The South China Sea has been described as “a crucial link in the ‘global commons’, connecting the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Europe. Right now, along with the East China Sea, it is the most contested piece of sea in the world and one of the main reasons for the current anxiety over China’s intentions”. It will be fought over, at least ideologically for the next decade and will be a source of much concern for the West. You might say it is a powder keg and all it needs is a spark. With this in mind, we are going to take a look at a recent new release game on the South China Sea called Flashpoint: South China Sea from GMT Games designed by Harold Buchanan. The game is a fast playing 2-player strategy game that simulates the complex geopolitical contest currently taking place between the United States and China in the South China Sea. The game is a Card Driven Game that uses cards to allow players to play out the struggle using events based on today’s headlines and use these cards to take actions that will provide dominance over regions and score victory points at any time during the game. We had a great time with this one and I wanted to provide you with some insight into the game to see what makes it tick.

In this series of Action Points, we will take a look at the Game Board and discuss the various Tracks, Countries and Boxes that are used to play the game, we will dive into the anatomy of the Event Cards and show how they are used for the printed events or discarded for their Operations Value to take a number of actions, discuss Political Warfare and how best to use this interesting aspect of the conflict, discuss how players take advantage of Scoring Cards and win the game and take a brief look at the solitaire mode.

Game Board

The game uses a 17″x 22″ mounted Game Board that represents the region of the South China Sea with China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at the top of the board, the Philippines and Vietnam in the center of the board and Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia at the bottom of the board. The board highlights not only all of the important countries in the region and represents them with boxes, but is shows the all important shipping lanes connecting these boxes that must be controlled by either side to ensure freedom of commerce and the movement of goods.

Country Boxes

The board contains Country Boxes that represent one of five claimant countries in dispute with China in the South China Sea Region. These include Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei. Each country contains designated spaces for two types of Influence Cubes including Diplomatic and Economic Influence for both of the contesting sides. Each country has a differing amount of these spaces with Vietnam and the Philippines having a total of 3 each of Diplomatic and Economic while Brunei only has 1 space for each.

Each of the Countries also have a space for a Lock of the country. The result of successful Political Warfare by one side will allow a country to be Locked and will prevent the placement of any further influence in a country by enemy Operations. A Lock is indicated by placing one of the phasing side’s cubes on a country’s Lock space. This can remove an enemy Lock if present in the space.

The starting Economic Influence spaces are marked on the map with a colored triangle, either red or blue, in the corner of the Economic Influence spaces. Each player will have 4 additional Influence Cubes that can be placed wherever they like in any Country Box at setup.

The Country Boxes are the real hot spots and players will jockey for control of them through each Campaign of the game. Influence Cubes will be placed as a part of the text on an Event Card while others will be placed as a part of the various Operations that are fundable by the cards Operations Value. Like many of these area control CDG’s, players can add or remove Influence Cubes. If there is a call to place a new Influence Cube and the player doesn’t have any available in their Available area, they can take cubes from any other Country Box or Contested Islands spaces to place.

Contested Islands

One of three areas shown on the board with conflicting claims between China and one of the claimant countries are called Contested Islands. These Contested Islands include the Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands. Each of the Contested Islands is connected to one specific country. Scarborough Shoal is linked to the Philippines, the Paracel Islands is linked to Vietnam and the Spratly Islands is linked to Malaysia.

In these Contested Islands spaces, there are spaces that players can place FONOP (Freedom of Navigation Operations) cubes (2 for the US) and CR (Chinese Reclamation) cubes (2 for the Chinese). Blue cubes placed represent a US military operation, which is placed to demonstrate the right to free passage on a Contested Islands space by a FONOP Operation. Red cubes represent Chinese Reclamation placed on a space on Contested Islands by a CR Operation and are associated with a connected country.

I really like this treatment of the shipping lanes and it makes a lot of sense as you play the game. This is one of the more challenging parts for the US player though as their FONOP cubes will be removed at the end of each Campaign while the Chinese CR cubes will stay in place.

