you're reading...

Southeast Asia

Hell on a Very Small Map

It isn’t often that two games on the same subject get released in the same month. Unless that subject is zombies, in which case there were two games released each day last week. But my mailbox presented me with MMP’s Storm Over Dien Bien Phu as well as Legion Wargames’ Dien Bien Phu: The Final Gamble in the same month last fall. If you went to the guy next door and asked him to tell you what Dien Bien Phu was or you’d shoot him, you’d already be in jail. And for good reason, too. I mean, who does that?

In my lifetime I’ve witnessed the passing of many historical episodes into the relevance attic that marks the transition of collective consciousness to something no longer shared by large part of society. When I was growing up, Pearl Harbor and Vietnam were instant points of connection with anyone you might meet, regardless of their education or experience. Those places are probably now taken by 9/11 and Iraq/Afghanistan. Before 1914, the Franco-Prussian War was a ubiquitous psychological phantom for the entire French Republic. The events of 1914-18 provided an entirely new touchstone, and 1940-44 essentially buried 1870 forever. Later came Algeria and Dien Bien Phu.

I’m not sure Dien Bien Phu was ever in the American collective consciousness, although I’d be happily corrected by any cultural historians that might take issue with my understanding of the trans-Atlantic relevance of the end of the French empire. It’s hard to remember the breadth of the collapse of colonialism except as a historical record, rather than the remarkable fact that within my own living memory, a nation like Portugal was messily divesting itself of its claims to a significant portion of Africa. It’s this historical moment that has passed, and with it our familiarity with certain issues, and the way they shaped the world.

But these games aren’t about the post-colonial period. They are about a single battle. As such, they lack that very context. Which is why we read books.

There are basically two books (in English) about Dien Bien Phu that you need to read to say that you’re at least moderately informed about that whole thing. One of them is Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall, a French-Jewish journalist of Austrian birth who was killed in Vietnam in 1967 and whose access to French records a decade after the battle did much to illuminate a dark place of French military history. He’s also a fantastic writer. His Street Without Joy should be an extra bonus book for you about “the French debacle in Indochina.” Everyone knows Bernard Fall, and everyone cites him, and he is unfortunately no longer living.

Your second book needs to be The Last Valley by the British journalist/editor Martin Windrow, published in 2004 on the 50th anniversary of the battle. Windrow states in his preface that he is “not an academically trained historian,” which originally gave me pause when combined with his admission that the book was “a synthesis of secondary sources.” However, those secondary sources were at least French. There are historical moments that seem not just temporally but also linguistically isolated from English speakers. One such example is the northern crusades in the Baltic and the history of the Teutonic Knights, exhaustively documented in German historiography, less so in Polish, Baltic, and Russian, and almost not at all in English.* Another example might be Dien Bien Phu. So if Windrow wants to synthesize the French literature on the subject to which my high school command of the language doesn’t give me access, I’m grateful.

The Last Valley does a great job above all of explaining the stakes of the French commitment to this remote outpost in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, in his preface, Windrow places it squarely in context.

It is perhaps Britain’s greatest historical blessing that since 1689 the continuity of our institutions has saved the British Army from making political choices. By contrast, France’s 200 troubled years as a serial republic, interspersed with brief periods of less than constitutional monarchy and of foreign occupation, have confronted her army on at least six occasions with disputed claims to the legitimate leadership of the state. Like a human personality, a country’s and an army’s sense of itself at any particular moment is the product of the memories of the past, and the choices it makes in moments of crisis will be dictated to a great extent by its particular tribal myths. Every generation in France’s military history between at least 1870 and 1962 was connected, by chains which have been held up to the light for English readers by Alistair Horne** in his several fascinating books. Dien Bien Phu was an important link in one of those chains.

None of that has anything to do with Dien Bien Phu games, except that it explains why the events on the board had the repercussions they did. Which is important, because the absence of this context is what I think deprives many good games of the satisfaction of closure. At least games about a single battle.

