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Monday, 6 February 2017
A Heart-breaking Encounter
After so much hype to myself, I was immensely looking forward to the ANF's third playtest of Napoleonic naval rules, fighting Glorious 1st June using Heart of Oak rules.
With the assistance of colleagues I was able to deploy the entire fleets of both sides using Sails of Glory models with reasonable accuracy. The obviously inaccurate ships of the line were three-deck British 2nd Rates, for which 1st Rates had to do duty, and the various very large French 80 gun ships for which we had to use Third Rate 74s. I therefore look forward enormously to the issue of 'Redoubtable' from Sails of Glory. That said, the lines looked reasonably close to their historical counterparts when deployed, we all agreed, especially from a distance. And we had three commanders a side, which was ideal. The frigates provided some scenery.
Unfortunately, this was the high point of the battle. The basic problem with the rules, which I ought to have identified before even trying them out, was the one minute turn. Even starting the action I thought as late as possible - when historically firing started - had two contradictory and unfortunate consequences when fighting a battle on this scale. First, firing concentrated on one vessel from six or seven (why not?) resulted in appalling battle damage in a single minute. Ridiculous. Secondly, sailing, whilst easily understood and plausible, resulted in minute mm moves. The imbalance rapidly proved destructive to the entire game, a bitter reminder of how an awful set of rules can kill off an action. Within a minute or so, the British did make the turn to starboard as historically, but they never had a chance of getting to grips with the enemy.
A further problem was that differences in sailing qualities amongst vessels, combined with rigid selections of sail, resulted in the line disintegrating within a few minutes. That cannot be right - certainly some ships did fall behind from time to time, but the entire principle of the line of battle relied on the ability of the majority of ships to keep station.
Within a couple of minutes we had ships on both sides on fire and heavily damaged, which was equally unrealistic.
All we managed to get to, after no fewer than eleven turns, was the British line getting somewhat closer to the French, and some tacking by the head of the French line, one ship of which managed to dismast itself in the process, which seemed excessive: no one would even try, with that kind of risk.
It was evident that had we continued, the British would lose several ships, with others crippled, before they would ever get a proper chance to return fire. Howe's successful strategy would have been suicidal, and he would have known that and not tried it.
We realised these rules might work for a few ships, but they simply did not scale up. Not so much rain stopped play as pain stopped the day.
I was in a position of owing my colleagues a significant apology.
But there has been a bright lining to this cloudy game. Our conclusion was that none of the rule sets we've seen so far: Signal Close Action (especially in its latest complex incarnation), Form Line of Battle and now Heart of Oak can ever achieve our goal, which is to have a very high chance of fighting through a major naval encounter in a day or two, with a result that comes within the boundaries of historical plausibility - a naval version of Shako. On the other hand, Heart of Oak sailing mechanics may form the basis of a decent set of rules with approximately fifteen minute turns, a move getting done in about half an hour or so, a move of a dozen cm or more with several heading changes incorporated. Even the firing mechanics might work, the idea of fire at will is quite attractive, But the firing rules must definitely be stripped of the entirely unrealistic 'points' system that has cursed so many naval wargames rules and which forms the basis of rule sets that are designed to achieve this same goal: ships of the period may sink because of fire, but otherwise they generally did not, and were surrendered by their crews not because they were either about to sink but because they were surrounded by superior foes. Science fiction ships may plausibly have 'points', but the entire approach is not valid for naval wargaming IMHO: critical hits' ought to be the only hits that a set of naval rules count, which will need boosting along with restrictions on concentrating fire. Finally, the signalling system seemed pretty reasonable in principle, but the idea that it could all happen in a minute was implausible. I have been charged with producing 'Fleet', a substantial modification to Heart of Oak, and I will do just that once we've play tested Blood, Bilge and Iron Balls. My colleagues deserve a decent set of Napoleonic fleet action naval rules, and if there are none out there, then I need to put my thinking cap on and develop such a set using Heart of Oak as a basis. Wish me luck.
Posted by Julian Roche at 10:11