RockyMountainNavy, 29 August 2022
Flashpoint Series Volume 1 by designer Harold Buchanan is the first in a new game series from GMT Games. The Flashpoint Series draws thematic inspiration from current events and is intended to be played over “lunchtime” by featuring easy-to-learn, quick-to-play rules. The first game in the series certainly lives up to that expectation. I like this strategy GAME!
(click images to enlarge)
Here is how Flashpoint Series Volume 1 describes itself:
“The game is driven by a card deck that captures developments ripped straight from today’s headlines, bolstered by cards with a context-setting reading of recent events, and a set of speculative cards capturing a diverse range of potential future events.” (Flashpoint back-of-the-box)
More directly, Flashpoint Series Volume 1 is a two-player card driven game (CDG) that pits Red and Blue against each other by playing cards to place cubes and score points. The primary game mechanism used to place those cubes is to play cards in one of four ways: for the point value to execute actions, for the card suit, for the written action, or to score a Scoring Card.
The map in Flashpoint Series Volume 1 is laid out in an easy-to-understand manner. Both sides have an area for storing Available and Reserve cubes; only cubes in Available can be played unless directed in a written action. There is also a track attached to the Available area to place cubes used to resolve a special action. The main board is separated into five primary areas with three of those areas having a secondary zone attached to it. Each primary area is further subdivided into two types of Influence for each player. Each of the secondary zones are likewise divided into Red/Blue areas to place cubes. There are also shared tracks for points and “tension.”
After completing the initial setup in Flashpoint Series Volume 1 players will compete against one another for three rounds after which a final scoring round is conducted. The winner is the player with the most points. If either player reaches the end of their Scoring Track, the game ends in an automatic victory for them.
A round in Flashpoint Series Volume 1 starts with each player drawing a hand of six cards. Play alternates between players until each has played their six cards. When playing a card, the player has a choice of using it in one of four ways:
- Action Points: The player can use the Action Point value to place or move cubes; sometimes this can change the Tension track
- Suit: If the Suit of the card played matches the top face-up card in the Discard Pile and the card is your color, the player can play the written action on the discarded card or play the Scoring action if allowed by the card
- Event: The player follows the directions on the card to play the written actions
- Scoring: There are seven Scoring Cards that can be executed; doing so scores the points as directed and turns that Scoring Card face-down for the duration of the round.
Two uses of Action Points in Flashpoint Series Volume 1 are important to note. The first concerns the placement of cubes in secondary zones. Doing so moves the Tension Track up a level which can change the cost of—or even prohibit—how Action Points are spent. Second, cubes can be moved to the special action box which might allow a special action. When a player decides the time is right, the special action is executed and, if successful, will result in a “Lock” of a primary area which removes certain categories of the opponent’s cubes and forbids the opponent to place cubes in that area in the future (or until the opponent successfully executes a special action and removes the “Lock”).
At the end of a round in Flashpoint Series Volume 1, scoring cards are turned face up and some cubes are removed from primary areas and returned to Available. In secondary play areas, only the Blue cubes are removed; the Red cubes stay. At the end of the third round the Score Cards are turned face-up and then executed in numerical order; no cubes are removed. Top score is the winner.
All told, the design of Flashpoint Series Volume 1 is clean and elegant. The production values are extremely high. The rules are very easy-to-learn and play is quick with little need to refer to the rule book. Importantly, the game can be set up, played, and packed away well within a “lunch hour.” There is also a solo module that is equally easy to learn and play. Designer Harold Buchanan and the entire design and production team certainly have reasons to be proud of this design!
At this point in the article, I figure about half of you are going, “I have no idea what game you are talking about.” The other half is likely screaming and calling me vile names for I am so obviously missing the title of the game. Rest assured, I am aware of what I am doing—I am making the point that Flashpoint Series Volume 1 is a well-designed and produced CDG…that works perfectly well without a theme.
