It’s been said before that any wargame being newly released has to improve upon the available scenarios for the existing “sandbox” games. The holy trilogy for the Cold War era is likely The Operation Art of War (TOAW) for (you guessed it) Operation Scale land ops, Steel Panthers MBT (for tactical), and Harpoon for Sea/Air.
I would further argue that Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations has surpassed Harpoon, so we’re left with the two old war horses TOAW and SP. Of course, there are far better systems out there, both for World War II (which were the original targets for those games) and for other eras, but little that is moddable and has the actual range of user-made scenarios to cover the scope of battles of battles included in those two classics.
The time when these types of sandbox games were being made, selling well, and being well supported by a user base (via scenario creation) seems to be a thing of the past. Expand the scope of your vision beyond the Cold War and you’ll find that most of the games of this type are not only many years behind us, but not really up to current standards (I’m thinking of something like Age of Rifles).
Part of the issue is that current games dwell on details, particularly in terms of graphics and map features, that tie them to particular battles. This might be a design/marketing issue (such as with the HPS/Tiller games where user-created maps are simply not allowed), a technical issue (in Graviteam tactics, the detailed maps may simply be beyond modding) or a simple technical hurdle (Command Ops provides the ability to create new maps, but there is a huge amount of work involved).
One added advantage of these sandbox games is that they will cover wars/battles for which no dedicated game might ever be made. This next set of battles cover the struggle of the French to maintain their hold over Vietnam, post Second World War. For most of us in America, the story of the French in Indochina is merely a prologue to our own war in Vietnam. This neglects nearly a decade of fighting, incidentally using the same technology as the Korean War.
Battle of Vĩnh Yên
For tactical sandbox games, the trap is that high fidelity information is rarely known about a particular battle. The maps and troop dispositions can be put together, but a tactical scenario involves approximately 1 hour. So is what you’re playing a simulation of an actual hour of combat? Or is it an abstraction of a larger battle, but played out on a reduced scale?
The battle of Vĩnh Yên took place over several days. A brigade of Foreign Legion troops (the 9th), consisting of two Groupement Mobile (mobile groups, or GM), defended the town of Vĩnh Yên. North Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp commanded on the order of 50,000 soldiers, equipped by the Chinese. At the outset of 1951, Giáp planed to deliver a decisive blow to the French army and chose the village, some 30 miles north of Hanoi, as a target. He would seek to overwhelm the French force of about 6,000 defenders with 2 divisions totaling approximately 20,000.
The first phase of the battle commenced on January 13th with a diversionary assault on an outpost north of the town. As one of the GMs (GM3) was dispatched to deal with the attack, they were ambushed by the remaining Việt Minh. While the French successfully withdrew under the cover of air and artillery support, they suffered significant losses and the Việt Minh took possession of key hills in front of Vĩnh Yên.
The next day, the French counter-attacked. Thy linked their second Groupement Mobile (GM1) with GM3, opened access to the town, and ultimately retook the hills occupied by the Việt Minh. A third Groupement Mobile (GM2) was ordered from Hanoi to aid in the defense, bringing the defenders total to around 9000.
The third phase, taking place on the 16th into the 17th, saw the Việt Minh’s fresh division assaulting the French position on the hills with massed human wave assaults. These were initially repelled by the dug-in French defenders with overwhelming artillery and air support, including the use of napalm. However, the attackers reformed and continued their attacks through the day of the 16th, into the night, and again on the morning of the 17th. As the French ran low on ammunition, they were forced to give up ground. By the next morning, the French committed the last of their reserves to hold their position on the left end of their line (Hill 210) and continued air support drove off the communists and inflicting over 8000 casualties (killed, captured and wounded).
The battle, as modeled in Steel Panthers, is a compressed and downsized approximation of that third phase of the battle. As the French, we have two platoons of infantry holding the key hills north of the town. Two additional platoons have entered the map on trucks, with the support of one platoon of light tanks. There is also air and the support of one artillery battery. The battle lasts for approximately 48 minutes and we are exposed to an attack by enemy infantry with superior numbers backed by artillery.
