Sunday, 7 July 2013

The China War, S&T 76

Well, considering I am still without paints and I am surrendered in my quest to get them back I will concentrate on playing and reviewing map based game for a while. I previously mentioned that I secured a copy of the old SPI China War and I have been able to play it several times.
China War is a game about an hypothetical Soviet Invasion of China in the late seventies early eighties. 

(Sadly my copy is not so nice, serviceable, but less shiny).

The game come with a traditional 22”x32” map representing the whole of China and neighbouring regions.  You have part of India, the whole Korean peninsula (without DMZ…), Japan, Taiwan, Laos and Vietnam… and Mongolia.  The map is nice and I like it. It shows basic geography, resources and production centres and has an interesting way to classify the population density. Each hex is rate by its density representing communities not sufficiently large to be  directly represented in the game.  I like this approach. There also the main railroads differentiated in double and single track. The map made you realizing a lot of thing on China, at least for 1970-1980 China. 

The counters are classical fare of the late seventies. They are not at the same level of the map.  Still they are functional. You have the PLA, the Soviets, The North Koreans, the Laotian, the Vietnamese and Taiwan. Units are roughly divided in three categories, tank divisions, motor rifle/mechanized units and the poor bloody infantry. There also soviet marines (naval infantry) and PRC and Soviet paratroopers.  Units range from division to Corps/Army (corps equivalent) and are rated for three characteristics: attack strength, defence strength, movement and quality. Usually minor countries have a single quality but PRC and Soviet units come in several quality.  The game has reduced strength units and you can break down and recombine PRC armies (quite important during the game). 

How it works?

The Game is quite conventional. You have the classical move-fight-exploit sequence and the ability to perform reserve movement (to reinforce battles or run away from them). There are some interesting special rules on nukes, airpower and supply. Victory is an interesting balance of capturing cities and resources, destroying Chinese units and preserving Russian forces bit in the sense of avoiding losses and to save supplies.  The latter is important. The Chinese player receives one Victory Point for each Soviet unit involved in a battle, attacking or defending. Two point for each unit tracing supplies through non Soviet Union desert hexes.  Well you start to realize that even if the Soviet are probably more powerful in term of troops, engaging them too much, especially in an attractive end run toward Beijing across Mongolia, is not useful in absence of tangible results. I think it capture really well the problems of such an undertaking. 

The game has a random event table with some interesting things (countries entering the war, NATO intervention, and so on). There are three scenario. The whole hypothetical Sino-Soviet War and two smaller ones. A Chinese invasion of Vietnam and a sudden strike from Taiwan while the PRC is busy dealing with the Soviets.  

The rules are quite easy to learn and (with the exception of the pesky terrain rule I will mention later) quite straightforward with no problems. There was a significant omission (stacking value) but there was a correction slip in the package and the previous owner already corrected on the map.

No ZoC?

The first thing that popped to my view for a 79’ game is the lack of ZoC. They are not here. Well with 126 kilometres per Hex and weekly turn it makes sense. It also creates  a quite fluid situation, but one that is softened by the reaction rules. After movement and before combat your opponent gets to move it mechanized  and 1st line troops. In the end it show the effect of ZoC at such a scale, mainly the ability to react to enemy moves. It also show of weak are unsupported dagger thrusts into the enemy territory.

Where are the planes? Or artillery for that matter?

One glaring absence is airpower. Actually anything called support. Well one thing at time. Only the Soviets have air points, not a lot, and they could be used only close to airbases. This means that they will be useful in the frontier battles, but then you will be out of air support. While it could look a bit harsh, considering, again, the distances it makes perfect sense. What makes less sense is the absence of any form of support. If you have some knowledge of the Soviet Army you know that the division were supposed to be supported by a panoply of artillery brigades, independent tank regiments, airmobile brigades, helicopter units. Well the usual army and front support. Yet in the game there are none. Chinese units get supports when they combine from divisions to form armies (with stronger attack and defence strength)  but the Soviets have none of that. I think it is an omission, but an omission that I quickly replaced considering the Nuke points more or less as additional support. It works and does not require additional counters plus, being these points a finite quantity, it allow to represent the attrition of these assets and the slowly deteriorating supply situation.


From a mechanical and component wise standpoint my main gripe is the lack of explicit garrison unit. Yes there is a rule for leaving behind garrison to occupy the populated hexes you take, but it requires you to note the garrisons, the more you advance south the more cumbersome it becomes.
I am also not overly satisfied with quality rating. In the game the Vietnamese have the best quality, followed by the Chinese (PRC) and the soviets. 1st line PRC troops are apparently better in quality than Category A Soviets.
Another problem is the awful terrain provision that an hex takes the worst terrain in it, even if it is only a tiny bit. It is the weakest point, but you can fix it quite quickly using the more standard approach of half or more hex covered by the dominant terrain.

How it plays:

Well I have played all scenarios several times except the Taiwanese invasion (well I have problems in seeing some of my best friends shooting each other even in paper format). I like it. The Invasion of Vietnam is an interesting exercise in frontal attacks and managing masses. Yet the big game is truly challenging. It is tightly balanced and it is an useful instrument to look at the possibilities of such and undertaking. The Soviets have plenty of avenues of approach, but they cannot make a main effort everywhere. Lack of units and supply troubles forces the Soviet player to prioritize on one or two avenue. Pressing toward Beijing could be interesting, but it will cost you victory point. Yet Beijing is in a quite interesting position and the control of Mongolia allows the Soviets to threaten it almost from the start (in a sort of shadow of 1937). Manchuria on the other hand gives you plenty of victory points and it is in an easy reach. It is also important to note that soviet attacks need to be overwhelming. Diluting efforts while forcing the PRC commander to spread out in the long run just make sure every effort is stopped by Chinese numbers and reasonable quality.


Well, I like the game. It is kinda… neat. The map is certainly pleasant to the eye and the counters are Spartan but nice. More importantly the system works. I like the balance between capturing large chunks of China and destroying the PLA on one side, and  collapsing the Soviet supply system on the other. There are several interesting tradeoffs. The system also work quite well giving you sufficient detail and speed of play. The three scenarios are balanced and quite fun to play.
On the other hand there are also some shortcomings. The Korea Peninsula and Japan are badly treated (the Whole KPA can go north but the South Koreans, the Japanese and the US forces are not present). I am also a bit puzzled by the quality ratings. The Vietnamese are the best and the 1st Line soviet units equals Chinese 2nd units. Well for the period in question this does not sounds right. The last minus point is the short scenario described. I surely doubt a sino-soviet war would have gone only for 8 weeks.  Of course these are easy fixes.


Surfing on CSW I have discovered Joe Miranda is working on a new version, with up to date forces and possible NATO intervention. If you have read my previous post you will realize how spot on it is for my purpose.

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