The Near Future?
Fleets 2025: East China Sea, a board game by Victory Point Games, is a two player game that simulates a future conflict between the United States and China in the vicinity of the East China Sea. It is strictly an Air & Naval game; ground forces are not represented at all. As would probably be the case in such a conflict, the Chinese have numerical superiority while the U.S. retains a technological edge. Each player’s proper usage of their respective advantages are required to score a victory in Fleets 2025.
The basic rules, or Captain Level rules are quite simple and easy to follow. For added realism, there is a small addition set of rules called the Admiral Level rules. These additional rules, however, do not add much complexity to the game.
The game ships in a 6″ x 10″ plastic zip lock bag (as do most of Victory Point Games titles) and contains the following components:
- 11″ x 17″ color game map (paper, unmounted)
- 5-page color rules booklet
- 2-page color examples of play sheet
- Game Scenarios Sheet, containing setup instructions for 3 scenarios (plus bonus ‘Full Campaign’ scenario on back of the game’s “cover” sheet)
- 80 color 5/8″ square cardboard units
- 60 Activity cards
- 2 Player Aid sheets
- One page of Designers Notes
The components, as I have discovered to be standard for Victory Point Games titles, are not super slick but are very functional and adequate for the game. The Activity Cards are a bit small (approx 1.5″ x 2.5″), making them difficult to handle and shuffle. The cardboard unit counters, however, are large 5/8″ pieces, easy to see and handle. Victory Point does not put a tremendous amount of stock in “pretty” games, preferring instead to focus on the quality and enjoyability of the game.
The rules are excellent. They’re clear, well organized, and succinct. Setting up and starting the game is quick and painless (great, because poor setup instructions are a BIG pet peeve of mine), leaving you free to jump right into the game. This is the second VPG game that I’m reviewing, and both had excellent rules booklets. In addition, Fleets 2025: East China Sea contains a two page color “Example of Play” that is just fantastic. If you have any confusion after reading through the short rules booklet, a quick run-through of the “Example of Play” will clear things right up. I give two big thumbs up to VPG for the quality of the written documentation.
Playing the Game
We started off with the “Training Exercise” scenario located on the main Scenario Sheet, because it contains a small number of units and is therefore more easily manageable for a first game, but we could easily have played any of the scenarios since the game system is easily and quickly digested. Simply place the specified units in the specified hex(es), or range of hexes, set the Max Hand Size and Starting Political Will (more about these in a moment), and begin the game! Notice that that Chinese player must set up first, thus giving a small starting advantage to the U.S. player.
There are two important levels in this game: the Political Will level and the Max Hand Size level.
- Political Will – As your units are elminated in combat, you place them on your Political Will Track, starting at the bottom right of the grid and working towards the top left. Each eliminated unit fills one box on the Political Will track, except for Carriers which fill an entire row! This simple rule makes the carriers as important in the game as they are in the real world. When your casualties fill up the Political Will track such that they reach the Political Will marker, you lose the game.
- Max Hand Size – This determines the maximum number of Activity Cards you may hold in your hand at any given moment, and can fluctuate during the game due to Events on the Activity Cards. Obviously, the player able to hold the most cards will be somewhat advantaged.
The Game Turn Phases
First the Chinese player, then the U.S. player may place Reinforcements, if any. Reinforcements are assigned by scenario instructions, in Reinforcement Groups, and can only be brought on the map by permanently reducing the Maximum Hand Size. So, there’s a trade-off. More combat units means less Activity Cards.
During this phase, first the Chinese player and then the U.S. player may move any or all of their combat units. There is no combat allowed during this phase; only movement.
The Action Phase is the heart of the game, and is performed first by the U.S. player and then by the Chinese player. Note that this gives the U.S. an advantage, by allowing them to move all units last in the prior “Movement Phase” and then allowing them to activate units first in this phase. This Phase is broken up into several sub-phases. The U.S. player performs all of these sub-phases followed by the Chinese player:
- Searches – The Active player may spend an Activity Card to search a single hex. The number of his colored dice on the card (i.e. Red dice for the Chinese player, Blue dice for the U.S. player) is the number of dice he may roll. The lowest number of all the die rolls is compared to the movement allowance of the unit being searched. If the low die roll is lower than the movement allowance, then the unit is revealed.
- Conduct Event/Issue Orders – The active player may play an Activity Card for either the Event or to issue Order (as many orders as the number on the Activity Card).
- For each Order issued, the Ordered units may move and/or attack.
The following graphics show a very basic example of an Action Phase. For purposes of this example, we are assuming that all units have been detected, except for one Chinese surface ship and one Chinese submarine unit. The U.S. player plays first in the Action Phase.
