Campaign Series: Vietnam considered

Dungeon Keeper, Diablo, Carmageddon, MDK, Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!.. some of the chart-toppers that went gold the same year as East Front, the first instalment of the Campaign Series. If, in 1997, anyone had suggested that EF’s vitals would still be powering hex wargames a quarter of a century later, they’d have been laughed at, and yet here I am in 2022 playing a brand new CS game.

Although it utilises an extensively upgraded version of EF’s engine, Campaign Series: Vietnam still looks and feels like a 25-year-old relic at times. The regular reminders of Windows 98, the well-past-its-prime scenario selection UI, the image-less briefings, the fixed zoom levels, and the smattering of inappropriate recycled sound effects, are particularly ageing.

Earlier CS incarnations I could play quite happily using the isometric 3D views. Ugly* jungle, forest, and paddy fields bitmaps that, en masse, do passable impersonations of autostereograms mean I rarely use anything but the 2D views in this one.

* But moddable

What a young grogling raised on Unity of Command 2 and Panzer Corps 2 would make of a game as visually and mechanically – let’s be charitable – quaint as this, I shudder to think. I hope they’d possess sufficient inquisitiveness and patience to push past the irritations and imperfections because anyone who turns their back on CS: Vietnam turns their back on a consummate entertainer heaving with the sort of esoteric military history that devs usually shun.

As much as I enjoyed Vietnam ’65 and Radio Commander, they were, it has to be said, offerings with purviews as narrow as punji sticks. As its full colon-happy moniker makes clear, Campaign Series: Vietnam: 1948-1967 isn’t fixated on the Second Indochina War. Twenty-three scenarios recreate pre-partition battles between the French and the Viet Minh. Perhaps thirty are, if you ignore cameos, exclusively Asian affairs – tussles between ARVN forces and the VC. Forty-two years after Computer Bismarck, to stumble upon so much sidelined history, so many previously unsimmed scraps, in one package is a rare treat.

While it would have been splendid if the timeline had extended beyond 1967 (Later engagements will be covered in a 1968-1975 add-on) and every included scenario had boasted an “[ALL]” in its description (most clashes are designed to be played solo from one side only) the Western bias in the battle line-up only really kicks in after the First Indochina War is over. There are, by my count, fourteen opportunities to play as the Communists in the 1940s and 1950s, and the availability of a scenario editor means this selection is likely to grow.

In lieu of campaigns Jason Petho and chums supply two monster missions – ‘A Week in Mekong’ and ‘A Week in Binh Long’. Each runs for 420 turns, utilises a staggeringly vast map, and presents players with a fresh set of objectives (patrol this area, clear that road, secure village X…) every in-game ‘day’. Gobsmacked by the cartography and scared witless by the sight of hundreds of friendly units patiently awaiting orders, the chance of me embarking on one of these magnificent widowmakers is Ho Chi Minhimal.

A word of warning before we press on. Because my membership of the Guild of Conscientious Game Reviewers has lapsed and I wanted to strike while the LZ was relatively hot, I’m writing this Wot I Think with zero experience of over two thirds of the 100+, replay-friendly* scenarios included in CS: Vietnam. The largely positive things I’m about to say about AI are based on five days with the sort of relatively short, relatively bijou challenges that I prefer.

* Enemies always spawn in the same place, but thanks to randomly assigned objectives, some of which alter dynamically as battles unfold, are unpredictable.

Helped by thick fog-of-war, plentiful cover, carefully engineered victory conditions, and a dash of Lua scripting, few of the foes I’ve attempted to humiliate thus far have shown much appetite for humiliation. Having been brutally ambushed and stealthily infiltrated more times than I care to admit, having chased shadows, been lured into minefields, and watched numerous friendly outposts fall to multi-directional, arty-supported attacks during the past week, I wouldn’t hesitate to rate CS: Vietnam’s “adaptive”, “nation-tuned” AI B+. To wring a higher rating out of me the CPU would need to demonstrate helicopter assault competence. It might just be bad luck, but I’ve yet to encounter a scenario in which the enemy is given stewardship of Hueys, Chinooks, Choctaws or Flying Bananas.

I suspect teaching the AI to use gunships, scout and transport helis wisely is beyond even the Campaign Series Legion’s formidable modding capabilities. Only able to stay aloft for around nine turns before requiring refuelling, choppers can operate at three different altitudes (these have implications for movement range, spotting ability, and vulnerability to ground fire). While human players will quickly master the art of single-turn LZ visits, training the AI to insert and extract efficiently would, I imagine, be tricky.

Other CS: Vietnam abilities likely to remain the preserve of human generals for the time being are unit reorganisation and static recon. Thanks to a welcome code tweak it’s now possible to use Action Points to scrutinise apparently empty in-LoS hexes, and order speculative direct fire in the hope of winkling out unseen foes. Less useful is the new somewhat fussy unit merging system which logically should have come with a ‘split unit’ rather than a ‘reduce unit’ obverse. Permanently shaving Strength Points off an infantry platoon so that it can fit inside a transport vehicle feels like a fudge too far to me.

Another introduction, IED sowing, resembles the flare firing and fortification digging systems already in use in CS titles. If, as I do, you find those mechanisms a little too dice-dependent, expect to harumph now and again when attempting to set Claymores in Vietnam.

