The Best Vietnam War Games07 Nov 2019 10
There’s no pithy way to sum up the Vietnam War without cheapening events or glossing over crucial details of one of the most complicated conflicts of the modern era. What began as a regional shift in power dynamics after the departure of the occupying Japanese troops metastasized into a long and bloody hot war between the planet’s superpowers, and a cultural and political referendum in the United States.
While researching this list of the best Vietnam War games, I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of games set during the war have been first-person shooters. When it comes to game design, the asymmetry in forces may be the biggest hurdle developers face. The U.S.-backed South Vietnamese side had vastly superior equipment and weapons, but found themselves utterly stymied by the NVA and Viet Cong, who refused to quit fighting even after countless devastating firebombing and deforestation campaigns.
This is our guide to the best Vietnam War games you can play in 2019, if you’re keen on examining this misunderstood conflict.
Vietnam War Games
Publisher: Games Operators
Developer: Serious Sim
Tags: Turn-based strategy, classic wargame, historic
It's gratifying that the first new Vietnam War-themed game in quite a while is actually pretty good, and with a unique take to boot. It's more of a lite RTS in terms of mechanics, but the hook is that you're a Commander back at the HQ tents, with nothing but a map and a radio. You need to listen to the information you get over comms, and then add that information to the map yourself (more or less - there are options to scale the realism) and make decisions from there.
It's got a narrative element to it - some people thinks it's a bit corny or gets in the way, but without it the experience could run the risk of being a bit dry. It's also the only thing that ties this game to the Vietnam War itself, as otherwise you're just a dude in a tent with a radio pushing pieces about a map. Still, it's a very interesting and very challenging game, and wonderfully thematic as well. We've got a Radio Commander review if you're interested in reading more, as well as Colonel Bill's thoughts on the game as someone who's served in a similar set-up in real-life.
Squad Battles: Dien Bien Phu, Squad Battles: Tour of Duty & Squad Battles: Vietnam
Publisher: John Tiller Software
Developer: John Tiller Software
Tags: Turn-based strategy, classic wargame, historic
John Tiller Software provides broad-ranging coverage of the Vietnam War as well as possibly the most grognard-friendly games in this list. The Squad Battles series zooms in from the vast operational fronts featured in World War II games to focus the action on individual battalions, companies, and platoons - even modelling mortar and tank crews individually, along with each of their available weapons.
The John Tiller games make very few concessions to modernity and can feel very dated to today’s players. But there’s something admirable about the stolid “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach the company has taken to the game engine and interface, while focusing completely on scenario, map, and unit development.
Start with Squad Battles: Dien Bien Phu for the earliest fighting in Vietnam, as the Viet Minh fought their French colonial occupiers out of the country. Squad Battles: Tour of Duty has you assume command of a American unit leader deployed to Vietnam and fight through the battles that shape your year in-country. Squad Battles: Vietnam covers the war more broadly, with campaigns that retrace Hamburger Hill and the Tet Offensive included.
Each of these John Tiller titles includes dozens of scenarios (Vietnam has 71) and multiple campaigns, and the maps range in scale from 780 40-meter hexes all the way up to 71,400. You have several multiplayer options, from two-player hot seat to play-by-email, as well as LAN and online support. The creaky visuals and clunky old interfaces may not turn heads these days, but these games are undoubtedly among the best approximations of the classic cardboard-counters-and-firing-charts tabletop wargaming you’ll find in digital form.
Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations
WarfareSims’ Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations is sold on Steam, but it’s as much a powerful simulation and training software suite as it is a wargame. Part of what makes it stand out so much is the feedback you get as a player. The inputs you have available are similar to those a theatre commander would have in a TOC or on a flagship bridge - a common operational picture that displays all available intelligence as quickly as it’s updated by units and sensors in the field. This is a game about commanding naval and air assets across entire theatres of war, and as such it's dense with information.
That means CMANO’s Vietnam scenarios are both highly detailed and a bit professionally detached from the gritty jungle scenes we’re used to seeing when the war is portrayed in movies and games. But major components of the Vietnam War were naval actions and air campaigns. With the base game, you get scenarios for the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, the Navy’s Operation Market Time (the attempt to blockade Vietnam by sea), and the Vietnam People’s Air Force raid on the U.S. Navy in the Battle of Đồng Hới.
There are plenty more to find in CMANO’s database of user-created scenarios, including the fateful “Gulf of Tonkin” incident, which - regardless of what really happened - provided the political pretext for the U.S. committing fully to the Vietnam War. We've got a review of the base CMANO game if you want to know more about what the platform's like.
The Operational Art of War IV
Publisher: Slitherine, Ltd.
Tags: Turn-based, wargame, simulation, historic
Tabletop wargaming groans under the weight of modern battlefield considerations like the fog of war - analog grogs in the past have resorted to enlisting referees to update intelligence on opposing sides’ boards as they were kept hidden from each other. The Operational Art of War IV provides a hyper-detailed tabletop-like experience, with cardboard counters bearing NATO symbols moving around on colorful hex maps, with exponentially more variables than any referee could have ever been expected to track. Talonsoft has been working on TOAW for twenty years now, and the latest edition packs an incredible amount of simulation fidelity into an attractive digital wargame experience that spans more than 200 years of military history. TOAW 4 includes Napoleonic and American Civil War scenarios, as well as modern operations like Desert Storm and the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
For Vietnam, the game comes with a decent scenario selection that hits some of the larger battles and campaigns of the war: Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Ia Drang, the 1968 Tet Offensive, and the three year period 1965-68, among several others.
