Mark Herman: Fire in the Lake Playtest

Repost from BGG, fro your edification.

Fire in the Lake Playtest Session

As the game moves into final development Volko, Paul, and I used our holiday to playtest the NVA solitaire ‘bot’ in the 1968 scenario. This was not as much a competitive session, but an open interaction to make sure that the NVA ‘bot’ did reasonable things when mixed in with three humans.

For this play through the sides were:

Paul: USA
Volko: ARVN
Mark: VC
Erasmus the ‘bot’: NVA

I am writing this session report from the VC perspective for readability and the fact that the game was not played in a competitive manner, as this was Paul’s second game and we (Volko and I) wanted to see how the ‘bot’ performed.

We often discussed the best plays for each side as we were going along frequently analyzing what the rules stated the ‘bot’ should be doing and whether that made sense or not. I have to say the ‘bot’ got solid tuning over the course of this session.

For those who are not familiar with this scenario, it starts on the eve of the historical ‘Tet’ offensive. For this play through we randomly chose the required 36 events from the 120 available, so neither Volko nor I had any idea of what was coming next. I was glad to see how much fun a game I have played to death over the last 6 months remained challenging when I had less information on what was coming next.

The VC player has sufficient forces on the map to initiate his pivotal event in the opening. As the VC I could have opened with Tet, but the first event was Sealords, which I allowed to play out with Erasmus sending a large NVA guerrilla/ base force into the Mekong Delta. Soon thereafter I trumped Laser Guided Bombs and initiated Tet. The terror attacks went well and I made my main effort in Hue, which fell to the insurgents. The offensive generated 8 US casualties that would help reduce US AID during the next coup phase.

This attack set off a series of maneuvers and large assaults in the Iron Triangle (Tay Ninh province) and the Mekong, with a strong US/ARVN offensive into Quang Tri province. US air power continued to stomp out exposed VC forces as the counter attack tried to neutralize the VC gains.

After about 12 events we had the first coup, which was a Failed Coup, causing ARVN desertions. This was good for the insurgents as it extended Ky as the leader of South Vietnam with his higher Pacification costs. Early in the second coup phase the Giap event sent Erasmus (NVA) crashing into Quant Tri province cleaning out the US/ARVN forces and putting a huge army into South Vietnam. I used this opportunity to infiltrate VC guerrillas into the I Corps area to begin spreading communist love amongst the populace. I personally find the NVA a tough side to play as it requires subtlety and patience to build up your forces and wait for the right moment to go on the offensive. I have to say Erasmus so far was showing me some good stuff. I was also learning how to use the ‘bot’ instructions to leverage the NVA in achieving my VC goals, a very interesting game experience.

As the VC I had built up substantial forces in the Iron Triangle and with the NVA forces in the Mekong the insurgents had a real threat against Saigon. The ARVN started a major buildup in An Loc when an interesting set of events and situations drove the game in interesting directions.

Due to a sequence of events, Domino Theory, M-48, followed by Westmoreland. I had maneuvered the eligibility to enable the VC to use the shaded portion of Westmoreland to go over my victory threshold, but the US was able to unleash their pivotal event, Linebacker II to bomb the situation back into equilibrium. Over the course of the game I kept getting the VC into position to go over my victory threshold, but kept getting turned back when I was within 4 points of the goal line.

Then Erasmus entered the fray and shifted a large force into Kien Phong province (Mekong) that in conjunction with my large VC buildup in the Iron Triangle (Tay Ninh) saw the COIN forces shifting back into Saigon, especially after two NVA guerrillas launched a terror attack in Saigon supported by NVA bombardment. I had visions of taking the Capital.

Fortune smiled when I used a timely ‘Tho’ event to reinforce this effort placing a VC guerrilla and base into Saigon. My goal at this point was to force the US to have to use air power to destroy Saigon in order to save it and lose support, but the COIN forces managed to sweep and assault the insurgents securing the city.

One of my enduring problems was the VC were always short of resources exacerbated by the COIN forces success in keeping the Trail under control. I used an economic extortion tactic where I sent several VC guerrillas onto road spaces (no maneuver cost) and then taxed the trade to build up my resources. The corollary benefit of this tactic was I cut North-South communications hampering the ARVN transport capability for the most of the game. The second Coup saw Thieu take power with no automatic victories. The biggest problem the VC had was US airpower kept smoking the Trail. The VC were not gaining many resources beyond their bases in play that kept hampering my long-term plans.

What we did not know is how long the game would go. As it turned out the game ended on the 33rd card out of 36. But in the end it all turned on a couple of interesting events. After the Thieu Coup, LBJ’s Great Society showed up that enabled the US to make an unscheduled withdrawal. We discussed how this could lead to a US win with the subsequent withdrawal halving the unit footprint. As it turned out this was the critical turning point. With the US footprint near historical levels for the period of the war the ARVN were able to play Vietnamization turning the COIN war over to Volko’s ARVN with US air power support.

It was at this time that Erasmus uncorked the Easter Offensive. Hue, Quang Nom, and Da Nang fell to the NVA. Under the umbrella of this expanded insurgent footprint the VC rallied new forces to attempt to win the love of the newly conquered areas people. This is a key strategy in the four-player game where the VC guerrillas use the NVA main force units to shield their hearts and minds activities. With the small US footprint, the ARVN began to pick up the ground war and were starting to drive the VC back when a Failed coup ended the game. As it turned out the game was very close with the US winning due to the late LBJ withdrawal and the late ARVN offensive. The score was (key=score, amount above or below victory threshold); US (55 +5), VC (34 -1), NVA (10 -8), and the ARVN (41 -9). Although the US won, it would have been a VC win sans the intervention of LBJ; well-timed events matter.

Besides the great company, the solitaire dimension is both challenging and fun for our design team (Volko, Oerjan, and I). I am going to wait for Volko to integrate this playtest into a new version of NVA ‘bot’ and then we are heading back into the jungle.

Mark

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