During my research for this list of the best Vietnam War games, I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of games set during the war have been first-person shooters. When it comes to making games, the difference between the forces may be the biggest problem. The U.S.-backed South Vietnamese side had much better equipment and weapons, but the NVA and Viet Cong kept them from winning because they wouldn’t stop fighting, even after a lot of firebombing and cutting down of trees.
Still, this bitter and horrible war of attrition in the tropics, as well as the political tremors it caused in the U.S., will always have a special place in Western culture, and because of that, there have been more and more good wargames over the years. We’ve put together here the best of the bunch.
Publisher: Games Operators
It’s nice that the first new game about the Vietnam War in a long time is pretty good and has a unique take on things. In terms of gameplay, it’s more like a light RTS, but the hook is that you’re a Commander back at the HQ tents with only a map and a radio. You have to listen to the information you get over comms, add it to the map yourself (more or less, depending on how realistic you want it to be), and then make decisions based on that.
It has a story behind it. Some people think it’s cheesy or gets in the way, but without it, the experience might be a bit boring. It’s also the only thing that makes this game about the Vietnam War. Without it, you’re just a guy in a tent with a radio moving pieces around a map. Still, it’s a very interesting and difficult game that has a great theme. Radio Commander recently got a piece of DLC called “Squad Management,” which gives your units more ways to be managed, such as unit experience, perks, rotation, and a little more personality.
SQUAD BATTLES: DIEN BIEN PHU, SQUAD BATTLES: TOUR OF DUTY & SQUAD BATTLES: VIETNAM
Publisher: John Tiller Software
John Tiller Software has a lot of information about the Vietnam War and may have the most games for grognards on this list. The Squad Battles series zooms in from the huge operational fronts of World War II games to focus on individual battalions, companies, and platoons. Mortar and tank crews are even modelled individually, along with each of their weapons. The John Tiller games don’t change much to keep up with the times, so they can feel very old to players today. But there’s something to be said for the company’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude when it comes to the game engine and interface. Instead, they’ve put all of their attention on developing scenarios, maps, and units.
Start with Squad Battles: Dien Bien Phu to learn about the first fighting in Vietnam, when the Viet Minh tried to get rid of the French colonial occupiers. Squad Battles: In Tour of Duty, you take charge of an American unit leader sent to Vietnam and fight in the battles that take place during your year there. Squad Battles: Vietnam takes a broader look at the war and includes campaigns that go back to Hamburger Hill and the Tet Offensive.
Each of these John Tiller games has dozens of scenarios (Vietnam has 71) and multiple campaigns. The maps range in size from 780 40-meter hexes to 71,400. You can play with other people in a number of ways, such as two-player hot seat, play-by-email, LAN, and online. Even though the graphics are old and the interfaces are clunky, these games are without a doubt some of the best digital versions of the classic tabletop wargames with cardboard counters and firing charts.
COMMAND: MODERN OPERATIONS
Publisher: Slitherine, Ltd.
Purchase: Steam, Direct
Command: Operations by WarfareSims is sold on Steam. It is both a wargame and a powerful simulation and training software suite. The feedback you get as a player is a big part of what makes it stand out. The inputs you have are similar to what a theatre commander would have in a theatre operations centre (TOC) or on a flagship bridge: a common operational picture that shows all available intelligence as soon as units and sensors in the field update it. This game is about being in charge of naval and air forces across whole war zones, so it has a lot of information. This means that CMO’s Vietnam scenarios are both very detailed and a bit more polished than the dirty jungle scenes we usually see in movies and games about the war.
But naval and air campaigns were important parts of the Vietnam War. With the base game, you get scenarios for the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, Operation Market Time (the Navy’s attempt to blockade Vietnam by sea), and the Battle of ng Hi raid by the Vietnam People’s Air Force on the U.S. Navy. There are a lot more in CMO’s database of user-created scenarios, like the fateful “Gulf of Tonkin” incident, which, no matter what really happened, gave the U.S. a political reason to go all in on the Vietnam War. If you want to learn more about what the platform is like, we have a review.
