About 18 months ago, I came across this interesting looking wargame from a new company called They Were Soldiers: Battle of the Ia Drang Valley that was heading to Kickstarter at the time. The game was 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. Since that successful campaign, Cadet has designed and completed another successful campaign for a game called Nguyen Hue ’72: The 1972 Easter Offensive in Vietnam. They now are putting a game out there on GameFound called December 1972 – Linebacker II: The Historic B-52 Strikes Against North Vietnam. I reached out to my contact there Kevin Talley to get some more information for the campaign to share with you.

If you are interested in December 1972 – Linebacker II: The Historic B-52 Strikes Against North Vietnam, you can back the project on the GameFound page at the following link : https://gamefound.com/projects/kevin-talley/linebacker-ii?ref=recommendation_projectHome_7

Grant: What is the focus of your new upcoming game Linebacker II?

Kevin: Linebacker II is an air-campaign simulation that re-creates the famous B-52 strikes vs North Vietnam around Christmas of 1972. This was America’s “last Vietnam battle” and resulted in the Paris peace agreement in Jan of ’73, and the return of the American POWs from Hanoi.

Grant: Who is the designer of the game?

Kevin: The same guy who makes all of Cadet’s designs, RJ Mills. 

Grant: What was his design inspiration? 

Kevin: This one has been in development since July of 2020, and back then the thing began with a hex-map over a 1:500,000 tactical pilotage chart, but the original design idea quickly proved to be way too granular. It looked like GMT’s Downtown. It became apparent that translating all of the actions of modern air campaign movement and combat at 3 or 5 miles/hex into a board game took far longer than actually flying the missions in real-time – so that whole approach quickly got scrubbed. There’s already a game for that. Instead, RJ dusted off some very simple air campaign rules he had designed for another Vietnam War game and started re-thinking that system with a bunch more unique target boxes and a completely different combat system. I don’t think there has ever been a game that uses a system quite like this one. This is an RJ design inspired by another RJ design!

Grant: What was important from the history to model in the game?

Kevin: Two things were primary considerations: 1.) the North Vietnamese-manned SA-2 missile system vs. the B-52 ECM/chaff/Iron Hand escort defense combination; and 2.) the terribly-flawed SAC operational planning for the campaign.

The whole battle really came down to the B-52s against the SAMs. Not to take anything away from all the contributing support aircraft, but the primary reason Nixon chose the B-52s is because he wanted to inflict maximum damage on North Vietnam’s military and industrial targets in close proximity to their urban centers. Nixon specifically wanted the North’s people and their leaders to “see the light and feel the heat” of the bombing. It was as much a psychological campaign as a military one. Nixon didn’t want to “peck away with a few phantoms” when he could put B-52s to work over the enemy targets – dropping as many as 108 bombs from EACH PLANE! (One B-52 carried more bombs than an entire 12-plane B-17 squadron would drop over Germany in a typical long-range WWII raid). As such, the only thing that mattered from an air-defense standpoint was the missile.  Nothing else could really hit a B-52 – they flew too high for any flak to hit them, and the MiGs were notoriously weak in night-intercept capability. So, the heart of the combat system would be in simulating the hundreds of missile-firings over the campaign’s multiple days and creating a credible system that modeled these engagements.

As for the SAC planning, it is not too much to say that, had the NVA themselves actually been IN the SAC HQ with the planners in Omaha, they could hardly have created a plan weighted more to their SAM system’s strengths than the one the SAC planners produced! There was just no way to model the historical campaign without making this aspect part of the design. Indeed, the Vietnamese might well have won the historical battle in a very real sense primarily because of SAC’s inadvertent assistance. That may seem a bold claim, but the game is designed so the US player has to operate with the same SAC attack plan & tactics as with history – and then the same gradual shift away from those tactics as time passes and losses mount. So, players can decide for themselves if they agree with the assertion above – as they send the bombers in again and again using the same SAC plan during the first 3 nights.

Grant: How do you make a playable game from an air campaign?

