Forty years on, it’s easy to forget that the Cold War trended hot in China in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The beginning of 1979 saw the Sino-Vietnamese War, a Chinese invasion of Vietnam ostensibly in response to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Though relatively brief in terms of actual fighting, the political ramifications of the conflict lasted for years and raised the specter of a clash between the Soviet Union—Vietnam’s erstwhile benefactor—and China.
Having already published one game on a potential Sino-Soviet conflict in 1974’s The East is Red, the fervid design and development team at SPI revisited the concept in 1979 in light of contemporary developments, coming out with The China War. Far more than a remake of the earlier game, The China War attempts to model the state of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after the end of the Cultural Revolution and with regard to its performance in the Sino-Vietnamese War, with the aim of envisioning what a war between the Soviet Union and China might look like. The resulting game is not quite subtle, but then neither would the conflict have been.
The China War: Sino-Soviet Conflict in the 1980s
Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), 1979
Strategy & Tactics 76
Designed by Brad Hessel
The China War saw publication in two forms, as an issue game in Strategy & Tactics 76 (September/October 1979) and in a boxed format, a not-unusual publication approach for SPI’s magazine games at the time. The game comes with a single die-cut countersheet of 200 back printed half-inch counters with a matte finish and a single matte map that, in the magazine version at least, comes in slightly smaller than standard at 21.75 by 32.5 inches. The boxed version includes the rules and accompanying magazine article from S&T as separately staple-bound booklets.
Units are either Armies or Divisions, with the Chinese Armies equal in size to Corps in Western military parlance. The counters display particular unit types using standard NATO symbology. Surprisingly, none of the units have any formation designations; perhaps sufficient order of battle information was not available, as the earlier game The East is Red also lacks specific unit designations.
The counters themselves keep to the standard, pleasingly yeoman-like Simonsen-era SPI style, though the presence of cadre notations on the left side of the Soviet and Chinese counters results in an off-centered presentation for the unit symbol and combat factors, making those counters all seem slightly askew, with a fair bit of wasted space in the middle. The typical SPI counter color bleed on the countersheet at color transitions remains in effect here, as does the occasional counter that is a bit more or less than half an inch wide due to some wobble in the likely overworked cutting die.
Of note, the rules actually specify that these “variances” are acceptable and to be expected, such that “SPI cannot replace counters displaying these minor manufacturing innacuracies.” If it’s in the rules, I suppose one can’t complain…
If the counters break no new ground, Redmond Simonsen’s map certainly demands attention. The hexgrid claims no supremacy here, with mountains and rivers running where they will (and, presumably, where they do). The designer’s notes proclaim it as “encompass[ing] not only some of our best research, but one of our most effective graphic presentations of information ever in S&T,” and while it does clearly display the physical and industrial geography of China and environs, as a game map, it suffers from its precision, as will be seen.
With a scale of 126 kilometers to the hex, quite a bit of land and sea appears on the map in addition to the whole of China. Huge swaths of India, Southeast Asia, and even Japan occupy map space, to say nothing of the vast Chinese interior, despite those areas never being used in play. There’s a sense here of the team at SPI wanting to facilitate a “sandbox” simulation by offering a definitive map of the area in and around China for use with other conflicts, real and imagined, that the unsettled region might host in the near future. Despite having space available for Thailand and Bangladesh, however, the terrain stacking chart was left off the map, necessitating a slip of typed errata to be included with the necessary information.
The game ships with three scenarios: the main “The East is Red” action positing a Soviet invasion of China designed to seize key industrial centers, with the possibility of North Korea, Taiwan, and/or Vietnam entering as active combatants; a renewed Chinese invasion of Vietnam showcased in “Objective: Hanoi!” with Laotian forces backing up the quite formidable Vietnamese; and an attempted Taiwanese cross-straits invasion depicted in “Back to the Mainland!” using special rules for amphibious landings. The main scenario features scores of units per side, while the two smaller scenarios clock in at twenty to thirty units in total.
