I am an avid reader of the US Naval Institute’s news website and have read the last few People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) updates that were prepared for Congress. What struck me each time is that China’s shift from a primarily littoral navy has made giant leaps in the last 5 years to become one of the world’s blue water navies in a meaningful way. New investment, retrofitting purchased ships with new technology, and a steady increase in the number of blue water PR missions around the world. In particular, China’s new tone set by Xi Jinping is clear. In November, Xi set forth a combination of strategies and vision statements for China. His vision was clearly articulated by a Chinese proverb, “no distance, not even remote mountains and vast oceans, can ever prevent people with perseverance from reaching their destination.” His strategy was laid bare by quoting Benjamin Franklin, “He who can have patience, can have what he will.” Upon reflection, it’s easy to see this play out in the news as China slowly builds new islets capable of hosting jets, and even naval facilities as the United States and her allies operate Freedom of Navigation cruises in a demonstration of commitment to those allies to the incredible volume of trade flowing through the South China Sea. As a result, I was thrilled to see Compass Games LLC and John Gorkowski release their game covering the topic.
INITIAL THOUGHTS DISCLAIMER:
My thoughts in this article are still forming and I’m certain they will evolve as I continue to play the game. I purchased this game, so this was not provided as a reviewer’s copy. I have only played the game solo at this point which dilutes some of the best elements of the political turns and the negotiation phase of the game.
South China Sea builds upon the strong foundation found in Gorkowski’s Breaking the Chains game. I was not a huge fan of that title and felt like submarines were simply too overpowered given the nature of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capable weapons platforms. At the heart of Gorkowski’s system is the concept that cyber-warfare will reduce the overall Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) environment for the combatant forces. After all, the two superpowers involved have sophisticated space programs and have both demonstrated advanced Electronic Counter-Measures (ECM) technology including some that have the ability to destroy Low Earth Orbit communication and intelligence platforms. Modeling these tools, or the effects of an ELINT rich environment would be far too speculative and therefore I accept Gorkowski’s proposed hand-waving as a designer to make this game more approachable for players.
At first blush, it’s easy to assume that this game simply rips off elements of the Victory Games Fleet Series. While the similarities are striking, the distance between the 1970s and 80s naval warfare and 21st-century platforms represented in South China Sea is as great as World War II technology and that modeled by the Fleet Series. You have stealth capable jets, standoff ranges that exceed their predecessors, better tracking, ASW, fully developed missile defense systems that expand their range further, highly accurate and developed Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs) and much more. The next naval conflict is going to be far costlier than the last at a minimum and with the continued evolution of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and drone-based swarm weapons, the next five to ten years will only increase the lethality of naval conflict.
South China Sea’s compromises ensure that the systems and combat weapon systems presented for each combatant nation demonstrates that extreme lethality. Most ships in the game have a missile defense value of between 9 – 11 and an anti-surface (A/S) weapon rating of either 2 or 3. Combat relies on a 2d6 resolution with the weapon system value added to the dice roll compared against the target’s missile defense score. The most common outcome on a 2d6 roll, as you’re likely aware, is 7. That means that right out the gate with a 2 A/S rating, the average roll will be 1 shy of delivering a hit. You have a roughly 41% chance of delivering at least one hit against a ship with 9 missile defense and against US ships which carry a missile defense of 11 typically you’ll have a roughly 28% chance of delivering a hit. Combat is deadly. In fact, you deliver additional damage for the difference between the final attack roll compared to the missile defense roll in A/S combat. Missile Defense of 11, but roll a 13? That ship is likely sunk in that single roll.
So, how does Gorkowski offset this battlefield danger?
First, ships need to focus and identify one another. Just because they can be found on the map doesn’t guarantee that the ships can successfully pinpoint their target. Each hex, after all, represents the distance to the horizon. The scale is huge, so just knowing someone is within a 40 or 50-mile radius isn’t enough. Weapon platforms from jets to subs and everything between the wind and waves has different ranges to which they can “illuminate” an enemy unit. As a result, you might have a chance to illuminate a ship 10 hexes away with your jets, but your chances of actually pinpointing the unit are diminished by that extreme range.
Ships have the opportunity to give up the remainder of their actions for the turn in order to evade detection. Evasion is based on three things:
A 2d6 roll
plus half the distance to the spotting ship (rounded down)
plus the target ship’s stealth rating (typically between 1 – 3 for surface ships and 6+ for subs)
Combined, these must be at least an 11. Using the same logic we employed before, ships will typically have a stealth rating of 1 or 2. US ships carry a 3 in some cases like the LCS Freedom. Spotting ranges that match A/S weapon ranges are typically 2 -3 hexes. So, if you want to engage a ship at the maximum range of your A/S weapon systems, then an average die roll then nearly 60% of the time you’re going to evade detection. This can be frustrating and encourage “knife fight” ranges for these vessels which is what you get a chance to see in my photos and video on South China Sea.
So far, it’s worked pretty well. More troubling is that the US doesn’t get the chance to capture the initiative. The default order of nations to act puts China first. That means that the US must either evade or potentially face the deadly wrath of incoming anti-ship missiles. It’s a tricky balancing act that requires the US to use their longer range and superior stealth ratings to their advantage. I just don’t have enough experience at this point to say whether this works or whether it too heavily favors the Chinese. Right now though it feels about right given the tradeoffs.
The last thing I want to touch on in this initial impression is the political phase and the transition to the military phase.
South China Sea starts most scenarios with political turns during which players take turns playing cards, discarding cards, and negotiating with minor powers also included. These nations include Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Typically you have Vietnam siding with the Americans, Malaysia siding with China and the Philippines acting as a neutral that’s up for grabs. Cards might lure in neutral sides or ask them to weigh in on their loyalties for economic sanctions helping to draw the battle lines. Other cards offer players an opportunity to deploy stealthy units as hidden in an ambush waiting to be sprung. The political turns are measured by how they move the victory point track. Victory points move the outcome in a tug of war mechanic between China and the United States. If, at any time, a single card play moves the victory point track by three points in one direction, a military conflict erupts.
As a result, not every scenario will result in a military conflict every time. The temptation is there though and in the few solo times I’ve played with the system, it’s something that should be happening in your games more often than not. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s an outlier when you won’t have a military conflict erupt.
This is where my main current critique comes into play. I just don’t think there’s enough oomph from the political phase to drive the action in the military phase. After all, what do the various sides gain? Some of the scenario setups have China away from the Spratly Islands and the minor powers in their major ports with the Americans dawdling somewhere south the Spratlys. Why risk life and limb, treasure and blood, or even the fuel to go and fight? I don’t think the scenario setups effectively answer the player’s question, “What’s in this for me?” Since the conflict is hypothetical, and one that not a wide audience has watched with anything more than passing interest so far, it can be hard to justify a race to protect national islets or reefs within the Spratlys because the US and China traded economic sanctions with each other.
Further, and more importantly, given Xi’s statements that I outlined at the start of this initial thoughts article why would China risk its image and thus far unblemished naval record in open conflict with a more experienced and modern blue water navy? None of the political phases end with an act that couldn’t be walked back diplomatically. If an EP-3 could be captured, studied, looted, and held like it was back in 2000 without incident then why wouldn’t an accidental firing or boat/jet collision be walked back by the US and China who rely on each other for stability in trade and regional politics.
I can say unequivocally that I have had fun with this game so far and I like it better than I did Breaking the Chains. South China Sea deserves more play and definitely requires opposed play for a fair review, so look forward to that in the coming weeks!