Sunday, December 31, 2017

Loose Ends 2017

I have not had the time nor the energy to blog as much these past couple of years.  Professional and family life demands more of me these days.  I worked more on my Nietzsche blog than I have in recent years.  So that took a bit of my blogging time and energy.  Here (in no particular order) is my annual rundown of various odds and ends that I didn't blog about from the past year.

I went to the movie theater twice in 2017.  You can read my review of Blade Runner 2049 here.  The other film I saw, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, was not exactly a disappointment but it wasn't one of Nolan's stronger films either.  Long-time readers know that Nolan is my favorite contemporary director and the film had several innovative and interesting qualities, particularly in its interweaving of three different narrative time scales and its use of sound effects.  But I wouldn't give it higher than a 7 on my scale.  I just didn't feel inspired to write about it even though it was a decent effort.

I read several new books throughout the year, mostly philosophy and military history.  The one work of fiction I tackled was a novel that has been on my list for years - Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.  I enjoyed this novel so much.  Capote's style is impeccable, the narrative is gripping and the ending is heartrendingly nostalgic.  It is a power story, expertly woven in glorious prose  - a classic that I highly recommend, regardless of what type of reading you normally gravitate toward. 

Neil Young put out his 38th and 39th studio albums this year.  I reviewed The Visitor recently.   He released Hitchhiker earlier in the year - a previously unreleased album of songs that mostly appear on other albums by Neil.  Recorded back in 1976, this album has run through the rumor-mill among fans of Neil literally for decades.  It features a couple of previously unreleased songs that I have (in other versions) in my rather large bootleg Neil collection.  It is noteworthy that most of these songs were written as they were performed in the studio, literally all in a single day, which is rather incredible.  Otherwise, however, Hitchhiker turns out to be little more than glorified "demo" tape of Neil on solo guitar.  Even though I can appreciate the record as a document of Neil's famous spontaneous creativity, I still didn't care to purchase an acoustical recording of songs that are much more fleshed-out on other albums I own.

The Atlanta Braves sucked in 2017.  I endured a long season of steady disappointments and the prospects for 2018 don't really seem that bright at the moment, though there is some young talent to root for.  Nevertheless, I followed the team in dedicated fashion, mostly on the radio, but I never got around to seeing a game at their new stadium even though it is located much closer to my house than was Turner Field.  Maybe next year.

Our Destin vacation was wonderful and relaxing but was cut a day short by Hurricane Irma.  Jennifer and I made a wide swing through Alabama on the way home to avoid the horrific traffic jams in Atlanta.  It felt strange to leave the beauty of the Florida panhandle only to rush home to be in the path of the storm.  Irma literally petered out on my doorstep with minimal wind and rain.  We didn't even lose power, which was a surprise.  It was basically a nonevent for me but it gave us all something to worry about (not that we needed more to worry about in 2017, things were bad enough).

I watched more television (well, a lot of it was streaming on my iPad) in 2017 than I have in many years.  Although I have previously only mentioned it in passing, I am a Game of Thrones fan.  I found the seventh season to be very entertaining.  I also rummaged through Netflix and watched all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad for the first time.  It is a rather bleak story, spiced with occasional humor in earlier episodes, superbly acted, beautifully shot, and very well written.  The thing that surprised me the most about Breaking Bad was how much its style reminded me of what is probably my all-time favorite TV series, The X-Files.  With good reason since Vince Gilligan created the show and was previously involved with The X-Files.  The influence of the older series is unmistakable even though the narrative for the two shows is very different.  

Breaking Bad was an excellent series but, frankly, I didn't find it to be "the greatest TV show ever" like several of my friends have mentioned through the years.  It is an interesting story filled with complex characters; clearly superior TV but I wasn't blown away by it.

Watching it influenced me to start re-watching The X-Files, however.  I am finishing up season three as of this post.   This is probably my third or fourth time through the series, but I last watched it over a decade ago.  The dynamics between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on-screen, along with the (mostly) great writing (the series suffers in seasons 8 and 9) and high production qualities make it well-worth repeat viewings.  Sure, it's a show about alien abductions and the paranormal, but it is also about the development of the complex relationship between Mulder and Scully and the science fiction elements all serve as metaphors for modernity: abuse of power, fate versus free will, the importance of faith (or at least belief) today, the nature of evil, the interplay between friendship and attraction, etc.

Also in the mix were two very different shows, Westworld and Deadwood.   I streamed both of these via HBO through my Sling TV subscription.  I only made it through the first five episodes of Westworld before I realized, despite the work of great actors like Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, I was simply indifferent to any of the mysteries that show tried to create; boring and mostly cliche.  Deadwood, on the other hand, was recommended by a friend and I was not disappointed.  The early days of the wild west is not the type of setting I usually go for.  But this show was humorous, dramatic, surprising, and an extremely well acted period piece.  Season 3 got a bit muddled but, overall, the whole series was highly entertaining.  The show became even more interesting to me when I discovered that it was all based on what happened historically - the settlement and most of the main characters are based upon real people and events.

