This is the thirteenth 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.
The Grandfather of the Vietnam strategic-level wargame has to be the out-of-print monster game from Victory Games, Vietnam 1965-1975.
The game was released in 1984. To get a context of the time, take a look at the Vietnam-themed films that were out before 1984. There was, of course, Apocalypse Now, which isn’t really about Vietnam. There was The Deerhunter, which wasn’t really about Vietnam. There was also a smattering of “returned vets” pictures and the occasional POW action film, but in general Vietnam was a nasty political mess that we had finally managed to extract ourselves from, and not a suitable subject for entertainment.
The world of wargames was similar. 1984 was the cresting of a decade of plenty in the hobby. The shelves at game stores were awash with games covering the old standbys; World War II, The American Civil War (especially Gettysburg), and the wars of Napoleon. While the success of those games enabled the industry to produce ever more variety in both mechanics (particularly greater complexity) and settings, Vietnam wasn’t really on the table. Part of it was the timing. A game dealing with the strategic-level war in Vietnam couldn’t really have existed* for more than a half-a-dozen or so years anyway, until after the ending of that conflict was known**. But beyond that, the topic remained rather taboo.
All that doesn’t even take into account what might be the greatest problem of all. The war defied the structure that made up most wargames to that point. There were no front lines, no clear demarcation between friendly and enemy held territory. Victory conditions remained puzzlingly elusive. Finally, while the military match-ups did produce expected results (typically overwhelming victories by U.S. forces), those did not translate into victory and loss. As Ho Chi Minh explained to the French, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”
Before we get into discussions about asymmetric warfare and victory conditions thereof, Vietnam 1965-1975 does something else that is a little special for 1984. I recall an essay, or perhaps even a video, talking about how to get your friends and relatives to play games with you. It points out that most people’s gaming experience is limited to some “family games” they played as children; the Monopolies and Clues. It set up recommendations by taking things that people like about classic games, and recommending a newish game that has that same mechanic, but implements it better. A point I took away is that the current state-of-the-art in boardgame design tries to minimize the “down time” between turns. Simply waiting and doing nothing while others around a six-seat table play does not make for fun gameplay. Worse yet, being forced to concentrate on how those 5 other players move, because otherwise you might miss something important, is not only tedious but punishes you if your mind starts to wander a little. Giving every participant in the game something to do, even when it isn’t their turn, is a hallmark of today’s game design.
The monster wargames of the early 1980s took this problem to a level beyond anything a family game could even imagine. I recall several rulebooks from the ’60s or ’70s vintage wargames where the opening paragraphs tried to hit some basic concepts. Front and center was the idea that on your turn you could move any or all of your pieces, not just one. The next paragraph usually explained the concept of movement allowance; how having elected to move a piece, the moves open to the player also were open to extensive choices (subject to various limitations). This was a key nod towards realism that differentiated Chess from PanzerBlitz. A real army can get all its parts moving simultaneously.
Now, extrapolate this to a monster wargame covering the entire Eastern Front or, more to the point, the whole of Vietnam. Each of hundreds of counters needs to be moved individually by the player, which could take an eternity.
We’ll start with the innovations of Vietnam 1965-1975 right here. Turns are played out as a series of “operations,” which are fairly small and focused engagements between pieces. To simulate the nature of the communist insurgency, that player always has the opportunity to go first. Once the communist operation is complete, the U.S. player gets a chance. In this way, getting through “all the counters” is done piecemeal, alternating with a few from each side. Furthermore, each operation is not simply a matter of the attacker counting up points then asking the defender to roll for his defense. Operations are dynamic. Units may retreat before a battle, or attempt to flee after it. As they move across the map, nearby units may join the fray, potentially shifting an attacker’s advantage to the defender. Finally, on top of all of this, either side may decline to take an operation when it is his chance, letting the other go first. There is a catch, however, that if both sides decline to operate, the turn is over. It is a formula for an extremely dynamic and interesting play where both players are involved throughout the course of a turn.
