Treacherous Shoals: South China Sea (Compass Games)

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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.

South China Sea by Compass Games: Mayalsian frogmen

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.

South China Sea by Compass Games: Kilo surprise

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.

South China Sea by Compass Games: The disputed islets

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.

Continental Drift: End of Empire 1744-1782 (Compass Games)

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My wargaming tastes skew decidedly modern, with the vast majority of my collection covering conflicts from the First World War forward. And yet, something about End of Empire: 1744-1782, the latest offering from Compass Games, covering the battles of the final five decades of British domination of North America, grabbed my attention.

The Battle of Quebec

Based on William Marsh’s earlier Command magazine game of the same name, End of Empire presents an operational-level view of King George’s War, the French and Indian War, and the American Revolution, plus assorted minor tiffs of the era. Two full-sized maps, linked horizontally, provide coverage from the Eastern seaboard west to the Mississippi and Lake Huron. Four and a half 5/8″ countersheets with striking graphics round out the handsome boxed package, which retails at about $100.

Recently, I had the opportunity to take two of the smaller introductory scenarios out for a spin with regular opponent (and all-around good guy) Mike Vogt at one of our game sessions at Labyrinth Games in Washington, DC. We played the Invasion of Canada scenario and also the War of Jenkin’s Ear scenario, both with a limited number of units and a short time frame. Our experience was mixed.

Leadership sits at the heart of the game system. Most units are severely constrained in their abilities unless stacked with a leader, who himself needs to pass an initiative die roll to do anything other than sit in bivouac on a given turn. While representative of the era’s command-and-control capabilities, a string of poor rolls can leave a player in a dire (or bored) situation. Mike’s Americans in the Canada scenario burned almost half the game in an immobile state, and in Jenkin’s Ear, we basically just rolled dice over and over for thirteen blessedly-brief turns until someone had a chance to move. The need for effective leadership also leads to giant stacks under the leaders with strong initiative. Again, likely representative of the historical reality, but the effect is odd for gamers used to maps filled with counters rather than dueling Death Star stacks.

For Jenkins and his ear!

I admire systems that foil player plans and prevent omniscience from becoming omnipotence, but for playability’s sake, there needs to be a middle ground. Our sense was that the system buckles a bit with smaller scenarios—the larger scenarios, covering forty to fifty turns and with hefty unit allocations, likely smooth out poor initiative results. We’re hoping to find out by taking the full American Revolution out for a spin via PBeM using the VASSAL module, thoughtfully approved by Compass. I do appreciate the inclusion of the shorter scenarios, if only so that I can claim to have gamed one of the decisive battles of the War of Jenkin’s Ear, complete with a thwarted Spanish amphibious invasion of the Florida coast.

End of Empire stands out as a near-definitive operational-level study of the conflicts of the British Empire in North America. Compass has already demonstrated exceptional support for the title, not only through the VASSAL module but also by sending out mounted errata counters to customers at no cost and providing additional scenarios and rules updates online. Very few games deserve second editions; End of Empire is one of them, and I’m happy to have this non-modern outlier in my collection.