Tuesday, 9 February 2021

All at Sea - The Search for the One Rule to Rule them All!

Some of the many rules for Age of Sail gaming that grace my library

With the work to complete the Trafalgar collection of 1:700th ships nearing completion, and I'm looking forward to showing the next six French 3rd Rates to join the collection later this week, together with an update on the remaining models needed to be built, I have been turning my attention back to rules and the kind of game I would like to run.

If you have been in the hobby for a certain length of time, you will inevitably see the coming and going of different rules that capture the imagination only to subside into use by a loyal cohort as the next set hove's into view to steal the limelight with new ideas and ways to do what other sets have done but in a slightly different way with a slightly different emphasis on a particular aspect of the warfare at sea of this period.

The search began in 2020 for a set of rules to compliment the scale of models I wanted to use

If you get into a period, then like me you will also inevitably end up with quite a collection of rules as the header to the post illustrates, showing rules I have in my collection, not to mention the boardgame collection that has much to offer the table top player, with a close affinity between the two groups of players as illustrated by the many games of Wooden Ships & Iron Men played using models on a hex mat.

I am always interested to see a newcomer to the hobby posting on a forum that very familiar question, 'What rules do people recommend I should use to start playing ..........? Then just complete the sentence with any period you care to think of.

When I look at my large collection, I suppose I'm not that surprised that a newcomer might find the whole aspect of choosing a rule set rather overwhelming, and I guess that when I started out in the hobby in the mid seventies, the process was a lot more straight forward as there weren't that many rules to choose from and here in the UK with the wargame club scene, you ended up playing what everyone else decided on in your club, particularly when there were players there that had been doing it a lot longer than you and knew the good sets or rules from the not so good sets.

The rules needed to be able to cope with large actions and the smaller single ship affairs

Of course in the absence of the internet, information was a lot harder to come by and thus certain rules became the 'gold-standard' for playing a particular period or theme and with the difficulty researching the information that underpinned the assumptions the rules made one often ended up accepting the picture of battle the games they offered created.

However today, with information only stroke away on the keyboard, there really is no excuse for not putting in a bit of effort to find out about the ways a particular period was fought and then comparing that information with the way the rules you are looking at model them and then consider do they do it in a fun and entertaining way with plenty of decision points that the command level you are playing would have faced.

The Leeward Line scenario using War By Sail (adapted) helped to firm up the look and type of game I am planning, post-lockdown

Thus in a roundabout way I come to the crux of the process I am working on now to identify the key aspects I want to include on the table for the particular encounters I want to recreate, be they the big-battle scenario such as the Trafalgar game I am contemplating to the smaller single-ship encounters that pose quite a different set of challenges and to find rules capable of producing both types of games  hopefully with little adaptation to accommodate both.

As with the Talavera project that took a longer period to build, some four years in fact, I want a game that creates the granularity that allows the drama of the action to be captured as covered in the accounts of the historical battle and a comparison with the historical decision points to those made by the players on the table and thus the rules have to have enough detail in them to allow that and be pitched at the decision point level of the commanders in the game, that is an Admiral or Squadron Commodore in the big-game scenario and the Captain in the ship v ship game.

So the process started last year with the first few games pre-pandemic that used War by Sail which have a really nice level of detail at the gunnery level whilst pitching the player into the command seat perfectly at the level of the fleet/squadron commander, giving a very clean game that moves along at a good pace and work well in a solo format as demonstrated in the Leeward Line game I produced last month.

That said I have wondered if I can get a greater level of 'granularity' into the game, all be it at the expense of taking a bit longer to reach a conclusion, without losing the nice flowing game that War by Sail produces, something that would benefit the playing of small ship actions.

