Card Driven Games (CDGs) have been a part of our gaming lives for over 20 years. I sincerely hope we see them for another 20. Designers continue to evolve and innovate on the concepts first laid out in the form we most commonly call the grandfather of these games We The People.  I’m sure there are far more than 50 reasons, but it sounded like a good challenge and this list was a lot of fun to compile. I hope you enjoy reading it and will share your reasons why CDGs are still awesome.

50 Reasons

  1. The history has a direct role in the game.
  2. Designers can more easily shape the experience.
  3. Games with long historical timelines can include different decks.
  4. Multiplayer games can feature different national abilities as their decks rather than additional rules to memorize.
  5. The card-driven game mechanic made Cold War historians out of millions of folks who otherwise couldn’t be bothered to pound their shoe on a table.
  6. Designers can break their rulebook when its necessary.
  7. The ridiculous round where you must be silent because the Luther Martin card got dropped…
  8. Cards add randomization and tension.
  9. Hand management becomes a skillset players need to master.
  10. Historical knowledge is built quickly and rewarded more directly as players “expect” certain things to happen.
  11. The legendary Winter Activation Meeting
  12. Point to Point movement facilitates historical army movement restrictions.
  13. Going to a museum of recognizing the artwork…from your card driven game and knowing the text that goes along with it. (Sorry Spouses…)
  14. Hex based movement requires logistical (hand management) planning to pull off complex operations.
  15. Graphic design that reflects the era or topic shines through increasing player immersion.
  16. Increased replay value!
  17. When you get to push your finger into someone’s chest because of the Kitchen Debates card.
  18. The introduction of spying through the player’s ability to peek into their opponents hand of cards.
  19. Jump right to “the good part” by using those year/epoch/era marked cards.
  20. Card driven games still provide plentiful options for tournament length multiplayer goodness!
  21. That moment when you realize the US Constitution starts with the same phrase as the game title that started the CDG revolution.
  22. Mark Herman, Ted Racier, Ed Beach, Volko Ruhnke and the many other masters of CDG design.
  23. The introduction of economy or competition for resources as imposed by card events or card scarcity.
  24. The approximation of command and control with events that occur outside of a player’s preferred order.
  25. Cards are evidence of the strong designer and developer research.
  26. Cards are a great way to link events and combatant initiative.
  27. Card Op vs. Event choices often forces players to make tough decisions at inopportune times.
  28. You gotta know when to hold ’em…know when to fold ’em…know when to walk away…know when to rout… (Prioritizing actions provided by cards forces players to pick the lesser of many evils.)
  29. That feeling players get the first time they see a particularly powerful event fire well.
  30. The first “Tet” players go through in Fire in the Lake.
  31. Card driven games aren’t a series, but they have similarities that speed up the learning process.
  32. Using cards as bargaining chips to negotiate in multiplayer CDGs.
  33. Card driven games have continued to evolve and bring new topics and designers into the hobby.
  34. The sudden realization that attrition season is the worst season in England and always has been.
  35. Card driven games are ideal for covering political or low-intensity conflicts.
  36. The first time you let Washington DC fall in the 2nd turn of For The People.
  37. Card driven games have exceptional competitive longevity.
  38. The top 100 ranking for the Twilight Struggle iOS app on the App Store
  39. Those times when you wish a mistake could simply be contributed to the Space Race…rather than owning up to them.
  40. When you realize you can’t go back and make all your usernames Titus Manlius from Sword of Rome
  41. The card-driven game mechanic made World War I cool before World War I was cool again.
  42. How many wargamers can we attribute to the cross-over from Memoir ’44 and other Commands & Colors games?
  43. When you realize, you have thought more about Kentucky than most states (if you don’t live or have business there) from a game.
  44. Popular enough that every major wargame publisher has published at least one since their introduction.
  45. After griping about Pakistan and Afghanistan’s importance in Labyrinth…you watch the news and realize…they actually are that important in the global war on terror.
  46. Empire of the Sun!  A modern masterpiece.
  47. Creating What-If scenarios is just a matter of doctoring the deck of cards allowing for a broader investigation of historical circumstances.
  48. James Pei (If you don’t know…you should…)
  49. That feeling when an opponent lays down their national/faction specific card interrupting your “perfect” plan.
  50. Reading a history book and recognizing the quote from a card…or USING the quote from a card in conversation.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been feverishly playing through South China Sea from Compass Games LLC which was designed by John Gorkowski. The game is a descendant, of sorts, from Gorkowski’s previous game Breaking the Chains. That said, South China Sea is its own game and deserves your attention if the subject matter is one that captures your attention with every passing Freedom of Navigation operation like it does mine in this strategically important region.

