"If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."
Review and historical analysis to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive
The month of January 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. This confusing and controversial event was one of the most decisive campaigns in American history. The military and political results are still being analyzed (and debated) today.
The number of conflict simulations designed to depict the entire campaign is limited. I purchased Tet '68 published by Command Magazine and Tet Offensive published by GDW Games with the intention of studying this series of battles as the anniversary approached. It should be noted that both of these vintage games were produced shortly before the 25th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.
Tet Offensive is an innovative design that has not received the attention it deserves. I decided to review the game and provide historical analysis of the campaign in an attempt to showcase this unusual system that intertwines the crucial political and military elements. The players must use military force to achieve a political objective; more specifically, each belligerent tries to demoralize the enemy population. More on that later.
I remember seeing Tet Offensive on the shelf at the old Enterprise 1701 game store in the early 1990s. Speaking frankly, the image of the map depicted on the back of the box squelched my original interest in this product despite the fact that the campaign has always been a fascinating topic for me.
Looking back on 1968 I have a vivid memory of reading about Tet in Dad's copy of TIME magazine when I was just a kid. My interest in military history had already exploded so my father allowed me to read his books and magazines. I recently acquired this issue of TIME published immediately after the offensive began.
Graphic images of combat portrayed in the magazine left a deep impression. I still recall how gruesome photographs of the casualties from the Viet Cong attack on the US Embassy and other fighting in Saigon led to a discussion with Dad, a combat veteran of the Korean War. Like most soldiers, he was reluctant to share his personal battlefield experiences but he tried to answer my youthful questions.
Enough of that. Back to the review.
Not purchasing the game 25 years ago was almost certainly a mistake. Tet Offensive creates an interesting narrative of this epic military event. If a wargame hobbyist picks just about any facet of the Vietnam War in 1968 and asks, "Can the game simulate that with a minimum of complex rules?" the answer will probably be "Yes!"
The basic foundation is based on several brilliant ideas (like the superb sequence of play that guides the entire process) and that bright light makes up for other shadowy elements of the game. The rules are not a model of clarity. This game could also be misunderstood by players who are relatively unfamiliar with the history behind the Tet Offensive. At first glance it might be easy to overlook some of the more subtle elements of this Frank Chadwick design. The game is deceptively deep.
OK, so the map looks like a classroom exercise from an avant-guard graphic arts textbook published in the 1980s. People who want to be on the cutting edge of artistic evolution should create weird images of Campbell's Soup labels and leave my wargame hobby alone.
After a few turns any issues with the map (including a major problem with overcrowding) fade into the background as the tense mechanics of maneuver and battle absorb each player's attention.
Crafting my own sketch map was a simple project. The published board measures 19.5" x 29" while my expanded playing surface is roughly 24" x 42" with an L-shaped configuration. This extra space relieved some of the overcrowding. I also cleaned up many of the ambiguous graphic details and avoided the problem of the dark printing on the dark background in several green areas.
Tet Offensive featured an unusual mix of counters ranging in size from 1/2" to 5/8" to 1" to 1 1/4" and some of the larger tokens can practically smother an entire province. The big 1" counters obscure all of the vital information (political point value and airbase availability) inside a city square.
I created my own RF-PF militia tokens for the ARVN and reduced the size of those huge US mechanized units. This made planning (and keeping score) a little easier. Without intending to brag I think the ARVN flag counters for the Ruff-Puff units look quite nice.
The illustrated instruction booklet is written in a conversational style. I prefer this method to the numerically tabulated legalese that once threatened to dominate the hobby. The rules also include extensive historical notes.
Some brutal mistakes (partly addressed by GDW errata issued quickly in 1991) have been attributed to rushing the game's development to meet the Origins convention deadline. In several paragraphs the structure is haphazard. Many concepts are poorly expressed or left for the players to decipher by flipping pages back and forth. There are a number of vague sections... plus one or two obvious omissions that require "house rules" to fix.
This may explain the widely varying evaluations of Tet Offensive. It is quite possible that different players are using their own interpretation of the rules. In ordinary circumstances I would probably toss an instruction booklet like this aside and move on to another game. However, the sparkle of innovation hidden within the rules captured my attention. The game requires planning and offers a cerebral challenge; it is also fun to play.
One more quick comment before this discussion moves ahead to the play experience or the links between the game and the historical narrative.
