Sunday, 10 May 2015

Brian Train's Green Beret

Green Beret,

A cardboard journey to the Central Highlands

Recently (ok several months ago) my friend Brian asked me to have a look at one of his latest games. Green Beret, a revision of his old game on the US Special Forces and local militias action in Vietnam Central Highlands between 1963 and 1964. Being an expert on Vietnam (not a self appointed one, beside my, hopefully, soon to be published book on the subject I have presented at several seminar in King's College London and at the Institute of Historical Research in London on the topic) and liking Vietnam wargames I just jumped in. 

Before the deployment of ground combat units in Vietnam in 1965 (but air and helicopter units were trickling there from 1962 onward).  The CIA firs,t the US Army Special Force later tried to stem the tide of communist infiltration from Laos and Cambodia creating a long string of camps along South Vietnam border manned by American Green Berets and local militias. These militias were recruited from the various non Vietnamese Montagnard tribes that lived along the two sides of  the Annamite chain. These were Nung, Bru, Meo, Hmong people who had different customs, language, and culture from the settled lowlander Vietnamese. They had always been considered foreigners (or even barbarians) by the town settlers of the coast and often mistreated. The French had found them quite happy to side with them against the lowlanders. They fit perfectly on the US COIN approach to use local groups to fight communists. In exchange for concessions (and a lot of promises) from Saigon, aid and weapons from Washington, and a lot of persuasion they agreed to fight for Diem and his successors against the invaders from the North. The Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) was thus born and a long page of the history of the US Special Forces started. 

Green Beret sends you in the central Highlands around Kontum and Pleiku. It is a game for two players. One player controls the Free World Allies (FWA, it was the official acronym at the time, I do not see any reason to change) and motely collection of US special forces, ARVN (South Vietnamese) regulars, and local Montagnards. The other player the VC player (do you need an explanation for this acronym?) controls both local troops, North Vietnamese coming from Cambodia and passing themselves for local communists, and, finally, a smattering of Hanoi's regulars.

Disclaimer and a first rant...
Ok first an important disclaimer. I have not played the nice looking version of Green Beret from One Small Step Games with die cut counters and professional graphic, but the DtP version from BTR Games.  This led me to a big mess... being BTR games accustomed to the North American tradition the map is designed to be printed on Legal size paper... but living in Italy Legal paper is impossible to buy so I had to use A4 paper and shrink to fit (in two sheets) and that resulted in having the maps a little small for the counters, especially in the tracks... now it is so difficultt for members of the NATO to use the same paper standards? What is the point of having the western world using two different paper standards? Well this remind me of a discussion between an US Army officer and a British Army Reserve Officer at a NATO conferences... they discussed for hour of wargaming scenarios. For my BA friend a scenario is... well what a wargaming scenario is supposed to be. For the US officer it was a database... here goes NATO coordination... ok ranting done... back to reviewing...


If you look closely you see why I was ranting... but the map is quite nice.

Once you open the virtual ziplock bag (or envelope)  you find a map, a slim rules booklet, a series of charts, and some counter-sheets that you have to mount and print. Everything in my virtual copy was in fighting order. The Map is quite nice. It is area based (more or less each are is a district) and the area grid is superimposed on an actual topo map. It gives you a good period effect even if the areas looks like bricks on a wall. They are lined up rather well. Pictures of the "standard" edition I have seen show a more usual area maps, but the BTR games edition has a strange effect. Mind you nothing is hampering your game play, but the effect is like a wall. The counters are workmanlike with rather nice pictures. The A Teams have a smiling Green Beret (taken for a real contemporary photo) while on their back they have the observation  tower of an CIDG camp. The other units have mix of icon and NATO symbols. Everything is rational except the strikers that have a static garrison symbol and the ARVN Rangers tha,t instead of having an airborne ranger symbol have a paratrooper one and that made me always thinking of the ARVN Airborne, not that far fetched considering the red berets were indeed used there, at Plei Me and Duc Co... in the latter camp the battalion adviser was a certain Captain H. Norman Schwarzkopf.  Once mounted the package is fine as it is (except for my previous rant... but this is not Brian's fault... this is lack of standardization...).

I will not dwell on the sequence of play or other rules because there is a complete example of play available on OSS Games website that will explain you more or less evertyhing. The bones are:

Each turn is around two weeks in the dry season and get longer during the monsoon.  In the turn there is a variable number of action phases (in pair, one for the FWA and one of the VC) and each phase has a variable number of operations in it. These number are determined by the random evens picked at the start of the turn by both player. The highest number picked  is the number of phases sum of the two numbers is the number of operations per phase. It is not random as it could appear. The number have some linkage for the events and you will see than when events like the Montagnard Revolt or Coups in Saigon happens operations have a realistic slow down, while when reinforcements are dispatched to the are the war pick up its pace. This is a nice touch. It creates some variance but it is not randomness. 

