Vietnam 1965-1975: rediscovering a wargaming masterpiece

, | Game diaries

Vietnam 1965-1975 is a board wargame that I bought when I was 15 and then never played until I was 45. I purchased it the first time at a Comics and Game Store in Miami, Florida in 1986. That copy was destroyed by a hurricane in 1992. I promptly bought another copy. That copy was lost in a move in 1999. I bought another copy that year. That copy was misplaced. I bought another, and then a backup. Last year I found the misplaced copy. By my count, I have purchased this game six times. However, I played the game (my definition: against another opponent; solitaire play and pushing cardboard around does not count) for the first time in the spring of 2016. I currently have two games ongoing. I am about to begin a third with Bruce Geryk, which will be documented in a series of entries to be posted occasionally over the next several months.

After the jump, what’s so special about this game?

discovery-of-the-temple-of-isis-at-pompeii

When Bruce Geryk asked me to write an introduction to this Game Diary, I distilled all these thoughts into three questions that I felt needed to answer: What makes this game so unique that I would not only eagerly play it, but spend time and electrons describing that experience 30 years later? What changed to make me play this game in a way that I didnt 30 years ago? Why are some creations only truly appreciated years later?
Vietnam 1965-1975 was published in 1984 by Avalon Hill Inc.s subsidiary company Victory Games (VG), a sanctuary for Board Wargame designers who fled Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) after its acquisition by TSR, Inc. in the Great Boardgame Wars of the 1980s. For those who know not of these contentious timestimes of successes, overreach, countermoves, refugees and recriminationsor just plain old dont care, never fear. I shall not write of King Dunnigan, The Gygax and the Quest for Avalon here. Just know that in 1983, when VG was founded, the best and the brightest Board Wargame designers were to be found there, encouraged to design damn good, innovative games, and encouraged to really explore the studio space and use as much cowbell as they wanted (apologies to Christopher Walken and Blue Oyster Cult).

Nick Karp was amongst those who fled to VG and designed Vietnam 1965-1975 at the age of 21. This game was unusual on its face in that no one wanted to even talk about the Vietnam War in 1984, let alone design a game about it (SPIs Year of the Rat about the 1972 Easter Offensive, published in 1972, is an outlier). In 1984, Board Wargames usually dealt with World War 2 (in Europe or North Africa, mostly), the American Civil War (lotta Gettysburg), the Napoleonic Wars (lotta Waterloo) and speculative conflicts between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. They would delve into obscura at times: The Franco-Prussian War, a speculative Invasion of Japan in 1946, the Wars of Italian Unification, to name a few. The Vietnam War was the crazy uncle no one wanted to talk about. We didnt win, and arguing about it at dinner was a memory that everyone wanted to collectively forget. Why design a Board Wargame about it? When VG published Vietnam 1965-1975, it was seen as so significant (controversial?) that young Mr. Karp was interviewed for the local evening news. They probably asked him, Is it possible to win in your game? And I always imagine young Mr. Karp thinking, Well, what do you mean by win?

Uniqueness

montagne-sainte-victoire-1890-scottish-national-gallery

Please play and listen while reading: Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 8, RV 297, “Winter” (L’inverno))

Well, in Mr. Karps simulation, the National Liberation Front Player (NLF- the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army) wins by capturing Saigon or controlling the lions share of the population of South Vietnam. The Free World Allies Player (the combined forces of the US & South Vietnam, with contributions by the Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and the Philippines) wins by preventing the other player from winning by the end of Spring 1975, the historical date when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. As a fairly obsessive collector of Board Wargames on the Vietnam War, in my humble opinion, it is the only one that accurately captures what winning is to each side. Other games have an arbitrary stopping point tied to other things (casualties inflicted, the date the US historically withdrew from South Vietnam) that do not accurately capture what Nick Karp captured. Namely that it was a struggle between a country attempting to secure the future of a potential ally (the US in South Vietnam) against a country that was fighting a war of national unification (North Vietnam).

