In late August, I started searching the internet for games that were recently released on pre-order, were currently being shipped or were just starting on Kickstarter for inclusion into my monthly Wargame Watch feature. As I searched I came across this interesting looking wargame from a new company called They Were Soldiers: Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. The game is a 2-player turn-based operational level design based on the battle for LZ X-Ray during the larger Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, 1965. When I was 16 I read the famous We Were Soldiers Once…And Young by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway and ever since have been very interested in not only this battle but the entire Vietnam War itself.
I reached out to one of the Developers on the team Kevin Talley for his input into the design to give us a better picture of how the game plays.
If you are interested in They Were Soldiers: Battle of the Ia Drang Valley you can back the project on the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/647106057/they-were-soldiers-and-dak-to-hill-875
This is a new campaign after the first campaign missed its funding goal. They have also added a bonus game on the back of the game board that covers the Dak To Campaign battle for Hill 875.
Grant: First off Kevin tell us about yourself. What are your hobbies?
Kevin: Well, I like golf and wargames, military history and cars.
Grant: What’s your day job?
Kevin: I am a territory manager for a large financial services company.
Grant: What games do you find yourself playing when you get a chance?
Kevin: I play the games we design (Cadet Games), mostly, but some of my other favorites are: Third Reich, Victory Games’ Vietnam, all of the Axis & Allies Series of games (especially Battle of the Bulge) and Hearts and Minds.
Grant: What lead you to start Cadet Games?
Kevin: We (R.J., Jim, GT and I) had an experience several years ago where the first design we created (which shall remain secret – since it has yet to be produced) ended up in the 3rd party production process (someone else had all of the money). Everything was out of our control and the results have been a real disappointment. So we decided from now on we will make sure our designs get to the playing public while maintaining creative and production control. Hence – we have our own company.
Grant: What is your goal with the company?
Kevin: There are a batch of titles mostly completed that we intend to offer on Kickstarter here over the next couple of years, and we hope to continue creating games for years to come. If you go to the company website: cadetgames.com, you will see a bunch of the games in development. There is one not pictured there that I can share with you that will be coming soon…Linebacker II.
Grant: Why did you want to develop a game around the Battle of the Ia Drang and LZ X-Ray?
Kevin: Well, we all agreed that it was a game that should have already been made. How does Hollywood produce a blockbuster motion picture about a battle and yet there be no wargame based on it? Now, I know there are some other games where it exists as a scenario (Silver Bayonet from GMT Games for example), but the battle for LZ X-Ray in particular is one of the largest actual conventional battles in the entire American experience of the war – and no specific game? Seemed like there should be one.
Grant: Who is the designer of the game?
Kevin: R.J. Mills is the dude who begins the designs – and the rest of us playtest and contribute ideas after he gets these things started. So everyone contributes but most of it is R.J..
Grant: What was his design inspiration?
Kevin: I’ve known R.J. since ’88, and he has a thing for Vietnam – he really has an issue with how “unsung” and mysterious that war has become in American military history. So most of these designs are Vietnam War designs (Hamburger Hill is next).
Grant: What was important from the history to model in the game?
Kevin: Well, the NVA Order of Battle was a point of real contention. Researching the battle (and the timing of the NVA unit(s) availability) raised as many questions as it answered. In the end, the game matches up with the most recently revealed Vietnamese records except to the extent that it includes the H-15 Main force VC battalion as a combat asset available for the morning of the 15th.
Grant: What is the general flow of play?
Kevin: It is simple and moves pretty quick. First you have movement where one side moves and then the other side (the initiative can be very important – obviously), then Fire Combat and Close Quarters Combat (this takes the most time because the Allied player has so many fire support resources that can fire – although the Allied player loves this phase). Then the helicopters drop off reinforcements / pick up wounded (and the NVA get any of their reinforcements on the southern map edge), and then the cards get drawn for the next turn.
Grant: What is the scale of the game?
Kevin: The basic unit is a platoon, though these can break down – in fact, a unit CAN BE as small as a single soldier (but only because of losses). There are only so many unit markers allowed, so this controls the number of total combat units for either side. The design encourages platoon integrity because combat power is based on how many soldiers are in a unit – the more the better.
Grant: What is the Force structure of units?
Kevin: All of the combat units are infantry with small arms – only the American Mortar unit (the battalion mortars from all companies were consolidated at LZ X-Ray) can fire as either indirect Fire Support or direct fire with small arms.