I'm not sure why I watched so much TV in 2017.  I will carry on with The X-Files and am excited that Season 11 will air on January 3.  But, I have no other plans to allow the "glass teat" to get its clutches around my mind in 2018.  You never know though, right?

I got a new iPad a couple of weeks ago.  Once again, Apple amazes me with how easily it is to transfer your entire app environment seamlessly over from an old iPad to a new one.  I wish things were that easy with my PC upgrades.  All my apps are faster with greater functionality and far higher resolution.  Wonderful stuff.

My primary iPad usage continues to be my tinkering with Flipboard.  Since my last Loose Ends post my little digital publishing empire has grown to 40 magazines with 3,o85 followers as of this post.  This blog and my Flipboard are as far as I wade into "social media."  I still have no desire to open a Facebook account.  I suppose if I were more active in social media, however, I might get more followers.  But I am happy where I am.

Notice Magazine and Notice: Art remain my most popular Flipboard ventures.  Although Notice Magazine is designed as "quick news," featuring articles rotated in and out over any given 3-day period, there is a section at the end of Notice Magazine where I keep a small "permanent" collection of articles I deem of special importance.  You might want to check them out:

From NPR - President Obama's eulogy on the tragic Charleston shootings.  He sings "Amazing Grace" at the end.

From The Daily Beast - "Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion"

From The New York Times - Roy Scranton's excellent article "We're Doomed, Now What?"

From The Huffington Post - "Dog Butt Looks Like Jesus Christ in a Robe"

From  Buzzfeed - "26 Pictures That Will Give You Perspective on What Really Matters"

From Business Insider - "This map shows the US really has 11 separate 'nations' with entirely different cultures"

From Gizmodo - "Half of Our Planet's Wildlife is Gone.  Here's Why."

From - "Stop Erasing History"

From The Atlantic - "Mass Shootings in the United States: 'This Is Who We Are'"

From The Huffington Post - "This Charlottesville Documentary is Required Viewing for Americans in 2017"

From Seeking Alpha - "You're Just Not Prepared for What's Coming"

Happy New Year!  Here's for a much better 2018!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Silver Bayonet: Gaming the Ia Drang Valley

Proof of purchase.  Silver Bayonet has outstanding components and production quality.  The map is hard-mounted, a rarity these days - almost every game is published with paper maps.  Even the box is made of heavier stock.  A great value for the price.
A section of the map as seen in the game's VASSAL module.  This is the area around Pleiku and Camp Holloway.  There are a few clear hexes but the terrain is mostly broken hills, light jungle and mountain jungle.

I have blogged before about how I enjoy combining the reading of military history with historical wargames.  The Vietnam War does not loom large in my rather robust wargame collection (a lifetime in the making) but I do own several interesting titles.  In computer wargames I have John Tiller's squad level treatments at the war, Vietnam and Tour of Duty.  These offer relatively quick playing scenarios that show how the war was fought at the tactical level.

I also own The Operational Art of War III which features campaigns and battles throughout modern history.  There are many excellent Vietnam-era scenarios to play and I have enjoyed them a lot through the years.  The scenario on the Ia Drang ’65 campaign is a blast to play, realistic, and doesn't take very long to complete.  There are also a number of "strategic" level scenarios offered on the Vietnam Combat Operations site.  These incredibly intricate scenarios cover the whole war from when the first US Marines splashed ashore at Da Nang all the way (so far) through the invasion of Cambodia.  There is a wonderful PDF accompanying each scenario which presents every combat mission during the war; an excellent historic resource and a lot of fun play.

As far as board games go, I have enjoyed the old strategic-level game Vietnam 65-75 for years.  It is a fun and reasonably accurate game to play individual military campaigns from the war.  In its campaign scenarios it adds the weight of the political side of the war, pacification and winning hearts and minds, which, though interesting, slows game play down to a slog.  No Trumpets, No Drums offers a different strategic take on the war.  It has the advantage of including Cambodia and Laos on the game map.  This allows for a wider strategic exploration of the conflict as well as reflecting the covert operations in those two countries.  I really like this game a lot and will be playing it again soon in 2018.  I also own a copy of the Against the Odds magazine game Meatgrinder which depicts the valiant stand by the South Vietnamese army at Xuan Loc in April 1975 just before the end of the war.  I have never played it but have enjoyed reading the rules and the accompanying historical articles.

But my wargame of choice at the moment is Silver Bayonet from GMT Games.  I purchased the original version of this game back in 1991 and played it frequently at the time.  Last year GMT published the 25th anniversary edition of this game, which is devoted completely to the 1965 Ia Drang Valley campaign conducted by the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile) against Viet Cong elements and North Vietnamese regulars.  The game is fun to play because it offers several very short battle scenarios as well as wider looks at different aspects of the campaign, bringing it into a sharper focus which augments my reading on this important campaign.

