Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Hearts and Minds (Vietnam, 1965-75)

Hearts and Minds. Worthington Games, 2010. Game designer: John Poniske. Game developer: Stan Hilinski. $49.95

As with all game evaluations on PaxSims, this review will examine both game play as well as the question of potential adaptability for educational purposes.

Game Contents and Play

Hearts and Minds is a card-driven, map-based strategy game that covers up to ten years of the Vietnam War, from the growth of US involvement in the mid-1960s through to the “Vietnamization” of the conflict and withdrawal of US troops in the early 1970s. Movement is zonal, with the (25.5″ x 11″) map board showing most of the provinces of South Vietnam, plus the border areas of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Military forces from South Vietnam (ARVN), the US, Korea, other allies, the Viet Cong (VC), North Vietnam (NVA), Cambodia (royalist and Khmer Rouge) and Laos (royalist and Pathet Lao) are represented. All units are abstracted, with most representing generic (untried or veteran) regular infantry, plus some additional artillery, armour, helicopters, and naval support units. (Click images below to enlarge.)

The “Red” (communist) and “Blue” (allied) players alternately play a card out of their hand, with four rounds of such card play representing a year in the conflict. As with several card-driven games, each card indicates both a resource point value and a possible event. Resource points are used to “buy” the event on the card (ranging from the Paris Peace Talks to a visit by Jane Fonda) and/or to enable movement, combat, and shifts in the political control of provinces. Combat is straight-forward, undertaken by totalling combat factors, adding a die-roll, and consulting a combat results table. VC units may also ambush allied players entering their zones.

Each year, South Vietnam is at risk of a military coup if its combat losses are high (and exceed the number of pacified provinces), although this risk can be offset through the expenditure of resource points to prop up the shaky Saigon government. A coup has effects on combat units (all ARVN units become “untried” again) and on ARVN deployment. As in the real war, the Ho Chi Minh trail plays a key role, allowing NVA units to slip into South Vietnam from border areas of Laos and Cambodia. After 1969, cards on both sides give players the option of escalating the war in these neighbouring countries.

Victory in the Hearts and Minds is achieved either by securing control of a certain number of provinces, or by achieving a certain number of hawk/dove points. Some of the cards are “campaign cards” that facilitate combat operations in one or more regions of the country and also yield bonus hawk/dove points for control of the area. More generally, the allied player also loses points for taking US casualties, as well as when the Red player gains control of too many South Vietnamese provinces, or when a South Vietnamese coup occurs.

Casualties therefore have political as well as military consequences. Although both sides receive replacements from year to year, high US losses will rapidly bleed political support for the war, while heavy ARVN losses will destabilize the South. The North gets quite high numbers of replacements, making it difficult to secure a military victory through attrition alone. Famously, military analyst Col. Harry Summers is said to have remarked in 1974 to a NVA officer “You never defeated us in the field” —to which the latter is said to have responded, “That may be true. It is also irrelevant.” In Hearts and Minds too, the Red player can lose battle after battle yet still win the war.

Because VC units are more effective at gaining political control, and are replaced more slowly, targeting these can be more effective. They are often able to evade contact, however, and slip away to other areas. Key to victory is careful use of the campaign cards, which if used to greatest effect should be preceded by some stockpiling of resource points as well as moving units into appropriate jumping-off positions for the impending military operations. The Tet Offensive card can be particularly devastating if Red uses it well. It is a gamble, however: if things go poorly, Red can find his NVA troops chewed up by superior allied firepower and his VC infrastructure in the south devastated.

The rules are fairly well organized (although some important information is to be found in the playbook or players’ charts), and the game plays quite easily. We weren’t entirely happy with the combat system (which depends on differentials rather than ratios), and it seemed a bit odd that US forces were more mobile but no more effective than ARVN or NVA troops. Also, the lack of any combat steps (units are either alive or dead), together with the replacements and reinforcements system used in the game, results in whole units being eliminated—only to (re)appear in large numbers again at the start of the new year. A smoother and more incremental system of losses and replacements would have added to a more realistic sense of historical flow. Pacification can only be undertaken by US units and yet has more positive effect on regime stability than anything the South Vietnamese can do for themselves, which runs rather counter to most COIN assumptions.  Conversely, we did rather like the “fog of war” built into the way VC units are used: deployed face-down on the map, some of them are not guerillas at all but rather “bad intel” that generates a random event when revealed.

Overall, Hearts and Minds is certainly a very solid, well-designed game. For some reason we couldn’t quite put our finger on (and despite the Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival we had on as soundtrack in the background) our playtest game lacked a certain excitement. Most of that was probably probably personal taste and/or the dynamics of that particular game, however—it certainly has a high rating (8.0/10) on GameBoardGeek, and it is certainly a game I intend to play again.

Instructional Potential

Because the game mechanisms are quite straightforward, Hearts and Minds is likely to be more playable by gaming neophytes than other larger and more complex wargames. (you’ll also find a rules summary and after action report form on BoardGameGeek that could be quite useful in a classroom setting.) The game does highlight the importance of political factors (through the use of hawk/dove points, the process of political control and “pacification” of provinces, and the endemic political weakness of the South Vietnamese government), as well as the pressures that caused a wider regionalization of the war into Cambodia and Laos. All of this would provide openings for discussion in the classroom. The cards depict key events of the era, which could also be explored with students. Unlike Labyrinth, there is no more detailed explanation of these included other than the brief text on the card itself. It would be fairly easy, however, to put a study guide together that offered additional information.