Each Groupement Mobile typically consisted of two or three infantry regiments, a light tank squadron, artillery, and perhaps other support (engineers, for example) totaling around 3000 men. For any significant portion of the battle, therefore, it would seem that representing the engagement as a platoon-sized confrontation would be greatly under-estimating the available forces.
The Communists are assaulting my positions using human wave tactics. Things are looking bad and are about to get far worse.
The scenario seems to be combining several of the key elements of the battle; the human wave attacks, the artillery and air strikes, and the reinforcements by GM2, all in one 45 minute summary of a 24+ battle.
I’ve read long ago, perhaps in the Designer Notes for one of the old Avalon Hill games such as Panzer Blitz or Squad Leader, why a tactical level battle typically runs under an hour. Beyond that, the fuel, ammunition and other supplies of an active unit will run low, and the simulation needs to add to it considerations of resupply and reinforcement. So the key to modelling with these scenarios is to pick the right section of ground and timeframe to capture the action.
This can be particularly difficult in these lesser-covered conflicts, where a blow-by-blow description of a tactical battle is not available. It is also difficult to capture the right kind of scenario in an asymmetrical warfare or counter-insurgency campaign. This particular battle was notable in that the Việt Minh came out in the open and fought a traditional battle, allowing the French to use their technological superiority. A similar scenario probably would not exist of a “meeting engagement” of platoon-sized forces, but with a similar mix of armor, artillery, air.
A sketch from a Vietnamese site provides a better perspective on the battlefield.
In the end, this scenario does what it can to represent the battles of that time and place. For my own performance, I ended up fighting it to a draw. I made a big mistake in overestimating the number of turns I had. My plan consisted of bringing my tank platoon cross-country to immediately relieve Hill 101 while bringing the trucks carrying infantry around the dirt road (202) to reinforce Hill 210 from the rear. The trucks were about to arrive as the scenario ended.
Battle of Nghĩa Lộ
The Operational Art of War address a similar situation in its scenario for the Battle of Nghĩa Lộ. General Giáp again, in the fall of 1951, saw an opportunity to capitalize on the successes of his guerilla tactics by using larger forces and more conventional tactics. The valley surrounding Nghĩa Lộ was an strategic location to overwhelm the French defenses with numeric superiority.
The Việt Minh attacked with a full division against a handful of French outposts. The French quickly reinforced with 3 battalions of paratroopers. The battle continued for a week, but the combination of elite troops and superior support again won the day for the French.
The Nghĩa Lộ scenario that shipped with the original TOAW release comes at the other end of the simulation spectrum from the Steel Panthers scenario, above. The scale is that each counter represents a company (approximately 10X the scale of Steel Panthers) and turns last a full day (nearly 500X the time scale of Steel Panthers). Like the Czechoslovakian battle, this is a small scale for this engine. More so, in fact, with smaller units (company versus regiment), hex scale (2.5 km to 5 km), and map size (the battle was restricted to the immediate vicinity of the town).
Thus, my earlier criticisms still apply. The style of game play seems unsuited to this scale of modeling, especially as applied to the asymmetrical warfare we see here. This seems to be born out by the results – Wikipedia cites the actual casualties as a fairly low percentage of forces engaged. 300 KIA for the Việt Minh and 60 KIA for the French. The historical Việt Minh slipped away into the mountains when the battle turned against them. In game, they dug in and fought to the last, with massive casualties on both sides.
My paratroopers have arrived. After relieving the pressure on the town itself, I try isolating and defeating the numerically-superior enemy piecemeal.
The scenario stretches over two weeks (twice as long as the actual engagement). After an initial Việt Minh assault on the French outposts, the French begin to parachute in reinforcements. The screenshot, above, shows my strategy. Initial drops came in near Nghĩa Lộ and I used the reinforcements to force the attackers away from the town to the south. Further reinforcements I dropped north and west of the enemy positions, and used them to encircle and destroy the enemy formations. At all times, I was outnumbered and outclassed on the battlefield, so my approach was to achieve local superiority to defeat the enemy and then move on to the next area.
