Aaron Danis, 21 September 2023 ~ #UnboxingDay
Wargaming current conflicts: The case of Year of the Rat: Vietnam 1972 by Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI)
“(Year of the Rat) [g]ot high praise from players with access to classified details of actual operations.”
James Dunnigan, The Complete Wargames Handbook (2000 edition), p. 276.
I recently bought Year of the Rat (YotR) from Enterprise Games for an excellent price, and it was in cherry condition except for the counters, which had already been punched but not entirely separated (they are clean and crisp). I suspect the previous owner set up the basic scenario but didn’t get far into the game.I wanted to pick this up because of its reputation for having been designed by the late John Prados to replicate the 13-week long 1972 Communist Spring Offensive in Vietnam, so he was trying to show possible options that both sides had while the conflict was ongoing. This has given the game a somewhat mythical status, as some current gamers have shown an aversion to wargaming the ongoing Ukrainian conflict (the author has no such aversion).
This is a two-player operational (mostly regiments, brigades, divisions) game that puts players in the shoes of the Vietnamese Communist player, controlling North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars and National Liberation Front (NLF) militias (aka the Vietcong), or the Allied player, controlling the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), Republic of Korea (ROK), and U.S. forces.Each Game-Turn represents one week of real time; the entire game is 13 turns. The map of South Vietnam and adjacent countries is rendered at 10 kilometers per hex. There is one “historical” scenario with the historical orders of battle and setups; a “standard” scenario using the historical orders of battle and free setups, and the optional Order of Battle (OB) game with 6 different OBs to choose from. There also are 3 “unofficial” scenarios for Cambodia 1970, and two for the end of the war in 1975, which you can find on Russ Gifford’s “Everything SPI” website1.
YotR has the S&T standard 200, thin, ½ inch one-sided counters. The NVA player has 47 combat unit counters plus reduced battlegroups, supply, and dummy counters; the Allied player has 53 combat counters plus numerous air and naval support counters.There are 29 markers.The counters are yellow, and black, and various shades of green, and the 22×34 inch map is early 1970s SPI shades of blue, white, black, and grey, so there is decent contrast if not multi-color dissonance.
The story behind this game is that it was an undergraduate college project of Prados’.He visited SPI offices in New York in 1972 with a recently declassified copy of the infamous Pentagon Papers under his arm and left with a contract from SPI legend James Dunnigan to create a current game on Vietnam2. Dunnigan, who is listed as the “Game System Designer” on the rules credits, later said that he had to “completely re-design it to get it to work,”3 but work it did and it was published in Strategy & Tactics #35. Prados himself wrote:
North Vietnamese and Liberation Front forces moved in a hidden fashion, revealed by combat, with dummy units to fool the US/South Vietnamese side. There were B-52 Arc Light strikes and powerful tactical airpower, plus airmobile intervention forces for the Saigon player. The game provided a fascinating picture of history in the making.4
Dunnigan wrote the short designer’s notes in the rule book (one can understand that he wouldn’t leave them to a college kid).He wrote that “Making games about current events still ‘in progress’ is a chancey business. But if games (‘conflict simulations’) are to have any relevance they must be capable of producing results.”Some of the aversion to gaming current conflicts is the thought of turning others’ ongoing suffering into a game (for personal enjoyment).Some comes from the opinion of some gamers that such a game cannot be done “accurately” in real time, that OBs certainly will be incomplete. But how is either of these points any different from wargames about battles fought decades, centuries, or millennia ago?The OBs of ancient games are often a SWAG based on a few old oral or written records, and as the character Maximus famously asked the Coliseum crowd in the movie Gladiator, while standing among heaps of dead foes, “are you not entertained?”
