Table for One: The China War (SPI/S&T) After-Action Report

The China War (SPI/Strategy & Tactics 76, 1979)
Scenario Two: Objective: Hanoi! After-Action Report


The second of three scenarios in SPI’s The China War, Objective: Hanoi! covers a hypothetical Chinese attack on Vietnam and Laos in the 1980s, designed to preemptively prevent potential Vietnamese intervention in a wider Sino-Soviet conflict. The scenario lasts for ten turns, each of a week, with both players receiving Victory Points for eliminating enemy units and controlling six hexes, mostly large cities. The Vietnamese side controls all six victory hexes at game start, giving them an initial 57 VP advantage.

No optional rules are used, and the rules-as-written guide play, meaning that the barest sliver of mountain in a hex turns the entire hex into a mountain hex, with commensurate penalties for movement, combat, and stacking. In effect, the entire Sino-Vietnamese and Sino-Laotian border becomes ringed with mountains. Suggested house rules—basically boiling down to appeals to common sense—would use predominant terrain, or crossed-hexside terrain, as determinant, but the rules-as-written hold sway in this playing.

Initial Thoughts

Objective: Hanoi! features fewer than twenty units on the Chinese side and a scant eight on the combined Vietnamese/Laotian side. Almost all of these units are corps/army in size. While the Chinese player can break down armies into three divisions each, the Vietnamese player cannot do so, almost certainly due to countermix limitations rather than any real-world tactical inability. As a result, the initial Vietnamese setup cannot cover all possible avenues of approach. Combined with the game system’s lack of zones of control, the Chinese will make headway somewhere right from the start.

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Vietnamese/Laotian Setup
Vietnamese/Laotian Setup

I opt to place the strongest Vietnamese unit, a Mechanized corps, in Hanoi as a mobile reserve, with three Infantry corps lining the eastern border, from Haiphong through Cao Bang. The mountainous northern approach remains open. On the Laotian front, a Vietnamese Infantry corps sits in Dien Bien Phu, with the three weak Laotian Infantry divisions screening Vientiane.

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, PLA Setup
PLA Setup

Stacking limits in mountain hexes, three divisions or one army/corps, severely restrict the Chinese ability to mass firepower, so the main invasion thrust, some eleven first- and second-line PLA Infantry armies, will be directly towards Hanoi from the open region near Nanning. A “flying squadron” of two third-line PLA Infantry armies, backed by a lone Armored division and an Airborne division that can’t actually airdrop, will attempt to race in from Kunming in the north, hoping to encircle Hanoi from the west. The remainder of the Chinese forces set up to attack Laos, but the strong Vietnamese unit in Dien Bien Phu poses a threat to an already precarious supply line on that front. They may need to initiate another siege in that famous village.

Curiously, the Vietnamese/Laotian player moves first, despite being the invadee. In the main game scenario, around which the rules are built, the Soviet player moves first, as they are conducting the invasion, so the lack of a special rule lopping off the first half of the first turn seems like an oversight. Initiative should go to the Chinese player in an invasion scenario. Nevertheless, rules-as-written remain in effect.

[Combat results are given as attacker losses/defender losses. Final odds column dependent on terrain- and unit-based shifts. Defender may convert a step loss to a retreat. Victory Point amounts count up or down from the starting position of +57 Vietnamese/Laotian VP.]

Turn One

Vietnamese Player Turn:

Seeing the inevitable armored thrust from Kunming, down the mountain road, the Vietnamese Mechanized corps leaves Hanoi and shifts to cover that approach. The three Infantry corps will need to hold out to prevent Hanoi from falling early, but with reinforcements already scheduled for the next turn, the risk is felt to be prudent.

No combats take place. Indeed, there hasn’t even been an invasion yet!

Chinese Player Turn:

The intended downward thrust from Kunming has been undone, with the road now blocked. The forces from Kunming begin to filter out through the mountains, but obtaining sufficient mass to dislodge the strongest unit in the Vietnamese Army will prove challenging. On the Laotian front, a similar slow trickle makes its way south. The Armored division rails from Kunming to Nanning, seeing no way forward through the mountains.

Ordinarily, overrun attacks would be called for in a situation like that on the Kunming front, with lone defenders confronted by huge stacks, but the requirement that all overrunning forces enter the hex attacked would lead to overstocking issues, the penalty for which is straight elimination. The tiny slivers of mountain in Haiphong and Lang Son can only hold one army/corps, but a successful overrun would require five to six times that number. The Chinese will have to batter their way in.