Tet Offensive violates what I call the Crazy Cat Lady Principle for stacking rules. A woman who has more than three feline companions is in danger of becoming a crazy cat lady. A game that routinely requires the players to create numerous stacks more than three counters high can become an annoying chore to play.
This image of the initial Allied deployment around Saigon and the "historical" NVA/VC assault configuration (more on that later) depicts the crowded towers of cardboard tokens that can be erected during a typical session. Even with my larger sketch map the major areas of conflict were jammed. When a city is "contested" and stacks of units belonging to both players are in the same one inch square the problem is aggravated. BTW, the concept of a contested city is sad example of the inadequate rules because the details are skipped over and only mentioned briefly in different sections of the instruction booklet.
A note on the belligerents:
For convenience, the player controlling the US, ARVN, ROK, and ANZAC units from the United States, the Republic of Vietnam, the Republic of Korea, Australia, and New Zealand will be referred to as the "Allied" player.
The player controlling the NVA (or more properly the People's Army of Vietnam) and Viet Cong (this was a term used by the South Vietnamese for the National Liberation Front) will be referred to as the "NVA/VC" player.
The narrative created during a session of Tet Offensive is satisfying both at the strategic level and at a lower operational/tactical level. American accounts of the campaign tend to focus on Saigon, Hue, and Khe Sanh. Fortunately, when Frank Chadwick created this game proper emphasis was also given to the densely populated Mekong Delta and the strategically important Central Highlands. During a typical game there will be action everywhere on the board. As mentioned previously, the rules permit the players to execute operations that are equivalent to NVA ambushes, US Search & Destroy missions, desperate ARVN defensive fighting in urban centers, and VC sapper assaults.
The game only lasts five turns. The first turn depicts the initial Tet attacks with the remaining turns "representing progressively longer periods of time" according to the instructions. Based on the US demoralization rules I would estimate that the fifth turn coincides with LBJ's announcement at the end of March.
The basic foundation for the game is solid. The initial deployment of Allied units is mandated (unless a misguided optional rule allowing unrestricted setup is used) and the order of battle information for the US, ARVN, and other Allied units is more than adequate. The depiction of the NVA/VC formations requires extra discussion.
The order of battle for the NVA and VC is a little weak. The totalitarian Vietnamese regime held back military information (even after the war) so a designer working before the age of the modern internet might be excused on many of the details. However, giving every VC regiment a strength of 10 really took some texture out of the game. A bit more unit diversity would have been an improvement, particularly as this would increase the fog of war.
A related topic is the "Perfect Plan Problem" that can appear at the beginning of the game. Since the Allied starting positions are fixed it is widely agreed that the more experienced player should take command of the NVA/VC forces. The relatively unstructured NVA/VC setup can lead to several unpleasant outcomes.
The NVA/VC player might execute a hasty setup just to get the game started; never mind that the PAVN and NLF planned the campaign for months. Alternatively, that player might experience analysis paralysis while contemplating the position of each unit. Perhaps even worse, an experienced player might have developed a "perfect plan" and use a prepared setup that benefits from 20/20 hindsight, an advantage Giap and COSVN (the Communist command group known as the Central Office for South Vietnam) did not possess.
I have been working on partially structured historical NVA/VC starting positions with the option to throw in a few "wild card" units. Unfortunately, using the original rules and OOB makes it impossible to duplicate some of the NVA/VC attacks at the start of the offensive.
In the meantime, I've added a variant rule that lists 20 targets that must be attacked on the first turn to keep the NVA/VC within some type of historical guidelines.
The map won't win any beauty contests but it is quite functional once the players grow accustomed to the awkward graphic presentation. The four Military Regions (I Corps, etc.) govern the strategic maneuverability of Allied units in each sector. Only formations designated as "theater" units may cross a corps boundary; other Allied counters must remain within their proper chain of command.
In an example of conflict simulation craftsmanship Frank Chadwick used the same boundaries to represent the dividing lines of the NVA/VA command structure. Obviously, there were differences between the Allied corps boundaries and the multiple NVA/VC war zones but using the same lines on the map divides the game into the four regional battlegrounds that developed in 1968. No rules clutter.
This is a photograph of the terrain near Khe Sanh. You might notice that Khe Sanh is at the "end of the road" according to this map. While it is true that Highway 9 extended beyond Khe Sanh that "highway" into Laos was actually just a single lane dirt road barely passable for wheeled vehicles. The map is correct.
