We have been a follower of Patrick Mullen on Twitter for some time now. His avatar is the famous Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Killgore who makes the declaration “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”. Now I am not saying that Patrick ascribes to this philosophy but I do know that he has a passion for the history of the Vietnam War. This love of the history has led him to design his first wargame on the conflict called A Hot Dry Season: Operation Attleboro in War Zone C, which is an operational-level game dealing with the National Liberation Front (NLF) Dry Season Offensive in the III Corps Tactical Zone (III CTZ) in November 1966 and the subsequent counterattack by forces under the command of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). We reached out to Patrick, and in his customary way (I’ll leave that to you to translate), responded to us affirmatively to doing an interview on the game.
Grant: We have been following you for a few years on twitter and have enjoyed our interactions. Tell our readers about yourself. What do you do for a living? What are your favorite games?
Patrick: I was an Intelligence Professional for the US Army and Department of Defense, in and out of uniform for twenty-five+ years, after I finished college and dropped out of Grad School. As a part of those duties I also spent time in my career developing games and simulations for the Army and Department of Defense; sometimes very nit-noid operations and Intel simulation stuff, and sometimes things that involved staff and management exercises. In early 2017, I developed an illness and was paralyzed from the waist down, which put the brakes on my career and inculcated a real life change for me.
My favorite games? That’s hard to say. I’m a lifelong wargamer, I have played a lotta games and enjoyed many. If I had to spit out, say four games that have seriously influenced me today, I’d have to say: Victory Games Vietnam: 1965-1975 (Nick Karp), Victory Games Pacific War (Mark Herman), The Gamers Barren Victory-Battle of Murfreesboro (Dean Essig), GDW Command Decision….or Race to Tunis/Bloody Kasserine (Frank Chadwick)…well, any of his titles that don’t try to expand to cover an entire conflict – like the Europa series. And I think that’s it. Today. Could change tomorrow.
Grant: What designers do you feel have influenced your approach and method?
Patrick: See above, but there are many more that add into the mix for me. I play a lot of games. Hermann Luttmann is exploring some interesting ideas today as is Mitchell Land. But the above are really deep influences on me in terms of design philosophy.
Grant: This is your first design. What made you pull the trigger on it?
Patrick: I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the Vietnam Conflict, reading Interlibrary Loan monographs from the Naval Postgraduate School, Center for Military History and other institutions (yeah, I was *that* guy) since I was 20. And I have been a lifelong grognard and love the operational scale in wargaming. But in-depth operational treatments drawn from the Vietnam War are few and far between in wargaming. There are a lot of tropey good guy versus bad guy (who are hidden) tactical titles, and a lot of politico-military titles that explore the politics from the nosebleed seats in the stadium, and many titles that explore the Strategic/Theater level. Some well, and some poorly. And there are many titles that cover a pop culture view of the war and get very heavily into gear and meaningless period terminology (“Hot LZ!” “Purple Haze!”) but don’t really get into *what happened operationally*. I always wanted games like that to play, so I decided to make one.
Grant: What has been the most challenging part of the process? Why did the game land with Legion Wargames? There has to be a long drawn out saga of attempts, reflections, failures in negotiations.
Patrick: Not really. Originally, I pitched the idea to GMT as a follow on to Silver Bayonet (an excellent title), but as I moved on with the research, it became apparent to me that Operation Attleboro wouldn’t be done historical justice by trying to shoehorn it into that system; many changes would have to be made, revamping the system it uses almost totally. As well, if I was going design a mechanical system for the title, I’d rather continue doing more Vietnam-centric titles. GMT wasn’t interested in either at that time, so I then went to the blackboard and designed a system for Operation Attleboro from the ground up and engaged an artist. I then approached MMP who were interested, but when the game left beta playtesting and we were ready to move into final art and pre-publication layouts they just didn’t have the capacity to deal with it at this time (though Brian Youse and everyone at MMP was really encouraging and wished that they could do it – for something not working out, it was the best of experiences). So I then took the game to Legion and here we are.
Grant: What historical event does the design focus? Why were you interested in telling this story? What does the title reference?