Kevin: Here’s where this particular battle’s history helps – it was only 11 nights. So, unlike trying to sim the entire Battle of Britain or the complete air campaign during the first Gulf War, one doesn’t have to cover that many raids. Moreover, because of the design scope (see the above discussion on design inspiration), the players don’t have to deal with each pair of aircraft in a 100-plane raid from ingress to egress minute by minute and mile by mile. The target boxes dictate which AD systems will be active against a given bomber/escort wave and the combat is decided quickly (and it’s both realistic and fun, too)!

Grant: What is the layout of the main aviation chart map?

Kevin: The main map is a portion of an aviation nav chart at 1:1,000,000 covering most of North Vietnam north of Thanh Hoa and south of the Chinese border, with a bit of eastern Laos. It is designed for the players to use like a “war room” map might look in an actual air campaign battle, with little minis representing the aircraft flying their attack vectors and the targets highlighted. It looks beautiful on the table, and it’s simple to use. It has target boxes around the outer perimeter of the map that represent various target areas from the historical campaign (and there is a cool picture of the target taken from the real L7014 1:50000 series map of those same areas). Any SAM sites that defend a given target box, and any AAA emplacements defending individual targets, go on the map in their respective boxes. MiGs based at a given airfield go on the runways.

Grant: What type of targets are included in the target boxes? How do the targets change over the course of the game?

Kevin: All of the targets in the boxes are historical targets that were actually hit during Linebacker II. These targets range from “area targets” like the large Kinh No rail & storage complex north of Hanoi to the small Hanoi Radio transmitter (a “point” target) west of Bach Mai. The player doesn’t get to select their targets or aircraft assignments for the first 3 nights of the campaign because SAC has already created their inflexible plans for this, but as the game goes on the US player gets progressive control over targets, aircraft types, routes, times and tactics. This change in planning authority can have a huge impact on point-scoring for the victory condition.

Grant: What is the general flow of the game and the Sequence of Play?

Kevin: The Sequence of Play goes by campaign night and raid wave. At the outset of a night, the NVA player finalizes their defense setup and chooses their hidden trump cards for the planning layout. The US player Checks the SAC planning layout and plays those planning cards they have available. The NVA player now reveals any trumps that apply. The US player either consults the playbook for the raid wave target/aircraft/vector/altitude & escort assignments for that night, or creates their own (if they have that planning authority). Each wave layout is put together separately, and the US player need only fill out one wave at a time (keeps the NVA player guessing about the next series of targets/number of inbound aircraft). Then the actual wave aircraft are put on the table with their target indicators and vector strips, support aircraft get placed by target box and ECM/MiGCAP support get placed in their “orbit” tracks. Chips go under minis to indicate multiples. F-111 strikes are played first (AAA has a small chance to hit them and they have a separate bombing table). Chaff and escort are next (these are phantoms laying the chaff corridor for the B-52s) and the NVA player can choose to scramble Migs and fire SAMs at these aircraft or not.  Chaff results are placed on the separate Chaff Chart – indicating covered areas of the main map without cluttering up the play area.

The NVA player can now decide what to do against support aircraft assigned to a target area box – they can be attacked by any SAMs/ MiGs/ AAA from those area targets – keeping in mind that any SAMs fired against this group may allow for Iron Hand anti-radiation missile reaction against the radars and MiGs will likely have to pass air-to air combat vs. phantom escorts. Success of F-111 missions in cratering runways can impact MiG scramble.

Now for the main event: Bombers vs. SAMs. Each target area SAM battalion decides to engage a B-52 cell or not (and how) and the combat is tracked on the Attack Vector Board and the actual missile performance using the Missile engagement track. These are explained in detail later. Once the bomber cells have all dropped and been engaged (or not), the bomb results and the losses are recorded on the campaign track, ending the raid wave and beginning another. At the conclusion of all waves for that night, the campaign night has advanced and the sequence repeats (IF the US player has the points to continue, otherwise the NVA have won an “ariel Dien Bien Phu!”).

Grant: What is the scale of the game? Force structure of the units?

