Monday, January 30, 2023

Playing the Nam: comparative review of Vietnam Wargaming rules

When I started to collect and paint 28mm Vietnam figures and models, little could I suspect how much there is to learn about that period. One area in which the versatility of the period manifests itself is the number of rulesets you can use to wargame it. We are spoiled for choice.....

Below are a number of sets I tried or will try with their relative merits and weaknesses (as perceived by me). Wherever a review of the entire set is availabe I will link to it. 

NB: I limit myself to reviewing platoon level sets, for the simple reason that I will only review rulesets I have played or will soon play. Lacking a company-level miniatures collection, company-sized rulesets are not in scope for this blog. 

Regular readers of this blog will know I am a sucker for any wargame that drags the Cthulhu Mythos into its rules in any decent way. So when Crucible Crush and Bob Murch of Pulp Figures' fame announced a "Weird War Vietnam" ruleset I was immediately interested. Frankly, this announcement was what got me into collecting Vietnam figures in the first place. Leaving aside the Cthulhu Mythos monsters BS turned out to be a rather enjoyable game to play Vietnam. 

Black Sun is specifically written for the Vietnam conflict and is for the most part a tried-and-tested IGO-UGO rules mechanism with a few interesting innovations. 

You build your force by choosing a Force Card containing a leader (Boss) and using his point pool to buy more force cards from the same faction. The force cards are the building blocks for any force and are included in the rulebook to be scanned and printed.

Keeping in mind that the tables you need to determine things like Wound- and Activation results will eventually settle in your memory the game plays pretty smoothly. Activating, moving, spotting and shooting work fine. Gunfire is bloody, so sneaking and using cover really are important, as it was in reality.

The Spotting rules really enhance the feeling you are sneaking through a jungle, know that the enemy is somewhere but cannot always see him.

The game played smoothly, giving a good impression of small unit jungle warfare in the 60ies. The impact of morale and suppression is quite limited, which I missed to be honest, but in the end this is a rule-mechanical choice based on taste since such things will slow down the game. I know for a fact that not all wargamers appreciate their little metal men to cower or run because of a bad Morale roll....

The rulebook, it must be said, contains some choices I do not understand and a number of mistakes in rule- and example texts.

Of the latter, the most disturbing ones are dealt with in the Errata list provided on the website by Crucible Crush, together with a new QRS that corrects a few typos in the Weapon list. Mistakes will occur in any book, but I feel this one could have benefited from better and more thorough editing. Nevertheless, this can be solved by using the Errata.

The rulebook also includes stats for some weapons, like mortars, but no Force Card for such units to include them in your force. Since Force Cards are the only way to include them and no points cost are provided, you cannot play those units despite the fact that they are mentioned and detailed in the book.

I understand a number of these things will feature in future supplements.

For a Weird Nam Game, there is plenty of good Nam gaming going around, but not nearly enough Weird. For a modern skirmish game the effects of gunfire on group morale and movement are very limited. I personally think these effects should be more severe as that would be better suited to the period, but I understand the choice for less impact from shooting and casualties came from playtesting.

There definitely is an enjoyable game here, but it takes some work to get your hands on it.

BOHICA/Danger Close

DC is a (kind of) alternate turn skirmish system meant for modern wargames with a few dozen figures and some vehicles. The set is stunningly compact: only 2 pages plus another 2 pages fr vehicles. That's all. 

Turn sequence is determined by troop quality, the best activating first. 

Troop quality also determines how many figures you may Activate in your turn as well as maximizes the number of actions a figure has per activation, the best having more actions. So a figure might perform 2 to 5 actions per activation and can be activated once per turn. Finally, troop quality gives modifiers based on the difference in quality between opponents in spotting your opponents, shooting in a firefight or combat. So better troops move sooner, can do more and are more effective in combat and firefights.  All based on one stat. Very elegant. 

For compactness and price this game wins everything hands down. The ruleset is clear and brief and logically structured. Being essentially only 2 pages long, it does not need an index. Just turn the page. 

Activation and Morale are quick and easy and the quality difference between troops is done very elegantly. There is hardly any bookkeeping needed besides Stress, injuries and Overwatch.

BOHICA is DC's much bigger offspring: a fully fleshed-out ruleset based on the same mechanics but much more elaborate. Here are pictures, explanations, diagrams, scenarios and ways to set up your table, unexpected events et cetera. Where DC is a set for the experienced wargamer who doesn't need much in the way of explanations, BOHICA can be picked up by any aspiring wargamer as a starting set. The rules are explained very well and even include practice scenarios to learn specific parts of the rules. 

