30th May2018

’65′ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

65-box

As my journey through wargames of various kinds continues, in Mark Walkers’ ’65, I find myself faced with a proposition that is completely new in two entirely different ways. Firstly, ’65 represents the first squad level combat war game that I’ve ever played, whilst at the same time, it’s also the first game based on the Vietnam war that I’ve encountered. Overall it seems that the subject matter is not popular in gaming, which may be because of its proximity to living memory, or perhaps it’s a difficult war to replicate on the tabletop?

Whatever the reason for this lack of Vietnam themed games may be, ’65 doesn’t care, because Flying Pig Games’ latest offering plays almost strictly by its own rules. Whilst (like many hex based wargames nowadays) ’65 uses mounted boards with a grid based system and a bagful of almost 200 tokens, it is also card driven in a very unusual way. Three separate forces (the USA, the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong) are all represented in the game, with various scenarios laid out in an unusually readable thirty-ish page manual.

There are three (unfortunately single sided) boards in the box, each of which is long and thin. Most are played width ways and more often that not, you’ll be using a couple of them together to form a square. Because the hexes are fairly large in ’65, the battles take place at close quarters and feel very intense, which based on what I’ve seen in movies at least, is reasonably representative of real life jungle warfare. I was surprised to see the inclusion of light armour and other vehicles, but I also found it to be one of the most exciting elements in the game.

Each scenario offers unusual freedom. The board is setup as instructed and the make up of forces is always set, but where to actual deploy them is limited only to a few basic parameters. Whilst my time as a war game reviewer has been relatively short, I have noticed that a number of games in the genre will force a strategically weak position on a superior force, in the name of balance. That’s great and everything, but in ’65, I like the fact that players are forced to think just as much about deployment as they are about the fight itself.

When the shooting starts, the action is intense and just about unpredictable enough to remain credible and exciting. As I mentioned earlier, ’65 is a card driven game and each turn consists of five phase. Firstly, the players are dealt four cards. Then, each player places one of their cards face down to determine initiative for the turn. When these cards are turned, the one with the higher AP rating wins and must then be discarded, whilst the losing card is retained. This means that the starting player has fewer options during the first impulse phase, but they do get to fire first, of course. This is a short term problem – both players draw up to four cards after each impulse, so new options constantly become available.

During the impulse phase (which makes up the majority of each turn) the players simply take turns to play cards from their hand, most of which have several different information fields on them. Most importantly for this part of the turn, you’ll want to look out for keywords like “Move” or “Fire.” There are several other keywords that allows players to use unit powers or do other things, but they are all fairly straightforward. When a unit does fire on another (and after range and line of sight are checked) then a set number of cards are drawn from the main deck – if any of them shows the correctly coloured “HIT” keyword, then the shot lands.

Interestingly, each impulse phase is variable in length based on how many “END TURN” cards are drawn – which is entirely random. Players will know how many of these cards are needed to trigger the next phase of the turn, but obviously, they won’t know when they’ll appear. This approach makes it challenging to plan turns in ’65, particularly when you are playing on a side that has to take an objective or achieve something. Arguably, if you are in a defensive position, then burning through the deck can be quite beneficial in some situations. .

Traditional wargame features kick in at this point (and in fairness, are never really absent.) After firing, for example, you might place a “FIRED” token on top of the squad in question. If you do hit the enemy, then first it will flip over to its shaken (reduced) side and after that, another hit will kill it. There are also tokens that affect the board either permanently (bunkers, foxholes, barbed wire) and temporarily (smoke grenades.) These temporary tokens or effects are then dealt with during a clean up phase that makes units available for use again and counts down the effectiveness of smoke (or removes it.)

I don’t suppose there’s much interesting to be said about features like terrain, line of sight, armour, high explosive rounds or hero powers like sniping, leading etc, but I do want to at least mention that all these features are present and correct. Foliage, for example, can be shot into and out of, but it can’t be seen through, whilst the sniper hero can hit anything she can see. Armoured vehicles can only be damaged by armour piercing weapons, whilst high explosive or small arms fire is appropriate for dealing with infantry.

Weighing in at around two hours per game, ’65 is also relatively brief for a war game. As I mentioned earlier, every battle feels intense, brief and bloody, with units trading fire almost constantly with a decent chance of success. Hero units introduce something quite unusual in this kind of game (at least as far as I know) and the powers they introduce change the pace even further and add both tactical and strategic options. The card driven mechanism is probably no more or less random than a dice based system, but the fact that it also drives the timing of the game is a fab inclusion.

Whilst I have no basis for comparison, I certainly think that anyone looking for an accessible and innovative war game would do well to look here. I certainly enjoy the game immensely and am looking forward to spending more time with it in the future, perhaps via expansion content or in future iterations that replicate other theatres of war. On that note, whilst the Vietnam war may be a less inspiring setting than some, it does make for an exciting and thematic battleground when paired with such a fast paced battle system – please don’t let the setting put you off, if the game sounds otherwise interesting.

**** 4/5

A review copy of ’65 was provided for review purposes by Flying Pig Games: https://flyingpiggames.com/t/65-squad-level-combat
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