A COMPARATIVE REVIEW
In this review I do a side by side comparison of Fire in the Lake and Vietnam 1965-1975 by Victory Games. Some of the pictures need some zoom to appreciate. I will improve my camera work next time around.
I decided to write this review after seeing many of my brothers in gaming attempting to compare these two games. After a bit in became obvious that very few understood how to play both games, or had played each recently enough. I currently, as of this post, have both games setup and am playing them with real people. (Both games are on break, so to speak, as time runs out and we need to pause and continue later on).
Vietnam by Victory Games was released in 1984 and written by Nick Karp. Nick Karp only wrote 3 games in his career and this one by far stands out ahead of the rest. Published less than 10 years after the fall of Saigon this game had a mystique about it when first released. It is a huge hex and counter game in the map layout and the time investment. Despite the brief 48 page rulebook the game is extremely complicated and takes a significant amount of time to absorb. The strategies are many and varied, and many a competent player will disagree about approaches to the game. There are smaller scenarios included and a mini campaign, but most people play the large campaign which covers the 1965 to 1975 period. The large campaign is what I will be reviewing. In Vietnam there are four factions meant to be played by 2 players.
Fire in the Lake was released in 2014 (30 years after Vietnam by Victory Games) and written by Mark Herman and Volko Ruhnke. Mark Herman has several designs to his name, many noteworthy titles, dating back to the days of antiquity. He is still actively designing games. Mark Herman was also the President of Victory Games. Fire in the Lake takes the COIN series designed by Volko Ruhnke with Andean Abyss as its debut game and adapts it to the Vietnam War. It is the 4th game in the COIN series. It is simpler, plays faster, and covers roughly 1964 to 1972. In Fire in the Lake there are four factions meant to be played by 4 players.
Both games cover the strategic aspect of the war. Both games tell a story. Both games capture the feel of the war. Both games cover the politics, the hearts and minds, the management of resources. In each game there is searching for the enemy, combat, and airstrikes. Of course both games have helicopters.
Fire in the Lake in broad terms is driven by a deck of cards. Each card dictates the order that the factions may become active. When active the faction can take the event on the card, take an operation, or take and operation and accompanying special activity. There are windows where instant victory is evaluated. If that doesn’t happen the game goes until you get near the end of the deck and then victory is evaluated.
In Vietnam each season begins with an Interphase where purchases and pacification is done. The crux of the game is the operations segment where the typical operation is to search and destroy. Units move around a hexgrid seeking to destroy the enemy pieces. If the NVA/VC forces satisfy their victory conditions the game ends. Otherwise the game ends in 1975.
HOW TO WIN
There are four factions in Fire in the Lake, each played by a different player. Each player has different victory conditions.
The US wants to win the hearts and minds of the population with the minimum amount of troop commitment. The ARVN wants to secure control of the country with a combination of military power to intimidate the populace and by siphoning US Aid to purchase the loyalty of various influential people and groups in South Vietnam. The NVA wants to secure control of South Vietnam with raw military power to intimidate the populace and by developing their military infrastructure in the form of bases. The VC want to win their version of the hearts and minds campaign and develop their infrastructure in the form of bases. Only one can win and allies will sometimes work against each other.
This models the disjoint nature of the various agendas quite nicely and assumes that the NVA and VC had different agendas (an assumption I accept as truth). It assumes that the ARVN and US had different agendas as well. Very few will disagree with this. It models the friction between allies quite well.
In Vietnam there are four factions but only two players. The factions sink or swim as a team. The victory conditions are quite simple. The NVA/VC have to capture Saigon or cause over 200 population points to support their cause. They have until 1975 to get this done otherwise the US/ARVN win. To get this done they need to erode US morale and inflict casualties to force the US to leave the war and then hammer ARVN to the point of collapse and then take Saigon, or they need to spread their units across the countryside and foment unrest. (See Pacification)
Vietnam is a large map with a hexgrid overlay to regulate movement and position. It stretches from North Vietnam down to the bottom tip of South Vietnam and includes the Ho Chi Minh Trail (abstracted), Cambodia, and Laos.
Fire in the Lake is a smaller map with covers the same region overlaid with irregularly shaped areas to regulate movement and position. The Ho Chi Minh Trail is not present on the map but is abstracted with a marker.
HO CHI MINH TRAIL
Speaking of the trail. Both games have a marker which tracks the relative efficiency of the trail. In each game the NVA must spend resources to improve the trail and the common way to reduce the effectiveness of the trail is by committing airpower.
The process for attacking the trail is a bit more complex in Vietnam but not terribly so. There are spaces connecting to the hex map which represent the trail. Units can move on and off the trail.