TOAW combat victories can be achieved by occupying the six hexes surrounding an enemy (more, obviously, if the enemy has multiple contiguous hexes) and then attacking when they have no opportunity to retreat. Depending on the scale of the battle, it is often effective to let the isolation from resupply reduce the enemy before the assault. This is what the Soviets in the Second World War called Cauldrons (or Kettles). This seems to be an unlikely depiction of a company-sized engagement in French Indochina.
In the end, I isolated the enemy into two such cauldrons along the SW to NE line in the upper left quadrant of my screenshot. Throughout, the game told me I was on track to achieve an overwhelming victory. Near the end of the game, the Việt Minh began receiving extensive reinforcements to the southeast and were overwhelming my defenders there. It became a race to see if I could eliminate the pockets so as to free up my forces in time to rescue my own isolated forces. The combination cost me heavily in casualties, and the prediction was that I was now going to “draw.” Nevertheless, the final screen declared victory for the French.
I also find it notable that the two scales, TOAW versus Steel Panthers, don’t ever meet. For any combat resolution on the TOAW map, it simulates probably several hours of combat (multiple games in SP) and, even with only two counters involved, a company-on-company attack, at the upper end of SP scenarios. In fact, given TOAW‘s mechanics, one would rarely initiate an attack with only a single company against a similarly-sized defender.
Perhaps recognizing issues with the original Nghĩa Lộ scenario, TOAW III includes a newer version of the same battle. The most obvious difference is the turn length, which has been reduced to six hour turns, introducing a day/night cycle. The game length has also been shortened to a week, corresponding to the recorded dates of the battle.
The map was also redone. On the screen capture below, we can see something that occurs with user-made scenarios. Knowing the mechanics of the games, maps are made to get the desired results in gameplay and not necessarily to visually portray the area being mapped. The combination of multiple rivers coming together in the vicinity of Nghĩa Lộ combined with irrigation structures creates a number of islands near the town. The effect of this is modeled with an impossibly-angular series of interconnected minor rivers.
After the arrival of my paratrooper reinforcements, I attempt to isolate the attackers in the southeastern corner of the operation.
The revised scenario played very differently than the original. With six hour turns, the wait for reinforcements seems terribly long. During this time, the enemy captured most of the road (where the objective points are, see below screenshot), eliminated the defenders from the town proper, and cleared out the center of the valley. Even when my initial para-drops began, I was unable to do anything except try to stay clear of the enemy.
Once all three of the paratrooper battalions arrived, I was able to concentrate my forces, obtain local superiority, and began taking back ground. In the end, I achieved a major victory, having forced all of the enemy out of the valley and into the mountains.
Final victory. I think the commies may have been repairing bridges during their brief occupation.
The balance of the forces is also obviously redone, although I didn’t look at the details. The French forces seem much weaker in the open, but tougher in prepared defenses. Several of my outposts remained intact through until the end of the scenario, despite enemy assault. While the casualties are not directly observable in the screens, the rate seems to be closer (though still higher) than the historic casualty rates for this battle.
Once again, despite the narrowing of the focus, I am struck that the operational scale of this game doesn’t touch the tactical scale of Steel Panthers. Even if the troop concentrations worked out, going from a six hour battle to a one-or-more 1 hour battles would require a simulation of supply, rest, and reinforcement that isn’t accounted for in most tactical engines and is abstracted in the TOAW mechanics. Also, this being an all-infantry battle, it probably wouldn’t be the most fun scenario for a game that has a tank reference right there in the name.
One game that does try to model the details between these two levels the the Command Ops engine from Panther Games. While units are, as with this scenario, represented down to the company level, the lower level of detail is modeled. Time is a pausable continuous time, meaning a much more detailed calculations of what happens when. Also, the details of the deployments of the companies are represented – as opposed to simply placing them in a hex.
In Command Ops, supply is modeled much more explicitly. In TOAW, supply is important, but it mostly involves controlling hexes between the supply source and the units to prevent unit combat factors from degrading. In Command Ops, the flow of materiel is accounted for so as to show up in the ammunition numbers of the resupplied units. I have read no information on the supply operations of this particular battle, but with a geographically-isolated fight taking place over the course of a week, I imagine it was critical.