Speaking about theme…
If you do not already know, Flashpoint Series Volume 1 is the subtitle for Flashpoint: South China Sea. The American (Blue) player competes against the
Chinese People’s Republic of China (PRC or Red) player over the South China Sea (depicted on the game board). The primary areas are countries, and the secondary zones are groups of Contested Islands attached to three of those countries. This is how the back-of-the-box ad describes itself:
“Flashpoint: South China Sea is a two-player strategy game that simulates the complex geopolitical competition currently taking place between the United States and China in a disputed region of the South China Sea.” (Flashpoint: South China Sea back-of-the-box)
Flashpoint: South China Sea bills itself as a game of current affairs as each side engages in that “geopolitical competition.” Here is the GMT Games ad copy from the product page:
“The Chinese player works to influence other countries in the region, establish territorial claims and regional hegemony, and improve its world standing. The U.S. player works to maintain influence with allied countries in the region, secure freedom of navigation, and keep China in check. Success for both players hinges on the support and allegiance of non-player countries in the region. The game stops short of dealing with a potential full-scale military conflict. Rather, it requires the nuanced exercise of political, economic, and military resources, in a form of prima facie diplomacy – on the waters, in the air, and ultimately in the minds of the people – to achieve victory.” (Flashpoint: South China Sea product page)
At the risk of sounding repetitive, I’m also going to show you more of that product page because there are some important ideas presented here that, well, we will take a bit about later.
“Strategically, there are several key focal points for the players:
- First, the US player bears the burden of keeping the region’s shipping lanes free and open. If the US player falls behind in Freedom of Navigation Operations, Chinese claims grow and game momentum will shift.
- Both players must take heed of the game’s Tension Track, which directly influences the impact of events. If the Track is not managed properly, a high level of tension can increase the stakes and derail the ‘best-laid plans’.
- The Chinese player must work to improve Chinese World Standing, which affords them added influence as their World Standing increases. The US player can win by reducing Chinese World Standing to a critically low level.
- Protagonist countries in the region are key influence battlegrounds for the players. This represents the pragmatic reality that claimant countries in the region have unique impact on international dispute resolution mechanisms. If the Chinese can influence them to the point that they will not exercise those claims, the Chinese position is strengthened. If the US can influence and support them to consistently exercise their claims, China’s position is weakened. In the game, both players attempt to assert economic and military influence on these claimant countries.
- In order to increase the strength of their claims in the region, the Chinese can develop islands. This development will cost influence in the region and increase Tension, but is a cornerstone of Chinese strategy. To counter these claims, the United States must conduct offsetting Freedom of Navigation Operations. These Freedom of Navigation Operations help keep the Chinese claims in check but must be diligently maintained.”
(Flashpoint: South China Sea product page)
How do all these political, economic, and military goals get translated into the game?
In Flashpoint: South China Sea, players use Diplomacy and Economic “power” (represented by Influence cubes) to influence countries. They also use those same cubes (now representing military strength or investments?) for military operations—Freedom of Navigation Operations or FONOPS represented by Blue influence placed in those Contested Islands or recognized claims (Red influence placed in Contested Islands representing “Chinese Reclamation”). The game is played out over three “Campaigns” each representing between six months to five years(!) of time. The Tension Track shows the level of tension between the United States and the PRC—the higher the Tension the closer the game is to a “shooting war”. The special action referenced above is called “Political Warfare” in the game and is used to “Lock” a country securely into your “sphere of influence.”
Wargame or war game?
I have seen at least one BoardGameGeek user already question whether Flashpoint: South China Sea is a “wargame” given the lack of a kinetic conflict. While everyone will have their own opinion, I think it is more relevant to ask what can be learned from the game than quibble over a petty definition. I’ll also note that the back-of-the-box text simply states this is a “strategy game.”
There is a picture posted on Twitter and promoted by Flashpoint’s designer which was taken at the 2022 CONNECTIONS conference where the speaker is holding Flashpoint: South China Sea. CONNECTIONS is a conference for professional wargaming in the U.S. government. CONNECTIONS promotes the use of wargames for serious study and analysis of a wide variety of issues.1 2
I was not at CONNECTIONS 2022, so I do not know the context of the picture. However, the association of the picture at CONNECTIONS and some of the linked commentary might lead some to believe this game that “simulates the complex geopolitical competition” might have a use in policy analysis. After playing Flashpoint: South China Sea, I have reservations as to the value in doing so.
My first reservation regarding Flashpoint: South China Sea is that you cannot go to war. I strongly believe that in the real world that is a VERY good thing, but in the game it simply is not possible because the game mechanisms and rules do not allow it. In defense planning terms, Flashpoint: South China Sea takes place in “Phase 0” which is sometime called the “Deterrence Phase” or “Competition Phase” of an operational plan. The desired end-state of Phase 0 is to convince your opponent to NOT escalate the conflict. In this respect Flashpoint: South China Sea is well-themed. But, is the lesson taught by Flashpoint: South China Sea that diplomacy and economic power runs in cycles (“campaigns”) yet an invisible hand will prevent tensions from boiling over? In a game that has an automatic victory condition, why is there no Sudden Death losing condition? Do the players, in game, have agency only up to a point where a “power from above” will prevent a valid (though undesirable) possible outcome of their actions from taking effect?
