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Year of the Rat: Vietnam, 1972» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Year of the Rat is an "old school" wargame gem. rss

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Severus Snape
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Introduction:

Year of the Rat is the game featured in Strategy & Tactics #35 from 1972. It is designed by John Prados, with James F. Dunnigan listed as "game-system" designer, whatever that means (perhaps co-designer), and Redmond A. Simonsen as the "physical systems" designer, meaning he designed the components. The game features what is, for me, the most interesting and fascinating part of the Vietnam War: the 1972 Easter Offensive by the Communist forces into South Vietnam. That the South "won"--one slippery word when dealing with COIN--though "survived" is perhaps the better description, is a tribute to the courage and resilience of the South Vietnamese, and the enormous support provided by American airpower and naval power, as well as the Army and Marine advisors who were very much, like the South Vietnamese, in harm's way.

Components:

The map is the standard, for its day, size 24 x 36 inch variety, artfully done by the venerable, and much missed, Redmond Simonsen. The map is clear, functional, and attractive, even in the absence of much colour. All the charts necessary to play the game are present on the map except for the Terrain chart, which, given the differences between the various sides--North Vietnamese Army, Viet Cong, American, Korean and South Vietnamese--needs to be consulted frequently by those who, like myself, find their short-term memory skills are a long-time gone.



This clear and helpful image of the map was uploaded by konsum 24.

The rules are but 8 pages in length, with one of those pages taken up for the Terrain chart. These were written before John Prados became obsessed with cases, sub-cases, subwoofers and sub-basements. All this means that they are clear and make sense, unlike pretty much everything Prados puts out these days, including his lengthy tome on Vietnam, which puts the meander in meandering; but I digress. The counters are done in such a way that it is easy to distinguish the types of forces that will be set up on the map.

Returning to the rules, there are various Order of Battle and Setup options. Though I have only soloed the historical OB and setup (though just how much "history" is actually involved in the placement of forces is questionable, and to which I will return later on), the options allow for free deployment, a stronger Communist effort, a much more powerful American ground response (as in the addition of 5 or 6 combat units), and more besides. One option, the Pacification Deployment, forces ARVN units to be placed in every town and base hex on the map, which will surely lead to disaster, based on the challenges I faced in defending the historical setup. These options strike me as inherently plausible, rather than some of the silly stuff packed into other designs. However, the armchair experts--I am not one of those, as I sit at a table, hence tablechair expert--who have read two or three books, may want to weigh in here.

Victory Conditions:

To win, the North needs to take towns, cities, bases, Saigon and the provinces, each more valuable than the next, though Saigon, at 8 victory points, is naturally worth more than some of the provinces. The South is always looking to counterattack and retake this valuable real-estate, but the return is often never as great. For example, the typical town is worth 2 VP's to the North; if the South retakes the town, the North loses 1 VP. The loss of units does not matter for the victory conditions, so the North can win even while losing most of its army. This is brilliant in its simplicity and historical accuracy, and all of this design effort being made in the year of the Easter Offensive, 1972.

Some thought on the Play of the Game:

The setup of the game goes easily, which helped with my early misfires regarding the rules. For example, the NVA gets full supply for attacks on the first two turns, reflecting their preparation and the surprise of the attack; the Free World Force, henceforth called Allies, knew something was up, but because Chicken Little had been proclaiming that the sky was falling for months, the guard was mostly down. After those first two turns, the NVA must begin burning its limited number of supply units. I forgot this in my first two plays, leading to an Allied crisis, as the NVA blitzkrieg just kept rolling along. The Viet Cong's presence is much smaller in the game, but dangerous nevertheless. The VC ignore zones of control--whether one designs ZOC's into a Vietnam game makes an enormous difference in everything--and they can maneuver to cut off Saigon by cutting the roads in and out of the city, earning victory points to the Communist side.

Here are some photos of the "historical" set up:







Please forgive the shakey cell-phone images, as I do not own a digital camera.