There are short scenarios for each of the most famous Landing Zone (LZ) battles - X-Ray, Mary, and Albany.  These can be played in less than an hour and afford an interactive way to understand these battles outside of what my reading material offers.  They are created not only to reflect historic situations but also as building blocks for learning the basic mechanics of this game system.  Most everything hinges on two types of attacks: maneuver and assault.  To quote from the rule book: "At a very basic level, Maneuver Combat is used to leverage an enemy out of a particular hex or to soften the hex up for an assault.  Assault Combat is used to close with the enemy and destroy him." 

Each unit has an Efficiency Rating which allows for various tactics and functions to be performed.  On a 10-point scale, Special Force DELTA (Green Berets) and CIDG units have a rating of 8 and 7 respectively.  Most US air cavalry troops are a 6.  North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units (PAVN) are mostly 5's and 4's though there are a few NVA battalions rated at 6.  ARVN units are mostly 5's.  These ratings may be increased due to such things as having a leader or headquarters unit present.  They may be reduced due to such things as step-reductions incurred during combat.  

Defending units may attempt to refuse combat, avoiding it altogether, depending upon their efficiency rating and certain types of terrain. (This was a common problem for the US/ARVN [FWA] forces in Vietnam.  The PAVN would simply run away if the odds were not in their favor.)  But, if a unit is attacked by both maneuver and assault tactics it must stand and fight.  So a combination of tactics usually works best though there are times when only one tactic can be used due to the mixture of units involved or certain terrain effects. 

Over and above this the US has a lot of air power and artillery to bring to bear on the battlefield.  The PAVN units have mortar support which, though weak compared to the US punch, is more mobile and can be carried directly into assault combats.  This accurately reflects how the North Vietnamese used their modest but often effective artillery, particularly early on in the war when larger caliber guns had yet to make it down the Ho Chi Minh Trail system.

That reflects the bare bones of the game.  The campaign scenarios take longer to play but are worth it because they add, among other things, helicopters, hidden movement, patrols, and ambushes to the mix - which are the very things that make the Vietnam War so distinctive.
In addition to reading for my Vietnam War meditations, I played different scenarios of Silver Bayonet over the past several weeks.  This post contains some screenshots from the game's VASSAL module as well as some thoughts on the scenarios depicted and how the game allows the player to make historically accurate choices within game mechanics that capture the feel of the period.

Compared with the wide geography of the campaign scenarios, the battles at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany, the bloodiest of the campaign, seem rather small.  Silver Bayonet offers short scenarios on these battles that can be played on special cards that accompany the game and feature only a small portion of the main map.  There is even a scenario entitled “Breaking the Siege (Duc Co)” which occurs in August 1965 before the game's other scenarios, which take place in October and November.  It affords a great look at how the PAVN fought the ARVN before US troops arrived.

Beyond these battles there are several wider scenarios.  Scenario two is entitled “The Lure and the Ambush (Plei Me)” features a situation similar to “Breaking the Seige,” only this time there are plenty of US cavalry and stronger NVA troops available.  Scenario seven, “Operation Than Phong 7”, offers a view of the cleaning up operations toward the end of the campaign.  

“Operation All the Way,” Operations “Silver Bayonet I” and “Silver Bayonet II” (scenarios 8, 9, and 10 respectively) introduce helicopters to the equation and give players a look at the various search and destroy operations of the Ia Drang Valley campaign.  Finally, scenario 11 features the entire campaign from October 19 through November 26, 1965.  It is entitled “Operation Long Reach” and features all the various elements of play in one, extended, combined game.

The rest of this post will look at playing “Operation All The Way” because that scenario gets the players into the thick of action with a majority of the rules and a lot of the helicopters quickly.  If you can’t get excited about how this game models helicopters then you probably won’t appreciate Silver Bayonet.  For me, the helicopters are cool and allow the player to vividly simulate the complexities of modern asymmetrical warfare.

There is no “front line” in Silver Bayonet, everything is a “zone.”  Hidden movement and helicopters are two equally potent strategic advantages.  So the PAVN player and the FWA player have aggressive possibilities built into the fabric of the game.  The FWA player must usually disperse US forces into the “hidden zone” to increase the possibility of locating something to attack. 

That can be a tremendous advantage to the PAVN player.  When the US searches for enemy troops he usually does so in smaller company-size fashion, creating opportunities to close rapidly on a company with a full battalion with mortar support; attack quickly and withdraw before the US artillery and air support can strike back. This game is fun to play from either side.

