I have been working with Mark McLaughlin quite a lot over the past few months and have done interviews with him covering many of his great upcoming games including Hitler’s Reich, Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea, The Invincible Armada and now I have asked that he tell us a little about one of his recently released games (well actually a re-release of a game published in Wargamer Magazine #22 in 1982), No Trumpets No Drums: The Vietnam War 1965-1975 from One Small Step Games. I have always found this conflict extremely interesting and still remember my childhood growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s watching the Tour of Duty television series (1987-1990) and reading The ‘Nam comic book (1986-1993) and having lots of questions about what actually happened. So, when I got the chance to talk to Mark about his vision for the war and this great looking game, I jumped at the chance and as always he was very gracious and actually got answers back to me in about 24 hours! So onto the interview:
Grant: Why did you want to design a game about the Vietnam War?
Mark: I was in military school and ROTC during the war – so I had grown up with it, and grown up arguing about it, studying about and watching friends and relatives go off to fight it. One of my very best friends, T. Larry Tuohy, was a veteran of two tours – and was seriously wounded during that second tour. We gamed miniatures and board games together, and we decided that the war should be covered.
Grant: What challenges are there in designing a game around such a conflict as the Vietnam War that involves not only tactics and strategy but also political pressure, public opinion and the battle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese?
Mark: It was a war fought on so many fronts – and not just in Vietnam. Both sides needed to win in the field, but that was not enough – there had to be a purpose beyond the body count. If you put all of your resources into either the hearts and minds/politics or the fighting, you could not hope to win – it had to be a balanced effort, and the one had to go hand in glove with the other.
Grant: Why did you choose the name No Trumpets No Drums?
Mark: It comes from a line of a poem by Benjamin Cardozo, “The heroic hours of life do not announce their presence by drum and trumpet.”
It had also been used as a title in two very popular television shows from the 1960s – The Virginian and Combat!, each of which had an episode titled “No Trumpets, No Drums” – which were about men who did their duty, but found that there is little glory in war.
Grant: The game was originally released in 1982 as a part of Wargamer Magazine #22. What are the major differences from that version to the 2016 release from One Small Step? Why were those changes made?
Mark: Keith Poulter broke my heart with his awful map for the 1982 game in Wargamer Magazine #22 – and the washed out counters with hard to read numbers. It was only my second published game and I never got to proof the art. I never made that mistake again!
When One Small Step’s Jon Compton offered to redo it I was thrilled! He and his team put in a lot of work to make the map look like the original design – but even better. Same with the counters.
The rules are almost exactly the same, with some minor additions and options, thanks to input from Joe Miranda. When the game came out, Joe was in the Army and he sent me a letter with comments and questions about the game. An author and game designer in his own right (Hundred Days 20, BCT Command Kandahar, Crete 1941, Dien Bien Phu), he was always intrigued by the topic and my design.
Grant: I know the game is designed as a two player wargame but how does the team concept work? How many players can play the game?
Mark: The game is quite suitable for teams of two, as the NVA and VC each have plenty to do, as do the ARVN and the US – and either of those can also run the other Allied contingents. Unlike Fire in the Lake (by the wonderfully insightful Volho Runkhe), however, the members of each team have to work together as they either win or lose together.
Grant: How did you design the Viet Cong to match their style of fighting and overarching goal being that of destroying the enemies will and morale and political control of the populace?
Mark: The VC can use ‘hidden’ movement (dummy counters, upside down counters) to sneak past, ambush, and run away from combat. That means they pretty much only fight when they want to – or put themselves out there to challenge the Allies. They can build bases, break down regiments into guerrilla groups, form specialized sapper teams and make a general nuisance of themselves by hitting isolated garrisons or popping up and taking temporary command of population centers. They do most of the ‘hearts and minds’ work for the Communists.
Grant: Henry Kissinger said the following: in order for the government not to lose the war, it must win, while in order for the guerrillas to win they must merely not lose. How does this statement affect the design of the game?
Mark: Time is not on the Allied side. The American elections are two main watershed points, and the US support for ARVN will weaken just as the NVA start to get stronger.
Grant: How many scenarios are included? Which are more military focused and which have more focus on the other aspects of the conflict? How long does each take to play?