As with other reviews, I want to offer full disclosure about what this review offers and how it was generated. I pre-ordered this game and it was not provided to me with the expectation of a review. I don’t call out rulebooks, components, or graphic design unless it significantly aids or hinders the gameplay. In effect, if some physical component or representation of the game is within the middle 2 standard deviations, I’m not even going to bother calling it out. There are unboxing videos, photos, and other ways for you to check that out and make a decision for yourself. Instead, I focus on the meat of why we buy and play these games…the gameplay!

Let’s start with a brief overview of the topic before we get started. The South China Sea is perhaps the most strategically important location in the world. According to a 2015 Department of Defense report, over $5 trillion dollars in goods travel through the sea each year. That represents about 30% global trade and even includes the transit of oil.

At the heart of the conflict are a series of disputed islets, islands, and sea area between China, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. Specifically, and most contentious right now is the conflict surrounding an island chain called the Spratly Islands. China claims historical territorial rights in the region which would extend their Economic Exclusion Zone and Territorial Waters claims through this critical region. It also would provide access to what US Energy Information Administration in 2013 claimed is no less than 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas and oil. While not a lot from a global perspective, it would nearly double China’s access to territorial natural gas.

Further heightening tensions is a landmark case in 2016 where a tribunal in the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines that largely contested China’s so-called 9-dash line which asserted a territorial claim over a large swath of the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys. China immediately rejected this finding arguing that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to rule in the case since the tribunal was established to weigh in on maritime disputes and not territorial disputes.

China accelerated its process of building islets which could support military bases including runways long enough for non-carrier based aircraft. This is significant because to establish territorial claims, you must have habitable land. It can’t just be some picturesque little slice of paradise you call your own because 500 years ago there were indigenous people there. China has also sidestepped conventional controls by using its coast guard rather than its navy to patrol and maintain a maritime presence in the region even using the coast guard as a less offensive way of denying access to the disputed Jackson Shoal.

South China Sea - PLAN Moves to the Spratlys

The United States has been involved to ensure Freedom of Navigation which allows foreign navies to travel within 12 nautical miles of a territorial claim in the littoral waterways if they do not fire weapons, collect intelligence, and have their submarines surfaced among other requirements. These Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations help reinforce the US commitment to its allies in the region and challenge the territorial claims through naval diplomacy (though one wouldn’t be able to argue this is gunboat diplomacy).

The Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) continues to challenge and oppose flights, FON cruises and argues that these actions by the United States destabilize this already tense region of the world. The causes are old, the tensions are real, and this is a gross oversimplification of a much thornier problem, but it provides the necessary background to enjoy South China Sea and hopefully the remainder of my review.

South China Sea provides an excellent Order of Battle for China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and the United States who all operate vessels in this region. Further, the map provides a great view of the region from Hong Kong in the north and east through the northern portion of Malaysia in the south. While ground forces exist, this remains primarily a naval game and as such less attention is paid to each nation’s ground forces. Of note, the order of battle projects a little into the future and, as a result, we have operational Zumwalts and Liaoning with a compliment of the J-15 multirole fighters which are upfitted Sukhoi Su-33s at heart. All in all, it’s a solid representation of the old and the new with Virginia Class SSNs sailing under the waves and the old reliable Arleigh Burke FFGs sailing above.

South China Sea - Partial OOB

South China Sea – Partial OOB

Ships are rated on a handful of weapon systems that broadly define their roles.

  • Anti-Air (AA) – The ability of the platform to counter-attack air attacks. This is only found on aircraft counters.
  • Anti-Surface (A/S) – The traditional missile fleet combat that has characterized naval combat since the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1970s.
  • Anti-Submarine or Underwater in game terms (U) – The ability to fire anti-submarine torpedoes.
  • Anti-Ground (A/G) – The ability of the ship to fire against land-based targets. We’ll talk more about Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACM) later.
  • Gun (G) – The shipboard guns useful in visual range combat.
South China Sea Player Aid Card Closeup

South China Sea Player Aid Card Closeup

Further, each ship is provided a movement factor, type (Sea, Ground, or Littoral), and a relative stealth rating typically between 0 – 3 for the surface fleet and 4 – 7 for submarines. In addition, each vessel is equipped with a missile defense rating and a torpedo rating. Of note, is area defense missile defense for systems like the Aegis.

South China Sea needs to make a few assumptions in order to achieve its goal of providing a playable game of a near-future conflict between what amounts to the largest powers in the region. The first and most important assumption must be made that both sides would immediately cripple each other’s satellite capabilities. The second is that some abstraction is necessary in order to provide a playable simulation. Individual weapon systems are not modeled beyond their ratings. Tactical fleet configurations are largely ignored. Tactical nuclear weapons are ruled out as viable weapons given that, in the unlikely state of conflict, the free passage of commerce would likely still need to occur through this region.

