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Sealords: The Vietnam War in the Mekong Delta» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Throwdown in the Mekong Delta rss

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J. R. Tracy
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Last night Dan Raspler and I tried Sealords, from S&T #243, covering operations in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War. Set at roughly battalion level, this is classic asymmetric warfare. The Free World player tries to bring his powerful forces to bear via interdiction and direct confrontation, while the Communist player skulks through the mangrove swamps of the Delta, infiltrating troops and supplies into IV Corps’ backyard and inflicting a bloody nose when and where he can.

The heart of the game system is the Command Point (CP) mechanic – each side gets a certain amount at the outset and a steady supply every turn. CPs are used to purchase units, conduct operations, and supply those troops still out in the field at the conclusion of a turn. They are the currency of the game and as such figure in nearly every decision. A walk through the sequence of play will give some sense of this.

First up, each player rolls on his random events chart – these are simple d6 tables, one for each side. The results appear benign at first, typically small adjustments in CP levels, but the CPs are so tight even the loss of two or three can really cramp your style.

Next, each side conducts a Reinforcement and Refit phase. The player expends two CPs (three for later-war Communist units) for a Reinforcement or one CP to recover a unit from the Refit box. Simple enough, but not without a twist or two. Reinforcing units are drawn at random from a cup, so you don’t know if you’re getting a chopper battalion, a SEAL company, or some local community defense shlubs. This is particularly tense for the Communist who needs all the transport he can get (see below) – nothing like pulling yet another PAVN Main Force battalion when you can’t move the ones you already have. With Refit, you have the advantage of knowing what you’re getting, but you must roll a d6 to determine how many turns it will take to arrive. With scenario lengths of six, nine and twelve turns, the delay roll could well push the unit right past the end of the game or so far out as to have no impact in short term planning. This is an interesting tradeoff, but I suspect the reinforcement pool is better value, certainly in the shorter scenario, even with the unknown aspect.

After both sides are topped off, the Ops cycle starts. Players alternate running Operations until both sides pass in succession. An Operation starts by designating the force in play for that Op, and paying two CPs per activated unit. Alternatively, a player can simply pay two CPs to activate an HQ and the cost covers any other units he cares to add to the Force, as long as they start stacked with the HQ. A Force generally must consist of units starting in the same square, though the Free World player can add in an airmobile contingent from another square. As an aside, units are rated for combat strength, recon value, movement class (Leg, Naval, Riverine, Airmobile) and transport capacity, if any. Once designated, the Force saddles up and moves out. Movement is by waterway or helicopter only, so leg units always need a ride – no walking in the Delta! Forces may drop off units as they move, but if an HQ is heading up the Op, it must remain with the Force for the duration. Movement halts when an enemy stack is encountered – Free World forces are always face up and known but crafty Charlie lurks face-down and can have some surprises up his pajama sleeve.

Combat itself has a number of subphases. First, unrevealed Communist units are flipped over. Then each player nominates a point unit for the Recon roll – this unit’s recon value is added to a d6 roll, and the highest value gets to shoot first in the non-simultaneous resolution. Ties go to the defender. The catch here is the point unit must absorb the first combat loss, so that SEAL team looks great going in but it might be leaving by Medevac. The Free World player now has the option of calling in some airmobile reinforcements, paying the appropriate CP cost to do so. He can also use air strikes or naval gunfire support for the first round of combat, if available.

The CRT is anything but certain – the attacker takes losses on a ‘1’ all the way up to the highest column, and only on that last column does a ‘1’ do anything to the defender. A ‘2’ sends a participating air strike (if any) to the Refit box. Other results include sending an opposing unit to Refit or eliminating him outright, and/or inflicting a ‘break off’ result, forcing the other side to retreat from the square. Once the winner of the recon roll fires, the surviving opposing units (if not already forced to break off) returns fire. Either side may break off combat in lieu of firing, pulling out to an adjacent square (or back to a base for helicopters). However, to break off, L class units need a ride, or else it’s off to the Refit box. Rounds of combat continue until only one side’s units remain in the square.

Once one player declares his Op over, the opponent gets his chance, and so on. There is an element of caginess here as territorial victory points are scored after Operations conclude. For instance, the Communist player will be reluctant to commit a Cadre to occupying a South Vietnamese hamlet if the Free World still has the boats and CPs available to blow them back to Cambodia before the VPs can be collected. However, by passing he risks the Free World player also passing and thus ending the phase, leaving him in the lurch and shy a VP opportunity.

