Wot I Think: Vietnam 65

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.

47 Comments

  1. Tim Stone says:

    Flare Path will return next week.

    • Fnord73 says:

      They tried to make a COIN pre FM-23 simulator Good shot, it sound like.

  2. Stugle says:

    Thanks! I bought this game on the strength of your previous recommendations. Mind you, I haven’t PLAYED it yet, but it’s sitting pretty in my Steam library. Looking forward to the day I will show the reverse of your performance and fall unerringly to combined VC/NVA operations. :)

  3. Aiven says:

    I might buy it, sounds like a good game. Hopefully there will be a play mode to stop the imperialistic murderers from taking Vietnam too (sorry America, that’s how I view your government, take it personal only if you really have to).

    • Mara says:

      That’s actually my main concern too… I don’t particularly WANT to play as the Americans in Vietnam.

      • Laurentius says:

        Who do you want to play then ? Soviet “military advisors” ?

    • ScubaMonster says:

      No offense taken :) That pretty much describes any of our modern wars. Vietnam was a disaster of epic proportions and the middle east operations are /were a joke. I have the utmost respect for our military personnel (though I do admit there are bad apples). Our government though is pretty awful at just about everything.

      • ScubaMonster says:

        I should also say I have nothing but contempt for our CIA and intelligence organizations. Anybody involved in the torture (yes it’s torture no matter how the CIA tries to spin it) and any other illegal (or at least what SHOULD be illegal) activities are pretty much scum in my book.

        • hamilcarp says:

          I feel it necessary to say that I am also American and I am also disgusted and terrified by our government most of the time

    • Eightball says:

      Yeah hopefully we have a full reeducation camp simulator! And maybe a way to crush ethnic minorities or force them to flee the country and take their possessions. :^)

      • gorice says:

        Without wanting to defend the North Vietnamese regime, the kind of grotesque and systematic hyperviolence the US military was guilty of in that war just blows it out of the water. You can start with Nick Turse’s *Kill Anything that Moves*.

    • gorice says:

      Yeah, I mean, wargaming always feels a bit morally iffy, and I know Tim is sensitive to these issues, which makes it really disappointing that he doesn’t really address what ‘winning hearts and minds’ actually meant in this war (short version: not the sort of things one discusses in polite company). I couldn’t enjoy this game, knowing what my troops were likely doing every time they entered a village.

      Perhaps it’s because this war isn’t as historically distant as WW2? Or because the game models a counterinsurgency? I mean, I can’t imagine anyone making a game about Nazis whacking partizans and collectively punishing villages in Greece/Ukraine/the Balkans, which would be functionally similar, but then operational war games normally avoid the thorny moral business of logistics vs. the civilian economy, rear-area security and civilian casualties, so perhaps I should laud this game for addressing the darker aspects of war most games shy away from.

      • P.Funk says:

        The difference is that the US didn’t operate like the German Einsatzgruppen did in WW2. There were for sure grotesque acts of evil (by both sides as per the norm) but for the US side at least that was either incidental or under the auspices of “black” operations. The average grunt wasn’t operating as part of some outward policy of torture and annihilation.

        That may seem like cold comfort but I think motive and intent are big. Every war involves heinous acts. Even the heavily politicized and publicized Kosovo air campaign involved what many would call clear cases of war crimes (bombing the TV station) by NATO.

        At a certain point we just have to ask ourselves, what bullshit are we feeding ourselves that lets us get away with simming or wargaming ANY conflict and feeling like we’re morally clean? Or to take it from my perspective, at what point does it really matter? War is shit. Its fucking evil. For a good cause, for a bad one, whatever. They’re all heinous. The very nature of the thing itself is horrible. Young guys getting gut shot, losing limbs, having their faces burned off by napalm. I read one story from Vietnam of them dropping a grenade into a spider hole and when they hauled the guy out of the hole they found he had his face completely blown off, like Kurt Cobain style, but he was still alive. No face… but breathing. Breating amounted to seeing bubbles appear rhythmically in the middle of the puddle of goop that used to be that guy’s face. Putting him out of his misery with a .45 was as much mercy as murder.

        So you might say “Yea but that was America in Vietnam, that was a bad war” but to that I say “Fuck that bullshit. They’re all the same.” Any war and that puddle of goop that used to be a young man’s face could belong to any side. Any war. Any righteous cause. Its horrible horrible shit but every time you watch a simulated fight between two units on a wargame board thats what you’re simulating, or something very much like it.

