SPI, YEAR OF THE RAT (1972)

THE YEAR OF THE RAT: Combat in Vietnam, Spring, 1972 is an operational level simulation of the Communist Spring Offensive against the forces of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), in 1972. This game was originally offered as the insert game in S&T #35 (November, 1972). Later it was reissued in the familiar SPI plastic flat-pack version featured here. THE YEAR OF THE RAT was designed by John Prados (with help from James F. Dunnigan), and published in 1972 by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI).

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

In early 1972, American and South Vietnamese intelligence analysts gradually became convinced that the military leadership of the Peoples Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) was planning some sort of major insurgency operation in the coming months. Based on previous experience, and lacking any clear indicators as to the enemy timetable, both American and South Vietnamese commanders, including senior US General Creighton Abrams, tentatively fixed the date for a new North Vietnamese offensive for the period surrounding ‘Tet’, the Vietnamese New Year. Events would soon show that they were correct about North Vietnamese intentions, but wrong about both the timing and the scale of the impending offensive. The North Vietnamese offensive would come during the ‘rainy season’ and it would be much larger and more ambitious than anyone in Saigon had ever anticipated.

Unlike the 1968 Communist ‘Tet’ Offensive against the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) which was primarily insurgency-based, the ‘Easter’ Offensive of 1972 was intended to be a powerful and carefully coordinated conventional ground operation which would, from the very beginning, make liberal use of artillery, armor, and infantry. To this end, fourteen divisions and twenty-six independent regiments — virtually the entire North Vietnamese Army — was, from the outset, committed to the success of the offensive. US Airpower, the North Vietnamese military leadership realized, would be a critical factor in the success or failure of their attacks; so to minimize the effectiveness of both tactical and strategic bombing, the Communist ground operations were timed to coincide with the height of Vietnam’s monsoon season. Interestingly, despite their massive and meticulous military preparations, the goals of the Hanoi leadership were actually relatively modest, although quite subtle and far-reaching. First, it was hoped that renewing combat operations would significantly degrade the South Vietnamese military in advance of future, more ambitious North Vietnamese operations; second, that Communist forces would be able to seize and hold at least a token amount of South Vietnamese territory as a bargaining chip in future peace negotiations; and last, but not least, they hoped that continued fighting in Vietnam would further incentivize the pro-Hanoi anti-war movement that was steadily growing in political influence in the United States. Thus, the Communist planners made their preparations with one eye on the military situation in South Vietnam, one eye on Paris, and yet another on the US presidential election which was rapidly approaching.

The opening phase of the Communist ‘Easter’ Offensive began at 12:00 pm, 30 March 1972, with a sudden violent artillery bombardment against the dispersed and unsuspecting South Vietnamese army outposts in Quang Tri Province; these were the South Vietnamese defensive positions closest to the North-South Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The ferocious Communist artillery barrage was soon followed up by two North Vietnamese divisions, the 304th and the 308th, which advanced supported by two independent armored regiments (approximately 100 tanks). The two Communist divisions rapidly charged south across the DMZ and crashed into the still-reeling ARVN units that were entrusted with defending the northern gateway to the five South Vietnamese provinces that made up the ‘I Corps’ region of the Republic of Vietnam. As these two Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) divisions swept down from the north, the PAVN 334B division rolled across the border from Laos also passing into Quang Tri Province; it continued east along Highway 9 through Khe Sahn and then down into the Quang Tri River Valley. Once the initial PAVN attacks on ‘I Corps’ began to gather momentum, the original three North Vietnamese divisions were quickly reinforced by two additional divisions: the 320B and 325C divisions. In some places, the ARVN troops held, but in others, they collapsed; soon most of the forward South Vietnamese units were falling back, in varying states of disarray towards Quang Tri City.

On 5 April, the second phase of the Communist offensive jumped off with an attack by PAVN and NLF units out of Cambodia against Binh Long Province, northeast of South Vietnam’s Capital, Saigon. Heavy fighting soon erupted as the ARVN units in the immediate area quickly became surrounded by the advancing Communists. A week later, on April 12th, the third phase of the carefully planned Communist offensive opened with a major pincer attack from both Laos and Cambodia into the Central Highlands. The key South Vietnamese bases at Kontum and Pleiku were now in danger. The troops of North and South Vietnam were now locked in combat in three widely-dispersed parts of the country. The Communist ‘Easter’ Offensive would be the most severe test, yet, of the new American program of ‘Vietnamization’.