Three adjacent hexes to Lang Son launch an attack to initiate the invasion proper. Eleven Infantry armies, backed up by the Armored division, smash into the Vietnamese Infantry corps holding the border. [87:18, so 4:1 odds; 3L for Vietnamese, 2R for PLA 1st Line, 1R for PLA in mountain; dr=4, 1/1]. The Vietnamese retreat from the onslaught into Hanoi, while a PLA second-line army suffers a step loss. [+1 V/L VP, to 58]

In Laos, the lead PLA unit attacks a Laotian division just north of Vientiane. [7:3, so 2:1 odds; 2L for river, 1R for PLA 2nd line, 1R for PLA in mountain; dr=2, 1/-] A costly rebuff, as the Chinese lose a step in the forbidding terrain. [+1 V/L VP, to 59]

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Situation End of Turn 1
Situation, End of Turn 1

Turn Two

Vietnamese Player Turn:

A fresh Infantry corps arrives from the south and promptly rails into Hanoi, bolstering the defenses. Meanwhile, the corps in Dien Bien Phu abandons its mountain stronghold and moves south to address the still imminent threat against Vientiane, which is but lightly screened by Laotian divisions.

No combats take place.

Chinese Player Turn:

One replacement rebuilds the army near Nanning, and units move to fill the holes left in Dien Bien Phu and to the northwest of Hanoi. The Vietnamese Mechanized corps is nearly surrounded, but with no ZOC to worry about, supply remains constant for it.

Cao Bang is the site of the next major PLA offensive, much as it was in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. [58:18, so 3:1 odds; 3L for Vietnamese, 2R for PLA 1st Line, 1R for PLA in mountain, 1R for concentric attack, to 4:1; dr=5, -/1] The Vietnamese opt to retreat again, into Hanoi.

The PLA do have the option of conducting Mass Attacks, giving a two column shift and, most importantly, a tripling of casualties inflicted. However, a Mass Attack which does not vacate the hex, or results in a split option like 1/1, removes a step from every participating PLA unit. The time to use Mass Attacks will come, likely soon.

Over in Laos, the PLA initiates an attack intended, once more, to drive towards the capital. [9:6, so 1:1 odds; 2Lfor river, 1R for PLA 2nd line, 1R for PLA in mountain; dr=2, 1/-]. Another failed effort in the green hills. [+1 V/L VP, to 60]

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Situation End of Turn 2
Situation, End of Turn 2

Turn Three

Vietnamese Player Turn:

More reserves arrive, earmarked immediately for Hanoi. The Mechanized corps extricates itself from the tightening noose, but still manages to block PLA access to the long thin neck of Vietnam.

A spoiling opportunity presents itself, with the four corps in Hanoi and the one in Haiphong setting their sights on the first-line PLA unit occupying Lang Son. [55:16, so 3:1; 3R for Vietnamese, 2L for PLA 1st Line, 1L for PLA in mountain; dr=3, -/-] No effect, except on the confidence of the PLA commander to hold against superior numbers.

Chinese Player Turn:

Units in the line reorganize themselves to allow the first-line armies to fight, and the airborne division finally uses its wings to move from Kunming to Nanning.

Haiphong seems the most likely place for a PLA breakthrough at this point, so five armies hurl themselves at the port city (which, thanks to a tiny sliver of mountain is also a mountainous redoubt), declaring a Mass Attack. [38:18, so 2:1; 3L for Vietnamese, 1L Prepared Position, 2R for PLA 1st Line, 1R for PLA in mountain, 2R Mass Attack, to 3:1; dr=6, -/1] A resounding success for the PLA, with the Vietnamese opting for retreat and a step loss instead of suffering complete annihilation from the waves of PLA troopers. The attackers, by virtue of taking the hex, avoid taking losses from the Mass Attack themselves; any other roll would have seen them suffer five step losses, one for each unit. [+13 PLA VP, to 47]

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Situation End of Turn 3
Situation, End of Turn 3

Turn Four

Vietnamese Player Turn:

The very last of the Vietnamese reserves arrive, moving directly a staging area south of Hanoi. While they will still receive replacements, including one that here rebuilds the step lost in the Battle of Haiphong, the Vietnamese will have to make do with the units on hand for the remainder of the war.

