Monday, 27 April 2020

To Add Something New...

To what so far has been a less-than-wonderful year; but not, fortunately, on the hobby front, where a lot has been happening!

Back in February, before the Great Scurvy took hold, Matt and I had scheduled in gaming day for a Sunday. Hooray, of course. 

However, what was originally supposed to be Napoleonic amphibious landing scenario using Black Powder ended up at the eleventh hour being an age of sail naval wargame instead. 
Choices, choices...
And great fun it was, too. 


The day had arrived, I had woken up early, and had already set up the table and placed the terrain- only to get a message from Matt saying he would be quite late, and that he wouldn't be able to bring any miniatures.

Basically he had gone out drinking the previous night over of the other side of Tokyo.  When he got home he realized he had left his phone at the pub; so he had to go back in the morning to get it, and then come directly here- do not pass Go, do not pick up your troops. 

Naturally he could only let me know about this after he was able to get his phone back.

Well, I didn't have enough troops to provide both sides, so BP was shelved and the terrain put away.

I definitely need to get to work on the Prussians and Russians, as this is the second time this has happened.

Struggling for an alternative, I suggested an age-of-sail naval game instead, as both of us had been keen to give the period a go. I have always been fascinated by the battles between the wooden walls, and on a trip back to Vancouver last October, I had picked up a number of- hopefully playable- sets of naval rules.

This unfortunately meant that we would have to- gasp!- use unpainted, bare-metal miniatures, along with a (mostly completed but not-yet painted) island fortress.

A cardinal sin, I know. But given the circumstances, there really was no choice. I didn't even have time to give the ships a quick coat of primer. Time was an enemy, and anyhow you have to start somewhere.

I had about an hour and a half until Matt got here, so decided on what appeared to be the simplest of the three rule sets I had available: Osprey's Fighting Sail: Fleet Actions 1775–1815 by Ryan Miller. 

I set myself to getting up to speed on the rule essentials, while at the same time quickly drawing up and cutting out the movement and arc of fire templates- by hand. As luck would have it, my printer cartridges needed replacing that weekend. 

Talk about gaming on the fly.

But with the help of a ruler, index cards and some bluetack, ultimately I was ready; British vs. French, East Indies 1782. Both sides had two third-rates each.

The French: Incontinent, 74; Malheureux, 64
The British: HMS Righteous Indignation, 64; HMS Forgettable, 64

The French were trying to get to the harbour at l'Isle de la Reine, and under the safety of its guns. The British, to intercept them.

"It's the cat fer ye, ye whoreson lubber!"
Each ship has a stat for the number of dice rolled; sailing, discipline, boarding, gunnery and hull. Discipline allows players to repair damage. Hull dice are basically saving throws.

We never got close enough for boarding actions, more's the pity.

As we were just getting the basics down, we decided before the game that for the sake of simplicity, once we determined its direction the wind would not change during the course of the game. As it turned out, the rules proved intuitive enough, so we will do this in future games.

The wind turned out to be blowing directly from the south. Aeolus was clearly an Anglophile, as this meant the French had it blowing directly into their bows. The RN came on with the wind off their port quarter- they very much had the weather gauge. 

Consequently the French- who rolled five D6 to the RN's four, as their ships tended to be better built- got one movement point on every roll of six. They sailed on at a crawl. 

Fortunately for me the British- who in theory should have swooped down on les Frogs like hawks on paraplegic mice as they got movement points on a roll of 4 to 6- were rolling abysmally. 

Most of the firing took place at long range as a result. For firing, you roll the number of dice allowed under the gunnery stat; at long range, 5-6's are hits. The player receiving the hits rolls the number of dice listed under the hull stat, with 4-6's being saves. 

So at long range firing is generally inconclusive, but it got a lot more lethal when we got into medium range- explosive hits mean damage re-rolls on 6's. This was bad enough- we never got into short range combat, which must have been murderous. The British get more gunnery dice than the French, so long range suited me fine, thank you very much. 

NB: the term 'explosive' seemed odd, but it was really just unfortunate terminology. In subsequent amendments this has been renamed critical hits, or something similar, which makes more sense.

