The Mythical Phoenix Rises!

On August 4, 1998 Monarch sold Avalon Hill to Hasbro and, though there were other wargaming companies publishing great games, it was nonetheless the end of an era for many wargamers who the grew up with the hobby.

It might have been tempting to brush this moment off as another evolution and transition of a hobby that saw many publishers rise and fall during even its height of popularity in the 1970’s. After all, Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) closed its doors 11 years prior in 1987 after a similar set of crises of identity created by new owners and outright mismanagement.

So, what does 2018 have to do with 1998 or 1987? 

The hobby has continued healthy growth, under the steady management of a bevy of publishers. This has included publishers of every stripe from niche publishers like Kevin Zucker’s Operational Studies Group (OSG) to big tent companies like GMT Games. Even new publishers in the United States and elsewhere like Hexasim, Hollandspiele, Compass Games, Victory Point Games and Tiny Battle Publishing are finding a foothold, if not rabid following in the hobby.

Gamers have weathered significant price increases over the last decade and the hobby morphed to include a broader range of high-quality games covering conflicts in ways we’ve not experienced on this scale in the past. Series like COIN, Joel Toppen’s First Nations Solo Series, and the Great Leaders series all come to mind from GMT’s catalog alone. Wargamers are being challenged to re-evaluate what it means both to be a wargamer and what they should expect from wargames.

Classic series still abound as well. Advanced Squad Leader recently made the leap to Korea fulfilling a decades-old “promise.” Series like the Operational Combat Series (OCS) and Standard Combat Series (SCS) from The Gamers, though now published under the Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) roof are still going strong with regular releases and increasingly refined rule iterations.

These are all indicators of the hobby’s relative health and stable footing that has been hard-won after a comparative drought of releasing from the late 90’s through maybe 2004 or 2005.

I want to tackle the two biggest drivers of change happening right now…

Game Evolution & Game Reinvention

GMT Games is beginning to ship the leading edge of their self-termed COIN-fest. This includes a massive reprint order of popular COIN titles from throughout the “series” history. As a part of these reprints, though, designers have re-evaluated their titles with the hindsight of eight incredibly successful games from some of wargaming’s best-known and most-respected designers.

Gamers who are new to the series will get to enjoy a premier wargaming series at the peak of its execution with new versions that fix cards, further redefine the automated bot player logic with a more nuanced approach learned after years of competitive play and evolution of the bot development.

COIN Update Kit

GMT could EASILY have asked longtime series owners to shell out another $60 – $80 at P500 prices for these upgrades. Instead, upgrade kits have been offered to ease the transition so that new and existing fans alike will be able to enjoy the games as their designers have evolved the games.

It is incredibly important to note that designers should absolutely be given the leeway to have their games revisited at any time and, in conjunction with any other co-designers they see fit. After all, many of the games that get this evolutionary treatment are ones that have been revered and include a passionate following.

Evolution vs. Reinvention

Evolution is great, as long as upgrade paths allow existing owners, if possible to upgrade to the latest version. In some cases, this may not be possible. For example, when a game has been out of print and circulation for decades and the game is being provided with new artwork, counters, significant rules updates, and maybe even a new publisher. This is, however, more of a game reinvention than a game evolution.

Game evolution is incremental and is handled in timely updates. Game reinvention involves a fresh approach to the at a lower mechanical level. While many of the rules systems may remain unchanged, a reinvention will showcase an overhaul of one or more systems, components, or presentation elements to the point where the game is largely new for even veteran players.

Two examples of reinvention that come to mind are the released Silver Bayonet from GMT Games which included a solo game, a new approach to smaller scenarios, an incredible “new” map and revamped rules completed in conjunction with a new designer supporting the process.  The result was something truly different, though grounded, in the original release’s purpose. Based on anecdotal feedback from owners of the original who purchased the new copy, they were happy to do so!

France 1944 Preorder Cover

The other example is France 1944: The Allied Crusade in Europe which was originally released back in 1986 by Victory Games. This one is being redesigned by Judd Vance and Mark Herman (the original designer) for Compass Games as a part of their efforts to expose and, in some cases, significantly modernize classic games for a new generation of wargamers. Again, the early descriptions coming out from Twitter about this one sound exciting and the partnership between Vance and Herman is an exciting superfan-superdesigner mashup.

Why Reinvent Classics?

Classics are classics for a reason…right?

Sometimes, yes! Sometimes, it’s not about whether the old-guard deems a game a classic and leaves it as a “shelf queen” untouched. Instead, publishers like Compass Games are actively trying to bring these classic games back into production for a generation of gamers who were not around.

Even games from the late seventies and early eighties are now a generation and a half-old. That’s a lot of gaming eyes that have come and gone without access to what the hobby considers “classic” in any meaningful and actively published way. After all, games are costly to publish and expensive to buy, so there seem to be specific “windows” in hobbyist lives where purchasing these games seem to fall (disposable income in high school or more typically college, then again after gamers have an established job, and finally when they become empty nesters again). 

That’s not universally true, but it seems to ring true with many local gamers who report “just getting back into the hobby after dropping it in college” or “now that my kids are moved out I have time to play with regularity.” As a someone who just turned 40, I can see my gaming time shrinking as my child approaches tween-hood given all the activities in which he’s involved. Finding time in the evenings is even difficult with a job in PR and the schedule uncertainty that can bring with it at times. Many other people have different stories that involve increased business travel, promotions that devour additional hours at the office, divorce, or other significant life changes that push wargaming down the totem pole of priorities.

That only underscores the importance of both evolution and reinvention! 

This is a healthy and significant stage in the wargaming hobby that deserves to be applauded rather than scoffed at by hobbyists. YES, there is some additional cost, but these are optional expenses that are definitely not required to remain engaged. Instead, these are opportunities. 

Opportunities for new wargamers to get invested in classic titles that the old-guard hold near and dear.

Opportunities for old designers to mentor new designers through the process of reinventing classic releases for new audiences.

Opportunities for the hobby to showcase the games that spurred its growth for a whole new generation of gamers.

Opportunities for publishers to keep their catalogs fresh and their game sales high so they can take a risk on the next calculated risk. After all…who would have believed that a game about the longest modern civil war taking place in Columbia would start a gaming revolution that would span eight titles and centuries of insurgency-related conflicts from antiquity to modern day Afghanistan?

Opportunities for old wargamers to reintroduce a game to friends, or just to come to the table with new friends who might not otherwise have been interested in that musty smelling orange and pink colored wargame from 1980-something sitting on the shelf.

I applaud the designers, developers, and publishers taking this approach. It’s an important moment in the hobby to find ways to engage new gamers and this is an excellent strategy! 

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.

Conclusion

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.