An old general, cardboard bits, yesterday's battle
April 26, 2004 10:31 AM   Subscribe

90+ Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap buys 100 copies of "Vallee De La Morte", a board game recreation of the battle of Dien Bien Phu There actually are 2 competing board game recreations of the epic 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu which was (by the French):

"" attempt to interdict the enemy's rear area, to stop the flow of supplies and reinforcements, to establish a redoubt in the enemy's rear and disrupt his lines," says Douglas Johnson, research professor at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. "The enemy could then be lured into a killing ground."....Hoping to draw Ho Chi Minh's guerrillas into a classic battle, the French began to build up their garrison at Dien Bien Phu..." General Giap - who led the Vietcong forces in that battle, prefers "Vallee De La Morte". Such games are played with large multicolored paper maps broken up into hexagonal grids, with cardboard pieces representing military units. The rules can be quite complex and some wargames ( such as Drang Nach Osten) have thousands of pieces and take thousands of hours to play (sometimes longer than the actual wars they simulate). More on wargaming.
posted by troutfishing (26 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have to confess, I am an ex-wargaming nut. I have a copy of "Drang Nach Osten" ("Drive to the east" - the German invasion of the Soviet Union in WW2) and the Invasion of Poland.

I never finished playing out Drang Nach Osten, and when I calculated how long it would take to play the game if I were to treat it as a full time job - 9 to 5, 40 hours a week - I determined that it probably would consume over four years of my life.

So I found other, quicker hobbies.
posted by troutfishing at 10:39 AM on April 26, 2004

I've got a copy of Fire in the East (the updated version of Drang Nach Osten), along with all the other original GDW games in the Europa series. I faithfully bought each, looking forward to the day I could assemble them all together for one monstrous recreation of WW2 in division-level combat. Probably spent a good $2000 on the games, too, only to have the company stop making them two games shy of completion. So time isn't the only factor against DNO/FitE for me.

Oh, and I got older, got married, became a dad. But I've still got a soft spot for wargames.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 10:50 AM on April 26, 2004

Ghostinthemachine - I've got the 1970's GDW edition. I lost the rule book somewhere, and the box too. It's just cardboard bits now, and maps, in a plastic bag.

It's like leaving a cult, no? Sorry about the incompletion though.

Maybe you should just move on to other games......Vallee De La Morte ! It's got the Vo Nguyen Giap seal of approval.
posted by troutfishing at 10:56 AM on April 26, 2004

Most of the time that board wargaming takes involves computation, which is why (in my opinion) computers are much better for wargaming than boards.

The closest thing I've seen on a computer to board wargaming is the line of games by Paradox that uses the Europa Universalis engine--Europa Universalis II (world conquest from 1419-1819), Hearts of Iron (which covers WWII and a couple of years on either side), and Victoria (early 19th century-early 20th century). They all afford the pleasure of complex rulesets, without having space on your diningroom table blocked up for weeks or months.

(Links to the first two games go to reviews of the Macintosh OS X versions. Ignore the mediocre ratings--if you play games for advanced graphics, or if you have a problem with "information overload," then these games are not for you to begin with.)
posted by Prospero at 11:02 AM on April 26, 2004

Just another holler for EUII and HOI, which are difficult to master, yet provide amazing depth and hard-core historical accuracy. There is a significant community presence for both, which has led to "unofficial" campaigns that are arguable better than what the games ship with.

Computer games are great for not letting the rules get in the way, but they just can't compete with boardgames for the "interpersonal politics" that can drive decision making. Diplomacy is probably the best example of this- very simple mechanics, but relies totally on negotiation among the players. I've heard it's used heavily in military schools.
posted by mkultra at 11:17 AM on April 26, 2004

There are automated judge systems out there for playing Diplomacy online out there. If it were not for the universal truth that you end up hating everyone you play Dip with by 1907 or so, I'd say we should get something together.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:42 AM on April 26, 2004

I should have guessed there would be a few of "us" here.

Yep, trout, I've moved on (EU2 being the sole and very worthwhile exception), but I've still managed to preserve the hundreds of wargames I acquired as a geek teen, and hope to some day dust a few off. Not just yet, though, since my son is but 1 year old and has but one strategy - chew.