“Operation All The Way” begins with a common tactic employed by the PAVN throughout the Vietnam War in remote regions like the Ia Drang Valley.  A Special Forces (SF) base is attacked.  The ARVN sends reinforcements along a road to assist with the defense.  The reinforcing units get ambushed along the way.  Such is the deployment at the start.  The NVA have three battalions, two of which are set up to attack around the Plei Me SF camp.  The other is hidden along the road between the camp and Pleiku, ready to pounce on anything motoring down it toward the embattled camp.  Meanwhile the Viet Cong units are in reserve around the PAVN Hospital unit near the Cambodian border. 
The terrain around SF Camp Duc Co.  The map artwork is excellent.  You can easily see the towns and villages surrounded by mostly light and heavy jungle in this area.  Each hex is equal to one mile in this game's scale. 
The ARVN have assorted mechanized and infantry units in Pleiku.  Additionally, there are six CIDG companies split between the two SF camps.  A single company of US DELTA (Green Berets) at Duc Co, but that camp is not under attack at the beginning of this scenario.   Off-board, however, there are several gunships and transport helicopters with a battalion of air cavalry units at the US base at An Khe.  Plenty more are coming as reinforcements later in the scenario, which makes the NVA attacks at the start so important for them.  After the first couple of turns they will be forced to hide from all that US artillery and air power.   
Unit placement for the beginning of the "All the Way" scenario.  All PAVN units are hidden and the markers are rather concentrated to cover the impending attacks.  You can just make out the Duc Co Special Forces Camp in the upper left.  Note the Green Beret company stacked with CIDG companies there.  Pleiku is just off this section of map, to the upper right.  The Plei Me SF Camp is surrounded as other NVA elements await an ambush opportunity along the road leading to Plei Me. 
The scenario begins with a special pre-game attack by the PAVN upon the Plei Me. For this post I chose to launch a combination Maneuver and Assault attacks against both the SF camp and the lone CIDG company that is about to set up a patrol due north of the Plei Me.  Since patrols can only be marked in the Observation Phase of the game turn, the FWA (Free World Allies – mostly the US with ARVN support) player doesn’t get a chance to declare that yet.  In terms of sheer numbers, the PAVN overwhelms the CIDG troops, but this is not an ambush since the specially trained CIDG units are immune to ambushes. 
The terrain around SF Camp Plei Me is mostly broken terrain with forested hills and a few mountain jungle hexes.
In the sequence of play, Maneuver attacks are resolved prior to Assaults.  As a general rule, it is best for the PAVN player to keep units as concentrated as possible while hiding.  This maximizes the number of “dummy” hidden movement markers and makes them more difficult to discover, but when attacking it is best for them to be dispersed.  This affords some combat advantages and also means that direct bombardment by the US will fall on only a unit or two, not an entire battalion.
This is the Plei Me Camp area with the units set up.  All the Hidden Movement markers have been removed so the units can be seen.  Each PAVN unit should be marked with either a Maneuver or an Assault marker.  In this example, such markers are set aside in order to better see the unit counters.  The 6 air points marker should be placed on top of Plei Me in order to offer defensive bombardment support.  Once again, it is just placed on the map in this example so all the attacking and defending counters can be seen.
The PAVN begins the pre-game attack with the Offensive Bombardment Phase.  Two NVA mortar units totaling 4 support points are ready for the SF camp attack.  But the camp has a defense value of “4” which makes it impossible for 4 mortar points to eliminate any CIDG steps, though there is a 20% possibility of inflicting some fatigue.  Alternatively, the PAVN mortars (unlike US artillery) can participate directly in assaults like infantry units.  The problem with that is there is a limit to how many units can assault a given hex.  The PAVN player decides to bombard now and then commit to the assault if needed later.  Each artillery unit in the game gets a “first” and “final” fire during a given turn.  In this case the final fire might be a ground attack, we’ll just have to see.  At any rate a roll of 6 fails to do anything against the base.  "First Fire" markers are placed on both mortar units.

The two CIDG companies at Plei Me can only muster 2 defensive points.  Whereas the two NVA battalions can fully surround the base with 26 total attack points plus 4 mortar support points.  But the highest odds on the Maneuver Combat Table are 6:1, so it is pointless for the PAVN player to invest more than 12 points in the Maneuver attack, this saves up to 14 points (plus the mortars) for the follow-on Assault of the base.  The two battalions are slightly mixed in a few hexes, completely surrounding the Plei Me camp, in order for the PAVN to benefit from multi-hex attacks. 

With initial odds of 6:1 it seems impossible for the CIDG player to hold the base.  But there are several game factors to take into account before jumping to that conclusion. The first is whether or not the PAVN attack will be coordinated.  Attack coordination was not a specialty of the NVA or the VC at this stage of the war.  It happened haphazardly whenever troops were not under direct higher command.  In the game only about 30% of PAVN attacks will be coordinated.  In this case, however, the attack is coordinated by the presence of the PAVN HQ unit, which bumps the coordination possibility up to 60%. The PAVN rolls against the HQ Efficiency Rating and passes.  The attack will be coordinated and will suffer no negative effects due to command issues.

In Maneuver combat each side chooses a “lead” unit with which to compare efficiency ratings from the ensuing combat.  The PAVN chooses a company with a “6” rating.  CIDG’s are highly trained, possessing a “7” so this will result in a one column shift in favor of the defenders.  The attack will be downgraded to 5:1, still favorable to the PAVN.  If casualties are taken the “lead” unit must be the first step reduction.

The FWA player is not allowed to use helicopter or artillery support in this pre-game attack.  But the player does possess 15 air points.  6 are allocated to this particular attack, saving points for other possible actions later in this phase.  The PAVN allocates nothing, saving the mortars for the Assault Phase later.  The game is played with results driven by the roll of a single 10-sided die.  The FWA rolls a 3 on the Bombardment / Support Table for a result of “3”.  In Maneuver combat the results serve as die roll modifiers (DRMs) for the upcoming attack.

