In the shit with Vietnam ’65

Bruce: So this game seems fascinating. Completely ahistorical in every way, yet an interesting gaming problem to solve and arguably a practical solution to an almost intractable problem of simulating the nonmilitary tactical aspects of counterinsurgency. I both love and hate the concept. I wonder if the gameplay will make me feel the same way?

Tom: What do you hate about the concept? And I’d like to hear more about why you call it “completely ahistorical in every way”? Other than the fact that helicopters in this game can’t land in rice paddies.

After the jump, roll over, Westmoreland!

Bruce: Vietnam games come in one of two flavors: Operational/strategic games where combat is abstracted and the goal is pacification, or tactical games where the emphasis is on combat and there isn’t any pacification at all. I’ve always wondered what the actual “pacification” part of it was. In Nick Karp’s Vietnam 1965-75, you just roll two dice on a table after cross-referencing some factors. Volko Ruhnke’s Fire in the Lake, you spend ARVN resources. What are they doing with those resources? Buying chocolates?

In Vietnam ’65, we finally find out what our boots on the ground are doing to win those hearts and minds. They’re going into the villages with campfires in them! I guess that’s another way of saying I have no idea what “pacification” is actually supposed to be.

Tom: Mechanically, it looks like soldiers running around blowing out candles.

Bruce: I want to put in a disclaimer that I’ve spent the last three months reading a lot of Vietnam books. I even made a video about a Vietnam boardgame, although that’s Vietnam when it was still called Indochina. And what I’ve learned from reading close to 10,000 pages of text is that while “hearts and minds” was a logical and reasonable concept, it had absolutely no chance of success without land reform, or some other comprehensive political program that could replace the mandarin system and compete with the flawed Communist system of land expropriation and redistribution. Eradicating the VC as a primary goal without this was impossible, unless they eradicated themselves, which they helpfully did with the 1968 Tet Offensive. But they inflicted sufficient casualties on the US to decisively change the political situation. This suggests that there should be no victory point bonus for killing VC troops, because historically, they sacrificed their entire field force and still “won.”

Vietnam ’65, on the other hand makes the fundamental gaming point that we just needed to be nicer to the Vietnamese while practicing “contagion theory” (come when the Vietnamese villages call, and keep them free of VC infection). We’re like airmobile lymphocytes. If I were writing an essay for the New York Review of Books about the game, I’d talk more about this, reference a bunch of really good scholarly books on the conflict (which you can find at the end of this article) and then Robert B. Silvers would write back and say (a) “uh, this is a video game” and (b) “who are you??”

Tom: While I appreciate your point about the ultimate futility of hearts and minds as a goal, don’t you feel that’s not something this game is commenting on? This is an operational level game, and even if the war is going to be lost, Vietnam ’65 is only concerned with how we do in this little slice of Ia Drang. The criteria for victory is the criteria we set for ourselves. Namely, do enough people in the villages side with the US instead of the VC, and how much political support do we have back home?

Bruce: I definitely see your point. Even then, I find the limits on things like supply kind of artificial. Resources in this context should be essentially unlimited, and only their effective delivery should be limited. But I also love the concept because it tries to take something no one has really tried in a videogame, and does it. That earns it about one bazillion victory points in my book.

Tom: Yeah, that’s my favorite part of this game. As I was reading the manual (you can also learn the game by reading the ingame help or, to a lesser degree, playing the short tutorial), I quickly realized Vietnam ’65 is doing something I haven’t seen in a videogame. It’s modeling the pacification that was a cornerstone of US policy in Vietnam. As an eager student of game design, I love when games model traditionally non-gamey subjects in new ways. I’ve played Vietnam as a first-person shooter, as a wargame, and even as a shmup. But I’ve never played it as an operational level study of the doctrine of pacification. But then I got to the real learning curve, which is managing which unit has moved how far and where is that chopper going and why can’t I select my guy — oh, that’s an NVA unit — and, oops, I left my Green Berets way the hell out in Timbuktu and now they’re about to run out of supply. This is the roughest part of the learning experience. But it will get easier.

Although maybe I should be playing on normal instead of veteran. I keep losing.

