July 18, 2024

DIME’ing out the South China Sea

RockyMountainNavy, 7 December 2020

As I write this post, Compass Games has a Kickstarter campaign underway for Indian Ocean Region, the second volume in their South China Sea series of wargames. Given my heavy interest in naval wargaming, and the fact I already ownSouth China Sea, I am looking forward to the new game. That said, I will also admit that my expectations for Indian Ocean Region are a bit “conflicted” because I previously found South China Sea to be a decent military conflict simulation with what I felt was a poor political game grafted on top. With Indian Ocean Region approaching publication, I pulled South China Sea out to try it again and see how well my memory served me.

South China Sea by designer John Gorkowski came about in response to customer demands after seeing an earlier game of his, Breaking the Chains (Compass Games, 2014). In an unusual twist, the customer was the US government:

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

In South China Sea there are two types of turns; political and military. Political turns represent several weeks of political activity and interaction; i.e. the competition phase of a crisis before it moves to conflict. At some point the political turns in South China Sea end and armed conflict can breaks out. At this point, the game transitions to Military Turns representing several several hours of activity each. After I looked at South China Sea back in 2017 I even went so far as to contact Mr. Gorkowski and (boldly) shared my ‘displeasure’ with the Political Turns. He was gracious enough to respond:

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

Mr. Gorkowski was kind enough to share a playtest version of Indian Ocean Region with me and the Political turns are still there. So, I set out to replay South China Sea and see how it has aged with time.


South China Sea – Scenario 4: Spratly Missile Crisis

“Weeks of wrangling over jurisdiction come to a head when a PRC SAM on Fiery Cross Reef downs a US Navy P-8 with the loss of all hands. The two sides differ over the legal status of the waters below. Faced with this make or break moment for US prestige, the President decides to take decisive action.”

So reads the introduction to South China Sea Scenario 4. For my game I played a version of my ‘Schizo-solo” mode. I drew five hands of six cards (one hand for each power – PRC, USA, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines) and kept them face-down. I then played each power in the default turn order (PRC / USA / Malaysia / Vietnam / Philippines) as found in the rules. Before I started play, I decided on a general strategy for each power that I would use to drive card play in the Political Turns:

  • PRC – The South China Sea is ours!
  • USA – No, it ain’t!
  • Malaysia – PRC can be our friend.
  • Vietnam – We need Uncle Sam at our back.
  • Philippines – What’s in this for me?

The Political Turns of South China Sea start with the map but no forces deployed. In every Political Turn each power can play (or discard) one card in default order. At the end of each turn there is a timed 10-minute Negotiations Round where deals can be made. Some cards can be played only by a single Global Power (PRC or USA), some cards by either Global Power, and some cards only by Regional Powers (Malaysia, Vietnam, and The Philippines). Some cards put forces on the map while others can be used to move the Victory Point track. The VP track starts at 10VP and movement in the negative direction is favorable to the USA while positive movement is favorable to the PRC. At the end of six Political Turns (or the end of  an additional 10 Military Turns if conflict is triggered) the VP Track tells the story:

  • 0-5 VP = US Victory
  • 6-8 VP – Vietnam Victory
  • 9-11 VP = Philippines Victory
  • 12-14 = Malaysia Victory
  • 15-20 = PRC Victory

Whenever the play of a card moves the VP track by two or more points (or when directed by a card) a Roll for Armed Conflict is made to determine if the Political Turns end and the game transitions to Military Turns. When making a Roll for Armed Conflict , a result of 5-6 on 1d6 results in armed conflict.


(My) Crisis

Political Turn 1– The first few weeks after the downing of the P-8 are full of lots of US bluster but little actual action. China quietly increases its presence in the South China Sea by covertly deploying a Song-class submarine into the area (Stealth Deployment) . The US opts for diplomatic over military actions and sends the US Secretary of State on a whirlwind tour of the region (High Level Visit ) but it seems to make little difference in the crisis (No Effect on VP Track ). At the same time, following an earthquake in Malaysia the Chinese are invited to send Humanitarian Aid which they readily agree to (amphibious ship LPD Yuzhao to Malaysia). Vietnam invites the US to Base forces in the region and the US responds by forward basing two LA-class nuclear submarines to its former base of Cam Rahn Bay. The Philippines also invites the US to Base units in its country and the US send a detachment of F-22 fighters.

Behind the scenes there is much negotiation happening (aka ‘trading cards’ in the Negotiation Round). The Global Powers generally trade cards they can’t use to ‘friendly’ Regional Powers, and vice-versa.

Political Turn 2– A month after the downing of the P-8 the situation appears to be calming. Indeed, the PRC goes out of their way to avoid any sort of provocation (PASS ). The US also continues to focus on diplomatic efforts and goes to the UN with a Human Rights Report highly critical of China. However, after many years of complaining, the report falls on deaf ears (No Change to VP Track ). Chinese students in Malaysia, with Malaysian government sanction, stage an Embassy Demonstration in front of the US Embassy (+1 China = 11 VP). Landslides after heavy rains in Vietnam provides the US the opportunity to provide Humanitarian Aid and an amphibious ship (LHA America ) is sent. The Philippines tries to take a diplomatic leadership role in the region and pushes for ASEAN Solidarity in support of the United States; Malaysia rejects the initiative but Vietnam accepts (-1= 10 VP).