Tunnel networks, riverine units, civilians, VP penalties for bombarding inhabited hexes, substantial improvements to the way airstrikes and AAA are modelled… even when hampered by the constraints of an elderly engine, CS: Vietnam’s host of thoughtful improvements heighten period/theatre feel supplied in bulk by the painstakingly researched OoBs, maps, and scenarios. The danger with any globe and era trotting wargame engine is that it ends up homogenising the conflicts it simulates. Guided by the steady hand of the fastidious and scholarly Campaign Series Legion, the Campaign Series avoids this pitfall with aplomb.

The devs plan to add free linked campaigns and overhaul the GUI in the future. As neither Campaign Series: Vietnam or Campaign Series: Middle East currently boast a demo, it would be great if CSL could also find the time to fashion trials this year. I can’t imagine many serious wargamers regretting the thirty-two smackers they expend on this labour of love, but I guess someone with exacting ergonomy and aesthetic standards purchasing ‘blind’ could feasibly wind up with a touch of buyer’s remorse.

(CS: Vietnam manual)

9 Comments

  1. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times on other posts, but I really wish someone would do a PC-game take on COIN at the operational level. No knock on CS, but a lot of Vietnam War games seem to me to focus on the tactical battles side, when that alone doesn’t really account for why insurgencies triumph or fail. It feels apiece with the same tunnel-vision that prioritised kill ratios and body counts as a proxy for ‘success’.

    I think only Vietnam ‘65 tries to within a larger COIN context, and I can’t find a single PC game looking at COIN from the insurgent perspective. (I know GMT has an excellent COIN series as a board game).

    • Some of the GMT COIN titles are available on PC in various forms:

      Fire in the Lake:
      https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=2042846019

      Andean Abyss:
      https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=650131191

      Labyrinth: The War on Terror
      https://store.steampowered.com/app/931950/Labyrinth_The_War_on_Terror/

      If Hugh O’Donnell’s ‘The Troubles’ ever goes digital it’s sure to get a THC review:

      https://theplayersaid.com/2021/08/02/interview-with-hugh-odonnell-designer-of-the-troubles-shadow-war-in-northern-ireland-1964-1998-from-compass-games/

      • Ooh I didn’t know about these! Sadly, it looks like the COIN ports don’t come with AI functionality, so I’ll probably stick to the tactility of setting up and playing solo on my kitchen table.

        The Troubles board game is a great find. I’d heard of the planned release of ‘A Terrible Beauty’ under the GMT COIN umbrella, but it seems to have become defunct.

    • Good day, Badger!

      If I could make a scenario that takes on COIN at the operational level, what would that look like to you? I’d be happy to give it a shot, just looking for some guidance.

      • Hello! Thank you for replying 🙂 I don’t think it’s possible within the framework of a traditional wargame, actually, so like I said, this isn’t a knock on CS!

        It would probably, off the top of my head, feature provisions for hearts and minds, local coordination, security operations etc. The problem is the actual ‘fight’ can’t be coded as a simple exchange of firepower between unit chits the way a lot of wargames do, but would be more abstract. Stability operations vs sabotage? A sliding influence mechanic for the local Jirga? A hand of political cards that replicate the vagaries of international politics, and how they limit on-the-ground options?

        The really interesting one for me would be what simulating an ‘insurgent’ perspective would look like: securing captured/smuggled arms and food alone would probably be a major part of the calculation.

        I’m just an amateur with an interest in military history: I suspect some of the other readers of this site might have actual experience with COIN operations.

      • At the risk of seriously overstepping my amateur knowledge, I’ve given the question some thought. I didn’t want to be the kind of poster who just criticizes without offering any solutions!

        I’d love to try a COIN wargame that:

        1. Featured modeling of the human element on the ‘ground’. Named village elders / local commanders with mechanics governing influence, initiative, popularity etc. Dilemmas about whether to back an unpopular but loyal local leader vs a charismatic wild-card as likely to funnel money to the insurgents

        2. Firepower asymmetry. COIN forces usually have major advantages over insurgents, outside of ambushes (perhaps a special insurgent Op?) but this ties to

        3. Reliance on various forms of intelligence. Human intel, recon ops, captured informants, without which insurgent main bases can’t be targeted.

        4. Mechanics to incentivize ‘presence’ ops, checkpoints, provincial offices, ‘post-kilometric’ outposts (like the French PK system) in order to build local influence, which in turn provides…

        5. Targets for insurgents to hit and fired COIN forces to defend

        6. Supply system: logistics networks for COIN forces (vulnerable to ambush), and local plus overland / river supply for insurgents (vulnerable to disruption, or the New Model Hamlet approach in Vietnam / Malaya)

        7. COIN forces constrained by political considerations. The war won or lost based on a combination of local and domestic political support, rather than (just) destruction of enemy capabilities

        The question mark for me would be how far a developer would want to go in representing the messiness of reprisals and ‘police action’. Events not rising to the level of outright atrocities like My Lai, but ‘sanctioned’ forms of brutality. Villages demolished or moved as punishment for an ambush, police sweeps picking up local citizens, insurgent terror ops, assassinations.

        I imagine the Vietnam War especially would be a huge undertaking because of how it also merges big-unit warfare (especially in the French period / post ‘73)

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