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Game Review: Fire in the Lake, the Vietnam War, 1964-75
Could America have won the Vietnam War? This question remains one of history's most tantalizing and controversial what-ifs. There are so many forks on the long, bloody road that ended with the Fall of Saigon that we can't help wondering if events could have turned out differently.
Yet it is easy to say America could have won. The hard part is saying how America could have won. And therein is the beauty of an historical wargame: it allows us to not only devise counterfactuals, but also to test them.
Fire in the Lake is a political-military board game of the Vietnam War, 1964-75. Up to four players take command of the U.S., North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese and Vietcong war efforts.
The game is the latest in the COIN (counterinsurgency) series of games from publisher GMT, which has spanned guerrilla wars as diverse as Afghanistan, Colombia and Cuba. So it is important to first be clear what Fire in the Lake is not. It isn't helicopter assaults in the jungle, nor launching B-52 strikes at Hanoi. Where many historical wargames focus on grand strategy or battlefield tactics, Fire in the Lake focuses on counterinsurgency. It is applied history and theory, the books of Galula, Kilcullen and Nagl expressed through cards and dice.
Fire in the Lake is played on a 22-inch by 34-inch map divided into various provinces (highland, lowland and jungle), cities and Lines of Communication (representing major roads). Provinces and cities have a population level, from zero for sparsely populated highland provinces to 12 for crowded Saigon. Lines of Communication are rated for their economic value, which affects South Vietnamese and Vietcong resources.
Each province and city is considered to be either controlled by the COIN side (U.S./South Vietnam) the Insurgent side (North Vietnam/Viet Cong), or uncontrolled. However, each province and city also has a population status with five levels, ranging from extremely pro-government, to politically neutral, to extremely anti-government. These two simple metrics capture the essential dynamic of insurgency: a horde of U.S. and ARVN soldiers can militarily control a province, but the population may still be solidly anti-government.
Fire in the Lake comes with 248 small wooden tokens, representing U.S., South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops and bases, Vietcong (VC) and NVA guerrillas, ARVN Ranger special forces, American-led irregulars and South Vietnamese police.
On each turn -- which seems to correspond to a season's length of time -- an Event Card is randomly drawn from a 130-card deck. Each card is labeled with two events, with one usually favoring the U.S./South Vietnam, while the other favors the Communist factions.
The events range from the Gulf of Tonkin and Laser-Guided Bombs to Hamburger Hill and the Tet Offensive, but the names are there merely for historical flavor. What's important is that the events on each card allow the player to perform certain actions, such as obtaining more troops, changing the population status of a province, or conducting military operations.
Each card also specifies the order in which the four sides -- called "factions" -- take their turn. The first faction can play the card or pass, which gives the second faction the same option, and so on down the line. Because the faction order varies with each card, the result is a dynamic game where initiative constantly changes.
A faction that opts to play a card has two choices: either activate the event listed on the card, or more often, choose to conduct one or two operations. Fire in the Lake captures the differences between the different ways of war of the combatants by giving each of them a different menu of operations.
The U.S. is the elephant trapped in a tiger cage, the big stick playing whack-a-mole with VC guerrillas. The Americans are the most proficient at combat: Assault operations kill two Communist pieces for each U.S. piece committed (though two U.S. units are needed to kill a single Communist token in highland terrain, encouraging the NVA to stay in the hills). Airstrikes, the most powerful U.S. operation, destroy six Communist pieces from anywhere on the map, and damage the Ho Chi Minh trail as well.
The Americans can also airlift large numbers of troops from one end of the country to the other, clear Lines of Communication with Security ops, or use Sweeps to uncover hidden guerrillas. The U.S. can also offer foreign aid to build up new ARVN units, and conduct pacification to sway the allegiances of the populace. Unlike the other factions, the U.S. doesn't need to spend resources to conduct operations (America is considered to have unlimited resources).
The South Vietnamese are depicted as a poor man's U.S. Army, which fights the same kind of conventional war, only not as proficiently. Their offensives only eliminate one Communist piece for every two ARVN committed, making them one-fourth as effective as U.S. forces. Their airlift capacity is limited, and unlike the Americans, they must spend precious resources -- obtained through taxation and U.S. aid -- to conduct operations. However, the South Vietnamese can choose to perform a Govern operation, which garners resources from friendly-controlled provinces, and they can also use their Rangers to conduct raids to root out hidden VC guerrillas.
At first glance, the Communists appear puny, a Southeast Asian David confronting Goliath's massive array of firepower, mobility and resources. They slog on foot one province at a time, rather than flying (or helicoptering) across the map. NVA forces attack as effectively as the ARVN but less effectively than the Americans, while the Vietcong must roll dice to determine whether they inflict any casualties at all, making VC attacks a chancy proposition.
But the Communists have their own special capabilities to even the odds. The NVA can place North Vietnamese guerrillas as well as bases (which increase NVA infiltration capacity) in South Vietnam. Terror operations sabotage South Vietnamese resource collection, Bombardments (reflecting mortar and rocket attacks) inflicts casualties, and NVA regulars can infiltrate into the South depending on U.S. bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Nonetheless, except for a few NVA guerrilla units, the North Vietnamese more or less operate like a conventional army, albeit a more lightly armed one. It's the Vietcong who are the guerrilla pros in Fire in the Lake. They can perform Subvert operations that magically transform yellow ARVN pieces into blue VC.