Bruce: I think you’re making it harder on yourself by playing on veteran. In fact, I don’t think you’re even allowed to play on veteran unless you actually are a veteran, which means that you are probably guilty of stolen valor. So you deserve to lose. No offense.

I, on the other hand, played on normal, because that’s what I am, and after one game where I ran my helicopters out of gas a couple times because I didn’t realize forward bases did not have intrinsic resupply capability, I went back for a second game with the full mandate of the US public and inflicted a decisive defeat on the forces of Communism and faux nationalism, with 63 hearts and minds points and 10,696 political points in my pocket. Congress was saying things like, “You need this M-48 Patton tank? How about an AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter? No, please, take it! The people love you!” I’m going to run for president next year in the world of Vietnam ’65.

Tom: I’ve played three games, all of veteran, and I’ve lost them all decisively. I get into an economic death spiral where I can’t even afford to heal up my wounded soldiers. Congress was saying things like, “You need these bandages for your wounded soldiers? Sorry, that would be like throwing good gauze after bad. What sort of irresponsible spendthrifts do you take us for? We’re Congress, for God’s sake!” And if you think Congress doesn’t like me, you should see my hearts-and-minds score for how the people of Vietnam feel about me. Can it go below zero? So, yeah, veteran is the more brutally realistic experience of losing support for a losing war. But I wish Vietnam ’65 would tell me the specific differences between normal and veteran, beyond “uh, veteran is, like, harder”. I want specifics about what changes with each difficulty level.

Bruce: The great thing about putting history in game terms is that you can immediately assess counterfactuals. If you were to imagine the most effective strategy in Vietnam ’65, it would be to have cordon of troops in ambush positions in the jungle, with a distributed system of fast-reaction airmobile troops regularly dispersed throughout forward bases with strong artillery and attack helicopter support. Most importantly, this would restrict VC movement and isolate the Vietnamese villages from VC infiltration. Sounds like the perfect strategy, right?

This actually worked beautifully for the British in Malaya (now Malaysia) between 1948 and 1960 in what was then called the Malayan Emergency. The British and Australians used a hearts and minds strategy that combined aid to the ethnic Malay population and indigenous tribes with sequestration of their population in enclaves very similar to the strategic hamlet program seen in Vietnam 15 years later. The problem was that the reason this worked in Malaya was that the insurgency was basically an uprising by the disenfranchised minority ethnic Chinese population, and separating the Malayan population from them and putting them in strategic hamlets, which in many cases was an upgrade in their standard of living, served as an effective inoculum against the Communist insurgency. But these conditions were not analogous to Vietnam.

Tom: It sounds to me like British were playing on normal.

Bruce: What Vietnam ’65 really is, is a game based on the conventional understanding of counterinsurgency at the time of the Second Indochina War, playing by the rules thought operative at that time. The real war, on the other hand, was like playing Championship Manager without realizing there were hidden stats, and wondering why nothing was working according to the visible player stats. And frankly, the more I play it, the more I appreciate the willingness to make a wargame with these ahistorical but very gameable assumptions.

Tom: One reason I’m playing on veteran is that there are several ingame achievements you can only earn by playing on veteran. These are represented by medals you check by going into your uniform closet and seeing how much you’ve upgraded your uniform. The higher it’s upgraded, the shorter the delay between air strikes.

Bruce: Airstrikes are a perfect example of the way in which this game depicts the conflict in American terms: if you airstrike it, it will blow up. All I need to do to an NVA unit in the jungle is fly a jet over it. Kaboom.

Tom: Vietnam ’65 is willing to swing itself around. In my first game, I was about ready to give up a third of the way through (turn 15 out of 45). I had three damaged helicopters but none of the necessary political points to repair them. I’d taken 12 casualties, most of them from a wounded infantry unit trapped in a swathe of jungle, which meant I couldn’t airlift them out of there. My hearts and minds score, which is the overall gauge for how you’re doing, was well within range of an NVA victory. But I stuck with it hoping to get used to the unit management. Because, really, this is a game about logistics so unit management is 90% of what you’re doing. And as my game progressed, I was actually able to bring things around a bit. I set up a few successful ambushes for incoming VC. I had a forward base with artillery positioned perfectly to hold back NVA advances called in my my Green Berets, and my ARVN soldiers started gathering intel from villages. My political points started climbing. Maybe I’d be able to pull this one out of the hole after all.

