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Squad Battles: Dien Bien Phu

Videogame Developer: John Tiller HPS Simulations ( Format: PC/Windows Modes: Single player, Multiplayer Released: 2009, MSRP: $49.95

The first Indochina war ended at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu with the dramatic defeat of the French Union’s polyglot forces by the nationalist Communist forces of the Viet Minh. Squad Battles: Dien Bien Phu allows players to take control of either side of this conflict and test their mettle across 20 historically modeled maps, seven campaigns and 70 standalone scenarios.

Squad Battles: Dien Bien Phu is a hex-based, turn-based squad-level strategy game. Like most games of this type, the player is given a certain amount of time to make decisions during his or her turn, such as ordering your units to a new hexagon or upgrading certain characteristics of your forces using the resources at your disposal. Once your turn is over, it is your opponent’s turn. After that, the results of both of your decisions are played out until it is once again your turn.

While this type of gameplay is well-suited for other periods of history, such as medieval warfare, focusing on the unique and highly underutilized setting of Dien Bien Phu is an intriguing concept. However, is it used effectively?

Historically, the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam was tasked with severing Viet Minh supply lines from Laos, provoking the Viet Minh into a battle that would cripple them. The strategy involved the use of hérrisson (hedgehog) tactics, in which the French forces would allow themselves to be surrounded by the enemy, receiving fresh air-dropped supplies and reinforcements from the WWII-era airstrip at Dien Bien Phu, and then outlast the enemy.

This strategy had been successful two years earlier at the Battle of Na San, but the key to the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu was their effective use of the unique terrain.

The French garrison sat at the bottom of a valley, which Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap described as the bottom of a “rice bowl.” The Viet Minh took positions around the top edges of the bowl, setting up camouflaged artillery and AA guns to hammer the French positions and take the French’s aerial supply lines out of the equation. Crippling the French supply lines, possessing the high ground and outnumbering the French four-to-one, the Viet Minh pitched a two-month siege from March 13 to May 7, 1954, which ultimately led to the garrison being overrun. Nearly 11,000 of the French forces were captured or surrendered.

Herein lays the main criticism of Squad Battles: Dien Bien Phu. While the game includes a well-done line-of-sight mechanic that simulates warfare in dense jungle terrain, there appears to be no accounting for the fact that the Viet Minh possessed the high ground, and could rain down artillery fire on the French, while the French could not effectively fire at the Viet Minh’s camouflaged positions. Not to mention the fact that the French supply line was effectively cut off, meaning their resources were limited; yet this does not seem to be the case in the game.

In addition, despite the majority of the French forces being better trained and the Viet Minh holding the tactical advantage, the game randomizes the troop quality, which effectively nullifies both of these factors. This makes the game feel like more of a generic Vietnam wargame than one that uses the unique factors of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu to its advantage to set it apart.

Squad Battles: Dien Bien Phu also has a steep learning curve, making it hard for a novice to pick it up and play. And it features clunky user interfaces that make it difficult to smoothly deploy your forces and manage your resources.

Despite the game’s faults, however, once you get the hang of things, it is a fairly challenging strategy game in a unique setting that allows you to use authentic 1950s-era weapons and equipment.

The scenarios, in particular, may also be challenging enough to appeal to seasoned strategy gamers. However, had the game’s developers taken into account more of the factors that distinguished the Battle of Dien Bien Phu from other conflicts in Vietnam, such as the terrain and the French’s lack of an adequate supply line, Squad Battles: Dien Bien Phu could’ve been much better.


Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here