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Posted on Jun 18, 2018 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

The Return of Bona Fide Rivals at Sea: Compass Games South China Sea Board Game Review.

The Return of Bona Fide Rivals at Sea: Compass Games South China Sea Board Game Review.

By Ray Garbee

South China Sea Game Review. Publisher: Compass Games. Games Designer: John Gorkowski Price $ 79.00

Ray Garbee

Passed inspection: Attractive, unmounted color map board depicting the key features of the South China Sea and surrounding region. Good examples of play. Gorgeous four-color counters that cleanly depict the required information. Streamlined combat mechanism for resolving the modern conflict environment.

Failed basic: Rules could be better organized. More errata than one would like – including some rules changes. Units are named by class and in some cases represent a pair, or a division of smaller ships.

The 1980’s were the Reagan era, the time of the ‘600-ship Navy’ when a new generation of American warships joined the fleet to partner with the aging veterans of World War Two and the Cold War. It was a time when the Iowa class battleships could be seen cruising alongside sleek new Ticonderoga class Aegis missile cruisers, while the black hulls of Los Angeles-class attack subs prowled the ocean depths. While the fleet missed 600 ships (peaking at 594) it was a global force showing the flag and protecting American interests. This translated to the game table through board games such as Victory Games ‘Fleet’ series or Quarterdeck Games (and later GDW) Harpoon miniatures game where simulated combat against the Soviet navy was the norm, with the occasional action against regional states in the Mediterranean or Persian Gulf to keep up with the headlines. Opening the box for John Gorkowski’s board game South China Sea from Compass Games brought back those memories of gaming the massive fleet battles of the 1980’s.

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It then promptly tossed them out the window!

Just reviewing the counter sheets was a bit of a shock. If you were not paying attention in the past 25 years, the US Navy has gone through a transformation or two. Older, manpower intensive hulls such as the Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates and the Spruance class destroyers as well as the old ‘supercarriers’ including USS Enterprise and USS America were decommissioned, sold off or scrapped. Today’s navy consists of carrier battle groups built around the now-aging Nimitz class carriers and the Burke class DDG. A handful of the Ticonderoga class cruisers remain in service, but new ships like the Zumwalt and the Littoral Combat Ships are joining the rolls. These changes are not just at sea, as the aerial order of battle has gotten a face-lift with the F-22, F-35 and P-8 taking center stage. Gone are the squadrons of F-15 and F-16 that composed the US Air Force for the past thirty years. South China Sea has a large number of counters, at least from the US perspective, if you field all the US warship counters you have about got what is the average deployed strength of the United States Navy in carriers, destroyers and LCS. Give that conflict usually has some lead time, surging some of the assets that are working up is realistic, but recognize that if you have five carriers in action that’s nearly half of the fleets carriers in one part of the world.

Facing this modernized – if slimmed down – US Navy is the military might of the People’s Republic of China in the form of the People Liberations Army Navy (PLAN). The PRC has recognized that the ability to defend the state hinges of the ability to control the coastal waters of the South China Seas. The PRC embarked on a diplomatic and economic campaign to build that control. In the past twenty years The People’s Republic has embarked on a transformative growth of her naval forces including adding aircraft carriers, surface combatants and a variety of nuclear and diesel electric submarines. Most visibly has been the PRC’s campaign of power projection through construction of military bases on the ‘islets’ of the South China Sea. This campaign is designed to push their border of PRC control right up onto the door step of their neighbors.

The conflict is set in the eponymous South China Sea – a space bordered by the PRC to the west, Vietnam to the southwest, Malaysia to the south and the Philippines to the east. The map does an excellent job of depicting the geography of the region. The coastlines and major cities and ports of the bordering states are all clearly depicted. Also shown are the flash points of future conflicts – the afore-mentioned tiny ‘islets’ that have been improved and fortified by the various states. Political geography is displayed with the inclusion of the ‘Nine-dash’ line delineating the boundary that the PRC claims as territorial waters.

The game come with a number of scenarios. In a typical scenario, there are two major phases which split the character of the game into ‘political’ and ‘military’. In the political phase, the players jockey for position and victory through the play of event cards. The cards run the gamut from oil and gas discovery to freedom of navigation acts and include the deployment of military units by the superpowers through stealth, humanitarian relief missions or basing agreements with a local power. These are not all innocent acts – in some cases a die roll will determine if the act was the spark that triggers a conflict.