Let's address the elephant in the room: Kerry Anderson, a BGG user, is the person responsible for the colourful counters. Kerry has created a veritable slew of countersheets for long out of print games. This allows you, when you get hold of something OP, to use his counters and keep the original ones unpunched, in case you decide to sell the game later on. I have purchased 3 or 4 sets of counters from Kerry, and he does fine work.

I placed quotation marks around the word "historical" because the rules and the design are not as tight as it seems when it comes to the OB placement. Units are placed into Provinces--the name and number which also appear to be, in some instances historically questionable in terms of strict accuracy--based on number of units and their strength points. My photos give you an idea of what is involved here. I would be interested in an actual historical setup; the danger is in placing the South in a straightjacket where the North can create an "idea" plan for the offensive; no fair, the North needs an historical setup too.

The esteemed and highly valuable work of the esteemable Eric Bickford can be found on Consim--don't tell anyone on BGG about Consim, lest another flamewar break out--and he has a playthrough for YOTR. I quickly differed from Eric's opening script by not placing vulnerable ARVN forces--and they are all vulnerable in the early going--into lonely places like Khe Sahn because they will be surrounded and destroyed.

Given that even the NVA and VC are slowed by rough terrain, one needs to take this into account in the opening placement of the ARVN forces. As ARVN cannot defend everything, and the American ground forces are few in number--3 units--and restricted in movement--they cannot leave the base unless the North provokes them--the ground game is all about the South Vietnamese forces. The Korean division is a good one, but is restricted to one province by the coast.

When it comes to the question of what allowed ARVN to push back the tide from the Easter Offensive, jingoism can air its hoary and ugly head here. I speak of the American air presence (though I would like to know just how many of the air units in the game represent the growing South Vietnamese air force). The South cannot win without the powerful effects of American might from the skies; they can still lose, even with American support. However, without ARVN's boots on the ground, there won't be an Allied victory. Given that most of the fighting and dying was done by ARVN, with American advisors being wounded and killed beside the ARVN fighting men--does John Paul Vann register with anyone?--perhaps the lion's share of the credit should rest with the South Vietnamese.

Perhaps this is all too political for a discussion of the game, and I mean not to offend; but as it all gets me thinking, I would like to get others to thinking as well. Returning to the use of airpower in the game, there is a Bombardment phase in the sequence of play. Here, the Allied player allocates air points, whose number increase throughout the game, to attacking the NVA; the VC are immune to bombardment. Enough airpower commitment will stop NVA units in their tracks, and, with enough muscle and a lucky roll of one on the d6, even destroy units. The most likely result is to Pin the NVA or, better, to Disrupt units. These effect attacking strength and movement points. The Pin effects are removed at the end of the NVA turn, but to remove Disruption, one must roll a one to three on a d6.

In the three solo games that I completed, after my early misfires--and, yes, I know there are Dummy units for both combat and supply--the results were: one NVA victory, one draw, one ARVN victory. Three full games doth not an expert make, but it allows me to see the potential strategies and tactics--where have I heard this before?--available to both sides.

Airpower is not likely to destroy enough units, though I got lucky in the third game by evaporating enough NVA in the central part of the map to allow me to retake real estate, and squeeze to the southwest and north by--wait for it--northwest. Disruption basically freezes the NVA in place, and if the terrain is favourable, the South can surround the NVA and eliminate it in an attack because it won't be able to retreat through the ARVN zones of control. The ARVN side just does not have the muscle, on a unit-by-unit basis, to go toe to toe with the North. The ARVN forces are more like a hoard of angry bees who can hurt you when they surround you.

Coordination of airpower, zones of control, and terrain all come into play here. Unlike the NVA and VC, South Vietnamese forces are not allowed to move into rough terrain or swamp unless they are on a road. The ARVN side can attack into such areas, but they cannot move nor retreat into such areas. Because ARVN elite forces can be airlifted into and out of towns, cities and bases--oh my!--the Allied side can experience some lonely sieges in places not easily accessible by road.

