I have told you this before, actually I feel like a broken record, but I really have become a fan of smaller, lesser known battles that are gamed. There is something about playing a game, having fun and learning something that you didn’t already know. Such is the case with Long Cruel Woman: The Attack on Fire Base Mary Ann, March 28, 1971 from High Flying Dice Games. The game is a 2-player wargame that deals with the attack on an American Fire Base in 1971, when everyone was starting to look toward the end of the war. One of the most remote American positions was Fire Base Mary Ann, not far from Chu Lai, occupied by elements of the 46th Regiment of the Americal Division. By the last week of March, an ARVN artillery battery had already moved in and the base was to be completely turned-over in early April. However, the local Viet Cong (Communist South Vietnamese) commander saw a growing opportunity during the transition to strike a final blow against the Imperialist forces of the US. Deploying the elite 409th Sapper Battalion for the attack, the Communist’s “parting shot” was to remind both the US and ARVN that the war was far from over.
From Wikipedia, we read the following about the conditions of security at the base:
Early accounts of the attack state that the defenders “failed to safeguard the perimeter” of the FSB. The only single volume study written about the attack by Keith Nolan contests this position, pointing out that “historians [including the author of the book, who had discussed Mary Ann in an earlier work] got it wrong.” Even with this new perspective, there are indications that alertness at Mary Ann was not as good as it could have been. Many accounts by men stationed at Mary Ann mention that perimeter security was uneven at best. One member of the 1/46th Infantry Headquarters Company stated that “I don’t think Captain Knight [the commander of Charlie Company, 1/46th Infantry] had a clue as to how lax the security was…because in that area, and only that area, Knight wasn’t diligent. He left it up to his lieutenants and sergeants to check the bunker line.” In many cases they failed to do so, and the failure was compounded by Charlie Company being understrength and unable to man all the perimeter bunkers. Manning bunkers was not the only problem. Tripflares located in the Concertina wire around the base were not always reset or replaced when they went off, a common occurrence caused in some cases by the rotor wash created by large CH-47 Chinook helicopters bringing in supplies or backhauling material as 1/46th Infantry prepared to hand the base over to the ARVN. This lax attitude, combined with the skill of the attacking sappers, had fatal consequences for many in Charlie Company. Although not “cringing in their bunkers”, the defenders of Mary Ann were not prepared for a ground attack. This lack of readiness was not noted by the 196th LIB commander, Colonel William S. Hathaway during a visit to the base on 27 March, the day before the attack. He later stated that what he’d seen at Mary Ann that day “was a big improvement over that I had seen before…the troops were alert.”
Now that we have an idea of the history behind the game, and what actually happened, let’s take a look at the great components.
The first thing that I would like to say about this game is that it costs $11.95. There is an option to pay an additional $5.00 to get the counters mounted, and an option to buy fancy thematic cards to use in the game, rather than a standard deck of face cards for another $8.00, but this game is a very affordable entry into wargames that covers a very interesting part of the history of the Vietnam War. With that, you cannot expect large publisher quality with thick counters, mounted map boards and all the trimmings. Overall, even though the price is a great value, the components are pretty good. The board is large and clear and has some very interesting elements, such as the barbed wire perimeter drawn around the base, and I had no problem being able to get into the theme and background of the game as I was playing
While I love NATO symbols on my counters most of the time, in a small scale game like this, I love it when silhouettes are used. As you can see in the picture below, the VC have a very iconic soldier in black pajamas carrying an AK-47 and the American counters have a happy looking GI with an M-16. The counters are clear and don’t have a lot of clutter or confusing information printed on them. The informational markers are also very clear and easy to identify. Well done on the counters.
There are 3 numbers listed on the bottom of the counter and include first the unit’s Attack Factor, the unit’s Defense Value and the unit’s Movement value. The unit’s either have a 1 or 2 Attack Factor and when reduced they still retain that value. The only value that typically decreases upon being hit is the Defense Value will drop by 1 point.
The board is printed on card stock paper that measures 11″ x 17″ so it is a good size for a game with only around 20 counters on the board at any given time. As you can see in the example pictures below, there is a lot of detail on the map, although most of the images are only there for flavor. You can see watchtowers, the barbed wire perimeter, artillery pieces, small outbuildings, mortar pits and connecting paths inside the perimeter. You really get the feel of being in a confined death trap and I like the way it is laid out.
You will also notice that each of the areas contains a black circle containing a few different numbers. The large white number at the top is simply used to designate each of the different areas. The two red numbers in the lower half of the circle are the numbers that matter. The first number is the area’s Terrain Modifier for Surprised US or ARVN units and VC Sapper units that have infiltrated the perimeter. The second number is the full Terrain Modifier for a US unit that has had their Surprised Marker removed. This Terrain Modifier modifies the attack DR downward and can make a big difference in US and ARVN units not being hit.
