This is the forty-first in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.
In late June of 1966, the 327th Infantry Regiment was ordered to locate forces of a significant size after the defeat of a company of militia (CIDG) near the Special Forces camp at Dong Tre. At the time, they knew that the enemy had at least a company. It was their job to locate the enemy force and determine its strength. Eventually U.S. command would come to know that an NVA regiment had moved into the area.
On June 19th, two companies of the 2nd Battalion of the 327th had located elements of the enemy force near the village of Trung-Loung (2). After minor skirmishing and some pounding by artillery, the Americans established a defensive perimeter and then settled in for the night. The suspected enemy positions continued to be hit with air and artillery. Even as battle lines developed, the Americans remained unsure how sizable of a force they faced.
The next day, the A Company to the east of Trung-Luong and the C Company to the west were ordered to link up. While they had encountered small groups of insurgents during the night and into the morning, there was still no indication that they were facing a force which outnumbered them. As A Company began entering what appeared to be a deserted village, they were hit from all sides by a prepared ambush. On the other side of the village, C Company was also fully engaged while attempting to capture high ground north and west of the village. A third company (B) was helicoptered in for support but found themselves air-assaulting into a defended enemy position. As night fell on the 20th, the Americans’ command of the battlefield via artillery prevented any counter-attacks but they now had three companies on the battlefield, unable to link up.
The next day saw the 1st Cavalry committing two companies of their own, to the north of the village, and Colonel Moore assuming command of the now-mixed-unit operation. By the end of the day the American forces made a concerted attack on the NVA position, simultaneously from multiple directions. While the attackers’ progress was steady, it remained slow, and night again fell with the U.S. in a defensive perimeter. Their key concern was preventing the escape of the NVA forces before they could be engaged and destroyed.
The next morning brought a reversal of initiative. The NVA engaged in multiple assaults against the American positions, quickly closing in so as to prevent the American artillery’s effectiveness. Several hours of attack did not break the American lines and, instead, resulted in substantial casualties on the NVA side, likely eliminating the NVA regiment as an effective fighting force. While the following days would see more American units fed into the battle, no more large-scale engagements would occur.
The Squad Battles: Tour of Duty scenario The Battle at Trung Luong consists of six scenarios taking place over the course of six days. It is a way to get around the limitations of the tactical engine and its time-and-space restrictions. The scenarios, however, are not in any way linked, so a wildly ahistorical result in one scenario would still place you right back in the historical starting position for the next. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. We’ll just start off with the first one.
101st approaches Trung Luong from the west.
In many ways, this was a scenario typical of those that have caused me frustration with the Squad Battles package over the years. The scenario is only 6 turns long. The above screenshot was taken into turn 2, when I first came under machine gun fire. If you do some counting, you’ll see it is barely possible to reach the top-left victory location before the end of turn 6. Even that requires that you move your units perfectly and they don’t get disrupted by incoming fire. It looks like the other two victory locations are impossible to reach, due to intervening obstacles, no matter how you approach them.
In my first attempt at this, I was moving in on the objectives cautiously. Obviously, I don’t know where the enemy is hidden, only that he is up there somewhere. Until roughly the line where my men are in the above screenshot, it is possible to use the terrain to protect my advance. I did just that, attempting to control which units were potentially exposed to fire. The result at the end of turn six was a minor loss as I failed to reach any of the three objectives.
The point of this opening scenario appears to have the player be surprised by the location of the enemy forces. As the company commander, your unit has been ordered to sweep the village to its front. Intelligence leads you to expect enemy forces in the area (represented in-game by the enemy occupied victory squares), but you don’t know their position or their strength. Advancing to take those victory locations will have you discovering the enemy positions “the hard way.”
I felt frustrated by the fact that I had, apparently, not understood the objectives of this one so I replayed the scenario. The problem, as I’ve discussed before, is that I had already had had the “surprise” revealed to me. The second time through, I concentrated more on closing the distance and less on having my squads support each other. As an added bonus, I was granted an extra turn by the games variable-ending feature*. It was that extra turn, not a superior performance, that allowed me to capture one of the three victory locations and improve my score to “draw”. The fact is, if I had been given the extra turn in my first run through, I probably would have captured that one victory location. With one victory point location added to my score, my first run through would have been the better of the two.