“Battle games” used to be a lot more popular than they are now, probably because campaign games suddenly got a lot more manageable. That’s almost entirely due to technological advancement, I think: Gary Grigsby’s War in Russia stretched the limits of what interfaces could do in 1993, but the only limitations on 2011’s War in the East interface are the designer’s own. When forced to make a choice between a battle and a war, the fact remains that it’s a lot less satisfying from a wargaming perspective to decisively win the battle of Borodino as Napoleon than it is to force Russia to surrender in 1812. Once upon a time we played games about Gettysburg and Waterloo, and now we play games about the whole course of European and American history. Thanks, Philippe Thibaut. Thanks, Paradox.

Kim Kanger, who designed Dien Bien Phu: The Final Gamble, also designed a game called Tonkin: The First Indochina War, or La Guerre d’Indochine. Maybe at some point in the future, I’ll review that. But the sense you get from an operational game about four years of war is very different from that you see in a game about 57 days of siege. And I submit that the focus you get by concentrating on one mountain valley in 1954 gives you a different, but equally satisfying, sense of finality.

I wanted to do a comparative review of Kim Kanger’s and Nick Richardson’s Dien Bien Phu games. One way would have been to spend three thousand words and twenty screenshots to do it. But I thought that in these days of video and streaming, that seemed kind of archaic, and who knows how many people would have gotten past word five hundred. So I decided to try the video route as an experiment. Once I started, I realized I could include more than just those two games, since there really aren’t that many Dien Bien Phu games in general. I’m pretty lukewarm on the current format of video reviews (“Hi, here is the game box, here are the counters, oh what a nice map …”) so I thought I’d take a different approach. Consider it the first “wargaming documentary” if you will. And please let me know if it was worth it via the comments section. I have a lot of ideas about what I could do next, but if this isn’t interesting then it could be a very short-lived experiment.  The five videos in this series will be:

  • Citadel – Frank Chadwick/GDW (1977)
  •  La vallee de la mort – Paul Rohrbaugh/Against the Odds (2006)
  • Storm Over Dien Bien Phu – Nick Richardson/MMP (2014)
  • Dien Bien Phu: The Final Gamble – Kim Kanger/Legion Wargames (2014)
  •  Dien Bien Phu scenario of Operational Art of War – Norm Koger/TalonSoft (1998); Dien Bien Phu – John Tiller/HPS (2009)

I hope you enjoy the first video.


*If you want to read about this, find Eric Christiansen’s The Northern Crusades, and then any of the books by William Urban. And then learn German.
**Thanks to @RobZacny for lending me Horne’s outstanding The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916.


50 Responses to “Hell on a Very Small Map”

  1. This is the best thing I found idly browsing the internet in a long time. The quality of the video stands head and shoulders above similar things on youtube and the text is brilliant as always. I never really played these old-fashioned kind of wargames (and to be honest I have no desire to change that), but reading and seeing this makes the fascination they exercise absolutely understandable. It is obvious that producing videos of such quality must be quite time consuming, therefore I fear a little bit for the rest of the series. But I really hope you can make time for it (the sooner the better). Anyways, thanks alot for this first part.

    ps: The point you make about requiring specific languages to have access to the main literature on certain topics is of course very true. In the case you mention of the teutonic order it is nice to see that cooperation between historians of different nationalities can improve the understanding of a topic that was in the past for obvious reasons seen very different from the polish bzw. german perspective (see for example the research project: http://www.ordinesmilitares.umk.pl ). Still it remains true that most of the research is published in either german or polish. Compared to templars and hospitallers there are sadly still very few english books about the topic.

    pps: sry for the length and relative incoherence of this post 🙂

    Posted by Jean Paul Richter | January 26, 2015, 10:33 am
    • Thanks so much for the comments. As a wargamer, I wish I were fluent in more languages simply because I could read more books about wargames. And thanks for the Torun link – that’s a great website!

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | January 26, 2015, 2:42 pm
  2. Wow, great video production skills for your first time out.

    Is a fetish for extreme detail just a baked-in personality quirk of wargame players? At this point I’ve got to wonder given how obviously impractical actually playing it looks.

    Posted by Jason McCullough | January 26, 2015, 2:23 pm
    • Glad you enjoyed it, Jason. Part of the point of the series is going to be that you don’t have to be a detail-hound to play a Dien Bien Phu game. But I do think there is some level of autism spectrum disorder that correlates with wanting to manipulate tons of chits by obscure rules!