DESCRIPTION


THE YEAR OF THE RAT: Combat in Vietnam, Spring, 1972 is a two-player operational(battle group/regiment/brigade/division) level simulation of the Communist Spring Offensive against the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), in 1972. The game is played in game turns, each of which is divided into a Communist and an Allied player turn. A complete game turn is equal to one week of real time. The game is thirteen turns long and spans the period from 30 March to 28 June, 1972. The various game counters represent the historical combat units that actually took part — or that could have played a role — in the battles that occurred during the Communist Spring offensive of 1972. Each game turn is composed of a set sequence of player phases, beginning with the Communist player. A typical game turn proceeds, as follows: (Communist player turn) Reinforcement Phase; Movement Phase; Combat Phase; Disruption Removal Phase; (Allied player turn) Reinforcement Phase; Movement Phase; Bombardment Phase; and Combat Phase. At the conclusion of both player turns, the turn record marker is advanced one space, and the next game turn begins.

The actual mechanics of play for YEAR OF THE RAT are comparatively simple, but interesting, nonetheless. Stacking in a single hex is unlimited, and each hex on the map sheet represents 10 kilometers from side to side. Allied units are always deployed face-up on the game map. Communist units — whether real or dummy counters — are always inverted unless they attack or are attacked by an enemy ground unit, and once the combat is concluded all non-dummy units (dummies are eliminated once revealed) are immediately turned face-down again. Zones of control (ZOCs) are rigid but not sticky: units, however, must pay movement point costs to stack and unstack and to enter or exit enemy ZOCs. The supply rules impose different requirements on the two sides. Communist units (excluding National Liberation Front cadres which are always in 'Attack' supply) must trace a supply line of eight or fewer hexes to a supply center hex in order to be in 'General' supply (normal movement, full defense strength and one-half attack strength); they must trace the same supply line to and expend a Communist supply unit to be in 'Attack' supply (normal movement, full defense and attack strength); if they can do neither, Communist units are considered to be in 'Isolated' supply (halved movement and defense strength and attack strength reduced to “1”). Allied units are either 'Supplied' or 'Unsupplied'. Allied units are Supplied (full movement, full defense and attack factor) if they can trace a supply line of any length to an unbesieged South Vietnamese town or base, or if they occupy a friendly town or base, whether besieged by Communist forces or not. 'Unsupplied' Army of the republic of Vietnam (South Vietnamese) units are halved for movement and defense, and cannot attack; Unsupplied non-ARVN units are normal for movement and defense, and halved when attacking. Terrain effects, although relatively simple, are also different for each side. Communist units may move through all types of terrain; ARVN units may only enter rough or swamp terrain by moving along a road or trail and their ZOCs only extend into those hexes that they can enter. Certain elite ARVN units are airmobile; these crack units, however, are restricted to using this capability to transfer directly from one friendly town or base to another. Non-ARVN units play only a minor role in direct ground combat, but American air and sea bombardment are the critical elements in the South Vietnamese defensive arrangements. American air power, especially, can strike at PAVN and NLF (reconstituted Viet Cong) units anywhere on the map and, as the American air commitment steadily increases during the course of the game, the Communist player will see his own offensive opportunities rapidly diminish.

The winner of YEAR OF THE RAT is determined by the number of victory points that the Communist player is able to accrue in the course of the game. The Communist player gains victory points by capturing key South Vietnamese cities and towns; if he can capture all the major towns in a province then he receives bonus victory points for control of the province, as well.

THE YEAR OF THE RAT offers three scenarios: the Historical Game; the Standard (Free Deployment) Game; and the Variable Orders of Battle Option for the Standard Game. The Historical Game tends, in contests between equal opponents, to end in a draw. However, the Standard Game, and/or the introduction of the Variable OoB Options can really loosen the game up and turn it into a free-wheeling mêlée. In addition, the use of the Free Deployment option in combination with the Variable (secret) Orders of Battle magnifies the already significant effect of limited intelligence on the play of the game. The Historical Game is fast-moving and enjoyable, but the Free Deployment Game is, typically, a real nail-biting test for both players.

A PERSONAL OBSERVATION

I have mixed feelings about THE YEAR OF THE RAT. On the one hand, it is actually a very good game; on the other, it could have been far better, both as a game and, I believe, as a simulation. First, the good points: the game — particularly in the case of the Standard Game — is an exciting, nerve-racking challenge that is rarely decided before the last turn or two. In addition, both Players are faced with real problems right from the outset: the ARVN player starts out with a lot of real estate to protect, an ill-prepared army with limited combat power, and only a vague idea of PAVN strength and intentions; in contrast, the PAVN player begins play with limited logistical support and the certain knowledge that his offensive options will steadily be degraded as his supplies are expended, his ‘dummy’ counters are revealed, and the number of available US air points increases. Typically, this means that the PAVN must overrun South Vietnamese cities and towns quickly during the first half of the game, and then hold on against both the inevitable ARVN ground counteroffensive, and the increasingly lethal effects of US airpower. In game terms, this basic dynamic is fine. My problem arises from what I consider to be design shortcuts that I believe hurt this title, both as a game and as a simulation.