Patrick: Operation Attleboro, as it is termed to history, encompasses the National Liberation Front (NLF) Dry Season Offensive in the III Corps Tactical Zone (III CTZ) in November 1966 and the subsequent counterattack by forces under the command of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). To Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV), Operation Attleboro was a meeting engagement in War Zone C that grew into the largest operation involving US Forces conducted in South Vietnam at that time. To the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN – the NLF Strategic command in that area), Operation Attleboro was unexpected early contact by a force attempting to conduct an offensive that snowballed into a desperate defense and fighting withdrawal to protect precious logistic and command capabilities essential to their future operations in III Corps Tactical Zone (III CTZ).
I was interested in creating an operational treatment of this campaign, as I am with others I have in the pipeline, because they are fascinating, tense operational engagements with stakes for both sides in the Vietnam Conflict – but no one knows about them in Wargaming. For reasons I laid out in Question number three up there. Also, because, hey, I like the history, topic, research and the process.
The title refers to the NLF Dry Season Offensive – “A Hot Dry Season”. The Operation Attleboro part? The operation was kicked off by the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (Separate) who formed up at Fort Devens, MA not far from Attleboro, MA, where most of their families lived. War Zone C? Well, located in III CTZ, was a section of South Vietnam with high strategic value. It’s location between Cambodia and Saigon and its daunting, rugged terrain made it an ideal location for a large supply and support zone for PLAF forces and supplies which had been moved down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. And after the Operation became the largest conducted in Vietnam at that point in time, it kept the name, which is standard US Military practice to prevent confusion. But for casual students of military history, it can become a gobbledygook that obscures real meaning. “Battle of War Zone C, 1966” might come closer to expressing real meaning to people. But for players and readers, that is part of what I am trying to do; demystifying and decoding those language barriers in an effort to help them understand what happened, from my perspective, if they want to take that journey.
Anyone interested in learning more about all the above can read an article I wrote at my designer website at: https://lensofhistory.com/2020/02/19/communique-no-2-whats-an-attleboro/
Grant: What was important to model from the history and how did you go about that? What is the scale of the game and force structure of the combatants? Were there any challenges in designing to this scale?
Patrick: The scale is day turns, mile hexes and company as the primary unit. In and of itself, that scale was easy for me to work with. The term “Operational echelon” means different things at different time periods in the twentieth and twenty first centuries when it comes to military conflict, and in different theaters and geographic areas sometimes during a time period. For instance, “operational” may mean divisions and regiments as the primary units modeled when designing for the Case Blue on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, but companies and battalions may be more appropriate when designing for the New Guinea Campaign during the same year in World War Two. It kind of depends. Company and other detachments and platoons, when needed, is the appropriate scale for Operation Attleboro, in my opinion.
If I had to list a few primary considerations regarding the historical situation that needed to be taken into special consideration for the design, they’d be threefold.
First, Operation Attleboro was essentially a meeting engagement where both the National Liberation Front’s (NLF) military headquarters for the theater, the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) and the US’s theater headquarters, Military Assistance Command – Vietnam (MACV) reacted to strategic opportunities and threats as the Operation developed and alternatively reinforced the area of operations and changed guidance to the respective operational commanders based on those opportunities and threats.
Second, modelling Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities for both sides, and each side’s vulnerabilities to detection via ISR was essential. A common mechanism (almost a trope) seen in most Operational treatments of the Vietnam War is that of the US side having open information and the NLF hidden, with global knowledge of US dispositions. The reality was far more nuanced; the NLF frequently had just as murky a picture of what was occurring in the area of operations as did the US during Operation Attleboro. Getting those capabilities and functions correct in the game was essential to getting the history correct, IMO.
Finally getting the variances in terrain and infrastructure (bases, special forces camps, different road types, human infrastructure – populations and demonstrating their impact on the operation militarily and pertaining to ISR referred to above) represented with an appropriate granularity to reflect its amazing variance in South Vietnam, compared to say Belgium in World War 2 for example, was of great importance. There are twelve terrain hex types and ten infrastructure types in the game. Each has differing effects on; ground combat, fire combat, ISR, and unit abilities to perform non-combat functions (going on Patrol for example – each unit has a Command Rating; its value for doing tasks other than fighting, resolved via a d10), and many other factors. Operation Attleboro wasn’t fought in the plains of Europe, so terrain granularity, and a map that could effectively and with clarity reflect that granularity was very important to getting the full picture of the operation.
