As the name of the game foreshadows, Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. IIleaves 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, and5) 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.
Command & Control (C2) and C2 Countermeasures (C2CM)
Capt. Hughes also writes on ‘What a Navy is for.’
A navy’s purposes deal with the movement and delivery of goods and services at sea; in contrast, an army’s purpose is to purchase and possess real estate. Thus a navy is in the links business, while the army is in the nodes business. Seen that way, a navy performs one or more of four functions and no others: At sea, it (1) assures that our own goods and services are safe, and (2) that an enemy’s are not. From the sea, it (3) guarantees safe delivery of goods and services ashore, and (4) prevents delivery ashore by an enemy navy. – Hughes, p. 9
South China Sea: Modern Naval Conflict in the South Pacific, Compass Games, 2017
BLUF – South China Sea may be the best representation of modern missile combat at sea but suffers from a questionable political game and needs to be updated to keep pace with rapidly changing political, technological, and military developments.
The scenarios in South China Sea do not particularly focus on a reason for the conflict or what role naval forces really have, but instead seemingly make the assumption that that conflict between the USA and PRC is coming. Play in South China Sea consists of a series of 1-6 Political Turns (3-7 weeks of time) during which Armed Conflict may break out. If Armed Conflict occurs, the game transitions to Military Turns (defined as ‘several hours’ each).
It is possible that the Political Turns end without triggering Armed Conflict (see 4.47). The most important outcome of the Political Turns is the alignment (via Military Cooperation) of Regional Powers (The Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam).
[The alignment system immediately shows the fragility of designing a modern game. In almost every scenario, the rules have Malaysia aligning with the PRC, Vietnam aligning with the US, and the Philippines rolling a die to cast their fate. The usual spread on the die is 1-3 aligns with US, 4-5 stays neutral, and on a 6 aligns with the PRC. I have to wonder what the spread should be given current issues with the Duterte administration….]
Victory in South China Sea is a combination of the outcome of the Political Turns and the battles fought in the Military Turns. VP moves during Political Turns, and once battles start the standard Victory Points for Military Events focuses on destruction of enemy units or, in the case of the US, control of the Spratly Islands:
-1 For each ‘at-start’ PRC Spratly Islet hex controlled by US forces
-1 If the PRC fires the first strike
-1 For each PRC air, non-CV naval, or ground unit destroyed
-3 For each PRC CV destroyed
+5 For each US CVN destroyed
+1 If the US fires the first strike
+1 For each US air, non-CVN naval, or ground unit destroyed
[The final VP score is translated to a Regional Power Victory or Global Power Victory. Again, the design shows some fragility given the ever-changing geopolitical situation in the South China Sea and ASEAN.]
Few scenarios have modified VP but in general the standard numbers are used. For a game that starts with a very strategic, political view of the conflict the final victory determination (and the bulk of the scoring?) is very much focused on destruction of the enemy. There is little strategic insight to be gained from a play of South China Sea but if you are more operational or tactically-focused the interplay of the various units may yield more insights.
“Through maneuver the elements of a force attain positions over time.” – Hughes, p. 177
“Maneuver is tactical speed and agility” – Hughes, p. 179
“The fundamental tactical position is no longer defined by the geometric relationship of the opposing formations, but by an operational element: the early detection of the enemy.” Guiseppe Fioravanzo as quoted in Hughes, p. 179.
Maneuver in South China Sea is abstract in the Political Turns (some units may be placed on the map but generally the map is unused) and very simple in the Military Turns. There are few considerations. For instance, in the Air Movement Phase, aircraft can move up to double their Combat Radius but units that do so are marked Spent and cannot make another strike in the turn. As always there is an exception; in this case rule 5.551 Mid-Air Refueling which can be used once per game by each side. In the Sea Movement Phase it is very straight-forward with the only exception being submarines which can spend extra movement at the risk of Cavitation or chose to not move at all and increase their Stealth score (see Scouting/Anti-Scouting below).
Like most of sea movement, there is a strong interaction with the Scouting/Anti-Scouting elements of the design. The most important element of movement is actually 6.25 Intervention. Basically, ships that enter the Illumination Radius of a unit can be stopped. The Design Note on p. 15 under 6.25 is the best explanation:
The intervention mechanism does not represent actually stopping the other guy’s ships, rather it accounts for the stationary (non-phasing) side’s ability to respond to enemy movement. Without it, the simple I-go-You-go turn sequence would enable the currently moving player to literally ride circles around the enemy. With it, each side suffers a very realistic uncertainty about how far they can push before provoking a response. This rule allows for full moves (to speed play) when opposing units are far apart, but it curtails movement as units close range and more interaction becomes necessary.