Notionally an operational level hex-and-chit wargame, The China War’s grand scale and week-long turns stretch the definition of “operational.” All of China is in play; there are no “edge of the map” issues here. Only land units make an appearance, air being abstracted and naval units nonexistent. The Soviet player has unfettered access to tactical nuclear weapons from the start, and the rules assume widespread Soviet chemical usage as well. A bare-bones political events system uses on-map performance (and Soviet tactical nuclear weapon expenditure) to determine the various neutrality postures of NATO, Vietnam, Taiwan, and North Korea; NATO’s presence is felt in terms of limitations on Soviet air power allocations, with fewer points available so long as NATO’s intentions remain unclear.
The design notes claim The China War uses a version of the Panzergruppe Guderian system, though the influence feels slight, perhaps mostly in the relatively bloodless combat system that allows the defender to convert a step loss into a retreat. Combats are not mandatory, and there are no disengagement limitations. Indeed, units possess no zones of control—a solid wall of units is required to hold a defensive line, and supply and retreats can be traced through holes between enemy units with no penalties.
Given the massive scale, the lack of ZOCs makes intuitive sense, and the argument could be made that the Chinese lack of mechanization would allow the more mobile Soviets to bypass them at will. Having more frontage to defend than units to fill it with also forces the Chinese player to confront the PLA’s command problems, shown here by having the basic operational unit being the army/corps instead of the more flexible division. The PLA can break down armies into constituent divisions, but the parts pale in comparison to the whole in terms of strength. In practice, for a game with operational level roots, the lack of ZOCs feels jarring and can lead to gamey constructs like double defensive lines that would be, in real world terms, hundred of kilometers apart.
To its credit, the game uses the terrain itself, or more specifically the human terrain, to hinder the otherwise speedy Soviets. The industrial centers that form the Soviet objectives are, for the most part, in heavily populated areas, themselves defended by inherent militia units that must be fought even absent other Chinese units. Having been the last to occupy victory locations does not suffice; once a Soviet unit leaves a populated area, the militia reappears, blocking supply and denying control. Only by garrisoning the hex—achieved by removing a step from any unit—can the hex be controlled and the militia (temporarily) subdued. Such steps are a wasting asset; once given to garrison duty, they may not be reabsorbed, and the garrison is removed the moment any enemy unit enters the hex.
While the Soviet player gains victory points mostly through control of resources such as factories, oil depots, and uranium deposits, the Chinese player receives points for Soviet units that participate in combat, on offense or defense, one point per unit, per combat, in addition to points for Soviet losses. This quite innovative mechanic reflects the base supposition of the game that the Soviets would be unable to logistically support such a large-scale offensive so far from their main supply centers further west, giving the game a nicely asymmetrical feeling. The longer Chinese units can hold out, and the more often they can string together spoiling attacks, the more ground the Soviet player must cover to make good the combat point losses.
Given the design’s concern with the Soviet logistical system, the supply trace system at work here feels thinly developed, despite the way the supply issues are woven into the victory point system. There are no turn-on-turn penalties for units located beyond a thirteen hex mechanized supply throw from friendly railheads. Being completely cut off will eventually eliminate a unit, but simply being unsupplied for weeks on end will never degrade a unit beyond a halving of movement points and penalties in combat.
The combat system starts with a traditional odd-based ratio which is then column shifted for various conditions, such as the cadre level of Chinese forces involved or the inherent use of chemical and electronic warfare by Soviet units. The Soviet player (only) may use abstracted air points and tactical nuclear weapon points to directly add to Soviet unit strengths. Terrain both shifts columns and determines how high up or down the combat results table the roll of a six sided die is read. Any given combat will contain several offsetting shifts that eventually result in the final odds column to be used. Such a system feels fairly commonplace today, but at the time, the design notes remark that it caused much consternation during playtest.
What should have caused concern during testing is the insistence that even a tiny sliver of terrain in a hex means that terrain type exists in the hex for movement, stacking, and combat purposes. With rivers and mountains displayed in their actual locations instead of being artfully conformed to hexes and hexsides, a scant millimeter of mountain in an otherwise clear hex turns the whole 126 kilometer wide hex into a mountain hex.