Now I want to move onto the game play itself and start with the focus of the design in the Activation System.
Firs off, you will have to provide a deck of face cards to play or purchase the special card deck as well as 1 ten-sided die. If using a deck of face cards, you will remove all face cards from the deck and give all black cards to the US Player along with one Joker and all red cards to the VC player plus one Joker. These cards are used to activate units and will boil down to a game of War as each player will draw a card and compare the numbers. The player that drew the highest numbered card will win the initiative and get to take a number of activations equal to half the value of the card rounding down. So, if you play and win with a 9, you will get 4 activations. If you win with a face card, you will have three choices about how to use the card; take 3 activations of units, call in one bonus Artillery Support strike or allow one reduced unit to flip to normal status or enter an already eliminated infantry unit at reduced strength. In addition, the VC player can enter a VC Sapper unit onto the board from the Sapper pool.
This War process can be a little frustrating as you could potentially lose 2 or 3 (or even more) draws in a row, but you know that this will generally even out as each player has the same number of each card. The real rough spot will be if you keep drawing medium power cards, such as your 6, 7, or 8 and lose to the other players 9 or 10. This will mean that your solid mid level cards are gone but you will still have your high cards that could come out in the next draw. I actually felt that this element was really thematic and captures the chaos and uncertainty of this type of surprise assault. When there is a tie in the cards drawn, the tie will be broken by the player who hasn’t activated in recent turns. Jokers serve an interesting role. When the first Joker is drawn by either player, this will activate a die roll on the Random Events table. The second draw of a Joker will end the round.
Initial Setup and Unit Deployment
The US player will setup first and must place no more than one infantry, HQ or Heavy Weapons units in any of the Fire Base Areas. Then each of these units will be marked as Surprised. Their lone US Artillery HQ will beplaced in Fire Base Area 13. The ARVN units are not setup at first but can become available later at the end of a round with a dice roll.
Let’s talk about this Surprised marker and why it is so important and also why they need to be removed as soon as possible. The markers represent the general level of unpreparedness that plagued the Fire Base. If you remember in the introduction, I shared the history where it was suspected that trip flares and other early warning devices had not been properly maintained. This Surprised condition is the result of this lack of upkeep and is very important to the story of the battle. Without the Surprised modifiers that the US units will receive from the Surprised status, the VC will have much harder time in meeting their victory conditions. So what does this Surprised status cause?
A Surprised unit incurs the following:
• -1 CD modifier when attacking.
• -1 CD Surprised US Artillery HQ
• +1 DR for Star Shells.
Basically, the Surprised status makes it harder for the US to win an activation check as they can receive an up to -2 result being subtracted from whatever card value they draw in the faceoff. Getting rid of these markers will consume most of the US units first few activations as instead of activating for movement or combat the US player can attempt to have an activated unit’s Surprised marker removed with a DR check. A dice is rolled and modified as follows:
• -1 DR if unit was attacked.
• +1 for each US HQ unit marked as Surprised or eliminated.
If the modified DR is less than or equal to the current US Resistance Level the Surprised marker is removed from the activated unit. If the DR is greater than the US Resistance Level the unit remains marked as Surprised.
I hate the Surprised condition when playing the US, but absolutely love it when playing the VC. This condition will cause the US to lose more initiative checks than they win, at least initially, and they have to focus on getting rid of the Surprise markers. I always try to get rid of the marker on the US Artillery HQ first but then pick my front line units nearest the wire to work on next. This is a great way to insert history into the battle and really make for an interesting and challenging situation.
The VC setup is pretty simple as they only have 6 VC Sapper units that can be deployed during the first few turns. These units can be placed in Areas 26, 27, 31 or 31 and up to 3 such units can be in the same space. The remaining 6 VC Sapper units are held in an off-map box (located on the Turn Record Track) and can be brought into the game via an Activation win with a face card. The VC must strike hard and fast to get across the wire and in amongst the US units where their numbers can assist them and where artillery strikes can possibly damage the US units as well as the VC.
The key to the VC being successful is to always have at least 2 healthy units together in the same as there are positive DR modifiers for Fire Attacks when at least one other healthy VC is in the same space as an attacking unit. With the advantage the US units have with cover, and as long as their Surprised markers are still intact, the VC have a real shot at doing some early damage and taking over some key Areas in the Fire Base. The VC will score Victory Points for reducing and eliminating US units, removing HQ units and holding previously unheld Fire Base Areas.
