Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Nine-dash Line: A South China Sea matrix game

The following game was developed by PAXsims associator editor Tom Mouat.



Nine-dash Line is a game of regional competition and cooperation in the South China Sea. It uses a matrix game mechanism, an approach we’ve discussed extensively here at PAXsims. The game’s title, of course, refers to China’s maritime and territorial claims in the area.

The game was developed for two reasons: The first was to generate a contemporary game in a regional potential flashpoint that I hadn’t done before; and the second was to get some understanding of the region prior to a visit to the Defence Academy by a senior Vietnamese delegation. As has been discussed before, the act of designing a game generates a greater understanding of the situation even before the players are included. This was no exception as I was surprised just how little I knew (despite participating in an FPDA exercise a few years ago).

We ran the game recently and, since it was set in the contemporary situation, the US Presidential election featured part way through the game. We diced for the result with a 58% chance of a Clinton victory (able to be modified by arguments) with the result that she won a clear victory. It will be interesting to see if this matrix game was accurate in this respect in November.


This game featured a number of random event cards, which worked well with the players, but we elected to modify the narrative and effect of the cards as best met the situation of the individual circumstances at the time. For example, in a previous turn the USA had successfully argued for an oil survey vessel operating in support of the Philippines Government and in the following turn the “Oil Discovery!” Card came up. This was too good an opportunity to miss, so the USA was permitted an additional argument to determine the extent of the oil discovery.

We also elected to try the idea of providing a more general background briefing for the players and requiring them to identify their own objectives over the coming months of game play.

The game went as follows:

  • Turn 1: A typhoon hit the area of the Spratly Islands and the coast of the Philippines, with considerable destruction and loss of life. China deployed naval ships to the area, supported by a Malaysian hospital ship and a repair vessel. The US Navy also carried out humanitarian assistance along the Philippines Coast, but the Philippine President took the opportunity to attack drug operations in coastal cities. The Vietnam Government successfully invited the Russian Navy for joint exercises off Cam Ranh Bay and Taiwan dispatched a repair ship to their lone outpost in the Spratly Islands.
  • Turn 2: There was a dispute between Pilipino fishermen and Taiwan resulting in damage to the Pilipino vessel, cut nets, and serious injury to one of the crew. The Taiwan Government quickly defused the situation by escorting the vessel away from Taiwanese claimed waters and paying compensation to the owners. The Russian / Vietnamese joint exercise was a great success and was accompanied by a political initiative to increase Russian involvement in Cam Hanh Bay. Chinese and US Navy submarines shadowed the exercise, gaining valuable intelligence. The Philippines took advantage of Chinese efforts being concentrated on the Vietnamese and the ongoing repair efforts in the Spratly Islands, to re-establish a lighthouse in Scarborough Shoal.
  • Turn 3: The Taiwan government was embarrassed by their repair vessel running aground in spectacular fashion, in the glare of media attention, near Taiping Island. Efforts to rescue the ship were a fiasco and their standing in international media was something of a joke.  Clinton won the US election convincingly and took the opportunity to sponsor oil survey ships in Filipino waters in an effort to improve relations even more with the Philippines President. At this point Malaysia took the chance (with clandestine help from the Chinese) to launch a cyber-attack on the Vietnamese and Soviet exercise. This was spectacularly successful, knocking out both nations’ air defence radar systems for an extended period, but there were unforeseen second-order effects that impacted on the US submarine and civilian shipping navigation systems. China attempted to covertly establish some deep ocean facilities for their submarine force north of the Spratly Islands.
  • Turn 4: Oil was discovered by the US survey vessels and the value of Filipino investments rose sharply with the news. Chinese and Vietnamese survey ships closed in on the area (carefully outside the 200nm Philippines exclusive economic zone), but the Vietnamese ship had technical problems and had to turn back. Taiwan finally manage to repair the Taiping Island facility. The Malaysians had embedded in the code of their cyber-attack subtle and sophisticated hints that the origin of the attack was the Philippines. This was successful with the Vietnamese and Russians, but the US NSA was more cautious in apportioning blame. The US Navy located and identified all of the Chinese deep ocean facilities.
  • Turn 5: Media attention switched to Germany where a hacking attack on one of Europe’s largest healthcare insurance providers leaked the confidential medical records of some 2.7 million European citizens. With events escalating in the area and Russian involvement, the USA called an international summit to discuss the crisis and we ended the game there.

The game was a lot of fun and easy to adjudicate. Sadly, we were playing without any detailed expertise in the area, but nevertheless we felt that it had helped us to begin to understand the geography, capabilities and issues of the region, and was valuable educationally.

Tom Mouat

One response to “Nine-dash Line: A South China Sea matrix game

  1. Rex Brynen 21/10/2016 at 9:11 am

    Feel free to pass on a game report for PAXsims!

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