Tuesday, 19 April 2011
Trafalgar: messing about with boats (and cannon)
I've dabbled quite a bit in naval wargaming over the last few years, including the Napoleonic era, where I've been part of a team that put on a Battle of the Nile re-fight at Salute back in 2005. We used 1/2400 scale ships for that battle, and a modified version of the Fire As She Bears rules, allowing us to run the battle twice with players taking the roles of three British commanders (including Nelson, of course) and the umpires running the French fleet, which was anchored and sat there obligingly getting the stuffing knocked out of it.
We're tried a number of rules over the years in the quest to find something that is 'just right' for our purposes. FASB is one of the better sets of rules we've used, despite its requirement for hexagonal shaped pieces of hardboard, as is Flying Colours from GMT. The latter is arguably the best fleet level set of rules we've played so far, and we were able to play a smoothly-running re-fight of Camperdown (British versus Dutch) a couple of years ago. FC is a board game, not a miniatures wargame, but I believe there is scope to migrate this onto the tabletop, and indeed I believe some naval wargamers have achieved this in the past.
On now to our latest venture, Trafalgar, published by Warhammer Historical. Thus far we have had just the one play-test, and it seemed to go okay, but I feel more play time will be needed before we get to the bottom of this one.
For Trafalgar we used the larger 1/1200 ships, with six ships allocated per side. Each player had five 3rd rate men of war, plus a 1st rate flagship (Victory for the British, and L'Orient for the French). It's been a while since we trotted out the wood and canvas, so it was good to be back at the mercy of the wind, without the worry of torpedoes and Stuka dive bombers!
Trafalgar is a Warhammer game. It is a bit fiddly in terms of movement, particularly when it comes to tacking. The emphasis on the command of individual ships (Command rolls supplant the Leadership checks of many other Warhammer-based systems) means this is less a fleet level game and more a squadron level game. The fleet lists at the back include plenty of detail on the smaller vessels of the period, which further leads me to speculate that Trafalgar was indeed written for smaller scale actions. It is not detailed enough for a ship to ship duel, but carries too much crunch for the Battle of the Nile. It feels more like something you would play a hypothetical battle with, using no more than 8-10 ships per side. This should get you a good afternoon's play. It is also possible that you could create some of the less 'classic' actions from the period, for example supporting a coastal raid and becalmed ships being attacked by oared vessels in the Mediterranean.
We were learning, so it took a while to get the first couple of turns away, but after that, as is always the case with these things, the game moved more quickly. Wind is still important, as is holding the weather gauge. The usual tactics from the period seemed to work, with raking producing the most devastating damage on ships. We have found in other games that the lead ship in an attacking line always seems to take the lion's share of the damage (including the dangerous first broadsides), but once it breaches an enemy line, the following vessels can dish out masses of damage in response. You have to get raked a bit by enemy fire in order to do you own raking.
Movement is a bit fiddly in Trafalgar, and you really need to concentrate to ensure that your ships don't ram each other, backing sail (cue a Command check) in order to ensure you don't ram the ship ahead. Tacking was also difficult to get our heads around, but that may be because I've been playing too much WW2 naval! The rules give the British the edge in this area: they have better leadership anyway, plus they get to re-roll one failed Command check per battle. But I didn't feel their historical edge in gunnery (the legacy of unceasing gunnery drills while on blockade duty) was fully reflected. Perhaps this makes for a more entertaining game, as playing the British in most Age of Sail games, you almost expect to win...unless it is a single ship action against an American privateer or somesuch.
Critical hits can quickly pile up on a ship, particularly if you are caught in a crossfire, between two lines of enemy ships, as happened to me. Crew losses from fire and gunfire can take their toll, and before you know it, a fine fighting ship is nothing but a floating morgue. It strikes me that in this period, vessels became combat ineffective before going down, whereas in WW2 games it seems that ships run into trouble and start sinking before crew losses reach a crippling point.
We mis-interpreted the boarding rules, so that in both case where I attempted a boarding action, the attacking vessel was lost - albeit one had taken such heavy losses it probably should not have been trying to board an enemy 74-gun ship! But, we had to give the boarding rules a try, got it completely wrong, and thus will give it another go next time.
We didn't get to finish this game, partly because we were learning, and partly because it was getting late. I think the game as it stands is well-suited to the medium scale action, as I've said above. We'll play it again and see how we go with it, but for 1/1200 ships it seems ideal. For Trafalgar, however, I fear it would simply take too long to play.