I don’t know, but this also may have been part of the “point” of this first scenario. Approaching carefully reduces one’s losses which could net you a better score than charging forward into the unknown. The operating procedure for an American unit, upon realizing they faced significant opposition, would be to pull back and request air and artillery support. Like many Squad Battles scenarios, however, such support is not part of the setup. This may be reasonable, given the scenario length. The player must play up until that point where he realizes he is facing a substantial enemy, Whatever comes next, be it advancing into the village or pulling back to dig in, happens after the scenario is over.
Turn 7 of 6. I don’t think the extra turn made a difference.
The following day finds another company of the 2/327th in position to attack Trung Luong (2) from the east. The setup of the second scenario reinforces my opinion about the purpose of the first; that the whole point was to suffer some losses in the course of “discovering” that the village is occupied. By contrast, scenario 2’s victory hexes are easily reachable within the six-turn limit. Subject, of course, to whatever resistance the enemy will give you. Once again, I pushed a little harder than was prudent and only got a draw, despite capturing two-out-of-three victory hexes. I also lost more than I gave in terms of casualties – not a typical result in terms of historic American actions. While I might complain again about be forced to attack a known enemy position without the massive air and artillery power that accompanied nearly every American operation, I won’t (or is that what I just did?) It was not uncommon for a U.S. sweep-and-clear force to assume that they could easily oust some insurgents from a village only to find out that the enemy had far better numbers and position that anticipated. In Squad Battles, we know every scenario is going to be a fight. In reality, U.S. commanders likely expected many if not most encounters to wind up with the enemy disengaging and escaping.
The small map works for this scenario, which models the insertion of B Company into an LZ north of the village.
Within another hour or two, as the game clock turns, a third company attempts to come in to reinforce the two already engaged but finds its intended landing zone defended. This again is modeled as a short scenario (although, not quite so short as the first two – this one is a 9-turn affair) focusing only on the action of landing and securing the LZ. A lack of instruction in the form of scenario notes, as I’ve mentioned before, leaves one hanging a bit. I think this kind of scenario could do with “You are ordered to land, secure the LZ, and make ready to receive additional … blah blah blah.” Understanding that that larger clearing is the prepared landing zone helps the player do the right thing. Fortunately, this is somewhat obvious. I think I am looking at a new feature in Tour of Duty where the game engine could restrict a scenario to a small section of the large maps. No more searching around across hundreds of hexes trying to find where your platoon is sitting or picking from many possible landing sites.
I chose a fairly unimaginative plan.
Again, I interpret the point of this one as prepping the player for the larger scenario which is to follow; the coordinated, battalion-sized assault on the village. Even to the extent there are several throw-away scenarios to lead things off, this is probably a much better way to handle it than to try to cram all aspects of the operation, in miniature, into a 1-2 hour scenario. The down side is that you have to limit the early scenarios specifically to prevent ahistorical, decisive victories which would break the narrative. With this third scenario, though, we get some of the best of both words. Focusing on the taking of the LZ, performance in this small scenario doesn’t really impact the larger battles that follows. One assumes that even if the initial landing is for shit, by the next day you’ll have your forces on the ground and ready to do their part in the coming attack.
If I haven’t given it away already, I’ll give it away now. This third scenario is a take and hold. So while the initial movements are offensive – moving into the vicinity of the victory locations and scouting out the enemy position – victory in the scenario will come from successfully defending your position from a counterattack. The combination of attack and defense and, in contrast to the first two, hoping to actually run out the clock, makes this scenario interesting on its own merits as well as serving its purpose in advancing the “story.” For what its worth, this was a minor defeat for me, albeit coming within one or two kills of earning a third draw. I lost two helicopters while they were trying to lift off after the insertion. Those points alone would have moved me from a minor defeat to a minor victory.
These three short, introductory scenarios lead to a fourth where all three companies attack the village, the first two in a very similar setup to their earlier assaults and the newly arrived (historically B) company attacking from the north. I suppose it should go without saying that winning this scenario is considerably easier than any of the first three. It also makes for an interesting solution to one of the problems encountered in this game, how much preparation is appropriate before playing a scenario.
I’ve discussed the issue before. If you simply come into a scenario cold, you are likely under-prepared relative to your historical counterpart. Real commanders would have studied their maps and intelligence reports, pre-plotted fire-support missions, and overflown the battlefield to prepare in every way possible before the actual fight. A player could do the same by studying the board before starting the scenario. I, for one, find that a tedious exercise and would rather get started playing. Going to realism, a commander studying maps will also always have incomplete information; details of the terrain may only be apparent to troops on the ground. Studying every detail of a Squad Battles map allows you see reality – the hex map is the terrain, and vice versa. The alternative, to discover some unique scenario feature by playing and then replaying the scenario with this knowledge, may substitute for this preparation or it may simply ruin the scenario, because you now have prior knowledge of features that were supposed to come as a surprise.