Depending on the scenario, the conflict may be a purely maritime clash with ships, submarines and aircraft engaging at sea. Other scenarios include ground troops and special forces units to try to take and hold territory.

While the game is nominally a five-player game, once war has broken out, it’s really a case of two players (The PRC and United States) with lots of the cool toys and three other players (Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines) who get to sit back, watch and maybe nibble around the edges. The minor players have a bit of a role as their key decision is often whether to ally with one of the factions. Typically, the decision is based on an assessment of the military balance and the current status of the victory point marker. In general, the Vietnam leans towards the US while the Philippines leans towards the PRC and Malaysia straddles the line.

The major powers can launch attacks on the minor powers while they are neutral, though this has the direct effect of pushing them into cooperation with the other major power. But if a major power has read the tea leaves of political activity, they can weigh that decision against the likelihood that the minor power will commit to their opponent regardless.

The game has an interesting combat system. The key traits here are stealth and missile defense system effectiveness, coupled with the range of various missile systems. It’s a clean system that uses the same notation for most weapons systems and combat resolution. ASW is nicely abstracted with ship-borne helicopters and carrier-born sub hunters extending the range of the ships weapons as well as factoring into the ships ‘interrupt’ range.

This approach does a good job of representing the effect of friction in conflict. The interruption mechanic provides the opportunity to interrupt – or stop – an opponent’s move, preventing them from running wild and crossing the danger zone of SSM and airstrikes without risk). Additionally, the concept of ‘focus’ that shows the center of action in a combat is used to define what can participate in a single battle. Depending on the unit and weapon, it can extend out to include other units in range to participate). Taken together, it’s a fair model of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) warfare.

The air war seems to play out like a Tom Clancy novel. If you bring the ‘best’ planes to the fight, you’ll generally have the best chance to win the dogfight. With that out of the way, the strike package will roll in and pound on the target. Those fancy F-22 and F-35 really shine here, but the PRC fighters are no pushovers either.

Surface and ASW combat has that Clancy-esque feel as fire priority often goes to the stealthiest systems able to get off that first shot before the victim…I mean defender can respond. Even so, sub attacks on surface groups often end poorly as once revealed, the ships ASW helicopters will push back or kill most submarines that dare get too close.

South China Seas focuses on weapons platforms and weapons ranges. It’s got that techno-thriller feel of a hardware driven model. There’s no feel for how the qualitative training of a nation’s soldiers and sailors is reflected in unit performance. A ship’s performance is driven by its sensors, weapons and toughness. The same holds for ground combat units. A unit is a unit – that unit which was awarded an “E” for surface warfare efficiency fights just as well as the unit that scraped by on it’s last performance evaluation. It might be unfair to expect this from the game since many counters reflect more than one ship, the quality effects may just be lost in the ‘noise’ of the average unit ratings.

A feature that was appreciated was that the game has a simple mechanism to model exhausting ammo supplies without having to model and track fleet replenishment ships. It’s a nice way to keep the players focuses on the tactics, while at the same time forcing an acknowledgement that strategic logistics cannot be ignored. Missing from the game (or perhaps subsumed in the details of the model) is the lack of explicit ‘fleet train’ of tankers, ammunition ships and stores ships that support a forward deployed battlegroup. You may not benefit from them, but you also don’t have to defend them. Instead, replenishment – when required – is performed at a major port. The availability of ports is restricted to each nation, plus their current active allies. It’s a nice way to give value to the positioning that occurred in the political negotiation phase.

An interesting concept is that vessels are divided into two broad classes – blue water and brown water (or more accurately ‘littoral’ water). Blue water ships are at home on the high seas and move with ease in that environment. But bring those ships into the shallow coastal waters and they slow down. Conversely, the coastal littoral combatants move with ease through the shallows but will struggle when sent out onto the rolling high seas. This adds an interesting tactical challenge as the ability to move in the congested landscape of the South China Sea means that the ships you have may not always be the right ship for the job at hand.