Back-room negotiations continue, but constrained by public opinion that increasingly is calling for a strong US response, little changes (i.e the US has few cards to trade).

Political Turn 3– In the weeks that follow it is the Chinese who now try to take the diplomatic offensive. A High Level Visit to the region by the Chinese Foreign Minister is generally viewed as successful (+1 = 11 VP). The US, responding to public pressure, makes a point of the deployment of theUSS Zumwalt to the region (Stealth Deployment ). Malaysia conducts a Combined Military Exercise with China which is given wide media attention (+1 = 12 VP). Although Vietnam wants to move closer with the US, they make no efforts during these crucial weeks to improve relations (PASS ). The Philippines, on the other hand, aggressively seeks a large Arms Sale arms from the US (-1 = 11 VP) that outrages China (Roll for Armed Conflict FAILS – transition to Military Turns).

click images to enlarge

Card play of Political Turns



Map at end of Political Turns. Note hidden units


The Crisis Turns on a DIME

With the transition to Military Turns all the units not already on the map are now placed in their scenario set up positions. Note that just because the game has transitioned to Military Turns it does not automatically mean the shooting starts. The scenario calls for 10 Military Turns. Victory Points are scored during Military Turns for certain Military Events:

  • For each of five “at start” PRC Spratly Islet hex controlled by US forces -1 each
  • If the PRC fires the first strike in the game -1
  • If the US fires the first strike in the game +1
  • For each PRC CV destroyed -3
  • For each PRC air, non-CV naval, or ground unit destroyed -1
  • For each US CVN destroyed +5
  • For each US air, non-CVN naval, or ground unit destroyed +1

As I laid out the forces on the South China Sea map and reviewed the Military Turns it immediately became apparent that the events of the Political Turns were going to be highly impactful. Indeed, the rules for Enemy, Friendly, and Neutral (5.2) suddenly became very important.

Forces deployed (circled areas are expanded views)


Each Military Turn in South China Sea consists of eight phases with each resolved in that default order (PRC / USA / Malaysia / Vietnam / Philippines). By game rule, at the start of the first Military Turn the three Regional Powers are Neutral (see 5.21). This neutral status can only be changed under certain conditions.

  • A neutral Regional Power can agree to military cooperation with a Global Power in the Military Negotiations phase of a Military Turn (i.e. they become an ally)
    • A Regional Power may declare military cooperation with a Global Power only if they played the Combined Military Exercise card for that Global Power during a Political Turn (5.21).
  • A neutral Regional Power not in formal military cooperation will ‘align’ with a Global Power after it strikes that Global Power’s enemy; however, they cannot coordinate movement or strikes unless they enter into military cooperation (5.21 & 5.25)
  • A neutral Regional Power can initiate an engagement at its place in the default order of any phase and ‘align with’ the Global Power they did not strike (5.22)
  • Any power that violates the land portion of a neutral immediately forces that neutral onto the opposing side with whom it declares military cooperation (5.24)
Interestingly, the game rules are silent on what happens if a neutral Regional Power attacks another neutral Regional Power.

For my game the actions of the Political Turns now come back to haunt the US. As I thought the situation through I came to realize that the Political Turns in South China Sea represents the Competition Phase of a conflict. It is in the Competition Phase that nations use their full set of Diplomatic-Information-Military-Economic (DIME) capabilities.

The Political Turns actually reflected heavy Diplomatic activity. Given the fact Malaysia played the Combined Military Exercise card for the PRC, a PRC-Malaysia alliance appears inevitable. On the other hand, the US has forces deployed to both Vietnam and The Philippines but no clear alliance ahead. The rules make it clear that units based in neutral countries as a result of political card play can “remain there, are free to leave, and can even return to those specific hexes without violating neutrality; but they cannot conduct strikes from neutral home country hexes” (5.23).

The diplomatic actions in the Political Turns of South China Sea also heavily influence the military starting situation. At the start of the scenario the US has no clear ally where they can base non-carrier air units. Those air units (3x F-22 Raptor fighters, 2x C-130 Hercules transports, and 2x P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol and strike aircraft) will start in the Okinawa or Guam off-map boxes – and will need to transit 15 hexes from Okinawa or 30 hexes (!) from Guamjust to get to the map edge . But once they get there where can they go? Obviously, the US will must quickly build alliances and conclude a military cooperation agreement with either Vietnam or (preferably?) The Philippines just get their airpower into the region.


It also becomes very obvious that I was STU-PID in the Political turns when Vietnam offered basing to the US. At the time I elected to place 2x submarines into Vietnam with immediate access to the South China Sea rather than having them set up east of The Philippines. How I now wished I had brought in some of that fixed-wing airpower….


War is the Continuation of Politics….

For all the DIME build-up South China Sea starts with once the Military Turns begin it all seems for naught. This assessment struck me as I played the game several years ago and it struck me again this time.