Wanting to reveal the Chinese “Stealth” units, the U.S. player immediately plays an Activity Card to perform a search. The search card can be any Orders value (1, 2, or 3). What’s important for the search is the number of colored dice on the left side of the card (blue dice for the U.S. and red dice for China), which determines how many dice the player can roll for the search. The U.S. player decides to perform a search in hex 1503 which contains the two stealth units. The Activity card that the U.S. player selected has 3 blue dice on the left side which entitles him to roll 3 dice for the search attempt.
He rolls three 3s. The Search rules state that you must roll less than the movement value on the stealth unit in order to successfully detect it. But a special scenario rule says that the U.S. player (only) successfully searches if any die roll is less than or equal to the movement allowance of the stealh unit. So, in this case, the surface ship is revealed. The stealth submarine has a movement allowance of 2, and none of the die rolls were <= 2, so the submarine remains “stealthy”.
Unwilling to expend any more Activity cards for searches, the U.S. player decides to leave the Sub hidden and proceeds to issue Orders.
The Scramble Activity card is played for its Event. This card allows the player to issue an order to each of his Aircraft units, with the restriction that all Aircraft units stacked together must share the same order. All three Aircraft on the CVN-1 carrier are launched, and are moved to attack hex 1503 which contains the newly revealed Chinese DDG and the still stealthy Chinese submarine. (Although the graphic shows the 3 aircraft in separate locations for clarity, in reality they would all be in the same hex, adjacent to the target hex since they only have a 1 hex range)
(1) They are the subjects of a successful enemy search or
(2) the player voluntarily reveals it so it can participate in an attack.
The U.S. aircraft have a total of 3 attack points and may therefore roll three dice, resulting in rolls of 4, 5, and 2. An attacker scores a hit on rolls of 4, 5 or 6, so this means the U.S. has scored two hits on the Chinese DDG.
The Chinese roll defensively, hoping to neutralize the U.S. hits. Total defensive strength is 3: 2 for the strength on the DDG unit plus an extra 1 for the white aircraft symbol on the DDG, which indicates an extra die roll when fighting with aircraft. The Chinese rolls are pretty lousy: 2, 2, and 5. Thus, since a 5 or 6 is required to neutralize a hit, only 1 hit is neutralized, forcing the DDG to take on a damage marker. (Ships and subs can take two hits before elimination whereas aircraft are eliminated on one hit, so the DDG is damaged, but survives to fight another day)
It’s now the Chinese player’s turn to issue move and attack orders, and he plays the Flank Speed Activity card for its Event. He could have played it for its Orders value of 3, allowing him to move up to 3 units or stacks of the same type (i.e. surface ship, sub, or aircraft) in the same hex, but he chooses to play it as the Event so he can extend the range of his Submarine and get a shot at the U.S. Carrier (CVN-1). The Event allows for Orders to be issued to two units, ships or submarines, and extends their movement range by +2. The U.S. player thought his Carrier was safe…
He decides to first have his SSN, in hex 1506, move to attack the U.S. Carrier (CVN-1)! The SSN has a 2-hex attack range so it must move closer to the U.S. Carrier. Thanks to the extra movement points provided by the Flank Speed card, it can get within range. At the start of each combat, first the attacker then the defender may play a Battle Card to enhance their combat strength. Playing an Activity card in battle allows the player to add the number of his colored dice on the card to the number of dice he can roll. The Chinese player plays a card with 1 red die on it, allowing to to roll a total of 4 dice (3 for the sub itself and 1 extra for the Battle card). He rolls 5, 5, 1 and 1, scoring two potential hits on the Carrier. The Carrier can roll 3 defensive dice and does so, rolling a 2, 1, and 5. The 5 is sufficient to neutralize one of the sub’s hits, thus sparing CVN-1 from being sent to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean! The Carrier is marked with a Damage marker.
The second, and final, ship activation allowed by the Flank Speed card is used to activate one of the DDGs in hex 1203. The card is very specific in saying that only two units may be activated, not two groups or stacks. So, only a single DDG is moved to hex 1504 to attack the U.S. DDG in hex 1803. The Chinese player has no more cards to use as Battle Cards and so must attack with a poor strength of only 1. The U.S. player also opts to not play a Battle Card.
The Chinese player rolls a 1 on his solitary die, missing the target entirely. This time, since the attacking Chinese DDG unit is also within range of the U.S. units being attacked, they roll defensive fire as usual, but there is the possibility of a CounterAttack. If the defender rolls more “saves” than the attacker rolled “hits”, the attacker may suffer hits. For every two “saves” above and beyond the attackers “hits”, the defender inflicts a hit on the attacker, which is exactly what happens here when the U.S. player rolls 5 and 6 on his two defensive die rolls. The Chinese DDG is marked with a Damage marker and the attack ends.
This concludes our brief example of an Action phase. Keep in mind that the Action phase can become deeper and more involved than the sample shown here, depending on the tactics used and cards played.
