In the early 1980s, there was great turmoil in the world of games. Throughout the 1970s, the wargame hobby was marked by a rivalry between Avalon Hill, which had published wargames since the 1950s, and the newer Simulations Publications, Inc (SPI). SPI was founded by James F. Dunnigan, who had already created a number of successful titles for Avalon Hill.
I was an Avalon Hill fan, myself. Exclusively. One might say, however, that it was SPI that pushed the wargaming hobby, and Avalon Hill along with it, to produce the kind of games that I wanted to play. Through the 70s, the companies were firing off competing designs, often trying to one-up the other with variations on each other’s themes.
SPI’s growth was rapid, particular considering its niche in wargaming. Through the 70s, it passed the million dollar annual sales mark and hit as high as $2 million in gaming revenue per year. The end of the 70s saw a decline in the gaming market, in part due to changes in gaming preferences (e.g. the rise of Dungeons and Dragons) and in part a reflection of the “stagflation” economic woes of that time. Avalon Hill was by then the smaller “wargame” company, although they still had a much larger chunk of the overall games market due to their success with “family games.” In 1980, SPI attempted to emulate Avalon Hill’s strategy by producing fantasy and role-playing games. A disaster involving the licensing of the Dallas TV show characters for an RPG was one obvious failure. In the end, SPI crumbled when sales started to flatten. It had simply become too dependent on growth to sustain its inventory-centric business model.
Ultimately, SPI was gobbled up by TSR (again, Dungeons and Dragons) through the foreclosing of a loan made by TSR to the struggling SPI. The end was acrimonious for those involved and some very talented SPI game designers found themselves on the job market. Enter Avalon Hill, who had also been in discussions with SPI about bailouts and asset purchases. Avalon Hill formed a subsidiary, Victory Games, which they created in New York (SPI’s business location) formed around staff from SPI. From 1982 through 1989, Victory Games produced games in the mold of SPI, but under the auspices of Avalon Hill. The CEO of Victory Games was one Mark Herman. Make a note of that.
One of the ex-SPI designers at Victory Games was named Nick Karp and, at the age of 21, he designed Vietnam 1965-1975, the archetype strategic-level Vietnam game. His boss, Herman, went on to design For the People, arguably making him the father of the card-driven wargame. The COIN series (Andean Abyss and A Distant Plain) from GMT demonstrated the effectiveness of the card-driven design in simulating asymmetric wars. Is it a surprise that it was Mark Herman that put 2 and 2 (and 2 and maybe 2 more) together and created Fire in the Lake?
I’ve not too many details about the lineage from Vietnam 1965-1975 to Fire in the Lake beyond the the designers’ discussion, which acknowledges that such a link exists. However, if I take a look at what’s “wrong” with Vietnam 1965-1975 in reviews and discussion, I can see many of the issues solved in Fire in the Lake‘s design. Just to start at the most obvious place, there is the complexity of the original game. By this, I’m not just talking about its length (although there is certainly that), but also to the number of fiddly components, including paper records to be maintained off board.
What good is a masterpiece if nobody ever plays it?
In my previous article I talked about Vietnam 1965-1975‘s operations and how this novel implementation captures some key aspects of asymmetrical warfare. However, this feature also generates complaints about the sheer number of, often, repetitive operations that must be played through in order to feed data back to the strategic layer. As well thought out as that operation “mini-game” (if you will) might be, it is itself an abstraction to simulate the cat-and-mouse nature of anti-insurgent operations. While it may work, it isn’t necessarily a finer grained “simulation” of said operations.
Fire in the Lake eliminates hexes and the unique counters which represent historical forces. Instead, there are just “troops” and “insurgents,” which have a presence only in a particular region or urban area. This eliminates the on board maneuvering and the semi-tactical battle resolution. As an example, in TOAW, the execution of an individual battle often means the ability to form the six-hex ring that isolates and destroys the enemy. In a more nuanced system like Vietnam 1965-1975, it the execution of an operation may not be so bluntly structured, but it requires an awful lot of calculations to make it work. In removing this detail, Fire in the Lake deemphasizes the small variances between units. For Vietnam 1965-1975 the difference between escaping and being destroyed might come down to a single extra movement point for that unit.
Fire in the Lake also removes the bulk of the randomness that most wargames use for combat resolution. There is the occasional die roll but, for the most part, combat results are determined by the counting the forces involved. It means, contrary to real-world experience, that you can know the results of an action before you commit to it. Or course, it also means you focus solely on the operational picture. Doing so saves you an awful lot of fiddling with your pieces, rolling dice, and looking up results on charts for something that, in the long run, should average out to a fairly predictable quantity.
Having eliminated the lowest level of decision making, we also can eliminate the highest. One of the more interesting design choices is that, in Fire in the Lake, the allocation of U.S. forces to Vietnam is largely outside of the control of the U.S. player. Contrast that to Vietnam 1965-1975 where controlling the allocation of forces is the deciding factor for U.S. victory. Fire in the Lake’s three non-U.S. factions all have available to them one or more operations (a player’s action that accompanies each card) that deploy forces to the map. For the U.S, on the other hand, there are only two methods of adding more units. The first is through events; the playing of the historical portion of the active card. There is also a “commitment” phase that comes once per “Coup!” cycle or “campaign” (see also my overview of gameplay here). This allows the player to increase or decrease forces, effectively managing the “available” pool, which directly translates into the points the U.S. needs for victory.
There is always a tug-of-war between commitment and casualties to fight the “war weariness” (as other games are apt to call it) of a nation at war. The military commanders, given enough allocation of resources, can achieve their goals with fewer casualties. So in the medium term, increasing commitment should reduce casualties and avoid war-weariness. In the short term, however, the increased deployment of troops, the increased military expenditure, and the debate of the necessity for a “surge” will stoke the dove sentiment in the population. A game including “war weariness” as a factor asks the player to balance these competing short versus medium goals. For the long term, the player must conclude their war before being forced into a bad position through the loss of popular support.