Given that the Military Turns in South China Sea start sans combat, it would seem that there might be some space for more DIME actions other than ‘kinetic M’. However, the rules as written seemingly only promote what I term ‘Dm ’ or Diplomatic military actions. In the case of South China Sea the declaration of military cooperation during the Military Turns is the one of two explicitly defined DIME-like actions. The second is that the Global Powers can agree to a Cease Fire and skip the combat phases of the next Military Turn (see 6.822).

Technically, the Military Negotiations phase in South China Sea is rather open-ended. Rule 6.81 states that during negotiations the various powers can, “make any arrangement they wish that do not contradict a written rule or move a piece in a way not explicitly allowed by the rules.”

But it is the same rules of South China Sea that, in the end, incentivize conflict. Looking back at the Military Event victory point adjustments, there simply is no reward for NOT duking it out. Even the declaration of military cooperation (without an associated strike) does not gain any VP benefit. Logically I find this frustrating; there is no reward for the Global Powers to ‘build a coalition of the willing’ other than to subsequently employ that coalition to bash the other Global Power’s forces.


South China Sea – Worth the DIME?

I have to admit, this new look at South China Sea and the Political Turns has shown me the importance of competition phase DIME activities before a shooting war begins. One could make a case that the DIME actions in the cards of South China Sea are limited and maybe even a bit pre-determinative. I say the design of South China Sea is ripe for variants and further exploration. Maybe a deck of cards and new Victory Conditions based on years? I wonder what a 2020 deck with the Trump Administration for the US, COVID, and the rapid expansion of the PRC Navy would look like. Or a 2022 deck with a Biden Administration, new Free Trade Agreements with Regional Powers, but a hyper-aggressive China throwing about its economic might (maybe using the I of DIME – Cyber Operations?).



I’m glad I pulled South China Sea out to look at the Political and Military Turns again because this time I gained a better understanding of what designer John Gorkowski was attempting with the design. Whereas the last time I played I focused on the Military Turns, this time I focused on the Political Turns and it showed me a whole different perspective. I now have a new understanding and a better appreciation of the game. South China Sea is not a perfect design, but it’s a good stab at gaming out pre-conflict, competition phase events and is worthy of your attention. At the very least the variation to the start of Military turns given the variable o the Political turns should enhance the re-playability of the design. Given the same political system is in Indian Ocean Region , that game too should give you an interesting “build up to conflict.”

But what happened?!

My focus above was on the Political Turns of the South China Sea design. I purposefully did not dig deep into the Military Turns because, well, to be honest I ended up playing an experimental home-brew variant. Wanting to keep exploring the impact of DIME on the South China Sea design I went off on a bit of a tangent.

First, I added a VP dimension to the declaration of military cooperation. During the Military Negotiations phase, a Global Power may seek military cooperation with a Regional Power (and vice-versa). If a military cooperation agreement is concluded, a d6 is used to determine how many points the VP track moved in favor of that Global Power (1-3= 1 VP, 4-6= 2 VP).

I also envisioned in games where there was no Regional Power player that the Global Power would make a d6 die roll to determine success, with a roll of 5+ being success. In this case the Global Power could ‘buy’ die roll modifiers (up to +2) by ‘spending’ VP in favor of the other Global Power (expenditure of ‘political’ capital). In fact, after further consideration, I added several other conditions to this die roll:

  • If during the Political Turns a Regional Power played the Combined Military Exercise then there is NO VP adjustment during Military Turns for a declaration of military cooperation (use the rules as written as the VP adjustment is already factored in during the Political Turns)
  • If during the Political Turns a Regional Power played either Basing or Arms Sales then the invited Global Power can buy the die roll adjustment at a rate of 1VP for +1 modifier to a maximum modifier of +2
  • If during the Political Turns a Global Power played Economic Sanctions and was supported by the Regional Power in question then the Global Power can buy the die roll adjustment at a rate of 2 VP for +1 modifier to a maximum modifier of +2

Second, I added a VP adjustment to the Cease Fire rule. If one Global Power proposes a Cease Fire but the other rejects it, the VP track moves1 VP in favor of the proposing power (favorable international reaction). Further, in Military Turns that have a declared Cease Fire, the VP track moves 1 VP ‘towards the center’ (return to status quo).

I also added a rule for Restraint. In a Military Turn, if one Global Power conducts strikes but the other does not, the side that does not conduct strikes move the VP Track 2 points in its favor.

The scenario played out thus; Military turns 1 and 2 were spent with both Global Powers maneuvering forces into the South China Sea. In the Military Negotiations phase of Turn 1, Malaysia declared for PRC and the US spent 1 VP to successfully get Vietnam to enter into military cooperation. On Turn 2 the US was also successful in getting The Philippines to join the coalition, but at a cost of another VP.

On Turn 3, the US was able to maneuver the hidden Zumwalt within range of the CV Shandong. Zumwalt then launched a preemptive strike (+1 VP) that sunk the carrier (-3VP) even though it was escorted by an Area Missile Defense escort. With the gloves off both sides now went at it.

At the end of Turn 10 the US was unable to seize any of the Spratly Islets but had not lost any carriers (though one was very close to being lost). The VP track sat at 9 VP…a Philippines Victory.


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