People’s Republic of China Box/United States of America Box

Each player has their own Box located near the top of the board that is where they store their various Influence Cubes. Within each of the People’s Republic of China Box and United States of America Box, there are 3 different parts. There is an Available Space where players will keep those Influence Cubes that have been activated or removed from the board by opponent actions until they are ready to place them out with Operations or Events. There also is a Reserve Space for each side that holds cubes that may be moved to the respective Available space by Event or Operation. We will talk about the final portion of these boxes in the next segment.

Political Warfare Track

The final space we will look at in the People’s Republic of China Box/United States of America Box is the very interesting Political Warfare Track. During the game, the players have the ability to take an Operation to place available cubes in one of three Political Warfare spaces per side. This Political Warfare includes all types of things, from computer hacking, espionage, demonstrations, petitions, spamming message boards and putting out false information. It all leads to one side losing face and the other gaining influence on the world stage. This placement of Political Warfare Cubes facilitates the future PW Resolution which is used to attempt to Lock a country against enemy influence Operations. This is a very cool part of the game that I am not sure that I have fully explored or grasped yet but can be very important in winning the game.

Victory Point Track

We all need to know who is in the lead in games and this one has a very interesting Victory Point Track. It is a pendulum style Victory Point Track as it measures one side’s current advantage in the game by tracking the relative number of VP’s, which is simply determined by the net value of the two sides’ accumulated VP’s. This means that if you as the US gained 3 VP this turn, and the Chinese player was in the lead with a net value on the Victory Point Track of 4, you would reduce the VP marker from 4 down to 1 to account for your 3 VP’s earned. Then, the Chinese player will get to either add to the total or leave it in the same position depending on how many VP they scored during the Campaign. It is important to point out though that each side has an Instant Victory number on the Victory Point Track of 15 VP. If either player has 15 VP at any point during the game, it ends in an Instant Victory. I feel like one player would have to be asleep for this to happen, or is playing checkers while you are playing chess!

Tension Track

One of the interesting aspects of many of these world competition type games, such as Twilight Struggle, there is a measure of Tension that can affect what actions players can or cannot take. The Tension Track is a measure of the level of antagonism between the two sides and can be changed from the play of events from time to time. The tension level may impact whether a side can perform various Operations as well as affecting its Operation cost. There are four levels of Tension shown on the Tension Track including Low (blue), Medium (green), High (yellow) and Critical (red).

If an Event Card instructs players to Increase Tension, this just means to move the Tension marker toward Critical, if possible. Conversely, Decrease Tension means to move the Tension marker toward Low, if possible. In the case that the Tension level changes from Low, Medium, or High to Critical by either Operation or Event, the side playing the Event Card which effects the level must then move one of their Influence Cubes from Available to Reserve. There is a punishment for increasing Tension and rattling your sabers. If in the case that the player has no Influence Cubes in their Available space, they must then move one of their
Diplomatic Influence Cubes placed on the board to Reserve instead. I like to think of this as public opinion being against you and there being ramifications. But that doesn’t mean these consequences are any type of economic or other sanctions, as the rest of the world really doesn’t have the power to enforce such on the mighty United States or China, just the effect of pissing in the drinking hole where everyone has to hydrate! People get mad. Outraged. And there is a price to pay. The good thing about this Tension Track is that these reminders are found right under the Track so you don’t do like I have done and forget!

Campaign Track

Just as every game has a VP Track, each game will have a turn track but here it is referred to as the Campaign Track. The Campaign Track simply represents the passage of time from six months to five years and is encompassed in the play of six Event Cards by each player in alternating card plays. There are three such “turns”, referred to as Campaigns and once the Track moves to 3 the game is nearly complete. This is a short game, that plays very quickly and there isn’t a lot of time to really get done what you want so you really have to have a plan, prioritize your actions based on the cards you have available and the situation of the board.

The Game Board used in Flashpoint: South China Sea is very functional and easy to interact with. The rules are pretty straightforward, being encompassed in a 12-page rulebook, and the game plays quickly in about 30 minutes. But, even though it plays fast, there is some meat to this one and it is very tense and engaging as the players will have to keep an ever vigilant eye open to what their opponent is trying to do and how they are planning to score during that Campaign.

In Action Point 2, we will dive into the anatomy of the Event Cards and show how they are used for the printed events or discarded for their Operations Value to take a number of actions.