So this was a struggle of the will to project Geopolitical power against an admittedly more primal National Will in the Bismarckian sense. Mr. Karps victory conditions grade the US players victory against the USs stated and expressed historic geopolitical goals. Not against a curve, as in, say, GMTs Fire in the Lake (It ends in 1973- You did your best, dear. Have a popsicle. The bad Vietnam-man has gone away), where victory by the US side is based on the fundamental presumption that the South Vietnamese were parasites, distracting the patron (the US) from more essential Cold War business elsewhere. This is not necessarily untrue, but it artificially separates South Vietnam from the USs historic strategic goals in the conflict. The US did want the South Vietnamese to have control of their country. A safe and secure Republic of South Vietnam, able to maintain the integrity of its borders and capable of its own defense, hopefully indefinitely, with limited aid from the US was the goal.

Vietnam 1965-1975 is a Regimental/Battalion-level simulation. Let me be clear: the game has scenarios, but they pale when compared to the Campaign Game, which is what I will be discussing here. The time period covered is, well, 1965-1975, beginning in the Summer of 65. The game is divided into four Seasons, each season containing two game turns. All combat and movement takes place in these two game turns. Each Season begins with a Seasonal Interphase where both players resolve the status of the population in each of the provinces (Pacification), engage in Strategic Warfare (bombing the North and the Ho Chi Minh Trail), see what the effectiveness and loyalty of the South Vietnamese Military looks like (Politics) resolve the effects of the conflict on the respective national wills of the participants (North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese and US Morale) and commit new troops and resources to the conflict (Commitment).

As a Board Wargame, Vietnam 1965-1975 is unique in that it truly makes the player the Theater Commander. All decisions regarding reinforcements, operations, disposition are at your fingertips. Want to deploy all units to Vietnam that United States could have conceivably deployed into that Theater by Fall 1965? Go ahead. Can you Invade Cambodia? Sure, as many times as you want. Can I build the North Vietnamese Army into a huge, high-powered, state of the art mechanized force by 1966? Have at it. But at the heart of it, there are four basic things driving these decisions. US Commitment, US Morale, North Vietnamese Commitment and North Vietnamese Morale.

All the stuff that each player wants to bring to bear in the conflict costs Commitment Points. And the level of Commitment cannot exceed Morale. Basically, North Vietnamese Morale always goes up, influenced by: new US Commitment, the current level of US Commitment and the current level of North Vietnamese Morale. The only thing that can reduce it is a decrease in US Commitment, though that will only slow down the growth of North Vietnamese morale. US Morale is always going down, decreased by: new US Commitment, current US Commitment, NLF successes (NLF Attacks during an offensive, captured provincial capitals), bombing North Vietnam, invading Cambodia and/or Laos. The only thing that will increase it are a high enough NLF body count of Battalions or great successes in controlling the population of South Vietnam, but these gains are minor in comparison to the negatives.

So the US Player is always on the clock in Vietnam 1965-1975, trying to maintain an effective force in country to fight the war that Season, yet always mindful of the long war that requires a savings of morale to provide staying power to see the conflict through. The US player must also negotiate through the minefield of South Vietnamese politics. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN-South Vietnams Army) is essential to the conduct of the war and to lasting past the games end, but is frequently Ineffective, incapable of maneuver or combat. This is determined by the Divisional and Corps leaders who have different effectiveness ratings which can lead to an effective ARVN hitting the bush and chasing Charlie or a sad force that sits in garrison, impacting nothing.

The NLF player must fight an overwhelming enemy with unsurpassed mobility and firepower. He may decide to spend his Commitment on: a large, weak force spread thin through the country, where his presence moves the population towards him, a concentrated North Vietnamese Army capable of taking the offensive against the US, or a combination of both. As well, he may spend some commitment to launch an Offensive, where every attack made by the NLF, sometimes at great cost, reduces US Morale, as the vigor of NLF forces disillusions the US populace and Press Corps with the War.

The combat system itself was and remains groundbreaking. While Commitment and Morale are the soul of the game, the battlefields matter. Ground and objectives matter, because they effect population control. Every unit, if effective, may operate once per game turn. The NLF player decides who will conduct each operation, controlling the tempo of the operational game creating an IGOUGO determined by him. Operations may involve an unlimited number of units, and essentially engage them in movement or combat. In the operations themselves there are reaction movements, and multiple back and forth decisions regarding support and reserves, so the IGOUGO, begins to feel a lot like IGOBUTUDOALOT, minimizing down time while someone fiddles with their counters. Players use ground strengths and support points (Artillery and US Air/Naval Firepower) to aid the combat or inhibit enemy movement during the operation (Interdiction). Casualties are determined through a die roll, modified by overall combat odds, terrain and the positive or negative results of previous rounds of combat. Casualties are determined by cross-referencing the rolled number against the total of the players ground combat strength with the enemys firepower.