Or maybe not. I lost horribly, because I’m playing on veteran. I got into the economic death spiral where I didn’t have the political points to do anything meaningful to affect the hearts and minds score. My hearts and minds bottomed out at 17 out of 100 and I had negative 10,000 political points. By the time the game was over, everyone in Vietnam and the US hated me. So, in other words, the historical outcome.

Bruce: I was initially really annoyed by the fact that each hex flown by a Huey cost you political points. Until I realized how well that represented the political effort of continuous operations. You don’t have to go counting hexes each turn, though: what it does is set a sort of “friction level” that accumulates over many turns, as your combat tempo degrades your support. I’d actually support increasing the cost for operations, because once I have my units in-country and have paid the price for sending them, I’m not noticing a huge difference between a moderate buildup and a large one.

Tom: It might seem like the game is a lot of flying Huey’s back and forth to carry supplies, drop off infantry, pick up infantry, and get repaired. You could argue that’s questionable gameplay, but I really appreciate how it gives the Huey its due. There’s a reason these olive drab workhorses are the single most iconic image of the Vietnam war and this reason predates a certain Francis Ford Coppola movie that gave the helicopters an awesome Wagner soundtrack. So much of Vietnam ’65, like so much of Actual Vietnam, is Hueys shuffling goods and personnel back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, across jungle and rice paddies and more jungle. According to figures published by the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, 7,013 Huey’s logged 7,531,955 hours of flight time. The VHPA speculates that no other aircraft in the history of warfare has logged that much combat flight time. 3,305 of those helicopters — nearly half of them — were shot down.

Bruce: The most interesting part of the game to me is that it seems like VC and NVA units are only detectable at certain times. I’ve gone chasing after units that ambushed my forces, only to come up empty time after time.

Tom: There’s a very different procedure for the VC units that emerge from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a series of invisible spawn points, and the NVA units that enter from the left side of the map. Whenever the VC units are involved in an encounter, the immediately disappear when they win (they also disappear when they lose, because you’ve killed them). The NVA units, on the other hand, retreat towards the left side of the map when they win. So the NVA function like a more conventional army that you can chase down, but the VC are strictly hit-and-fade guerrillas.

Bruce: I realized eventually that you can’t just go trolling for hidden units like in a conventional hidden movement game. There isn’t any “search” command, either. Instead, your main method of exposing enemy units is through intelligence. Go to a village and ask around. If the unit doing the asking is ARVN, you find out more.

Tom: I’m not sure how I feel about how you get ARVN units into the game. You have to build a forward base, and then station your Green Berets in the forward base for three turns of training, at which point a new ARVN unit pops out. Is that the best use of my elite recon units? To some players, it will be odd that the Green Berets aren’t very good at combat. Everyone I’ve showed this game has said something about how they’re surprised the Green Berets aren’t for fighting. They think of John Wayne when they think of Green Berets. But here the Green Berets are for scouting instead of shooting. And frankly, I’d rather have a three-hex spotting range than better combat odds, since I have no shortage of firepower and a dire shortage of intel.

Bruce: That’s the thing about this game: it’s all about intel. Your units need so much resupply that a large, extended operation is going to require a ton of helicopter support, and those helicopters are vulnerable to RPG fire.

I’ve decided that ARVN units are exclusively for going into villages and blowing out their candles … er, talking to the locals. Once I have a few, I try not to risk them in combat, but to visit the local villages (i.e. the ones close to my main base) to get the lay of the land. “Oh, you say there are some VC in that jungle? Let me inform my imperialist overlords!” I love wiping out VC cadres this way.

Tom: It’s great when you find them within range of your artillery. “Oh-ho, you thought you could sneak up within range of my artillery, did you?”

Bruce: It’s also important to do all your village check in a turn before you do any other movement, because the intel you get may change the rest of your moves.

And your observation on the Green Berets is right on, and probably what got me to start thinking about this game differently. Because US Special Forces in Vietnam were never front-line assault troops, and making them an upgrade to the regular infantry would have made this a Rambo-alike, which is fine in itself but not at all compatible with a game system where you spend your time ferreting out craps of information about enemy locations and pacifying villages. I love the way a few clear hexes in the jungle suddenly become valuable terrain, solely for the ability to make helicopter insertions. Do you know how glad I am that this game makes jungle a royal pain to deal with?

