Boatwork is one interesting aspect that is often overlooked in age of sail games. Usually people find it entertaining to have biggest available ships to bash each other out until night arrives or until, by miracle one or other has given up before that happens. However, those are more or less brainless slugfests where the one who carries heavier broadside is likely to emerge victorious. It is all right of course, if one likes slugfests – but there is also finesse in Napoleonic naval combat.
Ships boats were not only to ferry supplies or used to tow ships struck in calm. They were also liability if not lowered in time before the combat. Splinters of stowed boats could cause nasty casualties, and render the boats useless in the process.
This is why, when ship beat into quarters, the ships boats were lowered in anticipation of armed engagement. Normally boats hovered somewhere in the neighborhood of the parent vessel and could be called in when needed. However, ships boats had much more devious uses and they were often used to ferry boarding parties over to the struck enemy vessels to take possession, land shore batteries or institute repairs. In quite few minor engagements ships boats were used to board fully armed ships or set them adrift during night time.
Other typical activities that boats would carry out regularly were kedging (setting an sea anchor), spotting, repairing damage and attacking shore installations or setting out landing parties or laying out buoys.
Gun boats were of course somewhat different, but fall (in game terms) more or less in same general category as ships boats. Depending on the size of a gunboat, they usually carried from one to two or three 24 or even 32 pounder guns and it was said that five gunboats could put Brig or Sloop in peril and cause significant damage to a Frigate. Cheap to build and operate, these were in many cases the weapon of choice at coastal waters. They came in both sailed and rowed variety – usually the larger ones rigged with one or two (or rather, one and a half, like lugger) masts.
Of course, all this means that in Signal Close Action there is need for a mini-game that covers the boat actions in sufficient detail. Ships boats sound as fantastic idea because of the possibilities, but it also means that anti-boat rules are needed. Additionally, boats need to be able to fight each other and losses need to be tracked to their parent vessels should crew not return, or while boat is out. Therefore, if boats are used extensively by every ships and to maximum effect, it can quickly become somewhat complex mini-game in itself. In all likelihood however, it will neither serve the purpose that was thought that it would, nor make much positive difference in greater picture (sending crew out in vulnerable boats likely causes crew to become lost – and parent vessel less efficient so one should use boats wisely). However, there are vital uses that I full heartedly recommend.
1. Taking possession of enemy struck vessel and instituting prize crew is foolish act to carry out by ramming your own vessel against the struck enemy (and potentially disable your own ship in the progress). Take the prize crew there by boat and haul up your color – struck vessel will not object boarding. Somehow, traditionally, war-game designers attempting to make game lighter have adopted rammign as the most suitable method to take enemy ship.
2. To fence off gunboats when present. Concentrating main battery fire to more capable targets may fare better at the end. Of course if available, this is a task that suits very well for accompanying Brigs, Sloops and Schooners (unless there are too many of them…).
3. Assaulting not-so-well defended shore batteries. Red hot shot is not all that frequent occurrence, but once one hits your vessel, you may find yourself swimming in deeper waters than you’d wish.