A multi-part scenario provides an alternative. The early scenarios may not be winnable or, in some cases, even interesting. They do provide that “battlefield intelligence” that a commander on Day 3 of this fight would have had, and they do it in a engaging way. When I advanced to take the village in my fourth scenario, I found myself moving through, quite literally, familiar ground. There were particular paths of advance, using roads and other terrain features, that I chose to use because I had actually tried them before in the earlier scenarios. At the same time, I had no idea where the enemy was lurking because it was my first time through this particular scenario. As it turned out, the assault was fairly easy. I managed to win the scenario decisively, taking all of the objectives and, pretty much, taking control of the village.
This points to a significant gap between the course of the scenarios and the historical outcome. In each scenario, a player is incentivized to accomplish their mission before the turns run out. The alternative to pushing for a rapid victory is to disengage and, rather dully, let the clock run out. What this means is that while I’ve pretty much overrun the enemy positions, my historical counterpart ended the day still facing off with that enemy. The price I’ve paid for that aggressiveness is that my casualties, over the piece of the battle I’ve fought, are probably already many times that of the actual fight, including every part of the extended operation.
However the battle, not to mention this series of scenarios, didn’t end there.
Defending against a counter-attack provides the spice of variety.
The 5th scenario in the sequence models an NVA counterattack against the now-defended American positions. We are back to the small scenarios; company-on-company. The variation here is that, as the American, you are completely on the defensive. It is a scenario setup** that places a chunk of the victory locations in no-man’s-land between the two forces. This compels the attacking side to actually act like an attacker. It also gives the defender a high-level decision to make. Do you defend your current line, or do you move forward to physically defend the advanced line? My choice was to start by defending my existing position and then move forward 2/3rds of the way into the scenario to retake whatever victory locations the NVA have grabbed. After I decided this was how I wanted to go, I realized that the scenario design forces this upon you to some extent. The American units are initially fixed until fired-upon so they couldn’t charge forward to meet the enemy even if they wanted to. You probably won’t be surprised if I tell you that, as a defensive scenario, it was fairly easy to get an overwhelming victory.
The final installment of this series takes place five days after the initial one and is something of a coda to the main battle. After taking the village and scattering its defendants, the U.S. forces pursued the retreating insurgents southward. In an attempt to cut them off a helicopter insertion was made to set up a blocking force. This scenario takes on the fight when what turned out to be hot landing zone is contested. Once again, its focus improves the gameplay over similar, but less focused, landing zone battles. The only goal of the American player is to land and take control of the LZ. For the NVA, the Americans need to be run off that LZ and, to what ever extent possible, wiped out. The focus also helps in that the game is short and sweet; easily played in a single sitting.
It turns out that six scenarios in progression is an excellent way to overcome some of the shortcomings of stand-alone scenarios. Even the lack of off-board support can make sense if you assume you’re playing six turns which take place between one artillery barrage and then next. It would be great if there were more like this. Problem is, it must be orders of magnitude harder to develop a suite of scenarios as compared to doing one at a time. I note that, while there are other multi-part scenarios in the stock set, this is the only six-part one. Later I look to some user-made content to see how they tackled this issue.
Return to the master post or advance to the next article which covers The Battle of Long Tan, one of the most significant battles for Australian forces in the Vietnam War.
*Squad Battles will sometimes allow scenarios to last longer than their listed duration. I seem to recall reading (although I’ve not looked it up to verify) that it depends on whether victory points are contested at the stated end of the scenario but it is also heavily dependent on randomness. This is supposed to prevent players from gaming the scoring system by grabbing points on what they know is the last turn while ignoring the consequences of any potential enemy reaction to that move. If you seize a hex in your very last move, you should be prepared to defend that hex on the next turn, even if that next turn is to come after the scenario ends.
**Which you may have seen before. *wink* *wink* I tried not to discuss hidden details of the scenarios where possible, but in ever screenshot and ever description of my experience, I do give away some of the surprises hidden in these scenarios. Hopefully, if you’re planning to play the game, you played first and read afterwards.