Now that you understand how activations work, how the units are setup and how the Surprised markers hamper the efforts of the defending US units and give the VC the advantage, it is now time to take a look at how some of the more important activations, such as a Fire Attack, Wire Breach and Artillery Support mission works.
Strategy and Gameplay
In my opinion, a good game is one that has rules that are clear, make sense and are not open to much interpretation and that incorporate the theme of the battle or conflict that it is based around. In this respect, Long Cruel Woman does a good job. I do believe that a couple of instances will take you a few readings to get but it is mostly due to the use of abbreviations such as CD, DR, AF or DV, etc. Other than that the rules are fairly easy to pick up and the player aid is serviceable. I feel that I would like it to have some colors to highlight certain aspects but it is useful adn after a few plays the processes become second nature. Earlier, we talked about activations and how they are won with the cards.
Activated units can perform one the following actions when activated via card draw:
1. Move one or two areas (because units have only a 2 Movement Factor) OR,
2. Not move and instead fire OR,
3. Attempt to place a Star Shell in the unit’s area or one adjacent (US player only) OR,
4. Attempt to remove a Surprised marker (US player only).
5. Attempt to place a Wire Breach marker (VC player only).
6. Perform up to 2 Artillery Support (both players) or Huey Gunship Support strikes (US player only) instead of activating a unit, subject to the limitations of those strikes available for the turn.
7. Attempt to restore a reduced unit to full strength via a Rally.
It is important to remember though that units can only activate once per Card Draw but
can activate multiple times in a turn in a later Card Draw.
Let’s take a closer look at a few of these actions including Fire Attacks, Star Shell, Wire Breach and Artillery Support/Huey Gunship Support.
All units can fire into the Area that they occupy of into an adjacent Area. If the target Area is two Areas away the unit will not be able to fire. Units may fire into all Terrain Areas but will take negative modifiers on those Fire Attacks. Units use their Attack Factor to individually conduct these attacks and do not form fire groups. This is a condition more of the scale as each counter represents only 2-3 soldiers. The phasing player will indicate those units that are firing and target units. The attacking player then rolls a die and modifies the DR as follows:
• Subtract target unit’s Defense Factor and the Area’s Terrain Modifier.
• +1 DR if target unit in the same Area as attacking unit.
• Add attacking unit’s Attack Factor.
• +1 DR more than one full strength Sapper unit in the same area as the attacking Sapper unit (VC player only).
• -1 DR if Surprised unit is attacking.
• +1 DR Star Shell present in the area (against VC unit only).
• If the US Artillery HQ unit is in play and is not marked as Surprised, the CD is
raised by 1 (US attacking) or reduced by 1 (US defending).
• + 1 DR if opportunity fire and moving unit is moving 2 areas (even if the second area hasn’t been entered yet).
If DR plus modifiers is greater than the targeted unit’s printed Defense Factor, the target is hit and will be reduced. If already reduced, the target is eliminated. A modified DR less than or equal to or less than a target’s printed DF is a miss and will have no effect.
That is really it, pretty simple. The US units have more modifiers than the VC Sapper units so their attacks are a bit more involved but the whole process is very simple. I like simple in this respect because it keeps the game moving along at a good clip and you don’t get bogged down in minutiae.
The US player may attempt to place a Star Shell in an activated unit’s area or one adjacent. The activated unit may not move or attack. The US player designates the area where the Star Shell marker is to be placed and rolls a die. Modify the DR as follows:
• +1 Activated unit is marked as Surprised.
• +1 Activated unit is reduced.
• +2 if the US Artillery Support unit is eliminated
If the modified DR is less than or equal to the US Resistance Level the Star Shell marker is placed in the target area. If the modified DR is greater than the US Resistance Level the Star Shell placement has failed.
The benefit of a Star Shell is that it confers a -1 DR modifier, or +1 CD modifier, for all attacks against any VC unit in the area. After each such attack the US player rolls another die. If the DR is odd the Star Shell remains in place; if even it is immediately removed as this means that the Star Shell has burned out. There can be only one Star Shell marker in an area at a time.
I cannot emphasize to you how important getting Star Shells up is for the US player. The added DR in Fire Attack is so important as it is hard to hit a VC unit (in fact it is hard to hit anything in the game). They Star Shells also make other operations more difficult for the VC such as placing a Wire Breach marker. Aside from removing Surprise markers, this is one of the first few activation that the US player should use. I really appreciate this piece of chrome in the design and the importance that it haves. It feels right how it is handled, and makes the game that much better.
The VC Sapper units have a major tool in their toolbox to deal with the wire around the perimeter of the Fire Base. The wire is a problem because when a VC Sapper unit moves into the wire they must stop their movement for that activation and they are now susceptible to Opportunity Fire from the US units, which is basically a free attack that doesn’t require the US player to use a precious activation. An activated VC unit that is in an area with a Perimeter border can attempt to place a Wire Breach marker. The VC player designates the border where the Wire Breach marker is to be placed and rolls the die, modifying it as follows:
• -1 on Turn 1.