Next all the various DRMs will be taken into account.  Looking at the defenders we have a +3 from the air support and +4 for the defensive terrain value of the camp for a total of +7 to the die roll.  For the attackers there is a -1 because the attack is coordinated and taking place from 3-4 different hexes. Comparing the two results gives us a +6 overall DRM for this combat.  The game has a maximum of +3 or -3 for DRMs on any given combat so the die roll will be made at +3.

Thanks to US air support a roll of 1 becomes a 4 in this case which eliminates one step from a CIDG company and fatigues both units.  The hit ordinarily requires that company to retreat, but that is impossible since the camp is surrounded.  The second company takes a hit to satisfy the inability to retreat.  The two battered, fatigued CIDG companies hang tough.
This is how the same Plei Me camp area looks after the pre-game PAVN attacks.  Some units have been reduced, fatigued, or eliminated.
Most of the remaining PAVN factors will now Assault the position.  They can be augmented further by both mortar units which (unlike US artillery) can be used for ground attack as well as combat support, an advantage to the PAVN player.  This affords a combat strength of 13 against 2 remaining defense points.  

Once again, things seem hopeless for the FWA player.  In this case, however, there are 6 more air support points thrown into the mix.  Defensive bombardment counts as hits on the attacking units during Assault attacks, not DRMs like in Maneuver.  The FWA player gets lucky a rolls a 1 on the bombardment table which inflicts 2 hits, the maximum possible damage on the assaulting units.  This dilutes the assault from 13 points to 11.  

The attack is once again coordinated thanks to the HQ with a -1 DRM for attacking from four separate hexes. But the PAVN rolls a 9 which becomes an 8 for a ‘no result.’  The lucky, yet battered and fatigued CIDG units survive, the base holds, and the PAVN has been bloodied by the assault.  But Silver Bayonet allows for the possibility of a second round with each Assault attack.  Both sides roll against their efficiency ratings and this time the PAVN fails.  This is unlucky for the PAVN.  There was a 70% chance of capturing the base if the die roll against the efficiency rating of “6” had passed. 

Meanwhile, the PAVN check for coordination against the lone CIDG company to the north of Plei Me results in an uncoordinated attack, which grants favorable column shifts and DRMs to the defender.  Terrain also assists the company since it is sitting in a forested hill hex. Since the US was busy trying to save the SF camp, however, only 3 air points remain to support the defender in this attack.  Even though uncoordinated, the Maneuver result reduces and fatigues the company.  The follow-on Assault destroys the CIDG unit.  A victory for the PAVN at no cost in terms of causalities.

The pre-game turn is now over and the first turn of the game can begin.  The Plei Me camp is in dire straits and, even though they have been bloodied, the PAVN units still have enough strength to take the base.  But the scenario designates the FWA player as the “first player” so the first game turn begins with the US response to this deadly and daring attack.

Each game turn begins with the First Observation Phase.  This is when the FWA player rolls for air points.  The results can vary wildly from 30 to just 5 points, but 15 or 20 are the most common outcomes.  This is also when the FWA fly aircraft and helicopters to various hidden movement markers in an attempt to discover more PAVN units.  Patrols are set by SF and certain cavalry units.  These are also used to probe hidden unit markers.  That sort of activity is happening elsewhere on the map during this example of play.  The FWA player rolls a 5 and receives 20 air points this turn.

This is followed by the Reinforcement and Concealment phases.  Once again, these involve actions happening elsewhere on the map, not around the Plei Me SF camp.  It is with the Movement Phase that things start happening around the camp.  Knowing that Plei Me is on the verge of falling, the US will use all their available helicopters to attack the NVA units surrounding the camp and attempt to insert elements of the 12th Cavalry Regiment into Plei Me.
The US units enter play at the start of Turn One.  Once again, they should be placed on top of the Plei Me camp but are spread across the board in this view to afford a look at them individually.  Gunship helicopters support the insertion of two companies from the 12th Cavalry into the "hot" LZ.  It takes the large CH-47 chopper unit to haul in an artillery battery because those count double the transport costs -  four steps instead of two in this case.
Checking the US assets available at the off-board An Khe military base, we find that two UH-1B gunships, two UH-1D transports, and a couple of larger CH-47 transport choppers are ready for action along with three companies of the 12th Cavalry.  There are also four batteries of US artillery.  Plei Me is a “hot” landing zone (LZ) due to being surrounded by the NVA battalions.  This means that each ground unit transported there must pass a efficiency check when landing.  If it fails it becomes fatigued.  

Moreover, any helicopter is subject to Air Defense Fire (ADF), which could eliminate US units before they can land at the camp.  Normally there is 20% chance of hitting a helicopter but those two pesky NVA mortar units each add a +1 modifier which ups the chance to 40%.  A bit risky but, once again, superior US air power plays a decisive role.  ADF for the PAVN player may only be conducted if there are more steps of ground units than there are bombardment strength points of the FWA.