There is a political phase were control of the districts and then recruit new forces or train existing ones. The operations phases are the hearth of the game. There you organize your forces in stacks for upcoming actions (a stack can conduct a single operations per phase) and then you perform operations. You have several possible operations, ranging from movement to assaults, and including patrols. You can perform a special operation, ambush, in your opponent operation phase to... ambush his forces moving in (your) friendly territory.  Combat is based on what I would call a fire system. You total all your strength points, you add the best troop rating (quality) of your forces, and support. Roll the die, look at the table. You inflict morale checks that coule be modified. Morale checks force the enemy to roll against the morale of his units. Roll higher and the unit breaks. It is nice because you have raw firepower (number of weapons), training (including also type and quality of weapons), and the will of fight all included in a single system. So you can have large crappy units or smaller well motivated but poorly equipped units too. Certainly a much better approach that the single number championed by some less than inspired designers. I need to steal the system. To be quite honest the combat system is much more realistic and effective than the absurd thing I have seen in military stuff I have worked on. Certainly much better than... well what Professor Sabin push our students to use... certainly it is not difficult to use or to learn. I will steal it!

Finally victory is adjudicated by accumulating points. Point are gathered for controlling districts, killing enemy forces, and, for the VC, bringing supplies to the coast. There are three scenarios. One covers the last year before the US intervention, when the CIDG program was more or less fully established and the VS were trying to hole the cordon before resorting to sending a whole North Vietnamese division against Plei Me and Duc Co (but this is another story and another game...). The second scenarios covers the beginning of the Army managed CIDG program in 1963. You have much less forces on both sides and a different playing experience. Sadly you have to use the 1964 calendar, minor complaint. The last one is the 1964 scenario with free set up on both sides.

Here we are. Green Beret is a straightforward game with not so many rules. But what impression this little game has left on me?

"What are you going to say in that newspaper of yours about us in Vietnam?"
(Guess from where I took the quote...)

Well, apart from my initial rant about paper size  I think that Green Beret  has left me with  a positive impression. The first thing I want to highlight is that Green Beret does one thing, simulating a single aspect of the war, for a limited time period, in a limited geographical zone, but does it exceedingly well.  I a am always afraid of games that tries to portray the whole spectrum of the Vietnam War. So far only Vietnam 1965-1975 succeeded. No Trumpets no Drums came close (and I am curious to see the new edition). Heart and Minds failed miserably. Fire in the Lake missed several points (sorry Volko if you read these lines, the review of Fire in the Lake is on the queue, I am just in a very bad writing mood from months...). Green Beret instead show you the realities of hits slice of the war and really put you in the combat boots or rubber shoes of the commanders there. 

One important thing that the game makes evident is the reality of the Central Highlands. You will not score big points in controlling them per se, as brutal it could be, the Montagnards were just an ethnic  minority despised by both vietnamese sides and put in the crossfire by both. Yet the Montagnard areas are a critical door/corridor. You need to control them to open or close that door. How you do it it is up to you.

I will start with the Viet Cong side. You have plenty of problems and plenty of capabilities. You have to balance your resources with your goals and vice-versa. Namely you need to establish a modicum of control on the area but also to channel supplies toward the coast where the strategic issues of the conflict are decided. How you do it is up to you. Challenging the Free World forces is difficult at best, stupid at worst. Backed by air-power a single CIDG camp is a tough nut to crack. If it has strikers in garrison is even worse. If the Rangers are available as a counterattack reserve it is... well you got the idea. You need several battalions, if they are NVA it is even better. Let's face it, back at the time they tended to use a full PAVN/NVA regiment to crack a single camp and that was not a sure results. Duc Co and Plei Me never fell. A Shau was attacked with more than a full regiment backed by plenty of AAA and using bad weather to hamper air support, it held for several days. Lang Vei was attacked by tanks, and for a while it almost held (and you can argue that if the Marines had sent the reaction force it would have been different). Here the game is doing an excellent job of portraying force capabilities.  

The other way to establish control is to endure FWA patrols and strikes and go for the villages upping the control rating. Each militia unit and cadre is two points, you can concentrate several and try to push the population on your side. It is slower and not as spectacular as taking a camp but will earn you control of the area (if the FWA does nothing or is unlucky), the ability to spring ambushes, and less chances to be detected. Yet ideally, owning to the camps increased patrol ability you really want a corridor without camps from Cambodia to the coast. Of course between what you want and what you achieve in the game there are dices, your abilities, and your opponent in between. 

Another problem (or advantage) the player is confronted with is inherent to the lack of equilibrium inherent in the game situation. The more you achieve success the more difficult is for your opponent to counteract your effort. The more districts you control the more victory point you get, but also the more information you obtain (and you have a positive modifier for your patrols if you are the FWA or a negative modifier for FWA patrols if you are the Cong...), and the more you can recruit. I know that this seems unbalanced but first of all it represent the situation, second, and not less important, pushing the pendulum in your direction is not easy. To achieve some shift in the population allegiance of a district you need to have at least twice control point than your opponent. It sounds easy until you realize... both sides have a limited force pool to start with. This led to a series of agonizing decisions on both sides.