BOHICA is written specifically for the Vietnam period and benefits from this. There are rules for things like helicopters, napalm and other iconic aspects of the Vietnam war. 

FNG Tour of Duty

Two Hour Wargames' take on the Vietnam war. They use their tried and proven game engine we know from (amongst other games) All Things Zombie. 

FNG comes the closest to a RPG system in some respects. Players (or player, since his game enables solo play) step into the shoes of a infantryman in Vietnam during the 60ies. 

Troops are divided into Stars, Grunts and Non-Playing Characters and can be part of any side in the Vietnam conflict. Stars can get all kinds of traits and quirks to individualize them, something that really shines in the Saturday in Saigon games (see below). 

The system has a very elegant mechanic based on only one stat (Rep). The game is geared to the infantry, so there is a lot about infantry ground combat, boobytraps, grenades and choppers, but no tanks, vehicles, planes and stuff like that (or it would be an anonymous bombardment from above).

The game is quite versatile and offers three gaming scales/variants: 

  • Tabletop style: a normal tabletop wargame on a 3x3' table using up to 40 or so miniatures per side
  • Battleboard Style: a more abstract game using a map and moving from map section to map section. The game provides counters to use a a substitute for figures. This kind of looks like a boardgame/wargame crossover, although it can be played on a tabletop too. 
  • A Saturday in Saigon: a wargame/RPG-like crossover version where a handful of miniatures on the board interacts with Non-Playing Characters. This reminded me the most of the ATZ games I used to play. 
The game also facilitates solo play as wel as a campaign, in which al these variants can be used. Honesty compels me to admit I have not tested these rules yet, but my experience with the ATZ rules that are quite similar to the Tabletop/Saigon game styles makes me suspect this ruleset can produce quite an enjoyable game. 

Unfortunately I have not yet found a comprehensive review of FNG. There are a few Youtube vids and some blogs about the Battleboard variant, but nothing attempting to address the entire ruleset.  

Force on Force/The Next War

TNW is a Modern-to-near-future-to-hard-SciFi ruleset and is based on the Ambush Alley reaction system, just like Force on Force. There is actually no turn order. Every turn players dice for the "active" player who is the first to do something. As soon as he activates one of his units, the other "inactive" player can respond. Because the inactive player is actually not inactive at all! 

Players test against each other (highest roll wins) whether the action or reaction takes place first. Is the active player completely at the mercy of the inactive player? No, because he can prepare for reactions by putting units in Overwatch at the beginning of his turn. They can try to interrupt or prevent a reaction. 

As a result, a simple movement of figures can have dynamic consequences. They can be shot at by units of the inactive player before or while they are moving. If they win their test, they can shoot back. The inactive shooting units, in turn, can also be shot at by active player units in Overwatch before they can perform their action. The reaction can also be used for other actions such as ducking into coverage and other things. If the active player has activated all the units he wants (maybe he keeps a few to respond to the inactive player) it's the inactive player's turn and the same interaction is repeated.

This cycle of action and reaction is finite. Troops cannot respond to return fire and Overwatch, may not shoot more than once per turn at the same enemy unit, and figures that have already been activated may not be activated again. 

But just as well, a single movement can provoke quite a firefight and delivers an interesting game.

TNW uses almost no dice modifiers. Instead, it uses dice with 6, 8, 10 and 12 sides. The better the quality of the troops or the cover, the "higher" the dice. In principle, a 4+ is a success. Most of the rolls are "opposed", made against each other. This means that a result of 4+ is usually a hit unless there is a Defense throw of at least 4+. 

The rules are clear, uncluttered and displayed in a logical order in a pleasantly readable font and each paragraph contains a clear summary in an easy-to-find text block. 

The rules start with a table of contents that is so detailed that it can actually double as an index. There are scenarios, ready-made units and vehicles and the so-called Fog-of-War cards, which are intended to make scenarios a bit more unpredictable.

There are different classes of troops, from angry civilians to elite commandos and all kinds of specific traits for troops, some of those specific to SciFi games. 

Being a generic modern ruleset, tailoring it to Vietnam is quite easy. An additional advantage is that the rules are retro-compatible with all scenario books that AA has ever released. Arguably the best in the entire hobby and including a Vietnam book: Ambush Valley. This book, still available in PDF format, will provide you with all the details to play the Vietnam period. 