In Vietnam there are many who said that the shortsightedness of avoiding commitment up-front resulted in the loss in the end. That is, the failure to risk negative popular opinion by going whole-hog when necessary is what made the war unwinnable. We might also reach the opposite conclusion. The U.S. were forced to withdraw from Vietnam for political reasons long before they suffered any real military loss. So perhaps better management of the public’s expectations, not a more rapid and decisive victory on the battlefield, is what would have made the difference.
Compare and contrast to the commitment and morale tracks in Vietnam 1965-1975. In that game the declining morale will, through the simple math of the game, force U.S. commitment to decline in the game’s later turns. The structure of the victory conditions means that U.S. player can only win by “going the distance,” that is, lasting until the 1975 end of the game. Inevitably, the U.S. is going to be forced into a withdrawal and Vietnamization before it is all said and done. In Fire in the Lake, by contrast, it is theoretically possible to win a military victory at any point in the war. Just doing the math, in South Vietnam, there are a total of 33 population points. If the entire population were to strongly support the Republic of Vietnam’s anti-communist government, that is worth 66 points right there, a good margin above the 50 needed to win. So in theory, the U.S. could completely ignore the other source of victory points for them, those from units in the “available” pool. This tally could be thought of is a measure of U.S. forbearance in not committing every possible unit that could be squeezed out of the American political system.
Practically speaking, the U.S. victory will come from balancing the two conflicting goals. The U.S. will want to win the support of as much of the population as possible while committing as few troops necessary to get the job done. Combined with the late game events, this will tend to push the U.S. player along a similar arc as in Vietnam 1965-1975 and the war itself. When that happens, the U.S. likely will have to engage in a systematic withdrawal of forces in order to get enough “available” points for a victory. Note, in particular, that the point gain from a withdrawal is always delayed one full campaign (set of cards) before it counts towards victory. Scoring takes place at the beginning of the Coup! round, not at the end. This means the U.S. has to survive at least one campaign with the reduced levels of commitment before using those points to go for a win.
So, once again, the Fire in the Lake design seems to have found a way to reduce the complexity of morale, commitment, and deployment -level management from the complex equations that are used in Vietnam 1965-1975. Players will appreciate the great reduction in game time as well as the simplified tracking. A downside, however, would be the risk of losing the character of the decisions that, in Vietnam 1965-1975, are attached to the commitment or withdrawal of each named unit in the game. Not only is commitment and withdrawal generic, but so are all the units. That missing flavor must be supplied by the events.
As I said, Events remove the player from the highest level of decision making – the level at which the President or Congress might be critical in determining the outcome of the war. Using the event cards, the game models the political forces as mostly outside the control of the player. As an early example, the Gulf of Tonkin incident will give the U.S. air strikes (representing the immediate retaliation of Operation Pierce Arrow) and the deployment of U.S. forces to cities in Vietnam (representing the initial ground force build up of early 1965). As the U.S. player, you can’t explicitly “request” the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade be deployed to Vietnam. Even still, as the player, you do have some input into the political aspects of what happens.
Gulf of Tonkin, Fire in the Lake style.
The U.S. player has three choices when the Gulf of Tonkin card comes up for play. He can choose that the U.S. reacts historically to the incident in the Gulf with airstrikes and troop deployments, although the “free” airstrikes can be used or not as the player decides allowing for more nuance to the response. Similarly, the player can chose to deploy ground troops either to the historical locations or to other cities. Beyond that, the U.S. may also choose to avoid the Gulf of Tonkin as an “incident.” If one assumes that the engagement of the USS Maddox is out of his control, he might (by choosing to play a limited operation instead of the event) take a path where Johnson ignores or downplays the confrontation rather than use it to ramp up the effort in Vietnam. The U.S. player might also decide to forgo the event of the card and instead undertake an operation. Perhaps the U.S. player is not eligible for the initiative. Under these circumstances, the control of this event shifts to the North Vietnamese player.
Under the control of the North Vietnamese, the outcome of this event can be interpreted as one where the minority voices in American politics actually triumph. We might imagine that the second “battle” in the Gulf of Tonkin is exposed as a fiction and, as a result, not only does Pierce Arrow not occur but U.S. funding for South Vietnam is reduced. Of course, a U.S. player could, himself, chose to take this peaceful road, but one assume he wants to win the war, not make a philosophical statement. Similar to the U.S. choices, the NVA player could chose a limited operation to make the event “go away.” This would simulate the North deciding to never engage the Maddox in the first place, so that there is no “incident” from which to escalate. Or the North could choose to cede initiative to South Vietnam, who now can mold history similar to the U.S. choices of the previous paragraph.
So timing is controlled by the card draw – the Gulf of Tonkin card may show up early or late, relative to other cards played, or it may not show up at all. The highest level political decisions can be influenced by the player, although only partially. For example, while under some play combinations the NVA can “choose” never to participate in the Gulf of Tonkin, in others they don’t have that choice. Perhaps, one supposes, the U.S. can force a Gulf of Tonkin incident, one way or another, given time an opportunity. If the NVA torpedo boats hadn’t attacked on August 2nd, 1964, there still would have inevitably been some kind of confrontation between the forces of the U.S. and the forces of North Vietnam that could have provoked a similar reaction.
This is all a fair balance between a system where the political attempts are preordained to follow their historical path (i.e. on March 8th, 1965 you get the Marines at Da Nang) and the algorithmic-driven decisions of Vietnam 1965-1975, with all its attendant computational complexity.
Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, which compares and contrasts how two board games handled aspects of the war.