We Were Soldiers: A Veteran's Take on Radio Commander

By Bill Gray 23 Oct 2019 2

I have to admit this has been the toughest thing I’ve ever written for Wargamer. Last week we ran our review of Radio Commander, a game covering the Vietnam War from the perspective of a commander behind a radio with a map in front of him on a desk. The unique selling point of the software is that the player must perform all game functions based solely on what he hears on the radio from his subordinate units. The game has no visual cues to help the player, thus simulating more closely the way it was for real folks, on the ground, outside beautiful downtown Saigon.

So, since I am a retired Army colonel, military intelligence type, and theoretically have done this sort of stuff, the Boss asked me for my thoughts on the game. While unique, is it something worth doing again? How realistic is it, or is it not? What is my personal reaction as a soldier and so on?

Bottom line for me is that Radio Commander is a niche product that I hope does well. It is a product I think all serious wargamers should play at least once. But it is also a game I’ll likely not play again. Read on for why.

Was it really like this? Not so much

First, a couple of qualifications. I was never in Vietnam. My service encompassed 23 years and spanned such events as the Gulf War and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but outside some time with the light infantry, most of my field duty was gained soldiering with the 1st Armored Division in Germany. There I did time with the division G-2 and also held staff intelligence officer billets with a maneuver brigade as well as 1-51 Infantry, Crailsheim, down Baden-Wurttemburg way.

M577 Command Vehicle

My map gymnastics came from the inside of an M577 command track, a converted and oversized M113 armored personnel carrier. This beast had extra radios, antennae, generators, and a tent extension that allowed it to link with similar vehicles to form a TOC, or Tactical Operations Center. It would float (how long was not part of the warranty), swim, and had enough armor to stop even the most vicious ping pong ball. For two REFORGERs (Return of Forces to Germany) and a host of other paid camping trips, it was home.

Nevertheless, I found Radio Commander both more difficult and simultaneously easier than what I remember. This was primarily due to the numerous historical details the game presented as realistic but are much different than what I remember. Part of this may well be due to the Army’s Lessons Learned process, where many of the most egregious problems that surfaced in Nam were corrected by the time I was commissioned. It also may indicate a lack of knowledge on the part of the designers, or a valid design decision to make a simpler, more playable product.

Radio Commander Map

Here are a few things that caught my attention in this regard:

  • The map is stylized, and not an actual representation of a US military 1:50,000 scale map. In turn this meant many helpful details I relied on to run a battle were missing.
  • The call signs were wrong, at least for my time in the service. We used an automated SOI (Signal Operating Instructions) that randomly generated call signs based on alpha-numeric-alpha (L7C, or Lima Seven Charlie for example) system every 24 hours, radio frequencies as well.
  • Though tactical man-packed radios lacked encryption, there was no attempt at proper SOI authentication.
  • The radio chatter was too long in duration, contained too many personal messages (“I owe you a cold beer for this one, bud” or something similar), lacked professionalism and was not informative. Normally if a unit reports they are taking fire in the real world, it identifies the coordinates of the enemy shooting at them as well. That’s just one example.
  • Tactical control measures such as Check Points did not appear, at least in the game I played.
  • The menu of responses or initial contact between I and my units was not appropriate or too limited.

All of this made it much more difficult to run the war, although one could label this accurate if selective radio spoofing, jamming and mechanical failure are considered. Conversely, there were some things that made game management easier. Probably the greatest of these was not having to manually calculate eight-digit coordinates, a very tedious and laborious process, and one that has to be dead on accurate if you are calling in fire support danger close. Obviously, the lack of stress and fatigue – especially fatigue – was a plus that made my game life more pleasant, and finally, the fact that the player is in a fixed position is a boon beyond all comparison. In my 1st Armored Division world we packed up and redeployed the TOC at least every 24 hours to avoid targeting by the enemy. A single track, normally the S3 or Operations Officer’s vehicle, would run the battle while we packed up, moved beaucoup und Zwanzig kilometers down the road, then set up again. During that time, you were totally out of contact with damn near everybody, and then had to catch up.