Khe Sanh provides a good illustration of the game's subtle elements. My first glimpse of the map resulted in a complaint... "Khe Sanh is not a city, and shouldn't it be worth a huge pile of political points?" After digesting the instructions I was able to see things clearly. True, Khe Sanh was not a city. However, there is no real need to create a separate rule for one square on the board. The point value? Just right. In the game this essentially worthless landscape is at least equal in value to important military bases like Pleiku or Chu Lai.
Tet Offensive can portray the "siege" of Khe Sanh without adding any special rules. In this photograph a VC sapper battalion and an NVA regiment are attacking Dong Ha, a major USMC stronghold on the so-called "McNamara Line" along the DMZ. Allied units can move along roads at lightning speed. However, no Allied unit that begins a movement phase in a "contested" city square may use road movement. This means that Marines at Dong Ha can't roll into Khe Sanh using the highway. Now the ARVN airborne brigade in province 12 could move overland to Khe Sanh, but it would take two entire turns to enter the Khe Sanh square. A helicopter aviation unit could immediately transport one Allied formation into Khe Sanh; otherwise the 26th Marine Regiment is practically isolated.
You might notice that many units are represented by black squares. NVA/VC counters are only visible to the Allied player if these units attack, are in a city, or if these units are discovered by Allied reconnaissance during a search phase. Obviously, this adds tension to the game for the Allied commander.
The space with the red circle is the NVA/VC sanctuary at Tchepone in Laos. These crucial base areas provide numerous advantages to the NVA/VC player, just as they did in 1968. The rules make any incursion into a sanctuary by the Allies a dangerous tactical move... and it should be. However, the ability of the US to enter a sanctuary in Cambodia (didn't happen until 1970, when Nixon paid a heavy political cost) or Laos (the Lam Son 719 operation in 1971 was carefully structured to exclude US ground troops) is confusing. The idea that the US can (apparently) enter North Vietnam has even less historical validity.
Who does the Allied player represent? Westmoreland didn't have the authority to enter Cambodia or Laos, much less North Vietnam. Is the Allied player LBJ? That might explain the complete freedom of action in these sanctuary spaces. Anyway, if the Allied player isn't LBJ (and it should be Westmoreland, in my opinion) then the rules are out of alignment with the situation in 1968. There would be a major political and diplomatic crisis following an incursion; this would need to addressed, possibly with a substantial points penalty.
This photograph shows President Lyndon Baines Johnson studying a representation of the Khe Sanh battlefield in the White House situation room. The president was obsessed with Khe Sanh. LBJ began to equate the struggle at Khe Sanh with the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu. The president feared a political setback if the base fell to the North Vietnamese. His staff created a three dimensional model of the region around Khe Sanh with markers to indicate the positions of military units.
Now it is time for us to study... the sequence of play.
Frank Chadwick developed an amazing sequence of play for Tet Offensive that has a unique configuration. After playing a turn or two an observant player will realize the narrative created by these rules is a superb match for the situation in 1968.
Here are the eight phases in a turn:
NVA/VC Movement Phase -- Just what it says... everybody can move.
NVA/VC Combat Phase -- Combat takes place between NVA/VC units and Allied units in the same area... in this case an area could mean a city, a province, or a sanctuary. Remember, unless NVA/VC units move into a city for an attack they are normally "hidden" from the Allied player.
Replacement Phase -- Both players may position replacement units on the board. A unit "eliminated" in battle does not represent a formation that has been completely destroyed. These "eliminated" formations more accurately could be described as broken or disorganized. With a little rest, an infusion of supplies, and possibly some reinforcements an "eliminated" unit could certainly return to action within the time frame of this game. Since the first turn represents such a short period of time a special replacement rule is needed, right? No, because the rule is structured to put units in the replacement pipeline that appear on the second turn. Attention to detail is the hallmark of a successful wargame design.
Allied Aero-Mech Movement Phase -- This is a special movement phase for mechanized, naval, helicopter, and aircraft units. It is referred to by the awkward term "Aero-Mech Movement Phase" but provides the Allied commander with a great deal of flexibility. Please note that the Replacement Phase occurs before the Allied turn begins; the superior Allied logistical system can return disorganized units to action quickly.
