Dien Bien Phu: A personal journey in wargaming, Part 1

I had never heard of this little village in the backcountry of what is now the northwestern section of Vietnam until my father spoke of it to me when I was a teenager while we watched a movie one day. He had been on a destroyer which was stationed off South Korea during the events in question. He spoke to me of the siege and I was enthralled to no end. This talk with my father started a journey that continues to this day.

Before we talk about the games we must have a word about the battle itself if the reader is a little uninformed about it. Indochina was then the entire area which now encompasses all of Northern and Southern Vietnam and Laos. The French colonies in these areas were overrun by the Japanese at the beginning of World War Two. When the war was over the French wanted to reestablish themselves as sole proprietors again. The problem was, a fledgling communist guerrilla movement had been fighting the Japanese during the war and now wanted independence for their country. They were called the Viet Minh and they were now receiving supplies, weapons, and training from Red China to their north. The French began this endeavor almost broke from the previous war. They needed large amounts of aid from the U,S and other allies to maintain the colony let alone fight a war that was rapidly turning into a conventional fight. After six years of trying to pin down a very allusive enemy, the French government at home was becoming very disillusioned with this terrible drain on their resources. It was decided to take one last attempt to draw the main force Viet Minh units into a battle where the French Colonial forces could cripple or destroy them with superior fire power. The French plan was to draw them into this valley in the back country far away from their supply and recruiting areas where they could not, in the French way of thinking, keep their troops supplied with artillery, ammunition, and supplies for an extended battle or siege. Underestimating the enemy’s capabilities would be an ongoing trait the French would never be able to overcome.

This is one of my favorite gaming subjects. The war games that I will speak of are all part of my collection. So without further ado, let us address the first game bought and the one I still consider the best.

This game was produced by Game Designers Workshop (GDW). Although it is now a defunct company, many of its games are still in demand second hand. I bought this game at a local store for seven dollars when they were going out of business. Lets take a look at the components and then how it plays.

The Box
20141201_200619_resizedThe cover of the box has great photographs, some of which are from the battle itself or from the war in Indochina. To me this very appealing box art. Other games in my collection on the same subject, range from a communist poster art to a magazine game which for lack of any other way to describe it is…..mediocre !!!! The background color of the box is an off green that seemed to be a GDW signature. I have several of their games with the same color background. It does not bother me but some folks may be put off with it in a time of what some may feel are superior graphics from companies like GMT games.

The Maps
20141201_200822_resizedThe gaming area consists of two 22”X34” maps which pretty well covers the entire valley floor of the battlefield. The main colors used are as follows. Clear terrain is white, brown was used for small hills on the valley floor which contained very important strong points which were fought over for much of the battle. We will discuss these at length a little later. There is a small stream which bisects the battlefield in two parts and it’s naturally blue. The mountains that surround the valley are in green and represent much higher ground which is covered in dense jungle. Finally we are shown black barbwire surrounded strong points which the French built to protect strategic areas on the battlefield. There is also two air strips in gray. One other feature is the addition of the seasonal swamp areas in light blue which effect movement when the monsoon begins. These basic colors once again are a staple of a lot of the games put out by GDW. The truth is you either love them or hate them.

The Counters
20141127_203546_resizedThere is an art to making counters for a wargame. Some games are done right and some are done the easy way. This is my opinion and your mileage may vary. The units for this game are printed with all the info needed to play. What’s left is on a few charts which I will discuss next. The main protagonists are the French and their allies and the Viet Minh army. The French and their allies are represented almost entirely by company sized infantry and mortar units and batteries of different types of artillery. They also have ten American made M24 20141201_204354_resizedCHAFFEE type tanks. There is also a full range of aircraft which also participated in the siege and its environs. Now I want to stress something. As a famous game designer for some of the games in my collection once said “I am a visual guy”. What this means is this. I like to be able to quickly identify the nationality, size, type, and strength of my game pieces with one glance without having to check charts, rules, or read tiny paragraphs of text for these purposes. I am getting older and my eyesight is getting worse so this is a major factor in my game purchases.

The French infantry Battalions usually consist of three infantry and one mortar companies. The metropolitan or mainland French battalions are dark blue. The Colonial or in theater raised French are light blue. The French Foreign Legion are grey. All the units listed so far have black text. The French allies consist of Moroccan units which are dark brown with white text. Also the Algerian battalions are dark brown with black text. Finally the French Air Force and Naval Air units from carriers off the coast make an appearance with black on dark blue and white on dark blue respectively.

The Viet Minh are represented entirely by off-red battalion sized units and separate battery sized units of heavy weapons. Their infantry battalions are two sided showing that when they take heavy losses they flip and have a lower morale which is crucial in combat.

For the most part these counters are easy to read and use. There is something to be said about simplicity and its affect on war game play. Overall I really like the different nationalities being represented by different colors. It just works. There also counters for trenches, strength points remaining, pin markers, rout markers, and artillery sighting markers.

The rules and charts
20141201_200650 The rules for the game are well written and easy to understand. There are few, if any ambiguities. There are a few simple charts which must also be mentioned. These consist of two matching Terrain effects charts with combat results tables on the other side. A regrouping chart for aircraft availability and a three month time keeping chart. Last but not least we have a chart listing the strengths of combat units and strong point availability for both sides in the scenarios of the game. I want to mention two items before we move on to other items. One, there is some errata and rules changes for your consumption on Boardgame Geek for free. I have played only the rule changes for supply and they are more realistic.

There has been a little fuss about the original maps online. I read the remarks and I do not think its anything that twists the game around. Again, your mileage may vary! Next up, we will take a look at how this game plays.

I hope you have enjoyed part one of this review. See you next time and good gaming.

~ Lonesome Wargamer

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