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Southeast Asia

Nothing Final Gambled, Nothing Gained

The idea of emergent storytelling in games has become a cliché because everyone pretty much accepts that the cool parts of Civilization, for example, can form unique stories that are not tied to any preordained narrative. But nothing is as preordained as history that has already happened, which puts historical wargaming in a bind: hew too closely to history and you lose the storytelling, stray too far and you lose the history. But if you don’t stray far enough, you lose the ability to travel different paths down the historical trail that attracts many of us to gaming in the first place. Solving this problem is one of historical wargaming’s biggest dilemmas.

I’m not saying that Kim Kanger has solved this problem, but his games get closer to a solution for me than most others because he has a talent for taking historical considerations and weaving them into a game fabric that is both flexible and enduring. Each of his three games on the sunset of the French colonial Empire (Ici, c’est la France on the Algerian War, Tonkin about the First Indochina War, and The Final Gamble about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu) seems to capture what’s essential about the historical period in a way that leaves the player with a lasting impression. I played an entire campaign game of The Final Gamble face-to-face over four weekends against a friend of mine, and after we finished, he leaned back and said, “Wow, that game just feels right.” I knew exactly what he meant.

This is a feeling I didn’t get from the previous games in this video series about Dien Bien Phu, so it’s nice to be able to end the project on this note. It reassures me that there is a lot of game design talent out there, and if you look hard long enough, you’ll find it. Part of the point of this last video is to help you not have to look so hard.

This final installment of the series ran long for various reasons, one of which is that it’s always fun to talk about something you like. But even with the added time, I only mentioned in passing a game mechanic that I think deserves further attention, because it shows just how robust game systems can be in tackling thematic challenges. The French casualty problem at Dien Bien Phu was complicated not just by the lack of adequate facilities, but by the constant need for medical supplies to be dropped, which had to compete with all the other pressing needs of the isolated fortress. Kim Kanger’s solution to the supply question is a brilliant one, but the simple way he puts the casualty problem front and center makes me wonder why no one came up with this before. When a French unit is eliminated (unless it was Isolated, in which case it is destroyed), it is either “Gone” (on a roll of 5-6) or “Wounded” (on a roll of 1-4). Wounded units are placed in the Wounded box, which gives them the possibility of returning to play eventually, albeit at a reduced strength. The problem is that this costs a lot of medicine to do. So keep them in the Wounded Box? Well, for every five units (or fraction thereof) in that box, you have to spend a medicine point each turn. Given how many casualties the French will suffer over the course of the game, this will add up to a huge supply constraint. And that big chunk of medicine (6 points!) it costs to bring back a unit will often mean additional drops just to cover the resulting deficit. But the ability to bring back valuable high-morale units later in the game is a powerful tool.

What Kim does with this mechanic is evoke the French dilemma with wounded at Dien Bien Phu: they wanted to take care of their own, but realized what a burden those units would become. The Viet Minh knew it, too, and made a point of leaving wounded for the French to collect, instead of taking them prisoner. According to Martin Windrow in The Last Valley,

Personal appeals were broadcast by Professor Huard – doyen of the Hanoi medical faculty and former teacher of many of the Viet Minh’s doctors – that the enemy allow the air evacuation of wounded by machines clearly marked with the Red Cross, under guarantee that they would carry no medical supplies or non-medical personnel. However, during 17-19 March only three of eight attempted daytime ‘casevac’ sorities managed to land and pick up wounded, and these cam under shell and mortar fire. The enemy’s simultaneous handing back of French wounded, and denial of the opportunity to evacuate them, simply increased the burden on medical facilities and morale.

The way Kim Kanger does this wouldn’t be possible without the particular approach to the supply system, which affects every aspect of the game. In fact, it’s hard to peel apart the design layers without pulling on other threads. It’s the most challenging but almost most enjoyable type of game to analyze. Playing it is just the latter.

Full Dien Bien Phu video playlist:

Hell on a Very Small Map (Citadel – GDW 1977)

Vulture Culture (La vallée de la mort – Against the Odds 2006)

Area-Effect Gaming (Storm Over Dien Bien Phu – 2014)

Nothing Final Gambled, Nothing Gained (Dien Bien Phu: The Final Gamble – Legion Wargames 2014)

I hope you enjoy the video and the series. If you have suggestions for other topics you’d like to see covered by this kind of video, please post them in the comments section.


