They had me when I saw the counter for the Malaysian frogmen. Add in littoral Chinese combat vessels and Vietnamese Kilo subs and, well, I knew that South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017; designed by John Gorkowski) was a wargame I needed to play.
My good gaming buddy Doug Bush acquired a copy, and we recently set it up and took it for a spin. The game posits a near-future conflict focusing on territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, particularly the Spratly Islands, both natural and artificial. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines all have claims there and have forces in the game, with the United States also making its presence felt in several of the game’s six scenarios.
Visually, the team at Compass worked wonders with South China Sea. The large counters shine both aesthetically and functionally, with a wealth of information nicely presented. The map equals the counters in attractiveness, but could stand a bit of differentiation between the rusty red and dull brown hexsides used to denote the disputed islet claims. For a primarily naval game, there’s an awful lot of space devoted to land masses as well, but given that it’s a single map game (well, two partial maps that more-or-less equal a standard wargame map) with large hexes and counters, the space can’t really be seen as wasted.
(As an aside, the counters in the pictures here have been corner-rounded after being punched, as all wargame counters should be; they come square.)
The game supports up to five players, matching the nations with claims and interests in the region; rules exist to play with fewer, and as is typical with wargames, two players will likely be the norm. In practice, though, the smaller nations don’t get to do much when the U.S. and China are both involved, and in our playing, the regional powers found their forces quickly overwhelmed.
A political sub-game starts events, allowing for all factions to get advantages before the shooting starts; indeed, it’s possible for the game to end prior to any military conflict, which is a nice touch for a game that seeks to model the entirety of the military/diplomatic decision space in this volatile region. We didn’t get to do much with this card-driven sub-game, though, as only a single round of political play occurred before a die roll triggered conflict.
In our playing, we found that the underlying military combat sequence worked quite well, forcing difficult decisions on players. Combat is sequential, with each player in turn making one strike. Do you launch that alpha strike against a nearby carrier task force, or do you deal with the submarine that has managed to sneak into your midst? You can’t do both before your opponent gets to act, and careful planning can force him/her to deal with an immediate threat that will, in turn, allow you to launch a strike that might have otherwise been blunted.
Too, the game makes clear the relative lethality of modern combat and the need to keep a deterrent in hand. The first player to lose parity in air superiority will likely lose the game, making the commitment of these fragile yet powerful assets fraught with danger, as, indeed, it would be in real life. Stripped of air cover, even the most formidable task force becomes a set of targets — still with teeth, certainly, but vulnerable and expensive in both lives and cost.
Though gifted with a solid and quite serviceable rules chassis, South China Sea lacks a scenario structure to really make it shine. The standard scenario victory point schedules don’t serve bring the sides into conflict. In the scenario we played, once the United States scored a few points through an initial cruise missile salvo at the beginning of the very first turn, they had no reason to actually enter the South China Sea and attempt to evict the Chinese from the disputed islets. Being more concerned with style than victory, we certainly played on and forced the issue, but the game itself doesn’t seem to require it.
Add in the lack of any penalty for the United States or China preemptively attacking Vietnam, Malaysia, or the Philippines, and the game suggests to players that the best (or at least most efficient) option is to simply knock these smaller countries out of the war, an act that would have massive ramifications in real life. There’s an odd dissonance at work, particularly when overflights of neutral countries are prohibited — an strange scruple in a game with such looseness of engagement rules.
Too, there are tons of counters in the game that are never used. I admire the “future proofing” here, but why have a Malaysian submarine counter in the game if not one scenario uses it? Land occupation of Vietnamese ports and airfields by the Chinese also seems far too simple (and without consequence or benefit), given that the scenarios don’t provide for any border forces (but, again, there are counters that could support such).
It’s far easier to tweak and house rule victory points and scenarios, though, than to fix the underlying game system, and that remains rock solid. The game plays smoothly and the combat system is a model of design elegance. I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to play South China Sea—it provided both an engaging gaming experience and a nice window into the dangers of any military engagement in the area. Here’s to hoping the diplomats don’t roll as poorly on their political phase roll as I did.