Each hex represents about 20 nautical miles from the center of the hex or roughly the distance you can see on a clear day at sea. Given the scale, units must spot each other through a process called illumination. Effectively, the Pacific is a big place and without satellite Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance (ISR) it will be difficult to pin down a ship particularly if it’s not emitting some kind of signal signature. Each platform in the game whether land unit, aircraft, surface or underwater ship has a different range at which they can illuminate a target. Once, illuminated ALL platforms that are within range can take advantage of the situation and fire at the target. There is one last attempt for the target though, they can attempt to evade which is a factor of their stealth, distance from their aggressors and some dice.

Rather than re-hash this process, I have a little video you can watch that I made which shows this off better.

Combat, as you can see, is deadly. Each result higher than the target’s defensive rating is a step loss and outside the largest aircraft carriers, two or three hits are pretty much all she wrote for that platform. That’s one of the things I like most about this game. Every single combat can be devastating for your forces. The loss of a single ship can, at times, mean the difference between putting enough fire downrange to cripple the enemy or not. Changes in weapon range of only 1 hex can be a game changer. Players are forced to know their unit strengths and play toward them.

All the shooting in the world though doesn’t make this a significant change from what we saw in Gorkowski’s Breaking the Chains which covered a wider area and had a subsequent expansion pack that added additional scenarios and units. Instead, and what I think sets this game apart most is the political turns that precede the shooting. These turns might even prevent the shooting because they provide an opportunity in a multi-player setting to both play cards that disadvantage your adversaries or advantage your own position. As that happens, you are able to have actual face-to-face conversations around alignments.

South China Sea - Diplomatic Cards

South China Sea – Diplomatic Cards

Some cards, like economic sanctions, require that one of the minor powers (Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines) must agree with your actions. Some actions can only be taken by major powers and some only by minor powers. Scenarios may immediately invest one smaller player like the Philippines when it comes to Johnson Shoal while others may not. Herein lies my only real critique of the game. If players are unwilling or wholly unfamiliar with the international dynamics of the region so they can interpret what’s in their country’s best interest they may not be willing partners. Further, the scenario setups themselves offer, largely, islet/shoal capture and force destruction as the victory points. Since there is a role-playing aspect to the game, if I feel like the US Navy has sufficient forces to reasonably achieve a limited victory on my behalf without my help…why would I join in? Further, if I’m the Chinese player, why would I risk the detente even if diplomatically I was suddenly losing when I know that my goals, per Xi Jinping, are long-term rather than short-term.

I understand all wargames require some waving of the hand. I’m not saying that what’s being asked here is unreasonable even. What I am suggesting, however, is that I would have liked to have more direction for players in how they operated that hurt them for remaining neutral when it was not in their best interest to do so.  The Philippines, in particular, can exert an insane amount of pressure on the US Navy by remaining neutral given the mechanics for moving units from Guam to the region which is necessary for the “big” scenario of the game entitled “Spratly Missile Crisis.”  In the end, it’s a pretty minor quibble.

The first three scenarios provide players with a step-by-step introduction to the political phase, surface warfare, and submarine operations. The last four scenarios ask you put that knowledge to use. That said, the “main dish” of this product is the fourth scenario which provides the guidance of the Spratly Missile Crisis. This game has the full OOB for the major and minor powers in the game while also exercising the special forces units afforded to each nation namely the Sea Dragons of the PLAN and the US Navy Seals. While this scenario is meaty enough to be replayed many dozens of times, I sort of wanted more. The variant scenario for it was the minor nations standing against China alone, which is sort of a grim warning showcasing how important US involvement with partner nations in the region actually is for stability. The last scenario is a nod to pop culture (00)7 Island of Dr. No. I didn’t actually play that one because I was wrapped up in the Spratly Missile Crisis scenario. I like the layout of the scenarios and the progression of knowledge that allows players to focus on specific aspects of the game prior to tackling a fully featured scenario.

It’s also worthwhile to note that the victory point track included with the game is a tug-of-war. Each scenario typically starts at 10 victory points. As the VP marker increases in value, the Chinese benefit while a move in the other direction benefits the United States. Interestingly, the small movement seen in most of the scenarios tends to benefit the regional minor powers like Malaysia on the Chinese side and Vietnam on the American side. This tug-of-war is also used in the political rounds to determine whether a roll for a military crisis needs to be made. It is entirely possible that a scenario with political turns won’t ever reach the military turns and that owes to smart card play, diplomacy, and more than a little luck. The mechanic works well because it simplifies the need for political engagement tracks for each nation and helps to showcase, again, the limited political victory likely for both the Chinese and American sides should a shooting war erupt.