The blue piece represents a guerrilla group and the counter represents a battalion. In Fire in the Lake the guerrilla can make terror attacks, raise tax revenue, attack enemy pieces, and cause South Vietnamese to defect or desert. Building these pieces is a matter of spending resources accumulated in the VC bank account.
In Vietnam the battalion can attack enemy pieces but not do any of the other things mentioned. They do change the attitude of the population by their presence (see pacification). When the US comes to get the VC battalion the VC have a special move called an alert move that allows them to relocate a variable distance away from the searching units. This sometimes allows them to completely evade the US attack. Building these units is a bit more involved. The NVA must ship supplies to South Vietnam either down the trail or by boat. The VC then spend manpower from the sympathetic population to build the battalion. Once this sympathetic population runs out the NVA must then supplement the manpower reserves by sending manpower down the trail.
The red piece represents troops. The red counter represents a regiment. The troops can attack the enemy, bombard enemy positions, and make terror attacks. The placement of troops is a bit more involved than the VC counterpart. They are primarily placed by infiltration which is a special activity and they can only be placed at established bases.
In Vietnam the regiments more or less have the same function as their VC counterpart minus the alert move. They have more hitting power than their VC counterpart but are less nimble. They can only be raised in North Vietnam and then must be infiltrated down the trail to get to South Vietnam.
The yellow piece represents troops. Not pictured are ARVN police. The yellow counter is an ARVN regiment. The equivalent of police in Vietnam are the regional forces which are omnipresent in populated areas and come to the defense when attacked but do little else.
Troops can attack enemy pieces, sweep to locate guerrillas, assist in siphoning US Aid to purchase favors (patronage), and assist in pacification efforts. They are raised in cities or at bases by spending ARVN resources. Police can do most of what troops can do except in the countryside, as well as patrol the highways and assist in pacification efforts. They are raised just like troops.
In Vietnam regiments can attempt to locate guerrillas at a bit of a penalty due to VC infiltration of their ranks and they can attack enemy pieces. To raise an ARVN unit the US has to send supplies to South Vietnam and the ARVN have to spend manpower.
The cube is a troop. The counter is a battalion. Troops can sweep to locate guerrillas, assault enemy pieces, and assist in the process of pacification. They are not raised, but are more or less simply available. The US player at certain windows in the game can take troops from the US and put them in South Vietnam or in reverse can send troops home. The amount of troops at home directly affects the US victory so the US player is left with the ongoing question of how many troops to send to Vietnam. Send too many and though they could wield great power their chance of victory is reduced. Send too few and the NVA/VC will run amok.
In Vietnam the battalions can locate guerrillas and they can attack enemy pieces. Raising US battalions is similar to Fire in the Lake. They are always available and at certain windows in the game they can be brought from the US to South Vietnam. Unlike Fire in the Lake the ‘cost’ for bringing battalions into South Vietnam is a bit more difficult to analyze. So strap on your thinking cap.
The US has national morale which starts high and degrades as the war drags on. Very few things improve US morale it is essentially on a one way road to the bottom. There are many things that influence US morale. One is sending American boys to Southeast Asia to fight for some abstract concepts in a country most have never heard of. This is unpopular, so morale goes down every time a battalion goes to Vietnam.
There is another number that starts really low. This is called commitment. Every time the US sends a battalion to South Vietnam commitment goes up. This is also generally a one way street. So the US can send battalions to South Vietnam until commitment and morale collide. In general commitment cannot exceed morale. At some point new commitment is done and the US has to fight with what they have for a bit and ultimately start sending battalions home. How fast and what kind of battalions to send to South Vietnam is a bit of an art form.
I have talked a bit about the factions involved but let me make a more structured go of it. Starting with Fire in the Lake there are four factions that are designed to be played by four players. Only one faction wins. Your ally is your ally only by the actions involved but each has its own agenda. The factions are Viet Cong, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the United States. The VC can interfere with the area control exerted by the NVA. The NVA can assume control of VC assets. The US can take back aid that was siphoned away (i.e. patronage), the South Vietnamese can siphon aid to create patronage. Every time they do this the hearts and minds begin to sway away from the government as the populace sees rampant corruption and favoritism as the way business is done.
In Vietnam the same four factions are present. However they game is a 2 player game and one player controls the Free World and is referred to as the US player. The other player controls the communist and resistance forces and is referred to as the National Liberation Front player. The friction between factions is absent with the VC and NVA, but is modeled using political reliability for the ARVN to simulate the lack of enthusiasm that ARVN had for the war. This is not to say they weren’t enthusiastic, just not as enthusiastic as the US.
