Review: Vietnam '65 for iPad30 Mar 2015 0
The Vietnam War is a unique beast. The most unpopular of wars, made immortal through popular culture. Veteran PT readers need no further preamble from this still-FNG to illustrate how Vietnam was as much as a battle of political and ideological PR as it was bush patrols and F-4 sorties against a liquid, unknowable enemy. My digital experience with the theater has been limited to the most facile of shooters, which either made me the perfect or the worst candidate for reviewing Vietnam '65.
The average wargamer will arrive in Vietnam '65 as a veteran of countless WWII sims and possibly the occasional Napoleonic sortie. But across the Ia Drang valley, against the buffer country of the Cambodian border, the player must wage a new kind of war. This is a fascinating tale of Kalashnikov phantoms and the military giant sent to exorcise it from the jungles of Indochina. I would be inclined to call this the new Unity of Command; being a game unafraid to welcome new and seasoned alike, with a distinct core that isn't merely the sum of factory standard parts. Unity of Command was a game that taught imperatives of supply. Vietnam 65 is a lesson in political motivation as a resource, as well as illustrating the confounding operational logistics of the conflict. It's not the deepest game, but I wish more wargames were this bloody daring.
I wasn't sure what to make of Every Single Soldier's creation when I first booted it up. The game felt thin, anaemic. I was wrongfully looking for the tactical flex and unit catalogue of Battle Academy or Panzer Corps. World War II and Vietnam being apples and agent oranges, my mistake was looking to find a stock military hexer, which this game is certainly not. This is not a game that doubles down on the grit and greeble of specific historical encounters. Instead. Vietnam 65 has the player feeling their way along a dynamically generated Ho Chi Minh trail -- a central corridor for Viet-Cong guerrilla activity, invisible to the player on the map. The game creates a new trail every time you play the scenario, and you can only ever deduce its location it's path as you hunt your opponents. Political willpower, wrung from how well the war is being waged, feeds the supply line and helps sustain unit acquisition during the forty-five turn game limit. Patrols, Phantom sorties, FOBs; they're all here, but the H&M mechanic that puts Vietnam 65 in a different light to other wargames.
Along the tough terrain of Ia Drang, ten villages become the operational focus of Vietnam '65. If you win battles near a village, support for you goes up -- but if the Viet Cong is allowed to operate unchecked or (worse) knocks you about in a fight, then the villages' hearts and minds will turn to the enemy. It's a neat reversal of the typical wargame, and one that probably resonates today better than ever: you must control villages that you can't ever conquer, but only hope to influence.
The American arsenal revolves around the iconic Huey helicopter fleets, used to ferry troops and supplies across the rugged terrain. Rather than a certain Wagnerian entrance, these workhorses -- and to an equally important extent, the magnificent Chinook heavy lifter -- flit across the canopies and ridge-lines in a constant utility thrum, keeping patrols supplied and accessing locations far too arduous for a foot-slog. Some might not like the central activity of this game being air traffic control, but managing the whirly-birds is a wonderfully engrossing, ever-changing puzzle. There's as much owed to Transport Tycoon as there is to Panzer General in Vietnam '65.
Keeping the H&M ratio in the black is all well and good, but if the enigmatic VC manage to persuade enough villages during their campaign against the US military, that number will drop below a threshold and the North Vietnamese Army will turn up. Rocking heavier ordnance, nothing dries up political willpower faster than an increase in bodybags being shipped home. This is what makes the VC encounters so fresh; their infuriating ability to tangle, then disappear into the jungles. Tracking them is often fruitless, and you're forced to spread your self uncomfortably thin to counter that elusiveness. Caught in the open, nothing speaks louder than a targeted USMC Phantom bombing run, but if given a tree-line to dash into or a clearing to lace with mines, Charlie does surf. Contacts are recorded on a strategic operational map, which helps track the thicker areas of VC movements and giving the player a good idea of where the next FOP should go.
There's a decent challenge in Vietnam '65. The AI poses wily opposition, bolstered by a muggy fog of war. My first few games were disasters, and I was obviously in need of a few more military advisors. However, once I had a better idea of the ins-and-outs of chopper resupply and projecting a more limber force, the VC began to get smacked back up the track. Drawing them out and engaging them in politically-beneficial locales made me ponder the PR of combat in more than just a clash of proficiency tables. Again, at a mechanical level, there's not much different here to many other wargames. The nuts and bolts are the same. However, it's the wrangling of the outcome, what operations and engagements often mean, that evokes a different ambiance to your usual hex-and-chit affair.
The last time I played something that make me consider the ramifications of my engagement strategies was the wafer-thin but noble RTS Conflict Zone, touting mission difficulty hinging on a player's standing with the media. In Vietnam 65, it examines the temerity of a conventional force fighting against an unconventional foe, and the friction of measuring success therein. Using political resolve as fuel for the fight might merely be a semantic change from spending prowess points, but it's an important distinction. Vietnam '65 is a surprisingly different and refreshing wargame experience that might win hearts and minds outside of Vietnam, too.
Reviewed on an iPad 3.