Grant: What are some of the sources you consulted for the OoB and other details? What one must read book would you recommend on the subject and why?
Patrick: So many! The game has fifteen secondary sources (books), fourteen monographs, fifteen sets of primary source documents (military records from the operations and historical period) and four articles listed in the bibliography. For me, building a game on one, two or three historical sources is insufficient to getting the history right. You have to “go deep”. As well, the need to “go deep” was compounded by there being no “We Were Soldiers” kind of narrative popular one-volume history to aid as a sort of guide and handy reference to provide to players to accompany Operation Attleboro. I am convinced, having had access to some of his notes at the US Army Center for Military History, that the author of the official US Army History (referred to below) was preparing to write an Operation Attleboro one-volume history, but he died a few years ago, sadly.
If I had to refer players to some “must read” sources, they’d be:
MacGarrigle, George L. The United States Army in Vietnam. Combat Operations: Taking the Offensive, October 1966 to October 1967, United States Army Center for Military History, 2012. – The relevant chapter on Operation Attleboro.
Wilkins, Warren K. Grab Their Belts to Fight Them: The Viet Cong’s Big-Unit War Against the U.S., 1965-1966. Naval Institute Press, 2011.
Sorley, Lewis. Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. Mariner Books, 2011. – Relevant sections covering Operation Attleboro.
Nguyen, Lien-Hang T. Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (The New Cold War History). Chapel, Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012. – Sections discussing the Politburo’s decisions to aggressively conduct operations in 1965 and 1966.
Grant: I read where the game focuses on Intelligence functions as well as reconnaissance and surveillance. How did you translate these elements into a playable game? What is the anatomy of the counters? Can you show us a few examples of US, NVA and NLF units?
Patrick: I could go on and on regarding ISR, but I wrote a rather lengthy essay on this subject at my website below. This article and the website also have an anatomy of the counters as well as many unit examples. But the short answer is using hidden information and movement for the NLF and limited information for both sides, as well as modelling their respective ISR capabilities. More information here:
Grant: Why are there separate CRT’s for the various type of combat? What value does this add to the experience? Anything special or different about them? How does combat play out in the design? What elements stand out from other similar systems? Why are these elements so important to telling the story?
Patrick: By the Vietnam War, the evolution of modern military’s capabilities to use, integrate and coordinate Fires (the related tasks and systems that provide collective and coordinated use of direct fires, indirect fires and air) had evolved far beyond the Second World War capabilities many wargamers are familiar with. The US was at the cutting edge of this in 1966. So to reflect warfare at this scale during Attleboro, Fires had to be dealt with and there is a CRT for it. Ground Combat has a CRT. As well, NLF Air Defense Fire (ADF) had an impact on US rotary aviation during Operation Attleboro (not US fixed wing aviation, however…though that will change as the conflict progresses). So a CRT for ADF was needed. Each uses a 2d6 roll. The Ground Combat CRT is odds based. The Fires and ADF CRTs are based upon how many factors the attacker is bringing to bear.
If anything stands out as unique to me for the Ground Combat CRT it’s the impact of information status (Concealed, Unfixed or Fixed) on the attacker and the defender. For the Fires CRT, the same regarding information status, and the CRT also reflects the varying merits of different types of Fire: Direct Fire – best, Indirect Fire combined with another type of fire – second best, Indirect Fire alone – third best, fire from air support alone, bombardments – least effective.
If people want to see some of the CRTs I’ll have more articles coming out that will deal with those game aspects that will feature them, but I’ll also be doing some live-stream “How to Plays” on YouTube with Ardwulf, starting Thursday April 23, 2020. A high functionality Vassal module with final art will be available upon release. The module is pretty much ready to go now; we’re using it for playtest of final art player aids (best to make sure the aids actually *aid* the players and make the game easier to play, right?). One of the benefits of actually investing in a high quality Vassal module early in the process of development is that it allows final art to be playtested. Also, you can do live plays! Vassal is an integral part of the game process and IMO, publishers and designers need to embrace it and ensure quality versions are made in a timely fashion, as well as compensating module designers…maybe with more than a free game copy.