After the Ops phase concludes, supply status is determined and dealt with. Then, territory and infiltration VPs are scored. The Free World player gets points for sitting on NLF base camps, while the Communist gets points for occupying towns, cities, and Saigon line of communication squares. Occupation points are doubled if specific units do the occupying (political cadres for the Communist, counterinsurgency units for the Free World). Charlie also gets points for successful infiltration – he has a number of supply and troop junks and trawlers that he tries to get to coastal and inland NLF bases. Typically the farther from Cambodia (or closer to Saigon) the base, the more points he scores…but the infiltrating units have to survive to the end of the phase to count. VPs are also awarded for eliminating enemy units, sending them to the Refit box, stumbling across arms or supply caches (for the Free World player), and (for the Communist) if the Free World player fires on civilians.

As mentioned at the outset, this is a strongly asymmetric game with a distinct force structure and style of play for each side. Both have ground and naval units of varying capability, though the Free World naval and riverine units far outperform their Red counterparts. The Free World player also has powerful fixed and rotary winged assets to augment his already-substantial ability to project firepower all over the map. To counter this, the Communist force pool includes Guerilla markers, where much of the game’s flavor resides. These come in a variety of types: Ambush, Arms Cache, Supply Cache, Civilians, Bunkers, and Minefields. Guerilla markers don’t count against stacking, though only one of any given type may be in a given square. Ambush confers a bonus on the Recon roll, Arms Caches grant a +1 on the CRT roll, Supply Caches help avoid paying the CP cost for units in the hinterland, Bunkers grant a favorable column shift on defense, Minefields attack moving Free World forces, and Civilians essentially function as human shields. Judicious placement of the Guerilla assets can go a long way to mitigating the Free World mobility and firepower advantages.

Despite what seems like a lot of new concepts, the system is very accessible and plays smoothly. Scenarios grant initial starting units and outside of some static forces, setup is pretty free. However, the initial Guerilla and naval/riverine allocation for the Communists is randomly determined. You might have a watercraft mix heavy with infiltrators but without much of a lift capacity, or vice versa – this will dramatically shape the Communist setup and early game plan. The Guerilla mix is less crucial but is still a factor in constructing defenses. Guerillas and NLF/PAVN combat troops all look the same face down, so in a pinch a civilian and a bunker can help make a Red base look much stronger than it really is.

While the Communist player is deeply insecure in the knowledge of what he doesn’t have, his Free World counterpart is awash in paranoia, fearful of what he might blunder into on an operation. In his first two operations, our Free World player first hit a minefield and then, trying to land a haymaker on the Tang An NLF compound just west of Saigon, found himself collecting SEAL dogtags and hightailing it back to base. The hidden Communist units and uncertain force pool creates a tension for both sides that is very atmospheric and adds much to the fun factor.

It’s possible the experiential benefits come at some cost in a competitive balance. Without lift capacity, Charlie is limited to working the infiltration routes while buying reinforcements and praying he scores some transport. The Free World has a better shot at establishing some sustainable VP ‘farms’, by taking a couple camps, planting Counterinsurgency units on them, and daring the Communists to do something about it. Without boats, it’s not going to happen, and Charlie will have a hard time making up those twelve VPs a turn elsewhere in the absence of strong offensive capability. Sure, a lack of transport implies a good infiltration capability, but those infiltrators cost CPs to move (no HQ option without transport) and once used, go back in the pool for a potential but uncertain future draw. I’m sure this effect varies over the scenarios – in the Tet Offensive scenario, the Reds get a very large force and a horde of CPs, as well as a larger initial draw of boats.

Balance issues aside, our overall impression is positive. The counters are crisp, clear and attractive, and work well with the map. At first neither of us thought much of the drab greens and browns but they nicely complement the brighter units and won’t burn out your eyes over the course of an evening’s play. The rules are reasonably tight – I had eight or nine questions ranging from omissions to clarifications but in almost all cases our intuition proved correct. In any case they weren’t an obstacle to getting up and running. Playing time for the shortest scenario feels like four hours or so, maybe a touch less, but keep in mind the free setup will require a lot of thought.

In sum, I consider this a welcome offering – an atmospheric, entertaining take on a topic without much coverage to date. Recommended to anyone with an interest in Vietnam gaming, contemporary combined operations, or offbeat topics and game systems. Enjoy,

JR
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Paul O
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Re: Throwdown in the Delta
Outstanding review, thanks!
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Charles Stampley
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I had zero interest in this game until I read your review. Now I am debating picking this one up tomorrow. Nice write-up!
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Dean Zadiraka
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Please write more reviews.
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chris reichl

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I'd recommend to anyone the book "Brown Water, Black Berets" which details the US Navy's Riverine and Coastal Operations in Vietnam. Nice to see a game being done on this subject.
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