Vietnam. Growing up in the '80s, Vietnam was a big bogeyman that was recent enough to still have a relevant impact on society around me, but far enough behind me that I didn't quite grasp the complexities (both social and political) of the conflict, and why exactly the word 'draft' was a veritable curse-word for some people. In my neighborhood, as the Cold War raged on, patriotism was king, and it wasn't until I got older and learned more about Vietnam that I began to understand why it was such an uncomfortable subject for some people. It wasn't until last year, when I was on a hunting trip with my father-in-law, and a close friend of my family whom I've known for over 20 years, both of whom served in Vietnam, that the two of them began to share stories of their time there, and how profoundly it had impacted them.
When I review a game, I attempt to be as objective as possible. In the case of '65: Squad Level Combat In the Jungles of Vietnam ('65 for short) my fascination with the complexities of Vietnam, and my deep respect for my father-in-law and my friend can't help but color my view of the game. Learning about their experiences has given me somewhat of a personal connection to the conflict, especially knowing how deeply it impacted two people that I hold in such high regard. There's also the fact that the United States wasn't necessarily the 'good guys', and that so many who fought were drafted, as opposed to voluntarily serving during the war. While '65 is a game that takes place in Vietnam, it isn't really about the Vietnam war per-se, and Flying Pig Games has done a wonderful job of presenting squad level skirmishes without moralizing or politicizing. With all of that said about the game's setting, I'm going to switch gears and tell you about the game itself.
'65 is built upon the same card driven system that Mark H. Walker designed and used previously in the sci-fi themed Night of Man. If you've played Night of Man then you could almost sit down with '65 and begin playing it with nary a peek at the rulebook although where Night of Man's rulebook was a bit too vague '65's rules are well written, easy to use, and very clear. It's obvious that Flying Pig Games has spent time polishing this rules-set, and it shows. Another change for the better is that '65's maps are hex-based where Night of Man used squares. Ultimately, if you've played and enjoyed Night of Man, and you are interested in the Vietnam setting of '65 then you are almost certainly going to enjoy '65. If you are like me, you'll enjoy it even more than you enjoy Night of Man.
'65 uses a mix of infantry units and vehicles, including trucks, tanks, transports and even helicopters. The US has limited infantry compared to the VC and NVA, but has a wider range of vehicles, and all three armies have a few named, Hero units. Most of the action is between the infantry units, but the vehicles do a nice job of changing the pace of the game and keeping things exciting. Regardless of the types of units you are using, everything is controlled via a single deck of cards. Players have a hand of four cards, and can use those cards to issue orders to their units. Each card has two possible actions on it, but players only use one action when they play a card. Because of the limited hand size, you can't always do what you want, and so you are forced to make the most out of the actions that are available to you at any one time. Very occasionally, this leads to one player ripping off a strong string of actions, while the other player desperately scrambles to be able to counter properly, but more often the back and forth remains balanced and interesting, and it's easy to hand-wave moments of that type of imbalance as battlefield chaos.
Combat, both infantry and vehicular, and turn duration are also handled via that same deck of cards. Turns last until a certain number of End Turn cards have been drawn, and cards are drawn to check hits in combat, so you can never be sure just how much time you have left in a round. Not only that, but the more hot and heavy the combat gets, the more quickly you will burn through the deck, shortening the overall length of each round. This means that you need to constantly be pushing to complete your objectives, which keeps the game moving. Turtling isn't really a viable strategy, and can leave you out of time when you need it the most.
The game has a very action-movie feel due to the pacing and the card-play, but there is still enough depth here to keep veteran wargamers interested. You still need to consider line of sight, cover factors, to-hit factors, opportunity fire and other hex and counter mainstays, but there isn't so much minutia that the game bogs down. '65 is definitely on the lighter end of the wargaming spectrum, but that also means that you can set it up and play quickly and easily. This game is excellent to have on your shelf for impulse-plays; for those times when you want to get a quick-fix wargame in when you don't have enough time to set up something more involved and complex. The missions are varied and different enough, with a variety of objectives to complete, and vary in turn length and number of rounds, so you can still reach for '65 when you do want to spend an entire evening wargaming.
A note on solo play: '65 has an official add-on that introduces a full-featured solitaire game mode called Alone in the Jungle. While it isn't included with the game, it's an extremely worthwhile purchase if you like this style or game and you like to play solitaire. There are six solo scenarios, most of which have a light narrative connection to one another. The standout is the sixth scenario though. The final solo scenario has choices that have to be made at various points, each with a blurb of text and a choice for the player to make. I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that this scenario is excellent, and I would love more content for the solo game along these lines. Adding Alone in the Jungle to the game easily increases the game's score by a half point.
A note on “chrome”: '65 has excellent components. The rulebook is well laid out, and very easy to reference. The included player aids are handy, but you will still need to reference the rulebook for the unit Powers, as they aren't included on the player aids. The units are large and the art is all consistent, thematic and clean. The giant counters and hexes very easy to manipulate and a lot of fun to play with, and the cards stand up well to heavy shuffling. If you can't get enough of the game, there are also add-ons for USMC/Anzac troops that come with a handful of new scenarios, and a beautiful city map that has two map-specific scenarios to play on it.
The bottom line:
'65: Squad Level Combat in the Jungles of Vietnam takes the core rules and mechanics from Night of Man and improves on them appreciably, and it does so in an interesting setting that is thematic and interesting, and is a nice change of pace from the more common World War II theme. The card driven play is easy to learn, and the turns are rapid and exciting. The cardplay also does a great job of balancing randomness versus tactical depth, and lands this game squarely in the medium-weight category. The game sets up and plays very quickly for a hex and counter war game, and is a perfect choice if you like this style of game, and want something that you can play without the need to set an entire evening aside. The ease of setup and play also make this an awesome choice as an entry point into hex and counter, squad-level wargaming, so if you've never played a game like this and want to get your feet wet then you should give '65 some serious consideration.
Get this game if:
You enjoy squad-level war games.
You want a hex and counter war game that you can set up and play quickly.
You are fascinated by the Vientam War.
You are new to hex and counter war games and don't know where to start.
Avoid this game if:
You dislike war games.
You prefer war games that focus more on detail than action.
The copies of '65: Squad Level Combat in the Jungles of Vietnam and Alone in the Jungle used for this review was provided by Flying Pig Games.
'65 is a great hex and counter wargame that is more action movie than simulation, but still offers enough strategy to keep veteran wargamers interested. The action is rapid and tense, and the game does a great job of capturing the look and feel of the Vietnam War. Don't be surprised if you want to listen to Credence and watch Hamburger Hill or Apocalypse Now after playing.