In a Wooden Boat in the Shipping Lanes
Everybody’s racing to make the next half-hour CDG, both a testament to the staying power of Twilight Struggle and a play note that the thing had a tendency to drag on. The latest aspirant is Harold Buchanan’s Flashpoint: South China Sea. Buchanan, you might recall, is the designer Liberty or Death, the fifth volume in the lauded COIN Series, which for no specific reason remains the only volume I’ve never gotten around to writing about. South China Sea rather boldly, perhaps presumptuously, announces itself as volume one of the Flashpoint Series. It’s like the kids say: always be branding.
For what it’s worth, I do hope there’s a volume two. Although maybe not for the reasons one would expect.
To use that loaded word again, South China Sea opens with an act of presumption. Both players bid some amount of victory points. The high bid plays as China; their foe, the United States, begins with the bid quantity of victory points.
This establishes something important about South China Sea. Topically, the game is about an ongoing contest of political will between China and the United States in — you guessed it — the South China Sea, that crucial span of water that touches half a billion souls, accounts for crucial fishing and shipping, and inhabits the frictional interest of nations and superpowers. At the outset, China is engaged in a “salami-slicing” operation, staying one grade below open provocation to slowly erode the US’s hegemony over the region one diplomatic crisis, economic program, and reclaimed island at a time. Hence the US’s opening lead. China is the underdog, albeit an underdog with momentum on its side.
It isn’t unreasonable to say that the opening bid is crucial to how the game will play out. But it assumes the players are weathered fishers of these waters. For our first bid, my partner and I both wagered four points. For our second, I think the number was five. With time, that amount should hone in on a reasonable sum, one that will offer a stern challenge for China but not so much that they can’t break US dominance. I’m not sure South China Sea warrants the investment to get there.
To be sure, Buchanan has filled his game with clever flourishes, some of which are much-needed curatives to the straitjacketing legacy of Twilight Struggle. Principal among them is the card system, a daring and flexible approach that feels like a logical evolution of the genre’s cardplay. The basics are familiar enough. Both players receive a hand of cards that can be used for events or actions. Events align with either faction or might be neutral. Actions are limited to a limber selection for placing and removing influence. Influence is divided into two types, diplomatic and economic, both with their own strengths and drawbacks. China can dredge manmade islands to extend their control into neutral waters, a trick the US can only temporarily counteract with fleet deployments. Both sides can also utilize political warfare — cyberattacks, sanctions, that sort of thing — to swing the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia to their side. Crucially, this last option is somewhat chancy compared to more tried-and-true methods, asking for an investment and a gambled card draw before it pays off.
If that sounds too traditional, Buchanan doesn’t stop there. To offset the horror of drawing a hand that favors one’s opponent, it’s always possible to activate the top card of the discard pile by throwing away a card of your own — but only if both cards show a matching suit. This strikes a considered balance between opening up your options and forcing you to think strategically. It’s always been a staple of CDGs to play an event when your opponent can’t make good on its effects. Now you’re prompted to play with a second layer in mind, keeping a range of suits in hand and only playing opposing events after you suspect your opponent’s capacity to resurrect them has passed. Smart.
Smartest of all, though, is the scoring system. Every round features seven face-up scoring categories. As you play, a card can also be spent to activate one of these categories. As before, the card needs to match, and each option can only be triggered once per round. This effectively burns a turn on scoring, but allows players to prepare little combos, pounce on opportune moments, or even trigger a category preemptively. This is a third dimension to South China Sea’s cardplay, and it brings each hand one step closer to an engine-building game. Between these various uses, every hand brims with potential surprises. It’s lively in a way card-driven wargames have been hungering for.
Which makes it a letdown that the rest of the game falls so flat.
The game’s biggest failing is one of texture. At its sharpest, South China Sea offers those island reclamation projects, a dash of asymmetry that highlights how China’s proximity gives it a home field advantage that can only be overcome by consistent effort on the US’s part — and how the US, with fingers in every pie around the globe, is unlikely to hold its attention on any one crisis. That’s the game’s strongest thesis, speaking to the erosion of American hegemony through inattention and misplaced priorities. Policy and alliance-building is unexciting when placed next to military adventurism. Buchanan proposes that peace can be as thrilling as war, not to mention far more essential.
Elsewhere, though, one’s fingertips find very little purchase. Consider the example of the game’s leader cards, neutral events that can benefit either side. These depict notable figures such as Shinzo Abe, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, and Narendra Modi. Without exception, their effects are identical: they allow the player to set “tension,” the game’s measure of how costly it is to intrude into the region, to any level, and then execute a single action point.
This uniformity is disappointing. What does it mean when the leaders of North Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, the United Nations, and the Bank of China, among others, can all be leveraged to the same effect, by either superpower, with great precision, according to their whims? What does it say? Unfortunately, that same flatness extends to the game’s far corners. Countries feel interchangeable. Influence is traded tit for tat. Real-life conflicts that see dozens of sailors forcibly impressed over conflicting fishing rights go unrepresented.
To some degree this is a symptom of the game’s format. It would be a mistake, however, to scapegoat format as the only culprit. Not when its peers are pushing boundaries in the name of ever-clearer statements. This is a genre that includes the piercing examinations of Dan Bullock’s No Motherland Without and 1979: Revolution in Iran, Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta’s far-flung condemnation of imperial ambition via Imperial Struggle, and Peer Sylvester and Richard Sivél’s unmatched Wir sind das Volk! Of course, not every game is trying to make a point. It would be short-sighted to afford South China Sea such a luxury. As a card-driven wargame, it’s the tradent of a tradition that seeks to explicate as much as it seeks to entertain. In this regard, its closest comparison is Mark Herman’s Fort Sumter, a cracking title when it came to its cards and scoring, but an empty-headed one in terms of any examination of setting or politics. That game’s playbook boasted about the balance of its cardplay, borne out by thousands of Monte Carlo simulations. South China Sea comes across similarly, enamored with mathematical precision where it should have accessed the humanities’ messiness. It feels like a fiberglass watercraft with a humming motor that can’t help but be outmaneuvered by older and more weather-worn fishing vessels. Despite its speed and sleekness, it simply isn’t suited to the task before it.
This shouldn’t be taken as a statement of total failure. I began this review with my hope that Flashpoint receives that second volume. I mean that. Fort Sumter, after all, got a second chance. It wasn’t until Fred Serval introduced some particularity and grit to the system with Red Flag Over Paris that its potential was revealed. The same is true here. The underlying card system, so replete with difficult choices and intersecting layers of historical event, directed operation, and objective-based opportunism, is worthy of further iteration, even emulation. In the moment, Buchanan’s Flashpoint provides satisfying punch and counter-punch. As a system, it shines. As politics and history, it’s too blank a slate.
A complimentary copy was provided.