Mark: There are seven scenarios plus a full-war campaign. The shortest scenarios are also the most combat-intensive (Tet, Westmoreland’s War, The Easter Offensive of 1972, and The End in 1975). Each are 4 to 6 turns long, and take about two hours each.Then there are the longer scenarios: The American Buildup 1965-68, Peace With Honor 1969-1972, and The Vietnam War 1973-1975, each of which can be done in a day of gaming or over two sessions, if you can leave them set up. The longest, of course, is the full war which begins in 1965 and can go on until 1975 but rarely does, as one side or the other usually wins an automatic victory at some point or just gives up.
Grant: What are the force structures of each side? What type of armor or mechanized units are included?
Mark: The scale of the units varies. Most Allied units are regiments or brigades, but there are also ARVN and NVA divisions, as well as Special Forces, Montagnards, militia, etc. Airpower is in Wings, and there are riverine flotillas.There was very little armor in Vietnam – at least until the NVA launched their final offensive that brought about the fall of South Vietnam. There are, however, many mechanized infantry units among the Allies and an armored cavalry brigade. The NVA do have tank regiments that show up later.
Grant: What types of special forces units does each side have access to? What is the major role of each type?
Mark: The Communists are almost all ‘special forces’ in that they can break down into small units. The Allies have Green Berets, who are quite adept at hunting them down, and which can recruit militia and Montagnards. There are also Ranger units, and even Operation Phoenix units which are very effective at combating the VC on the hearts and minds side.
Grant: What support units are included in the game?
Mark: The Allies have firebases that can support units in combat out to two hexes, as well as a menu of air assets to move, supply, reinforce and support Allied units (as well as attack the enemy) – and there is also the naval support – in the form of riverine units and the US battleship. The Communists have SAM anti-aircraft units, artillery and tanks that can support them – and in the case of SAMs, can shoot down Allied air.
Grant: What game charts are used?
Mark: There is no Combat Results Table. There is a Random Events Table, and charts that tell you how much it costs to move in different types of terrain, and how that terrain will modify combat.
Grant: How are the Corps Hearts and Minds markers used?
Mark: You keep track of the progress of the battle of the hearts and minds by each of the four Corps Regions of South Vietnam, and for each of Laos and Cambodia. It is not just one big pool. Where you focus your points – and what you do militarily in each of those – determines who is winning the support of the local people – which can greatly benefit your ground troops as well.
Grant: What is the sequence of play? How are political points determined and what role do they play? What experience is this element supposed to recreate or simulate?
Mark: The Communists recruit, expend supplies and terror squads for hearts and minds, conduct operations, move. Allies react with airmobile units. Communists attack. Then political points are counted. The Allies then get replacements and reinforcements, expend points on hearts and minds, move. Communists can react by moving upside-down units away from the Allies or springing ambushes. Allies conduct air ops, then combat, then count political points. Finally, there is a random event. Then go through this again next turn. Political points come from killing enemy units, occupying towns and cities, and from the hearts and minds position in each corps and other countries (Laos, Cambodia). This reflects who is really winning as well as who is perceived as winning – or losing, and in the Allied viewpoint, if the cost is worth it.
Grant: How do the Allies gain support of local populations? How can the VC prevent or disrupt this effort? How do terrorist squads work in this role?
Mark: The Allies can spend their replacement points on gaining support of the locals rather than bringing back or building new units. The Green Berets and Operation Phoenix units, as well as militia and Montagnards feature here too – as does just holding on to the urban areas to make the locals feel safe and show who is in charge. The VC can expend supplies to win over locals or expend terror squads to do what the name implies. They can also take over urban areas – to show that the government is not in control and cannot protect people, as well as to show the world the same.
Grant: What are some examples of random events? How do these events effect the gameplay and which side is favored in their number and severity/benefit?
Mark: There is a 50-50 chance of a random event each turn. These are all drawn from events that actually happened. Some are minor, others major. Many cost one side or the other political points. There are coups in Saigon (bad for the Allies) and in Laos and Cambodia – good for the Allies up to a point, but they can backfire. There are also a few events that help with combat (like US Intelligence Operations Succeed – The Allied player may flip face up any one communist unit, etc.) and of course real political game-changers tied to how many political points the Allies have, and low levels can cost them a lot of units as their allies pull out, replacements dry up or the US has to start withdrawing units or else pay a hefty toll.