Kevin: The game scale is individual aircraft and SAM battalions – missile by missile. But to save space and keep things simple, a tiny die is used to track remaining missiles in a battalion (how convenient that there were historically 6?) and support aircraft and bombers attacking a given target are grouped using stacked chips under the mini. F-111s usually flew their night missions as a single aircraft, penetrating the NVA defense at high-speed and extreme low level using terrain-following radar at under 300ft, so those are represented by a single mini (usually) and just the target indicator. The OOB is accurate and impressive – LBII was a HUGE air campaign, as they go.  You get lots of minis.

Grant: How does the US player go about putting together the raid wave plan layouts?

Kevin: The idea for these layouts came from the desire NOT to have papers to “fill out” for either player. A game that required someone to use a written worksheet was seen as undesirably complex and requiring too much record-keeping for the intended design, so the raid wave plan layout was the solution.

For the first three days, the US player only has to follow the guidance in the playbook to “learn” how to do this – which is kinda cool because, even though the SAC plan is imperfect, it means that the basics of how a raid wave is planned become familiar to the US player, long before they are tasked with creating their own plan. Each target has counters, and one is placed on the raid wave plan layout for each target to indicate those targets as part of the wave. Next, the SAC planning layout and B-52 basing layouts are consulted (Andersen and U-Tapao) to see how many of each type of B-52 are available to hit a given target. Counters representing different cells of B-52s from either base now are placed on the raid wave plan in the appropriate boxes. Each target has an approach and exit vector indicated for the attacking cells of bombers (using little vector-arrow roundels), and then a counter for the altitude band they will use is placed. The time on target is indicated and then any supporting aircraft assigned to the wave are placed on the layout in the appropriate boxes.

Using these planning layouts, a page of historical targets, bomber cell assignments, attack and exit vectors, support aircraft assignments and TOT/Altitude data (from the playbook) can be directly translated into “game pieces on the map.” The idea was to make the actual “game board” look like the little raid vector diagrams from the majority of documents forming the historical record of Linebacker II. Once the player knows how to translate the historical data onto the gameboard, they start learning how to plan their own attacks using the same format.

Grant: How does the various air to air and ground to air combat system work?

Kevin: The combat system has two major subsets – 1.) the B-52s vs. the SA-2 battalions – and 2.) everything else. As it goes to everything else, there is a simple die roll process to determine any AAA or SAM hits on the support planes, as well as the effects of any Iron Hand strikes against active SAM radars. Air to Air combat is simple as well, though the process takes multiple steps because the MiGs have to first get clear of the specific bomber cell escorts patrolling their target area box, then any MiGCAP in range, before finally having the GCI vector them successfully onto a cell for a shot at a bomber (and then there are the tail gunners). It is a super longshot to take out a bomber with a MiG-21 at night, but then there was only a single documented B-52 hit by a single MiG-21 during the entire campaign – (which did not destroy the B-52). The MiGs basically function as “a fleet in being”, to use the old battleship analogy. The F-111s have their own separate bomb damage table and AD engagement rules, and those “support” sorties are the only ones that matter from a Victory Point scoring perspective.

Grant: What role does the Attack Vector Board play?

Kevin: The Attack Vector Board is like the “battleboard” in this design. All of the separate cells of B-52s attacking a given target have their bombers placed on the appropriate inbound vector of the Vector Board, with the exit vector occupied by the corresponding cell counter from the planning layout. Each aircraft in a cell can be targeted, though the rules require a different battalion fire on each targeted aircraft (SA-2 systems could guide up to three missiles at once but could not track more than a single target at any time). The “Target Card” for the specific target (there are 42) is placed in the center of the board. This card has 2 markers that record prior wave/cell inbound vector and post-target turn data to determine mods for the missile crew’s effectiveness. As missiles are fired, there is a place to track this number (every single missile matters – there were only so many available to the NVA). Bombers roll for their bomb damage hits depending on target type and aircraft type (B-52G models carried only 1/4th of the bombload of a D model), and bomb damage points and any aircraft losses are recorded one cell at a time.

Grant: What is the SAM Engagement Track?