Another major innovation is the way that the core combat mechanisms of the game were altered to reflect asymmetric guerrilla warfare. In your typical game, battles are joined and, perhaps after some die rolling to determine victory, the loser’s piece(s) is removed and the winner advances to claim territory. In a more serious wargame, that formula can get complicated. The losing side may lose some, but not all of their forces, including partial losses – frequently flipping over a counter to show degraded functionality. The victor may also see a portion of their forces lost or reduced. Forced retreat of surviving units and mechanisms for the advance by a victorious attacker become part of the odds charts. Vietnam 1965-1975 makes some major changes to this formula. In the previous paragraph, I mentioned that retreat and pursuit is a much more hands-on affair, and that is part of it. A bigger change is that, when suffering losses, a player may opt to make good those losses via replacements rather than using (and losing) units present on the board. Overwhelming losses in battle may still end up in destroyed units but maybe, if the player so desires and has the resources to back it up, all units will remain intact.
The key is that victory is not determined simply by gaining territory and eliminating the enemy. The course of the game is heavily determined by the tracking of political and morale factors, which are impacted by things like the losses absorbed via reinforcement. This both ties the combat indirectly into the victory system as well as further opening up the tactical possibilities of an operation. In some cases, a particular battle might expand well beyond its initial expectations, with losses being made good through reinforcements and additional forces being fed into the battle through the reaction mechanisms.
Going back to that odds chart, in this also the designer has a methodology I’ve not seen elsewhere. Typically, after some math work to calculate odds, a die is rolled to determine which result (for the particular ratio computed) will be used. It is a little different here. While the die is still rolled, it often feels like a minor randomization of what is mostly a deterministic procedure. The odds themselves don’t give you the results column. They give you another die roll modifier to be applied to the results. It is an interesting twist on what one might have been accustomed from charts in 1984. It is also a lot more complicated that what players of 2018 games are probably used to.
I’ll forgo the urge to hit the features of this game point-by-point. This is a complex game with many and diverse aspects of the war in Vietnam being factored in. Almost unbelievably so. The game gets down into the weeds with the hex-by-hex, unit-by-unit fighting that breathe detail into these operations. At the same time, at the other end of the scale, the (U.S.) player must manage the the military leadership of the ARVN. The command structure is bound to become saturated with political appointees, which will degrade the effectiveness of your allied units. Try to weed out all the incompetents, though, and you might trigger a coup, which would also destabilize and weaken the fighting forces. All of this under the umbrella of balancing morale and commitment for the U.S.
The brilliance of this design is in the interplay between these factors. Contrast it to more current implementations, and you would expect something like a card-based event system to help drive the narrative. But this is a game that was published almost a decade before We The People. It also forgoes the die-roll based event tables that preceded the more modern card-based events. Instead, the narrative is driven a seemingly simple interaction between the rules. As the U.S. player, you will be forced to ramp up your forces to save South Vietnam from the early advantage of the Viet Cong. But you’ll have to temper your commitment to avoid prematurely crippling your war effort by offending the politicians at home. At some point, they will be fed up with your warmongering, and you must begin withdrawing troops to satisfy the public cry to end the war. Ultimately the game will force a final U.S. withdrawal and compel a NVA/ARVN showdown much like that which ended the war in 1975.
This is a huge game. It contains complicated calculations that require each player to maintain off-board bookkeeping sheets. I’ve certainly never completed a game myself and I’ve read some speculation on-line how, probably, very few of the copies sold have been played through in an entire campaign game. To do so would almost certainly require having a board setup somewhere for months on end. It would also require having a comrade-in-arms who also enjoys this level of detail and would stick it out until the end. I also suspect that, for almost anyone, a few playthroughs would be necessary to understand the nuances. Practically speaking, it may take years of dedication before diving into a satisfying campaign game.