I lost Incontinent early in the game, as she came under fire from both RN ships, her consort being too far out of range off her starboard beam to come to her assistance. After taking four hits in one turn, she foundered. Round one to rum and salt pork.

Now outnumbered, Malheureux slowly tacked and wore her way around the edge of the table trying to outrun her tormentors. 

Luckily the British were unable to put on any speed, and in a drawn out long-range gunnery duel I managed a magnificent firing roll of all 5's and 6's, all of which the Righteous Indignation failed dismally to save. 

She, too, went to the bottom. 

The Forgettable sought vengeance, and pursued the Malheureux relentlessly in an effort to stop me making the port, but as dreadful British movement rolls continued, it was clear that I had enough of a head start to reach the safety of the harbour and the guns of the fort.

The game ended in a bang- literally- when Forgettable carelessly got within close range of the fort's battery, and plunging heated shot detonated her magazine in true, David Beatty tradition. 

So I was able to enter harbour to the heartfelt welcome of cheers, bouquets of flowers and patriotic music, followed by a slap-up feed at the governor's table where I regaled the admiring ladies with tales of my martial prowess. I even let the governor win at vignt-et-un, such was my good humour.

The French were victorious, albeit at the cost of their most powerful man-of-war.


So what of the rules? Overall, they were a big hit.

They were fast to learn and to play. There was no bookkeeping to mess about with, and we picked up the mechanics both of sailing and gunnery very quickly. The rules appear to do the job without players having to first spend some years familiarizing themselves with Norie's Epitome of Practical Navigation, and the intricacies of celestial navigation and Euclidean geometry.

We got in lots of turns, and the game was over in well under three hours. Not bad for a first outing with a new set of rules.

Naval engagements in Fighting Sail are bloody- too bloody. Three ships lost, which would have been a rarity indeed in naval combat as wooden ships were hard to sink with the weapons of the time. The loss of the Forgettable was a reasonable outcome given the circumstances, but the other two ships really should have remained afloat.

This is a criticism of Fighting Sail I have come across online- and was a result of a desire to make large multi-player fleet actions play a lot more quickly and decisively.

But there are modifications to the rules available out there that get around this- by having them strike instead of sink, for example. Given that I invariably tweak rules to suit my taste, I have no problem with this.

Gunnery and damage really are simplified; for example, a lack of bow and stern fire which would have added something to the game as we were using so few ships. There doesn't seem to be anything in the rules for this- likely a result of the games being geared towards fleet actions. Still, an easy enough fix.

In fact it seems an robust system where changes and additions to the rules won't break the basic rules engine.

FS really plays best with at least a squadron per player. But having two ships each still produced an enjoyable game. 

We both liked the fact that these rules play so smoothly; after less than an hour we only had to consult the rule book a few times. 

Someone wanting more granularity and "sea salt" to their naval rules, or who want to do frigate actions such as HMS Shannon taking the USS Chesapeake, would probably prefer a more detailed rule set. 

I still wouldn't mind trying a few different sets for comparison- especially Blood, Bilge & Iron Balls, but I'm not sure I'll ever get the opportunity. I'm aware that Matt is no sailor, nor are most of the guys here. 

I'm not sure a more "meaty" set would appeal to them if it meant a long learning curve. If FS can engage and interest them in the genre, then I'm happy to continue with it. 

Fighting Sail are also easily available in some bookshops here, so accessibility isn't an issue.  

I know there are purists out there who really dislike the rules, and the dreaded phrase "dumbing down of the hobby", or variants thereof, has raised its head in a number of online discussions.

But hold on there one moment, mateys.

Now, I grew up voraciously reading the adventures of Hornblower, Aubrey & Maturin, Ramage and Bolitho.

Despite my landlubber credentials, I come from Hampshire and Sussex stock, with a long tradition of naval service, to whom the Royal Navy ranked second in British institutions just behind the Monarchy and a good cable's length ahead of the Church of England; beliefs which were instilled in me since childhood. 

Wouldn’t be surprised if Dad hadn't slipped a slug 'o rum into my baby formula. 