My favourite Diplomacy story: encouraging a dear friend to play his first game back when the group was still learning to play. He was Russia, I Turkey. We had a rock-solid alliance until it was just about time to leave, when I sent a fleet to Sevastopol for fun. The look on his face was bested only by the cartoon he subsequently drew of a Turk shoving a pike up the ass of a prostrate Cossack. I still have the reputation as a back-stabbing schemer who can't be trusted ever, but alas I could never convince my friend to give up that drawing.

And yes, the geek in me is pretty happy to see someone like Giap appreciates them. Thanks for the links.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:51 AM on April 26, 2004

Play Diplomacy with people you're rock solid with, or people whose friendships you won't miss.
posted by lumpley at 11:58 AM on April 26, 2004

Well, I am showing my geek cred here -- I played the entire Europa series including Fire in the East, over the course of many years in the 1980s and early 1990s. It took many 100s (1000s?) of hours and huge amounts of space but it was an experience to never forget. Still waiting for the Grand Europa rules plus the Pacific series to be completed in order to re-create the entire war which is basically the holy grail of wargaming.

Other monstor games I have played The Longest Day (Avalon Hill) which is highly recommended.
posted by stbalbach at 12:58 PM on April 26, 2004

Different geek cred: Giap and Ho Chi Minh used to share the executive bomb shelter in Hanoi during the Vietnam war. Both were excellent chefs - Ho Chi Minh was a pastry chef at Escoffier's in London, while Giap was also a cook in his student days. Sequestered deep beneath the ground in a bunker during almost daily during the bombing of Hanoi, they used to argue incessantly over how to make proper croissants, and Giap used to refuse to eat Ho Chi Minh's excellent French - i.e., imperialist - lunches.

History channel meets food channel.
posted by zaelic at 1:13 PM on April 26, 2004

Naval-warfare geek here. Ever since The Hunt for Red October I've dipped my toe into the realm of Harpoon, a wargame involving contemporary naval action. Talk about your info saturation: You can decide what the loadout is going to be for each aircraft in an antiship strike. But you better remember to get tankers airborne to support them!
posted by alumshubby at 1:38 PM on April 26, 2004

stbalbach - for once, I'm speechless*.

Ah, but I get it. I couldn't finish the series because I'm compulsive and would play it to the exclusion of almost everything else. You probably rationed out your gaming time. It's the only explanation that makes sense to me.

*And, hmm..... DNO/Fire in the East, Thermohaline slowdown/cessation, Interest in the constructive powers of human innovation..... Odd. But maybe not. Maybe it's completely predictable - with the right personality trait metrics.


zaelic - Historical arcana, delicious arcana! must feed me more fascinating, tasty historical minutia.....NOW !

That's sounds like one of my little "flights of fancy", but I think you're being on the level.....I think.

So what did Giap like to eat for lunch? "Proper" Vietnamese peasant food? Sounds like he was much more the ideologue in those days than Ho. I guess that's why Ho was the leader and Giap the general. Political vision requires flexibility. But Giap would still cook and eat croissants, eh? Maybe he used special indigenous Vietnamese grains and water-buffalo butter?
posted by troutfishing at 1:42 PM on April 26, 2004

Ah, all the armchair generals are coming out. Has anyone here played "Squad Leader"? That was a fun one - WW2 squad level infantry combat on the Eastern Front. The games were pretty short too, by customary standards - you could play a set in 3-6 hours.
posted by troutfishing at 1:47 PM on April 26, 2004

Has anyone here played "Squad Leader"?

I used to play that, and later Advanced Squad Leader - I still have all my boards & expansion sets. Iused to play ASL with my Army buddies when stationed for a month at a time at the Czech or East German border. That was really the only time in my life when I had the necessary contiguous block of free time to devote to board wargaming.

The fact is, though, the computer is much better for this kind of stuff - especially tactical wargames like ASL. The "Combat Mission" series is pretty good, and much like Squad Leader in the important respects, I think.
posted by me & my monkey at 2:04 PM on April 26, 2004

uh... i just got "advance wars" for my gameboy... does that count as wargaming?
posted by jcruelty at 2:24 PM on April 26, 2004

me & my monkey - yup. That makes perfect sense. I imagine all the tactical board games have evolved into computer games. But the strategic level games are different - more like absurdly complex chess and not really about sounds, visuals, or quick reaction.
posted by troutfishing at 2:44 PM on April 26, 2004

So will I be mocked mercilessly by you wargaming geeks because I like Risk?
posted by TungstenChef at 2:49 PM on April 26, 2004

That makes perfect sense. I imagine all the tactical board games have evolved into computer games. But the strategic level games are different - more like absurdly complex chess and not really about sounds, visuals, or quick reaction.