South China Sea comes at the right moment with solid gameplay making it both topical and fun. The game benefits from an informed audience who comes into it knowing about the various claims in the South China Sea and a baked-in understanding of what is at stake with this region. To that end, I have to wonder if this game will get played in professional settings as a means to showcase the relationships between the political wrangling and potential carnage of an armed conflict around the Spratly islands. I can’t speak to the specific accuracy of the Order of Battle, but it certainly felt like the platforms involved from Patriot SAM batteries and special forces units through the various surface and underwater vessels felt accurate.

If the goal of the game is showcasing how important fleet readiness and strategic deployment will be in a hypothetical South China Sea showdown, this game shines. I am thoroughly impressed and whatever sour taste I had from Breaking the Chains a few years back is surely gone at this point. In fact, I’m considering putting Breaking the Chains back on the table to give it a second chance. South China Sea is undoubtedly my favorite modern hypothetical naval game. That sounds like I’m not saying much given that the Fleet series from Victory Games is nearly 30 years old, but the relative simplicity in the gameplay of South China Sea makes it approachable for a wider audience.

For folks who have any interest in this topic, I can’t think of a reason you wouldn’t want to find someone with the game and play it or buy it yourself to enjoy.

I am an avid reader of the US Naval Institute’s news website and have read the last few People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) updates that were prepared for Congress. What struck me each time is that China’s shift from a primarily littoral navy has made giant leaps in the last 5 years to become one of the world’s blue water navies in a meaningful way. New investment, retrofitting purchased ships with new technology, and a steady increase in the number of blue water PR missions around the world. In particular, China’s new tone set by Xi Jinping is clear. In November, Xi set forth a combination of strategies and vision statements for China. His vision was clearly articulated by a Chinese proverb, “no distance, not even remote mountains and vast oceans, can ever prevent people with perseverance from reaching their destination.” His strategy was laid bare by quoting Benjamin Franklin, “He who can have patience, can have what he will.” Upon reflection, it’s easy to see this play out in the news as China slowly builds new islets capable of hosting jets, and even naval facilities as the United States and her allies operate Freedom of Navigation cruises in a demonstration of commitment to those allies to the incredible volume of trade flowing through the South China Sea. As a result, I was thrilled to see Compass Games LLC and John Gorkowski release their game covering the topic.


My thoughts in this article are still forming and I’m certain they will evolve as I continue to play the game. I purchased this game, so this was not provided as a reviewer’s copy. I have only played the game solo at this point which dilutes some of the best elements of the political turns and the negotiation phase of the game.

South China Sea builds upon the strong foundation found in Gorkowski’s Breaking the Chains game. I was not a huge fan of that title and felt like submarines were simply too overpowered given the nature of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capable weapons platforms. At the heart of Gorkowski’s system is the concept that cyber-warfare will reduce the overall Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) environment for the combatant forces. After all, the two superpowers involved have sophisticated space programs and have both demonstrated advanced Electronic Counter-Measures (ECM) technology including some that have the ability to destroy Low Earth Orbit communication and intelligence platforms. Modeling these tools, or the effects of an ELINT rich environment would be far too speculative and therefore I accept Gorkowski’s proposed hand-waving as a designer to make this game more approachable for players.

At first blush, it’s easy to assume that this game simply rips off elements of the Victory Games Fleet Series. While the similarities are striking, the distance between the 1970s and 80s naval warfare and 21st-century platforms represented in South China Sea is as great as World War II technology and that modeled by the Fleet Series. You have stealth capable jets, standoff ranges that exceed their predecessors, better tracking, ASW, fully developed missile defense systems that expand their range further, highly accurate and developed Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs) and much more. The next naval conflict is going to be far costlier than the last at a minimum and with the continued evolution of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and drone-based swarm weapons, the next five to ten years will only increase the lethality of naval conflict.

South China Sea’s compromises ensure that the systems and combat weapon systems presented for each combatant nation demonstrates that extreme lethality. Most ships in the game have a missile defense value of between 9 – 11 and an anti-surface (A/S) weapon rating of either 2 or 3. Combat relies on a 2d6 resolution with the weapon system value added to the dice roll compared against the target’s missile defense score. The most common outcome on a 2d6 roll, as you’re likely aware, is 7. That means that right out the gate with a 2 A/S rating, the average roll will be 1 shy of delivering a hit. You have a roughly 41% chance of delivering at least one hit against a ship with 9 missile defense and against US ships which carry a missile defense of 11 typically you’ll have a roughly 28% chance of delivering a hit. Combat is deadly. In fact, you deliver additional damage for the difference between the final attack roll compared to the missile defense roll in A/S combat. Missile Defense of 11, but roll a 13? That ship is likely sunk in that single roll.

So, how does Gorkowski offset this battlefield danger?