Yet the most powerful Vietcong ability is also the most enduring image of the Vietnam War; the ability of guerrillas to hide among the population. VC units are normally considered to be Underground (their wooden tokens inverted), and can't be attacked, except by ARVN Rangers and U.S.-controlled irregulars, unless first detected. Detection occurs when VC conduct operations -- as in the VC surfacing during the Tet Offensive -- or U.S. and ARVN troops sweeping a province. Until then, the U.S. player can only gnash his teeth as VC sprout throughout the countryside, immune from attack.
Some operations simultaneously help and hurt those who perform them. For example, American airstrikes mow down insurgents, but they also turn the political loyalty of the population against the government ("we had to destroy the village in order to save it"). Extorting resources to support the guerrillas turns the population pro-government.
As if the Vietnam quagmire wasn't muddy enough, scattered through the Event Card deck are a handful of Coup cards. When one is drawn, a Coup Phase ensues and the musical chairs of South Vietnamese politics ensue. A new South Vietnamese leader, such as Khan and Thieu, is randomly selected, each with attributes that help or hurt Saigon's war effort.
More important, the Coup Phase is the only time that the game can end. If one of the four factions has fulfilled its victory conditions, play ends and the players count their victory points.
The victory conditions themselves nicely capture the differing agendas of the combatants. The North Vietnamese score points depending on the total population of NVA-controlled provinces, plus the number of NVA bases in South Vietnam; in other words, Hanoi is fighting a conventional war to "liberate" territory.
The Vietcong win depending on how much of the South Vietnamese population is in provinces that are strongly anti-government, plus the number of VC bases in the country. Their focus isn't military control of territory, but turning the populace against the government.
The U.S. and ARVN victory conditions are more complicated. Naturally, the Americans win if a large part of the South Vietnamese population supports the Saigon government. But U.S. victory also requires that most American troops not be on the map. In other words, Washington can pour troops into Southeast Asia, but those troops actually subtract from American victory points until they are withdrawn.
The South Vietnamese victory conditions are wonderfully cynical. They earn points based on the population of government-controlled provinces. But they also earn points for the level of Patronage, which reflects how much tax revenue and U.S. aid is siphoned off into the pockets of government supporters. In other words, Saigon wins by being corrupt enough to divert American aid into graft, but not so much as to lose the war.
So how does Fire in the Lake rate? Like the real Vietnam War, the answer has many levels.
As a game, Fire in the Lake has a bit of a learning curve. Counterinsurgency is a concept that even the Pentagon has trouble grasping, and the abstract combat and population control game mechanics take a little time to wrap one's head around. But after a little while, the game plays smoothly. And intensely: this isn't a game of Risk where you shove masses of armies forward to take Kamchatka. There are many possible strategies, and a finite amount of time and resources to execute them. Do you search and destroy the Communists in the hills, or secure the most populated provinces? When should the Communists lay low and build up their strength, or go active but risk being pummeled by American airpower? How much U.S. aid can the Saigon regime embezzle without losing the war?
As a simulation of the Vietnam War specifically, Fire in the Lake is a mixed bag. In many respects, it does illuminate why the combatants fought the way they did. Rich in firepower and mobility, the U.S. wants to fight a conventional war and blast Communists, if only it could find them. The Vietcong are termites, not capable of winning on the battlefield, but hard to root out, and adept at undermining the foundations of the Saigon regime. The popular image of the Vietnam War is of an endless series of mistakes and misperceptions -- usually on the American side -- but Fire in the Lake depicts the conflict as a clash between enemies whose capabilities, constraints and goals naturally drives them to waging different strategies.
On the other hand, having the North Vietnamese and Vietcong as competing players seems peculiar (there is an option for a three-player game where one player controls the NVA and VC). More important, as a simulation of Vietnam, Fire in the Lake seems a bit generic at times. Any game that attempted to simulate the staggering military and political complexities of the war would take longer to finish than the real-life conflict, leaving a body count of exhausted players in its wake. And yet the game seems less about the Vietnam insurgency and more about an insurgency that happened to be in Vietnam.
But that's where Fire in the Lake truly shines: as a simulation of the process of counterinsurgency. Because that is exactly what counterinsurgency is, a process. Most players will sit down to this game secretly hoping to come up with some killer strategy. Instead, Fire in the Lake will teach them a fundamental truth: guerrilla war is a long haul. Winning is a series of steps, from securing the population to destroying the enemy. More important, it is a series of stumbles. Fire in the Lake brilliantly illustrates the double-edged nature of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Bomb a province to wipe out Communist troops and the inhabitants turn against the government. Extort money and food from the peasants, and the inhabitants turn against the government. Sometimes, Fire in the Lake seems like a game where victory goes to whoever shoots himself the least in the foot.
And so the North Vietnamese troops keep coming down the Trail, get bombed to smithereens, and come back yet again. Viet Cong sprout throughout the countryside, are wiped out by U.S. troops and ARVN Rangers, and spring up again like weeds. The Communists mass their forces here, ambush an American force there, grab the occasional province or city. But they can't keep the territory and they can't make the Americans leave, or at least not for a while.
But eventually there will be a winner, blessed with better strategy and better luck. Someone will win Fire in the Lake, just as one side won the Vietnam War. The hard part is getting there.