Fire in the Lake has no hexes, named units or even a turn track, but it captures the situation better than any game published on the Vietnam War so far.
It’s counterintuitive to say, but its abstractness actually makes it more realistic. And I’ve played Victory Games monster Vietnam 1965-1975, undoubtedly the most detailed game treatment of the war. I now see that that game was doomed to fail as a simulation as soon as it followed the World War 2 wargaming paradigm: hexes, movement points, hidden VC counters, zones of control, a known time track for when units would come and go and when it would all end. In retrospect it was more like an interactive book than a way to put you into the mindset of the leadership at the time.
FitL beautifully succeeds where Victory’s Vietnam failed: Troops levels are up to you and the more Yanks you send the less happy the folks back in ‘the world’ are; you don’t know exactly when the game will end or when a key point in time will arrive; while the Americans can’t be matched in combat, there’s never enough of them and each U.S. casualty has other consequences.
Because the COIN system is unconventional it’s not everyone’s bowl of rice. I did have some issues with the game.
1. The four-player game is too chaotic for my taste. I realize it’s impossible to get the balance right among four sides with widely varying capabilities but you can screw your ‘ally’ into the ground in this game. What you do often matters far less than what others do to you.
2. Especially as the U.S., if your ally doesn’t cooperate you’ll be hard pressed and frustrated. As a corollary, if your ‘ally’ is clueless strategically (and we’ve all been in multi-player games with people who have the strategic skill of a Whack-A-Mole), your thoughts will turn to strangulation.
3. To stop ridiculous kingmaking there should be a rule that players must try to maximize their faction’s VP on the last turn of the game. As is, a losing player can often pick the winner by what he does on the last turn.
4. The Air Strike special activity is a USAF wet dream. Avoiding the US getting to use it is arguable your number one strategy as the reds. No matter what the question, air strike is usually the answer to what ails you as the U.S. Though it works in context of the game, laser-targeted death ray would be a more realistic name for what it is.
5. Though skill will triumph most of the time, the luck of the draw can foil all your brilliant plans. Now luck is going to play a part in all wargames, but in my 50+ playing of the full campaign an uncanny number have seen long sequences of one side getting the first move.
6. There’s a steep learning curve, though rules are well-written and not overlong.
Fire in the Lake suffers from a not untypical gaming paradox. Its complexity, not in terms of game mechanics but in terms of choices, turns many people off, so they don’t like it after an initial playing. But this complexity of choices, which requires persistence more than intelligence to overcome, is what makes the game great and gives it its replay value. Here’s why this game is a 10 for me:
1. It works great as a 2-player, better than 4-player. The two are entirely different experiences so you’re getting two games in one.
2. Skillful play will overcome luck the vast majority of the time. You may disagree when first learning the ropes but once you get a feel for what is in the deck you’ll be able to mitigate the effects of the big hoser events.
3. The full game is easily doable in a single session. Short game in an hour plus.
4. You can pursue various strategies. You’re not locked into the Westmoreland body count meat grinder (which can work, though not likely against a wily commie opponent).
5. There’s real tension every turn. Once the Pivotal Event cards become active it’s a battle of nerves.
6. It really manages to put you into the mindset of what the leadership of each faction was facing. From the ARVN leadership just wanting stability and to feather their own nests, to the NVA carefully choosing its battles to keep the war alive and wear down U.S. will.
This jewel doesn’t reveal itself after just a couple playings. But it has solo rules (I never tried them) and plays quickly, so stay the course and you will reap the rewards of the best Vietnam simulation to date G.I.
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