First, ships need to focus and identify one another.  Just because they can be found on the map doesn’t guarantee that the ships can successfully pinpoint their target. Each hex, after all, represents the distance to the horizon. The scale is huge, so just knowing someone is within a 40 or 50-mile radius isn’t enough. Weapon platforms from jets to subs and everything between the wind and waves has different ranges to which they can “illuminate” an enemy unit.  As a result, you might have a chance to illuminate a ship 10 hexes away with your jets, but your chances of actually pinpointing the unit are diminished by that extreme range.

Ships have the opportunity to give up the remainder of their actions for the turn in order to evade detection. Evasion is based on three things:

  • A 2d6 roll
  • plus half the distance to the spotting ship (rounded down)
  • plus the target ship’s stealth rating (typically between 1 – 3 for surface ships and 6+ for subs)

Combined, these must be at least an 11. Using the same logic we employed before, ships will typically have a stealth rating of 1 or 2. US ships carry a 3 in some cases like the LCS Freedom. Spotting ranges that match A/S weapon ranges are typically 2 -3 hexes. So, if you want to engage a ship at the maximum range of your A/S weapon systems, then an average die roll then nearly 60% of the time you’re going to evade detection. This can be frustrating and encourage “knife fight” ranges for these vessels which is what you get a chance to see in my photos and video on South China Sea.

So far, it’s worked pretty well. More troubling is that the US doesn’t get the chance to capture the initiative. The default order of nations to act puts China first. That means that the US must either evade or potentially face the deadly wrath of incoming anti-ship missiles. It’s a tricky balancing act that requires the US to use their longer range and superior stealth ratings to their advantage. I just don’t have enough experience at this point to say whether this works or whether it too heavily favors the Chinese. Right now though it feels about right given the tradeoffs.

The last thing I want to touch on in this initial impression is the political phase and the transition to the military phase.

South China Sea starts most scenarios with political turns during which players take turns playing cards, discarding cards, and negotiating with minor powers also included. These nations include Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Typically you have Vietnam siding with the Americans, Malaysia siding with China and the Philippines acting as a neutral that’s up for grabs. Cards might lure in neutral sides or ask them to weigh in on their loyalties for economic sanctions helping to draw the battle lines. Other cards offer players an opportunity to deploy stealthy units as hidden in an ambush waiting to be sprung. The political turns are measured by how they move the victory point track. Victory points move the outcome in a tug of war mechanic between China and the United States. If, at any time, a single card play moves the victory point track by three points in one direction, a military conflict erupts.

As a result, not every scenario will result in a military conflict every time. The temptation is there though and in the few solo times I’ve played with the system, it’s something that should be happening in your games more often than not. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s an outlier when you won’t have a military conflict erupt.

This is where my main current critique comes into play. I just don’t think there’s enough oomph from the political phase to drive the action in the military phase. After all, what do the various sides gain? Some of the scenario setups have China away from the Spratly Islands and the minor powers in their major ports with the Americans dawdling somewhere south the Spratlys. Why risk life and limb, treasure and blood, or even the fuel to go and fight? I don’t think the scenario setups effectively answer the player’s  question, “What’s in this for me?” Since the conflict is hypothetical, and one that not a wide audience has watched with anything more than passing interest so far, it can be hard to justify a race to protect national islets or reefs within the Spratlys because the US and China traded economic sanctions with each other.

Further, and more importantly, given Xi’s statements that I outlined at the start of this initial thoughts article why would China risk its image and thus far unblemished naval record in open conflict with a more experienced and modern blue water navy? None of the political phases end with an act that couldn’t be walked back diplomatically. If an EP-3 could be captured, studied, looted, and held like it was back in 2000 without incident then why wouldn’t an accidental firing or boat/jet collision be walked back by the US and China who rely on each other for stability in trade and regional politics.

I can say unequivocally that I have had fun with this game so far and I like it better than I did Breaking the Chains. South China Sea deserves more play and definitely requires opposed play for a fair review, so look forward to that in the coming weeks!

From time to time a game is so well loved a second edition of the game is released. Often that second edition comes with fancier components like a mounted board or thicker counters. Other times, it’s a rules and errata update. Still other times a second edition is reworking of the rules after a few years of player feedback and observations of misplayed rules by the developer or designer. First edition owners might feel betrayed though, especially if the second edition paves the way for new information on counters, or is a significant overhaul to other materials like counters and maps. Others see second editions as a way to bring new players into the fold with streamlined rules, clearer play examples, and improved components.

Today, we’ll be looking at why publishers should even bother with second editions.

There are a few central questions we’ll be looking at:

  1. What should constitute a second edition versus a reprint?
  2. Is it important for publishers to offer an “upgrade kit?”
  3. How should second editions be communicated?

