Vietnam 1965-1975: definitive cardboard expressions

, | Game diaries

(This is the second entry in a weekly (or so) game diary about the boardgame Vietnam 1965-1975. The series starts here.)

A few years ago, I wrote a game diary on this site that turned into an ongoing series that eventually became one of my favorite things I had written. The reason was that as I wrote, I found myself following the gameplay to my bookshelf, chasing the assumptions behind the mouseclicks, and turning my thoughts inside out to look at exactly how and why I was enjoying the game, the subject matter, and the very hobby I was embracing. It was completely unplanned, but also unstoppable.

One of the things that made this such a special project was the subject.

I am a confirmed World War II eastern front nutcase, and played Gary Grigsby’s War in Russia so much because I was desperate to inhabit an imaginative space which had been previously inaccessible to me. I had tons of books about the Russo-German war, and many wargames, but the lack of opponents kept these things solitary endeavors, whereas a PC game provided me with opposition, which freed me from the moorings of book chapters or rules sections. For a while, it was like I was exploring a new level of being, and my guide was a form of History itself. I will never forget that feeling.

Coming back to that place with Gary Grigsby’s War in the East gave me a new energy: it sort of organically led me to develop a new style of writing: that of evaluating a game through the lens of history while actively discovering the game. I called it “anthropology of game mechanics” until I realized that was pretty stupid. Who needs a dumb name to describe something that was really a personal examination of my relationship to wargames? And my relationship to a subject I had been fascinated by for a lifetime, via a game that I felt qualified as the sine qua non of the digital genre, of course. It was all in there. It actually still is.

But the big dirty secret of this wargaming tribe, as David Dockter so aptly calls it, is that there are other sines. There is a small population of games that everyone thinks of as “games I need to play” not just because they are so good, but because they are the definitive cardboard expression of that historical event. One of them is a game called Vietnam: 1965-1975. It was designed by Nick Karp, who went on to shake up the digital wargame hobby as the CFO and co-founder of Shenandoah Studio, who made the amazing Battle of the Bulge. It was designed in 1984, less than a decade after the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the US embassy in Saigon. Vietnam was still a raw wound, many vets weren’t even in middle age, and pushing cardboard Vietcong around a map was as problematic as a game about the invasion of France might have been in 1949. Fortunately, no one had invented hex-and-counter commercial wargames prior to the Eisenhower administration.

A few things: it was a huge game. Not in table space, although the two maps it used to represent South Vietnam weren’t small. Instead, it was big in design. First, it covered the whole war, from the Marines coming ashore at Da Nang to the aforementioned embassy helicopter, at two turns per season. That’s like 80 turns. And those turns were nothing like your standard Russian front “I move my panzers here and here, roll the dice, and add a Stuka.” Karp tried to capture the essence of the war in Vietnam, with commitment levels, hidden units, variable unit deployments, pacification, and operations that could stretch for multiple rounds as US troops chased the VC into the countryside. It was so, so different. And long. And I don’t think a lot of people actually played it (against another person).

For a game I don’t think a lot of people have played, it has garnered the reputation of the best treatment of the Vietnam War in boardgame form, ever. It has maintained that reputation to this day.

That’s right: a game by a 21-year old Princeton student, made in 1984 as his first design and without the benefit of any significant archival material (as little was available) and with the state of wargame design in a rather primitive state (the first card-driven game was a full decade away), managed to hold up as the definitive Vietnam wargame for 32 years and counting.

I’m a big fan of good game design, but as a historical wargamer, I’m an even bigger fan of game design that gets history right while being a good game. Based on my experience of historical wargames over the past 40+ years, that’s not as common as you’d think. Games trade history for chrome, or accuracy for balance. Which isn’t so bad, if you like your entertainment that way. Who are we kidding – it’s crazy to talk about entertainment in 48 pages of game rules. Right? Yet these things exist, and people like me think about them. A lot.

So when Pat contacted me via Boardgamegeek and suggested we play, I was intrigued. I had never seriously played Vietnam, but had always wanted to. And I thought back to how I had approached War in the East, both as a game and as history, and how it had made me really think about the events I was reducing to mouseclicks, and why a game designer had done it in just that way. And I wanted to think that way again, but hadn’t had a catalyst. Until I realized Nick had planted one in my game collection 32 years ago. Even though we’ll be playing on VASSAL, I went and made sure I still had all the counters from the physical game, sorted them all, and re-read the rules. Because these cardboard contraptions are real time machines, and I wanted to make sure mine was operational. All the console lights are flashing green.

Next: the war gets underway

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