Paul Rohrbaugh is a designer I love to follow. He is always doing games on smaller or lesser known conflicts and I just find his work to be superb and really draws me in. He has done a line of games dealing with different battles from the Vietnam War and always names them after popular songs of the time including games like Long Cruel Woman: The Attack on Firebase Mary Ann, March 28, 197, No Satisfaction: Operation Hump November 5-8, 1965 and As Tears Go By: Operation Starlite August 1965. Recently I saw where he was releasing a game on the Battle of Kontum called Bad News on the Doorstep: The Battle of Kontum May 1972. We reached out to Paul and he was more than willing to share.
If you are interested in learning more about the game or ordering a copy you can visit the game page on the High Flying Dice Games website at the following link: http://www.hfdgames.com/kontum.html
Grant: What historical event does Bad News on the Doorstep cover and what motivated you to design a game on this battle?
Paul: The game portrays the May 1972 battle for Kontum, one of the decisive actions of the Easter Offensive by the PAVN (People’s Army of North Vietnam) against the ARVN (Army of the Republic of [South] Vietnam). The lead-up to the Battle of Kontum began in mid-1971, when North Vietnam decided that its victory in Operation Lam Son 719 indicated that the time had come for large-scale conventional offensives that could end the war quickly. The resulting offensive, planned for the spring of 1972, would be known as the Easter Offensive in the South and the Nguyen Hue Offensive in the North, Nguyen Hue being a hero of Vietnamese resistance against the Chinese in 1789. The Easter Offensive would make use of fourteen divisions and would be the largest in the war.
The 1972 Easter Offensive/Nguyen Hue Campaign began with a massive attack on the Demilitarized Zone with 30,000 People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) soldiers and more than 100 tanks. Two thrusts of equivalent size, one towards Saigon and a third to the Central Highlands and provincial capital of Kontum began soon after. The North Vietnamese knew that if they could capture Kontum and the Central Highlands, they would cut South Vietnam in half.
The Battle for Kontum would pit the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 22nd and (later) the 23rd Divisions under the command of Lt. Gen. Ngô Du and later Maj. Gen. Nguyễn Văn Toàn against the equivalent of three PAVN divisions, the 320th and 2nd Divisions plus combat units of the 3rd Division, B-3 Front, and local Viet Cong forces under the command of Lt. Gen. Hoang Minh Thao.
Grant: What does the name imply about the battle and how does it represent the outcome? What was your inspiration for the name?
Paul: Nearly all of my games set in Vietnam have titles that reference a popular song that would’ve been playing on Radio Saigon during the time period portrayed in the game. I’ll let the readers have some fun researching which song is being referenced here! I’ve always been fascinated with the Vietnam War, as I grew up and came of age during this conflict (I was a sophomore in high school at the time of this battle).
Grant: What was the historical result of the battle?
Paul: The ARVN were very much the underdogs, and the US advisors and MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) had pretty much written off the ARVN 23rd Infantry Division, that had been rushed to Kontum following the fall of Dak To (the 22nd ARVN Infantry Division folded and abandoned the crucial Central Highlands town). The 23rd, bolstered with the ARVN Ranger and Airborne troops along with newly deployed TOW anti-tank missiles, were able to fend off and defeat a reinforced NVA division that was also supported by tanks.
Grant: What elements from the battle did you feel were important to model in? How did you do that in the design?
Paul: This was a “conventional” battle waged by the NVA and ARVN. I wanted to showcase elements of the two sides forces (armor, anti-tank, sappers, artillery and air support), as well as the morale of both sides’ forces. I also wanted to portray the aspect of modern warfare that plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy, but still give players opportunities and capabilities to determine how the game plays and who wins.
Grant: What is the scale of the game?
Paul: Units represent Companies. A turn represents 1 day of time. An inch on the map is about 1 mile.
Grant: What were a few sources you consulted on the design? Which one would you recommend to anyone interested?
Paul: The sources I found very useful are:
Andradé, Dale. America’s Last Vietnam Battle: Halting Hanoi’s 1972 Easter Offensive. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1995, 2001.
Fulghum, David, Maitland, Terrance, and the editors of Boston Publishing Company. South Vietnam on Trial, Mid-1970-1972. Boston: Boston Publishing Company.