Kevin: This is the tool used to determine the required “hit number” to have a SAM successfully hit a bomber at altitude. Because of the number of historical missiles fired (a topic of some dispute) and the statistically tiny hit percentage overall, the design required something special. In researching the campaign, it became obvious that some SA-2/B-52 engagements were perfectly successful (100% – one shot, one kill), while others were like throwing darts at noise in the dark 50M away (virtually no chance of a hit). But the factors that contributed to this vast difference in hit probability could be re-created and accounted for – one missile at a time. So that is how the SAM Engagement Track works. 

Both sides first draw a card from the tops of their Mission/Air Defense decks that has an inherent value (either + or -) to influence the hit track number. These are placed on the SAM engagement track (these cards are cool because they represent actual bomber and missile crew happenings from the historical campaign). Each historical modification that contributed to a bomber crew’s survivability is then taken into consideration and the marker on the hit track first moves left from its starting position. Then those factors that contributed to a missile crew’s success are applied and the marker moves back right. The number that the marker lands on is then the number that must be rolled – 2 dice are rolled and if the number is a match, there is a hit!  A missile has a hit probability ranging from 2.78% to 16.66%. Everything from the type of ECM system the B-52 is equipped with to the specific engagement technique and timing of the SAM crew can impact this probability. Bombers in their Post Target Turns (PTT) without cell integrity hitting repeat targets by the same routes are more likely to get hit. It can be even worse if they are G-model planes without ALT-22 ECM packages or bombers outside of a Chaff screen – or if the missile crews fire two SAMs at the same target!  The system is fun, suspenseful, realistic and quick.  

Grant: What are the different miniatures used in the game?

Kevin: Almost all the planes used in the historical campaign are here: F-4 Phantoms, F-105 Thunderchiefs, EB-66 Destroyers, A-7 Corsair IIs, A-6 Intruders, MiG-21s and B-52s. There were other MiG variants in the VPAF, but they had zero night intercept capability, and our sim deals strictly with the night attacks and the B-52 raids. There are also a pair of Kitty-Hawk class CVNs to park the navy jets on between sorties (fun). The NVA have dozens of AAA guns and 20 little SAM battalions as well.

Grant: How are the SAC brass adversaries to the US player?

Kevin: Well, once the player reviews the SAC planning layout and notices the details of the planned raids for days 1-3, they will instantly wonder, “who the genius is that came up with THAT plan?” Then, as the battle begins and SAMs start being fired, more details about the tactical consequences of the SAC plan will become evident. In addition, the US player will start to see how the bomb damage score is influenced by aircraft and target type – and then wonder with greater interest still, “who could have thought all this up?” The NVA player, of course, will be incredulous as to their good fortune at having such an ally as the SAC staff! 

Because this is indeed the true historical SAC plan being re-enacted, both players will immediately get a new insight into just how close the US was to losing this last Vietnam battle – and a fresh appreciation for the bravery of the bomber crews tasked with executing SAC’s plan. A plan developed by guys a world away from the combat zone who had never flown a single mission against SAMs themselves, much less in a lumbering B-52 at high altitude (probably the single best SAM target ever imagined by the SA-2 system’s designers).

Grant: What are trump planning cards and how does the NVA player use them?

Kevin: To simulate how the campaign was affected by the SAC planners in Omaha, the first three days of the campaign are set in stone for the US player. After the third day, the US player gets to “play” planning cards – each card has the potential to unlock an aspect of raid planning that might contribute to a more effective bomb damage score and/or tactics that can influence how survivable their bombers will be over the targets. But, to simulate SAC command resistance to releasing planning authority, the NVA player gets to play “trump cards” that potentially negate those planning changes desired by the US player! Both players first select the cards they will play in secret, and then reveal them simultaneously during the SAC planning phase. If the NVA player chose the same card the US player did, then that aspect of raid planning is now “locked” for the campaign night – it will remain the same as before. Oh, the frustration!

As time goes on the US player gets more cards and the NVA player eventually gets zero – releasing full raid planning authority from SAC in Omaha to the US player (who is basically playing as the 8th and 7th AF command staff in the SEA theatre – the folks that certainly should have been charged with the planning authority from the outset). Historically, once this shift took place, the battle immediately changed dramatically in the US’s favor, resulting in a quick return by the formerly intransigent NVA to the conference table in Paris and a signed agreement quickly thereafter.

