Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sailing into the East China Sea

Just to confuse things, I’ve got a few minutes today so I’m going to step back in time a week or so and write up a little bit about the new game I played between sessions of Day of Heroes – “Fleets 2025” from Victory Point Games.

In your spare time do you ever sit around and wonder what would happen if a shooting war broke out between the US Navy and the Chinese a couple of decades from now? If you do, then this is the game for you. And even if you’re not obsessed with naval affairs of the near future – you just might find an enjoyable game inside this package.

Fleets is ‘semi’ desktop published. The components are (good) desktop quality, with the addition of the counters being mounted, pressed and die-cut. At $22.95, component-wise at least, as game prices go these days there’s a fair amount of ‘stuff’ in the ziplock. 80 counters, 11 x 17 map, 60 (smallish) cards, play aids and rules.

As far as play value goes, Fleets 2025 is excellent. Period.

I couldn’t be more impressed with a simple (5 pages of rules) game system. The cards throw in enough variability that no two games ever play alike – but they don’t overwhelm the rest of the game.

There’s no ‘history’ to measure by, as they game’s topic is a very hypothetical limited naval war between China and the US in the East China Sea and Pacific near Taiwan and southern Japan. Events on Taiwan are the ostensible rationale, but the ‘why’ of the situation hardly matters . In a couple of the scenarios some victory points are awarded one way or another depending on who does what to the three Taiwanese ‘city’ hexes, but that’s about it.

Above all, it’s a clever little game about maneuver, detection and planning. It plays very quickly, yet the decision-making involved is far from trivial. I suppose it wouldn’t play so quickly with an opponent in the throes of analysis paralysis, but I usually managed to squeeze an entire game into a 1.5 – 2 hour gaming session – even less than that a couple of times when early action went wildly against one side or the other.

I’ll confess that in the 6 or 7 scenarios I played, I never truly grasped an effective approach for the Chinese to take. It seems they really need to rely on ‘quantity as quality’ and hope for early success in putting some US ships out of action.

Since the game is entirely hypothetical, there’s really not much point in debating or haggling about the various unit ratings in the game. The US clearly has a qualitative advantage (longer ranges, higher combat factors). That’s the basic balance of the game – quantity (China) vs quality (USN).

Still, I’ve got a quibble. Yeah, the US already seems to have enough going in its favor in the game – but the combat ratings of the US aircraft are consistently lower than the Chinese aircraft. What’s up with that? The US “F35” strikefighters get a bonus in air-to-air that give them a leg-up on the Chinese. But their naval strike capability flat stinks. By 2025 the US Navy will have been operating carrier aviation for nearly a century – and they get strike units rated a stinking ‘1’, while the Chinese (who don’t even have a carrier yet) aircraft are rated ‘2’.

Overall game balance probably tips a little in the US favor, so it’s not an issue that impacts game play (I don’t think, anyway) – but the game’s designer shouldn’t be surprised if a disgruntled naval aviator poops on his doorstep some night.

That trivial issue aside, though, I don’t have very many games in my closet that I’ve enjoyed playing more than Fleets 2025. Lots of them offer greater ‘simulation value’ – but few are more fun to just sit and play.

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