“Firepower is the capacity to destroy an enemy’s ability to apply force.” Hughes, p. 175
“At sea the essence of tactical success has been the first application of effective offensive force.” – Hughes, p. 206
“Another recurring tendency, perhaps common enough to be called a constant, is to overestimate the effectiveness of weapons before a war.” -Hughes, p. 207
“In modern battle, ships and aircraft will be lost at an agonizing rate. but we observe no trend toward greater destructiveness; we see a continuation of naval combat’s decisive and destructive nature. – Hughes, p. 208.
Every unit is South China Sea is rated for combat in four warfare areas. Where applicable, each area is rated in terms of a Weapon System Score and if necessary a Weapon System Range (in hexes). All Naval, Aircraft, and Ground units are rated for:
G – Gun Strikes (Note – see Ground unit below)
U – Anti-Submarine
A/S – Anti-Surface
A/G – Anti-Ground
Naval units also can have a T- Torpedo rating. Aircraft units can add an Air-to-Air rating. Ground units have Combined Arms (CA) in place of the G-factor of Naval and Aircraft units.
Strikes in SCS are executed in a strict Air/Sea Engagement Sequence. The order of Strikes is predetermined with attacks executed in descending order of the attackers Stealth factor or by order of the particular Weapon System Factor:
Anti-Air Strikes (Air-to-Air vs Aircraft) / Stealth Order
Torpedo Strikes by Submarines (Submarine T vs ships or subs) / Stealth Order
Anti-Ship Strikes (AS vs ships) / Stealth Order
Anti-Submarine Strikes (U vs subs) / In U order
Gun Strikes (G vs ships, Air or Naval Bases) / In G order
Torpedo Strikes by Surface Units (Ship T vs ships or subs) / In T order
Anti-Ground Strikes (AG vs Ground Units, Air Bases, or Fort) / In AG order
Combined Arms Strikes (CA vs Ground Units or Fort) / By CA order within Artillery then Defender then Attacker.
The obvious advantage goes units with higher Stealth or Weapon System Score get to strike first, with the results of that strike immediately implemented, regardless of being the attacker or defender. This is very different from many naval wargames where the attacker often gets to strike first or where combat results are applied simultaneously.
“Counterforce is the capacity to reduce the effect of delivered firepower.” – Hughes, p. 175
“While the success of defense against firepower has waxed and waned and at present is on the wane, the importance of diluting or destroying enemy offensive firepower continues.” – Hughes, p. 208.
“The prominent trend in defense is away from survivability through armor, compartmentation, bulk, and damage control. and toward cover, deception, and dispersion.” – Hughes, p. 186
Important to understanding these discussions is the way a fleet tactician looks at defensive force. Defensive systems collectively act like a filter (not a wall, or Maginot Line) that extracts a certain number of incoming aircraft or missiles. As it is able, a hull absorbs hits and allows a warship to conduct curtailed offensive operations.” – Hughes, p. 192
Counterforce in South China Sea takes three forms, Stealth, Steps and the Defense Score.
Stealth in effect represent the ‘Information Warfare’ elements of cyber and EW as many Strikes are resolved in Stealth order conferring an advantage to units with a greater score. Stealth not only effects the chances of successfully evading a Strike, but also where in the Strike order the unit acts – a better Stealth score is highly advantageous.
Steps represent both hits and a breakdown of units. A player can use Consolidation or Breakdown on two-step (only) units to combine, or break up, those units.
The Defense Score comes in two flavors; Missile Defense and ‘intrinsic.’ Some units have an Area Missile Defense (AMD) value that can protect other friendly units:
AMD scores represent area defense systems built around phased array radar such as those carried by US Navy Arleigh Burke destroyers and the People’s Liberation Army Navy Lu Yang III destroyers. AMD provides very accurate, supersonic interceptor missiles (and maybe one day lasers or rail gun projectiles) to shoot down incoming missiles tens of miles away. The very simplified anti-aircraft fire of AMD accounts for its ability to down enemy planes without having to get lost in details about which stand-off weapon was fired from where by each aircraft. Design Note, p. 13
[Again, this relatively recent design is already showing its age. What about attacks using hypersonic weapons? Should the MD or AMD score be reduced, and if so, by how much?]
“Scouts deliver tactical information about the enemy’s position, movements, vulnerabilities, strengths, and, in the best of worlds, intentions.” – Hughes, p. 175
“The goal is scouting is to help get weapons within range and aim them.” -Hughes, p. 193
“It seems pedestrian to say that scouting has always been an important constant of war. Perhaps the way to put it is this: winners have outscouted the enemy in detection, in tracking, and in targeting. At sea better scouting – more than maneuver, as much as weapons range, and oftentimes as much as anything else – has determined who would attack not merely effectively, but who would attack decisively first.” – Hughes, p. 212
In South China Sea, Scouting is accounted for in rule 5.4 Situational Awareness: Illumination, Evasion, and Hiding, rule 6.25 Intervention, rule 6.41 Focus, and rule 6.42 Evasion. SCS starts with a major assumption about detection as found in the Design Note for rule 5.4:
The modern air-sea-land battle space is awash in electromagnetic radiation that has enhanced detection capabilities and made stealth paramount to survival. Drones with modern detection technology ensure that units will have situational awareness well beyond the limits of old fashioned ship based radar even after satellites are knocked out. These rules account for this new dynamic.
