My Game of the Week was Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II by John Gorkowski from Compass Games. This is the second (more practically the third) game in the South China Sea-series that traces it’s lineage back to John’s original South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) and a closely-related-but-predecessor design, Breaking the Chains: War in the South China Sea (Compass Games, 2014). I really love the South China Sea design, especially it’s treatment of operational/tactical naval warfare and even the mixture of politics.
As the name of the game foreshadows, Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II leaves the South China Sea “home waters” and moves to the Indian Ocean. China and the United States are still the two Global Powers, but now there are many more regional actors. The largest is, of course, India. For players that are US-centric (‘Merica!) the game might create a challenge because the “big kid” on this block is not the United States.
In no particular order, here are some thoughts on Indian Ocean Region that struck me during my Game of the Week experiences.
The counters for Indian Ocean Region are nice. They came shrink-wrapped which was a good thing because once the wrap came off the counters literally fell out of the sprue. They are so neatly cut I don’t think I need to corner-clip them. If this is the “new” standard from Compass Games I like it but beware—you need a plan to organize your counters before opening the shrink wrap because once opened the counters are falling randomly. Sorting will be from a random pile on the table not neatly out of the tree.
I do wish the colors of the counters in Indian Ocean Region had been a bit more distinct between nations. The camouflage pattern on the counters in this case actually works against them as various counters start “blending” into one another. In some wargaming forums, much has been made about several misprinted counters in Indian Ocean Region. My copy suffers from this problem where three USA ship counters are misprinted with the background for Oman. Truth be told, if I hadn’t seen the postings online I may have actually missed it because the USA-gray and Oman-blue-gray are very similar. It is indicative of quality control issues? Maybe…I believe the error crept in during the graphics layout where the challenge of differentiating so many similar colors inevitably led to a small oversight. Do the misprinted counters make the game unplayable? No. Do I wish Compass Games had caught the mistake before printing? Yes. Will I never buy another Compass Game? NO!
That’s a Big Ocean
Indian Ocean Region covers a vast area both geographically and physically with the game. With a map scale of 45 miles per hex and larger counters, there are three 22.5″x28″ mapsheets that, if laid out together, need a table over 5 feet wide. Alas, my normal gaming table is 3’x4′ which means I can easily get a one- or two-map game laid out but the full three-map scenarios require a different gaming space. I see some people talk about linking Indian Ocean Region and South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) maps together but that would take the dining room table or more.
Yes, I know I’m talking about a first-world wargamer problem, but for somebody like myself who has reached, uh, “agreements” with CINC-HOUSE* over table space this can make gaming difficult. It also drives some game purchase decisions. As much as I am interested in the new version of NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot! (Compass Games, forthcoming in 2021) I think I’ll keep my original edition with its single 22″x34″ map and pass on the enlarged version in the new Designer’s Signature Edition.
Where You Sit is Where You Fight
One of the core mechanisms in Indian Ocean Region is a regulated turn order. The game assumes five major factions can be in play. The default turn order in either a Political or Military Turn is 1) Asymmetric, 2) China, 3) Indo-Am, 4) Symmetric Bay States, and 5) Symmetric Gulf States or ACIBG. There are two Global Powers of USA and China and three other smaller Regional Powers. It is the arrangement of those Global and Regional Powers that raises my PoliSci eyebrow. As defined in the rule book:
- “Asymmetric includes nations that rely heavily on unconventional strategies and tactics, including terrorism….” (Iran, Pakistan, Qatar (?), Somalia, Yemen)
- “China uses central control to guide action in ‘free’ markets.” – China, The String of Pearls
- “Indo-Am represents the established free market/democratic world order.” (Bahrain, India, USA, Diego Garcia, Australia, Britain)
- “Symmetric Bay states want Chinese investment, but are weary [wary?] of too much subordination to Beijing.” (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri-Lanka)
- “Symmetric Gulf States are free traders with a long history of western engagement.” (Djibouti, Oman, United Arab Emirates).
Setting aside for a moment the mixture of geographical and political divisions, the fixed political alignment of the factions in Indian Ocean Region shows some strange bedfellows that may not be a current, or maybe even accurate, reflection of reality. I especially question the inclusion of Qatar in the “terrorist” Asymmetric States but maybe that is just a quibble over definitions. Also, The String of Pearls rule makes huge assumptions as to the success of Chinese “Belt and Road” initiative in the region—assumptions that are yet to play out and might better be used as an “option” or “variant” rule to more fully explore its impact on the political and military actions of the powers.
Example of Play
I realize that making an Example of Play is difficult. I know it takes time and careful planning as a good EoP will showcase game mechanisms in a way that teaches and reinforces. I am happy to see an extensive Example of Play in IOR—I am disappointed that it is taken from the previous game, South China Sea. Yes, the EoP explains core game mechanics, but by not basing it on the game in front of the reader a major learning opportunity is lost. Reading an EoP can only deliver so much understanding; if I am able to set up the EoP and push the counters around like in the example the combination of reading, seeing, and even feeling (the “tactile”) reinforces and accelerates learning.
Those Bi-Polar Days Are Over
Scoring in Indian Ocean Region is along a Victory Point Track that has the Indo-Am faction at one end and China at the other. In between sit the three other factions. I’m not sure what the score really tells me. The two “extreme” winners, China and the Indo-Am, are obvious, but why is a score of 14 points (just shy of China) an Asymmetric States (aka “Terrorist”) win? I feel that the score track needs a third dimension to capture the nuance of the regional powers and how they influence, but don’t necessarily “win” against the Global Powers. Then again, if your viewpoint is that the China-USA “competition” is a new Cold War, then this scoring viewpoint fits.
Full Steam Ahead
In the end, I find that Indian Ocean Region does what I expected it to do—deliver a fun, medium-low complexity gaming experience of modern naval warfare. The political alignment using the rules as written may be a bit wonky but there is nothing that says one cannot shift Regional Powers amongst the factions. It is especially interesting to split the Indians away from the Indo-Am faction and see how they might act if more “independent.” Indeed, it is the set up (or playing out) of the political game that creates the best opportunity for experimentation. Once battle is joined, the operational/tactical rules flow nicely and again deliver just enough flavor to make it interesting while not overwhelming one with too many details.
Next Generation SCSX
I don’t know what the future of the South China Sea series of wargames is but Indian Ocean Region shows how the design can be exported to other areas. I hope that John Gorkowski and Compass Games can do a Mediterranean or Black Sea or Baltic edition in the future. Both require the entry of a new Global Power—Russia. I can imagine a very interesting Baltic design with the USA and Russia as Global Powers and Old NATO and New NATO/Aspiring factions and even Neutrals. Such a game alsos need more land-based units that reach out into the littoral areas.
* CINC-HOUSE = “Commander in Chief – House.” If you don’t understand who occupies this position you are sorely out of touch with reality.