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.

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.

INITIAL THOUGHTS DISCLAIMER:

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!