[Ah…but don’t those drones also rely on satellites for control and communications? What if those satellites are gone?]
Rule 5.41 directly addresses the Gods-Eye issue:
Although players can see all their pieces on the map, those pieces have varying degrees of awareness of each other. Illumination is the key to awareness. Evasion describes how pieces escape detection. Hiding is avoiding illumination altogether.
Rule 5.44 allows for ‘hidden’ units. Basically, a hidden unit is not on the map and, “…do not assert control, do not illuminate, cannot intervene, cannot strike, cannot provide their AMD to friendly units, etc. Nor can they be targeted for strikes.”
As noted under Maneuver above, the non-phasing player can use rule 6.25 Intervention to ‘stop’ the phasing player’s movement. This in turn allows a player to Focus (rule 6.41) on a hex in order to strike it. Using a F2T2EA (Find-Fix-Track-Target-Engage-Assess) construct, the default map condition is ‘Find-Fix’ and Focus is ‘Track-Target.’ If the targeted units fail to evade (rule 6.42 Evasion) they are attacked.
“Antiscouts destroy, disrupt, or slow enemy scouts.” – Hughes, p. 175
“As the destructiveness and range of weapons grew, the means of surviving enemy attacks diminished and emphasis shifted to reducing the enemy’s scouting effectiveness.” – Hughes, p. 197
“Antiscouting by cover, deception, and evasion would now aim at limiting detection, tracking, or targeting.” – Hughes, p. 197
In South China Sea a unit can avoid Intervention and Focus by evading. Both uses of evasion utilize the same mechanic; roll 2d6 adding the evading units Stealth score and an amount equal to one-half the range to the nearest enemy unit. If the roll is greater than 11 the unit has successfully evaded. Note that units that evade remain in the targeted hex but do not participate in Strikes. They also cannot illuminate targets, cannot be targeted by Strikes, cannot be hit, and cannot use their AMD score to defend other friendly units.
“Command decides what is needed from forces and control transforms needs into action. These are processes. C2 systems are defined, perhaps a bit artificially, as the equipment and organizations by which the processes are performed.” – Hughes, p. 176
“A tactical commander uses C2 to allocate his forces for four activities: firepower delivery, counterforce delivery, scouting, and anti-scouting.” – Hughes, p. 176
“A modern tactical commander will expend relatively less of his energy on planning for and delivering firepower, and relatively more on planning and executing his scouting efforts and forestalling that of the enemy with antiscouting and C2 countermeasures.” – Hughes, p. 201-202.
For the most part, C2 in South China Sea is abstracted out of the game. All units are always commanded; there is no Information Warfare ‘strike’ in the game. 5.34 Stacking, 5.35 Air Basing, and 5.36 Naval Ports impose some restrictions on how combat units are organized.
That said, commanders will have to decide when a unit needs to evade (given the restrictions that come with that condition) and when a unit Strikes. Once a unit Strikes it is Spent and cannot participate in a later Strike in the Air/Sea Engagement Sequence (with AMD-capable defenders being a notable exception).
The Stealth score of a unit is used when sequencing strikes. Most Strikes are executed in the descending order of the Stealth score. The higher the Stealth score the earlier in the Strike Sequence one can operate.
C2CM (Command & Control Countermeasures)
“Command and control countermeasures (C2CM) are steps to limit the enemy’s ability to decide (command) and disseminate decisions (control). – Hughes, p. 176
Like C2, C2CM in South China Sea is heavily abstracted. The closest thing to a C2CM factor is the Stealth score which is used to avoid Intervention and Focus.
I really like how Stealth and Missile Defense are represented in South China Sea. I feel like this game (as presaged in Breaking the Chains) is the first ‘modern’ naval warfare game to get missile combat ‘right.’ That said, the game is not without its problems.
I also question the ‘rosy’ view of detection used in the game. With the recent creation of SPAAAACCCE FORRRRRCCE (!!!) the assumption that the space domain is automatically available is, well, a questionable assumption at best.
As with any modern game, it is hard to keep up with the times. One glaring omission I see in South China Sea is Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM). Even Breaking the Chains had a rule on the Chinese ASBM so I was very surprised to NOT see it here.