42 Responses to “Nothing Final Gambled, Nothing Gained”

  1. Thanks Bruce. Great as always! Howw about something about N Africa?

    Posted by KVolk | July 17, 2017, 9:38 pm
  2. Amazing production.

    The Final Gamble achieved my quest for the Holy Grail of gaming DBP since I discovered Citadel as a 13 year old gamer.

    My anticipation of your analysis of this game was well rewarded.

    BTW, I am also a physician ( Gyn Oncologist ) with a lifelong passion for history and wargames.

    Additionally, I was fancinated that, from my limited observation, that not only do I have the same books but I have them arranged in the same fashion on my bookshelf.


    Posted by Michael Sundborg | July 17, 2017, 11:00 pm
    • Glad to see there are other physicians who find history and gaming interesting and important enough to spend precious free time on it.

      Book ordering is a window into the soul..

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | July 20, 2017, 8:26 pm
  3. your series on Dien Bien Phu has been epic, great job.

    Posted by Michael Schmaus | July 17, 2017, 11:13 pm
  4. Bravo! Well worth the wait.

    Posted by Curtis Shanks | July 18, 2017, 2:30 am
  5. It’s been fantastic getting to the conclusion. Thanks for all the work you put in for our viewing pleasure. Well worth the wait.

    Posted by Manu | July 18, 2017, 2:36 am
  6. Don’t forget to put http:// on front of your links in the YouTube description, otherwise it doesn’t turn them into a clickable link. Never underestimate the laziness of people 🙂

    I’m not a big wargamer or reader of military history, but I found this to be an excellent end to a fantastic series. I also own a copy of The Last Valley (which attracted me to this series) and would recommend it to others, it does a superb job of conveying the battle, even if perhaps it gets a little too bogged down in some of the details for my tastes.

    Posted by Quitch | July 18, 2017, 4:04 am
    • Yeah, there is a quick cut in my description of The Last Valley in the book recommendation section, because I cut out the words, “it’s a little dry,” because I felt that was too damning a complaint. I loved it, but I can see how someone who is not obsessed with the battle would not need all the detail Windrow provides.

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | July 20, 2017, 8:24 pm
  7. I’ve watched all videos of this series the day they came out and *adored* them, even though I’m neither a history buff or a wargamer. You managed to make both subjects fascinating. I dunno ohow to praise you any higher

    Posted by Abilio Carvalho | July 18, 2017, 6:44 am
    • Thank you. I have to say, one of the reasons it took me so long to do the last video was that I felt like I was beating the Battle of Dien Bien Phu to death. But I think the four-game series worked out nicely in the end.

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | July 20, 2017, 8:20 pm
  8. Loved the video. Thanks for taking the time and effort required.

    Posted by ER Bickford | July 18, 2017, 3:13 pm
  9. Oh what a glorious end to a glorious series. Thanks for the effort and love you put into this…review? Oh review is far too shallow a word, this extravaganza!

    Posted by HMan | July 19, 2017, 9:24 am
    • I am glad the live for the game showed. To be honest, if I had liked the game less, it would have been hard to finish the series after so long. My enjoyment of The Final Gamble has stayed with me and is very fresh.

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | July 20, 2017, 8:18 pm
  10. Great video) May I suggest maybe similar videos abt ww2, both from historical and game design perspective? So it can be classic board wargames and also new systems like No retreat!, Fileds of Fire. ALso some fresh(and somehwo innovative) CG games like DC Barbarossa or Command Ops take on genre?

    Posted by jimhatama | July 19, 2017, 9:44 am
    • I really do want to do a comparison between a board game and a computer game. I was thinking of comparing The Dark Valley to something like Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa. But I’m so biased in my view towards boardgames that I’m not sure I’d be the best presenter.

