A lot of water, flip-flops, and dead dogs have passed under PC wargaming’s pontoon bridge in the three decades since Johan Nagel coded the Vietnam 65 [official site] prototype on his Commodore 64. Can a military TBS conceived in 1985 really cut it in a world awash with Combat Missions, Tiller titles and Paradoxiana? Here’s wot I think.
Crikey, doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun! It’s been ages since a wargame got under my skin the way this cheap counter-insurgency curio has this past seven days. While the discovery of minor flaws in Johan’s design means I’m not quite as fixated as I was midweek, the small 1st Air Cavalry badge on my desktop still attracts my mouse cursor like an overused LZ attracts RPG-toting Viet Cong.
It’s impossible to explain V65’s unusual magnetism without first explaining its unusual mechanics. What looks from a distance like a South-East Asian Panzer Corps or a 3D Squad Battles: Tour of Duty is in fact nothing of the kind. V65 doesn’t attempt to recreate specific battles or battlefields; it attempts to capture the feel and communicate the operational challenges of a particular phase of the Vietnam War.
In effect, you’re one of William Westmoreland’s lieutenants colonel. Every time you start a new game you’re presented with a rectangle of randomly generated real estate. Your job is to ensure the ten villages that dot this jungle-swathed tract don’t fall under the thrall of the Communists during the next 45 turns.
Spawning periodically from an invisible map-traversing Ho Chi Minh Trail, VC insurgents attempt to reach nearby settlements. If successful they lower the Hearts & Minds score of the relevant village (which in turn impacts the overall H&M score – the stat that ultimately determines victory or defeat) and prepare explosive surprises for visiting Imperialists.
Should the H&M score of any village ever drop below the magic 40, then the VC’s better-armed brothers-in-arms, the NVA, appear, keen to establish an arty position in the vicinity. When the overall H&M score drops for three turns in a row, then you’re really in trouble. The NVA launch a major offensive from the western map edge. US bases may find themselves under attack from armour-supported enemy forces.
Thanks to thick fog of war, difficult terrain, and challenging supply rules, containing the Communist canker is, in theory (more on difficulty issues later) far from straightforward. The only way to deduce the position of the invisible Ho Chi Minh Trail is to analyse the intel map with its growing rash of contact pins. The only way to keep track of the current allegiance of a village is to visit it regularly with an infantry unit. As some jungle-hemmed villages are impossible to reach by chopper, and are far from your initial base (always on the eastern edge of the map) it’s inevitable some settlements will have the cờ đỏ sao vàng flapping above them by the time US troops arrive for the first time.
The more hostile a village, the less likely it is to furnish intel on nearby enemies, and the more visits will be required to nudge its H&M total back towards freedom/capitalism. Ironically, Hearts & Minds massaging is best done with bullets and bombs. Destroy a foe near to a village and that village’s ardour for Uncle Ho will cool considerably (losing a battle has the opposite effect). Crucially, military victories also bring the Political Points that buy new units, and fund repairs and resupply.
It would be irresponsible of me to go any further without pointing out just how central logistics management is to the deliciously different V65 experience. Three turns after leaving the safety of a friendly base, a blue ‘low supply’ icon appears next to US infantry units (with Hueys it’s a mere 2 turns). After four turns that icon turns crimson, and after five – assuming you haven’t taken action – icon and unit vanish like bayoneted soap bubbles.
The review concludes on page two.