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | January 26, 2015, 2:44 pm
      • But I do think there is some level of autism spectrum disorder that correlates with wanting to manipulate tons of chits by obscure rules!


        Wargaming in a nutshell.

        And even if I don’t get to play all that often, I still dream of moving those counters along. And yes, getting those stacks of counters aligned just right (as per the end of the video) *is* absolutely part of what I liked.

        Posted by Tom West | January 28, 2015, 8:18 pm
        • I haven’t played this kind of game in around 30 years (SPI’s Highway to the Reich was my last) but I used to just love moving those counters, and lining them up on the reinforcement track just so.

          I guess it’s not a big surprise that I became a librarian! 🙂

          Posted by Dave Bond | February 23, 2015, 11:35 am
  3. Delightful!

    Your Love of history and gaming sings through.

    Posted by Steven Davis | January 26, 2015, 5:59 pm
  4. Excellent presentation. Wrapping the siege itself, Citadel and the gaming zeitgeist of the time together was fantastic.

    Posted by Tom McMillen | January 26, 2015, 9:34 pm
  5. Impressive, interesting and fun in so many different ways- great job, Bruce! I am very much looking forward to further installments, and will definitely share this with friends.

    Posted by David Hoeft | January 26, 2015, 11:58 pm
  6. Really great, thanks. Even though it convinces everyone (me, anyway) to never go near Citadel, I appreciate the historical context of the game within the hobby itself. Then, too, the context of the military situation was nicely covered.

    I watched the video first, then came back to the blog and discovered there was a lot more & different content there. You might want to mention that in your next video, so no one misses the additional insights from your text.

    Really nice video editing, not only your talk but even more the counters on the map, navigating the combat results table, and so on.


    Posted by Mark Johnson | January 27, 2015, 1:51 am
  7. That was great. Looking forward to the next instalment.

    Posted by Sam | January 27, 2015, 7:30 am
  8. Excellent review of this game. I learned a lot and enjoyed the reflections on gaming ’70s style (my heyday), which is a big part of why I stick to simpler games now.

    Posted by Geoff Rothwell | January 27, 2015, 9:35 am
  9. Thanks for this Bruce. The documentary style really works, im sure it took quite a time investment. I’ve only played Storm over DBP but look forward to your takes on the others.

    Posted by Simon | January 27, 2015, 11:47 am
  10. Many thanks for this. I knew that there was a time that, as you put it, “literalism” was the point of the hobby, but had never had the chance to come even near to one of these games. So this was quite fascinating.
    Looking forward to the next installments.

    Posted by Johann | January 27, 2015, 2:25 pm
  11. This was pretty sweet. Informative and opinionated and wrapped in a format that supplies a lot more depth than I’m used to from a nominal review. I’m very interested in what comes next.

    Posted by D'Archangel | January 27, 2015, 3:26 pm
  12. Thanks for the video, Bruce! It was very clear and informative. It’s great to see an old skool wargame in action. The intertwined history of a conflict and its reenactment as a game is a fine format for bringing out insights about both and you do it with skill, expertise and verve. I’m looking forward to more! Thanks for all the effort you put into your multi-pronged analysis and its presentation!

    Posted by Jarmo | January 27, 2015, 5:04 pm
  13. Love the video, Bruce, but how do you find anything in that library?

    Posted by Nelson | January 27, 2015, 9:03 pm
    • A couple years ago my wife got me a birthday present of an old-school card catalog with a bunch of cards and we started cataloging my library. We’re still going. 🙂

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | January 29, 2015, 10:49 am
  14. It goes without saying, but I believe it’s notable to point out that it should be said, that what needs to be emphasized is the proprietor’s penchant for war, and games, and “war games”, e.g. Risk, Battleship, et cetera.

    I’m sorry, I am Dutch and not good at English.

    Posted by Ilijiah Mittiic | January 27, 2015, 9:14 pm
  15. Very interesting, Bruce, and a great presentation. I could never play Citadel (Why “Citadel,” by the way? Is that what the French imagined Dien Bien Phu would be?) since I’d balk immediately at the number of variables, but it made a fine thing to hang your conversation on. Really well done.