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | July 20, 2017, 8:16 pm
  11. I thoroughly enjoyed this entire series of videos, so thank you for doing them. I do admit that I ended up not really caring for The Final Gamble as a game. I just had a strangely difficult time keeping the mechanics straight, and as the French it seemed that the options for action were fairly limited–that may have been a product of my inexperience and relative lack of familiarity with the battle, or it may be a function of the game capturing the situation well, as the French got themselves into a pickle and then simply had to try to shoot their way out of it. But I do very much appreciate the interlocking systems on display.

    Posted by Sean McCormick | July 19, 2017, 10:03 am
    • No matter the game, there will be people for whom it does not touch their particular sweet spot, which is of course fine and natural. I do encourage you, though, to give it one more try when you have the mechanics down smoothly. I was making rules mistake after rules mistake in my game with Kim, and he kept patiently correcting me.

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | July 20, 2017, 8:14 pm
  12. Outstanding review on a truly innovative and ultra-realistic representation of Dien Bien Phu. This has become my favorite game. The combat system is superb and the supply mechanics for the French and morale status for the Viet Mihn accurately reflect the struggles each side faced.
    Kim is a great designer. “The Final Gamble” led me to purchase “Tonkin”. I’m actively seeking “Ici c’est la France”. Did you squirrel away an extra copy of this?????

    Posted by Russ Bednarek | July 19, 2017, 9:28 pm
    • Hi Russ! If you look carefully in the last video sequence (just before the credits) you can see I have a copies of both the first and second editions of Ici, c’est la France. But I’m not willing to give them up because I actually really like the hand-drawn element to the first map, but the 2nd edition is more playable. Hopefully that game will get reprinted along with Final Gamble.

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | July 20, 2017, 8:11 pm
      • Legion Wargames has a pre-order for “Ici c’est la France”, currently at I believe 65 of the needed 150 to publish. Guess this will really be a test of my Eastern Philosophy

        Posted by Russ Bednarek | July 20, 2017, 10:20 pm
  13. Great stuff as always Bruce. Greatly enjoyed the series. Dien Bien Phu is in my possession and I hope to tackle it soon!

    Selfishly, I would love to see a similar series on really any Civil War battle. There are a wide variety of games that tackle the same battles in different ways, would love to see them discussed.

    Posted by Matt Peterson | July 21, 2017, 9:53 am
    • I actually think that ACW is one of the topics I’m least conversant with, because even though I grew up in the States, as a Polish kid I felt like it was a “foreign war” and was much more wrapped up in WWII which in Eastern Europe lasted until 1989 😉 Only in the past decade or so have I really started addressing this issue. I’m really interested in Mark Herman’s Fort Sumter because I feel like more attention should be paid to the causes of the war, just like it is silly to try and talk about the Spanish Civil War without a solid understanding of Spanish history.

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | July 21, 2017, 11:55 am
  14. Most excellent, Bruce. We have been anxiously awaiting this review and here you did not fail to deliver. A most glorious review regarding a most glorious game! Thank you for all your hard work with this. This definitely made my day!

    Posted by Alan Murphy | July 21, 2017, 6:07 pm
  15. It must have taken quite sometime and effort to produce a video at this level of quality. I enjoyed every minute of it.

    What about a series about the Battle of the Bulge?

    Posted by Gilles Daquin | July 23, 2017, 8:38 am
    • Bulge would be too much for me, I think. Just the sheer number of games I would have to cover, for one thing. Wacht am Rhein, AH Bulge (three editions), Last Blitzkrieg, Enemy Action: Ardennes, FAB: Bulge – that’s seven games I can think of right off the top of my head. There are literally dozens more. That’s like a Ken Burns documentary in itself!

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | July 23, 2017, 11:59 am
  16. Hands down the best game review videos I’ve ever seen done on CSW. Have you considered a series on the Battle of Britain?

    Posted by Brian Mulvihill | July 23, 2017, 8:35 pm
  17. An excellent conclusion to the series on such a fascinating and little addressed subject. I own three of the DBP games but thus far have only played Storm Over Dien Bien Phu. Your review has prompted me to move The Final Gamble to the top of the pile. Thank you for your work Bruce.

    Posted by Andrzej Cierpicki | July 28, 2017, 1:37 pm
  18. Finally Bruce! Great, great summary of a great, great video series about DBP battle.
    I love it and finally you convinced me to play Kim’s game.
    Excellent and very good designed videos. Waiting impatiently for more.
    Thanks you!