The Operational Art of War IV is deceptively easy to play - on its face, it’s a simple matter of moving unit stacks around, spending action points for travel and combat. But there’s an astonishing amount of computation going on just beneath the surface, and you’ll have to deal with weather conditions that degrade roads, supply concerns, and morale. TOAW4 allows you to handle both large and small formations, and plan out attacks tactically, calling in support assets like air support and artillery, and picking the units you want involved in any fight. The fastidious level of detail built into the simulation makes it a pretty good system for modelling the morale and propaganda aspects of Vietnam, something many WWII-based wargames don't account for.
TOAW4 models units down to the individual platoon, but the game design itself is more comfortable around the battalion and division levels, and that means it’s less well-adapted for the squad-level firefights that characterized a lot of combat in Vietnam, and you won’t see the kind of individual fireteam tactics that are on display in the Squad Battles series. But as long as you remember that it’s scaled for the operational level - the strategic movement of soldiers and materiel into contact with the enemy - you can get a lot out of The Operational Art of War IV’s Vietnam scenario selection.
The hex-based presentation is a bit deceptive here, because ESS’ Vietnam ‘65 isn’t a traditional wargame. Properly understood, it’s a solitaire strategy game about counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare, and one that breaks the normal boundaries set in wargaming. While Vietnam ‘65 still handles manoeuvre and combat, these are boiled down to rather basic levels -- you won’t find highly specific historic battalions, lovingly recreated with accurate equipment and vehicles. Instead, you have unit types - infantry, commandos, helicopters, APCs - that function like chess pieces as you attempt to win the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population and maintain public support for the war back in the U.S.
The propaganda element of Vietnam comes into the forefront here, making it important to score even relatively meaningless victories if it means a chance at shoring up political support at home by sending high enemy casualty counts back to the Pentagon. At the same time, you’ll need to build rapport with the local population, who will in turn supply intelligence on the locations of enemy forces.
While set in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, Vietnam ‘65 also incorporates the Nixon Administration’s 1970s “Vietnamization” policy of training ARVN forces with the goal of ultimately handing off major responsibilities and withdrawing American forces - a strategy that had mixed results in Vietnam, and again as a similar program has been attempted in Afghanistan.
Vietnam ‘65 is truly asymmetric - you and the computer are playing different games, and thus it’s better able to portray the essential frustration of the Vietnam War than most traditional wargames have been. Read our Vietnam '65 review for more.
Non-traditional war games and mods
ArmA 3: The Unsung Vietnam War Mod
We’ve covered ArmA here quite a bit, because even though it’s not a traditional wargame, it is a remarkably powerful and robust simulation sandbox for combined arms military operations, provided you’re willing to spend some time setting parameters, downloading mods, and designing missions. The Unsung Vietnam War Mod has been around in some form since Operation Flashpoint, emerging anew with each iteration on Bohemia Interactive’s military series.
To create the maps, vehicles, aircraft, and weapons that appear in the mod, the Unsung team has amassed a database of satellite imagery, ‘60s and ‘70s aerial photography, topographic maps, and on-the-ground photographs. The result is still a bit mixed visually, but overall the effect is very convincing, and ArmA 3 allows for a large number of players to join in company-level operations through the jungles and farmland of Unsung. With the latest version, Echo, they’ve added actual combat transmissions as radio chatter, several MiG variants, tons of new weapons, and even punji stakes.
Rising Storm 2: Vietnam
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Developer: Antimatter Games & Tripwire Interactive
Tags: FPS, squad-based, tactical
Rising Storm 2: Vietnam is here because it’s something of a bridge between the kind of rigid devotion to historicity we usually look for in wargames, and the more Hollywood-style nonsense that you generally find in videogames in general. It’s not an even split: Rising Storm 2 has both its feet firmly planted in first-person shooter territory, and thus has a lot more in common with Battlefield or Call of Duty than anything Gary Grigsby ever put his name on.
It also serves as an opportunity to look at how the Vietnam War is usually portrayed in games, and what games are interested in when they handle Vietnam. While Rising Storm 2 is a solid shooter, it’s also a jumble of imagery and stereotypes culled primarily from Vietnam war movies - here’s the pack of Luckies and Ace of Spades strapped to a soldier’s steel pot, there’s the requisite Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix tracks. Add in a couple 1st Cavalry Division patches and rice paddies, and you’ve got yourself Vietnam: The Game. Check the options, and you’ll even find visual filters expressly labelled 'Woodstock Experience' (a trippy psychedelic filter) and a sepia-toned, grainy 'War Movie' look.
But Rising Storm 2: Vietnam doesn’t have any pretenses about being a vehicle for historical insights, and what it does, it does well. The period-appropriate weapons feel convincing, the music is right, and it’s fun to go screaming around the treetops in an AH-1 Cobra attack chopper. It’s a game that’s meant to be fun and feel like the movies look, and it accomplishes both to a T.
And the rest...
This list has proven a little leaner than expected, so I thought I'd summarise some additional options not featured, just in case anyone was interested in checking them out:
- Vietcong & Conflict Vietnam - fine examples of tactical shooters set during the period. The former is supposed to have inspired a lot of the content in the Unsung War mod above.
- Men of War: Vietnam - it's one of the weakest of all the MoW games, so didn't really deserve a mention above. But, if you wanted some small-unit tactical squad action, this is one place to look.
- Heliborne - We've looked at this before. It's an interesting multiplayer-based game where two teams fight each other in helicopters and take over map points by shuttling troops and supplies. It's neat, but it's not very popular so servers are a bit empty.
- Campaign Series: Vietnam - this is a new game from the creator of Campaign Series: Middle East, and it's still in development. It's on track to turn up later this year and if it's good, will earn itself a place above.
What are your favourite Vietnam War games? Let us know in the comments, and they may make a future version of the list!