Welcome to the first Strategy Article we’ve published in InsideGMT! Unlike the majority of our articles, this one was not written by one of our designers or developers, but by one of our players. I want to thank Mark D. (the new owner of Grognard.com) for creating such a well-conceived and well-written article that’s aimed at helping players new to Fire in the Lake. I’d also like to take this opportunity to invite any of the rest of you who would like to submit a strategy article on one of your favorite GMT games to please do so. My hope is that over time, we can create an excellent online resource of player-created strategy articles to help others as they sit down to learn and play our games. Enjoy the article! – Gene
Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam, designed by veteran designers Mark Herman and Volko Ruhnke and published by GMT Games is a 1 to 4 Player game that simulates either a part of, or the entire, Vietnam War. It’s a game with many moving parts and many interrelated methods, procedures, and techniques. The interaction of four players with competing, and often conflicting objectives (even for nominal allies) often results in a bewildering array of potential outcomes.
However, as in most games of skill or chance, there are fundamentals to which gamers should adhere, particularly new or inexperienced players. The player who gets the first move of the game should capitalize on this advantage. It can set the tone for the early portion of the game and, in Fire in the Lake, it’s the only move that can be planned with any certainty. After that very first move, the game can go off in a thousand different directions… but the first move can be carefully planned.
You can choose a “shotgun approach”, attempting to inflict damage on both of your historical enemies while simultaneously assisting your ally, or you can opt for self-promotion and the bettering of your own position. You can also choose to focus your aggression against one particular enemy player whom you consider the most immediate threat, hoping to rock him back on his heels for the next turn or two. Or you can try to do a bit of all the above.
Each player’s initial game situation is unique and demands a custom strategy that complements their peculiar capabilities. This article is geared towards inexperienced Fire in the Lake players who have a decent working knowledge of the game mechanics, but are still not “old pro’s”. It proposes a set of “perfect opening moves” for the Viet Cong, assuming the luck of the draw has granted them the very first move of the Short: 1965-1967 Scenario.
VC Initial Problem
The Viet Cong’s initial problem is simply a lack of presence. 16 of the 30 available guerrilla units and 4 of the 9 available bases languish in the Available Box. The 5 VC Bases on the map are only accompanied by 2 VC guerrillas each which is generally considered to be the bare minimum protective garrison for a Base. This just does not provide the VC with the flexibility they need in order to effectively utilize their particular talents. And, should both the U.S. and ARVN players choose to move aggressively against them, it will undoubtedly be a frustrating session for the VC as they struggle just to stay relevant in the game, and put a few victory points on the scoreboard.
The Perfect Opener
Having established the primary objective of getting a significant number of VC units on the board (and possibly poking a finger in the eye of some of the other players if possible), let’s proceed with the action. Of course, we are assuming that the VC player will choose the Operation + Special Activity option. The Operation will be Rally and the Special Activity will be Subvert.
A Rally Operation allows the Viet Cong player to:
- Place new guerrillas.
- Place new VC Bases (swapping 2 existing guerrillas for each new Base).
- Convert Activated (exposed) guerrillas back to Underground (hidden) status.
The VC can perform one of these actions per space in as many Provinces or Cities as he has Resources to pay for, at a cost of 1 Resource point per Province/City, with the sole condition that the Province or City may not currently have Support (government support, that is). Since the VC begin the scenario with 10 Resource points, they can theoretically perform Rally Operations in as many as 10 Provinces and/or City spaces that do not have Support.
Rally Operation Details
Here’s the recommendation for execution of the Rally Operations:
- Kien Giang Province – Place 1 VC guerrilla. There is no Support there (in fact there’s Active Opposition) so the province is eligible.
- Kien Phong Province – Place 1 VC guerrilla. Again there’s no Support.
- Kien Hoa-Vinh Binh Province – Place 1 VC guerrilla. This province is Neutral (e.g. neither Support nor Opposition).
- Tay Ninh Province – Place 3 VC guerrillas. Because this province contains a VC Base, the number of VC units that can be Rallied there is increased. Instead of just 1 guerrilla, the VC may place a number of guerrillas up to the sum of the number of bases in the space, plus the Population value of the Province/City. In this case, there’s 1 VC Base and the province Population value is 2, so a total of 3 VC guerrillas may be (and are) placed.
- Phouc Long Province – Place 1 VC guerrilla. This province has 0 (zero) Population value, and so neither Control nor Support/Opposition will move anyone closer to victory. However, the reason for placing a guerrilla here is more about preparing for future movement, perhaps into An Loc city, or maybe even on to the Lines of Communication (LOC) around Saigon.
- Quang Duc-Long Khanh Province – Place 2 VC guerrillas. Again, as with Tay Ninh (above), more than 1 guerrilla unit may be placed due to the presence of a VC Base. So, there’s 1 VC Base in the province which is added to the province’s population value of 1, allowing for a total of 2 VC guerrillas to be placed there.
- Pleiku-Darlac Province – Place 2 VC guerrillas. Same situation as Quang Duc-Long Khanh (above).
- Hue City – Place 1 VC guerrilla. At the start of this scenario, Hue is the only City that does not have some level of ARVN government Support (it is Neutral as evidenced by the absence of Support or Opposition markers). So the VC choose to take advantage of this rare early game opportunity to get units in a City and make trouble (as we’ll see in the description of the Subvert activity, later).
