Campaign Series: Vietnam Review – Welcome to the Jungle!

Let us not beat around the bush – all kinds of conflicts that take place after the Second World War up until the late ’90s are definitely out of my field of expertise and personal interest – chief amongst them I could rank the Korean War, of which I know little to nothing, only to be followed up closely by the Indo-China Wars and Vietnam Conflicts. With this said, you can take my opinion on the historical accuracy of Campaign Series: Vietnam with a very large spoon of salt. Gameplay-wise, the thoughts presented here are still valid.

The Setting

The second half of the twentieth century was a time of major turmoil for old colonial powers holding onto their overseas possessions elsewhere in the world. British, French, and Portuguese governments held into these locations for as long as it was feasible to do so. However, the disastrous conflict that ravaged Europe during the last half a decade, the Second World War had most European powers on their knees, barely hanging on for survival. The United Kingdom had lost its title as the world’s largest navy for the US, Spain, and Portugal both retreated into right-wing dictatorial regimes with no interests in mainland Europe after the defeat of Germany. The USSR quickly modernized and took center stage alongside the United States as a World Power to be reckoned with, effectively splitting the world in half, with a communist sphere of influence looming over the East and the American one taking root in the West. The French Indochina War was one of the last colonial conflicts to escalate into a full-blown war, with the French government unwilling to let go of its colonial rule over French Indochina.

However, the growth of nationalist sentiment in Vietnam far predates World War Two, dating back to the late 1890s’ and early 1900s’. If the French Victory on the First World War emboldened it to exercise even more control over its territories, their swift defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany two decades later led to a power vacuum under the feeble rule of Vichy France and if there’s something we all know in Political Science is that power loves a vacuum and disagreements eventually led the French to bombard the city of Haiphong in 1946. The rest, as they say, is History.

What is Campaign Series: Vietnam and how well does it play?

It’s a classical hex-based, IGO-UGO, operational (and tactical) level wargame focusing on the jungle conflicts of Indo-China, with scenarios spanning several conflicts, starting with the First Indochina War, from 1948 to 1954 all the way to the late 1960s with the American invasion of Vietnam. In between both conflicts, CS: Vietnam also represents the South Vietnamese Civil War of 1955-1964. Those looking for an Americanized taste of the war will find themselves having to also command French and South Vietnamese forces. Hexes are 250 meters wide and according to the game page “scenarios maps are based on topographic maps from the period”. Not being my expertise, I cannot attest to nor dispute that but what I can recognize is that maps are pretty big and the scale of 250 meters per hex lends itself great for both low and high-intensity operations. Objectives can be tackled in a lot of different ways and there’s rarely a one-off solution to the tactical and operational conundrums presented by the scenarios. Let’s take, as an example, the first scenario after completing the four tutorial missions (more on that further down the line)- players are tasked with capturing a Vietnamese village with a couple companies of French paratroopers.

On my first playthrough, I commanded the troops to rush the rice paddies northwest of the village while under the support of both heavy machine gunfire and mortars. On my second playthrough, one of my units dislodged the OPFOR unit in a nearby village, effectively securing our flanks while this time having the bulk of my forces attacking the village through the road southwest of the objective. This is the kind of gameplay opportunity I always look forward to and it’s one of the reasons why my reviews take so long, it’s necessary to try different approaches across several missions to see if these games avoid the puzzle-like pitfall so many eventually fall into.

Another cool thing about Campaign Series: Vietnam is how both you and the AI can have different objectives and there are several ways to win (and more likely, lose) a scenario. Mortaring a hex without concrete information that there are hostile forces in there? Terrible decision, you lose Victory Points! Clearly, CS: Vietnam is not looking to go hard into the COIN doctrine like other titles such as Vietnam ’65 and Afghanistan ’11, but it is still nice to see that it was given some thought.

Having different nations across different time periods and using different equipment means that the scenarios included can vary wildly from one another and there’s a lot of fun and experimentation to be had with the 100+ scenarios included. Content-wise, it’s hard to impossible to fault CS: Vietnam. Jungle warfare aficionados will find themselves entertained for months and it’s hard to imagine anyone could play all the scenarios and find time to play anything else. If you enjoy the Vietnam conflict, the sheer amount of content included should be enough to justify a purchase.

New Mechanics – CS: Vietnam isn’t going to be known as a wargame trailblazer (unlike the excellent Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive), its developing team decided to play it safe, by keeping the base game that made the original Talonsoft Campaign Series the major hit it was early back when while shaking things up to better reflect the changing nature of jungle warfare. For example, the prevalence of airborne units such as helicopters is absolutely essential for the success of air assaults operations. I enjoy the way “helis” behave, by having several altitude settings that require some pre-planning to pull off the perfect move, conserve the most action points and do more things with the same resources. The four stages are “Ground” “Zenith” “Low” and “High”. The higher a chopper is flying, the lower the usage of action points will be. However, helicopters cannot reach a high status in the same hex they lift off from, nor can’t descend from high to ground on the same hex, in the same turn. So the descent phase must start a bit sooner, at least one hex away from the intended landing location (LZ). These small details might come to some as a nuisance, but I enjoy the extra steps required, and given the tactical nature of the game, these kinds of details don’t come across as over-exaggerated. The fourth mission of the tutorial also speaks highly about the importance of riverine units in the game and those do pretty much what you think they do, quickly transporting on-foot units down and upstream while protecting them and providing fire support for units on land. Supply units are a simple affair, with dedicated units supplying units inside their hex. As it is to be expected, the supply available for each unit dwindles as they fight and fire, eventually running out, a status indicated by a slash across a bullet case on the top right screen.