The first issue I have with the game is the choice by the designers to represent the PAVN units only as divisions. This arbitrary and wrong-headed choice has two important effects on the game, and neither of them is particularly good. First, it greatly magnifies the effect of US airpower and makes clear terrain a virtual deathtrap for PAVN units. Second, it ignores both the flexibility of PAVN doctrine and the sophisticated types of ground operations actually conducted by the PAVN in the course of this campaign. Instead of divisions, it seems to me that a PAVN order of battle based on regiments or battle groups would have been both a more realistic choice from a simulation standpoint, and a much better option, purely in game terms. My other complaint applies to the severe restrictions placed by the game’s designers on ARVN airmobile operations. In all three versions of the game, the ARVN airmobile units may only transfer from one town, base, or city hex to another; no air transfers are ever permitted between any other types of hexes (even clear terrain) regardless of the proximity of PAVN and/or NLF units. This is historically wrong, and looks suspiciously like a rule included specifically for purposes of game balance and intended primarily to artificially limit the utility of ARVN airmobile units.

One final thought: THE YEAR OF THE RAT, in contrast to most of Prados’ other designs, does not have his usual ‘unfinished’ feel about it. Unlike THIRD REICH, CASSINO, or PANZERKREIG, for instance, this title actually looks and plays like a ‘finished’ game, and not like a ‘work in progress’. Thus, despite my several criticisms, I still recommend this game highly. It may not be perfect, but it does cover a complex topic reasonably well, and, at the same time, it provides an exciting and very challenging gaming experience.
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Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 1 week per game turn
  • Map Scale: 10 kilometers per hex
  • Unit Size: battle group/regiment/brigade/division
  • Unit Types: armor, armored infantry, infantry, airmobile (South Vietnamese marines/rangers/paratroops and all US units), NLF regional cadres and garrisons, US air (bombardment) points, US Naval (bombardment) points, PAVN/NLF dummy counters, PAVN real & dummy supply counters, and information counters
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: below average
  • Average Playing Time: 2-3 hours

Game Components:

  • One 22” x 34” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Turn Record/Reinforcement Track, Allied Initial Forces Chart, Communist Initial Forces Chart, Combat Results Table, Victory Point Index, Supply Effects Chart, Bombardment Results table, and Bombardment Points Holding Box incorporated)
  • 200 ½” cardboard Counters
  • One 7¾” x 11” YEAR OF THE RAT Rules Booklet (with Scenario Instructions and Terrain Effects Chart incorporated)
  • One 8½” x 11” SPI Errata Sheet (1973)
  • One small six-sided Die
  • One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat 24 compartment plastic Game Box (with clear compartment tray covers) and Title Sheet

9 comments:

  • It's amazing that John Prados was as young as he was when he designed this game and equally amazing that--despite its age--this game has held up surprisingly well over the years even with its flaws. There's just not much out there that compares.

    What struck me at the time I was first introduced to this game is what a benchmark design this was when published. This title, along with GRUNT, showed us that the same wargame design and play techniques used for "dusty" historical situations could be applied to contemporary affairs that were still relatively fresh. Sure, SPI did games on hypothetical situations, such as NATO and the original RED STAR/WHITE STAR, but here was a game on something that "just happened" and it captured the situational well enough to add understanding one could not get from merely reading newspapers and magazines at the time.

    Your personal observations, Joe, about YEAR OF THE RAT are right on the mark. I'd hope for a redesign of this title in the near future. Would love to see Joe Miranda or someone do a remake for STRATEGY AND TACTICS these days because it's such a fascinating subject.

  • Greetings Again Eric:

    As usual, thank you for your thoughtful comments; it is always interesting to see someone else's take on a game, particularly one that I personally like.

    I still have very fond memories of this game and, like you, I would very much like to see this title revised (modestly, of course) and reissued. And although I have had my differences with Joe Miranda, i think that such a project would -- in this case, at least -- right up his alley.

