The next two Operational Art of War scenarios I’ve decided to take on move the focus both up and down a level from my previous try. Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, Vol. 1 is a more focused take on the initial ramp up of troops. Focus, both in terms of the scale and the shorter time-frame, but also in other ways that I’ll expand upon below. Boonie Rats 1965-1972 is a higher-level look, again both in the expansion in scale and by its attempting to encompass the entire war. At least, that is, the entire war up until the historic U.S. withdrawal in 1972. The authors of both scenarios describe how they based their work on the Vietnam 1965-1975 board game, each in their own way.
Let’s start, as I did, with Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, Vol. 1. If not evident from the title, this is an extensive, multi-part scenario development effort attempting to model the full length of the war, but doing so in bite-sized chunks. The creator has, so far, progressed only through the end of 1970, but intends to eventually continue through 1975 and the evacuation of Saigon. Volume 1 takes you from the Marine landings on March 8th through to the 31st of July.
This scenario is designed only for play as the U.S. against the forces of communism, which are designed to be handled by the programmed opponent; switching sides or playing against another human player is not supported. That right there differentiates it from many from the TOAW library, which emphasizes scenarios balanced for competitive play against other players. Even beyond that, though, this one is different than, not only the other Vietnam scenarios, but pretty much any other scenario I’ve played in TOAW.
Units are put into place or withdrawn according to their historical deployment to Vietnam. This is done to a finer level of detail than the other scenarios I’ve played so far. For example, the Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which is the organization which lands in Da Nang on March 8th is withdrawn on May 6th and reconstituted as the Marine Amphibious Force. This, in conjunction with the smaller unit scale, means a very detailed order-of-battle, yet still for the entire Vietnam theater. Furthermore, it is a historic order-of-battle that tries to be very precise.
In contrast to the Vietnam 1965-1968 scoring, this scenario uses the standard score-keeping system for TOAW to determine victory. Control of the population is simulated by scattering victory locations across the map, control of which represents enough of a presence to control those hearts and minds in the vicinity. Each on-map victory point is the equivalent of 10,000 souls distributed using the population numbers from Vietnam 1965-1975. Additional victory hexes are located in the neutral countries (Laos and Cambodia) or in North Vietnam. Capturing any of these victory locations is an instant loss for the U.S. side. In other words, they serve simply to balance out the South Vietnamese victory locations, which are open to control by either side, as well as to (somewhat) enforce the pressure to remain within the international borders of South Vietnam.
The biggest difference in scoring, though, is that your score can be augmented by successfully completing missions. Each turn specifies certain missions, usually described in a very detailed fashion. Completing those missions gains you additional victory points. The player is also free to forgo those mission points and repurpose his units towards controlling more victory locations or defeating the enemy on his own terms.
To play this scenario, I needed to copy the scenario notes to a tablet and have that next to me* as I executed each turn. For the most part, it is very instructive. With units arriving all over the map, it is otherwise very difficult to keep them in a historical context. Playing is also very painstaking. In a purpose-built game, these missions would probably be pop-ups in game with some graphical indication of where they are and where they are supposed to go. Using an offline document, I have to go through each mission’s details, finding the location of the designated unit and the mousing over hex-after-hex until the popup says I’ve found the right target location(s).
Another unique aspect in this one has to do with the “house rules” for this scenario. Most of them have to do with the air assets in the game. Because there is no way in TOAW to designate things like runway length and suitability of an airstrip for different kinds of aircraft, the designer recommends that you always keep your aircraft at the base where they are initially deployed. Furthermore, he asks that you not use the air assistant, not set any units to “interdiction” or “air superiority,” and that you set no more than 10% of your air units to “combat support.” The result of all this is that you, the player, must specifically identify where on the map you are going to use your air assets. Like much else in this scenario, it makes for much more deliberation when planning and fighting a battle.
I wasn’t quite sure how to play this. Initially, I tried to fully use my ARVN units (at least the few that were under my control) to take victory locations beyond those specified in the missions. In particularly, I was trying to “secure” the areas around Saigon and Da Nang. A little further into the game, I realized that any unit that might be needed to satisfy a mission would not, in fact, be available when I need it if I had laready set it off on a task of my own choosing. So by the end of the game I was much more focused on following the instructions as given and keeping the immediate area around my forces clear of enemies. The result was a draw, as shown above.
I think the purpose of structuring the scenario this way is first, to allow the player to see-by-doing what the historical utilization of his assets were. Then, perhaps on replay, he could see if varying that script would produce better results. This scenario, which ends before Operation Starlite, probably should not have a lot of aggressive, ahistorical attacks coming from the player. I don’t know what it might take to win this one, and I probably don’t want to be replaying it so as to find out. In that vein, though, having already worked my way through Vietnam 1965-1968, I had a certain familiarity with where some of the tough situations that I had faced in that scenario and thus a sense of the layout of the country.