So being immersed in books and tradition, as a teenager I of course had the chance to play Wooden Ships & Iron Men at the club in high school. Later on in life I even tried rules like Action Under Sail and Hearts of Oak, (the rule set that came with the Privateers & Gentlemen role-playing game).   

Most rules like these were extremely well-detailed, and clearly labours of love.  

They were also virtually unplayable, and inevitably they never got any traction with us (Avalon Hill's classic, much-loved WS&IM excepted). 

For the most part, the rules I enjoyed most were Don’t Give Up the Ship! I press-ganged my younger brother into playing the French and- when I was feeling magnanimous- the Yankees. We had plenty of decent games with this one, mostly with just one or two ships involved (the games when we didn’t end up in fistfights, that is).   

So personally, I’ve been interested in wargaming the Age of Sail ever since I can remember, and have over the years developed a good- if certainly by no means expert- knowledge of the tactics and ship handling of the period.

But that’s my point. Naval warfare in the age of sail is a really complex (not to mention arcane) subject both to model and to really understand.

Rules that try to take it all into account might well end up satisfying the dedicated enthusiast, but aside from taking a long time to play, such rules would likely send newly-pressed men jumping over the side in their misery, bewildering and frustrating those who are either new or less committed to the period.

I don't do much solo wargaming; I always need to think about what would appeal to my opponents. So I can’t expect anyone in my gaming group to tolerate having to deal with the long learning curve needed to come to grips with the intricacies of late 18th C. naval warfare and sailing. Nor would they want to spend a lot of time referring to complex written record keeping, especially as it would never be a mainstream interest for most.  

The best I can reasonably hope for is to get them interested in a game that might scratch an itch after they have read or watched Master & Commander or Hornblower, and have them give a thumbs up to a set of rules that might from time to time provide a quick change of pace from their more regular gaming fare, in the same way as Wings of Glory or What a Tanker! does.

So for these reasons, I’m much more likely to get a game in if I stick with a set of rules that are simple and accessible, and which provide the opportunity to get models on the table, to roll some dice- and just focus on some good storytelling. 

That would satisfy me well enough.


Now all that said, Sada here is a fan of the age of sail:
"A bloody war or a sickly season"

1/1200 Langton ships from Sada's superb collection.
He already has a magnificent collection of all the ships- British and Allied- from Trafalgar.

Unfortunately all the rules we have tried so far seemed unwieldy, and on most occasions we simply ran out of time and/ or energy. Given the number of vessels involved, it looks like Fighting Sail might do the trick.

Even then it wouldn't be a game to be undertaken lightly! In no way would my ping-pong table be big enough- a hall rental is in order post-virus.

As for my own shipbuilding program; given the breadth of Sada's collection, me going ahead building up fleets for, say, the 1805 campaign would be pointless.

Matt expressed interest in doing a Russian fleet of the era (not a bad choice, actually; I can see some "what-if" potential along the coast of the Pacific Northwest).

Fortunately however, I have long had an interest in the fascinating East Indies campaign of 1782-83, between the French admiral Suffren- a first-rate admiral (likely France's best) encumbered by having very much third-rate captains- and Admiral Sir Edward Hughes, a competent if second-rate commander with very much first-rate captains and crews.
This is a good read.
So is this; a great resource; there is not much out there on the French fleet.

Lots of fascinating detail.
Okay, they WERE all a little expensive...

Late last century I went overboard buying stuff from Rod Langton. I got most of the ships that I would need for both sides- along with various accessories like gunboats, lighthouses and harbour facilities- so it's just the trivial matter of assembling them (hah!). 

One modification the ships need is that the driver- the big fore-and-aft sail on the mizzenmast (big up-and-down pole at the back) was actually a feature of warships during the later Revolutionary/ Napoleonic wars. During the 1770’s and 1780’s, the earlier Mizzen Course was more common. 

The Langton models have the booms cast on to the drivers, which are a feature of the later settings. So the masts need some work with the clippers and files cutting off the boom at the bottom of the sail.  