Allied Search Phase -- The player conducts reconnaissance operations in provinces or sanctuaries that contain Allied and NVA/VC units. If the search fails (and even the best Allied recon units have just a 4/6 chance of success) the enemy units remain "hidden" and may not be attacked. This can be extremely frustrating for the Allied player when his previously scheduled Search & Destroy operation or B-52 Arc Light mission can't find anybody to fight. Welcome to Vietnam.
Allied Combat Phase -- Combat takes place between NVA/VC and Allied units in the same area. Since there might be two battles in the same "contested" area during a single turn combat can be brutal... which is why NVA/VC formations often withdraw to avoid the "flypaper" effect of city fighting.
Allied Movement Phase -- Every Allied unit can move in this phase. Please note that because ground units move after the combat phase (unless they were transported into combat by helicopter) the sluggish ARVN units and any walking US formations must be moved into position for a battle one turn in advance. Good Luck catching the NVA/VC if they don't want to be caught and have an escape route. However, the Allied player can move a strong detachment into a "contested" area and force the NVA/VC commander to fight a battle or vanish during the next turn.
Morale Phase -- Everybody (US, ARVN, NVA, VC) calculates their level of demoralization. This is handled magnificently with each faction facing its own challenges. For example, the US reduces its demoralization level with a high VC "body count" while the Viet Cong reduces its demoralization level by inciting insurrection in South Vietnamese cities.
Players familiar with the standard move/fight sequence used in a traditional wargame will quickly discover that Tet Offensive requires fresh thinking and flexible tactics. Flexibility is one of the advantages the Allied player has over the sneaky NVA/VC commander. The elusive enemy is unpredictable but when any NVA/VC formation has been exposed in favorable terrain the Allies can often bring down a typhoon of fire in the "Aero-Mech" phase.
Here is an example. The beleaguered ARVN force defending Phan Thiet has just witnessed the destruction of a Ranger unit in the province area following a battle with a VC battalion and an NVA regiment. A VC sapper battalion probed the city itself but was repulsed after destroying the local militia ARVN unit. Regional Force/Popular Force militia units begin the game with unknown strengths. The militia in this city turned out to have a combat value of just one point.
During the "Aero-Mech" phase the Allied player decides to transport a US air cavalry brigade into the city from I Corps. This is permitted because the gold symbol indicates these are theater units that can cross a corps boundary. Since Allied units fighting in a city usually fire first during any battle a successful NVA/VC attack on Phan Thiet is now unlikely.
Combat does not take place between stacks of units. Each enemy unit in an area (meaning a city or a province or a sanctuary) must be attacked individually and may only be attacked once during ground combat. This means a hypothetical NVA/VC attack on Phan Thiet would not be 10 NVA/VC factors against 14 Allied factors. Instead, the Allied player (firing first) would allocate his combat factors in a carefully selected attack (or attacks) on the CRT.
Tet Offensive uses an interesting odds-ratio Combat Results Table (2-1, 3-1, etc.) that includes the elimination of enemy units, forced retreats, and indecisive stalemates. I strongly approve of a combat system that includes "No Effect" results. Battles can be fun with all of this firing back and forth but since each attack will be resolved individually there is quite a bit of factor counting to obtain favorable odds. I don't like situations where commanders are shuffling units to get that extra point or two in a 3-1 attack. That lowers my otherwise favorable evaluation of the combat system.
There is a strategy available to the NVA/VC commander that can disrupt Allied helicopter operations. Aviation units beginning the "Aero-Mech" phase in a contested airbase are not permitted to fly combat missions; they may conduct routine transport flights. In this example a VC sapper battalion is "contesting" the Chu Lai square. Neither brigade from the 23rd (Americal) Division could be airlifted into a combat situation during this phase. This is obviously a setback for the Allied player since every move counts during a session of Tet Offensive. Overland movement is slow. It is no exaggeration to say that a one or two wasted maneuvers could cost a player the game.
This is an image of the struggle for Hue. Elements of the 5th NVA Division and two VC sapper battalions have caught the Allied defenders by surprise. The previously unknown RF/PF militia formation was flipped over to reveal a strength of two. Unless the NVA/VC player rolls a couple of "6" results during this battle the city of Hue will probably fall to the Communists.
