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 Action Point 1, we took a look at the Game Board and discussed the various Tracks, Countries and Boxes that are used to play the game. In this Action Point, 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.

Event Cards

The game is focused on the use of Event Cards from a communal deck consisting of 48 total cards. Each side does not have the same amount of aligned cards though as the United States has 19 cards, the Chinese have just 16 cards and then there are 13 Both aligned cards. Each player has to manage their hand of cards over the course of 3 Campaign Rounds which can be used immediately for various operations, by either playing the printed event or through the use of the Operation Value to fuel actions, or may be held for future operations under more favorable circumstances.

The anatomy of these cards is pretty simple and includes an Operation Value in the upper left hand corner of the card ranging from 1-3, a colored left side bar (red for the Chinese, blue for the United States, or black for both), an Event description which explains the effect of the card, an Event title, a Scoring Impact in the bottom left, a Tension Impact located above the card number and a Mode located under the Operation Value including either military, territorial or trade.

The Mode of a card is used only when the played card is friendly, meaning it matches your faction, and the Mode symbol on the played card matches the Mode of the card on top of the discard pile.

If the played card matches the top card on the Event discard pile then the player may choose to execute either the discarded card’s Event or Scoring Impact. I really liked this part of the design as it gave me an opportunity to play good cards that my opponent discarded or played leaving me without the opportunity to make use of that card. You have to pay attention to this though as you will lose that opportunity the moment another card is played but it gives the game some depth and adds a layer of tension as you are just waiting for your opponent’s event to disappear beneath another discarded card so you can breathe a bit easier.

An Event can be used by the player depending on the Operation Value’s left-side bar color, meaning if you are not the player that owns the card, you cannot take the printed event on the card. The purpose of Events is to allow the player to perform lots of different actions, from placing Influence Cubes on the board, removing enemy Influence cubes from the board or affecting things like the Tension Level or adding cubes to the Political Warfare Box. Cubes that are removed from the board during play are returned to the side’s Available Box where they are immediately available to be placed on the next card play. If in the case where an Event or Operation taken requires the player to place an Influence Cube and there are none in the Available Box, the player may choose to move friendly cubes from somewhere in play to Available as required to fulfill the needed placement. This is very important to keep in mind as many times you will have already scored a Country and can use this to move some of your Influence Cubes to other areas which haven’t yet scored. These are the type of decisions that will come to players as they get more familiar with the game, its strategy and how to go about defeating their opponent.

When an Event is played, the player has to execute it to the fullest extent possible meaning you can’t pick and choose the parts you like versus what is not good for your portion. Sometimes, these cards have qualifying conditions that must be met in order to play them as an Event. As is the case with many Card Driven Games, the text on the cards can trump or overpower the rules of the game to allow for actions to be taken that normally are not allowed. So, if a conflict arises with what is written in the rules and a card’s printed text, the card will take precedence. One other important point to remember is that certain Events will ignore an enemy Lock condition on Countries for the purposes of the placement of influence. This is the only way to circumvent the Lock and be able to place influence aside from the use of your own Political Warfare ability.

Let’s show you an example of an Event Card and how it plays out.

The USS Carl Vinson Makes Historic Port Call in Vietnam is a good example of an Event that has a prerequisite to play but that provides the player with the opportunity to place both Influence Cubes and a FONOP (Freedom of Navigation Operation) on one of the disputed islands.

The card is a 3 Operation Value Event Card aligned with the United States with the following text:

If at least 3 US Influence in Vietnam, place 2 US Influence in Vietnam and place 1 FONOP at Paracel Islands.

This Event Card has a prerequisite that at least 3 US Influence must be already placed in Vietnam. This can be of either type, Economic or Diplomatic. If this is the case, and in the picture below it is, the US player can then take the action as written on Event by placing 2 US Influence in Vietnam and also being provided the added benefit of placing 1 FONOP at the Paracel Islands.

The important point I wish to show here is that Event Cards and their text are very powerful. They typically provide multiple benefits that are way more efficient than doing the same thing by using the Operation Value on the card to take the same actions. For instance, in the case of the USS Carl Vinson Event, the actions granted, namely placing 2 Influence Cubes and 1 FONOP, would have cost a total of 3 Operation Value. So the same. But the difference here is that the Event ignores any restrictions from the Tension Level. See, if the Tension Track was in the High Space, the FONOP would have been unable to be placed. With the Event text though, the player could ignored that prohibition and placed the FONOP. There is power in the use of Events as they break or circumvent the rules.

Here is another example where the rules are broken with the North Korea Launches Missile Event. This is a simple Event and allows the Chinese player to move 2 US Economic or Diplomatic Influence from anywhere on the board to the United States player’s Reserve Box. Did you catch the subtle distinction here? Normally, if an Influence Cube is removed from the board by the play of an Event Card, it is placed in that player’s Available Box. But in this case, the Event grants the Chinse player a special ability to move those removed Influence Cubes to the Reserve Box. This means that the US player now must spend their Operation Value points in the future to move a cube from the Reserve Box to the Available Box to then be able to play them back onto the board.

The North Korea Launces Missile Event doesn’t require that the 2 targeted Economic of Diplomatic Influence Cubes be in the same Country Box. So depending on the situation, the player may decide to take 1 from Vietnam and 1 from another Country. Or 2 from another single Country. The choices are infinite! (not really but it sounded good.) These Events are very important and you must be aware of the distinctions of how they break or change the rules to make better decisions about how and where to use them.