        I have no stomach for moral hand wringing over this stuff. The Civil War, WW1, nobody is gonna get queasy about that one, but more men died for no good reason there than in most wars people do get iffy on. These are basically at the end of the day logistics and tactics and strategy simulators. Its a puzzle, a game. Hurling virtual men to their deaths is no different than hurling virtual flying machines into virtual gunfire. Its an exercise.

        Is there a line? Sure, but don’t make me drop the N word.

        • gorice says:

          “The difference is that the US didn’t operate like the German Einsatzgruppen did in WW2. There were for sure grotesque acts of evil (by both sides as per the norm) but for the US side at least that was either incidental or under the auspices of “black” operations. The average grunt wasn’t operating as part of some outward policy of torture and annihilation.”

          I disagree. Firstly, I was referring specifically to Heer counterinsurgency operations, not the Einsatzgruppen or other nasties. The German army (not just the SS) had to fight a guerilla war in the occupied territories, and they used terror tactics against civilians as a part of this. Which is precisely what the US did in Vietnam, hence my earlier comparison. I know that, officially, these acts of violence were isolated atrocities, but there is lots of eye-witness evidence that suggets violence against civilians was SOP.

          To be clear: war is hell, yes. But military occupation and counterinsurgency are a whole different kind of ugliness. My specific objection to this game is that units moving into villages are represented as ‘winning hearts and minds’ (the official fiction), wheras in actuality they were engaged in a terror campaign that involved routine rape, murder and torture.

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          gritz says:

          ” These are basically at the end of the day logistics and tactics and strategy simulators. Its a puzzle, a game. Hurling virtual men to their deaths is no different than hurling virtual flying machines into virtual gunfire. Its an exercise.”

          The offense is not some politically correct pearl-clutching at the deaths of “virtual men”. It’s the wrong-headed assumption that the conflict could somehow be “winnable” through a different application of strategy, tactics and logistics.

      • Philopoemen says:

        I worked on the John Tiller Squad Battles series way back when, and I remember it was a massive issue to make a Vietnam game. As in the hate mail that was received from various groups regarding the glorification of the conflict etc etc. And my point of entry into working with John and co was the Australian component of Tour of Duty, so being 2000 or whatever it was, most of the research was done with books and in my case interviews with people who had been in particular battles – and there was a lot of very complicated emotions surrounding people’s involvement.

        And, to be honest, the Squad Battles series was much more sterile than something like Vietnam ’65. Its a true squad level wargame, so morality isn’t really an issue from scenario to scenario. But I remember when we were trying to include civilians as an entity, and iirc, it quickly got vetoed on basis of someone’s moral objection. The wounds were still too raw.

        I’m glad that something like Vietnam ’65 can exist these days, but 10-15 years ago, it wouldn’t have.

      • 3Form says:

        Thought provoking post P.Funk.

        I think it’s often way too easy to over simplify something like the Vietnam War that is very complex down to a battle between good and evil. Doesn’t help that our politicians seem very keen on it at the moment too.

        The terrible irony of the Vietnam War is that not much longer afterwards, communist Vietnam finds itself leaning towards the USA anyway. And based on my sample size of one Vietnamese from Hanoi, there’s much more antipathy in Vietnam towards China than the USA.

  4. Dorga says:

    I love how games don’t shy away from letting you play as the bad guys anymore

  5. JB says:

    Just a minor note, the price (here in Blighty, at least) is £7.99 plus VAT, not £7 as listed above. Still sounds like a good deal though!

    • JB says:

      Ah, my mistake, that’s just from Slitherine. It is indeed £6.99 on Steam. I should have known not to doubt Mr Stone, eh?

  6. Kolbex says:

    Possibly some kind of action point system would work to keep the difficulty up a bit, too, by forcing you to choose which of your units move, which get resupplied, etc., instead of letting you do everything possible every turn (the free airstrikes are a bit much, it’s true).

    • Immobile Piper says:

      Somewhat offtopic, but I’m quite fond of the idea of limited actions. That doesn’t seem to happen in most videogames though. Only example I can think of right now is Vic Davis’ stuff, and his work is almost as much boardgamey as it is videogamey.

  7. klops says:

    When you buy it, do you either get an iPad or a PC version or both? I understood from the store that one version but would be happy to be proven wrong.

  8. Napoleon15 says:

    I’ve been on the fence about getting this. On the one hand, you can say, hey, it’s only £6.99, but on the other hand, I’m just not a fan of generic combat. I want to know how many men are in each unit, how tired they are, what guns they have, how much food etc. If they were to marry the Vietnam COIN concept with the detail of one of Gary Grigsby’s games, I think it would be awesome.