First, I think it’s important to address that popular games evolve over time with the skill and benefit of hindsight from a thoughtful designer. I like second editions and do not mind paying full fare for a second edition if I feel like there are significant enough changes to the edition I already own. Some recent examples of second edition games on my shelf that were purchased in the last year:

  • Battles of the American Revolution (BoAR) Tri-Pack
  • No Retreat: The Russian Front 2nd (3rd?) edition
  • Fields of Fire 2nd Edition

Why bother getting these titles since I love and own the first editions? Frankly, there isn’t a reason driven by need. Fields of Fire 1st edition works perfectly well with the 2nd edition rules. After all, I had access to those 2nd edition rules and used my counters to play around with them a little bit. With the BoAR Tri-Pack, I just wanted those mounted maps. I had the errata counters from c3i and from subsequent games. Finally, I purchased the solo upgrade kit for No Retreat: The Russian Front way back when, but I wanted to get the new cards that were tear away versions.

My first editions of these will hit the market at pretty low prices in the near future (early February probably). That, in turn, will help me lower the cost of entry for the upgraded versions and will help get a new player these games quickly. I just reviewed Flying Colors and I was figuratively the first in line to buy the second edition for that game. It meant I could give my gaming partner my copy for $10. It was a no brainer and I have never regretted buying second edition games. That doesn’t mean that I will always do so! In the case of Agricola (the Uwe Rosenberg game not the Tom and Mary Holland game), the latest version that was released just made me shrug my shoulders. The original is fine enough for me.

So, what makes a second edition and should all games that get reprinted be titled “second edition?”

Second Edition designations should be reserved for material changes to the game rather than simply indicating a second printing. This will help reduce confusion and ensure that folks in the market for used games know what they’re getting. I am also a proponent of an easy to identify text or box change that demonstrates a game is a second edition. Sometimes well meaning sellers just don’t know and with older games where this wasn’t always the case it can be disappointing to buyers.

An edition refers to a particular form or version of a published work. As a result, second editions should be materially different from a straight reprint. I don’t just mean in terms of component quality if the difference is passing. For example, a reprint that includes thicker counters and a matte map compared to a glossy map should just be qualified as a reprint. If, however, counters have errata included, the map is now mounted, and player aid charts have been significantly altered then the publisher should be headed toward a second edition designation.

It is not realistic for a publisher or designer to allow well loved games to lay fallow or cease their evolution to protect the wallets of insecure gamers who bemoan improvements in their games. Publishers aren’t, after all, forcing people to re-buy games. Each consumer has control of their purchasing decisions and publishers will respond to that. It can feel like being stung if a gamer has gone all in on a series only to have the rug pulled out from under their feet by an edition change that invalidates the remaining games or subsequently released expansions built upon this new framework. Even then, the consumer is still in the driver’s seat.

What about the notion of upgrade kits?

I love a good upgrade kit. I don’t know what kind of black magic allows a publisher to sensibly estimate the number of these that will actually sell, but I LOVE the thought and effort that surely goes into them. Consider the complication of packaging and ordering that this presents for publishers. Let’s say a game sells 2,000 copies over the course of 2 years. That’s not exactly burning up the charts, but it’s sufficient demand that the publisher decides they want to do a second edition because the designer is now more popular, the topic is en vogue, and the rules have been updated to the point where the game is getting great attention at conventions.

The decision has to be made about how many of those 2,000 prior owners:

  • are interested in an upgrade kit versus re-buying the whole game
  • are even aware that an upgrade kit will exist
  • liked the game enough to want to upgrade to the second edition
  • love the game as it is and don’t want to upgrade

Past experience is the best teacher, but that can be a harsh lesson to learn depending on how the upgrade kit components are purchased. Can the publisher convert those kits into full blown games? Are the lessons from another game/series applicable to the current one? Is there some other macro-economic pressure on gamers that might affect their willingness to part with $30 vs $50 for a game that is different from last time?

I am just thankful whenever I see a publisher has gone through the trouble to make an upgrade kit available for a game I enjoy. There’s no other emotion to it on my part.

How should second editions be communicated?

The communication plan for the roll-out of the second edition is an important step in avoiding game knee jerk reactions. The three main components of the communication strategy are:

  1. Announce the Second Edition
  2. Clearly describe why the second edition was necessary
  3. Document what is available for download that can upgrade first edition owners and what will come in the second edition that’s unique or not able to be created at home

We live in an era when at-home printing or commercial printers who work directly with individual consumers has exploded. It’s not unreasonable that someone could print on high quality card stock at home. It’s also not unreasonable that if someone was truly opposed to the change that they couldn’t create their own errata addressed counters.

Most second editions I’ve seen typically don’t invalidate an entire game or even a significant portion of a game. They might adjust values or ratings. Be transparent about those changes for people who refuse to pay for an upgrade kit or to get the whole shebang from the publisher. Sometimes, offering the option and just specifying the changes can be a powerful way to drown out the small subset of angry voices that detract from the exciting overall message of a second edition.