As last turn, the Vietnamese high command casts its eyes towards the lone PLA units able to stack in the “mountainous” plains outside Hanoi. This time, the unit occupying Haiphong comes in for attention. [66:16, so 4:1 odds; 3R for Vietnamese, 2L for PLA 1st Line, 1L for PLA in mountain; dr=2, 1/-] The Vietnamese suffer the setback this time, losing a valuable step for no loss to the PLA. A corps stationed in Hanoi takes the loss. [+3 PLA VP, to 44]

Chinese Player Turn:

A large bottleneck of second-line armies has formed near Nanning. Even though stacking limits and slow movement rates will leave PLA units alone in hexes, they must push into the Vietnamese backfield despite the risk to themselves. Units start to move through the gap between the Vietnamese corps in Laos and the Mechanized division west of Hanoi.

Any attack on Hanoi will require encircling the city for any hope of success. Between the Prepared Positions and the existence of a huge population, the odds are quite stacked in the defender’s favor. Cutting off supply with this amoeba-like chain of units will, at the very least, force the Vietnamese to attack, hopefully at some cost to themselves.

No PLA attacks this turn.

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Situation End of Turn 4
Situation, End of Turn 4

Turn Five

Vietnamese Player Turn:

Replacements filter into Hanoi, making good last turn’s losses. A Laotian division re-occupies Vientiane, now that the PLA is on the prowl. Sensing the danger to the supply lines into Hanoi and Haiphong, Vietnamese command orders the Mechanized corps to shift south. One Infantry corps from Hanoi moves to take the Mechanized corps’ prior place guarding Hanoi’s western approaches.

The lead PLA “infiltration” unit proves a tempting target, with three Vietnamese units attacking concentrically. [40:11, so 3:1 odds; 3R for Vietnamese, 1R for concentric attack, 1L for PLA in mountains, to 6:1; dr=1, 1/1]. Being a third-line army, the PLA unit has only one step. It conducts a “forward” retreat, away from its supply lines, rather than suffer elimination. [+3 PLA VP, to 41]

Meanwhile, another spoiling attack takes place into Haiphong again. [55:16, so 3:1 odds; 3R for Vietnamese, 2L for PLA 1st Line, 1L for PLA in mountain; dr=5, 1/1]. The PLA holds its ground, unwilling to give up the port prize and taking a step loss to match that lost by the Vietnamese. [+2 PLA VP, to 39]

Chinese Player Turn:

A steady stream of replacement troops brings the army holding Haiphong back to full strength. The now-weakened Vietnamese unit on the outskirts of Hanoi offers an opportunity, so stronger second-line units bump third-line units out of the line in an attempt to bring maximum pressure to bear.

Only two PLA units can attack, but they will give it their all, declaring a Mass Attack. [14:9, so 1:1 odds; 3L for Vietnamese, 1R for PLA 2nd Line, 2R for Mass Attack; dr=5, 1/1] Each PLA unit loses a step owing to the Mass Attack, but the Vietnamese defenders are eliminated through the sheer weight of lead and bodies. [+1 PLA VP, to 38] The Chinese achieve a near-encirclement of Hanoi, though one precariously held by now-depleted units.

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Situation End of Turn 5
Situation, End of Turn 5

Turn Six

Vietnamese Player Turn:

Fortress Hanoi holds the bulk of the Vietnamese army at this point, and replacements manage to rebuild a depleted Infantry corps there.

A major attack goes in against the PLA unit to the southwest of Hanoi. [73:8 so 9:1 odds; 3R for Vietnamese, 1R for concentric attack, 1L for PLA 2nd line, max 7:1 odds; dr=2, -/1] With no point in being eliminated, the Chinese corps heads into the mountains instead. A unit from Hanoi reluctantly advances after it, as the Mechanized corps must keep its place in order to secure the isolation elimination of the third-line Chinese Infantry near Vientiane.

Chinese Player Turn:

The clock is ticking down to secure Hanoi and ultimate victory. Replacements rush to the front lines, but concern mounts that sufficient strength cannot be brought to bear on the Vietnamese redoubts.