But then again, maybe it was?

What the game got right, and here I mean really right, was far more general in nature, though not one whit less important. Given the primary selling point of Radio Commander, the fact that there are no enemy units on the map unless you, the player, put them there, remains a biggie. Now embellish this with the possibility that placement on the map is subject to mistakes at two levels. First the player may simply misread the information and stick them at the wrong place. The second is his receiving the location data across the radio from a unit that is reporting what it thinks it believes is accurate or what its commander thinks he sees. In this game, dropping artillery on a Viet Cong platoon only to discover they’re ARVN friendlies is entirely plausible.

Military Maps Example

But there are two other important aspects many will overlook, and the first is that the game not only hides enemy units, it also hides friendly units. That’s right, just like the NVA and Cong, if you don’t place and move friendly units on the map, they do not appear. And the same parameters apply as above. Mistakes in plotting by the player are possible, as are mistakes by the unit reporting. But there is also an additional whammy in that friendly units must continuously report their location or wherever you have them sitting will likely be wrong. Having friendlies in the wrong location is as bad or worse than not knowing where the enemy is, and my impression in the game is that subordinate formations don’t volunteer information as often as they should.

You have to ask and woe to everyone if you don’t.

The other way Radio Commander is very accurate is the 'hurry up and wait' aspect of even the most intense conflict. Remember the quote “interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror?” That phrase supposedly described trench warfare during World War I and what was true then was true in Vietnam, is true today and is true in this game. Even though a player can speed up the game clock until the next message comes in, that process still does not completely alleviate the long periods of time that one simply receives reports, plots the map and simply waits, often bored to tears. Seriously folks, I’ve been there, at least partially, and that’s really the way it is. Now considering the player is not only playing the commander by notionally parts of his staff as well, this may not be a bad thing. Since you are required to perform manually many of the functions other games allow the AI to take care of automatically, you will need a lot of time.

Radio Commander Map 2

Accurate to be sure, but sometimes that perspective only does not a game make.

Moving Out

I enjoyed playing this game, finding it both innovative and challenging. It certainly reminded me of those many days in the back of my M577 command track, and that for me was the problem. Radio Commander seemed far more like work or training and much less like a game. Despite the many inaccuracies described above, it still gave me the feeling of being back on active duty wearing camouflage. My service was certainly rewarding, but it was tough, gruelling, often nerve-racking labor. In most cases, it was nothing even close to fun.

Most dictionaries define game as “a form of sport or play” and the word play as “an activity made for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”. If this is the case, then Radio Commander, in my opinion at least, has moved out of the gaming realm into the domain of training simulator. For those of us who have served in such positions with the military, my thought is that its too much like what we’ve left behind to be enjoyable.

For the civilian, I think the lack of immediate fun factor gratification may be too much to overcome, though some gamers will absolutely find this the very cup of Earl Grey they have long waited for. Most wargamers want to assume the command status of many of military history’s finest, but not their personality or the physical environment in which they led their forces to victory or defeat. Wargaming is competition, it’s also history, but after all, it is mostly play.

Radio Commander Map 3

That said, the price is not exorbitant, and I wish every wargamer out there would play this game at least once. If for no other reason than to remind everyone, veteran or civilian, that the battlefield environment than simulated on screen or tabletop is far less than real, Radio Commander serves a very useful purpose. War is more than just pushing a counter or moving a mouse, and a lot of it is not pretty. Radio Commander does show this well.

And who knows, maybe we do have an unexpected winner here. If so, I hope the concept might transfer backwards in time, to the days when telegraphs and couriers substituted for the ubiquitous AN/PRC-77 (remember that piece of . . . fine military hardware, ahem). Think a sort of mandatory and permanent Headquarters in the Saddle (HITS) from Scourge of War. Since even I am not old enough to have possible served back then, that would be a fascinating, unfamiliar perspective to explore.

Radio Commander is available to purchase via Steam.

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