I do wonder about this ARVN elite air mobility; yes, the Americans are supplying most of the hardware to make it happen, but the dysfunctional nature of the ARVN higher command, with all the petty jealousies between the Corps/Military Region commanders makes me wonder if they were going to be so free in helping out there fellow South Vietnamese in desperate need of reinforcements. I see that Joe Miranda's Winged Horse, next up on my playlist--I hope this is not another of Joe's half-baked potato designs--restricts ARVN units to their starting Corps areas. Perhaps some reading will shed light, but without the ability to move their paratroopers, rangers and marines in this fashion, there is no game.

Now, about solo play and those Dummy units. Hidden movement in a face to face game will be a blast to experience unless you are the blasted away Southern side. I used the dummy counters by placing them with key NVA attacking units. The dummy units can absorb the effects of a bombardment, leaving the "real" unit intact and able to attack. As the game progresses, they are gradually withdrawn from the map (this is according to the rules), if have not already be obliterated in an Allied air attack, sacrificing their dummy selves for the greater good of the ghost of Uncle Joe. I think that this is a fair way to use them in a solo game.

A sort of sum-up Conclusion, for now

This is a brilliant, old-school, hex & counter, I go/you go, design that feels remarkably fresh and resilient. I think that it is a good design for learning some the realities of the Vietnam War at this point in time, in so far as that is possible with cardboard and paper.

It is fun and interesting. The optional ideas provide more possibilities, though I generally prefer to stick as closely to the "history" as possible. I recommend this game to those interested in the Vietnam War, and in games that are not complex, while being rich in flavour and gaming pleasure.

I will return to make corrections, additions and maybe some book title suggestions.

goo

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Jonathan Townsend
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Ok, I’m interested in the game now. Thanks for the overview.

Have you played Miranda’s Tet’68? I recently soloed it - very good, lots going on. Compared to this one perhaps too much going on for a solo experience. It would be interesting to see if Tet’68 grew from, or responded to, YotR.
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Severus Snape
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Agip wrote:
Ok, I’m interested in the game now. Thanks for the overview.

Have you played Miranda’s Tet’68? I recently soloed it - very good, lots going on. Compared to this one perhaps too much going on for a solo experience. It would be interesting to see if Tet’68 grew from, or responded to, YotR.

Jonathan, is the Miranda Tet game an S&T game? I have not heard of it, so I will have to look for it. Thanks for the suggestion.

goo
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Jonathan Townsend
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It’s from Command magazine.
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Severus Snape
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Agip wrote:
It’s from Command magazine.

I found it; thank you.

goo
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Joe Donnelly
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“The rules are...”


This paragraph was brilliant!
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Barry Kendall
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Good for you for shining a light on this old, but wonderful, game. It has been one of my favorites since I got hold of a new magazine/game a year or so after its publication.

Played it in college, used it as a platform to game out the final '75 offensive as it was happening, will still play it if I can find an opponent and even solo once in a while.

Agree that the ARVN elites--Marines, Rangers, Airborne--have been generously-treated mobility-wise, but they sure make the game fun, both defensively (spread 'em around to lower the odds in attacks on cities and outposts, air-evac them to fight again, husband them for late-game counterattacks--won a game once rolling a "1" (okay, yes, very lucky but o so gratifying) in a counterattack up Highway 1 to retake Quang Tri on the last turn.

The unknown NVA strengths, and when to "burn" supply in full-strength attacks vs budgeting it to last through most of the games, make for some tense decisions for both the RVN and NVA players.

Really feels like an all-out offensive for the final victory, and the desperate defense of a beleaguered nation, for the two sides.

Anyone who can find a copy should grab it, forthwith.
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Bill Eldard
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Outstanding review of this old SPI design.