The Command Ops engine was original designed for paratrooper operations (Highway to the Reich, Conquest of the Aegean), and would probably make an excellent engine for this particular scenario.
Despite my satisfaction with earning a victory in this scenario, I wonder if it was partially an artifact of the programmed opponent not being tuned quite right. There were several occasions during the battle that I was very sure that I was about to be wiped out in the next turn, but I was allowed to withdraw my forces and concentrate them. At the end of the game, there is an enemy company in good order, dug in on the eastern edge of my screenshot. Unopposed by my forces, that unit could have grabbed several victory locations and there would be nothing I could have done about it. It makes me wonder if a French victory would have been feasible against a human opponent.
The Battle of Hòa Bình
Following the victories earlier in the year, the French commander Jean de Lattre de Tassigny wished to repeat his earlier successes. By forcing the Việt Minh to fight on their terms, the French were able to use their superior technology, logistics, and fire support to defeat the Việt Minh in open battle.
To force the situation, the city of Hòa Bình was targeted. It sat on key road and river transportation routes through Indochina and had been taken and used as a major logistics and communication hub by the Việt Minh. By disrupting their supply lines, the French would force the Việt Minh into open battle at the place of their choosing.
Of course, the French would also create logistical problems for themselves. To keep Hòa Bình in supply, the French were forced to upgrade and garrison the road leading to the city. Supply via the Da (Black) River was also used. Although a considerably longer route, it was easier to secure. Outposts were created along the river to protect those convoys.
In December of 1951, General Giáp began attacking these outposts in an attempt to overwhelm the French. One such battle, at Tu Vu, is included in the Steel Panthers scenario list. In that battle, the garrison of a river outpost came under the assault of a numerically-superior Việt Minh force.
The Việt Minh attack came at night, to nullify the French control of the air. Starting around 9:30 PM, the French positions came under enemy mortar fire and shortly after 10PM the waves of infantry assaults began through the French wire and minefields.
On my southern wing, the Viet Minh have just breached my minefields and are headed for my entrenched positions.
The outpost straddled a tributary to the Black River, meaning the two positions needed to be defended separately. The defenders consisted to two companies of Moroccan infantry. The northern wing also had a platoon of tanks.
On my northern wing, I have tanks. But can they come into play before it is too late?
In contrast my other scenarios, this one seems sized about correctly in terms of units. The French seem to be lacking historical artillery support, which in the real battle was directed onto the minefields.
The Steel Panthers scenario lasts around an hour, and seems represent only the initial assault on the French positions. I ended up with a draw. In getting there, I used little in the way of strategy. My units were initially in entrenched positions and dug in, and so I figured moving would only hurt me. Some enemy scouts had slipped in behind my lines (probably initial placement?) and I lost a victory location to that. I do wish I had tried to get those points back before the scenario ended. It may also have helped to give ground a little earlier, so as to bring my second line of defenses into play. Although deliberately letting the enemy advance seems like a bad idea. I do note that this scenario is included in the HPS/John Tiller product Dien Bien Phu. That scenario, according to the notes, lasts for 2 hours and also appears to be intended to last until the French withdrawal from the their southern outpost. It would be interesting to play the two scenarios side-by-side, although not interesting enough to drop $40-$50 on the product. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to return to the Squad Battles series in another war.
In the real battle, the southern defenders were forced to withdraw across a narrow footbridge to the the northern strong point after some three hours of attack. The wire and minefields had been neutralized by a carpet of dead enemy attackers, and the defenders had run out of ammunition to shoot them with. Two hours later, the overwhelmed defenders of the northern outpost withdrew through the river onto an island, where they prepared themselves for a final stand that never came.
The battlefield as it appears today (via Google Map).
The greater battle for Hòa Bình continued until the following February, with the results from Tu Vu writ large. The French suffered high losses while inflicting far greater losses onto the communists. While the French were ultimately able to maintain control of the ground, the cost of that victories proved too dear. The French withdrew from the area before a final attack from the Việt Minh came.