Both games use this word. It represents the efforts of the US and their reluctant ARVN allies to create reforms and civic projects to cause the population to support the Saigon government. The VC in Fire in the Lake and the VC/NVA in Vietnam are trying to the opposite. This entails assassination of officials, spreading propaganda, and terror attacks to warn the citizens away from supporting the government. In each game support and opposition is tracked by region.
Fire in the Lake most generally requires that the US/ARVN control an area and have a blend of police and troops, then spend the resources required to shift the hearts and minds to ‘support’. The VC/NVA can use terror attacks to shift away from support. The VC alone can use terror to shift toward ‘opposition’. This is the crux of it. How the board is painted with support and opposition affects many aspects of play of the game. It also affects the US and VC victory conditions.
In Vietnam there are 4 pacification phases each year. There are no positive die roll modifiers for the US. The very best they can do is go into pacification with a +0 to the dice roll. Two dice are rolled for each province. The VC/NVA can alter this die roll by having units in the province, capturing towns and capitals, or by pushing the US to call for ‘free fire’ in that province. Free fire allows the US to use their full artillery and air value in that region but may cause collateral damage reflected as a negative dice roll modifier.
Population controlled by the government is tracked on a population sheet. A total is created which affect victory as well as available manpower for recruiting.
South Vietnamese politics was very chaotic and unstable. This had much to do with the ultimate failure of the South Vietnamese government. Each game models this very differently. In Fire in the Lake there are event cards that model the effects of politics on the ARVN forces, but more routinely there are a series of coup cards shuffled into the event deck. When one of these enters play there is either a change of government or a mass desertion. The other piece is that the ARVN have victory conditions that have it act against the interests of the US from time to time. This model works well.
By contrast in Vietnam the ARVN player and the US player are the same person, so the game goes to great lengths to model the lack of enthusiasm the ARVN had for the US cause. In this game there is a national leader, a series of corp commanders, and divisional leaders. Each corp and divisional leader has an effectiveness rating and a loyalty rating. The effectiveness is fixed while the loyalty shifts throughout the game. The effectiveness represents the willingness of the leader to commit his forces to fighting the VC/NVA.
Loyalty represents how they feel about the current government. As I said, this shifts. The corp commanders may decide to stage a coup. A dice roll is made and checked against each leader’s loyalty. Each leader may be pro coup, loyal, or wavering. With enough pro-coup the government fails and the junta replaces the current leader. This has an adverse effect on both US and ARVN morale and reduces the likelihood that ARVN will take the fight to the enemy this season.
Each game tracks resources to purchase units. In Fire in the Lake the VC, NVA, and ARVN each have a bank account from which to purchase units and pacification. The US used ARVN’s bank account. The board state at certain windows in the game influences how much money each faction earns. Simple as that.
In Vietnam the US and NVA hold the purse strings and run supplies to their client. The ARVN and VC spend manpower which is based on the population controlled minus the amount of manpower already used. When the VC run out the NVA must run some manpower down the trail. This manpower cost the NVA some commitment. When ARVN runs out of manpower they are out and that is it. No more new units.
Speaking of commitment we have alluded to this before when talking about new units for the US. Let’s talk about it a bit more. The US and NVA both track morale and commitment. Commitment represents how much effort has been spent thus far, even if it is killed. Effort could mean new units, air points, helicopters, or trail upgrades. (Some of these are US only and some are NVA only). It is a cumulative total and generally only goes up.
Morale for the US starts high and represents the willingness of Washington and the American public to support the war. If generally only goes down. Things that make it go down are sending in troops, coups, NLF offensives, and the relative success or failure of the war effort.
The NVA morale starts low and generally only goes up. This represents the willingness of the communist nations to support the NVA efforts. The largest driver to their morale is the amount of effort (i.e. commitment) that the US is putting into the war effort.
In both cases generally commitment cannot exceed morale. In the case of the US that will ultimately lead to US withdrawal. (There are exceptions if the war is going really well for the US). In order to balance the books the US can withdraw troops to lower the commitment. The rub comes when there is little or nothing left to withdraw. Assets that have been lost can’t be used to recover commitment so there is generally a gap that can’t be filled at some point causing a final US withdrawal from the war. At this point ARVN has to finish the effort itself.
The NVA on the other hand will usually spend resources equal to the difference between commitment and morale each turn as both numbers steadily increase each season.
The US and ARVN used special forces to hunt down guerrilla forces and interdict their movement. In Fire in the Lake these forces look like guerrillas with a different flag. These units can destroy enemy pieces without the need to identify them in a sweep.
In Vietnam ARVN guerrillas are represented by a counter which only musters during an operation. Their effort is also abstracted by causing the enemy to move more slowly at the border regions. The US led irregular seem to be missing from Vietnam. Their activity is not modeled in any way I can see. Perhaps the bit of omniscience that exists is a result of the activities of the long range patrols.
