Commander Ly Chi looked down from the veranda of the Pagoda towards the river. Several members of the local community were working to get the river water through to the new rice beds that would soon be feeding his men. Chi was commanding the advanced guard of the 37th Main Force battalion of the Viet Cong. The main body of the force was still in Cambodia waiting for news that their accommodation was ready, and that would be very soon. Already the arms cache in the village was being moved into the freshly dug tunnels. It would not be long before Ly Chi and his comrades would be able to take on the imperialists and free the South to enjoy the benign rule of the Communist Party. Nothing could go wrong.
Even from many thousands feet the jungle clearance and the excavation of new paddy fields was clear to Major Milton Clamburger in his OV-10 Bronco, the freshly dug red soil a visible scar on the landscape, and fresh paddies could only mean one thing, more mouths to feed. VC mouths.
Captain Butch Taylor moved along the sweep line, words of encouragement came easily and his men responded well. Butch was a soldier’s soldier, and Charlie Company appreciated that, and yet a sweep through an area know to be occupied by the VC was always a mission fraught with danger. Men smoked, swapped jokes and laughed, and yet the tension could be read on their faces. Then the word came.
“Let’s move out”
Lieutenant Hung Lo looked down from the Huey, his eyes scanning the ground in an attempt to read the terrain. There were several LZ near the Pagoda, all of them potentially killing zones, choosing the right one and getting his men on the ground would be critical to the success of the operation. If Charlie was allowed to just melt away then the press would have a field day. Again.
In the Hog Lieutenant Walter Greenbaum made his approach, flying in a shallow dice through the fire that was coming up from the treeline. He watched the rockets as they flew straight and true and exploded with a shattering impact among the shadowy figures in black pyjamas.
Lieutenant Carter Beauford jammed another magazine into his M16 and fired again. He could see very little, but the firepower produced by his platoon must mean that he was winning the firefight, and that is just what they’d told him to do in OCS.
To the right of Beauford’s platoon Lieutenant Randy Buckmeir had already won his firefight. Well, he presumed he had as Charlie was no longer firing at him. He had brought his men forward to the edge of the clearing, but with the firing continuing to his left he was loathe to cross the open space. God, this war is Hell.
Movement down to the right. The pilot was signalling to Sergeant Gi as the Huey descended. This was the moment of truth. They were landing very close to the fringe of the jungle, ripe for ambush, but there was no choice in this small clearing where only one slick could drop its men at a time. The first squad of ARVN Rangers leap down as the chopper hovered eighteen inches above the ground, the door gunner liberally spraying the edge of the jungle. In seconds they were gone, the squad forming up and deploying their weapons as the Huey lifted off. Almost immediately fire came from the far side of the clearing. The pilot had been right; VC. Gi tapped the M60 gunner on the shoulder and pointed towards the muzzle flashes, and a stream of bullets stitched their way across the clearing even as the next Chopper approached.
“Burn the Goddam place” Lieutenant Brad Whitford looked at the pile of AK47s and ammunition that had been found below the floor of the hooch. In the previous building they had found stocks of rice that were suspicious, but could have been the store for the hamlet, now there was no doubt. Sergeant Leroy Burlesque flicked his Zippo and enjoyed the momentary aroma of fuel. They light every time.
“Move you mothers!” Captain Butch Taylor had never been know for his patience and he was convinced that a charge with the bayonet would overwhelm Charlie. It was a matter of a dozen yards, but in this terrain it was slow going. Three men were killed as they crossed the intervening ground, and when they got there Charlie had gone. Mind you, he was clearly beaten as he had abandoned the bodies of three of his dead. Taylor grabbed the radio. Nothing. He swore. Little did he know that the bullet that had destroyed his PRC 25 would otherwise have killed him.
“Holy mother, the artillery”. He ran across to Lieutenant Buckmeir, with the first ranging shot coming in from Firebase Hillary he needed comms!
Lieutenant Hung Lo was forming his sweep line now. The clock was ticking. If he could move across behind the pagoda he could cut the line of retreat. From the radio traffic he knew that Charlie was starting to move out, and he was sure there was movement to his front, he did not want to walk into an ambush.
Pac Choi emerged from the tunnel. Yes, they were behind the Americans. His men spread out silently as Choi watched his enemy preparing to move on. The volley was violent and brief, the effect of the AK-47 fire more shocking than anything else, and the American troops dived for cover. Pac Choi and his men ran. They had done all they could, they had been betrayed by traitors, lap dogs of the American Imperialists. They would pay with their lives! Now his objective must be to keep his force intact and reach Cambodia.
Up to this point the US and ARVN forces had killed six VC and lost five men dead. They had discovered weapons and food in the hamlet and most importantly the tunnel complex. The discovery of the latter was solely due to Pac Choi’s emergence and parting ambush before he ran for the border. Had he simply slipped away it is likely that the Free World forces would have missed the tunnels. A further dozen VC were cut off from their exit route, six being captured by the ARVN Rangers. So the operation was a military success for the Free World Forces, but verging on a political victory for the VC due to the losses they inflicted. Had Butch Taylor relied on his firepower rather than going in with the bayonet he’d have saved the lives of three men and won a complete victory.