There are many examples of wargaming done concurrently to ongoing major conflicts.Senior American military and political leaders commissioned the SIGMA series and other strategic and operational pol-mil games during the Vietnam War and then ignored the results at their own peril5. Certainly, the United States and the Soviet Union gamed global thermonuclear war throughout the Cold War, an exercise which forced the participants to contemplate the deaths of much of the world’s population6. Dozens of NATO vs Warsaw Pact commercial wargames were published in the 1970s and 80s (much to the consternation of the West German populace7). If participants use games for their simulation value, then contemporaneous wargames are no-brainers.One can argue strongly that military forces NOT wargaming during an on-going conflict are fighting with one arm behind their collective backs.Ukraine, with U.S. assistance, is wargaming future offensive actions, and no less commercial gaming luminary than Mark Herman (he of Gulf Strike fame in the first Gulf War in 1990), is working on a simulation of the first three years of the Ukraine conflict.8
Yes, contemporaneous games are tough to do and full of risks; hidden and bad assumptions about a current conflict lurk everywhere.The S&T article that Prados wrote to accompany his game carried a disclaimer (“Note: The political and historical viewpoints and value judgements expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the editors and staff of S&T”). That may be the only time in the history of S&T that has happened (I don’t know for sure).The article was controversial and not popular with the readers, so the S&T staff addressed it in the next issue of S&T in the Outgoing Mail section9.But you can see in the article what Prados was trying to do with his game design, even if it was reworked by Dunnigan.Prados always did his research homework, regardless of what you felt about his analysis10.
This game joins my growing list of games to play in more detail now that summer is drawing to a close. Recently, prolific wargame designer Joe Miranda singled out John Prados as his favorite designer, Year of the Rat as one of his favorite games, and he cited specific gaming mechanisms in it that he subsequently used in his games11. There is no higher honor.Perhaps if the Department of Defense ever declassifies some of its later Vietnam War games, we can compare Prado’s effort to that of the professionals at the Pentagon Joint Wargames Agency. Even as an undergrad student, I bet he came close to the mark.
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In the world of wargames, a delight,
Unboxing is quite a grand sight.
With bated breath, we tear,
Through the packaging, we swear,
To unveil the fierce battles we’ll fight!
The miniatures gleam, so precise,
As we open the box, oh so nice.
With rulebooks in hand,
We’ll conquer the land,
In epic battles of strategy and fights!
- Scenarios originally found in Phil Kosnett, “Scenarios for Modern Games,” Moves, No. 27. (June–July 1976). p. 7 and “The End in Vietnam, ”Jagdpanther, Vol. 3, no. 1, April 1975, p. 21.
- See the interview with Prados in Moves magazine, Greg Costikyan, “Debriefing Prados,” Moves #48, December 1979/December 1980.
- James Dunnigan, The Complete Wargames Handbook, 2005 online edition, p. 276.
- John Prados personal website, https://johnprados.com/games/
- Matthew B. Caffrey, On Wargaming: How Wargames Have Shaped History and How They May Shape the Future, The Newport Papers #43, 2019., p. 80. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/newport-papers/43
- Ibid., see chapter 3 for Cold War wargaming.
- See Adam R. Seipp, “Fulda Gap: A board game, West German society, and a battle that never happened, 1975–85,” War & Society, Vol 41, Issue 3, 2022, pp. 201-219, https://doi.org/10.1080/07292473.2022.2087401
- See Katie Bo Lillis and Natasha Bertrand. “US war-gamed with Ukraine ahead of counteroffensive and encouraged more limited mission,” CNN, Sept 1, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/08/31/politics/ukraine-us-wargames-counteroffensive/index.html; Andrew Bucholtz, “First Draft of History: Designing a Military Simulation of the Russo-Ukraine War 2022-2023,” SDHISTCON website, posted April 27, 2023,
- James F. Dunnigan, “Outgoing Mail,” Strategy & Tactics # 36, p. 44.
- As an aside, I met John Prados several times at the Military Classics Seminar in Washington, DC, and found him to be thoughtful and always willing to discuss his wargames.
- Ardwulf’s Lair, “THE CHIT SHOW | Designing Across Many Eras with Joseph Miranda,” YouTube, August 17, 2023, go to the 47:26 – 48:36 minute mark, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgZmxcvt3aE&t=1899s.