The first card-driven game I learned to play was Twilight Struggle. It was early on during my entrance into the hobby, and, at the time, the game was No. 1 on Board Game Geek. I used to play it often way back when but, times have changed, much like the rankings on BGG, and I don’t often have the time to devote to that particular 2P game. Luckily for gamers, GMT Games created a Lunchtime Game Series, and Flashpoint: South China Sea is the latest game of the series, which consist of smaller-format strategy games designed to be played in 20-60 minutes.
Flashpoint: South China Sea, designed by Harold Buchanan, is a tense yet much more accessible game than its CDG predecessors. Set in the conflict between the United States and China in the disputed region around the South China Sea, the game pits two players against each other as they try to assert economic and diplomatic influence across various regions and countries using cubes and event cards.
But first, a big thank you to Harold for sending me this game!
The game begins with a board, event cards, scoring cards, wooden cubes, player aids and rulebooks. There’s also another deck of cards for those who like to play games solo. First and foremost, I appreciate how the rulebook immediately indexes and explains important terms and concepts on the first page — this makes jumping into this game less daunting for less experienced wargamers.
Setup is really easy. On the board, squares with a darker-colored triangle at its corner shows where starting cubes begin. You then set up the 7 scoring cards face up near the board and shuffle the 48 event cards. Deal out 6 event cards per player, and set the tension to low and the campaign track on the 1. The game plays out through three campaigns.
On campaigns 2 and 3, the person with the fewest VPs gets to decide who goes first, but in campaign 1, choosing first player is a little different. Each player secretly bids the number of victory points they’re willing to give to the U.S. player in order to play as China. I’ve never encountered starting instructions like this before, but it immediately puts pressure on the players before even starting the game! You probably don’t want to give the U.S. too many points to play as China, but maybe you’ll be better at this than me!
Players then alternate playing event cards until each side’s hand is empty. Event cards are friendly to one side, and they have an operational value, a mode and a scoring impact. If you play a friendly card to your side, you can play the event or use the operational value to conduct actions. If you play it for the scoring impact, score one of the scoring cards sitting next to the main board, execute it and turn it face down. That scoring card cannot be scored again during this current campaign.
Cards are then discarded to a discard pile, and the next player takes their turn. If you play a card that matches the mode as the top card in the discard pile, you can either execute the discarded card’s event or scoring impact. There are three different modes in the deck.
China and the U.S. both have an available pool and reserve pool of cubes. The available cubes can be brought onto the board through cards, while moving reserves to available will cost 1 Operation value. Certain actions will also cost more to carry out as the tension level increases throughout the game.
At the end of the first and second campaigns, each country moves economic influence cubes to available, and the tension level moves one space to the left. If a side reaches 15 VPs during play or final scoring, it’s an instant victory. If no one reaches 15 VPs after the third campaign, the side with the most VPs wins the game.
The game is a constant tug of war for political and economic influence, and there are never enough cubes to do everything. Plus, timing is absolutely key when activating the scoring cards. But sometimes your opponent will score before you, or, based on the random draw, you do not have the matching symbol to activate that scoring card. The game’s well-written rulebook shows plenty of examples, and even provides several Spotify playlists, depending on how intense you want your game to be. I most definitely always crank up the HIGH tension playlist. 🤘🏽
So if you’re looking for a 60-minute, two-player wargame, Flashpoint: South China Seas is worth checking out. And with that, I’m off to Harold’s San Diego Historical Con for the weekend. I’ll be writing about that convention next time!