Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Operation Solace review

Operation Solace is a small hex-and-counter wargame depicting a hypothetical invasion of North Vietnam around 1969 to rescue POWs.

While not particularly likely, the operation does have some interesting aspects for gaming. It was one of two games in the Vietnam-themed issue No. 5 of Command Magazine of 1990 (The other being Hamburger Hill).

The one scenario lasts just six one-day turns. Each hex is about 6 miles across and the map covers the majority of North Vietnam, centered on Hanoi. The map is functional and about average in appearance. It shows the key terrain, including jungles, mountains, cities, towns and rivers. Man-made facilities depicted include a road net, several airfields and eight POW camps.

The invading American force includes eight commando teams in a white-on-black color scheme, three Marine battalions in white on dark green, and nine U.S. Army battalions of airborne, airmobile and mechanized troops(three of each) in black on olive. Finally there is a helicopter "brigade," also in olive and ten air support units in light blue. The battalions are two-step and the other units have just one. The defending North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units are generally two-step infantry divisions of yellow on red. Filling out the NVA order of battle are a tank regiment, two anti-aircraft brigades, three groups of VIPs and three dummies.

The 6-page rulebook describes a low-complexity wargame using standard game mechanics such as odds-based combat, IGO-HUGO movement-combat turn sequence, mechanized movement phase (US only) and stacking, but no zones of control. It's a game of low complexity by wargame standards. With just 65 counters in total this is clearly a small game.

The US Player has to enter North Vietnam by sea and air, grab the POWs and evacuate everyone within six turns.

The game revolves accumulating victory points. The Americans win VPs by evacuating POWs and VIPs and eliminating combat units. The NVA gets VPs for eliminating US units or if the US units fail to get off the map. In addition the NVA scores VPs for uncaptured VIPs and unrescued POWs. Both sides can lose VPs, the NVA for "liquidating" POWs and the US for collateral damage caused by using its heavy firepower in populated areas. The game is a tight contest between the two sides. The surprised NVA gathers it forces slowly and is facing daunting US firepower. But the US has just six turns to get in, grab and get out. Both sides have interesting and different challenges and both will get to attack and defend. While powerful, the American force is just a dozen battalions and some special forces units and will be stretched thin.

The NVA has to be careful about facing US strength, but can make it very hard to the US to pull everyone out in time.The game only takes about five minutes to set up and can easily be played twice in one sitting due to the low counter density and familiar game mechanics.

Because it's a hypothetical battle, it's hard to judge the historicity of the game design. It's highly unlikely that President Nixon would have authorized such a high-risk operation. But if he had, it may well have been the nail-biter this game suggests.

The only errata is an admission that the game is somewhat biased in favor of the US player and suggesting an additional measure for an American player victory.

Command Magazine No. 8 contained variant rules and counters for adding Chinese intervention and a Sheridan-equipped light tank unit to the potential OB.

Recommendations(Yes) For Wargamers: A unique and highly unusual topic covered in a playable way.

(No) For Collectors: No remarkable collectibility.

(Conditional Yes) For Euro gamers: Although a hex-and-counter wargame with intricate and detailed rules compared to most Euro games, this game is short and straightforward enough that it may be worth trying.

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