Interview: Trailing Ho Chi Minh
Vietnam 65 Wargamer.com interview
- vietnam conflict, ground combat, strategic, tactical, helicopter / rotary wing combat, asia, intermediate, turn-based igougo, pc, english, 1, yes, online, ipad
Just over a week ago Slitherine announced that a new game, Vietnam ’65, was going into beta (read it here), so we got in touch with the games developer, Johan Nagel of Every Single Soldier, to have a chat about the game and what it is all about.
Firstly thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions; I’m sure our readers will appreciate it.
1. First up, as this game seems to be creeping in under the radar, can you give our readers an overview of what it is all about and what they can expect to see when it is released?
Firstly, this game has an original and fresh approach. This is not a game about Blue forces massing to crush the Red forces. This is a counter-insurgency model that uses the hearts and minds of the local population and Political support as the two levers to victory.
It includes all the iconic features of the Vietnam War, including inter alia: Fire support bases, airstrikes, training ARVN forces, intelligence gathering, special forces, mines and booby traps, NVA offensives, search and destroy missions, MEDEVACS, Ho chi Minh trail etc.
This is an engaging strategy game that will keep the payer engrossed for around 2 and a half hours per game. The AI model is very well defined and balanced making the veteran mode challenging (I still lose ) whilst at the same time keeping it authentic to the Vietnam War, a very important consideration.
From a re-playability perspective, every game begins with a new randomly generated map; this combined with the AI model ensures new challenges within the same context, terrain being a major influencing factor.
I set out to develop a game true to the Vietnam War, that could be played in under three hours and in effect was a micro simulation of the entire war.
2. Despite (or maybe because of) its place in history, especially for the US for obvious reasons, the Vietnam War doesn’t get that much coverage in wargames. So why choose this particular subject?
I think the fact that this war has received limited coverage is that it is a sensitive topic and maybe ‘too soon’, but I think the primary reason is that an authentic and realistic gaming model has not surfaced. Most electronic games focus on the WWII model of massing your forces and over powering your enemy; this is not a suitable model for COIN simulation.
I have been war gaming since the 80’s, starting with table top and then moving into Squad Leader. Playing mostly WWII games I soon became a little bored with the model and was fascinated with the Vietnam War, especially the airmobile aspect. In the last 20 years I have played every Vietnam War game, electronic and otherwise, I could track down and in particular followed the exploits of the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
It has become a passion for me, even personally visited every major battlefield in Vietnam itself.
I was also an Infantry Lieutenant in our own COIN war here in South Africa, spent a few years in Angola. My family is third generation military; I have been wearing camouflage and marching since the early 70’s ;)
3. How long have you been working on Vietnam ’65? Has this been a longer or shorter time than you initially expected?
There are two parts to this answer, firstly the game model I have been working on for twenty years. Playing Squad Leader always left me with the frustration of no ‘strategic relevance’. By that I mean you would have tactical objectives in the game (like capture the bridge) but once you did that there was no strategic context for taking the objective and every battle then lacked a grander strategic outcome and became a simplistic exercise. I yearned for playing the tactical game but then seeing the influence and ramifications on the strategic level, now I would know why and how important it was to capture that bridge!
So, I wrote the first iteration of this game in 1983 in GW-Basic, I wrote the strategic model and then would transplant the battles from the computer sim onto a table top and play the tactical battle, then input the results back into the sim.
The big breakthrough came when Operation Flashpoint was released as it had a Vietnam Mod, a great editor and a passionate community.
So by combining these three things (there was a crowd that developed a mod for OF that scripted NATO symbols onto the campaign map and enabled a strategic view of the battle) I was able to play both the tactical battles and the strategic game in the same electronic package. I still view this as the best iteration of this game and believe it is how it should be played. I spent a few years refining this game within the OF framework and it was here that I refined and balanced the game, as well as adding in key concepts that really made the game compelling, the concept of the Ho Chi Minh Trail being the biggest impact on the gameplay.
Vietnam’65 in its current form is a project that I started almost two years ago. With the advent of the iPad and the App Store, distributing the game was no longer a major obstacle, before I would have to produce boxes with CD’s in them and truck them to stores! Now I had the opportunity to deliver a game worldwide electronically, so I decided to do just that and adapt the game for the iPad.
To answer your question, the game concept has been a passion of mine for a long time so I never thought I would publish it until a few years ago. The actual construction of the game in its current form has taken a bit longer than I would have liked, but this has been largely due to me continually enhancing and adding depth into it.