    Posted by Courteous D | January 27, 2015, 11:37 pm
  16. This was fascinating, as usual you think through the game mechanics and not just factually present them.

    The presentation and editing were top-notch. Can’t wait for the next videos.

    For anyone else reading this, I also recommend Bruce’s three-episode podcast series on Vietnam games he did for Three Moves Ahead (https://www.idlethumbs.net/3ma/episodes/vietnam-solitaire-with-dave-kershaw).

    Posted by pfc | January 28, 2015, 12:31 am
  17. Obsessing over history with little cardboard chits – the point of the hobby 🙂

    Posted by Torsten | January 28, 2015, 6:00 am
  18. For a first video this is awesome. You capture well the history leading up to the battle, setting the stage for the explanation of the game. What I really liked with that was the way you showed the pieces and the movement. It’s one thing to have that described in an article, but actually seeing the pieces move and the way the game played was very beneficial to understanding what was happening.

    Very much enjoyed this and looking forward to the others you have planned.

    Posted by Rob | January 28, 2015, 1:27 pm
  19. Bruce, I’ve been reading you since Tom V Bruce and this is probably the best thing you’ve ever done. I will watch any wargame documentary installment that you release. I love the idea of doing comparative reviews, especially if different games illuminate different things about a particular battle/war. The footage you intersperse from the actual battle is also excellent. I wouldn’t even mind a little more of the history (though you cover it so well in the prose below that I can’t complain).

    If you’re ever looking for suggestions, there are only so many Yom Kippur War games and I think they’d make an interesting comparison. Michael Peck wrote a comparison himself here in FP: http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/10/07/the-guns-of-october/ – have you seen this article? What are your thoughts?

    Posted by Mordy | January 28, 2015, 11:08 pm
  20. This was a really interesting exposition, you did a great job at explaining your perspective in depth while keeping it acessible. I never played that game and am pretty unfamiliar with wargaming and it did give me a lot to think about. Thanks, looking foward to the next installment.

    Posted by Pedro | January 29, 2015, 12:06 am
  21. Great presentation! Very few games on Dien Bien Phu. The same happens for the Battle of Stalingrad: such a pivotal battle, yet to few games about the battle for the city. I hope you do more of these videos. A joy to watch! Great job!

    Posted by Jose Ruiz | January 29, 2015, 12:01 pm
  22. Excellent and engaging video. Well put together and informative. I look forward to the rest of the series.

    Posted by Carl | January 29, 2015, 11:48 pm
  23. I *definitely* want this game! It’s a virtual encyclopedia of mechanics.

    Posted by Dave | February 1, 2015, 12:25 pm
  24. Great video,looking forward to the rest of the series.
    Citadel is a tough game to play without a doubt.That said all the mechanics mentioned were part of the battle and of Falls book.If you loved Falls book,Citadel is the game of the book.Best part of Citadel for me was the Logistics.Only game I have ever said that about.
    Sure wish there was a Citadel computer version.

    Posted by Kevin | February 5, 2015, 9:52 pm
    • You are absolutely right that Citadel does a good job of capturing the flow of Dien Bien Phu *if* you play it as a battle replay. But I really think it’s broken in that the Viet Minh can spent 3-5 turns simply bombarding the French in place, and then it’s a very different story. I can live with the complex mechanics (and admire how well they capture some aspects of the battle) but I think there’s a gaping hole in the gameplay from a balance standpoint, if you take full advantage of it.

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | February 6, 2015, 9:41 pm
  25. Really liked the video Bruce and I am looking forward to some more of these.

    Posted by KVolk | February 18, 2015, 2:17 pm
  26. Thanks, Bruce – a really great review that makes me feel very nostalgic for good old paper maps and cardboard counters (I was a big fan of SPI games back in the day).

    Btw, I’ve read the Windrow book too – very good.

    Posted by Dave Bond | February 23, 2015, 11:39 am
  27. Hello Mister Geryk, the video review was great and i hope you will have enough time to continue on the next few games, since I am a fan of your work in general and being a Frenchman myself, fascinated by DBP.

