Thursday, October 29, 2015

Naval Wargaming - An overview

Wargaming our historical conflicts at sea has been with us almost as long as wargaming itself has been with us.  It seems that (at least according to Hollywood) that the successort to Alexander, including those that ruled Egypt, were fascinated by model ships.


And of course the Romans were famous for staging mock naval battles on the Colosseum.

In our own time, however, as we use our hobby to celebrate history, we can look at a long littany of different time periods, and find excellent examples of miniature ships, rules for wargames, and boardgames for just about every taste.

Some of the classic books for naval wargaming include, of course, Donald Featherstone's "Book of Naval Wargames" which has some rulesets in it, as well as some tips on building model ships.  I believe it has been reprinted by the John Curry project.

Another is a book by Barry Carter, which is a book of naval wargaming for WW1 and WW2.  Some great stuff in here, including a set of rules.  I never found it as interesting as the Dunn and Hague books (below) but I think I liked them more because they covered more periods.  If you like WW1 and WW2, you could do much, much worse than reading Carter's book.





Already mentioned are P Dunn's book "Sea Battles", which covers a variety of different periods.  There are rules for Napoleonic Ship rules, which feature grids of boxes, one for each gun a ship has, as a damage record. 

Also, there are Ironclad rules - with a great playing card driven system for doing critical hits.  There are rules for Pre-Dreadnoughts, Map Campaigns, and of course WW2.  Dunn also discusses doing what would today be called an Imagi-Nation campaign, using sea, land and air forces over a fictional map.  Great book.

Then there is also Paul Hague's book (mentioned below).  This is a great book that covers a wide variety of periods - Ancient Galleys, Napoleonic, Ironclads, Dreadnoughts and mention of a wide variety of other periods. 

There is also a great chapter on campaigns.  One of the great things about Hague's book is that he has nice how-to information on building your own miniatures for each period, as well as a great battle report for each period.  Plus, a lot of humor.  One of the great things I like about Hague is that he often features imaginary nations for each of his periods (at least, for many of them).  This is very similar to what I have done with my own Balkanian 1870s naval wargaming articles (here, here, and here).  A link to my own rules for this period are here.



Starting, of course, with ancient galleys and triremes, but on the Hellenic world, as well as in the Roman world, there are fantastic models available, and even good guides to building your own ships of cardboard and balsa wood, so that you can crew them with military miniatures for archers and marines.  I am thinking, of course, of the great article and how-to guide in magazines and books such as Paul Hague's "Sea Battles in Miniature".  For those who want to concentrate on the naval battle itself, there are all manner of metal miniatures of ships from this period, and even Eric Hotz' fantastic paper models for wargaming, the Roman Seas line of miniatures.

Much fun has been had with ancient ships using the My Galley Sally rules, which belong to the same family of great miniature ship rules as Limeys and Slimeys (which is for the Age of Sail).

Moving forward out of antiquity, into the Dark Ages, we can see that there is great fun to be had in the age of the Normans, Saxons and Vikings using such rules as "From Oars to Cannon" available from the Merrimack Shipyards division of Old Glory - for use with their "Dragon Wars" line of miniatures.

Covering medieval battles, we can use the same (From Oars to Cannon) rules from Old Glory with their medieval Cog Wars ships.  These rules are a collection of the free rules that come with all their 15mm starter sets (Cogs, Dragon Ships, Galleys, etc).

The fantastic idea from Minifigs a number of years back, in their medieval line "A Knight To Dismember" had packs for each of several nationalities in the middle ages, some with fortifications (that came with siege rules), some with armies (that came with field battle rules), and some with resin medieval ships (that came with naval rules).  In the Revenge medieval ruleset from Todd Fisher, there is the medieval naval set of rules called "Sluys".  All of these are great, and lots of fun to play.  It does seem, however, that for this period that since the ships are so small, and because boarding and archery are so important (as with ancient galleys, of course), that there is an emphasis more on having ships that can carry miniature soldiers (more of the 15mm - 25mm scale) than smaller models of just the ships.

One nice thing about the Old Glory models is that you can get a starter set that comes with two model ships, crew, and a copy of their rules.  The ships are quite nice, I must admit.

Medium Cogs from Old Glory Shipyard
Barony Miniatures has a great set of simple Medieval ship rules, available for free. Barony Miniatures, of course, is the home of some great miniatures for the Middle Ages as well as fantasy figures, and are the home of the great set of rules the Baron Wars, which are an heir to Warlord (from Heritage, in the 1980s) and have a lot in common with the same group that produced Knights and Magick.  The ship rules are fun, and Barony Miniatures produces some really nice models.  This is just an example of some of the commercial stuff out there for this period.