    Posted by Cezary Domalski | August 12, 2017, 9:04 am
  19. Hi Bruce. This series was amazing. You showed your passion for both the battle and the gaming representation of it in a clear, concise style that I very much appreciated. I learned a lot about both. Congratulations on completing what I know was a long row to hoe; from my perspective, it was worth it.

    Posted by Jacob martin | September 8, 2017, 12:11 pm
  20. Alright, Bruce. Having now watched the entire series, which strangely seemed to have required finding your YouTube channel instead of being all available directly from your site’s videos page, I am very curious what you think about BGG rankings in general and specifically for wargames. The problem that brings this to my attention is that of all the DBP games, the highest ranked on BGG is Storm Over DBP at 3,505 (wargame 425) while The Final Gamble is only 3,778 (wargame 439). Shouldn’t your personal favorite wargame be at least a top-100 wargame on BGG? Shouldn’t BGG voters recognize what you show us: that The Final Gamble is amazing design whereas Storm Over DBP is boring, lazy, and one-sided? I suspect that because the numbers of players playing wargames is so small and the portion of them voting on BGG so even smaller that the prospective validity of BGG’s wargame rankings would make any statistician laugh?

    Posted by Keithustus | September 18, 2017, 1:15 pm
    • Ignore the YouTube aside; I was just thrown off by your web article titles not matching your YouTube titles and forgot to delete that from the comment. Excellent, excellent series!

      Posted by Keithustus | September 18, 2017, 1:16 pm
      • My videos aren’t all accessible from the Videos page? I show them all being there. Do you mean not as a sequential series?

        The wargaming hobby is so fragmented that I doubt you can draw any conclusions from direct comparisons of games in the 400s. I doubt there are enough people with common experiences of all these games to be statistically significant, as you point out. How many people on BGG have actually played Citadel? Instead, my guide is that everyone to whom I recommend The Final Gamble and who plays it seems to love it. Not very statistically robust, either, I guess. Anyway, I’m very glad you enjoyed the video series!

        Posted by Bruce Geryk | September 18, 2017, 3:09 pm
        • My confusion was in part because they aren’t named or arranged by series as you say. What tripped me up was that the title of each webpage on the Videos page linking to a different video and discussion is very different from the titles of the videos on your YouTube channel, such that though the series was easy to queue on YouTube since they’re all named “Dien Bien Phu – [game title] (publisher) year”, browsing your Videos page I first believed each link was a distinct video series.

          On rankings, your praise of The Final Gamble begs the question: not that I’m asking you to make a Tom Vassel-like best-games big video production, but do you have a top-# list somewhere? I can’t seem to find one on this site, and don’t remember a GOAT discussion on 3MA either. I suspect that just as many of the top-20 or so board games on BGG are from 2005 or newer that likewise a lot of the best ever wargames–other than people who likely fiddly plodding massive timesink–are likewise new too. Have you made such a list anytime in the last several years?

          I love the ancient battle video, too, so am excited to see those videos get posted as you can produce them.

          Posted by Keithustus | September 18, 2017, 6:22 pm
          • Wild Weasel #1 has my Top 5 wargames of all time.

            Wild Weasel #2 filled the list out from #6-10

            Wild Weasel #4 has my 6th-through-10th best solitaire wargames

            Wild Weasel #5 has my Top 5 (1-5) solitaire wargames

            Posted by Bruce Geryk | September 18, 2017, 6:52 pm
  21. Awesome, thanks. Now I just need to learn to speak Garyk; there’s no way I would read “weasel” and think “favorites” or the like.

    Posted by Keithustus | September 18, 2017, 8:25 pm
  22. Great job on the video series, I really enjoyed it! They are all very thoughtfully put together, and well produced.

    Posted by SweetJP | September 28, 2017, 2:34 am
  23. Bruce – phenomenal video and series. And in the best “Long time listener, first time caller” tradition, let me say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your work since reading my first issue of CGW! (While also being jealous of the boundless energy you show in maintaining a practice, playing games, and writing voluminously!)

    So trivial question: where’d ya get the cool tweezers?

    Posted by DaveM1 | November 19, 2017, 9:16 am

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