One of the War Colleges asked me for a streamlined version of the game for classroom use. They may or may not actually use it, but I plan to make such a “lite” version and share it with the community. ConSimWorld Forum, Aug 26, 2016
The work-in-progress is called South China Sea (SCS). John explained the changes between BtC and SCS:
The South China Sea (SCS) system is BtC pruned for play-ability. How did we do that? We took the scale down from 70 nautical miles per hex to 45. We standardized unit sizes at two-steps each with exceptions for aircraft carriers and certain large cruisers. That meant going with land battalions rather than regiments. And, we created a rule that allows naval units to move more than one hex in a single “go”, but included a mechanism, based on stealth, that enables the other side to “check” that move to create a more variable and volatile environment.
This last adjustment is most important and was most difficult. Because modern anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) have such long reach, 290 nmi in some cases, you can’t just let phasing ships “jump” more than one hex at a time without giving the non-phasing player a chance to react. Otherwise, the phasing player could move through his enemy’s field of fire, or beaten zone if you prefer, without drawing fire. So the new “intervention” mechanism allows the non-phasing player to “react” by stopping a multi-hex move by the phasing player, but not with certainty. So stealthy ships can dart two or three hexes at a time while larger less stealthy ships will not progress that far before the enemy can react.
What did not change? The core strike mechanism that applies across all forms of combat and the air naval movement/combat sequence all remain the same. ConSimWorld Forum, Nov 9, 2016
I have been participating in the playtest of SCS. My early verdict is I like the revised combat system, but question the political system. In an email exchange, John shared the following comment:
I know what you mean about political turns….The good news is that in several scenarios players can chose to just skip POL [Political] turns and go right to the action. Email from John Gorkowski, Jan 14, 2017
John is caught between two customers here – the immediate paying customer (important for income NOW) and the future gaming consumer (potential future income). I think SCS will be a useful addition to the library of modern naval combat. I sincerely hope SCS makes it to the public so we too can explore potential South China Sea conflicts.
I have been a grognard wargamer longer than I have played roleplaying games or family boardgames. However, in recent years I have fallen off in buying new wargames, partially because of the prices (generally expensive) and partially because I have spent more time and money on RPGs and family boardgames. With the rise of the online publishing industry, RPG games and supplements are way more affordable, and my family boardgames included game series like Star Wars X-Wing, Star Wars Imperial Assault, Memoir ’44, and more recently Tanks: Panther vs Sherman. These “light wargames” favor playability over complexity/realism, and in the case of X-Wing or Tanks are more akin to manual video games. These games sorta scratched my wargaming itch, mostly because I used them to introduce the RMN Boys to the hobby.
But although I was scratching the itch, I was not making it go away.
So in 2016 I made a concerted effort to return to true grognard wargaming. Looking back, my modest effort appears to have paid off.
Wing Leader: Supremacy 1943-1945 (GMT Games) [Aerial Combat/WWII-era/Large-scale Tactical-level]. A different, and very interesting, look at air combat. A nice mix of tactical and operational-levels of aerial combat.
Breaking it down, of the seven wargames purchased this year:
Plurality are Naval Combat (3 of 7)
Majority are Operational-level (if one counts the large-scale tactical of Wing Leader as “operational” (4 of 7)
Plurality are are WWII-era (3 of 7)
Interestingly, I bought no space/science-fiction games this year. That is, unless one counts my pledged
I have to say though that my biggest wargaming achievement of 2016 was introducing Little I to miniature-style naval combat using my old copy of Battleship Captain (Minden Games, 2007). This is the game that really started Little I on the path to grognardia. He had played, and enjoyed, Memoir’44 but with Battleship Captain he started seriously studying the history behind the game. This Christmas season, his attention has been seized by the Gale Force 9 Tanks game and he is seriously studying WWII armored combat now.
Here’s to hoping 2017 is a year of many more wargame experiences.
All images courtesy BoardGameGeek except where noted.
Having been heavily focused on RPGs for a long while, I am trying this summer to get back into my wargaming groove. Always having a soft-spot in my heart for naval games, I recently acquired the 2013 Compass Games’ Breaking the Chains: War in the South China Sea. Taken directly from today’s headlines, BtC explores the naval battles that could take place in the named area.
My favorite operational-level naval conflict series is the old Victory Games Fleet Series (starting with Sixth Fleetin 1985). The scale of both BtC and the Fleet Series is very similar (i.e. time and distance). The combat mechanic is updated and in many ways simplified in BtCwith a near-exclusive focus on missiles.
The Fleet Series featured a very diverse selection of combatants whereas BtC is much more limited. There are also just a few scenarios included in BtC. In any given Fleet Series game one got a very large selection of scenarios or campaign games to play out.
I have read the BtC rulebook, and like the many detailed examples of play. Should help with the first run-thru of the game.