NB: TNW in this stage is a PDF document in development and therefore a bit Spartan in layout. No pics and no diagrams, so for the experienced player. Buying it gives you access to all subsequent editions to be published in the future, including, I understand, the final and complete PDF book. 

Spectre Operations

SO is written for 28mm Modern Warfare. This is a wider scope than one might suspect, since the ruleset essentially covers all forms of skirmish combat using modern weapons. And by modern weapons I mean everything from the bolt-action rifle and Maxim gun onwards. It can be used for everything starting around 1900 and I played 21st century conflicts with it as well asWW1 with equal ease and success. 

The secret of this lies in the set's flexibility regarding tactics and weapons. Regarding tactics things like formations and movement are quite free-flowing, and and are basically only important when orders need to be passed on. Very green troops, like militia, benefit from close formations where morale is concerned but all other troops can adopt tight or loose formations as desired for practical purposes. 

Weapons are dealt with in categories, for example the Assault rifle. This line gives stats for all assault rifles, be it M16s, FALs or AK47s. The game assumes that difference in details between weapons within a category is way less important than the level of training of the troops.  

Being a Modern ruleset weapon categories cover everything from bows to laser guided bombs and drones. Vietnam era weapons translate flawlessly into the SO weapon categories. 

Giving importance to troop training levels, the set is eminently suitable to assymetrical play which is so defining for a large part of the Vietnam conflict. Assessing troop levels is also a tool that can be used relatively to balance the scenario. So Special Forces Recon may always be Professionals but may also be Elite, Professional or Trained depending against who they are pitted. Between troop levels Civilan, Militia, Trained, Professional and Elite you will find a place for everyting. 

Although not meant for lage numbers of vehicles, the game handles them quite well. These too are put into categories. While it might not be to everyone's taste to assess both a Patton and a T54 as "Cold War Era Tank" it works quite well game wise.  

There is no exhaustive list of Vietnam era vehicles compared to SO vehicle categories, so some creativity and period knowledge is needed to differentiate between a T54 and a PT76. But there is a category for everything. 

NB: Spectre Miniatures has announced it wil cease supporting Spectre Operations as a ruleset, since it was licensed from its author and that license will expire soon. The author has made it known he is working on a successor ruleset under the working title of Assymmetric Warfare. I refer to the Facebook group for news.  

Bello Ludi Vietnam

To be commented on in this spot in the near future.

 NB: Charlie don't surf

I am of course quite aware of the existence of the excellent ruleset Charlie don't Surf by Too Fat Lardies. However, since my focus for gaming Vietnam is 28mm Skirmish (be it small or large) and CDS is aimed at 15mm Company level wargaming, I have omitted the ruleset from this review. 

Hopefully I will get to play it one day, but lacking a 10 or 15mm Vietnam collection, including terrain, this might be a while.....


It would be a bit premature to choose a "best" set before I have played them all and I am loathe to do that anyway since so many of the aspects of the best set for me are ultimately a matter of taste. 

However, when asked to voice a "preferred" ruleset I would opt for Spectre Operations for being immensely flexible, quick-playing, relatively uncomplicated as a ruleset and still providing interesting choices during the game while maintaining a recognizable feel for modern combat as far as I can be the judge of that.  

Gaslands demo on Ducosim


Pictures from BODs Big Battle Day!

 My club organized a Big Battle Day and of course we attended. I was part of a 2x6000 points Oathmark battle but there were more lovely tables to be seen. 

Building a Pele tower part 1

Years ago I built my version of a Pele tower, that iconic fortress type of Border region northern England and Scotland. However, when I visited real ones in the UK it was clear it didn't look a bit like it. So I knew it had to be done again and better this time. 

The tower so far. 

And what do you know? The coming of The Baron's War ruleset provided the right incentive. 

Having learned a lot about working with styropor in the past years I chose that material. The first box-like shape looked like this based on pictures and drawings I found on the web. 

The first shape, here still with the thick base I later discarded. 

The outer window shapes, cornerstones and ramparts
I undercut the steps of the stairs si the base edges would fit underneath them, enabling the figures to be positioned on the stairs. 
Engraving the masonry with a pencil

I cut out the floors with a little hotwire jacksaw. The jigsaw pattern will make them fit snugly into each other. 

Adding a top roof

The four main parts

Window and door details

The door hinges on a little but strong magnet

The internal winding stairs. They are not really accessible for the miniatures but too nice a detail to leave out!

And then the painting can begin. First layers and highlights. 

The tower so far. 

I still have a ways to go painting-wise. And of course adding details like door hinges, colored windows and flock. Stay tuned for part 2!