As I recall, Dunningan/Prados described the challenge of designing a game the subject of which was so current, particularly since the ultimate strategic outcome was unknown. Nonetheless, it has been praised for years for both its playability and its simulation of the campaign.

Similarly, my favorite Tet Offensive game is Frank Chadwick's Tet Offensive, which adapted his A House Divided point-to-point movement and combat system to Vietnam '68, while adding asymmetric player phases, hidden Communist movement, and airpower to make for a really exciting 5-turn game playable in about 4 hours.
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Steve Herron
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I wish I had known about how you used the Dummy counters in playing it solo. I sold my copy years ago since it didn't seem solo friendly.

Amen Bill, I played Tet Offensive recently, its sequence of play does a wonderful job in capturing the conflict.
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Bill Eldard
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sherron wrote:
. . . Amen Bill, I played Tet Offensive recently, its sequence of play does a wonderful job in capturing the conflict.
Yeah. And even after several plays as the Allied player, there's still that 'oh, crap' feeling on the first two turns as NVA/VC attacks erupt all up and down the length of the gameboard. It's a fun, very accessible wargame that captures the strategic feeling of the Tet Offensive very well.

Has anyone thought about reprinting it or Year of the Rat?
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Jim F
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The comment about armchair experts who have read one or two books on the subject made me smile - and the review too, of course.
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Carl Fung
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Eldard wrote:

Has anyone thought about reprinting it or Year of the Rat?

Not trying to draw equivalency here or self-promotion but I looking to design an SCS game on the Easter Offensive taking a page from this game (one map, straightforward rules, etc.).

I played this game a while ago so I don't remember much from it but the Easter Offensive has fascinated me being a conventional battle in the Vietnam War. The OOB definitely needs an update (only so much you can get from designing a game right after it happened).

Very good review that only makes me want to set aside time to do my design...
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Brian Train
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Eldard wrote:
Outstanding review of this old SPI design.

As I recall, Dunningan/Prados described the challenge of designing a game the subject of which was so current, particularly since the ultimate strategic outcome was unknown. Nonetheless, it has been praised for years for both its playability and its simulation of the campaign.

Dunnigan was fascinated by the ability of board games to explore contemporary and hypothetical conflicts.
This wasn’t anything that the American professional military wasn’t already doing, with good reason.
He reasoned, why shouldn’t civilians also explore these problem spaces for themselves, with the benefit of some research and tested game mechanics?

Year of the Rat was published less than six months after the actual event.
In 1972 terms, that’s still within one news cycle!

An even better example was the following year when SPI staff, mainly Dunnigan, were working on Sinai.
The actual 1973 Arab-Israeli War started just as they were playtesting a “hypothetical 1970s” scenario… and the story is told that most days, a military attache from the Israeli consulate who was a gamer himself would stop by to see how testing was progressing and what results were being generated from the games.

A third is Arabian Nightmare: The Kuwait War.
This game on the First Gulf War was also probably the first manual wargame to be designed, tested and developed mainly over the Internet.
Within days of the Iraqi invasion in August 1990, Dunnigan and his co-designer Austin Bay began to communicate over the GEnie online service (who remembers GEnie?) with developers, playtesters and graphic artists to create a game that reached subscribers in January 1991, just as the real Operation Desert Storm got underway.

However, there weren't many other examples of this sort of "wargame journalism" - they did a lot more hypothetical titles than true-contemporary ones.

Brian

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Bill Eldard
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ltmurnau wrote:
Eldard wrote:
Outstanding review of this old SPI design.

As I recall, Dunningan/Prados described the challenge of designing a game the subject of which was so current, particularly since the ultimate strategic outcome was unknown. Nonetheless, it has been praised for years for both its playability and its simulation of the campaign.

