Age of Sail naval games often enough assume one side to be superior to other. Mostly by providing arbitrary bonuses to certain nationalities, or certain wind conditions, taking the decision and sense of discovery out of the player and reducing the games down to a dull and meaningless slugfests. It took a very long time to find a game which essentially provides player an engine, or a model of physical reality (oddly, a bit like Fighting Wings series in fact), which player then have to exploit to his own benefit.
In Signal Close Action rules provide you no dice, or other bonus for being on the windward side to the enemy. Neither it is always the place you’d like to be in. It all depends on your ability to read the situation, understand the force composition and the weather. What are the weather advantages of your fleet? Do you have coppered ships, or are they slow and foul? How good are the crews manning the ships, and what kind of tasks can be given and reliably executed in the heat of the battle? How strong is the wind and the sea state? How strong are the drifts and tides? Are there shallows and reefs in the vincinity to pay attention to? When strategic moves are used and scenario is not preset, player must be able to correctly judge the situation.
Not only weather is important, but so is the potential chance. Should the wind force or direction change, fleet may find itself suddenly in dire straits.
Leadership matters in many places, but mostly (and most often forgotten at) it matters in signaling. Not only admiral is able to announce general orders, better captains are able to pass the messages forward more efficiently than poor ones. Imagine an situation where you have to rely incoming signal to other half of the fleet, but fail to do so. In an game where timing is everything, that delayed signal could cause the entire fleet to be thrown off course.
Understand the composition of the fleet, varying qualities of those in charge have to be taken account in the timing of signals and complexity. Figure out position for each ship in the line, should the line sail in convenient order of speed to retain agility, but risking separation, or wrong force composition in van, or rear? Should fast and foul ships intermingle, as to everyone set pace by the most foul and perhaps sacrifice the agility? Most importantly, if the range of ships vary from very foul to fast, consider complex evolutions carefully – and consider fighting from the leeward side.
Nevertheless, once fleet order is established, there is rather little one can do to remedy it later. If you have strong van, and weak rear, consider the possibility you have to wear together, when your weak rear suddenly finds itself to be the weak van.
Another matter is the crew that has to attend the ships. Leadership helps, but one has to consider that there are very important tasks needing attention. Not only crewing the guns, but also cutting away damaged rigging, plugging holes, doing repairs, and actually sailing. Say you’d wish to wear or worse, tack. You would have serious problem if you’re planning to man the guns at the same time – assuming you have any intent to actually succeed in the tack. Managing the crew efficiently is very important indeed.
Every action comes with delay, sometimes without good estimation of the length of the delay. Factor in some margin and sailing goes smoothly, but it means you may miss a critical point that could turn the tide. Fail this, and you may find yourself in not at all welcomed, but interesting situation.
Average captain may produce fine, complex order, but then the recipients fail to interpret the order as intended. Send signal – realize it is too complex – anull signal – repeat anull signal – send a new one – repeat. How much can happen during the time of simple signal correction? It may be the decision point that tips certain victory to a catastrophe. After it all has been sorted out, your whole fleet, or worse still, part of it may have sailed an nautical mile with unwanted course.
What do you do with the ship’s boats or other small craft not directly involved with the battle? Have you got a brig or a frigate unfit for the battle? Would you benefit from signal repeater?
Fighting from windward may be preferred, because it allows you to choose the time and place of the attack. Especially so if fleet is faster (coppered), and hauling as close to wind as possible. Then, well maneuvered attack against the van of the enemy will guarantee that the rear will not be able to come to aid without significant disorder. Aggressive attack can be good, but push it too vigorously and you will end up in disordered state with incapacitated vessels blocking your own advantages. One has to be able to count crews to do commanders pid.
That said, leeward side provides you option to fall out of line, and preserve too damaged ships from being captured or from surrender. Additionally, leeward provides a way to reform, if things go wrong. On the other hand, wear the fleet together and you can present fresh broadside to the enemy, or slip away. Try to do that by tacking in an engagement.
Planning maneuvers is easy, doing so without risking fire on your own fleet may be tricky. Judging wrong, or being hit by ill timed breeze, your bow may be pointing to a completely from angle, just for that single moment when you have ordered the guns in action. Changing course abruptly in a line of battle is nearly always invite to disaster. Even well timed maneuver can go wrong and in compact line that single wrong maneuver could be source of collisions, misfire and other mishaps. Not only colliding is bad because of damage it causes to the participants, but also because if foils your ship to the other and both become out of command. All those resources needed to separate the ship’s rigging from each other means that they are not doing more important tasks.
Does your fleet include frigates not being able to stand in the line of battle? Consider to utilize them for towing and assisting damaged ships worn off the line. Dismasted, or struck ship in a tow is not lost cause.