In this case the US may send two gunships totaling 8 bombardment points directly to the camp.  There are a total of 14 NVA steps surrounding the camp, so the gunships by themselves are insufficient to suppress the ADF.  But when the US adds 6 more air points to the mix (leaving 14 remaining for the turn), that equals the NVA step total and thereby denies this high concentration of troops the ability to conduct ADF.      

The US lands two companies of the 12th Cavalry in the Plei Me SF camp.  Both pass their efficiency checks.  This is followed quickly by an artillery battery (which counts double the transport points) landed by the big CH-47 unit.  Since helicopters are allowed to unload/load from the same mission hex, the two weakened and fatigued CIDG companies are loaded onto the transports and lifted back to An Khe base so that they can recover from their fatigue and eventually receive replacements to bring them back up to full strength.  A “first fire” marker is placed on the artillery battery to indicate that it was transported and will therefore only be allowed one actual fire for this game turn.  All the transports are placed in the “Mission 1 (Auto)” box of the helicopter display.  A second CH-47 is available for transport mission in other, less threatened, parts of the game map.

The newly inserted units will now attempt to inflict some damage on the surrounding PAVN forces.  Each company attacks reduced NVA units using Maneuver Combat at 4:1 odds.  They will not Assault, however, as such an attack, if successful, would require the cavalry company to advance out of the camp into where the NVA unit just retreated or was eliminated.  The FWA player wants to keep everything inside the Plei Me SF camp for now in order to take advantage of its defensive terrain.
How the Plei Me camp area looks after the initial US counterattacks.  The gunships continue to offer support and would ordinarily be placed on top of the "First Fire" marker at the camp.  The artillery battery is marked "First Fire" because it was transported into the camp. 
The FWA player chooses not to use any additional air points or the artillery battery’s “final fire” in these attacks.  It is safer to save this support for the PAVN side to the turn in case of further attacks on the camp and to assist with other possible actions taking place on the game map.  Any attack involving only US troops is always coordinated.  No efficiency check is necessary.  Each attack in this case receives a two column shift in favor of the cavalry units due to their efficiency rating of "6" being three points better than each reduced NVA company's "3" rating.  There are no other modifiers for these attacks, which will now take place at 6:1.  With no favorable defensive modifiers the two NVA companies will both be eliminated.  They can be rebuilt with replacement points and return to play via the NVA Hospital unit or the HQ later in the scenario.

The PAVN player now has the choice of reinforcing the attack on Plei Me with the remaining NVA battalion that wiped out the lone CIDG company earlier or of breaking free from the US troops and be placed once again under Hidden Movement counters (at the beginning of the next turn).  Since the insertion of US forces raised the defense of the camp from its original 2 to a much stronger 8 and added 4 points of artillery to the mix, a prudent decision would be to run away and fight another day.  Perhaps more importantly, this gives the PAVN a chance to hide (and thus protect from bombardment) the precious HQ unit for future attack coordination. 

Jumping ahead to the second turn, we find the ARVN mechanized “rescue” convoy still dutifully, if slowly, making its way down to Plei Me.  We will assume for this example that the 32nd NVA Regiment was not discovered previously.  It ambushes the convoy from a pre-selected position along a secondary road leading to the SF camp.  A total 17 points conduct one-round of Assault Combat against the mechanized units which places this attack in the highest possible column. 
The results of the PAVN ambush on the ARVN mechanized units traveling down to reinforce Plei Me.  This was a fairly successful ambush with the ARVN suffering two step reductions and the PAVN suffering none.  The ambush markers have been set aside on the map so the units underneath can be seen.  In game play they would remain on top of the ambushing counters.
DRMs are as follows: -1 for each additional hidden movement marker flipped for a total of -2, -1 for the NVA mortar unit assisting, and +2 for the defensive terrain.  A roll of 6 is reduced to 5 and both ARVN mechanized units are reduced.  The ARVN then gets a chance to bombard the assaulting PAVN hexes. 6 air points are assigned to a strike against one of the NVA companies.  But an unlucky ( for the FWA player) roll of 10 means no damage is inflicted.  Then the surviving ARVN units roll on the Assault table but do no damage due to their reduced state.  The PAVN successfully ambushes the mechanized units without suffering any casualties.  

They are, however, now exposed to FWA air assets.  Game Turn Three begins with an opportunity to subject the ambushing units to helicopter, artillery, and air bombardment.  It also makes the whereabouts of the rest of the 32nd Regiment pretty much obvious which means they can be subject to possible ground attack.  As the scenario progresses there is a variable but increasing chance of the 66th NVA Regiment arriving as reinforcements from Cambodia.  This extra regiment can greatly change the character of the game and really be a boast to the PAVN player, making another large-scale offensive possible.

