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.
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Once you're comfortable with the controls and play principles - a process that shouldn't take long bearing in mind V65's underlying simplicity and crisp integrated tutorials - games last around 90 minutes. I'd estimate that at least 50 of those minutes are usually spent organising supply drops for your hungry, ammo-short grunts. Some players are already calling for greater logistical automation. If Every Single Soldier ever alter the supply mechanics - something they are considering, apparently - then any changes will need to be implemented extremely carefully. In many ways the daily grind of logistical support is Vietnam 65. The endless ritual of sending out crate-laden helicopters, like the endless ritual of arranging regular village visits, structures and propels play, and counterpoints the fairly simplistic combat. It's a comfortingly repetitive process but it's never totally identical from turn to turn.
Ah, this turn my Green Berets in the SW need provisions. As the Chinook I generally use to supply them is presently delivering arty ammo to my northern firebase, and I've already used the emergency aerial resupply option (expensive and only available once per turn) to save that ARVN unit in the NW, it looks like I'll have to abandon that infantry insertion mission I'd planned and instead use its Huey for freight duties. Then again I could divert that damaged helo I was sending back to HQ for repairs...
At times V65 feels more like Industry Giant than Panzer General. You are constantly tinkering with and seeking to expand a complicated military machine. It would be a pity if future supply model tweaks sidelined the milk-runs.
The game's genre-defying quirkiness extends to its approach to terrain, units, and bases. Engineering units can be used to clear jungle hexes, build roads, and construct secondary bases. Perhaps the most important decision in any session is where to place your one firebase - a fortified camp/artillery position that, if positioned wisely, quickly becomes a crucial distribution hub. Less important but more frequent are unit purchasing dilemmas.
Hmm, my Political Points total is now 3500. I can either buy a Cobra gunship (potentially useful in the heavily forested south) a couple of tanks (sure to be handy for dealing with trouble on that east-west road) or the infantry-Huey combo I need to monitor and influence those villages north of the river...
All ten unit types (Not shown above, are the South Vietnamese 'ARVN' troops Green Berets can train at forward bases) have their uses. While standard US infantry will probably end up undertaking the majority of your village visits, Green Berets are far more efficient as scouts. Operating without helicopters is theoretically possible, but would be madness given their cheapness, versatility, and durability. All units including choppers can survive a single successful enemy attack.
Perhaps if VC and NVA ambushes were a little deadlier, I wouldn't have won every one of my last eight games. Right now, I'd argue that V65's main problem isn't laborious supply mechanics, a missing campaign mode (in place of a campaign there's a medals and promotion system that rewards cumulative kill tallies and encourages tactical experimentation) or a glitchy UI (de-selecting a unit with a right-click doesn't always work at the moment) it's difficulty. After a week in the boonies, I'm starting to wish there was a difficulty setting above 'veteran'. Unless the random map generator churns out an especially leafy venue, it's rare I taste defeat. I'm still enjoying the process of methodically cleansing and controlling a map, but, with most available awards already adorning my uniform, victories are starting to lose their lustre.
Though there's no immediate prospect of an 'elite' difficulty setting with a selection of gongs to go with it, Every Single Soldier are aiming to patch in a clutch of features that may render difficulty concerns moot. On the way is weather modelling that will ground Phantoms on occasion (Currently, once you've climbed a couple of rungs on the promotion ladder, napalm deluges can be called in every turn at no cost). Custom games with player-determined victory and starting conditions are also planned.
I wonder if Johan is considering 'map size' and 'village count' sliders. Adding a few extra columns/rows of hexes or a couple of extra settlements to a map, would be a very naturalistic way of ramping up difficulty. Automatically increase venue size with every victory and you've got the foundations for a simple yet diverting SP campaign mode.
Whatever happens to Vietnam 65 during the coming nine months, I'm confident it will go down as one of 2015's most original and moreish military strategy games. A few months ago in The Flare Path I mused on the subject of 'the perfect introductory wargame'. Assuming you aren't allergic to a little logistical hard work, this cheap, flavoursome slice of Sixties history might just be it.
Vietnam 65 is available now, priced $10/£7