Leaving the middle ages, we enter a period of fascinating naval history - the Renaissance.  However, there does not seem to be as much activity in wargaming in this period. 

For folks interested in the Renaissance for naval wargames, one nice thing to point out are the free print-to-play paper ship models over at Junior General.  As far as rules go, there are a few great exceptions to the dearth in this period, and both are free.  First, the Perfect Captain offers his 16th century rules Spanish Fury Sail! for free. There are free downloadable ships, as well as a supplement for Mediterranean galleys (Laterna!) and lots of other goodies.  The second option is Jim Wallman's free set of rules for the Armada period, La Felicissima Armada.  There is, finally, a pair of fine little games, also available from the Junior General website.  One is for fighting Lepanto, and the other is for fighting the Spanish Armada.

From the Junior General

There have been rulesets published over the years, to be sure, but until we enter the earliest decades of the age of sail (right around the time period of the Armada, if you are willing to stretch a point) we don't see a really large resurgence in naval wargaming interest.  Once we get to that period, however . . .

The Age of Sale, from the earliest periods of the 16th century, right up until sail power gave way to steam power, is a fascinating period of naval history, and also a fascinating period to wargame in.  There have been, over the years, numerous rulesets that cover this period.  Ship models are commercially available from tiny 1:3000 metal models, right up to monstrous 28mm model frigates and beyond.  Rulesets cover everything imaginable from reasonable attempts at controlling a squadron or line of battle (sets such as Juggernaut, which was based on the fantastically popular Wooden Ships and Iron Men from Battleline, and later Avalon Hill), up to rulesets that allow you to command a single vessel with a fascinating amount of detail.  The set from FGU, Heart of Oak is a great set of rules for capturing the feel of sailing in this period.  These were written by Walter Jon Williams, the science fiction author, who also wrote a series of Sailing Ship period historical novels, and a roleplaying game to tie together the sailing rules and the novels, called Privateers and Gentlemen.

Perhaps some of the reasons this period is so popular is because of the romance of sailing ships, the fascination of the age of piracy, and the fantastic quality of historical fiction from this period.  Many wargaming articles have been published discussing, for instance, the encounters of Horatio Hornblower, and Captain Jack Aubrey.  Real life naval heroes abound, however, as well - such as Admiral Lord Nelson, and John Paul Jones.
Lovely model from the Naval Museum at Copenhagen

One set of rules recently published that look really nicely for doing reasonable fleet sized actions is Fighting Sail published by Osprey publishing.  Wind gauge matters, unlike some simpler games, but the sailing rules are not as complex as (for instance) Heart of Oak. 

Gunnery is quite easily handled, and damage (this is my favorite part for a fleet game) does not require paperwork.  It is handled by damage markers, which a ship can handle only a certain number of.  It is not as detailed on a single ship level as many other rule sets, but it can handle a fleet action quite nicely.  For more detailed fleet action, the Clash of Arms boardgame Close Action (which is a spiritual successor to the already mentioned Wooden Ships and Iron Men) would be perfect.  Also the (sadly out of print) Trafalgar from Warhammer Historical Wargames.

Once we leave the age of sail (and really, why would we want to?) there is a fantastic period of time in both history and naval wargaming in which we see a great mashup of sailing ships, steam powered ships, and the first true armored battleships. This is the period of the ironclad, played out so well in the riverine and coastal engagements of the American Civil War, but also in European conflicts such as at the Battle of Lissa in 1866. 


Rulesets for this time period are very popular and include such great titles as the Ironclads game (from Yaquinto, as a board game, but later resurrected as a set of miniatures rules).  Recently (2011), Peter Pig put out the Hammerin' Iron rules, and we were lucky enough to get Martin to come to one of our Williamsburg conventions, where he hosted some great games.  Walt O'Hara wrote a great review of the game, based partially on his encounter of it at the 2011 Guns of August convention.


Once we leave the 19th century, we see the era between the Ironclads, and the earliest Dreadnoughts, known (curiously) as the Pre-Dreadnought period.  The famous battle of this period is the one between Russia and Japan, the Battle of Tsushima in 1905.  Again, there are some fantastic miniatures available, but here we begin to deal with vessels hundreds of feet in length, so the practical wargaming models are typically 1:1200 or smaller (1:2000, 1:2400 and 1:3000 are very popular from this time, on through the 20th century). 