Most likely, however, the scenario transforms into a game of hide (PAVN) and seek (FWA).  Until (if) the 66th arrives the PAVN has limited attack opportunities after the first three game turns.  The PAVN might strike out at an isolated US cavalry company here and there but generally it does not commit itself to the fullest extent as at the scenario’s start. 
This is an example of how Hidden Movement markers might be placed later in the scenario.  They are situated such that they do not have to move in this case (although their movement is certainly allowed).  The tactic is to keep the markers in place and move the PAVN units unseen on the off-board chart from marker to marker.
Unlike the concentrated nature of the Hidden Movement markers at the start of “Operation All The Way,” things fan out during the mid-game and the endgame.  The markers can form a “grid”-like area on the map and remain in place.  Although the markers are allowed to move, it is sometimes more effective to keep them stationary as the PAVN units move from one marker to the other without the FWA seeing anything (all the "movement" takes place off-board on the PAVN Hidden Movement display).  This is especially good for marching the 66th Regiment into the Ia Drang Valley without the FWA even knowing it.  And surprise is one of the PAVN player’s biggest advantages.

The Observation Phase is always important but never more so than during the endgame.  If cleverly played by the PAVN, it becomes a lot tougher for the FWA to locate anything to attack.  That can be frustrating, but it is also reflective of exactly how this type of warfare was waged.  Helicopters, planes and patrols are the only way to find them out there in the Ia Drang Valley.  It is truly a game of "search" and destroy.

This gives you a taste of Silver Bayonet.  The 25th anniversary edition is a superbly presented boardgame.  It features a beautiful, accurately detailed hard-mounted map like the wargames of old.  Its playing pieces and components, player aids and rule book are all first-rate productions.  The game offers a wonderfully intricate yet playable and realistic representation of the challenges and choices facing both sides in this campaign.  Its depiction of helicopters is rather unique and detailed.  As I mentioned in the beginning, Silver Bayonet has broadened my understanding of my recent reading on the Vietnam War.  I have enjoyed considerable hours these past couple of months playing this game and have discovered it has a lot of replay value.  All of this makes the game a worthy addition to flesh out any wargame collection.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Neil Young: The Visitor and the Archives

On December 1, Neil Young released his 39th studio recording, The Visitor, along with opening up the complete, long-awaited Neil Young Archives project.  As of today you can stream the new album and explore the vast archives for free.  I ordered the new CD anyway because I want to support Neil's efforts.  This post takes a look (listen) to both the CD and the Archives project.

I have spent over a week listening to The Visitor off and on.  Neil continues to work with Promise of the Real, which is a plus.  The band energizes the 72 year-old rocker and Neil leverages their youthful talent to create some incredible instrumentation on the new CD.  The overall album is a mixed bag, however, not as strong as The Monsanto Years but still well worth a listen. 

Like The Monsanto Years, Neil is channeling some inner angst about the political issues and injustices of contemporary life.  Unlike the previous album, however, Neil is a bit less focused and he tends to express his rants in shotgun fashion, generalized, all over the place.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with that (lord knows there is plenty to be enraged about these days) but it does tend to give the album a wobbly feel.

"Already Great" starts us off.  The song is an obvious retort to the Donald Trump meme "Make America Great Again."  While it points out various ways this nation was great before Trump became president, as well as how it remains great today in spite of Trump, the song itself never really gets going for me.  The message is there, the lyrics are OK, the vibe is essentially passionate, but the band sounds like it is on the verge of getting it all together.  It seems to want to rock but doesn't.  Instead it comes off more like a ragged jukebox; a rough and uneven song that is, in some respects, representative of the album as a whole.

The second track, "Fly By Night Deal", is pure filler.  Not a very interesting song at all, more reminiscent of Neil's rather difficult Fork in the Road album than anything else.  The third track, "Almost Always" shifts from the electric guitar sound of the first two songs to a smooth acoustic number.  While this is a better tune, it still comes off as bit whiny and, though more accessible than the opening track, it lacks the passion needed to pull it off. 

With "Stand Tall" we are back to electric Neil, only this time in the form of an anthem.  This is an example of a Neil song that didn't strike me as particularly good to begin with but which nevertheless has grown on me.  I find myself humming this slow rock track in my head.  This song works for me and, while certainly not great, is worthy of the effort.  Some nice and crunchy guitar jamming on this one.

"Change of Heart" is the first really excellent song on the record.  This is another acoustic number and it fires on all cylinders.  The band shows superb musicianship in this folksy tune.  Great lyrics.  This easy-going song shuffles along so well featuring a mandolin, Neil's whistling, a nice melody and vocals with a surprisingly rich tapestry of instrumentation.  This one has plenty of fervor and acoustical intensity.  Maybe the strongest effort on The Visitor.

Another very strong song is "Carnival." The solid, easy drive of this tune is somewhat deceptive because the song feels macabre and surrealistic while at times sounding like something Carlos Santana might perform.  It is an intricate track, with plenty of beat changes and lighthearted, slightly deranged vocals - a wonderful parody on contemporary life as a carnival of escapism and misguided amusement.  Again, the instrumentation choices are interesting.  This one features a child's toy piano and bongos along with the electric guitars.  Neil seems to be at his most honest here.  He is an aging rocker, with his most intense riffs and grinding guitar days likely behind him.  So, he turns to the strange and twisted, likely reflective of his personal experience these days.  An oddly eccentric yet satisfying number, "Carnival" shows Neil ceaselessly tinkering with new forms of musical expression.