Scared but Not Alone
In contrast to the above, Boonie Rats 1965-1972 owes an even greater debt to Vietnam 1965-1975. It began as another attempt to port that boardgame to the computer. The most obvious carryover is the map, which uses the same scale as the boardgame. But as the creator iterated in his development, he found areas to improve upon the source material, both in revisions to the map and, especially, in revisions to the order of battle.
The end result is a bigger-picture version of the war than the other scenarios highlighted so far. However, in stark contrast to Vietnam 1965-1975 and some of the other larger-scale TOAW adaptations, the order of battle follows exactly the historical deployment. So there is no variability to deployment based on management of morale, as in the original board game, or on high-level decisions (see Vietnam 1965-1968), or on random events a la Fire in the Lake. Each unit arrives for you when it did back then. The design notes tell of extensive work in getting that order of battle as accurate as possible and I can appreciate that.
Playing the game, it doubles down on one of the problems with Vietnam 1965-1968. I suspect the idea with month-long turns was to approximate the turn length in Vietnam 1965-1975. The problem with doing it this way is that for the board game, the time in between was abstracted. The correct interpretation is not that an “operation” took half-a-season to conduct, at least not in most cases. It may be an operation lasting only a few days. But units are only prepared to embark on one-to-two large-scale operations during a season, in between which they must rest, refit, and be reinforced. Translating that to TOAW, but adding an extra turn, may get the “rest” periods about right, but it also makes the movements that took a week or so to get in, fight, and get out, last multiple months within this scenarios structure.
Perhaps it is the attempt to model the abstracted turn length but, for whatever reason, the game is actually configured to run 1 week turns. There is a separate reckoning of the calendar reckoning that informs you that each is really one month, doing so in the “news” portion of the game. As a result, if we look at the screenshot shown above, although it says “March 29th, 1965” up in the corner, we are really looking at some time in June. It is mildly confusing and, again, I question if it really is an effective way to do what is intended.
In order to fit my experience in with the other games I’m looking at, I only played up until the beginning of November, at which point I am (historically speaking) about to hit some major U.S. operations. I’ll return to this scenario, to see how it is doing as a strategic representation, after catching up to the in-game date within other more detailed games and scenarios. In contrast to Vietnam 1965-1968, I’m not seeing units deployed ahistorically early. This scenario keeps the schedule tight. Like before, however, I do see a much more aggressive war being fought when I consider what is going on relative to the historical actions. Referring again to the above screenshot, I’m looking at June 1965 and I’ve got NVA regulars in the vicinity of Saigon. Feeling the pressure, I’ve undertaken a major operation to disperse them and this includes the participation of elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade (that forest green 4-3 counter) as well as some Australians (baby blue). While these units were, truly, in country by June, this is still months away from Operation Starlite and even longer until November’s Operation Hump (historically a use of 173rd’s forces for a major operation). While I share some of the blame, having engaged newly arrived troops so quickly, I also think I’m facing an NVA opponent that is accelerating the schedule. Unlike may other Vietnam War treatments, I can’t accelerate my deployment to match.
The scenario is not terrible, but I’m not sure its as enjoyable or instructive as the others available. I will say this. Score-wise, I seem to be doing better and with less stress. Here, the victory conditions don’t involve balancing commitment and morale and therefore don’t have the kind of sudden death conditions from Vietnam 1965-1968. Instead, and I have to speculate here, the tougher part will come at the end of the game when the player is asked to maintain control over country with the U.S. forces being reduced to zero. My decent score, I just have to add, persists despite losing an aircraft carrier.
I assume the loss of a carrier would have been a political catastrophe back in 1965. I probably shouldn’t have even risked it. The thing is, with the extra-aggressive operations on my plate, I found myself short of artillery support. To compensate, I moved a carrier group into gunnery range. I was figuring that the escorts could help me out by lending some big guns with relatively little risk. You might notice from the screenshot that I’m playing with the Version IV of TOAW. One of the changes was to try to make naval combat more realistic and part of that was allowing larger ships to take damage rather than just disappear when the get a “bad roll” during combat. So I felt even more secure with this gambit than I would have in Version III. Nevertheless, there must have been some torpedo boats lurking around because I lost a carrier and an aircraft wing while lobbing shells onto the shore.
I don’t have anything really bad to say about this scenario, at least not so far. However, I does point out why, perhaps, games focus so much on the morale and political aspects of the Vietnam War. It just seems like if, no matter what happens in battle, the U.S. forces are going to roll right in on this preordained time table and then be pulled back out on the withdrawal table, aren’t we missing one of the most important variables in this war?
*Normally, I would simply keep the manual open in another window and tab between them as necessary. However, you may recall my complaint about TOAW‘s problems when more than one program in running.