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 looked at the Game Board and discussed the various Tracks, Countries and Boxes that are used to play the game. In Action Point 2, we dove into the anatomy of the Event Cards and showed how they are used for the printed events or discarded for their Operations Value to take a number of actions. In this Action Point, we will discuss Political Warfare and how best to use this interesting aspect of the conflict.

Political Warfare

I am glad to see the inclusion of Political Warfare in the mechanics for Flashpoint: South China Sea. The struggle for control over the South China Sea is not a conventional war where two sides are waging war against each other with tanks, cruise missiles, aircraft carriers and amphibious landings but more a war of ideas and ideologies. Democracy vs. Communism. Free markets vs. controlled central economic authority. Political Warfare is best described as the use of political means, rather than physical, to compel an opponent to act in a certain way as directed by the wager of the Political Warfare. The inclusion of the term political in the phrase describes the calculated interaction between a government and a target audience, including another state’s government, military, and general population. Governments use a variety of techniques to coerce certain actions by gaining relative advantage over their opponent including many mediums and ways such as via the internet, social media, cyber attacks intended to steal information or uncover less than flattering issues. The techniques focus on the use of propaganda and psychological operations, which service national and military objectives respectively. Propaganda has many means and creates a decidedly hostile and coercive political purpose. Psychological operations are for strategic and tactical military objectives and may be intended for hostile military and civilian populations.

So in terms of the gameplay, Political Warfare is simply an Operation available to the players where they can place available cubes in one of their three Political Warfare spaces per side, which allows them to use these cubes for a future Political Warfare Resolution to attempt to Lock a country against enemy influence Operations. This process of Political Warfare is decidedly abstracted for convenience in the game as it is a fast playing 30+ minute game that has to cut corners like this to make the game playable.

A look at the Political Warfare Track on the People’s Republic of China Box.

But the inclusion of the Political Warfare Operation has consequences. Similar to most of our favorite CDG’s such as in Twilight Struggle, too much negativity in the waging of Political Warfare can lead directly to an increase of Tension on the world’s stage and ultimately has a penalty. In Flashpoint: South China Sea, there is no outbreak of nuclear war with the launching of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) but rather the concept of too much tension leads to each of the sides being unable to take certain Operations as they are seen as too aggressive and lead the other nation to react and cause ripples on the stage of World Opinion.

The process of taking a Political Warfare Operation is very simple. The players can spend 1 Operation Value to place 1 cube in a Political Warfare space. They can do this up to 3 times over a series of rounds to place a maximum of 3 cubes on the Political Warfare Track. If Tension is at Critical, this action is prohibited. When people are on edge, the slightest of movements, or action being taken can set off irreversible consequences. Once at least 1 cube is placed on this Track, the player can decide to resolve the Political Warfare Operation by discarding an Event Card from the top of the deck and then comparing its Operation Value to the number of cubes they have placed. This can be done as a free Operation as it has no cost. Once drawn, if the Operations Value on the Event Card is equal to or greater than the number of cubes on the Political Warfare Track, the player has succeeded in this Operation and gains the benefit.

So what is the benefit again? Well, the benefit of the Operation is that the player may choose a Country Box on the board and then remove all of either their opponent’s Economic or Diplomatic Influence Cubes entirely and lock the country. This locking will prevent any further Influence Cubes to be placed in that Country Box by their opponent. But, your opponent can then take their own Political Warfare Operations and try to then unlock the at country and do the same to you. This is a delicious back and forth that can get quite interesting. Locking though basically guarantees that you will favorably score when this Country is scored by a Scoring Card or as a part of the end game scoring. This action is very powerful but does take a commitment to the Operation to make it happen. The only way to guarantee that a Political Warfare Operation is successful is by placing 3 Influence Cubes on the Political Warfare Track as there are no Event Cards with higher than a 3 Operation Value.

The really interesting thing about this Operation is not only in the benefit that it directly gives the player taking it but in the increase in Tension that might block their opponent from taking certain future actions, such as placing a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP, Chinese Reclamation (CR) or even doing a Political Warfare resolution. This is one of the “games within the game” that will be played and the Political Warfare aspect is a really nice addition to the system.

The Tension Track signals the current level of Tension in the region. Higher levels of Tension block or increase the cost of certain actions as shown in the above Operations Cost graphic. Events can be used to de-escalate or increase tensions but there are not that many of those and remember that players can only use the printed event on their Aligned Card or one of the Both Aligned Cards. Just 7 of each faction’s Event Cards have some type of Tension increasing/decreasing effect. There are 13 Both Aligned Cards so when added together, there are lots of opportunities to adjust or manipulate the Tension Track to prevent your enemy from taking certain Operations or allowing you to take them. But it is never guaranteed.

Frankly, I feel like the US player has got to use this Tension to their benefit as it doesn’t hurt them as much as it does the Chinese player. Remember, that one of the most difficult things for the US player to deal with is the placement of Chinese Reclamations. Also, if your opponent has multiple Influence Cubes on their Political Track, it is to your advantage to go ahead and force Tension to Critical as it will block the resolution of Political Warfare and they will be unable to lock you out for that turn. The key strategy here for the players is to know when is the right time to manipulate the Tension. This is easier said than done though and this trick will take several players to master as you understand it better.

I hope you have enjoyed this look at the concept of Political Warfare and how it works. This game is really very much deeper than appears on the surface and on our first few plays, some of it escaped me. But, like a good book, as you continue to get deeper into the story you uncover bits that make a lot of sense and are more important than you realized at first glance.

In Action Point 4, we will discuss how players take advantage of Scoring Cards and win the game.