Both fixed wing (fighter bombers and the like) and helicopters played a major role in the war. The US dominated the airspace above South Vietnam and used it to good effect. In Fire in the Lake all air assets are abstracted as special operations.
In Vietnam airpower and helicopters are represent by points which are tracked on a display and each asset can be used 2 times per season. Assets can be shot down and thus no longer available. This is part of the slow attrition that the US suffers during the game. The helicopters can be assigned to units to make them move faster and air support can be assigned to operations to inflict more casualties on the NVA/VC or interdict movement paths.
Innovative play and random elements will cause the narrative to change from game to game. Below is a synopsis of the average experience.
In Fire in the Lake there are three scenarios with different story arcs for each. In very broad terms the story goes like this. Each faction attempts to build its forces. The VC and US start the pacification and agitation (opposite of pacification) of areas they have forces. ARVN starts to build patronage while the NVA builds bases and starts to create toeholds into South Vietnam. Each faction starts to build towards its victory conditions and this then draws them into direct conflict with each other. A tug of war ensues and whichever faction is leading this tug of war when the game ends is crowned winner of Fire in the Lake.
In Vietnam the VC start strong, while the US and ARVN are trying to build forces at a moderate pace so as not to alarm the US populace. The VC will spread their message throughout the countryside forcing the US to greater commitment to keep the population from swinging toward the VC. At some point the VC go into decline and the US dominates. Through attrition and offensives the VC eventually force the US to depart. The NVA rise and hammer the ARVN. At some point ARVN will collapse or the game will end.
Fire in the Lake has very good rules. The language is a bit hard to follow until you get used to Volko-ese. Volko Ruhnke wrote the rules (I assume this based on writing style). I am a big Volko fan and have gotten good at reading his stuff. His game are very precise and the wording very intentional.
Vietnam on the other hand. Well keep in mind this is 1984. Rules writing has developed since then. The rules have some contradictory text and some really bad wording. The definitions are imprecise but after 250 pages of discussion of the finer points of the rules there is more or less a general agreement about how most of the game is played.
I feel like Fire in the Lake is balanced to a degree. There have been some post publication modifications proposed to address the predominance of US wins. But I haven’t seen any kind of dominance in that corner.
The balance in Vietnam is a point of controversy. So many state that the NLF have a distinct advantage and win most of the games. My impression is that it is easier to play the NLF poorly and win. Winning with the US requires skillful planning and execution. My conclusion is the game is balanced.
While I like both games quite well I give the nod to Fire in the Lake. Fire in the Lake is a fun game with quite a bit of tension and difficult decisions to make. The game doesn’t make the NVA/VC feel like the US whipping boys. Each faction can fully participate in the game. The game is really short compared to Vietnam. I like the look and feel of the pieces. I also like that the game doesn’t tax my eyesight.
Vietnam is a pure masterpiece. The quandary that the US finds itself in is quite mesmerizing. How much to commit. What to commit. Watching the pacification. The way all the pieces of the strategic puzzle play together is pure genius. The US has to carefully manage its resources and the narrative of the game is outstanding. The downside is that the narrative takes too long to develop. I don’t mind the length of the game which is around 300 hours when played to 1975. What drives me nuts is the endless lopsided search and destroy operations that almost always end in VC/NVA defeat. The operations have predictable outcomes with little suspense. It is a pure exercise in tedium only to turn the page and see how the next chapter works out. (There are many who disagree with me on this one, so take this for what it is). The next chapter could be a successful season of pacification or a coup that devastates morale. That is exciting but the tedium in between is overwhelming. Still a great game but I give the nod to Fire in the Lake.
A very well written and informative review that I enjoyed reading. I've been meaning to bust out my copy of Fire in the Lake and learn it with a solo game, and your review has given me just the motivation to do that.
Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 (25th Anniversary Edition) is another cool game on the same war.
Nice breakdown & comparison here. I've never played Vietnam but sure like FITL - it's in my top 5 games out of like 200!
Really excellent article, Mark. It's been a while since I played the VG game, but I recall it as operations stacked on operations, as you mention. It's very much a design of its time. I think a game of similar subject and scope today would streamline out a lot of the repetitive operational detail. Still a great game, and one I intend to play again, but I, too, would probably choose FitL.
Only a wargamer could state in passing: "Despite the brief 48 page rulebook..."!
(But an excellent comparative review.)
Weloi Avala wrote:
Only a wargamer could state in passing: "Despite the brief 48 page rulebook..."!
(But an excellent comparative review.)
Pretty sure even from a wargamer that was mild sarcasm!