The notion that defenders would take advantage of all terrain benefits seems self-evident—the Der Weltkrieg system uses a per-hexside terrain system to reflect the terrain in the avenue of approach any given attacker would take—but the implementation here frankly makes no sense, particularly given the massive scale. Setups are also complicated through the splitting of hexes by international borders, necessitating extra rules for who may or may not set up on a border hex, which has the effect of shifting the opening attack lines well away from where they would be in reality. The map, as impressive as it may be, does not well serve the military simulation that is being enacted upon it.
Solo Play Suitability
The general expectation in The China War, at least in the main “The East is Red” scenario, is that the Soviet player will make a fair bit of headway into northern and northeastern China; the game asks the questions: how far, how quickly, and how efficiently? Such games where one side has a sliding victory scale based on the effort required to achieve its aims work well in a solitaire setting. They lend themselves to puzzle solving, a key component in most satisfactory solo gaming endeavors.
The biggest decisions on the Chinese side come in the initial setup and whether or not to reorganize armies into more numerous but cumulatively less powerful divisions. There’s a lot of border to cover, and the Soviet airmobile capability forces either defense in depth or a mobile reserve ready to respond. Once the balloon goes up, though, the lack of Chinese mechanized mobility restricts them from making many bold strikes, and the active decisions fall mostly to the Soviet player. The bulk of Chinese choices during play will center on whether to convert combat losses to retreats or to stand ground, quite difficult decisions given that some victory hexes have up to one hundred points in them.
The sequence of play includes a reaction phase, allowing the non-phasing player to move certain units between the phasing player’s moves and combats. This ability to move units into potential combats to throw off the odds facilitates solo play, because the shorter interval between each side’s actions prevents too much forward planning, almost akin to getting inside the solo player’s internal orders loop, to use a concept seemingly forever in vogue in military theory. The solo player has to trade hats, as it were, more frequently, preventing too much identification with one side, a common solo pitfall in games with long and non-interactive sequences of play.
Too, the possibility of neutral nations joining on either side forces both to keep some flexibility in their plans—so even if you know the Soviets will be making a push that could be countered with Chinese units guarding the North Korean border, it’s iffy to react with them should Pyongyang enter on the Soviet side…
Otherwise, no impediments exist to solo play beyond the usual need to compartmentalize the two sides’ plans and potential responses. No hidden information, fog of war, or limited intelligence rules feature here. And in terms of optimization puzzles, the victory point award for the Chinese side for every Soviet attack adds a nice tension to play. A sure-fire, overwhelming attack will carry the day, but it cuts into the victory margin; yet the clock remains short, only eight turns in the main scenario, meaning any rebuff could be even more costly.
Final Die Roll
It’s tempting to regard The China War as emblematic of SPI near its end—prioritizing big for the sake of big, with playability concerns taking a back seat to verisimilitude (or the approximation thereof). The map, accurate as it claims to be, fights the player during play, a strange claim indeed to make of a Simonsen production, and the scale feels at odds with a ruleset more at home with two kilometer wide hexes than those sixty times wider.
And yet, The China War represents a spectacular effort, essentially putting the entirety of the PLA into counter form (albeit a very generic one) and providing a map of all of China, at that time very much the locus of Cold War conflicts. The design notes suggest a sense of obligation in its creation, and a belief that wargaming, that conflict simulation, serves a purpose beyond the merely ludological:
“The potential for war between the USSR and the PRC is perhaps the most profound threat to world peace that exists today. It is our responsibility to provide the most current analysis of that threat that we can.”
The discerning gamer will undoubtedly find flaws in The China War, a rushed motley of a game with clothes too big and shoes too small. But for those gamers and students of history with an interest in the particulars of a Cold War hot spot, The China War offers a plausible and sufficiently engaging simulation of just how a conflict between the Soviet Union and China might have played out. Given the game’s baseline assumptions of widespread chemical and nuclear exchanges for a Soviet attack to have any chance of success, assumptions borne out by play, the team at SPI was right to worry for the world.