Units continue to snake through the mountains, and three third-line Infantry corps, at the end of their logistical tether, make a desperate attack against two Laotian divisions holed up in the mountains north of the Laotian capital. [15:6, so 2:1 odds; 1R for PLA in mountains, 2L for river, to 1:1; dr=2, 1/-] One of the PLA corps ceases to exist. [+1 V/L VP, to 39]

Needing to reach the plains outside Hanoi again, two second-line Infantry corps launch a Mass Attack against the Vietnamese Infantry there. [14:18, so 1:2 odds; 3L for Vietnamese, 1R for PLA 2nd Line, 2R for Mass Attack; dr=6, 1/1] Fortune favors the foolish and the brave, apparently, as the Mass Attack manages to push the Vietnamese back, albeit at a cost to the attackers as well. [+1 PLA VP, to 38]

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Situation End of Turn 6
Situation, End of Turn 6

Turn Seven

Vietnamese Player Turn:

Another PLA unit in an exposed position, on the outskirts of Hanoi, draws another immediate response. [73:8 so 9:1 odds; 3R for Vietnamese, 1R for concentric attack, 1L for PLA 2nd line, max 7:1 odds; dr=5, -/E] No retreat possible this time on an Elimination result. [+1 V/L VP, to 39]

Chinese Player Turn:

There’s little to do at this point besides continuing to push unit into the breach, hoping for continued good luck.

On the Laotian front, two third-line Infantry corps test their mettle against a single Laotian division. [10:3, so 3:1 odds, 1R for PLA in mountain, 2L for river, to 2:1; dr=3, -/-] Stalemate, with the equivalent of six divisions held by a single division holding a river line in the mountains.

Again a Mass Attack goes in at poor odds, trying to unhinge the stout defenses around Hanoi. [14:18, so 1:2 odds; 3L for Vietnamese, 1R for PLA 2nd Line, 2R for Mass Attack; dr=4, 1/-] Each participating corps takes a loss, but the Vietnamese defenders do not budge. [+2 V/L VP, to 41]

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Situation End of Turn 7
Situation, End of Turn 7

Turn Eight

Vietnamese Player Turn:

The chance to deliver a knockout blow to the Chinese flank around Hanoi presents itself, leading to a pair of attacks. The Mechanized corps teams up with an Infantry corps in the first assault. [29:8, so 3:1 odds; 3R for Vietnamese, 1L for PLA 2nd Line, 1L for PLA in mountain, to 4:1; dr=1, 1/-]. An inauspicious start. [+3 PLA VP, to 38]

Hoping for a stronger showing, forces around Hanoi combine for a heavy attack on a weakened PLA unit. [44:8, so 5:1 odds; 3R for Vietnamese, 1L for PLA 2nd Line, 1RL for PLA in mountain, to 6:1; dr=3, -/1] Unable to retreat into the mountains because of stacking issues, the second-line PLA Infantry army is eliminated. [+1 V/L VP, to 39] Confident that Hanoi’s defenses are impregnable, a Vietnamese Infantry corps leaves the city to occupy the now vacated hex.

Chinese Player Turn:

A bit of shuffling on the line, as the first-line Infantry armies begin to shift around Hanoi counter-clockwise. Otherwise, headlong assaults remain the order of the day.

The PLA armies in Laos attempt to penetrate the Laotian line once more. [10:3, so 3:1 odds, 1R for PLA in mountain, 2L for river, to 2:1; dr=6, -/1] A result, finally, but the Laotians simply retreat back to their capital rather than take a loss.

To the northwest of Hanoi, four armies launch a furious assault against the Vietnamese corps that just left the city. [31:18, so 1:1 odds; 3L for Vietnamese, 2R for PLA 1st Line, 2R for Mass Attack, to 2:1; dr=4, -/-] Because of the numbers of troops sent in waves against the defenders, all PLA units take a step loss, even with a stalemate result. [+4 V/L VP, to 43]

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Situation End of Turn 8
Situation, End of Turn 8

Turn Nine

Vietnamese Player Turn:

Barring some catastrophic event, the Vietnamese merely need to hold onto their current position for a Substantial Victory. There are still a few exposed PLA units to tend to, though, and Vientiane could well fall. The final Laotian division moves back into the capital in defense.