The rules and cards in the game tend to somewhat tilt the play in certain directions, and provide only limited opportunities to explore alternative strategies. There is no lasting way to strength South Vietnamese governance so as to undercut the underlying appeal of the insurgency, for example—while the Blue may “pacify” provinces, this renders Saigon less vulnerable to a coup rather impacting on the ability of the VC to recruit cadres or exert political control. Equally, there is no political cost to the collateral damage that would inevitably accompany Blue military actions. The possibility of implementing a stepped-up CORDS-type civic action programme would have provided an interesting “what if” option, especially viewed through the lens of the contemporary debate between “COINdinistas and “COINtras” over the relative merit of population-centric and enemy-centric counterinsurgency strategies. Diplomatic options in the game are limited to a  few event cards with modest effects—there is little scope to influence regional or other foreign policies, to step-up coercive force against the North (as with the Linebacker raids), or otherwise seek to reshape the broader political context within which the war was fought.

Of course, no game can contain everything, and from an instructional point-of-view it doesn’t need to. Students could be encouraged to propose house rules and game modifications, based on their own research into the dynamics of the conflict. Believe that host country efforts are essential to building legitimacy? Allow ARVN units to engage in pacification. Think that local attitudes matter to COIN operations? Perhaps NVA/VC units should suffer a penalty when fighting in pacified areas. Want to model more substantial US efforts to strengthen South Vietnamese governance? Allow some stability to cumulate over time, rather than resetting the coup marker to zero each new year. Want to reflect the impact of US domestic politics on the war? Have the status hawk/dove marker somehow affect the cost of US replacements or the pace of reinforcements. The possibilities are endless, and each proposed tweak of the game system could be made into a class discussion and learning experience. More broadly, the sorts of choices made by the designer, examined against the history of the conflict, can be used to encourage student reflection on what policy options would have been available to US, Vietnamese, and other decision-makers in this era and with what possible effects.

Concluding Thoughts

While not my favourite insurgency-based game, Hearts and Minds does have good potential in an instructional setting because of its straight-forward game mechanics, relatively clear rules, and appropriate level of abstraction. It is probably best played after students have read some of the major works on the conflict, thus enabling them to compare those portrayals with the one offered by the game. In reflecting on the similarities and divergences, students can thereby be encouraged to develop their own thoughts as to the the key social, political, and military dynamics of the Vietnam conflict, as well as the lessons that might be drawn from this for a broader understanding of guerilla campaigns, insurgency/counterinsurgency, stabilization operations, and regionalized warfare.

* * *

Update: John Poniske, the designer of Hearts and Minds, has contributed some thoughts of his own on the game and the use of games in educational settings. You’ll find them here.

5 responses to “Review: Hearts and Minds (Vietnam, 1965-75)

  1. Rex Brynen 26/04/2011 at 8:06 pm

    Quite right, Borat–but ARVN units can’t pacify solo, nor are they necessary for pacification to succeed. I’m still a little puzzled as to what a “pacified” province is supposed to be, and what the game mechanic is supposed to model–CORDS, perhaps (… but then CORDS advisors were small teams attached to South Vietnamese government and military offices, not US combat formations. Alternatively, the game mechanic might represent the view that SV was incapable of governance reform that wasn’t US-led.

    The discussion highlights the point in the review–namely that unpacking game mechanics can be a useful avenue into discussing the underlying real-life social, political, and military processes.

  2. Borat Sagdiyev 26/04/2011 at 7:50 pm

    ARVN units do play a role in pacification as you will usually need 2-3 of them to go with the US units in order to get a succesful pacification die roll.

  3. Rex Brynen 24/04/2011 at 9:54 pm

    Carl, it should be added, is also reflecting on “hearts and minds” this Easter:

  4. Rex Brynen 24/04/2011 at 9:51 pm

    For those of you who don’t know Carl, he’s a cynic when it comes to pop-centric COIN—and, it should be said, the inventor of the terms “COINdinsta” and “COINtra.” Since he’s being uncharacteristically cryptic, I’ll have to assume that is what he is commenting on, rather than my choice of CCR songs.

    Assuming that’s your objection, let me unpack that paragraph:

    Believe that host country efforts are essential to building legitimacy? Allow ARVN units to engage in pacification.

    I found the pacification process in the game a bit odd: the only actions that can be taken to strengthen the South Vietnamese government are those that exert tighter control over provinces under the aegis of US forces. Moreover, the sole purpose of pacification in the game is to reduce the risk of coup, or the cost of maintaining the government. I’m not sure that really addresses the roots of the 1963 and 1964 coups. Moreover, there were no coups in the period covered by the game—it was Thiệu throughout—so its a slightly odd mechanism in that respect too.

    Think that local attitudes matter to COIN operations? Perhaps NVA/VC units should suffer a penalty when fighting in pacified areas.

    You’re reading “hearts and minds” and/or time-travelling FM 3-24 into this, and you needn’t be. Exerting a powerful balance of control and administrative presence over an area makes it easier to develop intelligence sources, and it should act as a combat multiplier of sorts. Remember, I’m a COIN fence-sitter.

    Want to model more substantial US efforts to strengthen South Vietnamese governance? Allow some stability to cumulate over time, rather than resetting the coup marker to zero each new year.

    Aspects game tends to reset at the start of each year, which I didn’t like.

    Want to reflect the impact of US domestic politics on the war? Have the status hawk/dove marker somehow affect the cost of US replacements or the pace of reinforcements.

    Sure, US politics of the time was infinitely more complex than “rising anti-war protests makes increasing troop commitment more (politically) costly,” but I do think more closely linking the hawks/dove track to US capacities would make the game even more interesting.

    All that being said, the game is up to 10 years of the Vietnam War playable in 1-6 hours. The designer necessarily made choices on what to include and what to exclude, and from an educational point-of-view I think that always provides interesting grist for the class discussion mill.

    Or perhaps you WERE commenting on the CCR soundtrack?

  5. Carl Prine 24/04/2011 at 9:23 pm

    Oh, come on.

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