I really enjoyed this inaugural session of "Dien Bien Phu, Trenches In The Tropics." I went to a lot of trouble to make a battle map that was realistic and printer sized, (I used a topo map of Dien Bien Phu and super-imposed the game over it). I also shrank the counters down to a more manageable size. This game is imminently playable and very enjoyable, even if it's not what your standard issue grognard would expect from a war game. It was designed by King's College in the UK to help teach tactics and strategy to folks at the war college. This is just one of the many games that are available there for free, and which are used as teaching aids. If this game is any indication, I'll be going back for many more!
The game isn't a hex-and-counter unit combat game; it's an attempt at being an accurate re-enactment based on tactical deployment and resource management on a large scale. The French were static in their defensive redoubts, and as such, never really moved much, except to counter-attack when a position was being over-run. The battle lasted just shy of two months, and after the destruction of the air strip by the Vietminh, resupply was done wholly by air.
The author of the game goes to great lengths to keep the situational and logistic guidelines as historically accurate as possible, so that within the framework of the game, you can try different strategies either as the French or Vietminh to make things go your way.
The game is set up in phases, much like any other war game... (I may print up a little home-made "charts and tables" card to keep from having to flip back and forth through the rules quite so much). The first phase is the logistic phase, when you are resupplied according to your situation and luck. Then, your soldiers promptly consume either four (French) or two (Vietminh) points right of the top of your stock of supplies, just to get fed, etc. Next, there's the movement phase, which could be more aptly named the deployment phase, since that's when you decide on the deployment of your units based on availability and the number of times you're allowed to move. After this, there's a phase for the Vietminh to attempt to dig trenches, (VERY necessary to keep from getting eviscerated by charging dug in defenses in the open), followed immediately by a phase for the French to try to destroy those trenches. Next, there's the Vietminh Artillery phase, and the Vietminh "Choice" phase, wherein the Vietminh player decides whether or not he or she will try to over-run a French stronghold. If so, the French get an artillery phase, (Each action has a direct effect upon supplies; when you run out, you're toast; artillery is a real drain on your stock of supplies), followed by the close combat phase. If you as the Vietminh player opt NOT to attack, the French player can choose to have an air strike on your gold-brickin' backside, at a terrible cost to his resupply next turn. Close combat happens simultaneously, much like in real life. NOW, if you're the Vietminh player (I was both), and you've not got trenches, and you're trying to do this, even though you're Regimental strength to the French Battalion strength, you have TWO penalties... you take the damage (if any) rolled by the French, DOUBLED for not having trenches, and DOUBLED AGAIN for being crazy enough to charge fortified positions. (This admirably accomplishes two things; one, it teaches you to really value those trenches and two, it recreates the awful carnage which resulted from Vo Nguyen Giap's mad propensity for "human wave" attacks.) After the smoke clears, if you've eliminated all French units, the attacking Vietminh unit is allowed to move on to the French stronghold. But, Uncle Ho needn't start his victory dance just yet... the French have the option to counter attack! This is done in a unique way; both sides roll a dice and multiply the result by their current attack strength. If the French is higher, they succeed and lose one point of attack strength and the Vietminh loses three. If not, well, you eat the attack strength loss and the Vietminh player gets to stay in town. All this scrappin' costs you in terms of supply stock. You can run very low, and after the destruction of the air strip, (hint, Vietminh player, do it on turn one!), it can get real dicey for the French.
You see, you're not only fighting the Vietminh, but your own limitations on personnel and materiel. In the last phase, you get reinforcements, (all paratroopers, of course, the Vietminh get their two reinforcements at the beginning of turn 5), but only until you've lost four strongholds, after that, the French command has all ready written you off as a lost cause!
So you go back to phase one, bump the turn track up one and do it all over again... you get re-supplied, with penalties for having lost the air strip, and each stronghold you've lost, especially the two at the approaches to the airstrip at the north and south ends of the valley. (Gabrielle and Isabelle). If they're gone, you're done... resupply is horribly crippled by their loss, because planes have to fly over them due to the terrain. If the bogey man has 'em, needless to say, a lot of supplies get plastered all over the skies. As the game wears one, French supplies get harder and harder to come by... one bad dice roll can really put you in the hurt locker.
In my game, I learned several things, first, BUILD TRENCHES. Frenchy will probably blow 'em right back up, but it'll make him bleed. MAKE HIM BLEED! It's a miracle that the Vietminh won what with Vo Nguyen Giap's dithering and hesitating. If it's broke, fix it and move on... I never even bothered using the Air Strike as the French player. I never wanted to take that big of a hit to my supplies, and as the Vietminh player, I was a relentless bastard who never once passed on trying to take a stronghold, so the issue was moot. I learned that you really have to have the trenches if the French player has any strength at all on a stronghold. If not, you will experience the tragic consequences of "human wave" attacks. As French, you want some of your better units in HQ to send to counter-attack if an important stronghold like Gabrielle or Isabelle is over-run. I promise that the Vietminh unit that's there is bloodied. I've found that Shaffee's tanks work well, along with foreign legionnaires. If you need to deploy them in counter-attacks early on, then use your para's that are sent in as reinforcements for a reserve. Just remember, if your stocks hit zero, you can't fight (out of ammo, food, etc.), and you'll have to retreat, which can get messy.
The Vietminh were resupplied a bit slow, but it was regular and without much interference, (except for the aforementioned French Air Strikes, which hurt the French almost as much as the Vietminh; if all planes are bombing the bad guys, they aren't dropping beanie-weenies and bullets on you!).
I've read a lot about the battle, and having read as much as I have, I find the game a remarkably canny way to "re-fight" the battle and ask some important "what if's?" My first time out, the French fought the Vietminh to a draw; right down to firing their last bullet. As you can probably tell, this game is more on a strategic than tactical level, which makes it all the more refreshing in my eyes. I found myself shocked by how much blood the French could draw from Uncle HO's minions when they were able to put up a fight. I found that Isabelle is a real MO FO to take from the French. I've also learned that even though you can manage the hell out of your resources, and and risks, there's still no guarantees. A lucky roll here, an unlucky roll there, and you could be staring down the barrel of a full blown DISASTER! This is what gives this cold, calculating game of resource management and risk assessment it's edge. It's still war, and the best laid plans of mice and men... well, you know.
I'm glad that things went the way they did this first time out... now I'm familiar with the system and the overall strategies necessary to both sides. Next time, I can try a thing or two and see if maybe, just maybe, history doesn't have to repeat itself. I can't wait.
I was at King's College back in the 90s and had friends who were doing a War Studies degree. It always appealed to me. The way that they're now using games for the MA course is inspired.
You are a paradox to me, a contradiction You're a predicament for me, and a prediction
Great review! I've recently played an ASL version of DBP, dealing with only a couple of the forts... and both sides have the capacity to dish out a fair bit of punishment. I recently picked up a book on the battle written by Giap, which added greatly to the atmoshphere.
Looks like this little game is worth checking out.