One complaint (on-line) is about how many operations need to be played through to complete a “turn.” Given the nature of this game and the victory conditions, the operations are needed to feed numbers back to the “big picture,” which is then used to feed numbers back to the “Seasonal Interphase.” Think of this a meta-cycle that occurs every two turns to layer the strategic elements on top of the operational elements. I could imagine that some operations would be very satisfying if the elements of a complex plan come together. For example, using the game mechanics, one could set up a trap where pursuit of a smaller force draws in an attack and then flips the odds on the attacker. There also could be “Hamburger Hill” type operations, where a players wind up creating a mountain from a molehill by continuing to feed resources into what originally was a fairly meaningless battle. I would also think it is just as likely to embark upon fairly routine operations where one side attacks, the other side retreats, and you go through the mechanics to figure out losses.
It’s my Total War conundrum, decades earlier and on cardboard-and-paper instead of on a computer screen. You’ve always got to be putting your best effort into each and every operation, because every little point lost or, perhaps, forgone (if you are in too much of a hurry and just want to get the season over with) might be that point you needed to put you on top in the strategic phase. Although again, thinking of that Total War comparison, if you see the meat of the game as the operations and the strategic layer as the context to make it all work, then the operational part might feel just fine to you.
The Operation Starlite (tutorial) scenario is set up as a tutorial in Vassal as well. Vassal further enhances the game by providing tools, such as an order-of-battle viewer and marked hexes for units on patrol. My Marines are closing in for the kill.
To some extent, today’s reality may have saved this game from oblivion. Being out of print and difficult to play would destine it for fond memories from one’s youth. However, the likes of Vassal begin to solve some of the problems. You no longer have to convince a friend to play – you have the whole world over to search for an opponent. No need to keep the board set up and cat-free for the better part of a year – the save file will keep just fine until you are ready for the next turn. As a result, I’m reading descriptions posted to the internet of games which have taken place fairly recently.
Usually being the first makes it really tough to be the best – especially 30+ years on. Once someone has shown what to do and what not to do, future efforts should be able to improve upon that formula. In this case, I’m not sure that anyone has ever attempted something of this magnitude again. If I sift through the board game geek lists, I can find a few attempts that are more focused on individual campaigns. There are also several attempts restrict the game play more exclusively at the strategic level. Noteworthy to me are Victory in Vietnam, a 1999 design that still uses a hex-and-counter view of South Vietnam, but at a much larger scale. 2010 saw a card-driven game treatment with Hearts and Minds. And of course I just wrote about 2014’s Fire in the Lake.
For the computer, a user attempted to port (at least in spirit) the Vietnam 1965-1975 to The Operational Art of War. There have also been several other strategic-level attempts, both for the entire 10 years or smaller portions of them, implemented in TOAW. I am not aware of any PC game that is dedicated to the Vietnam War from a strategic level.
While Victory Game’s Vietnam 1965-1975 may not be among the frequently-played board games on anyone’s list, I’d be surprised if any subsequent designer of strategic and/or operational Vietnam game did not use it as a starting point for their work.
Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, discussing a TOAW take on the entire Vietnam War at an operational level. If you are trying to follow along with my Operation Starlite posts, you’ll get to the next one of those here.
*I make my statements definitive here, but it does oversimplify. They say that “the exception proves the rule,” and one can name exceptions without too much effort. A comprehensive scan of publishing dates shows up to a dozen games with a Vietnam theme coming out in 1984 or earlier. These include a game printed in 1965 to simulate the war at a strategic level, even as the war itself was only beginning. Jim Dunnigan had some designs contemporary to the battles they portrayed (as is his thing), including a 1972 Easter campaign game released in 1972. Other games focus on segments of the war that were more conventional, such as the Battle of Hue or the more evenly-balanced campaigns of 1972 and later. Likewise, there were Vietnam movies like Go Tell the Spartans, from 1978, which predated Hollywood’s interest in the Vietnam War starting in the late ’80s.
**One of the reasons The Green Berets didn’t make it into my list of movies in the previous paragraph is that it came out, not only before the war ended, but before it was even beginning to end.