As you’d expect from a game of modern naval combat, the US order of battle contains several counters for the USS Freedom class LCS (Littoral Combat Ship). In fact, each counter represents a division of four LCS. Put all the counters on the map and you’ve deployed all the LCS the navy has in the Pacific Fleet! Even with four ships to a counter, the relative combat strength of the LCS unit is low. Their unfortunate pejorative abbreviation as being “Little Crappy Ships” rings true here as the LCS are clearly not Burke-class destroyers. They may not even be Perry-class frigates. While it’s pretty clear that the LCS were never intended to participate in peer to peer naval combat. However, they do free up your destroyers from having to perform coastal work. They do nothing well but can fill most roles a little – a classic case of ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.

As it’s the future of modern US warship design, I thought it would be interesting to see how the new USS Zumwalt class destroyer stacks up in the game. Surprisingly, for their ridorckulous financial price tag they don’t seem that much better than a slightly improved Burke class destroyer. If conflict loomed, would you want the super destroyer, or 3 pretty good destroyers? The stealth aspects of the Zumwalt do provide an advantage that is lost in a simple firepower comparison – but is that enough of an edge to justify its cost? The stealth rating lets you deploy them secretly during the political game, but a lone destroyer that pops up in the face of an enemy task force is not going to fare well for long. The Zumwalt’s have the longest gun range of any unit in the game. A real-world consideration is that the ammo for that gun costs something like one million dollars a round – slightly cheaper than a Harpoon. Fortunately, that’s not a consideration you’ll worry about in the game.

The game has piqued my curiosity enough to contemplate reading CAPT Wayne Hughes (USN) latest edition of Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations for some insights into the how current theory aligns with the way combat is modeled in the game. The first edition of the book stressed the importance of getting in the first strike before your opponent could respond, marking it as a key to unlocking victory. That lesson still looks applicable to combat in South China Sea.

There’s a lot of cool stuff in this game. The counters are big, legible and colorful. The map is a gorgeous piece of visual cartography. The design team nailed the look and feel of a naval game in the modern era with blue seas and a compass rose evocative of the nautical charts paired with physical land details reminiscent of satellite imagery.

If you look at the deck of event cards. the political game seems fairly conventional. It’s designed to allow the minors to do some posturing and positioning in terms of shaping the game and signaling whom they’d prefer to ally with. It can also be used as a spoiler by pulling great power units off on humanitarian missions that leave units isolated and out of pocket when conflict erupts. Dispatching that destroyer to Leyte to render aid seems like a noble act until you realize that the ship is effectively out of the game for three or more turns while it steams back to the action. Well played Philippines player – well played.

The game has an interesting take on stealth for both aircraft and warships. The overall effect reminded me of the old Monty Python bit on ‘How not to be seen”. A different perspective is that stealth is the latest entry in the ‘speed as armor’ debate in which a stealth unit cannot be seen and therefore will not be shot and thus avoid damage. It’s and interesting take, but the corollary seems to be that while you can hide, you can’t fight at the same time.

The game captures the feel of modern naval warfare as the combatant’s jockey for position to get that first big hit without losing your assets in the process. The interplay of air-surface and submarines in the combat sequence does come across as a good model of the combined arms approach as systems can often be countered with the right unit. For example, while a sub may threaten a surface group, it’s ill prepared to deal with the ASW aircraft it can’t do much…unless that sub also has friendly warships or aircraft that can prevent the sub hunters from arriving!

South China Sea includes scenarios that rule the gamut between a regional war with the Chinese, blockade and sea control all the up to fleet actions between the PRC and the United States. These scenarios don’t use all the pieces that come with the game. It’s a nice nod to giving the players the flexibility to play in the sandbox and create their own scenarios that play out a variety of situations match ups.

Offsetting all these positives are a handful of items that could detract from your enjoyment. First up, as mentioned earlier, three of the five players will feel a bit like spectators during the military portion of the game. Unlike say a GMT COIN game, there’s really no asymmetrical military aspect to the conflict. So, while the two superpowers duke it out with their flashy planes and warships, the three minors try to avoid getting hit and pushed out of the game entirely. It’s like in the Avengers in which Thor and Loki are dueling it out while Black Widow and Hawkeye hang back and toss in a hit when the opportunity presents itself. You’re in the fight, but you generally can’t go toe to toe with either the PRC or the US units.