I think the best tactical computer games aren't really about sounds or visuals, or quick reaction, either. The Combat Mission games, for instance, are turn-based, so you have all the time in the world to make your moves, if you like. The sounds aren't that important, and the quality of the visuals themselves aren't that important - what is important, visually, is that you can easily determine line of sight and line of fire from any point on the board to any other.

I think the closest parallel to Squad Leader and ASL on the computer was the "Close Combat" series, which was also turn-based if I recall correctly, but if you like WWII tactics you should check out Combat Mission.
posted by me & my monkey at 3:03 PM on April 26, 2004

No Close Combat was real-time, and therefore sucked as a parallel to Squad Leader. Combat Mission IS SL for the PC/Mac
posted by Windopaene at 3:11 PM on April 26, 2004

There are several computer games that are must haves for the wargamer. One is The Operational Art of War - Century of War edition , which uses the traditional hex and counter wargame interface to simulate ANY modern battle one wants to design. (this is mostly on an operational scale) For those who want more tactical battles, the Steel Panthers series is well known - you can go to this site and download a free copy of a modern updated version - (note - BIG 400meg download).

Also well known are games by Talonsoft - has information on these and many other classic and current games.

SSI did some old great wargames in the 80s - you may want to go to and download the Apple II emulator so you can go to and play many of the old ones - crappy graphics but many have excellent game play. Gettysburg - The Turning Point and Battles of Napoleon are still highly regarded by many.
posted by pyramid termite at 5:51 PM on April 26, 2004

I played this kind of wargame twice before moving to computers. Its the best way to play board sims. I preferred table top wargaming starting, in '84 and continuing today. Now I paint and push the counters around. ~_^

my favorite wargame article covering wargaming history. Check out the origins of Janes!
posted by infowar at 7:01 PM on April 26, 2004

I spent more time than I like to admit pushing cardboard counters around maps. I too have played The Longest Day (one of the guys in our group spent a fair amount of time on the phone with the designers, trying to iron out ambiguities that had slipped through into the rules), Squad Leader, and many of the other classics.

The forthcoming War in the Pacific is the game that I'm looking forward to right now -- a (perhaps insanely) detailed look at WWII in the Pacific, with nearly every ship, airplane and soldier accounted for.
posted by Zonker at 7:07 PM on April 26, 2004

uh... i just got "advance wars" for my gameboy... does that count as wargaming?

You know, the cartoonish graphics of AW and AW2 disguise the fact that those are actually hardcore turn-based strategy games (though they don't have the insane focus on "realism" of the wargames in this thread).

(I played through the main campaign of AW1, which was hard enough in and of itself, and was proud to have beaten it. The AW2 campaign is absolutely punishing, though--it's more than twice as long, and surpasses the difficulty of AW1 about a third of the way through. After about a month of play I got to its final scenario, looked at the map, and said I'd put it aside for another day. That day hasn't come yet.)

And those Combat Mission games (mentioned above) look amazing--it's too bad they'll only run natively in Mac OS 9 (not even Classic?). Being forced to boot into 9 in this day and age is an almost unforgivable inconvenience, but I might be willing to put up with it for those games.
posted by Prospero at 6:41 AM on April 27, 2004

A grad school friend and I played a turn based board game that lasted almost an entire school year...I think the game was Blitzkrieg?...squad level, western Europe.

Amazingly, I am fighting the same guy in Combat Mission via email 16 years later.

It's an incurable addiction.
posted by cyclopz at 9:33 AM on April 27, 2004

General Giap - who led the Vietcong forces in that battle, prefers "Vallee De La Morte".

It's worth noting that General Giap led the Viet Minh forces during the battle of Dien Bien Phu. In 1954, the NLF (pejoratively known as the Viet Cong) didn't even exist.
posted by cobra libre at 11:49 PM on April 27, 2004

cobra libre - My historical blunder. thanks for the correction.
posted by troutfishing at 8:57 AM on May 4, 2004

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