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 Action Point 3, we discussed Political Warfare and how best to use this interesting aspect of the conflict. In this Action Point, we will discuss how players take advantage of Scoring Cards and win the game.

Scoring Cards

There are 7 different Scoring Cards that start each Campaign face-up and available to both players. These Scoring Cards are used to track Scoring Impacts used during the Campaign, which I really think is one of the best parts of the design as it really keeps players engaged and always looking for opportunities to score. Each of these Scoring Cards may only be used once per Campaign and once they are used they are flipped over.

These Scoring Cards are tied directly to the various Country Boxes on the board and there is one for each of these areas including Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines as well as 2 cards that lean to the broader concept of Economics and Chinese Reclamation/Freedom of Navigation Operations. The Scoring Cards are typically placed either at the bottom or side of the board within easy reach of both players. The players need to keep their eyes open and understand the scoring text on each of these cards in order to prepare for their scoring. Scoring is not a passive activity and should be the motivation and reasoning behind the play of Event Cards to place out Influence Cubes on the board to gain the advantage in these various Country Boxes and areas.

At the bottom left of each of the Event Cards is a Scoring Impact symbol that is tied to a specific scoring aspect. For the 5 Country Boxes on the board, the symbol is that country’s flag (along with the name of the country) and for the two aspects of Economic and CR/FONOP, there is a Chinese flag on top of the symbol and a United States flag on the bottom or a yellow renminbi symbol for the Chinese and a white dollar sign for the United States. When an Event card is played for its Scoring Impact, the player will execute the directions listed on the chosen Scoring Card which matches that title, then turn the Scoring Card face-down. Once turned facedown, the Scoring Card can’t be selected again until after being reset at the end of a Campaign.

A look at the 7 different Scoring Impact Symbols found on the Event Cards.

There are some interesting statistics regarding the frequency of each type of Scoring Impact Symbol. As you can see from the table below, both Economics and CR/FONOP have the most amount of symbols on the Event Cards with 8 each or 16.7% of the total symbols on the 48 cards in the game. The least amount of symbols are for Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines so your opportunity to score these countries is less than if you focus on Indonesia and Brunei (12.5% versus 14.6%). I am not sure that these statistics give you any clear strategy to build around but it is nice to know the frequency of each type of symbol as it can direct your scoring strategy.

One of the key points to know about the Scoring Cards is the high end of their scoring potential. In each case with the Scoring Cards, players will score VP’s for the differential of their cubes and the other player but each of the cards set a maximum amount of VP’s for that aspect. For example, in the case of the CR/FONOP Scoring Card, the maximum VP’s that can be scored is 4.

Here is a look at the breakdown of the Scoring Cards maximum scoring potential. The interesting comparison here is that the countries that have the most spaces for Influence Cubes, including Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have higher scoring potential while the countries with fewer spaces have less potential. This makes perfect sense and should guide the players to prioritizing fighting over the largest potential VP countries versus the lower potential but I would recommend you don’t give up on the lower potential countries as they can be a source of an easy 1 VP which can swing the game in your favor. But remember, there are several of the Country Boxes that are connected via a line to the adjacent island groups (Vietnam to the Paracel Islands, Malaysia to the Spratly Islands and the Philippines to Scarborough Shoal) and that the Influence Cubes in these locations will also add to the scoring differential when calculated.

One final comment about scoring, always keep in mind the status of your opponent’s Political Warfare Track as they can literally use it to eliminate your hard earned presence in one of the higher scoring potential countries and lock you out! I have found this is the most important part of the game and good players will prioritize the use of PW in countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Remember, players are playing the game to score Victory Points in order to win the game. Placing Influence Cubes on the board is simply a means to an end as the more cubes you have in areas the more VP you will score. Never lose site of this single fact! This game is unique and tight and you cannot waste time on actions that gain you nothing. To play well, the players have to understand the Scoring Cards, where they have an advantage throughout the game and then prioritize those areas to maximize their scoring potential. But, you cannot ever give up on some of the larger scoring potential countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Just because your opponent builds a huge advantage and scores them early, during Campaign 1 or 2, doesn’t mean you can’t swoop in with a well timed Political Warfare Action to take control and change your fortunes. This game is a game of high risk and high reward, similar to the battle being waged for control of the South China Sea. I hope this look has changed your perspective on this game and how the different parts work together.

In Action Point 5, which is the conclusion to the series, we will take a brief look at the solitaire game mode.