 100 years removed from the present day when it comes to Fort Sumter. A yet, while enlightening, the historical background doesn’t quite imbue meaning to the game’s mechanics. For example, let’s take a look at the second (above) screenshot. My opponent, playing the rebels, has an advantage in the Fort Sumter space, which I am trying to reverse. Given that have two more cards to gain control and the AI can’t know that I want to control Sumter, it should be a given that I’m able to take it. Meanwhile, my biggest advantage is in the “Border States.” The notes explain how this dimension represents the cascading of southern States leaving the union. The pivotal “border states” rectangle represents, most importantly, Virginia and the uncertainty over which side she would support.
Fine, but what does “winning” the “Victory Point” for this mean? By controlling this space, do I prevent Virginia from seceding? Have I merely prevented Maryland from seceding, matching the historical result? Maybe I delayed Virginia’s secession without preventing it, thereby also delaying the Confederacy’s preparation for war. I think it goes without saying that, had Virginia come in militarily on the side of the Union, that would have decisively altered the course of the war. Is that reflected in game terms? While the historical chrome does make the game more interesting, it is hard to build a “story” from the course of a game in any way that makes sense.
Let’s contrast this with 13 Days.
In my previous post on the subject, I mentioned the mechanic of the “Cuban Missile Crisis” card in Twilight Struggle and how it translates into game terms a world on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. 13 Days is far more abstract, but I can still build a story from it. Let’s take the screenshot above, similarly taken from a game nearing its end. Playing as Kennedy, I can see that Khrushchev is being pushed politically to escalate the nuclear threat. If I am too soft, he’ll win political points (either at home or abroad, I don’t know which one he’s pushing for) that will disadvantage the U.S. in the Cold War for years to come. On the other hand, if I push too hard to counter him, the war could go hot and one of us loses, consumed in fire. Meanwhile, I’m bluffing. I’m signalling that my biggest concern is the politics of protecting Italy, but that’s not true. I’m trying to score political points over Cuba and augment that with a strong military stance using the U.S. fleet in the Atlantic. Since I started this round on the brink of nuclear war, I had to drop support for missiles in Turkey as well as leave Berlin hanging in the wind, militarily, to back the world away from that nuclear button. The game is abstract, yes, but the theme allows you to make it historical if you so desire.
As of that above screenshot, if the game played out as I expected it would, there was no way to know who was going to win. I get to go last, so I aim to pick up a couple of points in my objective after the Soviets can no longer counter me. This might put me up a point or maybe two, but that won’t matter, because ties go to the Soviets. I also had to give up my advantage at the United Nations in order to back away from the edge and that means the “Personal Letter” will be taken by Khrushchev for the game’s end. Who wins will all come down to the aftermath, and I don’t feel confident in that arena. Throughout the crisis, I have been struggling with my supposed ally’s in the free world while the Soviets have been strengthening their own relationships. The result of controlling the “Alliances” block, in game terms, is three more aftermath cards in the kitty than I will have. In story terms, a “stalemate” in terms of the crisis itself will favor the Communists in the long run, as they were all along thinking of the long term effects on their alliances.
Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, and the mass casualties that resulted from the nuclear exchange, Khrushchev miscalculated. Instead of doing what I expected, he used the card “Guns of August” to push the world to the brink of war on the “World Opinion” track. I can’t connect the book Guns of August to my story except to say, as Germany miscalculated the ability to contain the Diplomatic fallout from backing Serbia, so did alt-world Khrushchev miscalculate how much he could use pressure the rest of the world to force Kennedy to back away from the brink.
Obviously, the Soviets had gotten used to their influence over the sympathetic liberal reporters in the Western press and counted on that control to manipulate Kennedy into a position such that if a war started, everything would look like America’s fault. He didn’t count on the fact that, even though many reporters had political differences with the Administration and the military, when it came down to it they were still Americans and still Patriots. Khrushchev found he could not manipulate the press and when he pushed the world into war, he was forced to take the blame for the resulting loss of life among his own people.
As information about the situation in 1962 has become declassified, it lends support to the position of hawks like LeMay; a massive first strike by the U.S. may have crippled the Soviet Union sufficiently that they would be unable to mount a successful retaliation and would therefore be unwilling to retaliate at all. Nuking the Soviet Union, particularly if it was widely deemed that Kennedy had been forced into the decision, might have resulted in a U.S. “win.” At least that’s how I interpret the above result, where the Soviets have clearly won on points but, in doing so, triggered a nuclear war. Such a detailed analysis is more than a little silly – few of my details were really part of the game. My point, however, is that 13 Days lends itself to undertaking such an exercise in ways that I don’t believe Fort Sumter is capable.
I spoke before about this idea that you win, both in Twilight Struggle and in 13 Days, if you can make war look like the other guy’s fault. Fort Sumter lacks even the clarity of this iffy mechanic. What does it mean to end the game with more points? Can war be avoided? Is, with Lincoln having been elected, the Civil War inevitable even as you are trying to influence whom the history books blame it upon? Perhaps there is an implication that a better run-up to Bull Run might have resulted in a Confederate military victory. Could holding Fort Pickens as well as taking Sumter make a military difference? Could a more complete control over the weaponry stored in the southern Federal Arsenals have given the South an early and decisive military advantage? Maybe a few additional victories in the court of public opinion could have meant intervention by England, France, or both?
Its a tenuous historical connection – only there if you really want to make it happen. The elements may be there but I can’t get them to coalesce. Even the concept of Victory Points is deliberately vague. What does it mean to accumulate said points in terms of the outcome of the war? Herman says, in the design notes, that he struggled with this. He suggests that a top contender for what the points represent was “Strategic Will,” a phrase that still doesn’t help me understand much. In the end, he felt that leaning toward the abstract would prevent confusion for players and make it a better game.
How do you win? You get more Victory Points. Anybody can understand that.
Last of all, I’ll say that for whatever its faults, there are reasons Fort Sumter may still be a must buy. Translated to the computer, it becomes a game that can be completed in about 10 minutes. As such, it may fill a gaming need for something quick yet cerebral. It also, if you catch it on sale, can be had for under $2. Even at full price, it is under $5. Hard not to surrender to temptation.
*Some restructuring removed a link I previously had to a Wargamer.com review. So that the link doesn’t disappear, I included a link to the board game and the PC game. Oddly enough, given that the reviews were written by the same author, the board game review seems positive while the PC game review is negative. In particular, the historical theme is credited in the first but deemed a shortfall in the second. I will discuss this aspect further.
**I don’t know if anyone is reading through all my meandering writing seeking a critical review of the game. Just in case you’ve persevered thus far, I’ll throw out this bone. The AI seems weak, even against an fairly new player. I’ve only lost game in the handful or two I’ve played, and that involved a pretty stupid move on my part. On the other hand, in my last game, I saw a really dumb move from the AI. I had played the event that allows an early play of the “Peace Commissioners.” Essentially, this freezes the state of one space on the board through to the “Final Crisis” phase. I played it on Washington, the pivotal space for the political dimension when that had no units from either side on it. It essentially made it very difficult to earn any points from a political objective and all-but-impossible to earn the Washington points. My thinking was that there was a 1-in-4 chance that, at the time of play, the AI had a political objective and therefore I had a 25% shot at denying him that one point. The next round, the AI chose Washington as his objective, knowing that I already had it blocked. Rough-order-of-magnitude thinking, that a 90%+ chance that he will be unable to get that point. It’s just throwing away a point for nothing and, as it turns out, that single point made a difference. Again, that’s a lot of words but, I’m thinking that if the AI can’t see what it a near-certain implication of a card play, I have to wonder if it is really all that sophisticated.