McKenna, Thomas P. Kontum: The Battle to Save South Vietnam. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2011.
Randolph, Stephen P. Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger and the Easter Offensive. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Troung, Ngo Quang. The Easter Offensive of 1972. Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1980.
Turley, G.H. The Easter Offensive, Vietnam 1972. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1985.
I particularly recommend those by McKenna and Turley.
Grant: How does activation work? Why do you feel the cards are a good tool for this key part of the design?
Paul: Players use a standard deck of playing cards (a custom deck that features graphics by the same artist that did the game’s and has rules reminders on pertinent cards is available). After both players set up a deck of cards is divided in two, with all of the Black suit (clubs and spades) and one Joker card being used by the ARVN player and the red suit (diamonds and hearts) and the other Joker by the PVAN player. At the start of each turn each both players shuffle their card deck.
Grant: How does Morale Level effect the number of activations? What did this represent from the battle?
Paul: Morale is key in the game. Increasing one’s morale increases the number of activations the player receives with each winning card draw activation round, while the adverse makes it harder to get your troops moving and fighting. Passing morale die roll checks are also the means players use to restore disrupted units (that cannot move or attack) back to normal status. Reducing an opponent’s morale level to zero results in an automatic victory, that ends the game early. This really focuses on the result of victory in battle as it tends to urge soldiers on and this was definitely the case here where with each moment the ARVN troops gained more confidence and stood firm.
Grant: What challenges can be presented to players if the activation cards are unkind?
Paul: If one player has a string of losing card draws that will be offset eventually by a run of wins given the nature of the card deck. If the second joker appears, that would end the turn, the North Vietnamese player (who has a slightly harder time of it in the game given the need to be on the attack much more than the ARVN for most of the game) can elect to ignore it and keep playing, but this does give the ARVN player an additional activation with each winning card draw until all cards are drawn. Extensive play tests have shown that the card draw design really doesn’t favor one player more than the other. What is more telling is how each player utilizes their activations. The design of this, and all other games using my card draw design, rewards players who can develop the most threats when attacking, or defends best in depth, and have a “long range” plan. Those who just react or do what is most expedient can and usually will be punished by their opponent.
Grant: What actions can players perform with an activation?
Paul: Activated units can move, attack, rally or entrench. Activations can also be used to call in available air and artillery strikes. As mentioned earlier, these activations need to be used wisely as you just don’t get to move each and every unit every turn so you have to make the most of your actions and also make a plan for how you wish to use them.
Grant: How does a turn come to an end?
Paul: Whenever the second joker card is drawn the turn normally ends. If the PAVN player elects to ignore the second joker card and continue drawing cards for activation, or if one player has not won any card draw activations before the second joker card is drawn, the turn ends when all cards are drawn.
Grant: What variable End of Turn conditions are there?
Paul: Neither player knows when that second joker will turn up, or if the PAVN player will elect to keep the turn going, each turn will vary in length and number of activations for both players.
Grant: What does this represent from the history?
Paul: War is chaos and confusion interrupted by clarity and action. The card draw design captures this very well in an easy to teach and understand format. Another aspect of the game’s design that affects the number of turns and pace of action are Refit turns. During a Refit turn no PAVN units may activate except to Rally or to move out of an area with an ARVN unit. PAVN units may not attack during a Refit turn. Additionally, during a Refit turn the PAVN player has a -1 DR for all Rally DR checks.
Grant: What area does the map cover? What key terrain of this battlefield do players have to keep in mind?
Paul: The map is based upon a contemporary US military map used in Vietnam, and shows the town of Kontum and surrounding area where the battle was fought. Terrain includes open, swamp, river and town terrain, as well as victory locations (Kontum town areas) as well as a “military area” where the ARVN 23rd Division HQ and artillery fire base were located.
Grant: How does combat work?
Paul: Combat is voluntary. Activated units can attack enemy units in the same or adjacent areas. A six -sided die is used to resolve attacks. The DR is modified by the attacking unit’s combat factor, terrain of the area where the target is located, if an un-disrupted armor or sapper unit is present, or if the attacking unit has a TOW and is firing upon an enemy armor unit.