Grant: How are recruitments handled for the Communist player? What are the distinctions between Viet Cong, Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces? How are dummy counters used?
Mark: They have set points plus the NVA also have a die roll for Chinese/Soviet aid. The different Communist guerrilla forces have different colors and can only be used in their own countries. As Communist units can be inverted and move, the dummy counters help them confuse the allies as to which counters are real units and which are not. They represent the Fog of War.
The reverse sides of counters were intentionally printed with national colors. Supply counters and NVA counters both have the gold star on red background on their reverse. This means you are never sure if the unit is an NVA combat unit, an NVA support unit or a Supply unit.
The VC, Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge are backprinted with their flag, which was required in order to ensure that those units stayed within their national borders (without a player having to constantly look at them). The NVA, however, can go everywhere (and do so without violating neutrality if they remain inverted).
VC, Pathet Lao, Khmer Rouge (and NVA combat units) which are inverted can retreat from combat or flip up to spark an ambush. The Allied player knows something is in the hex, but not exactly what it is (it could be a cadre, regiment,sapper or even a base).
Grant: How does NVA Mobilization work and how is it limited?
Mark: The NVA have a counter limit, and many are not available unless they get the aid that makes it possible to put SAM missiles, interceptors, artillery and armor into play.
Grant: How are Replacement Points gained by the Allies and how can they be used? Are reinforcements strictly scripted? Why not?
Mark: The Replacement Points are set for the US and its Allies, and for ARVN depend on how much of the country they control. These can be used to bring back eliminated units or create Firebases, etc., and to influence hearts and minds. The regiments, brigades and divisions as well as wings only show up when they did historically.
Grant: What benefits do Firebases offer?
Mark: Firebases provide a combat modifier to Allied units within two hexes and represent quick access to men and ammunition as well as fire support.
Grant: What is the Thai QC unit and how does it work?
Mark: There are both regular Thai ground combat units among the allied forces, as well as a special Thai Ranger unit that fought in the clandestine war in Laos – which can do so without breaking Laotian neutrality.
Grant: Why is Corps Command included in the design and what does it historically replicate? How does this hamper the Allies efforts?
Mark: It shows how the Allies broke the country into four parts – as each of which presented unique challenges. It is also a simple way of depicting Allied supply, and of preventing the Allies from sending everyone anywhere at anytime.
Grant: How are the Montagnards used? What benefit do they offer?
Mark: They are a form of militia that give the Allies extra units, which can come in very handy for holding towns and preventing the VC from taking cheap shots at undefended targets
Grant: How do ARVN troops and South Vietnamese militia impact the Allies efforts? Are these units worth using?
Mark: There are militia which at least prevent the Communists from taking cheap shots at open targets, divisions which do the same but are a little stronger and mobile, and then the really good ARVN mobile forces – which were pretty damn effective.
Grant: What happens during the Communist Operations phase? How do they promote units and what is the process?
Mark: They can combine a guerrilla cadre with a supply unit to form a regiment, or promote the cadre to a Sapper. They can also break down NVA divisions into a VC cadre and VC regiment.
Grant: How does the process of Hearts and Minds work? Why is it necessary to each side and what benefits are gained?
Mark: As I noted above, it is a matter of putting resources there instead of into combat units, and of holding urban centers. If a region is on your side, you get more replacement points for ARVN or more guerrillas for the VC. Allied militia essentially double in effectiveness if the Allies have the region, while the Allies move slower in a region if the VC have it (as they block roads, rivers, trails).
Grant: How does movement work? How does weather effect movement?
Mark: Units pay movement costs depending on what they are and what terrain they are moving into, and (if Allied) if the VC control the region. Airmobile movement is much more liberal, but once the monsoons come, things really slow down for the Allies.
Grant: What role does the Ho Chi Minh Trail play in movement? Can the Allies affect the trail. How?
Mark: The Communists move faster down the trail than overland, but the Allies can interdict that with Firebases, Green Berets and other irregulars, as well as bomb units moving along it, but usually at a political cost, depending on whether or not Laos or Cambodia are still neutral.
Grant: How does Sea movement work? What role do sea units play in the game?
Mark: The Communists can move supplies by sea, but rarely get to do so as the USN counter will block them – provided it is up on station to block that move. If the Navy goes elsewhere to provide fire support and amphibious landings, well, the way could be clear….