Grant: The proposed draft cover is slick and keeps it straight forward. What are you trying to convey with its design and layout? What area does the map cover? What was important from the terrain to model? Who is your artist on the project and what has he brought to the table?
Patrick: All art and graphic design for the title is done by Ben Sones, who in my mind is a Redmond Simonsen for a new era. The cover specifically kept away from “tropey” representations – some zippo tank burning out “bad guy” VC in a bunker or something. Or regurgitation of stuff that look like they came from a poster for “Apocalypse Now” or “Platoon”. I wanted something on the cover that reflected what was in the box; not a bunch of pop culture or Vietnam action novel stuff (“Hot LZ!”, “Fire in the Hole!”, “Tunnel Rats!”), but an objective, operational examination of Operation Attleboro in War Zone C. Also, the cover aesthetically reflects the same sensibilities of what is going on in the box. Ben took as his inspiration for the covers (and two individual playbook and rulebook covers that are similar, but different in concept) book covers from the mid-late 1960s. Most of the art in the game has the same period inspiration. He’s fantastic.
The map covers all of War Zone C, seventy miles north of Saigon. Ben did a fantastic job of translating the concept map into a clear, concise design that allows all twelve terrain types and all ten infrastructure types to be displayed and distinguishable visually with little strain on the players. No small task. And to top it all off, the game has been playtested by and is useable by red-green and blue-yellow colorblind players (and players that have both)! I alluded to the terrain considerations above in another question, but I have a pretty good article here that refers to my considerations in depth:
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design? What are your plans for other treatments of operations from the Vietnam War? What’s next for you in the design world?
Patrick: I’m most pleased with the fact that the game is historical, but also provided players with the ability to take ownership of their roles and express themselves in the game without feeling like they are on rails; it’s their Operation Attleboro.
I’m currently deep in research for the next title that will deal with Operation Lam Son 719 in 1971 (the ARVN invasion of Laos in Spring 1971). Very different forces, capabilities and systems. The need to model command and control issues, strategic and political considerations and interference, and many, many other differences from Attleboro in 1966 is really a challenge and a lot of fun. It’ll be the next entry in this series, or better put, family of games, I am working on. Campaigns in Vietnam features a “Ground-Up Build” method rather than a rules system. While sharing core concepts and “DNA” in resolution of play and movement/combat mechanisms, each title is built from the “Ground-Up” allowing specific tailoring of concepts and rules mechanisms in an attempt to accurately evoke the very different Campaigns fought during the Vietnam War from 1965-1975 and faithfully incorporate the dynamic changes in force structure and composition, weapons and ISR capabilities, specific operational goals and difficulties, and terrain and regional variances unique to Vietnam and the Vietnam War.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Patrick. I have been very interested in this game since you announced it a bit ago and I just knew that you were the right guy to tell this story in a realistic and playable way. I can tell you that this game has now jumped to my most anticipated game of 2021 and I cant wait to see what comes next.
If you are interested in A Hot Dry Season: Operation Attleboro in War Zone C you can pre-order a copy from the Legion Wargames website at the following link: http://www.legionwargames.com/legion_HDS.html
Thank you for this fine interview. Here is the introduction and gameplay video from Youtube with Patrick Mullen.
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Very interesting interview and expansion in his blog posts.
ISR is a critical component in almost any conflict, and very infrequently well addressed – the design solutions Patrick has come-up with look like a very nice way to address them. Hopefully, playability is not compromised.
I plan on getting the game, if only to appreciate the interesting design effort.
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Oh now, this is great! Thanks for running this interview.
+2 points for remembering colour-blind folks in your counter palette too!
I agree with Pat that the operational level in irregular warfare is probably the most neglected, or rather undergamed, topics.
I’ve tried to address this re the Vietnam conflict with my province-level games on the Central Highlands 1963-64 (Green Beret) and Binh Dinh (Binh Dinh ’69 and District Commander Binh Dinh).