"Diggin' a Hole" is another piece of filler, this time in a traditional bluesy, almost gospel type sound tinged with humor.  Interesting to listen to only because, at roughly two and a half minutes, it is over with in a hurry.  The music video for "Children of Destiny" was released back in the summer.  Here Neil is in the middle of the road with an accessible, lyrical tune dealing with climate change and other environmental issues.  This one features a lot of brass and a string orchestra.  "When Bad Got Good" is the third filler song on this record.  Another somewhat humorous, bizarre, herky-jerky number that is mercifully short.

But with "Forever" we find Neil at his best during this portion of his career.  This 10-minute long acoustical ballad seems simple enough, but attentive listening reveals a sophisticated mix of sounds.  Promise of the Real is terrific on this song, which has, in spite a couple of moments of strained vocals by Neil (never known as a great vocalist), a smooth, rich, nostalgic quality about it.  The natural environment is again at the forefront of the message here.  Nice metaphors.  Though no less of a critique of our society, there is no genuine despair or rage here.  This song is more of a celebration of living in spite of our challenges, of being appreciative of what we have left, and ends the album on a hopeful note.  It resonates with me more than any other tune on The Visitor through my repeated hearings so far.  

So, as I said, the new CD is a mixed bag, but it is only part of the story for Neil these days.  Back in 2009, I purchased the first blu-ray boxed set of The Neil Young Archives.  At that time I posted about what a wonderful collection it was, and how its style and interactive design set a standard for not only presenting his musical career, but it was a innovative way to explore any historical topic.

In tandem with the release of The Visitor, Neil placed his entire Archives online for free (for a limited time).  Everything I purchased years ago is in there but that only covered his musical story through 1972.  The Archives are now complete so you can access any song from his career from 1963 - 2017.  Besides the music, there is an astonishing amount of information here.  You can view photos, lyrics, newspaper clippings, and various other forms of memorabilia while the music continues to play.  Numerous videos are sprinkled throughout as well.  It is just an incredible experience for any rock music fan.

There are essentially two ways to rummage through this vast amount of material.  The most obvious one is the "file cabinet" approach.  When you log-in to the Archives site (through your Facebook or Google account) you will see a filing drawer.  Clicking on the handle opens the long and seemingly endless drawer.  There are file folders for every song, grouped by album, starting with The Visitor and going song by song, file by file back to the early 1960's.  There are controls for picking specific dates or years to assist with keeping your oriented.  Watch Neil's tutorial on navigating his Archives here.

Click on the intentionally weathered looking tab of any given folder and it will open to a song "card" that contains the music and all the various additional material for each song.  Most songs have something extra, if it is only the lyrics.  Many songs contain the lyrics as they were originally penned in Neil's handwriting on a stray sheet of paper or, literally, a napkin, along with the aforementioned photos, high-quality scans of things like old 45 records, and other material related to that particular song or time in Neil's life.  I have spent hours browsing through the collection.  It would take far more time than I currently have available to explore everything.

The second way to experience the Archives is in "timeline" mode.  Instead of the filing cabinet, here you have an extended linear view of Neil's musical life, literally day by day in chronological order moving from the left to the right.  You can stop at any point on the timeline and magnify that section.  Doing so allows you to click on various pushpins that tell you which songs were recorded on which days.  An additional click takes you to the same song "card" as the filing system mode gives you.  The timeline is cool because it gives you a wider view of all the albums and you can see where most of the videos are rather than hunting for them haphazardly through the file drawer. 

I don't regret buying my rather expensive blu-ray set years ago.  It came with a lot of bonuses you can't get from the online service, like a nice leather-bound book of lyrics and artistic doodles in Neil's hand.  And the Archives are only free for the next few months or so.  I have no idea what he will charge as a subscription to access them later on.  Time will tell.

I cannot stress enough what a unique and amazing experience the Archives are.  This is the first time in history that a musical artist has made all of their recordings (including a bunch of previously unreleased stuff) accessible on the internet to anyone.  As far as I am concerned this sets the standard for revisiting the careers of any great rock artist or band. And the bar is set very high.

While The Visitor features a few worthy songs and is largely a mediocre album, the Archives are extraordinary in their design, scope, detail, and thoroughness.  Even if you are not a Neil Young fan I recommend you spend a few moments exploring this unique site.  If nothing else, sign in and go find Neil's only number one hit, "Heart of Gold" from 1972 and give it a listen.  I think you'll be more than impressed with what you find and can easily see how this is literally a breakthrough in how to present a large amount of information for easy research and enjoyment.

Friday, December 8, 2017

There came a big snow today

We got 7 inches, were expecting 1 or 2 or maybe just a dusting.  Wham! One of the hardest snows I've ever seen in Georgia.  It was beautiful but it was mostly a pain in the ass.  Lost power for over 3 hours.  I have a lot of chainsaw clean-up work to do now.  And my heat pump sucks when its this cold.  Merry Christmas to Winter Storm Benji.