Grant: What Off Board Areas are represented in the game? What roles do Neutral States play?
Mark: Parts of Laos, China and North Vietnam are all represented by Off Board Areas. Combat can occur there, as can bombing raids (with interceptors and SAMs to counter them). They are also staging areas for Communist reinforcements and aid. Neutral States can be violated by either side at a heavy political cost – but indigenous forces can fight there without triggering those. Either side can make points in Laos and Cambodia, but if your side is losing you have to consider whether to accept the loss – or send in the Marines — or the NVA regulars.
Grant: How are Coups used by the Allies? What is the procedure? How does a successful coup change things?
Mark: The Allies can opt for a coup to bring Laos or Cambodia into the war on their side – the more favorable the situation there, the lesser the political penalty – but it is a one-time penalty. This can outflank the Communists and make it much more difficult for them to penetrate south. Or it can totally backfire and just give them more places to get points, and present the Allies with yet more places to have to defend and spend replacement points.
Grant: How does air transport work? How does strategic bombing work? How do the Communists use antiaircraft to combat allied air power?
Mark: The Allies have helicopter units they can attach to certain ground units to move them about by air – there are also airmobile units that can react during the Communist move. Strategic bombing is represented by sending B52 wings or pairs of fighter-bomber wings to hit a hex to kill the enemy (single fighter-bomber wings provide tactical support, a modifiers in combat). All Communist units have some AA capability, but SAMs are the most powerful; these can ‘kill’ Allied air (send them out of play until replacement points are spent to bring them back).
Grant: How is Supply calculated? What effects does being out of supply cause?
Mark: The Communists have bases and supply units, the Allies have supply in their corps – but can use air units to supply those that can not trace a line of supply by land. Firebase, artillery and SAM support units out of supply do not provide support on their own turn if unsupplied. Communist supply units, of course, allow them to promote units and affect hearts and minds.
Grant: How does combat work? I love the morale system. Why did you use this design? What problems does it solve and what unique aspects does it bring to gameplay?
Mark: I LOATHE CRTs. Period. No CRT I have ever seen gives me the broad range of possible results I want. The system we came up with for No Trumpets, No Drums is unique – but also reflects the way this war was fought. Just because a couple of brigades are fighting a VC guerrilla does not mean every American soldier is involved. The higher the morale a unit the more effective it is – and some units have very high morale (armor and airmobile are the best, at 4, while militia are the worst, at 1). Their morale, however, is not the only factor. Terrain, support (artillery, naval, air) and of course numbers also come into play. These make every combat unique, and allow small, badly outnumbered units a chance to win – or at least escape or do damage, rather than just be overwhelmed by numbers and firepower.
Grant: How does Ambush work?
Mark: An Allied unit moves next to an upside down Communist unit and the Communist player can say “stop” – and its movement stops AND it becomes embroiled in combat – which happens immediately.
Grant: What role do US elections play on the game?
Mark: The worse the Allies are doing, the more likely the election will force them to pull units out – or face extremely costly penalties that will probably cost them the game. The Americans are going to have to leave eventually (unless the Allies score an auto win) but better they do so on the Allied player’s terms (Vietnamization, for example) rather than through defeat in the Presidential elections.
Grant: What optional rules are included?
Mark: There are about two pages of them – most apply to clandestine and counter-insurgency operations, and bring in additional units with unique abilities…for both sides. There are units that hunt guerrillas better, and there are Sappers that can negate Allied defensive benefits and VC bases that give the Communists strongholds that are hard to knock out.
Grant: What are each side’s victory conditions?
Mark: It is all based on political points – if the Allies can top 250 they win immediately. If the Communists can knock them down to below zero it is all over. The scenarios have point levels that must be reached by the Allies to win the scenario (which means the war goes on).
Grant: What are you most proud of in this design?
Mark: I think we got the strategic feel of the war down quite well – but without sacrificing the tactical aspects of the way that war was fought. It is a very interactive game, with ambushes being sprung, airmobile and air units coming to the aid of embattled units, and players having to fight not just on the battlefield but for the hearts and minds of the people.
Thanks for the great insight into the game Mark. I am very interested in getting my hands on a copy and giving it a spin. If interested, you can buy a copy from the One Small Step Games website at the following link: http://ossgamescart.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=47