    As an aside, I would recommend the movie “Dien Bien Phu” by Pierre Schoendoerffer. Mister Schoendoerffer was a former camera operator for the French army and happened to be in the valley during the battle, where he was taken prisoner with the rest of the French garrison. He directed what is generally considered the best movie about Indochina, “La 317ème section” (“The 317th section” in English, obviously), about the woes of a French-Hmong patrol trying to regroup at a rear base while the DBP battle is ongoing.

    His “Dien Bien Phu” 1992 movie is a great insight into some of the French psyche surrounding this episode on top of being a good war movie. He was allowed to shoot it in Vietnam by the governement. A funny anecdote : one of the characters of the film is a former pilot of the Normandie-Niemen squadron. He was supposed to have been decorated as an Hero of the Soviet Union (as several of the pilots were) but the director did not want the medal to be a movie prop. He painstalkingly negotiated with a decorated NVA general to borrow his. It was brought on set with two armed guards…

    Anyway, keep up the good work. It is greatly appreciated by all those who happen to have some interest in history and games.

    Posted by Louis Midavaine | March 8, 2015, 3:21 am
    • Great recommendation, Louis! I had seen parts of the 1992 film on Youtube, but hadn’t heard of “La 317ème section.” I will try and track this down. Thanks a lot for pointing me to it.

      Something interesting I found while researching all this: an American author, JC Bourg, wrote a book in 2013 called “The Man Who Walked Out of Isabelle” about a Legionnaire and his experience escaping from the Dien Bien Phu siege. I was thinking it was a history, but it turned out to be a novel. Still, very interesting and not badly written! Also interesting in the sense that someone chose to make Strongpoint Isabelle the plot point of a novel.

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | March 8, 2015, 6:21 pm
  28. Mister Geryk, you now have the duty to continue producing this videos. The mixture of historic revision and the evolution of game mechanics is excellent to understand the hobby fully. There is the Squad Battles from HPS, maybe give it a spin to relax between moving stacks.

    PS: one of the best videos about wargaming, if disagree, please point me to them


    Posted by Nuno Vinha | May 23, 2015, 4:24 am
  29. You should be getting some product placement money from Sierra!!

    Posted by Alan | September 10, 2015, 12:31 pm
  30. What an excellent video. Are there any others and if so could someone post a URL?


    Posted by Chris Harvey. | February 28, 2016, 3:18 pm
  31. “It is perhaps Britain’s greatest historical blessing that since 1689 the continuity of our institutions has saved the British Army from making political choices.”

    Not sure if this comes from ignorance or a political stance, but this first line is farce. Perhaps the biggest crisis in the military occurred on the eve of the outbreak of WW1. Try wiki or Google for Home Rule Crisis and read why Haig wasn’t in command of the BEF in 1914.

    The British Army with its heavily Anglo-Irish leadership basically rebelled at the thought of any sort of home rule for Ireland. Not sure this pales in comparison to some of the French shennanigans.

    Posted by I DeArdo | March 14, 2016, 2:21 am
    • That’s a great point, but I prefer to avoid wikis. Is there any particular historical study I could consult?

      I also think that even in the case of the Curragh Incident, the point still holds that the Army as an institution was not the arbiter of a change in government. I think in Horne’s defense there is a difference between officers resigning for political reasons, and a government falling/not falling because of lack of or presence of institutional support from the military.

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | March 14, 2016, 8:30 am
      • I should say that I am a fan of Horne’s work, although one always needs to keep an eye on British prejudices, “Shifty continentals and their corrupt ways…”

        A good volume (and there’s been MANY!) is Doherty, ISBN 978 1 78117 245 2. It’s an emotive issue, like our (US) discussions on the ACW.

        I think the Army telling the elected government that they will not allow a piece of legislation to be enacted in a period of heightened military threat is a pretty serious thing. The legislation was pretty mild, but the Unionist sentiment would allow for no compromise. As well, it wasn’t just resignations, it also the creation of a parallel, non-governmental military force to ensure active resistance to the implementation of the bill. Weapons were taken from depots, etc.