Grant: What are the results of successful attacks?
Paul: A combat die roll that is less than or equal to the target’s defense factor has no effect. A DR that is greater results in the targeted unit being Disrupted; if already Disrupted it is reduced (or eliminated if already reduced).
Grant: How does Opportunity Fire work?
Paul: PAVN units may be fired upon during movement as they move into or out of an area with a normal status entrenched ARVN unit. Similarly, an ARVN unit can be fired upon as it moves into or out of an area with a terrain modifier or 1 occupied by a normal status PAVN unit. Opportunity fire does not require an activation and is resolved like regular combat, and can therefore be a powerful asset for the defense. It makes “preparing the way” with artillery and/or air strikes very important since disrupted units cannot engage via opportunity fire.
Grant: What is the role of PAVN Sapper units?
Paul: These units, if normal status, confer advantageous DR modifiers if stacked with attacking PAVN units. When attacking, PAVN player, don’t leave home without them!
Grant: How do Artillery Support Strike Missions work?
Paul: An available artillery, as well as air, support strike, can be called in anywhere on the map to attack opposing unit (no range limit). As with regular and opportunity fire a die roll is used to resolve the strike. If successful the strike can disrupt the target unit (or reduce it if already disrupted). As mentioned earlier, these are very useful in “preparing the way” for an assault by reducing if not eliminating any chances for opportunity fire that could undo your plans. However, there is never going to enough of these support strikes, so how and when they are used can be crucial.
Grant: What is the special B-52 Strike?
Paul: Once before the first Refit turn, and again once after each of the Refit turns, the ARVN player designates one area with PAVN unit(s) and that does not have any ARVN units with the B-52 Strike marker by using an Activation. This can be devastating as it can disrupt and/or reduce every PAVN unit in an area. These can really give the PAVN player headaches.
Grant: How is victory determined?
Paul: Failing an automatic victory (reducing an opponent’s morale level to zero), a player wins the game by garnering Victory Points (VP). VP are awarded for each of the following:
1 VP for each enemy infantry, sapper or airborne infantry unit eliminated (awarded as this occurs).
2 VP for each armor unit eliminated (awarded as this occurs).
1 VP for elimination of ARVN Artillery HQ unit (awarded when this occurs).
2 VP for each Kontum city area occupied solely, or last to be occupied, by a friendly unit at the end of the game.
Note: Units that are flipped to normal status or returned to play do not cause a reduction of VP. The player with the most VP at the end of the game is the winner. In the event of a tie the ARVN player is the winner.
Grant: What side has the more challenging path to victory?
Paul: The PAVN player has a bigger challenge only because that player must attack to win. That said, the ARVN cannot defend everything and will be facing threats from multiple directions. As I said earlier, the card draw design rewards players that plan ahead and make the most of their activations with that long range plan in mind. Patience, as well as responding/reacting whenever opportunities present themselves are key balancing elements that figure prominently in most game outcomes.
Grant: What are some strategic considerations for both the ARVN and PAVN?
Paul: The PAVN player must decide whether to take Kontum quickly with a direct attack from multiple directions, or to first “decapitate” the ARVN by taking out the divisional HQ and artillery. The ARVN depend a great deal on their support, and taking out the HQ can have disastrous consequences on the ARVN morale, which as I described earlier can be decisive. The ARVN player does not have enough assets and men to defend everywhere, so deploying troops to be able to react and counter-attack where and when needed is key. Both players must take risks to win, but such is war.
Grant: What optional rules are available to include?
Paul: There are no optional rules, but special rules for this game include TOW missiles, Air Strike casualties that can result from a bad DR result for resolving air strikes that award VP to the PAVN player, the already mentioned effects of the ARVN 23rd divisional HQ, the Refit turns, B-52 strikes and “fortunes of war” which confer advantages to the player that has them, but must be awarded to the opponent if used.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
Paul: The very interactive design that is easy to learn/teach, and conveys very well the nature of this decisive battle of the war.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Paul and for your efforts in designing this interesting games.
If you are interested in Bad News on the Doorstep: The Battle of Kontum May 1972 you can order a copy for $17.95 from the game page on the High Flying Dice Games website at the following link: http://www.hfdgames.com/kontum.html