Grant: What scenarios are included?

Kevin: The game comes with a playbook that allows for the players to re-create each and every raid wave from every night of the historical campaign. Separate bomb damage scores and loss scores for each night are used to determine victory for these smaller “one night” scenarios.

The campaign scenario begins with the first phase of the operation (days 1-3) and goes from there. The players may well play out the entire historical campaign if it takes all 11 nights to achieve a final result. If both players agree in advance, they may decide upfront to play only a certain number of campaign nights, with the Victory condition being met as long as the US player is still “in it.”

Grant: How is the game won?

Kevin: Each raid wave results in a bomb damage score and a loss score. Loss points are subtracted from bomb damage points to arrive at a victory point level. In the campaign scenario, the US player must have achieved the required Victory Point score after the first three nights or the NVA has won an automatic victory – an “Ariel Dien Bien Phu.” As long as the US player continues to meet their minimum VP requirement for each subsequent night, they get to continue the campaign – if they fail, the NVA wins!

Grant: What do you believe the game does really well in modeling the air campaign?

Kevin: First, I will say that the research for the design was extensive. The story of Linebacker II is an amazing one, and the material out there covering the campaign is much like everything else one is exposed to about America’s Vietnam history – fraught with controversy, ideological bias, intentional distortions and sometimes wild inaccuracies. The good news is that enough time has passed now that a robust historical record from both sides of the battle is available to the researcher. Documents like the RAND report on the campaign, the actual strategic bombing survey of Linebacker II, multiple interviews with actual participants and even SAM performance data from the Russian advisory technicians can be accessed and referenced. The game does a great job of simulating the historical combat while preserving the unique challenges posed by America’s own parochial executive and military divisions during the waning days of our SEA experience. This game is an overdue addition to the wargaming community – on the 50th anniversary of the battle – it’s about time.

Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?

Kevin: Everybody wants to be the US. As with so many Vietnam games, it’s hard to find someone who truly wants to play the NVA. The MiGs are a longshot, the AAA almost never lands a hit on anyone (night) and the SAMs are a low-odds system as well, especially given how many the NVA fires. But…when there is a hit….it must be like it was for the North Vietnamese in real life…because it is A BIG DEAL. And it doesn’t take that many to win.

Still, the development of a solo system is happening now. The game simply HAS to be adapted for solo play to realize the design potential. To some extent the US is already playing ”against themselves,” so this is just a natural extension of the design concept.

Grant: What stretch goals are available? 

Kevin: Perhaps we at Cadet Games are not the best marketers, but we believe in making the product great, with all the mounted maps and the full compliment of minis for any game we produce. As such, we don’t care to offer some “lesser version” of our products while waiting for the pledge campaign to “unlock” the desired version with the production quality we intend anyways.  So far, our other titles have been successful campaigns by simply offering multiple copies at a savings so that players can choose to pledge for multiple copies for gifts, game clubs, retail or whatever. This also greatly simplifies production and fulfillment, for there is no easy way to produce one kind of 100% completely assembled and shrink-wrapped product while also creating an inventory of ALMOST the same product – but without x or y in the box/unmounted mapsheets/etc. for some lesser pledge level.

Perhaps we will learn more about how to successfully use this aspect of crowdfunding campaign design in the future, but for now it isn’t something we focus much effort towards.

Grant: When can we expect it to be fulfilled?

Kevin: The campaign runs through almost the end of February, and then we will be waiting a bit for the pledge manager stage to begin and conclude. During that time, we will have the production sample created and reviewed for any production-version changes. It usually takes our folks in Hong Kong about 8 months total for sample creation, required mods, production and pallets of games shipped to our business. Our expected delivery to backers will be October of 2023.

If you are interested in December 1972 – Linebacker II: The Historic B-52 Strikes Against North Vietnam, you can back the project on the GameFound page at the following link : https://gamefound.com/projects/kevin-talley/linebacker-ii?ref=recommendation_projectHome_7