Great pre-dreadnought rules are available, and there are some rulesets available that cover much of the early part of the 20th century (meaning, WW1 and WW2) that also cover some pre-dreadnought ships.  One such is Seekrieg IV (and the sister versions).  The Seekrieg rules have been updated, but the excellent version IV of the game is now available for a free download

Naval wargaming in this period features many different mechanisms to determine, typically, three things.  First, the movement of the ships (as in all periods).  Second, the ability to strike a target with a gunnery barrage (sometimes referred to as "straddling the target").  Third, is the effect that the barrage will have on the target.  Rules for this period, going back to the most excellent Fred Jane's Naval Wargame, and Fletcher Pratt rules have all done some sort of these mechanisms.  As a nod to how much impact Naval Wargaming has had on military history, it should be pointed out here that the Jane's Fighting Ships books, and the publishing empire that has resulted from them, were originally published by Fred Jane as data books to support his Naval Wargame.
The 1906 Dreadnought, as it appears in Jane's Fighting Ships


Some notable rulesets from the period include the range of General Quarters rules.  These were originally published as General Quarters (which covered WW2), and General Quarters 2 (which covered more WW2 rules, as well as campaigns, and WW1 rules).  A great set of rules, but they have now been modernized and published as General Quarters III by Old Dominion Game Works. 


In the modern age, that is after WW2, one of the most successful sets of rules is Harpoon.  Much like the modern naval combat that it reflects, however, one is much more interested in the modern period with electronic counter measures, sensor pattern overlap, and the range of ship and shore launched missiles.  Not to mention aircraft, helicopters, and an increasingly able set of submarine tactics.  It is again a fascinating period to wargaming in, and it appeals to yet a different breed of gamer than those who like the creak of ropes and sails, or those who prefer to smell cordite over the salt of north sea waves.

Some smaller scales of 20th century wargaming are probably worth mentioning.  The warfare of the smaller gunboats and patrol boats of WW2 (both off the coasts of Europe, as well as in the Pacific - PT109 anyone?) is popular, and there are rulesets and miniatures available for this.  Even the modern era with the fast attack boats carrying deadly ship-killing missiles - such as those that fought in the 1973 war between Israel and Egyptian/Syrian forces - or that fought out in the same period between India and Pakistan.  Ships and rules aren't as popular for these periods, but they do exist, and there is even the Yaquinto game Fast Attack Boats which is a great representation of the fight between the Israeli vessels and those of her enemies.  For tabletop wargaming, if you cannot find miniatures for these fascinating ships, you could try the paper counters (in 1:600 scale) available here and here.

Boardgaming in the modern world has been very popular, as well.  I can't think of a better example of this than the immensely popular series from Victory Games of the "Fleet" series - they had titles for 2nd Fleet, 3rd Fleet, 5th Fleet, 6th Fleet, and 7th Fleet.  These can still be found (on Boardgame Geek and Ebay, for instance).  They still demand a strong following.

For the wargaming interested in Naval Gaming there are huge amounts of resources available, including many on the internet, and many free.  For starters, there is the Facebook interest group in Naval Wargaming.  As you can see in the article above, there are all sorts of free and commercial rule sets and games available.  Making our own ships is possible, as is printing and assembling paper ships.

Naval Wargaming is a fascinating aspect of the wargaming hobby, and definitely is a bigger part of what we might call miniature wargaming.  This is the theme of our 2016 Williamsburg Muster convention, and hopefully there will be lots of naval wargames there that will be interesting and fun to play.

9 comments:

  1. Forgot Fletcher Pratt's Surface Warhips.

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    1. Justin - you are right, the Fletch Pratt rules are extremely important in the history of modern wargaming. And I think that there are still clubs that play them...

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  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  3. For the Age of Sail, I love a set I picked up at Historicon years ago. It is entitled "Fire as She Bears". There is also a detailed set called " Signal Close Action". Thanks for the article.

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  4. I'd also like to mention Form Line Of Battle by David Manley for Age Of Sail. Also Iron and Fire by David Manley is very good for ACW. Nice article above. I'm sure there are likely 20+ rules sets per time period not mentioned or that any of us are even aware exist, so, great article.

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    1. Thanks Peter - great comments! We will be doing a similar review of Medieval Wargaming for our next convention, so be on the look out for that one.

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  5. I am looking for copies of "My Galley Sally", "Cog Wars" and "A Knight to Dismember". My son, who had fond memories of Cold Wars and Historicon, is after me to resurrect some of those games we played in when he was a kid. He has friends who would love the old beer and pretzel games like these and wild west games. Any help would be appreciated. My email is belka@att.net

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    1. Have you seen the "Cog Wars" rules from Old Glory - I think they might be similar to the old Minifigs rules that you mention. Still on the lookout for the Knight to Dismember ruleset (I loved it, many years ago)

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