The US, who can bring a LOT of firepower to bear, has an advantage in combat, and can usually minimize his casualties while inflicting great damage on the NLF. The Viet Cong, are a special case, however. They have an alert roll prior to the initiation of combat that may allow them to escape the clutches of the US Player and run away. Or they may disperse and convert their ground strength into Replacement Points (which also cost Commitment Points, for both sides, and if the US player has none, and loses a United States Army or Marine unit, that too costs Morale!). And did I mention that all Viet Cong units, while on the map, have their values hidden from the US player?

Vietnam 1965-1975 is unique; it gives total control to the Theater Commander, abstracting the unimportant (Why have Air Wings and Squadrons? Only US losses matter, just have a bank of Air Points to use for Support). Yet it possesses a combat and movement system uniquely fitted to the Historic and Operational Scenario it simulates. Nothing is fitted or altered from another operational system onto it; it is purpose-built, from the ground up. Nothing is from a cookie cutter. It feels like Vietnam.

Rediscovery
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Good point. Well, you needed a table Two Meters by One Meter to hold the maps. And you needed space for that table. And you needed two players who could manage to set a schedule (say once every two weeks) where they could play for a reasonable session (say 4-6 hours). So if you did that, you could complete the game in about two years, maybe three. I dont know about you, but when I was 15, that table would have dominated my room, and the old man wasnt too keen on letting me occupy his garage, so that was that. Then life took over, and I was young and poor, and didnt have the space. Then I was older and working, and didnt have the stable spare time to be able to adhere to a weekly or bimonthly schedule for two to three years. And you needed another player who was willing to do the same thing and was available locally. Play by Mail and later Play By Email just wouldnt cut it, given how interactive the game is. Then came two things: The Internet (well, and computers, mobile devices, apps, skype and whatnot, but I am trying to be dramatic) and VASSAL.

VASSAL (which started as VASL-Virtual Advanced Squad Leader) is a game engine for building and playing online adaptations of board games, tabletop games and card games. It allows users to play in real time over a live Internet connection, and also by email (PbeM). It runs on all platforms, and is free, open-source software. It is written in Java and is available from SourceForge under the LGPL open source license.

Essentially, VASSAL lets you have an interactive board and counters up on your computer screen. You play over Skype or some other Audio system. So the Internet and all that followed made Vietnam 1965-1975 a viable practical gaming option. No room to dedicate. You could play someone on the other side of the globe. Shorter sessions become possible, say 1-3 hours. Ive done a session after cutting the grass on a Saturday, but before I have to grill food for my wife and some guests. And I still have time for other games. Played this way the game can be completed in 6 months.

Let me elaborate a bit on the VASSAL module. VASSAL is freeware, and all modules vary in their options and graphic user interface. Some modules are a board and counters and that is it. The Vietnam 1965-1975 module is much more than that. It has automation features that allow for quick resolution of multiple game tasks: determining population control seasonally (Pacification), combat resolution die rolling, South Vietnamese leader effectiveness and loyalties (Politics). It also has various interactive player aid tracks that enable logistical functions to be self-contained in the module. In and of itself, this cuts down on game administration tasks (counter and marker cleanup, bookkeeping and a myriad of other tasks) that make the game far more streamlined on VASSAL. An Anecdote: As a result of playing Vietnam 1965-1975 on VASSAL and being active on the Boadgamegeek forums, I discovered that there was another avid player who lived 90 minutes from my corner of the globe. We eagerly decided to play the game face to face (just to do it) and began a Campaign game. A month later, we decided to move the game to VASSAL. Why? It was easier, and we spent less time commuting and fiddling with trivial tasks, and more time playing.