This conversation about dwindling supplies will inevitably lead to one of my biggest gripes with the game: there is no kind of prediction/odds display in the combat system, so shooting feels pretty much like a lucky roll of the dice every time one does it. Of course, your mileage may vary when it comes to this kind of system, with me personally preferring some prediction in order to make my decisions. The lack of this system means that in most situations you’ll be shooting blindly and without any prospects of the outcome, making it hard to plan ahead. This, coupled with the fact that most of the time you’ll be fighting a nearly invisible enemy means frustration is sure to arise from time to time.

The usage of other off-map aerial assets is simple enough and I can’t thank the developers enough to make it so. Just choose a plane, designate the hex you wish to be blown to kingdom come and at the start of your next turn- hopefully, the enemies haven’t moved or the plane didn’t miss and ended up targetting your own troops instead.

The implementation of other features such as fortifications and IEDs is welcome, allowing for even more (and nuanced) tactical avenues is also to be commended and fits the theme perfectly. I can’t even begin to tell you how infuriating it is to be playing tactical level games and the option of “dig a hole to avoid getting killed” is nowhere to be seen, it should be standard practice.

Overall, the previously existing and new mechanics come together to provide authentic jungle warfare and COIN Operations experiences.

The Graphics – Graphics-wise Campaign Series is no Red Dead Redemption 2, let me tell you that for a fact. In fact, I would go as far to describe Campaign Series: Vietnam graphics as its weakest point- being serviceable, at their best; basic, muddy, and ugly when they’re at their worst. The game does a terrible job of giving players a sense of depth and height, maps are dull and brown as a mud hut and muddy as a rice paddy. With most of the fighting environment taking place in similar terrain, this means there’s little visual variety to be had. Worst even, it’s really easy to get lost and lose track of some of your troops in neverending shades of greens and browns. From a wargamer’s perspective, it’s hard to fault their readability, so there’s that. When it comes to depth perception, be prepared to continuously check the “elevation” status on your hex information on the right corner if you want accurate information.

There are several levels of zoom but it is hard to imagine anyone using the highest level for something useful, even for a strategical assessment of the situation, since most things become nearly impossible to understand. The game comes with both 2D top-down graphics and some sort of 3D but not really isometric perspective. Aesthetically speaking, the top-down graphics are way more pleasant to the eye but it comes at the cost of immediate situational awareness with height and depth perception being even worst to assess. And the night graphics look like something that came out of XCOM: Terror from the Deep.

Some things could use some work and would go a long way to sell players the fantasy of jungle warfare. Sounds effects are constantly recycled and not even more than half an hour into the game the best thing to do was to mute it and have Surfin’ Bird playing on loop in the background.

The worst part of Campaign Series: Vietnam is that it is a gem riddled with detail and love for the topic but I fear more modern inclined wargamers might shun it due to its look and feel alone.

The UI is OK – That’s not to say the game isn’t packing a decently enough UI that does what it’s supposed to do because it most certainly does. It might look like something you would find in a CRT monitor in IT classes during the mid to late 90s, but still, it is easy enough to read and there are far worst examples of hieroglyphic user interfaces hanging around to this day – Yes, I am looking at you War In The East 2!

*The Tutorials – I can’t sing enough praises to the developers of CS: Vietnam for their fantastic work on the tutorials of this game. There are four introductory scenarios that are actually scripted by the developers themselves and don’t force the players to print half a dozen pages to be able to follow along. These four tutorials will hand-hold players through basic movement and fire. Loading units, building fortifications, implanting IEDs, the use of tunnel rats, artillery, and air assets usage, aerial and riverine operations. These controlled baptisms of fire are perfect introductions into the game mechanics and after having run the tutorial gauntlet most players should be more than capable of handling themselves on the harsh jungles of Indochina.

Verdict – I might be becoming an old bat that enjoys slow-paced, methodical turn-based games. Given that the last game on this website to receive a 5-star rating was Ardennes Offensive- a truly unique gem of a game that improved on the genre in almost every way- I don’t think it’s fair to attribute the same score to Campaign Series, mainly because it stays so glued to the typical wargame formula it’s hard to praise something for playing it too safe. I also don’t know enough about the Indochina Wars to fully appreciate the game and I’m almost certain that if I did, there would be little doubt in my mind that Campaign Series: Vietnam would earn four and a half stars based on mechanics and details alone. If you don’t enjoy the Vietnam style of warfare, then Campaign Series’ latest endeavor might be a hard sell if you’ve grown accustomed to more modern titles. Campaign Series: Vietnam will set you back $37,99

Enjoy the Vietnam conflict and are craving more than what you already got?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have only but a passing interest in this kind of conflict and you’re a wargamer accustomed to modern sensibilities?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

*Some people made me aware that some of the tutorial missions in the game are still buggy. There was no previous mention of that because I had read somewhere else that it was due to me having played the game in the press preview version. The bug reported is related to the fourth mission of the game, where the game is supposed to teach you to enable map labels but those never appear. This is something I’ve experienced too.

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