    Being in charge of a battalion or a company and their firebase, managing personnel, arranging patrols etc would be quite interesting, at least in my eyes.

  9. Immobile Piper says:

    Between the price, genre and Stone’s recommendation, it looks like I’m out of a tenner. But it’s ok! I skipped my weekend pizza last time.

    As for the difficulty woes, surely there’s ways to house rule it somewhat. I remember finding Far Cry 3 laughably easy on the “hardest” difficulty. A few house rules (no health level-ups, no silencers) made it a lot more reasonable. Different genre, sure, but I remain hopeful that I can gimp myself here too. Artificially limiting unit purchases perhaps? We’ll see.

    • Wilson says:

      I think there are plenty of ways to increase the challenge. Playing without a firebase would make supply a whole lot trickier and make the forward bases more important. That said I still hope they will indeed add some form of ‘elite’ difficulty.

      The game’s great value for the price in my opinion, and (mostly) very slick and easy on the eye, especially compared to some of the more hardcore games out there.

  10. Eawyne says:

    I’m sad : 2 pages ? Really ? I considered taking a subscription to the site because I love its editorial line ; but that also comes with navigation comfort, and this isn’t the case…

    On a side note – well, not so aside, as it’s about this article – you convinced me to take a closer look at this game in the future. I hope your wishes about the gameplay come to fruitation, as it might decide me to pick it up =)

    • Tim Stone says:

      >2 pages ? Really ?

      Sorry. I suspect the unusual two-page format is a consequence of my use – initially – of bandwith-sapping PNGs rather than JPGs (I’ll be using JPGs in future)

      >I hope your wishes about the gameplay come to fruitation, as it might decide me to pick it up =)

      It’s worth pointing out that the difficulty issues are only likely to emerge after maybe 12-15 games (approx 20 hrs of play). Even then there’s satisfaction to be gained from grinding out victories on particularly tough maps.

  11. Philopoemen says:

    After playing it, I’m curious as to whether the same format could work for an Afghanistan game – both Soviet and Coalition experiences.

  12. celticdr says:

    I have to disagree with you Tim on the difficulty – I’ve played 3 maps on Veteran and I was thoroughly pasted twice and narrowly defeated once – I think I’ll have to play this on regular to win.

    That said the maps that generated for me were ensconced in jungle (had to sent engineers into the middle of one jungle and clear it out so I could build a firebase because there was nowhere I could place one, and on another my heli’s couldn’t airlift people from my HQ so I had to move my troops outside the base for pickups – great until I realised I couldn’t move my artillery anywhere).

    I’ve been finding the game fun but also annoying how the VC can move quadruple the amount of hexes that my troops can.

    An option to play NVA/VC would give the game more replayability and yes it is missing a campaign mode.

    • Tim Stone says:

      >I’ve played 3 maps on Veteran and I was thoroughly pasted twice and narrowly defeated once

      Early on, that was my experience too. After a week’s play I’d be surprised if you weren’t triumphing at least 80% of the time.

      >on another my heli’s couldn’t airlift people from my HQ so I had to move my troops outside the base for pickups

      I believe that’s a bug connected with rocky terrain.

      • Vietnam65 says:

        We are addressing the difficulty issue by implementing the custom game option, chatted to the programmer about the possibility of adding in a ‘number of villages’ slider as well as the level of VC and NVA aggression.

        There is a know bug where the US HQ spawns on top of a rock tile, if this happens just restart the game, we will address it in the upcoming update patch.

      • celticdr says:

        We’ll see Tim… we’ll see.

        Having said that I am a grognard from the days of Panzer General and the Close Combat series, so if I could hold at bay the German Wehrmacht in the early days of Operation Barbarossa with a KV-2 and a motley crew of snipers (Close Combat III: The Russian Front) I’m sure I’ll get the hang of veteran in Vietnam 65.

        • Vietnam65 says:

          There are at least three different strategic approaches to winning this game, won’t be long before you figure one out ;)
          Building on what Tim has expounded in his article, we are currently building a custom game option where the Player can crank up the heat across most of the fundamental variables.

  13. Vietnam65 says:

    Hi all, just to respond to a few of the issues raised above

    1. With regards the difficulty, we are adding a custom game option where the player and set a number of variables, for example PP level, victory conditions etc. Maybe we should include a jungle density slider ?