Tom: It sells me on Agent Orange! I can understand why they might have thought that was a good idea back then.

Bruce: One thing this game represents well is the US firepower advantage. This is something you see in the COIN series game Fire in the Lake as well. Once the US decides to blow something up, it generally blows up good. Airstrikes are devastating in this game, as is US artillery and helicopter gunships. Exposed enemy are dead enemy. The problem is that too often, there are too many of them.

Tom: Or that they’re exposed just one tiny hex outside the range of my artillery. Can’t I just scooch the firing angle up a smidge to fire a little farther? Oh how often I’ve wished I built my forward base just one hex over!

Bruce: I’ve run into the problem of ordering a unit to do something, then forgetting I still have that unit selected, and having it do something else I didn’t want. That happens all the time with helicopters: fly here, unload some infantry, and now I’m going to move my tank … oh wait I just moved my helicopter toward my tank.

Tom: Part of me wishes there was an “undo” button, but I realize you can’t do that in a game where you’re uncovering hidden information with every move. You’re just going to have to work on your command discipline, Bruce. In other words, stop pushing the wrong button!

Bruce: I think if you had asked Robert McNamara about this, he would have told you that the lack of an Undo button in Vietnam is historically accurate.

Tom: For the most part, I’m really happy with the interface. For a game largely about stumbling through the jungle and shuffling helicopters around, the combination of hotkeys, queuing orders, and available information makes it as painless as can be. After a quick learning game, I’m able to keep the supply flowing smoothly with a minimum of scrolling around. I particularly like how the buttons for your headquarters and firebase can be used as “go here” shortcuts when you have a unit selected. Very polished stuff for a first-time developer. But I wish I could turn on hexes to more easily do things like count ranges and plan roads. Hey, game designers, stop being ashamed of hexes! Wear them proudly!

Bruce: Amen, brother. I can’t imagine what would make someone think that a game about meticulously coordinating helicopter supply to troops fighting a mostly unseen enemy would be more attractive if you disguised the fact that it was a wargame. And sometimes the lack of hexes is actually annoying, as I’ve misclicked several times thinking that was the hex next to the village, but instead that was it.

Tom: I’ve certainly had my share of misclicks, and I can only blame so many of them on the lack of a hex overlay. Oops, I’ve accidentally told my infantry to clear mines when I meant for them to engage those VC over there. Oops, I just sent a helicopter way over there for no reason. Oops, I’ve doomed my Cobra gunship by mistaking a forward base for a firebase and now it can’t refuel so it will crash in the rice paddies, where a sad graphic of a crashed Cobra will haunt me for the rest of this game. I like to think of my accidentally wasted orders as a way to model command-and-control limitations.

Bruce: You know you can resupply your Cobra with a Huey, right?

Tom: Man, I knew the Huey was versatile, but I had no idea it could perform in-air refueling!

Bruce: Ha! No, I mean once you get to the forward base, you can fly gas to that base via Huey. I don’t think helicopters use supply while at a forward base, because they are sitting on the ground. At least that’s my role-playing explanation for it.

Tom: I didn’t know that. I knew units could sit there and not burn fuel, but I didn’t know I could resupply a Cobra. Another thing I love about this game is how few units there are, and therefore how unique each unit is. It lends Vietnam ’65 a very boardgame feel, with a handful of distinct playing pieces, each an important tool with its own function. You’d never know from the screenshots how smartly designed this game is.

Bruce: I have to say, this game totally won me over. I expected it to be a facile mishmash of Vietnam myths and shallow gameplay, and instead I got a coherent, original game system that reflects a certain understanding of the Vietnam War with mechanics that fit together as a whole yet are evocative in their own right. It’s far more than I expected, but more importantly, it’s an excellent treatment of something I’ve actually never seen. That doesn’t happen a lot for me these days.

Tom: I couldn’t have said it better myself, Bruce. So let’s just agree on a rating and call it a review.

  • Vietnam '65

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • It is 1965 and the US ground war in Vietnam is in full swing. As a US Army commander, wage a counter-insurgency (COIN) war to secure the Ia Drang valley, on the border with Cambodia.