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The Flare Path: On The Ho Chi Minh Trail

Simulation & wargame blather

While, clinically speaking, everyone has at least one wargame in them, not everyone has the patience, skill and obstetrical forceps (don't Google) necessary to extract that wargame. My Monmouth Rebellion TBS? It breaks my heart to admit it, but I suspect it will never see the light of day. Then again, South African strategy-smith Johan Nagel has been gestating Vietnam '65 for nigh-on 30 years, so perhaps it's a bit early for defeatism.

The screenshots dotting today's word-paddy show the Vietnam '65 playable prototype in action. If you peer very hard at them you may be able to discern Yours Truly...

  • Struggling slightly with the tiny icons and keyboard-reliant interface (prototype inconveniences).
  • Groaning as yet another village falls under the thrall of the VC.
  • Wincing when an unexpected RPG connects with an infantry-crammed Chinook.
  • Pondering Forward Base placement.
  • Combining supply drops with medevac pick-ups.
  • Wondering when I'll have enough cash to purchase a gunship.
  • Blundering into minefields.
  • Pining for an undo key.
  • Enjoying a game that captures the challenges of counter-insurgency operations and the strategic character of the Vietnam War better than any other PC title I can think of.

Hearts and mines minds are at the heart of Johan's splendidly singular turn-based creation. Dab 'start game' and a village-studded map appears. Winding between the villages like a prowling Pit Viper is a randomly-generated and totally invisible Ho Chi Minh Trail that periodically spawns Viet Cong units. These hard-to-detect foes (the player always controls US/ARVN forces) make for nearby villages and, if they reach them, erode the local Hearts and Minds score. The lower a village's H&M the less likely it is to furnish useful intel when you pay it a visit with one of your patrols, and the more likely it is to become a focal point for enemy activity like ambushes and minelaying.

Let things slide too far and the North Vietnamese Army will start infiltrating from the Western edge of the map (Cambodia). Asymmetric warfare becomes increasingly symmetrical. Unlike their VC comrades who, once detected, are usually fairly easily eliminated (combat is very simple in V65 - just move your unit onto an enemy and await the pop-up result message) NVA grunts and tanks are seriously tough customers.

Whoever the foe, fleece-thick Fog of War ensures combat always has an element of cat-and-mouse to it. The player hunts for needles (mobile, poison-tipped needles) in a big haystack using a combination of patrols and village visits, then attempts to blunt those needles with infantry, arty, gunships, and armour). Every VC or NVA scalp collected nudges the local H&M score back into the black, and generates cash for the purchase of replacements and new units. It's the sort of simple yet mesmerising vicious circle more often found in good board games than historically-sensitive PC fare. Johan's 30 years of counter contemplation may partially explain the pleasing cardboard feel. Like many grogs his love affair with wargaming began with Avalon Hill's Squad Leader.

Vietnam '65 itself began life as a Commodore 64 game - “I coded the initial version back in 1985 for the historical society at university. It was very basic but the concept of the Hearts & Minds score worked well.” Later, Operation Flashpoint was pressed into service as a testbed before being abandoned when engine limitations became apparent. Encouraged to return to the project by new distribution options - “Now with the iStore I can distribute electronically which is a game changer” - Johan spent nine months scrubbing the rust off his coding skills and implementing improvements like the hidden Ho Chi Minh Trail (a “big breakthrough in playability”). A $2.99 Unity-engined iOS release is now little more than a month away with a PC version scheduled for June.

I'm rather hoping the PC incarnation, when it comes, offers cartography and counters as an alternative to the 3D visuals illustrated above. I've grown rather attached to the creased period map used in the prototype and, after spending a good portion of this week in the agreeable company of Lock 'n' Load: Heroes of Stalingrad, am acutely aware of the power of comely counter art.

With so much enemy activity obscured by imaginary palm fronds and elephant grass, it's hard to assess V65's AI at present. It certainly seems smart enough. Even with Johan's words of advice ringing in my ears (“It's all about combinations. Artillery and Fire Bases are very important for area domination, especially in respect of the NVA incursions. Look after your experienced infantry and especially your Rangers, whilst understanding the power of the ARVN in intel gathering...”) all of my play sessions have, thus far, ended ingloriously. What keeps me COINing is the wonderful Vietnam War feel, and the fact that every setback feels plausible. I'm enjoying failure and, going by past experience, that's a sure sign I'm in the presence of a strong design.

Johan's commitment to and interest in the Vietnam War is profound and long-standing - “I've been a student of the conflict for as long as I can remember, and have personally visited all the major battle sites” - but happily for those of us that love to see wargame devs tramping unfamiliar battlefields he also has a taste for local history. Just in case a game emphasising the importance of civilian sympathies in the 20th Century's most famous proxy conflict wasn't refreshing enough, Mr Nagel is currently adapting the Vietnam '65 model to simulate the Anglo-Boer War.

Blimey. Can't wait.


The Flare Path Foxer

Here's something you don't see every day...

…a week-old unsolved foxer. Last Friday, after a promising start, FurryLippedSquid, phlebas, All is Well, Mr-Link, Stugle, Zephro and carnivrspigsbat mistakenly marched into a royal cul-de-sac. Which means this week you've got a choice. You can either elevate your opti-orbs and stare at that superannuated steam loco and beastly biplane for another hour or two, or depress them and peruse a totally fresh cryptic composite. The images below fell from the wheel wells of a passing de Havilland Sea Vixen. Put your nose close to the screen and you may be able to detect the faint odour of wet fox.

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Tim Stone