Now that you have a few examples of Events, let’s take a bit of a closer look at the Operation Value of the cards and discuss how the players can use those points to fuel various actions. But first, let’s take a look at the distribution of the various Operation Values found on the cards.

As you can see, the United States has the most number of Event Cards with their alignment and overall has the most Operation Value provided by those cards with 44, as compared to just 36 for the Chinese player. The Both Aligned cards are useable for the event by both sides so this closes that gap slightly. It is important to keep in mind that the US has the card advantage but their mechanics and some of their handicaps (such as having to remove FONOP markers at the end of each campaign while the Chinese CR’s can stay) even out the game.

The list of Operations provides 6 different ways to utilize the points by spending the Operation Points like currency to pay for the costs of actions. These Operations may be executed in any order and taken as often as you can afford. After each individual Operation is executed by the players, the Tension Level must be adjusted per the Operation. An Operation may be repeated after any change in Tension called for by the prior Operation, if any unspent Operation Value remains.

Let’s take a look at the Operations Cost Table and see how each of the Actions work.

As shown below, the costs of each action are pretty much the same for both players and are specifically tied to the Tension Level at the time of the Operations execution. There are also some pre-requisites for the Operations and involve things like a Country not being Enemy Locked, or Tension Level not being at Critical. As the Tension Level rises, certain action’s Operations cost will rise and there are 3 actions that will be prohibited if the Tension Level is at Critical including Place 1 FONOP, Place I CR (Chinese Reclamation) and Resolve Political Warfare. The reason for this is very thematic as these 3 actions are seen as hostile and can tip the balance and plunge the world into a global war.

Place 1 Influence Cube in Economic or Diplomatic

This action is the most simple and straight forward action in the game. The player will show an Event Card and identify how they are using the Operations Value on the card and each action will be completed one at a time. Each Influence Cube can be placed with the expenditure of 1 Operations Value. These Influence Cubes may only be placed in spaces shaded for that side, i.e. blue for US and red for China. If there are no remaining spaces of the playing sides color, the Influence Cube cannot be placed in that Country. Also, if one side has a Lock on a Country, the enemy may not place Influence Cubes in that country by way of Operation, but as mentioned before, placement via an Event is allowed. The side owning the Lock on a Country may place influence in that Country as normal.

Move 1 Cube from Reserve to Available

This Operation is also simple as the player will spend 1 Operation Value to move 1 Influence Cube from the Reserve Box to their Available. It may be simple but is very important and you have to keep up a good supply of available cubes to be able to put the pressure needed on your opponent.

The player just has to use 1 Operation Value (in the picture above, a 1 Operation Value Card is shown but you can play a higher Operation Value Card and only use 1 of the points to take this action) to take the Move 1 Cube from Reserve to Available action. Remember, you can take multiple actions by spending all of your Operation Value during your turn by paying the cost of each action.

Place I Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) and Increase Tension

One of the most important actions is that of placing out FONOP for the US player. This is a brutally difficult action due to the fact that your FONOP’s will be removed at the end of each Campaign Phase so they will only effect the game state and scoring for that single turn. If Tension is not Critical, the US may spend 1 Operation
Value to place a cube in a FONOP space. This will then increase Tension by 1 level. If Tension is at Critical, this action is prohibited.

The player just has to use 1 Operation Value (in the picture above, a 1 Operation Value Card is shown but you can play a higher Operation Value Card and only use 1 of the points to take this action) to take the Place 1 FONOP action. Remember, you can take multiple actions by spending all of your Operation Value during your turn by paying the cost of each action. You must remember though that as a part of the cost of placing a FONOP with Operations is to increase the Tension Level by 1.

Place 1 CR (Chinese Reclamation) and Increase Tension

If Tension is not Critical, China may spend 1, 2 or 3 Operation Value to place a cube in a CR space. The Operation
Cost is determined by the Tension Level as follows:

  • At Low Tension – Operation Cost 1, increase Tension by 1.
  • At Medium Tension – Operation Cost 2, increase Tension by 1.
  • At High Tension – Operation Cost 3, increase Tension by 1.

Anytime this action would increase the Tension Level to Critical, the player forcing this change must move a cube from their Available Box to Reserve if possible or if not from any Diplomatic Influence space to Reserve. If Tension is at Critical, this action is prohibited. This having to relocate an Influence Cube is representative of the political pressure from the world associated with reckless behavior in pushing the situation closer to the brink of war and the loss of face on the world stage. I really like these little thematic elements that are incorporated into these actions as they just feel right.

Place 1 Political Warfare/Resolve Political Warfare

We are not going to go into great detail on this action other than to tell you the cost and what it does. We will cover this point in a later post as it is important enough to the game to deserve more attention. If Tension is at Critical, this action is prohibited. The players can spend 1 Operation Value to place 1 cube in a Political Warfare space.

We will cover the details of Political Warfare in great depth in our next post. But to sum up what PW does, it allows the player to Lock a Country and keep the enemy from placing Influence Cubes in that Country. This is used to lock it up prior to scoring it so that the most points possible can be had from it. But the action is not guaranteed and is not always successful. But it is very worth it!

One of my favorite parts about Flashpoint: South China Sea is its use of these cards. I really enjoy the depth of the uses of the cards, from the printed Events to the use of Operations Value to take various actions. Each side’s deck is very asymmetric and players will have to learn and become familiar with how best to use certain cards but also must be aware of their opponent’s power cards and how they can affect the current situation.

In Action Point 3, we will discuss Political Warfare and how best to use this interesting aspect of the conflict.