Grant: What different units do players have available?
Kevin: The NVA/VC have infantry, the US has infantry, mortars, Huey helicopters and Fire Support assets.
Grant: What specific Fire Support assets are available? How does a player use these off map assets?
Kevin: So the Americans have 2 batteries of 105mm Howitzers, 2 air commando Skyraiders on station constantly, 2 runs from the 20th ARA (Aerial Rocket Artillery – UH-1C helos with rockets) available each turn and their organic mortar unit. Then, if they have the right card and the time is right, “Broken Arrow” can be announced – bringing 10 more air missions all at once into the equation. One gets the opportunity to appreciate how deadly that battlefield truly was for the NVA infantry facing the firestorm. Each mission fires just like any other unit during the Fire Combat Phase.
Grant: How is the Fire Support Layout used?
Kevin: Well, the idea is to keep track of the assets that have already fired during the turn. So, the little Skyraider is actually placed on the map where the target unit is – the target roll happens – and then once the combat dice are rolled and the losses indicated, the little Skyraider gets placed in its spot on the Fire Support Layout – so now both players can see it has fired for the turn. The same is done with the howitzers and the little ARA helos (and even the small “off-map” NVA mortar unit – by placing one of the “target markers” on the layout with the “fired” side up).
Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play?
Kevin: We tried to keep it fairly straightforward for ease of play and it includes Movement / Combat / Reinforcement / Card Draw.
Grant: How does Reaction Fire work?
Kevin: It functions as the equivalent of defensive fire / ambush against a moving unit that makes contact with a force that is already in cover or defending (or both). How does it compare to a normal fire attack? The moving unit does not fire back until the Fire Combat Phase, so Reaction Fre is basically a free attack that benefits the defending force. It also stops movement.
Grant: How does combat work?
Kevin: There is both Fire Combat and Close Quarters Combat (CQC). Fire Combat is just that – weapons firing at target units (or hexes). This type of combat includes Fire Support assets targeting enemy units or markers and platoons using small arms to hit adjacent enemy units. The combat system is simple – a handful of dice are rolled (depending on the fire strength of the unit) and the dice that read a “hit” number will then count toward enemy losses. With CQC it is the same except that up to 2 adjacent hexes can attack the defenders in one adjacent hex at the same time – and both sides get a combat roll simultaneously to determine who wins the combat. The defender either stands or is driven out of the contested hex – and then the attacker MAY advance into it if he chooses.
Grant: Can a player determine how many steps will Fire and split their attacks?
Kevin: The player doesn’t determine this – they fire as many steps as there are in the firing unit. The rules are specific about this in the Fire Combat sequence. All combat is done with all of the available steps firing – so there is no memory challenge. The unit marker has a “moved” and a “fired” side to eliminate any confusion and keep track during a turn.
Grant: How does the target type effect Fire Attacks?
Kevin: The target type determines which box on the battleboard applies to the combat – this in turn determines what number (or below) on the dice will count for a hit. So if the target is in cover, for example, only a 1 or 2 on a D6 will be a hit…if the target is in the clear or clear forest, a hit will happen on 1-3 on a D6 (or even 1-4 depending on the type of attacking unit).
Grant: What does a wounded marker result in? How are the wounded evacuated?
Kevin: Anytime a US unit sustains any loss, a wounded marker is placed with the unit, so many of the US casualties are only wounded (unless the NVA get to them) – which is a big deal towards determining victory. The same helos that bring in the reinforcements will have the chance to evacuate the wounded as they leave the LZ.
Grant: How does Close Quarters Combat work? What is the advantage of using it?
Kevin: It is how the NVA win the battle. They need to “overrun” a US unit (or several) in order to kill as many of the US soldiers as possible. Any wounded with such an “overrun” unit fall into the NVA’s hands (and are instantly killed). Successful CQC attacks can also capture key defensive terrain, and it can be hard to take back sections of the western creek bed or the heavily-forested southern ridge once the NVA or VC capture these key features.
Grant: What role do helicopters play in the game?
Kevin: Exactly the role they played historically. The helos are the way the Americans get reinforcements and evacuate wounded. If the LZ is overrun and the Helos can’t land, the US player is in a world of hurt (nevermind the NVA get an automatic minor victory if the US doesn’t hold the LZ). Ground fire can shoot down a Huey if the combined firing NVA/VC units roll five 1’s in a single ground fire attack – this is normally hard to do. In the actual battle, only 2 Hueys were lost to groundfire.
