There are few problems with age of sail naval games. First and foremost, ship of the line can take considerable material damage. Sinking, or severely damaging such an vessel was an ordeal not properly presented in many game systems. That leads to one common problem in most age of sail games – duration of close range, old fashioned slugfest where ships beat others to submission or until nightfall, whichever comes first. In games, shortcut is taken and damage is allotted much faster rate – usually up to extend that ships are found to be sinking and exploding in great many numbers. Second common problem is that to properly maneuver in place, both distance and time is needed. In games battles start from relatively close range and very little can be done to obtain proverbial wind cage or other advantage. Third problem is command and control. Once lines draw near, and fleets start battering each other, there is no practical way that admiral of the fleet can control the actions of individual elements. Flags may be waved for orders, and flares shot, but at the it is the ability of each individual commander that matters. Signal Close Action is finally a game that have addressed all above in way that is both satisfactory and that scales up well.
Signal Close Action does not require a lot of bookeeping, and no plotting of movements – and no hexes. Models, turning aids, compass and measuring tape is used instead. Players move altering turns and while that is generally despised because it allows opponent to see what you are about, it actually works out because ships are slow, sluggish and there is uncertainty involved. Each turn has two impulses when ships move, turn and crews accomplish tasks. When ships suffer damage their quality drops and they become less and less maneuverable. This leads to very historical behavior of damaged ships sagging off the line of battle and eventual loss of cohesion. Tasks include many things such as thrumming, tacking, fighting fires, cutting damage, jury rigging etc. Each commander of a ship, squadron or fleet needs to give out verbal orders, describing what each ship is about to do in the current turn. These orders cannot be altered, chanced or expanded and must be carried out as stated. Then, ability dice are rolled to add uncertainty. Bit of chart reference and one can find that your intended turns did not quite go as well as you expected, your tacks may have failed, guns blow up etc. Ability chart is very straight forward and after a while it is easy to remember events, successes and failures. During movement, collisions, gunfire etc are resolved and damage marked up. One beautiful thing is that you can’t really miss the target when you are close enough, and on the other hand, you can’t really hit it if you are far enough (after a while, you actually start to remember the exact hits). There is very little luck in gunfire – planning and execution of maneuvers is all it takes to get a good shot. Of course, it does not mean that enemy is about to sink after a broadside or two. In fact, since good ship of the line can take more damage than it’s crew can stand. A ship can actually close in the enemy quite aggressively without worrying too much about having to take first few hits. Raking shots on the other hand are quite rare because it takes a long while to maneuver ship in position. If you get raked, either you were disabled, badly at wind or not paying attention. Gunfire can happen as reaction fire by non phasing player, or regular fire by phasing player. Guns need to be reloaded after firing because crew mans both broadsides. Ammunition types are abstracted because the actual efficiency relied more on the weight of the flying iron than sophisticated ammunition types. Because crew is the weakest link, morale plays a big part and nearly all battles end with opponents ship or two becoming struck, but sometimes even that does not happen. Relative rarity of spectacular events make them even more spectacular when they occur. Game turn when handling 5 to 8 ships takes just about two to five minutes depending on experience.
Maneuvering into position is a prospect that took days, or many many hours. Signal Close Action has resolved this by introducing ‘Strategic Move’ that speeds up the approach and positioning of the fleets.
Command is present in a form of signaling rules. while signals must be obeyed, great many things can, and will go wrong when signals are not received, their relays are delayed etc. Ships are expected to follow previous one, as long as has either been annulled or new signal has been received. Use badly, and it becomes excellent tool for sowing confusion in your own fleet.
And the best part…
System scales from very small gunboats (actually from rowboats) to 1st rate ships of the line. One can fight small, or big battles, use schooners, brigs, bomb vessels, frigates etc.
And not so good news…
Signal Close Action requires 1:1200 model ships (CHQ, Langton). In larger games approach and maneuvering room is needed, and that means quite bit of table space. Cost and space requirements may put off at least casual gamers who wish to experience large battles.
And the bad news…
Like many other age of sail games, this one does not have fleet morale rules. In practice it means that unless artificial (or optional rules about time of day and nightfall) limitations are used (X game turns), the fleets would pound each other until there is none left to fight. In reality, one side would eventually sag off the line and take distance. Winning side would seldom pursue since fleet disorder is surest way to defeat. It takes quite some time to dress the fleet and attend the ship(s) in distress.