Sunday, December 4, 2011

Looking at Rules: Sail and Steam Navies

Since this year’s DANG mini-campaign is an American Civil War river action, I needed to find a set of rules to handle this type of action. Usually, we use the old Yaquinto Ironclads rules (converted for miniatures) for ACW naval games, but it can take a while to play out actions with those rules. Fortunately, Kevin had recently purchased Sail and Steam Navies from Bay Area Yards and he was willing to let me borrow them for DANG. This rules review is based on reading the rules and playing two fairly large battles (each with four or more ships per side).
Sail and Steam Navies, subtitled: Naval Battle System 1840 to 1880, is a PDF set of rules that comes on a CD. Also on the CD is a module covering the American Civil War called Under Both Flags. The rules are designed for 1/600 scale miniatures, but come with information for converting them for use with 1/1200 scale miniatures. The basic rules are about 40 pages long, which includes charts, an example of play, and conversion information for 1/1200 scale. The Under Both Flags module adds six scenarios, a scenario generator, and the forms for the ships. There are over 550 pages of forms (generally with two forms on a page) included in the game covering pretty much every ship involved in the American Civil War (at least the ones that fought in battles or are mentioned in the various histories) and a number of forts and shore batteries. There are multiple forms for many of the ships the show changes in armament while in service. The forms are attractive, well laid out, and have all the gaming information for a ship. The only thing I wish is that there was more information on how to come up with your own forms (mainly because I like to tinker around with things), but that is a pretty minor quibble considering the large number of forms.

The game uses D10s for resolving combat and other actions. Usually you will only need one or two dice, but there might be times during damage checks when you will need a handful of them.

The turn sequence is pretty straightforward; it starts with writing speed orders for the turn (this is just writing down how fast a ship will go for the turn, not actually plotting movement), followed by combat (cannon fire, musket fire, boarding/melee), then movement, and finally morale checks and repairs.

The game includes a really good player aid page (which is easy to print out) that lays out all the game information in a clear manner. Once you are familiar with the rules, I think you really only need the player aid chart and ship forms to play the game.

Gunnery: Cannon fire in the game is pretty easy. Guns are broken down into groups of light, medium, and heavy smoothbore or rifled guns. Each group has a set close, medium, and long range, which determines the Hit Number. The player declares if they are firing solid shot or a shell and rolls a hit die and location die, with the hit die result being modified by various game, firer, and target conditions. If the modified roll is equal to or greater than the Hit Number the target ship is hit and the location die is used to determine what part of the target is hit. The location numbers are shown on the target ship's form, so there is some variation between ships. The location roll can also be modified if firing through the bow or stern arcs of the target, which prevents cases of hitting the bow of a ship when firing from the stern aspect.

If the target is hit, the armor rating for the location subtracted from the modified gun rating for the firing gun. The gun rating is listed on the attacking ship's form and is modified based on range and if the gun is firing shot or shell. The result is the number of damage dice that are rolled (Note: you always get to roll at least one damage die, even if the armor rating is greater than the modified gun rating). This is where you might need a lot of dice, especially if you are firing a big gun at a wooden vessel at close range. The damage dice cause damage on a roll of 8 or higher; with the damage being Suppression (affecting the crew), armor, or hull hits. There is also a chance of taking out a gun or scoring a critical hit if three dice come up with the same number. (so, there is no chance of destroying a gun or causing a critical hit if you roll fewer than three dice).

Damage results are pretty easy too. Ships have armor at the different locations(including stacks, and paddlewheel boxes) and hull boxes. The hull boxes are divided into upper and lower hull types. There are always fewer lower hull boxes and if all of those are marked off the ship begins to sink (the lower hull boxes are marked off due to ram and torpedo attacks or for hull hits on the lower portions of the ship). The damage to armor and hull is marked off as needed.

There is a phase for musket fire, which is handled in a similar manner as cannon fire but only causes crew suppression, and a boarding/melee phase for those rare boarding actions.

Movement: Movement in done in two rounds. In each round one side, determined by initiative die roll, moves all of its ships and then the other side moves. The same movement order is repeated in the second round. Ships must move the full distance they wrote in the speed orders at the start of the turn, unless damage has reduced their maximum speed. For turning, each ship is rated for a distance it must move straight before making a 30 degree turn. The turn distance is on the ship's form and can be modified for paddle wheel damage or rudder damage.

During movement ships can attempt to ram with each other. If a ship hits another at a shallow angle, then it is a glancing blow and minor or no damage occurs. If not at a shallow angle, a roll is made to see if the ram is successful. If not, then it is treated as a glancing blow. If successful, a number of dice equal to the ramming ship's speed are rolled. The die rolls are modified by the size and ram value of the ramming ship and the armor value for the defending ship at the point of impact. Higher die rolls cause hull hits to the target and lower rolls cause damage to the attacker, with middle rolls not causing any damage. Spar torpedoes are handled in a similar manner with the attacker checking for success in the same manner as a ram. If successful, three dice are rolled for damage.

There are also rules for sailing ships in the game. I haven't tried these rules yet, but they seem pretty easy to understand (even the rule on Tacking). I like the idea of being able to use sail and steam ships in a game without having to worry about using different movement systems.

The two consecutive movement rounds in Sail and Steam Navies seems a little odd when compared to most rules. I think the rules make ramming a little easier than in similar games, with no worries about getting shot until the next gunnery phase. In a lot of rules that have multiple movement rounds, the movement rounds are broken up with an intervening combat phase, giving the target a chance to break up a ram attack by firing at close range. In Sail and Steam Navies ships have a chance to move from medium gun range (or even long range for smaller smoothbore cannon) to ramming without being shot at. I will say that I don't think this ruins the game, it just makes you think differently about the tactics you want to employ.

After movement are the Morale phase. Ships checking morale for certain cases (such as losing half its hull boxes or having no movement). The first failed morale check causes the ship to withdraw and a second failure causes the ship to surrender. Additionally, a ship that has all of its suppression boxes marked off will surrender. The last phase in the turn is the Repair phase, where players check to repair damaged systems, put out fires, refloat grounded ships and grapple/ungrapple. Then the turn sequence starts all over.

The rules play pretty quickly and have enough detail that players can see the differences between ships without getting to bogged down. Most players won't have any problems quickly understanding the combat and movement rules. Overall, I like the rules and have been happy with the way they played. I would recommend them to anyone interested in ACW naval games.

Pros: The Player Aid page is top notch! The rules come with copies of all ship forms ready to print. Should be easy to play in a large group or at a convention.

Cons: There are some places where the rules could have been explained better. The PDF ship forms are not searchable in your PDF reader, so it can be hard to find the exact ship card you want (there is an Excel file on the CD that is searchable, but it doesn't have the page numbers in it). There isn't any way to modify ship forms or information on how to convert real-world numbers into ones for the game.

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