4. What have been the biggest challenges faced in developing the game? And conversely, which were the easiest parts?
Right from the start, the biggest challenge was ensuring that the hearts and minds of the local population would be at the centre of the game concept. InVietnam’65 this score now influences/effects almost every aspect of the game, the level and concentration of insurgent efforts, how much intelligence locals will offer etc.
The other challenge was to capture the asymmetry of the war, one fought by the VC and the other by the NVA, both wanting to defeat the US/ARVN forces but one was more conventional than the other. In Vietnam’65 the two dimensions of this war are very apparent and need to be managed accordingly.
The easiest part has been this journey, I have spent countless man hours on this concept and watching it finally being published is gratification of the highest order.
It was a challenge finding the team to develop the game as well as having to produce my own prototype, which I did in Visual Studio. I soon realised that without a working prototype the idea could not be communicated effectively.
5. Development inevitably involves compromise, are there any features that you wanted to include, but that probably won’t make it to the release version?
Where do I start? J
- I believe this game will make an excellent multiplayer game, 2 to 4 players.
- In my OF version of the game, Laos and Cambodia where included and the US player had the opportunity to do cross border raids and destroy enemy training bases, thereby stopping the flow of insurgents etc.
- Full Vietnamization is something I would want to bring out in an expansion as some point, wherein the US player would have to hand over the military responsibilities to the ARVN forces. In Vietnam’65 the training and deployment of ARVN forces are included but that needs to be expanded to include mechanized and airmobile forces.
- Greater terrain diversity. As every new game is on a random map, I would like to make the visual representation as diverse as possible, definitely in the next release / update.
- Mekong Delta maps and riverine ops.
6. What do you think will be the most challenging aspect of the gameplay; the thing that will really stretch the players ability?
The two major challenges for the player are
- Understanding the differences and the nexus between the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. If you let the VC run rampant, their bigger brother will be a bigger guerrilla, and a conventional one at that!
- Combining the various types of units at the US player’s disposal. Using Special Forces (Green berets) in conjunction with artillery situated at fire bases, understanding how to do search and destroy missions with mechanized units, planning the logistics of keeping your units in the field supplied.
7. Am I right that initially you were intending to publish the game yourself? However, now you have teamed up with Slitherine; so why did you decide to go with an established publisher, and why Slitherine?
Yes, in fact the game was locked and loaded on the iStore for release October last year. In the run up to the launch, I sent a few emails to gaming websites informing them of the release. I received such positive feedback and offers from a number of publishers. It was only then that I even considered a publisher.
I realised if I wanted to really give this game every chance to be a success (not financially but critically) getting a publisher on-board would not only give me access to existing customer bases but, more important to me, access to the expertise to refine the game playability. This game was never intended to be a commercial venture from the start; the publisher community did open my eyes in this regard.
Slitherine is a natural fit for this game, turn based strategy is what they do, they have the ardent strategy fans already in their database and have a depth of experience which has already enhanced the playability of Vietnam’65. The game launching in March this year is a far slicker product than what it was in Oct of last year.
[Editor] Johan mentioned in passing that one of the major changes Slitherine has facilitated has been the major upgrading of the terrain engine. Previews of the original game had highlighted this as an area that needed work.
8. Although Vietnam ‘65 is only just about to be released, players are always wondering what the future for a game might hold – are there any (tentative) ideas for the future? Any conflicts where the approach you’ve taken with this game would be especially suitable to base another game on?
Firstly, I would like to include most of the features that have been left out as mentioned above, multiplayer being top of the list.
Secondly, I am thinking about another recent conflict in which COIN approach was essential. I cannot unveil it at the moment but I feel already excited to provide you more information in not so distant future!
COIN warfare is all about intelligence, combat and the local population, the Vietnam’65 model covers all three in depth, so any COIN war is do-able and I have every intention of developing this model into a past, present or potential upcoming conflict that could fit such tactics.
9. Lastly, Vietnam ’65 is a team effort so now is a chance for a name check for all those involved in producing the game. So who are they and who has done what?
I have recruited some really talented youngsters here in Johannesburg and am really proud of the way they have taken my 2D prototype and made it come to life in 3D as well as add so many nuances out of scope and on their own initiative to this game.
The main programmer is Claudio de Sa, game developed in Unity 3D pro. Talented young guy who has put up with my OCD and ADHD ;)
Jonathan Hau-Yoon is responsible for all the terrain artwork, which has evolved under his guidance from very basic to an authentic battlefield.
Christopher Minnaar and Kobus Fick have surpassed all my expectations in respect of the level of detail and authenticity of the artwork and animations.
Pierro Smit has done great work with the UI model, essential to the modern gaming experience.
Richard Ramsbottom has done an excellent job on the artwork for the counters, UI buttons and icons.