• +1 if there is a Star Shell in the area occupied by the activated VC unit as the VC are more easily seen due to illumination.
• +1 if there is an un-Surprised US unit in the area bordered by the Perimeter that the VC is attempting to place the Wire Breach marker.
If the modified DR result is less than or equal to the current VC Morale Level the Wire Breach marker is placed. If the modified DR result is greater than the VC Morale Level the Wire Breached marker is not placed and the VC Sapper is stopped there for the remainder of the turn. Wire Breach attempts do not trigger Opportunity Fire. It is so very important for the VC to get these Wire Beach markers down quickly and then flood the perimeter with as many units as possible. Once a Wire Breach marker is placed, the VC player should bring their off-map units in through the area with the marker as the US player has no way of removing them during the game.
Artillery Support/Huey Gunship Support
At the start of each game turn, including the first, the US and VC player rolls a die to determine the number of Artillery Support Strikes that are available for the turn. The DR is modified as follows for the US player:
• -2 if the US Artillery HQ unit is eliminated.
• -2 if Artillery HQ marked as surprised.
And the DR is modified as follows for the VC player:
• -1 turns 1 through 3.
• -3 turns 4 to the end of the game.
The modified DR result is the number of Artillery Support Missions that can be conducted during the turn. Because it is a roll and can be modified downward, it is possible that the result is 0 or less which simply means that the player will have no Artillery Support Missions available for the turn. I can tell you from experience that this is not a good thing as these Artillery Support Missions are simply more efficient than Fire Combats as you will be able to target up to 2 units.
The US player can conduct up to two Artillery Support Strikes for an activation with any card draw instead of activating units. Any VC or US unit can be targeted, but a US or VC must be within 2 Areas of the targeted Area for the attack to be effective. This is increased to 3 Areas for the US if there is a Star Shell marker present. The player then rolls a die and subtracts the terrain defense modifier from the DR. Add 1 to the DR for the US if there is a Star Shell marker present. If the modified DR result is less than the target
unit’s printed Defense Factor, or is a 0, there is no effect. If the modified DR is greater than or equal to the target unit’s printed DF, and not a 0, the targeted unit will be reduced; if already reduced then eliminated. If a 0 was rolled (in this game a 0 is not a 10 result but a 0 on a 10-sided die) and a US/ARVN or VC unit is in the same Area the US/ARVN or VC unit is instead reduced from friendly fire.
If more than 1 US/ARVN or VC unit is present in the area the player gets to select which one is reduced.
In addition to the Artillery Strike Missions, the US player has access to a similar Huey Gunship Air Strikes but they aren’t available until Turn 3. What would a game on the Vietnam War be without Hueys and gunships? Nothing that’s what. But Long Cruel Woman has all the bases covered and I really have enjoyed playing this one.
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
For a small poly-bag wargame, there is a lot here with Long Cruel Woman. After playing it three full times, in addition to the first time that I simply pushed some counters around to pick up the rules, I have had a good time with the game and can say that is a simple yet solid game design on a very interesting subject. In fact, I would say that the designer included all the necessary chrome and detail to create a worthwhile experience.
You need to be aware that the US player has a distinct advantage in the quality of troops and access to two different types of air support but they start out the game at a huge disadvantage with their Surprised markers. They must get to full order quickly and remove those markers or they risk being overrun by the VC Sappers. If the US player can get a solid group of units un-Surprised, and they can get their HQ units rallied, they will have a chance. Focus on that first and then get those Star Shells in the sky to add positive modifiers to your attack rolls. Also, rally your reduced units as quickly as possible and get the back in the fight.
The VC have to strike hard and fast and cannot delay at all. They should line up at the wire, place their Wire Breach markers and get into the Fire Base to take the attack to the Americans up close and personal. Bring on new Sappers as often as you can with face cards as numbers are your true advantage. If you cannot win activations and bring on additional troops, you had better hit hard with your artillery and do some damage. Remember, even though we didn’t discuss how to win the game, each unit that is reduced or eliminated will lead to VP’s. Keep the attacks coming and don’t relent. You also will have to make sure to try to rally your reduced units as they are not as effective as fresh troops.
If you want to learn more about the design, you can read an interview that we published on the blog with the designer: https://theplayersaid.com/2019/11/04/interview-with-paul-rohrbaugh-designer-of-long-cruel-woman-the-attack-on-firebase-mary-ann-march-28-1971-from-high-flying-dice-games/Are