The shock of the attack seems to have confused the Allied player because that commander has committed a serious error. A defeated Allied unit may only retreat into a city square. If the vanquished Allied unit is in a province it must retreat into an uncontested city in that province. If it is already in a city the Allied unit must withdraw along a highway to an uncontested city. In this example the ARVN regiment from the 1st Division defending Hue would be unable to retreat since both Quang Tri and Da Nang are under attack. However, the Allied player determines the order in which each battle will occur. The lopsided action at Da Nang should have been fought before the battle of Hue to provide an escape route for the ARVN regiment. Units that can't retreat are eliminated. This clever highway retreat rule is historically accurate. It was common for the NVA or VC to set up a roadblock or an ambush to halt Allied columns moving along a road as these US or ARVN units reacted to an attack or withdrew following a defeat.
In 1968 restrictions were placed on the use of airstrikes in Hue during the first phase of the battle. A few days later airstrikes and heavy artillery were used to crush the stubborn NVA/VC defenders... wrecking the city in the process. Tet Offensive has an interesting rule to recreate that historical narrative. When the Allied player uses airpower to bomb NVA/VC units in a city (a highly effective attack) the US and ARVN each receive a political penalty. The town of Ben Tre ("We had to destroy the village in order to save it.") near the My Tho city square in the Mekong Delta is another famous example.
There is an offshore naval bombardment unit available to the Allied player. This is another example of conflict simulation craftsmanship but I think the use of these heavy guns against a city should cause political damage like an airstrike.
The most interesting conflict simulations include just enough "chrome" to give the game historical flavor without overwhelming the players with a lengthy list of special rules to remember. This photograph depicts a pair of units with unique abilities.
The red NVA battalion in the stack of Communist units holding Phu Vinh is a sapper formation. These highly trained assault troops became almost legendary after the conflict and no Vietnam War simulation is complete without sapper units. A battalion of sappers has twice the offensive punch of a regular infantry battalion (indicated by the separate attack strength) and all sapper units receive a special "Surprise Assault" bonus during the first NVA/VC combat phase: a sapper unit inside a city has the ability to fire before any Allied formation can respond. An excellent rule.
The large Allied counter with the ship silhouette represents the US riverine units that operated in the Mekong Delta including Task Force 117. This brown-water navy included PBR patrol boats (like the vessel in Apocalypse Now) and modified WWII landing craft. Known as the Mobile Riverine Force, this unit played a crucial role during Tet. General Westmoreland said "The Navy saved the Delta." While that is certainly an exaggeration this flotilla made an outstanding contribution with combat support and troop transport. The unit performs both missions in Tet Offensive and since the task force can move during the so-called "Aero-Mech" phase it is extremely flexible.
In another example of the murky instruction booklet, the rules for both of these special units have minor issues!
The retreat rules for the NVA/VC appear to have caused a little confusion. A defeated NVA/VC unit must withdraw to an adjacent sanctuary. Aside from the obvious military setback caused by a retreat there are two additional challenges for the NVA/VC player. First, a formation returning to the battlefield from the relative safety of a sanctuary must run the gauntlet of Allied airpower as it risks discovery by a reconnaissance unit. Even worse, any defeated NVA/VC unit fighting deep within South Vietnam in a province not adjacent to a sanctuary will be eliminated because it can't withdraw.
I have seen critical discussions of this rule but there is ample historical justification for these withdrawal restrictions. The supply system for NVA/VC formations was rudimentary. It took weeks or months for a PAVN or NLF unit to get in position for a major offensive. A US Navy officer serving in the Mekong Delta described the VC preparations for Tet as a "logistic miracle" because of the immense amount of labor involved. A defeated VC formation would often scatter to its various base camps and await resupply from the Ho Chi Minh trail logistical network. Broken NVA units would retire to Cambodia or Laos where they were safe from US bombers.
The rule is harsh, but it follows the narrative of the 1968 campaign.
This battle in the Central Highlands can provide some useful examples of the retreat rules in action. Defeated NVA/VC units could withdraw to the sanctuary on the western edge of this photograph. The ARVN regiment in the city could retreat along the highway if the next city was not contested or occupied by the NVA/VC player. That 10-3 ROK regiment (BTW, 10 is the combat strength and 3 is the search capability) could not retreat into the contested city of Ban Me Thuot and would be eliminated.