So, why bother with second editions?

Easy! Like other gamers, I want access to the best possible game. Sometimes that necessitates a second edition and it’s an infrequent cost I’m willing to pay for in my collection when the game is well loved. In the last 7 years of serious boardgame collecting (is that a thing?), I think I’ve purchased maybe a dozen second editions for first edition games I own. There were second editions that didn’t catch my eye enough or for games I wanted to own, but was unlikely to play competitively.

At the end of the day, the little drooling game devouring creature that sits on my shoulder when I browse publisher websites is kept at bay not by business practices (typically), but rather by my own interests.

Flying Colors from Mike Nagel and GMT Games has been out now for over a decade.  Released in 2005, a later “deluxe” 2nd edition added thicker counters to the game and included errata fixes. The game covers fleet actions from the late 18th century into the very early 19th century and attempts to capture the feel of fleet actions in that time period. Subsequent expansions have added more ships, the War of 1812 and Imperial Russian naval actions against Sweden and Turkey. There are more commanders and ships than you could use in a lifetime!

I like to ask a few critical questions of games in my reviews rather than meander through each review. I don’t care too much about components, rulebooks, packaging, unless it prohibits enjoyment of the game. If you want to see what comes in the box, there are plenty of videos, pictures, and descriptions around the web to satiate your appetite. Flying Colors poses several problems that must be addressed to qualify it as a solid age of sail naval wargame.

The central question is whether or not the game encourages period appropriate fleet tactics. Does it discourage boarding, does it encourage the French to shoot for the rigging? Are there incentives for British to pound away between the wind and the waves? Does the game encourage battles to stay “line” battles or to strategically break the line when the moment is right? Does the game reflect the appropriate timing for a ship to strike and how is boarding handled?

It’s a tall order for any boardgame to touch upon each of these points. In fact, there are many games that cover this time period and topic. Few of those games, however, match the scope of the battles. For example, Wooden Ships & Iron Men is intended to provide a more tactical game of ship to ship combat with pre-plotted movement as a central gameplay mechanic. Close Action from Clash of Arms provides a more detailed version of Wooden Ships & Iron Men for those who want to dive even further into running your own ship. Fleet action games exist, but aren’t always from the right period. Nagel, for example, drew heavily upon the work of War Galley, a game from the Great Battles of History series, to get the feel of fleet actions. Frigate, a 1974 release from SPI, might be the closest in terms of scope and intent.

If we’re to seriously examine this game, then we need to first ask, “What constitutes a fleet level action from a ship-to-ship game?” After all, if I can cobble enough miniatures and people together I could use Wooden Ships & Iron Men to play out the Glorious First of June! True, and it is something that happens with Close Action. There is currently a game with 70 players who each control a ship going on that I’m a little bummed I missed out on this time. So, we can’t look at the number of ships involved as the sole determining factor. Flying Colors, after all, published rules and a map for ship-to-ship duels in the Serpents of the Seas expansion. The same is true of Frigate from SPI that has introductory scenarios that feature a handful of ships.

For me, the difference comes down to the way the rules enforce line combat. Flying Colors addresses this in two specific ways. The first is through the use of commanders placed aboard specific flagships in each scenario. The commanders have ratings for quality and command radius. While quality modifies initiative, which can be the difference between life and death in Flying Colors at times, it is command radius that matters more.

Command radius determines how big an area the commander can exert his influence in the battle. While ships remain in the line, the command radius can travel from ship to ship to help preserve the cohesion of the fleet. When the battle inevitably breaks down into chaotic action as one fleet attempts to break the other’s line, command radius helps reinforce the need to protect the flagship. Central to this is the concept of Formation Commands and ships acting out of command.

Tactical games don’t have a need for these concepts because one player is effectively controlling each ship as an independent captain would command it. In some fleet actions, this was very much the key to success. After all, one of Lord Nelson’s more enduring leadership lessons was to instill subordinates with the capacity to act according to his combat wishes. Summed up so well in the famous quote, “…in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.” However, this independent action is not Nelson’s first priority as you can see in the quote. That initiative and guns blazing recommendation is, “…in case the signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood….”

Commands allow players to control many ships at once in Flying Colors. This is a massive advantage to controlling ships individually as command phases pass back and forth across the game. After all, if I can use one Formation Command to put six 74-gun broadsides into your ships, I’m nearly guaranteed victory. There’s no guarantee a ship can even act if it’s out of command. Each out of command ship must first roll against the fleet’s Audacity Rating to determine whether it may act. As you might imagine, the trick is how to ensure that your one or maybe two commanders have the range to retain their influence.