    2. Will this work for other conflict, yes, are we considering other conflicts , yes….

    3. “The VC moving quadruple amount of hexes” , this is just an animation that had led to a bit of confusion, and we will correct it in the update. The VC always disband after a combat, they don’t have the cohesion of a regular army, so when they win you see them run off and get the impression they move further and faster, where in reality they have disbanded. The NVA on the other hand dont disband after combat, they retreat to the West and then resume their original mission.

    Hope this is helpful…

    • celticdr says:

      Thanks, yes that is helpful.

      If I could make one suggestion to help assist players identify the difference between the VC and NVA troops (as they do look very similar) at a glance: Give the NVA tan coloured uniforms and leave the VC in black pyjamas – that way we wont have to rely on the tool tips to work out who is who.

      It’s a great game though, I haven’t been into a war game this much since Unity of Command, good work dev!

      • Vietnam65 says:

        Glad to hear you are enjoying the game, first time mention of the unit differentiation, you don’t think the big tan slope hat Vs the small green helmet is differentiation enough ?

  14. cptgone says:

    Sad to see this game in Slitherine’s clutches. Even if i buy it from Steam instead i’ll still have a

    • cptgone says:

      Sad to see this game in Slitherine’s clutches. Even if i buy it from Steam instead i’ll still feel guilty for supporting them.

      • briangw says:

        What’s weong with Slitherine?

        • cptgone says:

          They monopolised wargames, and hid them in their little site, to sell them at extortionate prices, cause “people do value things more if they pay more” (Iain McNeil, Slitherine).

          For years, they refused to allow temporary discounts – or even discounts for aged, buggy games.

          Finally, they did start putting some games on Steam, but even those aren’t allowed much of a discount in sales. Vietnam 65 didn’t even get a -10% launch offer, so that regular folks with any sense will wait for the next Steam Sales, and get an improved product.

          I own exactly 555 games on Steam alone. Very few of them are wargames, although i’ve been fascinated by them since i was a kid (i’m 45, and still vividly remember reading board game shop publicity for war games, over and over, unable to afford any of them).

          • Eightball says:

            You’re obviously allowed to not purchase games owned by Slitherine, but it is very odd to me that you think that Slitherine has monopolized wargames. You might be able to say that of Matrix Games but Slitherine doesn’t have anywhere close to a majority of market share. Furthermore, how does not discounting their games make them *bad*? You might not want to pay the price that is asked, but that’s different from *expecting* discounts on videogames.

          • cptgone says:

            Matrix/Slitherine do have a near-monopoly, and they’re not “bad”, but downright terrible at marketing and PR. The games they publish deserve better.

            I don’t demand a discount, but i won’t pay over €100 for a game either, even if it’s GGWITE. So i don’t play wargames, except for the few that aren’t part of the near-monopoly (like UoC).

            So my money ends up funding other genres, than the one that fascinates me most (and i’ve helped KickStart quite a few games; i’ve preordered from devs directly; i’ve had 3 Eve Online accounts for years; i own many boxed games from the pre-Steam era).

  15. Shiloh says:

    Thanks for the review Tim – I bought the game and have had a couple of plays (bit short of time at the moment). First thoughts? Interesting focus – not at all what I was expecting, and none the worse for that. Supply is what keeps soldiers moving and fighting, and given the importance of supply in the hostile environment of Vietnam I understand why the developer focused on it.

    When I’ve got a bit more time to devote to it, I’ll no doubt have a deeper take on it but the fact I’m going to go back to it shows it’s got legs.

    PS I lost both games
    PPS it also prompted me to play Tiller’s Tour of Duty again. I do love that game.

    • Philopoemen says:

      PPS it also prompted me to play Tiller’s Tour of Duty again. I do love that game.

      Squad Battles: Vietnam was my first major foray into PC wargaming, rather than tabletop gaming, and my questions to John got me a gig on the team for Tour of Duty. I’m massively biased, but it’s still an awesome game, and still one of the few games to cover non US forces in Vietnam. (Vietnam ’65 excluded)

      Less massively biased about the horrible voice samples I provided for it though.

  16. Henas says:

    I’ve not played any hex based war games (I do own Unity of Command but haven’t played it) prior to V65 but I thoroughly enjoyed my first game. I like the emergent story telling that can come from these types of games:
    I had an infantry unit slog through the jungle to reach an isolated village, they were harassed constantly, wounded in their first encounter but managed to get to the village and slog back out while Hueys dropped supplies with a “Hang in their boys!”. They were a high veteran unit when they emerged finally and I sent them on another village mission before they got medevaced to HQ.

    Can’t wait to load up another game. Also glad to see the devs involved with feedback and bug fixing. I purchased it for iOS…bad things for my productivity…