Grant: How are cards used in the design? Can you show us a few examples?
Kevin: I love the game cards in all of these designs (every game we have created or that is in-development has cards). The cards allow for much of the “chrome” associated with individual leadership effects, chance, fog of war, historical events, weather, etc. This design has a couple of “red cards” that allow for one extra hex of movement for an NVA unit (“Do not let them breathe”), or allow for a “dummy” NVA counter to be switched out for an actual NVA platoon (“They’re everywhere”). This keeps the US player from ever being 100% sure where the enemy is or being able to conclusively estimate the true movement range of his opponent.
Grant: What are Player Cards and what is their purpose?
Kevin: Like the Action Cards, they serve the same purpose, but these are discretionary (where Action Cards always and only apply to the turn they are automatically revealed for either side).
Grant: What changes during Night Turns?
Kevin: The air support is more problematic, arty missions against unobserved targets are very iffy, and there are (almost) no Hueys flying into or around the LZ.
Grant: How is the game won?
Kevin: The original design just had a simple Victory Condition where the NVA had to beat their historical performance in total US Losses. So that meant a total of 200 US casualties was the number (the battle actually had 79 U.S. killed and 121 wounded, exactly 200 casualties) – and if they got there early the game automatically ended with an NVA win. The problem was that this almost always happened. Worse, by making no distinction between killed and wounded (losses were losses), the American player started using wounded markers for artillery scouts (to reveal hidden NVA markers) and speed bumps to prevent NVA movement – so the thing didn’t play right because this is the opposite of how wounded soldiers are normally ordered around in a battle – as a sacrificial “front line” outside the perimeter!
So the Victory table was devised after several playtests, and now either side can win any game but the thing hinges on US Killed in Action (KIA). Now the wounded don’t count towards red victory unless they can be killed off before evacuation (or the LZ is closed and overrun). So this change made for a much more historical battle – the American player wants to protect all of their wounded and get them safely out – while the NVA want to overrun wounded and cause as many US KIA as possible.
Grant: What do you believe the game does really well in modeling this famous battle?
Kevin: The game does a very good job of simulating both the movement and combat aspects of the battle, but the really cool thing (to me) is the map. While it may not be the most graphically sophisticated game map in wargame history, it IS the map from the actual battle. The game map is actually a slightly modified picture of THE map section that the US soldiers had in their hands during the battle in 1965. The real map sheet is titled PL YA BO, and this was the actual 1:50,000 US Dept. of Defense topographic map the US soldiers were using to call for fire and referencing the grid co-ordinates from. The LZ is the clear section (representing the tall dry grass without trees) in the center of the map and the looming hill to the west of the LZ is exactly what was there in real life. The creek bed is exactly where it was then (as depicted on the soldier’s and aviator’s maps), as are the intermittent contour lines and vegetation types (Dense forest / Clear forest). You can’t get a more accurate topographic playing field to re-create the battle on.
Grant: What has been the experience of your Playtesters?
Kevin: The American player always loves the fire combat phase. The NVA player has to plan a better battle than the NVA did historically, and they must be very careful about CQC.
Grant: What stretch goals are available?
Kevin: There really aren’t any. The game is designed to be complete already, so rather than “unlocking” the various plastic pieces or upgrading the component quality based on a monetary goal, I just offered the game in two versions and let the pledge crowd (players) decide which one they want. Of course, this is my first Kickstarter (the gang voted me the “Production Manager” so I’m learning as I go) and I may change my mind and do stretch goals next time…you never know.
Grant: When can we expect it to be fulfilled?
Kevin: I have several quotes from professional boardgame production companies, and I have my favorite out of all of them. I checked with their schedule and fulfillment timeline and (with room for contingencies) we agreed that April of 2021 was realistic to get the games shipped and in the backer’s hands. There is no design/development holdup here at Cadet Games – we have all of the files ready to go and all of the component production quotes are based on having sent those sample files already. It really is “ready to make” once we get funded.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Kevin. I am really excited about playing this and wish you luck in the funding process.
Once again, if you are interested in They Were Soldiers: Battle of the Ia Drang Valley you can back the project on the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/647106057/they-were-soldiers-and-dak-to-hill-875