THE OPERATIONAL ART OF WAR IV
Publisher: Slitherine, Ltd.
Tabletop wargaming groans under the weight of modern battlefield factors like the fog of war. In the past, analogue grogs had to hire referees to find out what was going on on the other side’s board since they couldn’t see it. The Operational Art of War IV (TOAW4) is like a tabletop game with a lot of details. NATO symbols are printed on cardboard counters that move around on colourful hex maps, and there are a lot more variables than any referee could ever be expected to keep track of.
Talonsoft has been working on TOAW for 20 years, and the latest version is a beautiful digital wargame that covers more than 200 years of military history and has a lot of simulation realism. TOAW4 has scenarios from both the American Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars. It also has modern operations like Desert Storm and the Arab-Israeli War in October 1973. For Vietnam, the game comes with a good number of scenarios that cover some of the biggest battles and campaigns of the war. These include Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Ia Drang, the Tet Offensive in 1968, and the three years from 1965 to 1968, among others.
The Operational Art of War IV looks easy to play because all you have to do is move stacks of units around and use action points to move and fight. Under the surface, though, there are a lot of calculations going on, and you’ll have to deal with things like bad weather that makes roads worse, supply problems, and low morale. TOAW4 lets you control both large and small formations and plan attacks in a tactical way by calling in help, like air support and artillery, and choosing which units you want to take part in a fight. The simulation was made with a lot of attention to detail, which makes it a good way to model the morale and propaganda of Vietnam, which is something that most WW2 games don’t do.
Publisher: Slitherine, Ltd.
Vietnam ’65 by ESS isn’t a typical wargame, despite the fact that it looks like a hex map. If you understand it right, it’s a solo strategy game about counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare that doesn’t follow the usual rules for wargames. Even though manoeuvring and fighting are still a part of Vietnam ’65, they are simplified to the point where you won’t find historically accurate battalions with accurate equipment and vehicles. Instead, you have different types of units, like infantry, commandos, helicopters, and armoured personnel carriers (APCs), that work like chess pieces as you try to win the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population and keep public support for the war high in the U.S.
Here, the propaganda aspect of Vietnam comes to the fore, so it’s important to win even relatively meaningless battles if it means there’s a chance of gaining political support at home by sending the Pentagon reports of a lot of enemy deaths. At the same time, you’ll need to get along with the locals, who will give you information about where enemy forces are hiding.
Vietnam ’65 takes place in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, but it also shows the Nixon Administration’s “Vietnamization” policy of training ARVN forces in the 1970s, with the goal of eventually handing over major responsibilities and pulling out American forces. This strategy had mixed results in Vietnam, and a similar programme has been tried again in Afghanistan. Vietnam ’65 is truly asymmetric because you and the computer play different games. Because of this, it does a better job of showing how frustrating the Vietnam War was than most other wargames.
NAM for the PC came out in 1998. It was one of the first games that let you play as an American soldier in the Vietnam War. Towards the end of the game, you have to fight through the warzone and kill as many Vietcong soldiers as you can. The game uses the Build engine, which was famous for running Duke Nukem 3D. This might remind us how impressive this game is, since NAM is known as a total conversion mod for Duke Nukem called Platoon by the TNTTeam. It started out as a mod that was later turned into a full game. To explain why this may have been a good idea as a stand-alone game, the TNTTeam was known for working on a mod for Doom called Final Doom, which was picked up by publishers and released on PC and PlayStation, so it may have used their skills and knowledge to see what a Vietnam War-themed game would be like, which it did. I think it’s the best example of why games with a Vietnam War theme use middleware to get as much information as possible for the game. Some people thought this game was still a mod for Duke Nukem 3D, but it was the first release of a first-person shooter set in the Vietnam War. Soon after NAM, the TNTTeam made World War II GI, which is a take on World War II in the Build engine. So maybe NAM was a stepping stone for them to get to the more popular idea of a first-person shooter to make a game that would be worth putting out, despite its flaws like how hard it can get and how you have to use the save and load functions to finish it. Many of the other games on the list started out as mods, which may show how the Vietnam War was made before it became an independent game that could be sold on the storefront.