Air Unit Movement Phase
All air units may move again, usually for the purpose of returning to an aircraft carrier or an airbase.
During the housekeeping phase:
- Air units are checked to insure that all requiring basing are located on such an air base.
- All stacking limits are checked.
- Victory conditions are checked. If the active player’s Political Will marker is stacked with a destroyed unit, the opponent immediately wins.
- If the game has not ended, both players refresh their card hands back up to Maximum Hand Size.
What I Liked About the Game
I love the fact that it’s fast moving, and that several games can (possibly) be played in a single sitting. This is the type of game where you want to try a bunch of different strategies, and the short play time allows you to do this. (I question how many different strategies can realistically be employed, but that’s a matter for the “What I Didn’t Like…” section).
The Victory conditions are unique and integrate well with the game. I like the idea that you can make trade-offs that will increase your combat strength for a cost in Political Will. It’s up to you to decide the best course of action at any given moment. For example, the New Birds Activity Card can be played to allow a player to resurrect four eliminated aircraft units at a cost of -1 Political Will. If the extra combat power will give you the extra punch you need to eliminate enough enemy units to push them past their Political Will threshold, you’ll have the option to take that approach.
The unpredictability of the Activity Cards contribute to the replay value of the game. At least that’s been the case so far, in the few games I’ve played. There are 24 different varieties of Activity Card, which sounds like enough variety to keep card play fresh for a while.
What I Didn’t Like About the Game
I guess the main objection is that it’s a bit too simplistic. When I’m simulating an air/naval conflict between future super-powers, I don’t want to resolve combat like I’m playing Risk. All the dice rolling just made it feel like I could have been playing any game from any historical period. I appreciate VPG’s reluctance to clutter up the game with a lot of complexity, but I require a bit of complexity in my futuristic simulations. I may just be a glutton for punishment, but this ain’t Davy Crockett shooting up Santa Ana’s infantry at the Alamo, after all. This is high-tech, futuristic air/naval mayhem! Give me a bit more realism in the combat sequence, even if it means I have to read another page or two of rules.
The pint-sized Activity cards are a pain to handle and shuffle. A small complaint, yes, but one that had to be mentioned because it crosses my mind like 10 times every game of Fleets 2025: East China Sea that I play.
I guess this may fall under the category of “too simplistic”, but it deserves special mention because it could have been fixed without adding any significant complexity to the game. I have a problem with the zones of control rules. Each hex represents an area 200km wide, which translates into something in the neighborhood of 35,000 square km. This is an awful lot of open water to cover. We can postulate the electronic detection abilities in 2025 will be considerably more advanced than stealth countermeasures, but then why bother will “Stealth” movement at all (and the accompanying “Search” process)? I think this can be resolved by only performing Searches when units are in adjacent hexes, during either player’s movement. If the moving Stealth unit is “found” at this time, then it is revealed and must cease movement. If not, then it may continue moving, in Stealth mode, until such time as it is “found”. This design idea may have been tried and discarded for some reason; I won’t second guess the designer. But it’s a thought…
Once the US player fully grasps the idea that he has a combat range advantage and a double-move ability (which is essentially what happens in the transition from the Movement Phase to the Action Phase), I don’t know how many basic strategies can be employed. From that point on, it seems like the variability of the Activity Cards is the only thing that may keep the game fresh.
Personally, I like games that cover hypothetical or alternative history situations. No matter how well a historical game is designed, there’s always some built in bias that nudges you towards historical behavior. Hypothetical conflict simulations don’t have that problem. But they’re not always guaranteed to be exciting situations either.
Although “it didn’t suck” (to quote Arthur Bach), Fleets 2025: East China Sea never really lives up to its potential. It just doesn’t capture the “feel” of a future conflict between 2025 titans America and China. Some say that you really can’t capture the “feel” of a hypothetical conflict. But anyone who was alive and gaming in the 1970s and 1980s, grinding out the hypothetical horror of a Nato/Warsaw Pact conflict in Europe, will tell you differently. Those games sure captured the “feel”.
Fleets is a very basic war game with some interesting game mechanics and a unique (at least to my knowlege) way of achieving victory. But you never get the feeling that you’re in the midst of the pandemonium that a 2025 air/naval conflict would surely be. It’s a fast playing, enjoyable game, and I appreciate it for being just that. But it will never be in my Top 10… or even my Top 50.
Mark,Thanks for the gorgeous looking review of our FLEETS 2025 game. I’m sorry you’re disappointed that it was designed to be a “player’s game” not a “hardware / hard war” game, but we both seem to agree that it achieves success as the player’s game it was designed to be (which is good).
-Alan Emrich, Victory Point Games
Alan,Agreed. I’m a “half inch hex monster gamer” at heart, so “player’s games” are always a tough sell with me. But there were enough good things about this game that I’ll be looking at other Chris Taylor designs in the future, I’m sure.