However, if the ARVN regiment defeated the VC battalion in Ban Me Thuot and the Korean regiment had to retreat the ROK unit could then withdraw into the city. After my first reading of the rules I asked myself, "Chairman Mao said guerrilla fighters move among the people as fish swim in the sea. Why does control of a province score no political points?" Now it is clear. Unless the Allied player conducts frequent Search & Destroy missions in an area the NVA/VC effectively own the place.
The proper sequencing of each battle is a crucial element. The challenge for the NVA/VC player is to place the Allied commander in a lose-lose situation by presenting the reactionary imperialists with no good retreat options.
Tet Offensive is loaded with dilemmas for both players. The Allied player wants to locate NVA/VC units in a province where they can be pounded with airstrikes. However, the Allied commander forfeits his city combat advantage during a battle in a province, risking higher casualties if the NVA/VC units "ambush" the ARVN or US by revealing a big 24 strength NVA division. A bold NVA/VC leader will push Viet Cong battalions into strategically important city squares to disrupt Allied air operations or interdict highway movement. Viet Cong soldiers can burrow into a city, but their eventual destruction is practically inevitable. Since only a VC formation can incite a captured city into insurrection the NVA/VC player can't afford to squander too many of the weak but useful Viet Cong battalions... especially the sapper units.
Successful implementation of a combined arms doctrine is an element found in many conflict simulations. Players have become accustomed to wargames with rules that reward the proper deployment of infantry, tanks, and artillery. Tet Offensive features a different sort of combined arms doctrine but effective use of these principles by the Allied commander is absolutely essential to victory.
When fighting in a province the player must combine reconnaissance units (to find the NVA/VC units) with helicopters (needed to quickly move additional troops into the province before the enemy disappears) and the appropriate infantry formations (a limited number of strong units because the NVA/VC commander will control the response to this probe in many situations) plus airstrikes to soften up the defenders.
Tet Offensive certainly doesn't look like a typical hex-and-counter wargame and it doesn't play like one either. That could be another reason this title did not receive an enthusiastic reception.
In the Mekong Delta an ARVN Ranger unit has been sent on a recon patrol as two "hidden" NVA/VC units operate in the province. A powerful B-52 Arc Light mission has been planned. The jets might shatter one or both of these enemy formations... B-52s can bomb twice during a mission with deadly results. Unfortunately, a poor die roll means the reconnaissance has failed. The "hidden" NVA/VC formations remain undetected.
ARVN units with white lettering (Rangers and Mike Force) do not count against South Vietnamese political scoring when they are eliminated. The army was another piece in the chess match being played within the corrupt regime -- loyalty was valued above military effectiveness. Regular ARVN units were considered to be important pawns in this game (especially the airborne brigades) while the RF/PF and recon formations were expendable. Another outstanding historical detail found in Tet Offensive.
One city in this photograph has been incited to insurrection by the Viet Cong. This is a nagging political headache for the Allied player because he is hit with penalty points every turn until the city is secured. The insurrection rules also provide the NVA/VC player with extra combat strength from local sympathizers. Now if this represents VC operatives already in position (which did happen frequently) then the historical rationale is valid. However, those added strength points are much too powerful.
While a few cities could gather perhaps the equivalent of a battalion most of the local units were ineffective. Qui Nhon is a good example. Although the COSVN expected the city to be strongly pro-Communist the reaction was insignificant. Stanley Karnow said it best in his classic volume Vietnam: A History: the South Vietnamese masses bent "like bamboo in the prevailing wind." Even in Hue where the Communists took control and established their "shadow government" the number of volunteers was relatively small... and that group included inmates released from the local prison.
On the subject of scoring... the demoralization track is awkward and confusing. I think counterintuitive is the current popular phase here on BGG. This is another example of the unpolished rules.
A session of Tet Offensive creates a play experience called the "Battle of the Bulge" pattern. Similar to the 1944 campaign in the Ardennes, one side starts burning hot -- like this scene of the Tet attack on Da Nang from Full Metal Jacket -- until the initial momentum cools. Meanwhile, the other side is gathering its strength for a powerful response. Both players have an opportunity to attack and defend as the pendulum swings. It is one of the most interesting military scenarios.
A simple command rule simulates the NVA/VC surprise attack at Tet by placing relatively mild restrictions on Allied movement during the first two turns. The next two turns feature plenty of maneuver or combat but the game becomes more cerebral during this phase as the Allied player pushes back and NVA/VC action subsides. The fifth and final turn can be problematic for both players.