My second reservation concerning Flashpoint: South China Sea is that you, the player, have very little control over your “policy.” Instead of being able to try different policy options (Military Confrontation, International Consensus, Diplomatic or Economic initiatives, etc.) players both literally and figuratively must use “the hand they are dealt.” While one could (cynically) make an argument that those conditions are realistic, it seemingly clashes with the thematic expectations I think many players have after reading the ad copy.
My third reservation is in how the other countries in the region are treated. Flashpoint: South China Sea is a two-player game and the only powers with “agency” in the game are the United States and the People’s Republic of China. While some event cards reflect actions by some regional actors, the design is more random than deliberate; there is no way for a regional power to advance their agenda in the game. With the bipolar focus, I wonder if the designer deliberately handcuffed the design (and play) and is leading players to the (seemingly inevitable) conclusion that the contest in the South China Sea is a new Cold War?
While some Events may seem ripped from today’s headlines, and Operations seemingly create visions of diplomatic or economic or even military muscle movements, the game is ultimately a point salad contest.
My fourth reservation about Flashpoint: South China Sea is the Political Warfare special action. The name of the action itself is inflammatory (seems to be trying very hard to make Flashpoint a wargame) and does not really match the tone of the game. Or does it? Has the designer purposefully crafted the theme of this game with the message that conflict in the South China Sea is a form of non-kinetic combat (the so-called “Grey Zone”) that will not escalate into actual shooting? I hesitate to lean so heavy into the concept of “Political Warfare” based solely the designer’s reading of a 2015 U.S. Army Special Operations Command report. The use of a phrase such as “Policy Initiatives” or even the horrible “Whole of Government Effort” might better capture the spirit of the special action over “Political Warfare.” Heck, if you want to keep it “wargamey” use “Diplomatic/Economic Offensive!”
A real power of wargaming—at least the serious games form—rests in the ability such games grant players to explore decisions behind actions. Make a decision, see the consequences. In Flashpoint: South China Sea, however, the objective of the game is not to advance a policy position, nor is it to avoid conflict (the rules guarantee that). Flashpoint: South China Sea is simply a points-engine; the only goal is to score points. While some Events may seem ripped from today’s headlines, and Operations seemingly create visions of diplomatic or economic or even military muscle movements, the game is ultimately a point salad contest. Yes, there are some interesting decision points—the most powerful one perhaps being when is the best time to Score a card in a round—but those decisions are driven by a simple need to optimize point scoring, not any sort of policy objective.
While Flashpoint: South China Sea will do little to ready you to become a White House policy advisor, I will grant that the theme educates players in the basics of geography, personalities, and past events that are associated with the South China Sea… in 2021. For instance, card 5 is “Prime Minister of Japan (Shinzo Abe).” In August 2022 not only is Abe no longer the Prime Minister of Japan but he is dead after being assassinated by a crazed gunman. Such is the danger of trying to be “too current” in a game industry where design, development, and production timelines are measured in years.
So…you really don’t like this game?
Actually, I think Flashpoint: South China Sea is a fine abstract STRATEGY game. I like it…but also recognize that it is not all that I expected. Unlike the ad copy, there is no real “…nuanced exercise of political, economic, and military resources, in a form of prima facie diplomacy – on the waters, in the air, and ultimately in the minds of the people – to achieve victory.” Theme aside, Flashpoint: South China Sea – Flashpoint Series Volume 1 is a well-designed CDG that looks great on the table and is quick-to-learn and easy to play—perfect for a “lunchtime” game. However, I seriously question those who might claim that—as a wargame—it provides insight beyond some very basic familiarization into the many issues surrounding the South China Sea. Those issues are far more complex than simply using cards to place cubes of influence and score points at the right moment. Such a wargame may exist…but Flashpoint: South China Sea is not that game.
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- Connections US has been held every year since 1993, Connections UK was established in 2013 at Kings College London, Connections Australia was established in 2014 at the University of Melbourne, and Connections Netherlands was established in 2014 by SAGANET, and Connections North (Canada) was established in 2016. These conferences are all independently managed and hosted, but they share a common mission to provide wargaming practitioners with a venue to share best practices and advance the field. Together, the Connections conferences around the world are building the wargaming community of practice and working to improve the use of wargaming as a tool for research, analysis, education, and policy.
- ed note: the author will be flogged at a later date for failing to mention the Dragoons-co-sponsored-and-hosted Connections Online conference