Dunnigan was fascinated by the ability of board games to explore contemporary and hypothetical conflicts.
This wasn’t anything that the American professional military wasn’t already doing, with good reason.
He reasoned, why shouldn’t civilians also explore these problem spaces for themselves, with the benefit of some research and tested game mechanics?
We had the pleasure of Jim's attendance to a little wargaming event we dubbed The Wake; it was begun in 1998 to 'mourn' the death of Avalon Hill, and we had such a good time that it continues semi-annually to this day.

Jim unexpectedly showed up at the first Wake, and he emailed me before the second one (1999) offering to do a Chechnya game like they did in Friday Night Follies method of early SPI days. He brought an unclassified OOB, and we brought a blank hex sheet, a blown up DMA map of Chechnya, and pencils.

Taping the map to the large window for backlighting and then overlaying that with the hexsheet, former SPI guys and Wakesters Mark Herman and Al Nofi proceeded to relive their misspent youth tracing the roads, railroads, and cities onto the hexsheet while several others created the counters from Jim data. All the while, Jim was talking about design theory in general and Chechnya specifically. Within a few hours, we had finished the mapsheet and counters, written some rules, and Jim's said, "Now just add a CRT from any folio game and you're done."

I was a bit disappointed when I realized that most of the folio games I had eagerly purchased on the '70s were produced roughly the same way, but with more time spent for development and playtesting. But it was a fun experience nonetheless. I always remember Jim saying, "Forget the chrome. Concentrate on the 3-5 things that mattered."
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Brian Train
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Dunnigan was a big fan of the 90% solution, with respect to professional wargames: a few hours of work, provided you know broadly what you are doing and what matters, will get you fairly close to something that should generate a range of reasonable results (mumble mumble more qualifiers here mumble).
Picking out what matters, that is the tricky part, for a hypothetical or very recent engagement....

Brian
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Severus Snape
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Quote:
Very good review that only makes me want to set aside time to do my design...

I will be happy to be playtester on your game, if you need (another) one, though I imagine you have many volunteers knocking at your designer's door.

goo
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Steve Stanton
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Year of the Rat was my first wargame ever. I was hooked after getting it with the S&T Magazine. I still have it.
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Timothy Smith
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Bent,

Thanks for telling us about Kerry Anderson and plugging his fine work. After some circuitous navigation I found Microgame Design Group's 'SPI Wrecking Yard' where one can find a list of games for which Kerry Anderson has made new counters: http://microgamedesigngroup.com/WreckingYard/counters.html. Check out his instructions on requesting die-cut versions in a link on the left side of the webpage.

Best, Tim
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Timothy Smith
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Bill,

I remember that first Wake. We taped up butcher-board paper on the window at CNA and JFD sketched out the outline of a Chechnya game. Kind of like a tutorial from his book 'Wargame Design'. I have not attended in some time although I know some of the fellows at CNA maintain the tradition. (But this is not the proper place for such reminiscences.)

R/Tim
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Just played set up and played my first game and wanted to bounce a couple things off y'all.

The Easter Offensive is a cool situation on paper but historically it devolved into a series of bloody assaults reminiscent of WWI. Of the three major pushes only Quang Tri fell (and was subsequently retaken). In game terms, that translates into ~10 turns of rolling a whole bunch of low odds attacks hoping for a "1" The low odds attacks largely because air/naval power has most of the NVA pinned/disrupted. I preface that because in my game An Loc fell on Turn 1 but Quang Tri, Kontum, and Pleiku held (and it was pretty clear after the first turn that they would not fall barring a last ditch 1:1). I am not questioning the historical fidelity of the game, just concerned about the implications in terms of a gaming experience....

1) It seems that if the Communists don't take their objectives in the first turn, it is VERY difficult to do after that because:
2) The Communists only start with 14 heavy units. After the first turn, the ARVN pretty much know where they are (i.e. they had to reveal to attack)
3) With 13 points of air, the ARVN can bombard 13 of the 14 units with one point of apiece. Not good odds individually (33% to pin each Communist Division) but in aggregate, enough to take out 1/3 of the force.
4) Then the ARVN stuff a Marine/Ranger (along with the troops in the Region) into each vulnerable target (i.e. Quang Tri, Pleiku, Kontum, etc.). Each hex then has 7-8 SP's in defense (including the militia).
5) Unless the Communists can get a 2-1 they almost can't afford to attack due to the dreaded AE result at 1:1. Given that a third of their force is Pinned, it is difficult to get more than 1:1.
6) ARVN airpower increases over the scenario so the fraction of Communist units Pinned is only going to get worse.