Here’s a French 74 with the typical earlier mizzen rig:

Here are the mizzen masts as cast:
And modified using a fine drill and lengths of paperclips.
Fortunately, the early 1780’s were a period of transition, so not all ships need to be modified. The newer ships in both fleets will be left as is. 

This is a fun project. I already ordered some clear acrylic bases from Litko, as well as a set of playing aids for Fighting Sail. These are less hassle than having to cut them out from card- and way more robust.

The ships themselves aren't easy or quick to do- the masts in particular take time as I use slow-setting JB Weld epoxy for strength- but I really enjoy working on them. It's the modeller in me.

What with this pandemic still going strong, it will likely be a long time before I next get in a game, but when we do so I hope to have at least six ships done and ready to go.  Dreading the rigging part, but I'm sure I'll manage. 


In my next post, the plan is to look at my rebooted ACW project along with some related future project possibilities.


Norm said...

Nice compact game. I have wanted to sail, but it is a secondary interest to me and by that I mean that I could get away with simple rules without being too critical. The fact that you do have period knowledge and still see Fighting Sail as worthwhile interests me.

I have the Osprey rules and some unmade 1/2400 ships from Tumbling Dice and also the unmade 1/700 Master and Commander plastic set from Warlord, so the ingredients are there for me to have a go. thanks for an encouraging post.

Robert said...

Thanks, Norm!

If I were starting over again now, I think I would go with the 1/2400 Tumbling dice ships. Years ago I built up my fleets using the old Valiant 1/2000 ships; these were the ideal size in many ways, with a good range of vessels available.

Unfortunately while they are still available, the moulds seem to be in a dreadful state and they really aren't up to modern casting and design standards.

The 1/700 Warlord ships are nice models, but a bit big for anything other than single-ship actions- and the amount of rigging needed to make them look convincing to my eye would require way more time and effort than I want to put in.

I have a copy of Black Seas, and they much to commend them; but I was a bit put off by all the extra pieces that need to be put on the table to track damage, direction and so on. I like as clean a tabletop as possible. I had the same issue with their Cruel Seas game.

Basically I'm a product- rather than a process- oriented wargamer, so my imagination can fill in any of the detail that the rules have abstracted. And as the player is assumed to be of flag rank such as admiral or commodore rather than a captain, it makes sense not to cover every detail of sailing and gunnery (lots of horse-and-musket games would benefit from bearing this in mind as well).

Given the limited opportunity available for me to get games in, something as straightforward as Fighting Sail will probably do the job.

It is certainly great for campaign games that can be played on and off over the year, and I like the idea of building up a history around each ship and captain, and reflecting in the (simple) rule stats.

DeanM said...

Very impressive turn of events hosting this game on the fly, Robert. Sounds like a smooth playing set of rules. I participated in a couple of Wooden Ships and Iron Men games. As you mentioned, labours of love and a bit too charty for me. Nice to see Litko makes products for the rules too.

Gonsalvo said...

Interesting read. i have a mind to try one of several age of Sail sets once I complete my galley battle. I played quite a bit of Don't Give up the Ship decades ago; fun but time consuming. Ship O' the Line (basically the miniatures version of Wooden Ships and Iron men) worked pretty well. "Close Action" give an excellent simulation, but I thjink they are too detailed for all but fairly dedicated aficionados.

Gonsalvo said...

Form Line of Battle and Grand Fleet Actions are on my list of Age of Sail rules to try out.

Robert said...

Hi Dean,

Yes, those charts! WS&IM was very much a boardgame,and a typical product of it's time. I never had the chance to get my own copy, but the rules are available online as a free .pdf file.

The scenarios are still very useful (especially, for me, the ones on Suffren's campaign).


Agreed! The thing is that for most people- myself included- this genre of wargaming, fascinating as it is, is very much a 'secondary theatre'. Trying to play- let alone master- a detailed simulation would cut into the time (and energy!) that we also want to spend on other wargaming projects.

Thanks to the both of you for posting, and stay healthy!

Jonathan Freitag said...

I played a lot of WS&IM FtF, PBM, and PBEM many years ago. I stll pull SPI's old "Frigate" off the shelf occasionally for large fleet actions.