Hoping to straighten their lines, four Vietnamese corps engage a second-line PLA Infantry army in the mountains. [51:8, so 6:1 odds; 3R for Vietnamese, 1L for PLA 2nd Line, 1L for PLA in mountain, to 7:1; dr=2, -/1] Not the best showing, but enough to force the PLA army into an overstocked situation, eliminating it. [+1 V/L VP, to 44]

Chinese Player Turn:

Stockpiled replacements funnel into the shattered armies, but the overall situation looks tenuous at best. Armies continue to move counter-clockwise, hooking around the Vietnamese Infantry corps assigned to Laos, cutting it off from its Laotian allies.

With no hope of success against the three divisions holed up in Vientiane, the PLA forces surrounding the city wait for reinforcement.

Northwest of Hanoi, both PLA first-line armies lend their weight to an attack. [27:18, so 1:1 odds, 3L for Vietnamese, 2R for PLA 1st Line, 1R for PLA in mountain, 2R for Mass Attack, to 3:1; dr=1, 1/-] A disastrous showing, decimating three armies for no gain. [+3 V/L VP, to 47]

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Situation End of Turn 9
Situation, End of Turn 9

Turn Ten

Vietnamese Player Turn:

With the situation around Hanoi effectively stabilized, an Infantry Corps moves into Laos to help the Laotians break the siege of Vientiane. [28:11, so 2:1 odds; 3R for Vietnamese, 1L for PLA in mountains, to 4:1; dr=4, 1/1] A Laotian division dies in the attack, which dislodges but does not destroy the PLA unit. [+1 PLA VP, to 46]

North of Hanoi, three Infantry Corps attack a reduced PLA first-line army, hoping to end the war once and for all. [33:9, so 3:1 odds; 3R for Vietnamese, 2L for PLA 1st Line, 1L for PLA in mountain; dr=2, 1/-] No such luck, as a Vietnamese unit suffers a loss instead. [+3 PLA VP, to 43]

Chinese Player Turn:

Hope for any sort of victory has disappeared. An attack on Vientiane, even with fresh troops hurled into battle, would have no chance of success, and Hanoi remains inviolable. PLA high command calls for an end to hostilities.

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Situation End of Game
Situation, End of Game

Final VP Calculation

43: Vietnamese/Laotian Substantial Victory. (50 or more required for Decisive Victory; PLA needed -1 for a Marginal Victory, -31 for Decisive Victory)


Without the ability to mass forces against Hanoi, or indeed against almost any hex in Vietnam, the PLA simply cannot break through the Vietnamese line. The single army/corps stacking limit in mountain hexes, as defined by the rules-as-written, turns the city on the Red River into a formidable fortress surrounded by daunting redoubts. The only weakness in the Vietnamese position comes from the extended line they need to hold, having fewer units than hexes to defend.

My PLA strategy should have pushed far more heavily on the Laotian front while keeping enough pressure on Haiphong, Hanoi, and Cao Bang to prevent the Vietnamese from reinforcing their smaller neighbor. Taking Vientiane before additional Vietnamese units began appearing could have allowed the PLA to cut off that flow by pinching the narrow neck of Vietnam, cutting the single Vietnamese rail line from the south. Still, even with judicious (which is to say, reckless) use of Mass Attacks, any gains made by the PLA proved to be short-lived. Both sides managed to make good every step loss immediately thanks to a quite generous replacement pool.

My Vietnamese and Laotian strategy worked well enough, with the Mechanized corps serving initially as a “fire brigade” once the PLA plan became clear. Too, once I realized the sheer strength of even two Infantry corps holding Hanoi, which benefits from mountainous surrounding terrain, prepared positions, and the most defender-friendly CRT column, I felt confident sending Vietnamese units out to attack the PLA flankers. Many of the PLA VP came from over-eager Vietnamese attacks that resulted in step losses. Only one Vietnamese unit was completely eliminated.

Perhaps the rules-as-written do indicate the difficulties the PLA would have had in attacking Vietnam in the 1980s with a mostly non-mechanized ground force, but such a conclusion results from design-for-effect outcomes in play rather than being organically demonstrated. The huge scale of the game, both spatially and temporally, makes drawing any real-world conclusions from play suspect at best. There’s simply not enough granularity in forces or on the map, and the absurd insistence on declaring any 126 kilometer wide hex containing mountain specks entirely a mountain hex does not make the game more realistic. More accurate? Maybe. More insightful? Sadly, no.

A post in the Table for One series.

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