I have to play some more (and probably break away from the historical plan to try and instead pick up some "cheap" lightly defended towns).

Again, not saying the game is a bad simulation as that is pretty much what happened. The system (CRT, etc) just seems pretty transparent that you can pretty much predict how the game is going to play out fairly early on. I think. YMMV. I do need to play more.

Couple side notes.... Would be cool if:

1) the historical OOB was a bit more, uh, historical.
2) the CRT somehow showed wear and tear on the units. The 3rd ARVN Division was in pretty bad shape after the fall of Quang Tri. Ditto the An Loc defenders.
3) the NVA had some pretty fearsome ARTY (in fact, given the crappy weather early on in I Corps, on some days it was probably more effective than US airpower). Might be nice to allow them to PIN the ARVN.
4) Instead of having all NVA units be in supply for the first two turns, maybe allow units two turns of attack supply that commences when they make their first attack. That might allow them to infiltrate and delay a bit to keep the ARVN from stripping away all reserve forces from unaffected areas.
5) Also, perhaps have an activation system where the NVA player can't reliably launch all the different attacks in perfect coordination.

Okay, back to the table....
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Leo Zappa
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*sigh*

So, after reading this excellent review of a game I hadn't really considered in the past, I decide to check out eBay to see about getting a copy. I find four copies for sale; that's the good news. The cheapest one is selling for $95 plus shipping; that's the bad news! I'm afraid I will have to pass on this one for now.

Darn you, Severus, your review probably tripled the going price for this game!
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One in the Geek Market for $28, 6 for trade, and 314 owners.... I bet you can find one for a reasonable sum!
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Severus Snape
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Quote:
1) the historical OOB was a bit more, uh, historical.

2) the CRT somehow showed wear and tear on the units. The 3rd ARVN Division was in pretty bad shape after the fall of Quang Tri. Ditto the An Loc defenders.

3) the NVA had some pretty fearsome ARTY (in fact, given the crappy weather early on in I Corps, on some days it was probably more effective than US airpower). Might be nice to allow them to PIN the ARVN.

4) Instead of having all NVA units be in supply for the first two turns, maybe allow units two turns of attack supply that commences when they make their first attack. That might allow them to infiltrate and delay a bit to keep the ARVN from stripping away all reserve forces from unaffected areas.

5) Also, perhaps have an activation system where the NVA player can't reliably launch all the different attacks in perfect coordination.

Ted, you have some excellent ideas here. If I, or someone else, comes along a more accurate OOB setup, let's post it for everyone to consider.

It would be nice to have a game where the counters are two-sided in order to absorb loses. This is especially important for the ARVN units. The ARVN 1st division really needs to be stronger; it was not an elite unit, but it was the best of the regular army divisions and remained so until it fell apart, like everything else, in the 1975 quagmire.

I really like the NVA activation roll, and it is something that I will try the next time the game is on the table.

goo
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Brian Train
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By the way, I just found this, from Peter de Rosa's old online zine Academic Gaming Review:


"Year of the Monkey", a Tet 1968 scenario for Year of the Rat!

http://home.earthlink.net/~pdr4455/monkey.html

Brian

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ltmurnau wrote:

By the way, I just found this, from Peter de Rosa's old online zine Academic Gaming Review:


"Year of the Monkey", a Tet 1968 scenario for Year of the Rat!

http://home.earthlink.net/~pdr4455/monkey.html

Brian


Great find, Brian; thank you.

goo
 
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