All the above means a new gaming space/sphere in concept: Virtual Computer Aided Boardgaming. VCAB (pronounced VeeCab) for short. When Boardgame designers/publisher truly embrace *how* people play their games, and recognize that 2-6 players around a table on a Saturday night is the exception and not the rule, then they can design *for* that reality. And designing for that reality entails Virtual Modules that build administration tasks and bookkeeping into the module, using macros and simple appl-ets. In-depth games, even the monsters of old are now very playable, given the potential impact of technological change on the hobby, but designers and publishers must embrace this. The wave of design in the hobby changed in the early 90s, away from big Monster games, aiming for the goal of a good Board Wargame that could be completed in one night at that now-mythical table. A new seed change is needed now that encompasses the impact of technology to shrink space, time and availability to the point where two grognards actively choose a VCAB experience over a face to face experience, because it is a better all-around in-game experience.

The subject matter, the Vietnam War, is also perceived differently today. No longer taboo, many books, articles, new research on the subject have appeared in the last 30 years. New debates regarding the Operational conduct of the war (Westmoreland versus Abrams, for instance) are avidly conducted in academia. It is no longer seen exclusively as an unwinnable quagmire. In the Wargaming space, many titles dealing with it are available. The Iraq/Afghanistan experience post-911 has also led to the conflict itself has being seen as more emblematic of the types of conflict to occur in the 21st Century. The once adored conventional tank on tank game seems to feel more and more like the Old Guard charging Wellingtons center at Waterloo. Interesting and fun, but not a harbinger of things to come. Rediscovery of this masterpiece seems to hinge around the fact that the world itself, environmentally wasnt ready for Vietnam 1965-1975, as a subject or as a game 30 years ago. It is now.

Not Appreciated in its Time

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When The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald contacted his editor at Scribner and Sons regarding sales, Any news? “Sales situation doubtful,” read a wire from his editor, “[but] excellent reviews.” It sold only 20,000 copies. And in fact, the reviews were mixed, despite effusive private praise from literary contemporaries such as T. S. Eliot, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather. The Great Gatsby was quickly relegated to the status of a nostalgic period piece about the Roaring Twenties. It was only after the Council on Books in Wartime distributed an estimated 155,000 copies of the paperback edition to soldiers fighting in the Second World War that its reputation began to change, and by 1944 the opinion that Gatsby was merely a period piece had almost entirely disappeared. By 1960, the book was steadily selling 50,000 copies per year, has sold over 25 million copies worldwide as of 2013, annually sells an additional 500,000 copies, and is Scribner’s most popular title. It is considered a classic of American Literature as it captures the American experience because it is a story about change and those who resist it, be that change demographic, technological or economic.

An ordained Priest, Antonio Vivaldi was a master violinist who composed The Four Seasons and most of his concertos, choral works and operas while wandering early 18th Century Italy and France looking for royal and noble patrons. He had local success at various courts, but after his death in 1741 he was largely forgotten. During the early 20th century, Fritz Kreisler’s Concerto in C, in the Style of Vivaldi (which he passed off as an original Vivaldi work) prompted academic study of Vivaldi’s works. Many Vivaldi manuscripts were rediscovered. Since World War II, Vivaldi’s compositions have enjoyed wide success and he is now considered a paragon of Baroque Music, along with George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Like The Great Gatsby, Vietnam 1965-1975 needed time to pass to allow a broader perspective of the time period covered in the work. The problems and situations posed to the players are not seen as particular merely to the Vietnam Conflict. As well, a more dispassionate, reasoned discussion of the conflict is now possible. Like both The Great Gatsby and the works of Vivaldi, events and technology have allowed for an enjoyment and experiencing of Vietnam 1965-1975 by a wider audience. Id posit that with VCAB as the method, more Campaign Games have been played in the last three years than have been played in the previous 30. I held onto Vietnam 1965-1975, come hell or high water since 1986 because, upon receiving the game, I knew it had the potential of a masterpiece. Now though, I really know that is indeed the case.

Figures
Box Cover Art of Victory Games Vietnam 1965-1975, Ted Koller, 1984

Discovery of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, from William Hamilton, Campi Phlegraei, vol. 2 (Naples, 1776)

Montagne Sainte-Victoire, Paul Cezanne, 1890, Scottish National Gallery

Front cover art for the book The Great Gatsby written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, or the cover artist, Francis Cugat

Videos
YouTube. “Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, RV 297 “Winter” | Classical Music.” YouTube. 2 April 2016. Web. 3 October 2016.

YouTube. “The Great Gatsby You can’t repeat the past.” YouTube. 21 July 2010. Web. 3 October 2016.

Up next: a challenger appears!

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