Beyond that, there was one minor disappointment – the game does not include rules for the DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile strikes. For a near-future game centered on the South China Sea I was expecting rules for the ‘carrier killer’ missile. While it was a disappointment, it’s somewhat offset by the author’s rationalization that effective use of such a weapon requires a robust sensor infrastructure to support the ‘kill chain’ that acquires and tracks the target. Those sensors are unlikely to last once open conflict erupts and targeting falls back on the organic resources of the ships and aircraft of the dueling fleets.

The game indicates that it is designed for solitaire play (7/10). However, the game does not have explicit rules to support solitaire play. It also lacks ‘bots to automate the play of the three minor powers. That alone would have been a valuable addition as getting five players together for a game is a chore, especially as those playing the minors will not be engaged as fully as the PRC and US players. One player can run the game by changing hats, but with five hats, that’s a lot of talking to yourself and the political game feels compromised. Many of the scenarios in South China Sea are intended to be multi-player to reflect the diversity of views and objections of all the involved countries. Reducing this to two – or even one – will lessen the impact of those diverse views.

However, some scenarios are purely focused on the military aspects of the conflict. In these scenarios, South China Sea does lend itself well to solitaire play, though the player is essential playing both roles in the game. The use of the interrupt will assist in making each game unique with a degree of uncertainty.

Given the state of world affairs the game is certainly timely. South China Sea delivers what a good ‘ultra-modern’ game should. It provides insight into the geography, equipment, soldiers and sailors that will – or even already are – competing for dominance over the South China Sea. Play this game a few times and you’ll gain an appreciation for the next news story covering tensions in the region. John Gorkowski gives you a lens through which you can peer over the horizon at what Dr. Peter D. Haynes’ book “Towards a New Maritime Strategy” characterizes as a return to the US Navy facing a “bona fide rival at sea”.

Armchair General Rating: 90%

Suitability for solo play: 2 (1-5, 1- not suitable for solo play, 5-perfect for solo play)

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a business analyst in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Ray, thank you for that review. Would you be able to compare this the another Compass Games game: “Breaking the Chains: War in the South China Sea” in terms game play style and complexity? Cheers

  2. Hi Sirko!

    I can do so in only the abstract as I’ve not had the opportunity to play Breaking the Chains: War in the South China Sea. The two are clearly at different scales with BtC covering a larger area (including Taiwan) and having units at a larger scale as well.

    I would point you to a good synopsis of the differences between the two on the Boardgame Geek page for South China Sea (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/226997/south-china-sea). In part it reads:

    “…SCS is derived from Breaking the Chains (BtC), but is definitely a different game. How do the two differ? SCS begins with political turns that can lead to victory without armed conflict. For armed conflict, SCS focuses more closely on the South China Sea (45 nmi per hex) rather than the larger southeast Asian region of BtC (70 nmi per hex) and uses smaller units such as air squadrons, ship pairs, and land battalions. Therefore, the SCS map shows more detail, but less territory. SCS employs streamlined versions of BtC’s turn structure and strike mechanisms that expedite play by dispensing with numerous cycles and strike paths. SCS nodded to ergonomics by putting all scores on one side of each counter – less flipping. Most important, SCS allows naval units to move more than one hex in a single turn, but includes a mechanism, based on stealth, that enables the other side to “check” multi-hex moves to create a more dynamic, variable, and volatile environment. This last adjustment allows quick moves at a distance, but prevents close-in ships from “jumping” through the beaten zone of modern anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), 290 nmi in some cases. And, every turn has the option for a negotiations phase with some structure to enhance political play if desired…”

  3. Hi Sirko!

    Thanks for reading the review. Unfortunatley, I cannot provide a comparision based on my own experience as I’ve not had the opportunity to Play ‘Breaking the Chains’. However, it’s clear that the two games are of different scope – SCS is focused in on the actual South China Sea, while Breaking the Chains operates at a higher scale and includes Taiwan in the playing space (at 70 nm per hex versus 45 miles, BtC covers about four times the area as SCS. There’s a good summary of the differences between the two games over on the Boardgame Geek website that gives a good comparison of the differences.

  4. Just want to chime in that I am enjoying the heck out of these reviews. There’s not always a lot of feedback to these reviews, but that’s only because there’s nothing that we need to add, not because they’re unnoticed.

    Thanks for all your work in doing these reviews. Much appreciated!

  5. Thanks Tom. Ray and I hope that these reviews can shed light on some good (and sometimes bad) games. Glad to know that you are enjoying them.

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