Thursday, September 18, 2008

Doom and gallantry: Dien Bien Phu

As my new copy of ATS Dien Bien Phu comes out of the ziplock, the question arises: Why on Earth would anybody be interested in a wargame covering some of the fighting at Dien Bien Phu? As battles go, it ended in a rather lop-sided win. So what’s the point?

I’ve been fascinated by this battle for a long time – no doubt in part because it was precisely so lop-sided. Truthfully, I think I’ve been less interested in the ‘daily log’ of the battle and more keen on what led the French to commit such an incredible strategic and operational blunder. And, of course, there are always the consequences of the French defeat to reckon with as nothing impacted the US in the second half of the last century nearly as much as the conflict in Vietnam.

Years ago – my junior or senior year in high school – I bought one of those Ballantine books on the battle of Dien Bien Phu. From there I moved quickly into finding and reading Bernard Fall’s two masterworks on the conflict in Indochina, “Hell in a Small Place” and “Street Without Joy”.

I’ve often wondered if America’s leadership at the time (both books were published before Fall was killed by a Vietcong landmine in 1964) read either of his works. Subsequent political decisions would argue that they had not – with the possible exception of the FBI director, who apparently had Fall under surveillance as a possible subversive.

But I digress. I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of the ‘average’ soldier to perform heroically in the midst of the most colossal leadership failures. And Dien Bien Phu is certainly an instance of just such an event.

Predictably, over the years there haven’t been very many games published that cover the battle. The most notable probably has been “Citadel”, published by GDW more than 30 years ago. Against The Odds magazine published an area-movement game on the battle a couple years back that I really wanted to like, but it carried enough errata and other baggage with it that in the end it was too much like work to engage with it.

As a grand-tactical exercise, Dien Bien Phu isn’t very interesting without the inclusion of some rather improbable hypothetical events (like a massive US bombing intervention). The affair was decided the moment the first shots were fired and the French realized that the PAVN had managed to bring a large concentration of artillery to bear on the under-fortified defenses.

However, isolated parts of the battlefield were contested fiercely and with great heroism. At the tactical level, the fighting for some of the individual fortifications were truly tales of near-insane gallantry on both sides. To bring the discussion full circle, this is what ATS Dien Bien Phu concentrates on: The fighting for the “Elaine” complex of fortifications.

In game terms, nothing that happens stands a chance of reversing the overall outcome of the battle. The French may win a scenario and hold this trench or that for another day – but Dien Bien Phu will fall no matter what. But that’s generally the point of a wargame anyway, isn’t it? You ‘win’ if you can do better than your historical counterpart – even when winning only means surviving long enough to lose tomorrow.

Sailing into the East China Sea

Just to confuse things, I’ve got a few minutes today so I’m going to step back in time a week or so and write up a little bit about the new game I played between sessions of Day of Heroes – “Fleets 2025” from Victory Point Games.

In your spare time do you ever sit around and wonder what would happen if a shooting war broke out between the US Navy and the Chinese a couple of decades from now? If you do, then this is the game for you. And even if you’re not obsessed with naval affairs of the near future – you just might find an enjoyable game inside this package.

Fleets is ‘semi’ desktop published. The components are (good) desktop quality, with the addition of the counters being mounted, pressed and die-cut. At $22.95, component-wise at least, as game prices go these days there’s a fair amount of ‘stuff’ in the ziplock. 80 counters, 11 x 17 map, 60 (smallish) cards, play aids and rules.

As far as play value goes, Fleets 2025 is excellent. Period.

I couldn’t be more impressed with a simple (5 pages of rules) game system. The cards throw in enough variability that no two games ever play alike – but they don’t overwhelm the rest of the game.

There’s no ‘history’ to measure by, as they game’s topic is a very hypothetical limited naval war between China and the US in the East China Sea and Pacific near Taiwan and southern Japan. Events on Taiwan are the ostensible rationale, but the ‘why’ of the situation hardly matters . In a couple of the scenarios some victory points are awarded one way or another depending on who does what to the three Taiwanese ‘city’ hexes, but that’s about it.