That’s it for the Rally. Having spent a total of 8 Resource points (one for each Province/City placement), the Viet Cong have placed a total of 12 fresh guerrillas units on the map, all well indoctrinated and ready to raise hell! Now let’s move along to the companion activity: Subvert.
Subvert Special Activity
The Subvert Special Activity allows the Viet Cong player to do one of the following in up to 2 Spaces:
- Remove 2 ARVN cubes (either Troops or Police).
- Replace 1 ARVN cube with a VC guerrilla.
As an added bonus, the VC may reduce ARVN Patronage (graft/corruption which forms part of the ARVN victory point score) by -1 for each two ARVN pieces removed.
Subvert Activity Details
The recommendations for the Subvert Special Activities are:
- Binh Dinh Province – Eliminate 1 ARVN Troop and 1 ARVN Police unit.
- Hue City – Eliminate both ARVN Police units.
Other than the obvious benefit of having 4 less ARVN units to deal with going forward, what else have the VC accomplished with the Subverts?
- Hue City is now completely devoid of COIN units and is no longer COIN Controlled. That will cost the ARVN two victory points. Also, the city is now left wide open for the NVA.
- The COIN players (US and ARVN) will not be able to Pacify in Binh Dinh province because ARVN Police units are required for pacification, and the Subvert activity has left it Police-less. Of course, they can always move another Police unit into the province, but that’s one less Operation that can be used to kill VC!
As the final insult to the ARVN, at the completion of the Subvert special activity, ARVN Patronage is reduced by -2 (i.e. -1 for every 2 ARVN cubes removed/replaced) because the VC removed a total of 4 ARVN cubes.
VC Player Turn Round-Up
Let’s review some of the tangible (VC) benefits of the card-play just concluded:
- 12 New VC guerrilla units on the board! – For a new total of 26 VC guerrillas deployed, out of the 30 available. This will ensure he has the force necessary to seize new opportunities that present themselves. It will also allow for conversion of VC guerrillas into VC Bases, which translates into VC victory points, without leaving the bases dangerously unprotected.
- Loss of COIN Control in Hue city – The COIN player(s) will likely not cede a big chunk of I Corps without a fight. This means that they’ll have to divert resources north, which is bad news for the NVA… but good news for the VC! (remember, there’s only one winner in this game).
- 4 Eliminated ARVN units – Replacing ARVN is an expensive process, which means more pain for the COIN partners.
- Reduction of ARVN “Coin + Patronage” Level – This ARVN measure of victory has been reduced by -4 (-2 for the Patronage losses due to Subvert, and -2 for loss of COIN Control in Hue city).
- Leverage with the NVA “ally” – The volume of VC units will ensure that the NVA will have to depend on VC cooperation, or at least acquiescence, if they hope to gain control of any of the Provinces in III Corps or IV Corps (the ring of provinces surrounding Saigon).
Not bad for an opening move!
Unfortunately, there is a price to pay for all this. The VC are now down to only 2 Resource points. The introduction of 12 new units, however, should allow them the latitude to recoup some or all of this turn’s expenses through Tax Special Activities in subsequent card plays.
Because he’s just executed an Operation on the opening card, the Viet Cong player will not be eligible for operations on the next card play, and should expect some level of retribution from the ARVN and US. But it won’t be the “cake-walk” it might have been for the COIN guys had the VC not reinforced across the board. I have yet to see a single Operation/Special Activity sequence in which a COIN player was able to eliminate 12 Underground VC units, so I think the VC will begin their next card play in measurably better shape than when the game started, no matter what the COIN players do (unless there’s some wicked Event card that I just haven’t seen yet… which is entirely possible).
Possibilities for the Next VC Turn
As I said earlier, the only move that can be meticulously planned for is the very first opening move of any of the scenarios, so speculating on what can be done on the “next” card-play is an exercise in Kentucky windage. But here goes…
The VC should be in decent shape to defend themselves against any COIN aggression. But they will have to replenish the VC coffers before too long, so I foresee a Tax Special Activity in the near future. They have the manpower to move to the LOCs (without Resource cost) and Tax there and to Tax in the provinces too, which is more lucrative than taxing the LOCs. So, a March Operation followed by a Tax Special Activity is the most likely next move.
Keep in mind that the Special Activity can precede the Operation, so the VC are free to Tax first. Since the Tax Activity is compatible with any of the VC Operations, the VC player can Tax first and use the new funds to conduct any other Operation desired!
With my limited experience playing this game, the idea that my “Perfect Opening Move” is actually the ultimate move stretches credulity… just a bit. However, while it may not be the “ultimate” plan, it’s a good, solid plan for the Viet Cong. If it serves to get you thinking about your own alternate “Perfect Opening Move”, than I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.
I just want to emphasize that, in Fire in the Lake, the Viet Cong are not the hapless victims caught between the hammer of US firepower and the anvil of North Vietnamese intransigence. They appear quite capable of winning this game decisively if they can get the majority of their guerrillas in the fight. Which is why I believe that the Rally/Subvert combination I suggest in this article is the best way to get the Viet Cong off to a good start.
When you devise some “Perfect Opening Moves” of your own, I’d like to hear about them!
– Mark D.