    As a personal aside: I enjoyed the game problems presented by Prados in YEAR OF THE RAT so much that -- in the days (long ago) when I could still round up a willing opponent -- I ended up adding a few "home-brewed" rules changes of my own. Among other things, I allowed the PAVN player to break-down up to five of his divisions into regiments (using the optional NVA battlegroups) prior to the start of play. In addition, I allowed the ARVN airmobile units to transfer from a city or base to any clear terrain hex in South Vietnam that was at least four hexes from the nearest possible (dummy units counted, of coures) PAVN or NLF unit.
    The end result of these post-publication changes was to make the game a bit more interesting and challenging for both sides. Although, to be honest, the introduction of PAVN regiments did make the ARVN position in the Central Highlands a lot more precarious.

    In any case, thanks again for taking the time to visit and to share your thoughts and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Hey Joe, I live in Phoenix. You ever want to have a go at this, or any other game -- especially the old ones -- let me know! (Click the contact link on my site ...) I've never played this, but I have a couple of other Viet Nam games sitting on the shelf I have not played in 25+ years ... ;-)

  • Hi Joe.Slowly going through all the game titles and finally got to YotR.

    I agree with what you said on the game,good & bad points.I think SPI had to go with PVAN div's since this was a S&T magazine game originally and the 200 counter limit.If it had been published as a boxed game most likely the PVAN would be in Regt size units.

    Still it was one of just a handful(and I think you could count the Vietnam games on one hand back then in '72) and it was "The" game on the war.

    I chuckled when you mentioned some of John's other design's that didn't seem developed enough,one being Panzerkrieg.It was John's Von Manstein in the Ukraine from Rand that I still feel is the best version of the game(but then my fondness for Rand is showing)

  • Greetings Kim:

    Eric Walters raised the possibility, some time ago, that Joseph Miranda and the current S&T team would both be well-served if they were to offer a cleaned-up and more detailed version of this great old game; I heartily agree.

    Regarding Rand's "VON MANSTEIN: Battles in the Ukraine": I tend to concur. The Rand game -- because the two-sided counters had different combat strengths -- was notoriously finicky when it came to "trampolining" counters; nonetheless, the elimination of ZOCs, and the increase in unit count made the game mechanics of "PANZERKRIEG", at least in my opinion, more cumbersome and less interesting to play. And then there was the matter of the game's box: perhaps the ugliest effort to ever come from Roger MacGowan.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • I found the game too "on rails" to be very interesting. The NV player's game is all in the set-up and praying for good rolls when taking towns. Then the SV player's game is all in the defending of other towns, bombardment of NV-captured cities, and praying for good rolls when re-taking towns. Yes, it comes down to the last die roll, but so does craps.

    Winter War suffers from this phenomenon to some degree, too, but I found the puzzle more interesting. YMMV. Perhaps I'm missing something. Or I just don't like games with inverted counters (without blocks, anyway). :)

  • Greetings Gideon:

    As always, it is nice to hear your thoughts on some of these older SPI titles.

    When it comes to your personal take on Prados' design choices for this game, I have to note that different players will, inevitably, view this title based on their own gaming preferences and simulation predispositions. Nonetheless, I still like this game and, although it is true that the PAVN player's offensive options are constrained both by the game's "victory conditions" and by his limited logistical support, I still think that the overall simulation narrative of the game is actually fairly persuasive.

    As an after thought: before you give up on this clever little game completely, I suggest that you experiment with the "home-brewed" rules that I and my friends used many years ago. I think that you will find that these rules changes make both for a far more interesting (read tenser) game and also for a much more accurate simulation.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Joe, your mods are interesting. There are only so many battlegroups included with the game, however. Are there enough battlegroup counters for your variant? Were they 1-6s or 2-1-6s? How many battlegroups could a division split into?

  • Greetings Again Gideon:

    It has been awhile since I played 'YEAR OF THE RAT' using my old group's "Battlegroup Breakdown" Variant but, as I recall, the PAVN player was limited to the breakdown of a maximum of five divisions. The actual "breakdown formula" was as follows:

    One 2-1-6 and two 1-1-6's could be exchanged for a 4-6 division

    Two 2-1-6's and one 1-1-6 could be exchanged for a 5-6 division

    And, in the unlikely event that the PAVN player wanted to exchange one or more of his 6-6 divisions for battlegroups, then he could replace one or more of these elite divisions with three 2-1-6's.

    Obviously, of the PAVN player opts to exchange some of his "big" divisions for battlegroups, then he will only be able to breakdown two or three of his divisions. However, if -- as is much more likely -- he decides to use some of his weaker divisions for this purpose, then he could reach his breakdown limit of five divisions.

    As you can see, if the PAVN player chooses to maximize his breakdowns, he is giving up a modest amount of defensive combat power (and the ability of these divisions to form battlegroups when eliminated) in exchange for more tactical flexibility and the protection that additional dispersed targets provides against American airpower.

    I hope this helps and

    Best Regards, Joe

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