        Posted by Ian DeArdo | March 14, 2016, 3:46 pm
  32. Wow. What a blast from the past. I bought a first-edition copy of Citadel in 1977, and kept a table dedicated to it for the next year and a half playing endless solitaire versions. (Never had a live opponent.) Also, I bought and wore out a copy of Hell in a Very Small place.

    The video was impressive, I appreciated your understanding of the game and its place in that era. GDW was notorious for making games that were very big and complicated, filled with great ideas, but often a bit underdeveloped. You did a great job of showing both the strengths and limits of the mechanics.

    I must admit, at the time I was totally in love with the game, and how it had so many novel approaches to deal with such a long duration for each turn, and such a small space. I think a computer game translation of this design would be amazing.

    There were a couple points in the video I’d debate- although this may be based on my faulty memory or having the first edition.

    1. There were several scenarios for different parts of the battle , including the French flak raid that only lasted half a turn. I don’t think that any of the scenarios lasted more than a week. So you didn’t have to play the full battle

    2. There was a restriction that company could take only one step loss (per battle, per turn—I don’t remember which), so you tended to have a lot of undermanned French paratroop companies running around, and holding their own in melees with the morale bonus. Which makes it harder to clear a strongpoint with just artillery, and keeps the outnumber French Paras in the game longer.

    3. The game had a basic and advanced version, and most of the insane bookkeeping you referred to addresses the advanced version.

    You were dead-on about the issues of day/night. Also, the Viet Artillery was heavily dug in , and had trouble responding to counter attacks. Preregistering targets was one solution, but sounds like a lot of work, perhaps limiting Viet artillery in certain phases would buy you the same effect with less effort

    I have to confess, of all the boardgames from the 70s that I never played with a live opponent, Citadel was my favorite, and I still think it was loaded with some great ideas. But a board version would be help with some simplificationed, and would be better on a computer with 12 hour turns, and support capabilities to help you manage stacks and supplies. Also having a an automated “staff” that does most of the administration and booking for you, and letting you get involved only when you want to.

    Thanks very much for an excellent video and trip down memory lane.

    Posted by John Page | March 15, 2017, 12:26 pm
    • Thanks for the detailed feedback and commentary, John! You are the second person to tell me that he held Citadel in a special place in his memory. That person also agreed that in retrospect the game had some serious issues. But I’m glad you saw that I do respect the system for what it tried to achieve. You are right that a company could only take one step loss per fire phase, but as there were two fire phases, and those companies only had only two steps, you could wear them down with artillery if you had patience. Of course, that made the game kind of boring for the French player. Have you played HPS Sims Dien Bien Phu, which takes things down to the tactical level?

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | March 19, 2017, 11:05 am
      • I’ve have not played the HPS game, but I plan to get it before too long. I have read several reviews, and it sounds like the game I have been looking for.

        Looking back, in playing Citadel solitaire, I probably kept to the historical Viet Minh time table, which would force the “human wave” attacks on Beatrice and Gabrielle early on. When you play with a live opponent, you tend to be more focused on a win– and a boring approach (shelling them to death) becomes more acceptable.

        The Viet superiority in artillery was decisive in the real campaign, so I can’t fault the game for making it powerful. (one variant the game could have included would be the use of flak jackets by French artillery crews, and making them more resistant to losses.)

        GDW’s games, for all of their design brilliance, didn’t always have a lot of play-testing. (You had to be a bit of a designer to play them– but that described their audience.) What would have made the campaign game more effective would be a timeline for objectives to be taken, and if the Viet Minh player did not capture them in time, the casualty limit would be lowered. Also, over time repeated wear could reduce the effectiveness of the artillery on both sides. Combine these two, and it may help work around the artillery problem.

        However, lack of different day/night rules was a major oversight.

        Of course, I have no idea about why I am wasting time fiddling with a 40 year old design — other than to show how much of an impact that game had upon me. I am currently on my third copy of “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

        Posted by John Page | April 18, 2017, 7:22 am
  33. The video blew my mind; after listing to you for YEARS on 3MA, seeing your face……

    Posted by Keithustus | September 17, 2017, 11:38 pm
  34. Listening!

    Posted by Keithustus | September 17, 2017, 11:39 pm

Post a Comment