This is one of the best points of the game. It helps ensure that you keep your ships of the line in the line as long as possible. It also works to encourage the side without the weather gauge, in some scenarios, to work toward breaking the line. One of the best things about the game, however, is that it discourages “bumper boats.” In Wooden Ships & Iron Men, the rules seem to encourage a fair degree of banging ships together and boarding. This bumper boat style of play suits the kind of swashbuckling low-complexity approach to the topic that has made it so fun over the years. Historically speaking, it’s inaccurate. While boarding helped to secure prizes both merchant and military in nature, the approaches were carefully considered. After all, going bow first would just result in an uncomfortable tenure under bow raking fire sure to decimate any ship. Further, the bow of a ship in the 18th and early 19th century is its weakest point because of the joinery necessary to achieve the bow’s unique shape.

There are, of course, still rules, but it’s not without risk. In Flying Colors that means that the odds for a successful boarding aren’t as great as they are in Wooden Ships & Iron Men, but also because it’s no guarantee that you won’t foul the rigging and be able to cut away when you desire. The larger the ships involved, the more likely the ships are to become fouled.  Further, the ships must ensure they are successfully grappled together. There is an opportunity for the target ship to evade such an attempt, but once engaged in melee combat it’s a matter of an opposed roll based on the Marine values and rates of each ship.

I do want to take a moment here and say that the level of detail included in Flying Colors for something like grappling, evasion, collusion/fouled rigging, and melee combat is in odd contrast to the intent of retaining a fleet level combat game. It’s here, in these nooks and crannies of the rules that I think people begin to forget that the intent is to provide reasonable odds and systems for the handful of ships that might engage in melee combat rather than encouraging tangled fleets trying out “Nelson’s Patent Bridge” between three ships.

On the subject of combat and tactics, I am particularly fond of how Flying Colors handles gunnery. In order to resolve combat, the rules only require that you determine the firepower which is a combination of the range to the target and the firing ships rate and roll on a hit result table. The system, once you remember the modifiers of course, is straight forward and quickly managed. It’s one of the great joys of the game. There are hits for the rigging and for the hull as you might expect from a game like this.  The French are encouraged to fire at the rigging as they did historically and the British are encouraged to fire at the hull for similar reasons. The roll of the ship is managed by whether the shot is windward or leeward which adds bonuses and in most scenarios the French and British are aligned with their strengths already as they were historically.

My main critique of the game falls here. The French did historically try to take out the rigging of the British. It was not, however, for the reasons found within Flying Colors. It was to avoid or escape an engagement. If a squadron of ships found themselves being pursued and were somehow overtaken, it was advantageous for them to escape as quickly as possible. Knocking out rigging would afford them that opportunity and deny the British the ability to bring another supporting squadron into the battle. The scenarios in Flying Colors, however, provide that battle has been joined already. Rigging hits are staggeringly powerful in game terms.

A ship must strike its colors (surrender) if it meets either criteria below:

  • It has been dismasted and is within 5 hexes of an enemy ship.
  • It has fewer than three hull hits remaining due to damage.

Once the criteria are met, they will roll on the “Strike Table” which says that a ship rolling because of hull damage only needs 4 or more while a ship rolling because of rigging damage only needs a 6 or more. This is also where the commander comes into play and the fleet’s Audacity rating which acts as a de facto commander rating on non-flagships because both the Command Quality of the commander and the fleet audacity are subtracted from the roll. In most scenarios, Audacity is between 1 and 3. So the average ship, once dismasted has a fairly good chance of striking. This is further exacerbated by the Hit Results Table which makes it easier to get rigging damage than hull damage for good reason.

I’m not sure what the solution to this would be. When 750 pounds of shot come scorching through the air above the decks, that lead will rip holes and tear cordage! As the British player, it can feel unfair on an emotional level. That said, I’m not convinced that it influences scenario outcomes. It may be specific instances where a British ship has failed to stay in command or lay down enough weight in shot at their target first. Rigging hits slow a ship down, but hull hits reduce a ship’s rate which lowers the damage they do AND makes them more vulnerable to capture.

This is a lot of detail, but what does it all mean about Flying Colors and its expansions?

Flying Colors is, without question, my favorite age of sail boardgame. The game’s map can get cluttered at time with chits and markers. However, you can use separate tracking sheets rather than putting the tokens on the map. Some people even play with miniatures. The record-keeping nonsense aside, nothing gives me a more authentic feel than this game has over the past 7 years since I first got my copy. I am looking forward to GMT Games next expansion for the series called Under a Southern Cross which takes us to South American AND…where we get to see Jack Aubrey himself in action! Well, not quite Jack Aubrey, but the real life gentleman upon whom the character was based, Thomas Cochrane.  Here I am next to Cochrane’s uniform and personal effects in Edinborough from July 2017.

Lord Cochrane and Me!

Lord Cochrane and Me!