The last turn could provide 30 minutes of nerve-shattering tension or a few seconds spent checking the current score followed by a team effort to pack up the game.
Since the NVA/VC can only avoid defeat by demoralizing the US and South Vietnam a quick glance at the political track accompanied by a brief evaluation of the board positions might convince the Communist player he will not be getting a victory parade in Hanoi. A wise NVA/VC commander will have previously moved units in position to attack South Vietnamese cities on the final turn. If the Allied player used his fourth turn to drive these formations back into their sanctuaries the NVA/VC units can't reach a city in a single move. Unless a careless Allied commander has left weak formations in vulnerable provinces there is little chance to influence the outcome beyond the points already sitting on the board.
If the NVA/VC player fails to demoralize both enemy factions during his final turn there is still a slim chance for the Communists to win... if the score is extremely close.
Since the Allied player will almost inevitably be required to make a few attacks during his final combat phase (remember, this occurs before most Allied units can move) it is possible for a couple of endgame disasters with heavy US or ARVN losses to tip the balance. Trouble is, unlike Westmoreland or LBJ the Allied player knows the campaign is nearly over. Released from many of his future strategic obligations, the Allied player can use the "Aero-Mech" phase to execute otherwise foolish maneuvers in order to fight these compulsory battles.
The game needs something like a "Giap's Last Gamble" rule to prevent these reckless moves by the Allied player. Giving the NVA/VC one last attack in a special exploitation phase might lead to more rational behavior.
Under the present rules the final Allied movement phase is superfluous so the game will end when the firing stops. How demoralized are the belligerents?
Walter Cronkite was the anchor of the nightly CBS news broadcast and an experienced war correspondent who had seen action in Europe during WWII. In 1968 he returned from an assignment on the firing lines in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive to deliver a memorable commentary. On February 27th he told the people of the United States that the conflict had become a stalemate. This is the commentary... which I never saw in color because our family only had a B&W television.
LBJ was shocked. Public opinion polls continued to show plummeting support for the war. A month later the president announced he would not run for another term. That might qualify as demoralization.
The political objectives for each faction combine to form a reasonably accurate portrayal of an extremely complex situation. For example, South Vietnam is demoralized by losses in the regular army, collateral damage to cities by Allied airstrikes, and cities incited to insurrection by the Viet Cong. A city secured by the Allied player following an insurrection improves ARVN morale. Since the stated Communist objective of the Tet campaign was triggering a collapse of the southern regime it all fits together.
The other factions are treated in similar fashion with appropriate objectives. Since the leaders of North Vietnam were practically invulnerable to public opinion demoralization only occurs after truly massive NVA losses on the battlefield. As previously mentioned, one of the US objectives is a high "body count" of Viet Cong casualties. Heavy US losses must be avoided. There is a bit more, but those are the highlights.
How many times have you heard the phrase "Tet was a military victory for the US but a political victory for North Vietnam" in the past 50 years? Tet Offensive requires the NVA/VC to win in both the political arena and the military arena. Perhaps these victory conditions could be slightly modified; if South Vietnam is demoralized at the end of five turns and neither the NVA score nor the VC score has fallen to crisis level the Communists have won.
This was a lengthy analysis. The game deserved a closer look.
It often felt like I was playing the role of a commander in the Vietnam War. That is high praise by my standards.
These helpful BGG contributors provided background material for the review:
Tet Offensive remains one of my favorite wargames for the reasons you cited. Frank Chadwick proved his mettle as one of the hobby's all-time great designers with a game that is both fun to play and captures the history so well with so few rules. The tension across the entire mapsheet is palatable turn after turn.
I'm sure GMT or another notable company could do a great job tightening it up here and there, and redoing the mapsheet.
Do you use voice recognition for all that text production? I've recently switched and it's a boon.
Actually, an outline on notebook paper followed by a few hours of typing and editing.
If you use Google, check out their Keep app (in the little 3x3 grid top right). I use it on my phone (if you have an iPhone, Microsoft Word has the same function). It pretty much takes dictation, including new line/new paragraph/other commands. My editing time has gone up a little, but my writing time is less than half of what it was.
Thank you Mr. Belli for the resurrection of this hidden gem. I liked the game but as you did, found that the map was too small for the pieces. I increased the size 50% and now I found it to my liking. With your inspiration I will get it to the table next year.