Thoughts about Age of Sail

I have thought for some time the reason why it is hard to create Age of Sail game that would be fast to play, rather simple and rewarding. After testing out quite few light and heavy rulesets I have found out one common problem shared by almost all systems that claim to be simple.

Sometimes I wonder if the game designers have any understanding of the evolution of sailing war ships and related tactics at all – not to mention the sailing itself.

Sailing model


Fight of the Poursuivante against the British ship Hercules, 28 June 1803. Oil of canvas, 1819. Louis-Philippe Crépin (1772 – 1851). (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Necessary disclaimer: I have to admit that my sailing experience with square rigger is rather limited, but I have spend some summers sailing with a yawl and should therefore qualify to have experience greater than zero :).

That said, on can say that competent seaman is quite able to say with certain precision the possible positions of three masted square rigger in next three to five minutes. Viewing some of the modern era Tall Ship Race ships maneuver in harbor with sails only gives some idea about more or less concerted movements. Knowing the alignment to the wind, and course, move of such ship are predictable, and necessarily so. Evolutions of sailing ship maneuvers may take a long time. Which brings to a point:

Most of the Age of Sail games assume that the battle starts when the ships from both sides are already in relative positions and pay little heed to how the positions were gained. What is left, is little else to do but to slug it out. What would be needed is a system that allows the ponderous approach and positioning to be played out in quick mode.

However, it is not that sailing model should be excessively complex, in fact very simple one may work much better – at least one has opportunity to complete the games.



The Action and Capture of the Spanish Xebeque Frigate El Gamo (source: Wikimedia Commons)

When someone looks at the real casualty figures, dead and wounded in a naval combat, it is quite evident that the numbers that were inflicted were by no means prohibitively heavy. Many authors describe a heavy casualties when total toll was in their tens in a ship with complement of well over a hundred (there are of course notable exceptions, but that is another matter). It was also pointed out curiously enough that seamen were considered lucky because of the much lower chance of being killed in action than their land lobbing counterparts. Disease and other discomforts existed of course, but they were no alien to common soldiers either.

So, that leads to interesting observation. Most simple games appear to have their weapon systems stolen from much later era while preserving bits of Age of Sail. Interestingly in simple games ships tend to sink, explode or burn all the time while in reality it was ship surrendering well before any of the others happened – if even that. Most curious occurrence was certain very light game where single shot caused three ships out of six to explode or sink after first shot.

Monsoon seasWhen damage that is caused by fire is such that no vessel can take it for more than few shots (common argument is that the firing resembles multiple shots) it renders any attempt to perform reasonable maneuvers invalid (Common maneuver of wearing together for instance to match enemy course and tack would be borderline impossible). While this makes certainly faster games, it is doubtful if it makes the game interesting, or playable in historical context.

How would one preserve the durability of the ship, yet resign from tedious record keeping and at the same time maintain reasonable resemblance of the period rate of fire? How to account the smoke resulting black powder gunnery? Crew fatigue and other considerations without making a game too complex and tedious?

So gunnery is a major issue in many games that claim to be fast. It is just much too effective, or too little effective, but in a wrong way.

Command and Control

SCA.FPSo it rises question what is the interesting and rewarding aspect in Age of Sail? Over the years I’ve come to think that it is the command and control challenge and maneuvering in the tactical setting, more than the micromanagement of every single ship of the fleet.

Command system is absent in most games, and if implemented, it is only superficial, far too generous, considering that the players have option to see everything happening in the map. A capacity that most admirals would have greatly appreciated.

There are some systems – namely Signal Close Action that has paid significant amount of detail in the command and control system. Admittedly it is the most complex part of the rules, but it does give pretty good concepts of fixed signal book, message delivery, message relaying and limited freedom to act within the constraints of the signal. It does of course mean that players have to play in gentlemanly manner and respect the intention of the signals, but also it does give immense depth to the subject.

SCAWhen playing the game without signals, every ship has capability to do whatever they like to do. However, with signals, the story is wholly different. Now entire fleet is subservient to single commanding officer that sets out the grand strategy through means of extremely limited signaling system. One can of course address whole fleet, or just single ship, but doing that means that everyone else is left to act upon the previous signal – usually continue on same course and sail settings.

Relaying messages causes delays in the signal delivery and every signal has possibility of failure. It may be that when ships are engaged, there is no more practical means for receiving signal (or acknowledge it). In short, you lose the control at the moment the fleets are engaged. Precisely on the moment you’d need that hand of god.

Age of Sail command and control system is a reminiscent of ancients battles, where strategy may have been formed, and once units engaged, there were nothing that could be done, but to fight it out.

However, while signaling system is a crucial part of Age of Sail, there is still something that no game system has done well. Bringing in the point of…

Forgotten detail: Fleet PreservationClose Action

It sounds insignificant detail, but it is not. Fleet morale rules dictate the time when fleets are either forced to separate, or officers are losing heart. Too many otherwise fine games assume, quite wrongly, that engagements would rage on until there are no opposing ships afloat.

However, historically it was very rarely the case – and game wise it is rather stupid assumption.

When Suffren fought in India, no ships changed hands, yet it is the most active era of French navy. In general before the Napoleonic era (eg. before the revolutionaries decided to decimate the officer core) it was rare occasions that battles ended up with only one side remaining. It was rare even in the most decisive battles.

There are few things to consider, and these are not minor details, but dictate even some foundation assumptions in Age of Sail. Any fleet that has lost few ships will have hard time keeping up the fighting spirits, while opposing side would see every struck enemy vessel as a fuel to fight even harder, because it was known to landslide. Finding the critical point when the avalanche of losses becomes unbearable is quite difficult. Yet the overall fragility of the fleet would contribute to the preferred tack, and also to some extend the gunnery. Considering the options, fleet prone to low morale, or non-combat escort mission would more likely opt to disable enemy to continue with the mission, rather than capture or force surrender.

Rebel seasFor example, wind cage may be preferred because, if executed right, it allows one side to decide the point of attack, especially if sailing by the wind in parallel lines. However, one could see leeward side as better opportunity for escape, should battle go awry. Having significant rigging damage, it becomes hard to withdraw from the windward tack, therefore choosing leeward side may therefore be fully intentional. Additionally, in heavy seas, leeward side may allow lower deck gunnery more readily.

There it is then. So far, a Fleet Preservation has been elusive rule. I have not seen it executed well in any game, and therefore it has been necessary to make gentleman agreement on the conditions when fleets should separate. Some house rules have been attempted, but unfortunately they have not turned out to be satisfactory.

This entry was posted in 7 years war, AAR, Naval engagements, Revolutionary wars, Signal Close Action and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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