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.
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.
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.
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.
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.