A long time ago, there was a great series of turn-based strategies. It began with East Front, and then continued through a number of games, built on the original’s chassis. They were released during an era when the turn-based style was still popular – even if losing ground to the RTS. As such, the games sold well and spawned many similar works. Eventually these evolved into the famed and venerable John Tiller engine, that you can see, to this day, in the Squad Battles series. Those are definitely still worth a look.
Campaign Series Vietnam followed this path. In some ways, it does look like it may have been a lost game from those bygone times. It even loads up Windows Media Player for the introduction – quite a throwback in and of itself! The game’s interface is similarly dated, with the scenario and player selection menus looking very much antique.
From Infantry Squads to Helicopter Gunships
Campaign Series Vietnam (CSV from here on) offers a truly massive number of scenarios. Those start during the period just after the Japanese occupation; Continue with the French – Viet Minh conflict of the 1950s; And go all the way to the American involvement in Vietnam, in the 1960s. A player can fight in small operations or test their skills in massive battles. All these are done on a platoon level – so in the larger scenarios the unit count will add up very quickly.
Players will command everything: from infantry squads to individual tanks, armoured cars and helicopter gunships. You’ll see VC, NVA, South Korean, ARVN, Australian and American troops, across the various scenarios. These are more than just cosmetic changes, too. The performance of units and nations was carefully balanced. So, while many ARVN soldiers are pretty weak, the ROK troops are definitely powerful. The US marines and airborne, as such, aren’t the only strong units in the game.
There’s no campaign, as such. However, there are a few scenarios with a very long turns count (400+) and a truly staggering number of units and objectives. With all that, they do sort of feel like campaigns. Whilst I didn’t have time to complete any, they still offered hours of interesting and varied gameplay.
A Product of Its Time
Graphically, well, CSV is very much a product of its time: with limited zoom levels, an isometric perspective, and a choice between 2d tiles or NATO symbols for the units. The graphics are, at best, functional, and the isometric view is quite hard to use. Unit graphics are very basic and – although vehicles are easy enough to make out – troops can often be too small to really figure out what they are.
The UI is similarly dated: with lots of icons and boxes to click on and a bewildering number of options and stances for units. The game does feature a handful of tutorials (referred to as Boot Camps) to help a new player learn the rules. However, if you’re a fan of the late John Tiller games, you should be pretty familiar with how it all works.
There are a lot of unit stats and then strategic stats, too, to keep track of. The latter even include artillery ammo – for off-board artillery and air support. With so much data, it can sometimes be quite tricky to figure out the real difference between units. However, the game includes a fairly good editor, allowing players to dig into all the granular details – and there’s no lack of those!
Tactical Battles with Novel Mechanics
The AI is pretty good – even though all scenarios are written to be played from just one side, with some scripting to help it make its choices. You can also play in the hot-seat mode with a friend; Or you could even try playing as the other side – although this may lead to some poor decisions by your AI opponent.
In terms of pure gameplay, there’s a lot of nuance and complexity to the game – even if it’s all fairly simple to get the hang of. Ranged weapons are the key to victory, with artillery support vital to breaking strong defences. Spotting is also critical, as hidden units can be a nightmare. If you’re playing the US allied forces, expect to get ambushed a fair bit!
It’s good to see a Vietnam era game with so many tactical battles. Especially when these also feature some really nice, novel mechanics. For example, some scenarios have updated orders each day: advising new targets, and informing on the civilian presence – with penalties if those get hit. However, there is still one thing that you can’t fully get across: That is, why the French, the ARVN and the Americans failed to defeat the VC on a purely tactical level.
Performance and UI Issues
The developers have stated an intent to release more content in the future. It’ll include scenarios covering the 1968 to 1975 period – and possibly beyond! In addition, they want to overhaul the UI.
This does raise the question of why release a product with the UI, that you yourself want to change. Of course, your classic grognards aren’t too bothered about state-of-the-art graphics and all the bells and whistles. However, even they want a usable UI and clear visuals – and CSV struggles with this.
In terms of sound, there’s not much to recommend. There’s nothing beyond some decent, but repetitive sound effects for weapons and unit movement.
Interestingly, for a game based on such an old design, I did encounter some significant performance issues. Sometimes it was locking up between turns, and there were even some full crashes. I will caveat that by saying that my PC is getting on a bit now – so this may not have been entirely the game’s fault. However, these problems meant that it took much longer to play and felt a lot more awkward than it should have been. Considering that it’s a tricky game to begin with, at times it did feel a chore.
A Recommendation with a Caution
There’s still a lot to like about CSV – but any recommendation must come with a caution. It’s true that it features a massive number of varied scenarios, covering multiple conflicts, and with really well drawn up OOBs. However, I do think that only a very dedicated player would get around to playing them all.
The graphics too aren’t great. Although, that’s far from a deal-breaker for any dedicated turn-based wargamer. The 3D isometric view, however, also isn’t very usable, so I found myself playing in 2D most of the time. Whilst changing the zoom level led to some lock-ups and performance issues.
The game’s cluttered, old-fashioned UI is pretty off-putting as well. A few missions later, though, and you’ll likely have got the hang of it.
There are also some that will feel that a game about the Vietnam War is in itself inappropriate, given the huge amount of suffering and political problems that surrounded it. The modelling of civilians in game along with the risk of civilian casualties may be very off-putting to some.
With so few solid turn-based wargames about the Vietnam War, I really want to recommend CSV. I think if you can get past the various graphics and performance issues, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. However, my personal feeling is that I would probably rather play Squad Battles: Vietnam. It also feels old school, but at least suffers from fewer problems and hang-ups, and works a lot more cleanly.
There are also updates and improvements to come for this game. I’m confident they’ll make it easier to play and will deal with many of its issues. However, as it stands, CSV requires an awful lot of patience to get into.
So, I think if you’ve been able to enjoy games like Shadow Empire or Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes, then surely you’ll master CSV, and will get a lot out of it. As it currently stands, however, it’s a very niche title, and I can’t offer as strong a recommendation for it, as I’d like.