The game was designed to test some of the victory conditions in the rules which, as suggested above, are two-fold; military and political. One of the things that has taken the time with developing Charlie Don’t Surf is getting the game to tick two key boxes that are interlinked. It must represent the reality of the war in Vietnam without being a parody, and it must give both sides a real challenge and an opportunity to get a victory on a very uneven playing field. It would be easy, far too easy to produce a game that is a parody of this complex conflict, and even easier if that parody was that seemingly appealing winner – the war as it “should” have been rather than the war as it was.
What do I mean by this? Well, one of the frustrations of any counter-insurgency campaign is that one side generally won’t play fair. The Free World forces in Vietnam were, above all else, seeking to bring the enemy to battle and defeat him. Had Charlie played ball and done the decent thing, standing up and fighting, then he would have been in big trouble. So quite naturally he stuck to his own game plan.
This can be a real issue for wargamers and in particular game designers. We could make the assumption that in our games Charlie is particularly rough, tough and nasty and ready to play the stand-up fight game, and then the Free World forces could deploy all of their very sexy assets to gun him down wit style and aplomb. Easy rules to write, easy game to play, probably very popular, but frankly a complete load of hog wash. Nothing more than a Vietnam version of ‘Whack a Mole’, with Charlie popping up from his tunnels and Rambo blasting him to the Stone Age.
The real challenge in designing Charlie Don’t Surf has been to develop a game where both sides can fight their own war; where both have strengths and both have weaknesses and both need to attempt to dominate the battlefield by developing their plans to take these into account. The net result this far is a game where the double whammy of a military and political victory is hard to achieve, where there is frustration on the ground as the enemy won’t do what you want him to do, but where by playing to your own strengths, by clear thinking and careful planning either side can dominate the battlefield if his opponent allows him to.
In the first image (above) I have marked the contours in orange for clarification. The Pagoda stands atop a small oval shaped knoll and to the north (i.e. the top of the image, is another similar hill with a clearing on top. The rest of the table is relatively flat with a wide river along the western edge. The VC have to name one table edge as their line of communication – the edge off which they will retire if Free World Forces are too tough for them.
In the second image we see the US sweep line of the 1st and 2nd platoons advancing on the right and running into two ambushes. On the left the 3rd Platoon is able to form a base of fire and bring its weapons to bear on Charlie in the treeline. A Hog arrives and adds its fire.
In the third image the VC who sprung the initial ambushes are largely withdrawing to disappear from sight, whilst one squad remains in place to cover their withdrawal. US firepower is overwhelming, but it hangs in there long enough for its comrades to get away. Meanwhile the ARVN Ranger platoon arrives by helicopter to seal off the potential VC escape routes to the north and east. 3rd Platoon are searching the hooches.
The game is up for Charlie, a charge by the US 2nd Platoon finally clears the enemy from the treeline, whilst the ARVN Rangers are successful in winning their firefight with the assistance of the Hog. They also move two squads round to cut off the retreat of a dozen VC. To the south Pac Choi gives the game away by emerging from a tunnel and springing one final ambush on the 1st Platoon before running for the border. Meanwhile 3rd platoon evacuate the civilian population and burn the hooches.
This was a “nearly but not quite” operation for the US forces. They lost too many men, largely due to the lunatic charge when firepower would have done the job better. They were too late bringing in the ARVN platoon; in essence the hammer was striking before the anvil was in place and that allowed many VC to leave the table unchallenged. Part of this was the limited size of the LZ stopping a fast deployment. All the more reason for putting the ARVN in early.
For the VC a failure to concentrate their forces meant that they never really hit hard in any one place. They did, however, take full advantage of their ability to sneak off and set up another ambush. Bizarre they left two HMGs they had in the tunnels, the extra firepower could have really hurt the US forces. What has been interesting over the months of playtests has been watching the players learn to use the correct tactics. The US forces are aware now that avoiding ambushes is almost impossible, so you move tactically to limit their effects when they are sprung. You also make sure that the supporting troops are close enough to add their firepower when it is needed.
The VC players are really learning to hit hard and then slip away. They now know that in the confusion after the ambush the US player’s knee jerk reaction is to form a base of fire and get himself organised, providing the VC with valuable moments to simply disappear. Our game saw a full company of US forces (the weapons platoon was off-table with its mortars) plus an airmobile platoon of ARVN Rangers and a Huey Hog gunship in support faced with just two platoons of Main Force VC imbalanced game if we were to use any points system, and yet the VC came very close to winning a political victory, and could easily have avoided handing the US a complete military victory if they had not given away the position of their tunnel entrance in the final moments. What was more both sides really enjoyed the game.
Great game for me as umpire. My enthusiasm for these rules is almost boundless at present and I get a real sense of satisfaction as we finally declare the rules watertight and now move on to work on the final presentation and wording. After eight long years it seems that Charlie will, at last, surf. Projected release date is May.
As part of the playtest process with any rule set we develop, one of the most interesting and enjoyable phases comes fairly late in the day, that of using history as a yardstick by which to measure what we have produced. That may sound like it should be one of the first things we do,