My focus has been on pacification, not on big-unit battles, but ISR is just as important in these cases.
With the District Commander modules, I took a systems approach to handle the most common operations and desires of the antagonists as core rules to establish basic mechanics, and altered or added to these in each module (Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, urban).
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But I definitely see the point in treating each campaign on its own merits and working to cover its peculiarities. Systems can be really flexible but only up to a point.
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Yeah, Brian since the “Coin-bandwagon” got many military scholar, analyst and professional passengers, changing its status from “empty” to “full” since 2001, pacification is a thing that’s been looked at from many, many angles. Of course, Vietnam was what the eager 28 year-old analysts today call a “Hybrid War”. Operationally, if you overfocus on pacification, you’ll watch your little province get steamrollered by the PLAF Division that wants to break up your nice, neat efforts. And the Politburo handily pats itself on the back for building that structure in the early ’60s just to defeat that effort.
Regarding systems or series, they’re fine, but when it comes to historical situations, invariably, eventually the history gets bent to the system. Or the system ceases to be one. Its the nature of things.
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Nowadays the COIN bandwagon seems to be emptying itself quite quickly, as all the cool kids seem to want to duke it out with China now.
I was “ploughing in the COIN field” long before 9/11, though.
Certainly Vietnam was a hybrid war, but not completely in the sense the young analysts call it today: it had frequent big-unit, big-battle phases alongside (not instead of) the drip-drip-drip battle for the villages.
Games on those bigger engagements have their place, in reflection of their larger and more significant results (and, practically, greater interest for most players).
By the way, how do you handle ambushes in your game?
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Re: Pacification versus Operational Campaigns (by both sides), ultimately one without the other doesn’t tell the story of the theater. But that is best dealt with at the Theater level. Both are just as important. Pacification matters. Operations matter.
Ambushes – really a tactical concept. But here those effects are modeled in several ways, best explained via a bunch of concepts.
All Units have ZOCs. ZOCs stop movement. ZOCs don’t extend into certain terrain types (normally).
Concealment Markers (CMs) ignore US ZOCs. US Mechanized Units ignore NLF ZOCs except for AT-Capable NLF Units.
Leg movement units can go on Patrol. This “hardens” their ZOC; extends it into terrain ZOCs can’t normally extend into and makes it effective against the above (US Patrolling Units’ ZOCs impact CMs. NLF Patrolling Units’ ZOCs impact US Mechanized Units).
All units/stacks/CMs may make a Reaction Move of one hex (not into a ZoC) if an enemy unit ends its move adjacent to it. For CMs (empty or not) this is automatic. All others must make a CR check modified by terrain using the highest CR in the stack.
All units/stacks/CMs may make a Hasty Attack if an enemy unit ends its move adjacent to it. For CMs (empty or not) this is automatic. All others must make a CR check modified by terrain using the lowest CR in the stack. Hasty attacks get a column shift in favor of the attacker.
CMs involved in an attack get a column shift in their favor. There are other bonuses to the NLF if all units involved are concealed and if Unfixed Units participate.
US Ground Units may attack a CM. If they do so, there is a column shift of two in favor of the defender. On top of the US player not knowing exactly what is in the CM, and potentially not knowing what Defensive Support is in Range.
I don’t wanna write out the whole rulebook here but I hope this gets after your question somewhat. 🙂
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Edit – in the above, making a Hasty Attack is *not* automatic for a CM. Why I hate writing rules from memory in comment sections. 🙂
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Thanks, you answered my question well! Been wrestling a bit with reflecting this on a higher and less regulated time and space scale.
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Thanks for the interview! I’m another one who met Patrick over on Twitter and enjoyed our exchanges of perspectives on history there.
And I do love the cover design for Attleboro!
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Props for using/calling attention to the work of Lien-Hang Nguyen. Indispensable stuff if you want to correctly represent the thinking/situation on the other side of the hill…at least so far. Not many others have been given the access she has…but there is a lot more to be declassified.
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She’s a brilliant, indispensable scholar, and overturning many presumptions.
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Agreed. And she’s also relatively young for somebody so advanced in her profession so I would expect a lot more coming to light through her research/writing in the future.
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