Above all, it’s a clever little game about maneuver, detection and planning. It plays very quickly, yet the decision-making involved is far from trivial. I suppose it wouldn’t play so quickly with an opponent in the throes of analysis paralysis, but I usually managed to squeeze an entire game into a 1.5 – 2 hour gaming session – even less than that a couple of times when early action went wildly against one side or the other.

I’ll confess that in the 6 or 7 scenarios I played, I never truly grasped an effective approach for the Chinese to take. It seems they really need to rely on ‘quantity as quality’ and hope for early success in putting some US ships out of action.

Since the game is entirely hypothetical, there’s really not much point in debating or haggling about the various unit ratings in the game. The US clearly has a qualitative advantage (longer ranges, higher combat factors). That’s the basic balance of the game – quantity (China) vs quality (USN).

Still, I’ve got a quibble. Yeah, the US already seems to have enough going in its favor in the game – but the combat ratings of the US aircraft are consistently lower than the Chinese aircraft. What’s up with that? The US “F35” strikefighters get a bonus in air-to-air that give them a leg-up on the Chinese. But their naval strike capability flat stinks. By 2025 the US Navy will have been operating carrier aviation for nearly a century – and they get strike units rated a stinking ‘1’, while the Chinese (who don’t even have a carrier yet) aircraft are rated ‘2’.

Overall game balance probably tips a little in the US favor, so it’s not an issue that impacts game play (I don’t think, anyway) – but the game’s designer shouldn’t be surprised if a disgruntled naval aviator poops on his doorstep some night.

That trivial issue aside, though, I don’t have very many games in my closet that I’ve enjoyed playing more than Fleets 2025. Lots of them offer greater ‘simulation value’ – but few are more fun to just sit and play.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mixing games and the Black Plague

Hey gang! Been a while since I’ve given much attention to blogland here. Sorry about that, but sometimes these little projects get side-tracked by real life.

Since our last episode, we’ve gotten Junior Destructo Man enrolled in a pre-K3 program. Half-day, twice a week. The whole whirlwind of the kid’s first time in school was a major focus of energy toward the end of last month and the beginning of this month.

Of course, when your kid goes off to a school environment for the first time it’s a given that he’s going to bring back all of those fun first-week-of-school germs. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was for the germs to raise merry hell with mom and dad while the three-year-old gets off with a case of the sniffles.

Ugh. Kids these days and their germs. He gets a runny nose and whatever he brings home whacks me like the Black Plague. Two weeks later and I still have a mild case of the cruds that I can’t quite seem to shake.

Mixed in amongst all of that fun stuff was a little bit of gaming. I temporarily put aside Day of Heroes when a new game arrived. I devoted a couple of weeks to playing the new “Fleets 2025” from Victory Point Games. Small footprint, low number of counters and an interesting little system made it a pleasure to fiddle with. Unfortunately, while I had it deployed to the table I couldn’t muster the additional mental energy needed to give it a blog write-up. In a couple of cases, truthfully, scenarios played so quickly and easily that I finished them in one sitting and didn’t give a second thought to yakking about them here. At some point in the future I may devote some additional blogenergy to it, but in the meantime I’ll just say that it’s a game that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in a quick-playing and fun ‘modern’ naval game.

After I finished with Fleets 2025, Day of Heroes went back onto the table for another go. It’s one of the more interesting games in the LNL series, primarily because it plays differently than its brethern. Throughout most of the series, western troops (US and British mostly, but the ANZACs in Vietnam too) favor stand-off firepower over melee combat. Melee is usually one of the great equalizers in the system.

But that’s not the case in Day of Heroes. In the mean streets of The Mog, melee combat is the favored mode of combat for Rangers.

Oh yeah, no doubt they’ve got a ton of stand-off firepower. The main problem is that they don’t have much time to use it. They have to move quickly to reach objectives and maneuver deftly in order to avoid large numbers of militia units. Better to use their morale advantage to get into melee, where their superior up-close firepower can lead to some very lopsided results.

I’ll probably play one more scenario of Day of Heroes before moving along to something else. PanzerGrenadier: Bulge 2 – Elsenborn Ridge and ATS Dien Bien Phu are both in the house and awaiting some attention. Almost time to move along.