The Free World Allies have their own problems too. One of the key elements to understand is that you have a finite recruiting pool for both your militia units and your strike forces. You, in an historically correct way, cuddle your CIDG militias for good men to form the Mike Forces.  This led you to the key dilemma. Strikers are usually better at patrolling and in combat, but it is the militia that really controls the districts.  Thus if you are here for a strict COIN implementation of securing the Highlands on the long term, you need militia. If you are here to shut the door by force, you need Mike Forces.  Both strategies are relevant to victory. The COIN approach net you point every turn but... you cannot go into Cambodia where the Cong will always recruit and these supply units will go toward the coast if you do not have Strikers to stop them... plus... if you do not have Strikers you encourage the Cong to beg Hanoi to send a couple of regular units down there and get your critical camp removed...

Dilemmas are also involved in the use of A-Teams (add relevant sound-theme now...). The mobile side is used to enhance combat force representing their use as advisers to local units. The other side represent the camp (shades of the eponymous movie here). You need the mobile to support your Strikers but, well, to hold an area camps are necessary as it is necessary their increased patrol ability. A normal stack can perform a patrol operation against a single enemy stack in a district, but a camp can try against everyone. On the downside a camp cannot run away or being extracted by helo... as Brian  nicely writes:

" Stacks containing static units (A-Teams in Camp mode, Militia and Local Forces) may not elect to break off combat if they are being Assaulted. "

You have an extremely limited pool of available US Special Forces NCO and officers. Reinforcements came only via random events, yet these people are the skeleton of each activity. You need to think well how to employ. One of the problems of the camps was that they were not only hungry of resources but tied up your forces to defend and operate them. On the other hand the camps provided a rally point for local communities and a hub for FWA forces to channel aid and influence. They were also useful strongpoints. Still they immobilized more and more resources. In game terms a camp has a combat strength, and sizable troop rating, increase control (2 vs 1 of a mobile A-Team) and increase the chance of recruitment. Stack it with a good Mike Force and it will extend its patrol range (the difference between hauling your ruck in the jungle alone and having facilities, mortar/105mm support, an helo pad, and other stuff).  Even if you are not interesting in controlling an district but shutting it down as a VC corridor a camp is, as it was in real life, a powerful instrument.
This is just a little example of the historical dilemmas the FWA player has to face. It is also worth to note that the ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, is treated in a way different from the local forces. It can operate only with itself (not with CIDG units) and, with the exception of the Ranger battalion their troop rating is very low (but the combat strength is decent). This is not to say that they are bad soldiers (the morale is indeed not bad), but they are useless for anything other than direct combat (and they are better with if deployed with a ranger battalion in support, that way they are quite scary).  Their role as garrison or fire brigade against mass of enemy conventional forces is well portrayed. 

The light at the end of the tunnel
In the end the game is a resounding success. In an age where abstraction and its related failings are  widespread (especially in games covering less conventional actions) it is refreshing to see a game were "clever" (read basically stupid) mechanics, cards, anything that the crowds call "elegant" (I still need to find an objective definition of elegance, it is like beauty, I am sure some of the women I find extremely  beautiful will  be considered ugly by others) have been replaced by mechanics grounded in reality and that force you to confront real world dilemma instead of gamey tactics.  What I really like in Green Beret is that you immediately understand what is happening on the map. The different units are not just a sum of values, but have distinct characters. Local units are relatively immobile, tied to their villages, but are the one that affects the way the locals see you. The powerful combat units coming from the Lowlands or from the North are indeed foreigners. A Teams have their own identity and uses, and so on. It is not just a generic system with pasted on text, it is an effort to understand history and its mechanics. 

Green Beret is  a paper time machine that send you straight in the Central Highlands and force you to confront real dilemmas. It also allows you to explore history, understand it, and debate it. If you have a copy of Gillespie's Black Ops Vietnam or of Stanton's Green Berets at War handy you will see how close the game mirrors the problems and dilemmas. If you have the official history volumes from the USMC and the Army, or, even better, MACV historical summaries for 1963, 1964, and 1965 the game will took another meaning. It is also a tense game. You have decisions to take whose outcomes are less than clear on the moment. The huge stream of counters going toward the coast is a branch of the trail... or it is just the imagination of my scouts (and my opponent clever use of dummy counters)? Will I prepare for a big conventional attack to slam the door to the coast open in a couple of turns or this will only bring down Air Commandoes, helicopter, and these nasty guys with a panther on their helmet (ARVN rangers had a panther as emblem)? 

The new graphic package... I like... great job OSS' team!

In the end Green Beret is realistic, it is enlightening, it is fun.  It has every element of a really good game. I am happy with it. The new edition looks also much better than the PnP version. Miss Ania Ziolkowska has done a really good job; I know I ranted on my PnP copy but the current version does justice to the concept. Finally it is also reasonably priced. So what are you waiting?

In the meantime enjoy this:


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