Small actions come in all shapes and sizes and the rules need to cope below the rate

There is where the choice of rules meets some interesting challenges, and something I chatted through with the chaps at the DWG on a recent Zoom gathering in that it has struck me that some of the rules I have looked at seem a little uncertain as to the level of command they want the player/s to play at. For example in one set I am messing around with, the game they create is designed to allow big battles and squadron level actions to be refought as evidenced by the scenarios in the back, including Trafalgar and yet the player is tasked with choosing whether to load grape, chain, single, double or triple shot into their guns at any given range, not only that but the precise mix of double shot for instance needs to be specific, namely are we talking double ball or ball and grape?

So my question immediately was, am I as an Admiral or Squadron Commodore focussed on what I expect my junior officers and gun-captains to take care of or am I supposed to be focussed on running my battle and having those decision points taken for me by a game mechanic representing the decisions of those junior leaders. However if I choose to focus on that lower level of commander, say Captain Brooke commanding HMS Shannon bearing down on the USS Chesapeake, then yes I probably am going to take a distinct interest in making sure my officer of the deck has ordered the gun captains to have loaded double shot and grape ready to take advantage of the point-blank pass I'm about to attempt.

Part of the fun of messing about with rule sets is coming up with materials to go with them,
like my latest damage records for the Trafalgar orders of battle.

The other aspect I am keen to include is the randomised activation process championed by Rich Clarke and Nick Skinner in their Lardy series of games which really generates the friction that characterises warfare in general and for me puts that 'fly in the ointment' when decisions are taken but stuff can happen to frustrate them being carried out in a timely manner and so that has to be the activation driven mechanism whatever rule set I decide to use, and are they adaptable to that mechanism if not originally designed that way?

Then I am looking at how well the rules can adjust to the lower level of game play to cater for the Shannon v Chesapeake type encounter or even the Scourge v Sans Culottes action with even smaller vessels, without them ending up a completely different set of rules, if that is possible, with the advantage, if they can cope, that the learning curve for players moving from one game type to the other is that much reduced through familiarity with the core rules.

Finally I am looking for the rules to clearly enable identifying the victor and the level of victory or defeat achieved when play stops, be that through a time limit or one side being so demoralised from casualties and damage that they will be forced to attempt to break contact, thus preventing the wargamer in all of us pushing our model warriors further than their historical counterparts who most likely would have broken off the action much earlier.

Four significant influences on my choice of rules

So which rules have my efforts focussed on and why? Well four sets figure large at the moment all for different and similar reasons.

War by Sail are a really nicely designed set of rules and I really enjoy the games I am able to create with them and the level of detailed information on gun fit outs for warships of all the key nations covered from 1550 to 1815 is worth the cover price alone whether you play the rules regularly or not and will be a turn to reference source for that alone.

Kiss Me Hardy were one of the first of the Lardy stable of rule sets and the chit/card activation method was rather unique when they first arrived on the age of sail naval wargames scene, an aspect of them I really love, and with the addition of 'To Covet Glory' by Chris Stoesen to cover small ship actions and the article 'Messing around with Boats' in the 2011 Christmas Special by Brian Weathersby looking at adding greater variety to the ships modelled in the rules. they have stood the test of time and still give a great game able to cater for big and small actions.

Materials such as these should help me present a visually attractive
report of how individual ships performed in a game

Not only that but Nick Skinner and other Lardy KMH fans put together several articles (Time Tunnel to Trafalgar - Lardies Game Day 2005 Christmas Special and Refighting Trafalgar, Game Report and Scenario 1805 - 2005 Summer Special) covering the playing and the planning of their 2005 Bicentennial Trafalgar game which has formed the foundation reading of my own planning process and has meant that I have not had to reinvent the wheel, all be it the models I will use are a bit bigger!

The other two sets are from A & A Game Engineering, like War by Sail available through Wargames Vault. I have to say I really like the layout of these two rule sets, with their minimalistic style reminiscent of my early days in the hobby before rules became glossy books full of wargamers porn, spread among the same old rules but more colourfully produced and costing a small mortgage.

Both 'Form Line of Battle' by a stalwart of the Naval Wargaming scene, David Manley and 'Grand Fleet Actions in the Age of Sail' by Alan Butler share a similar layout and no nonsense production ethos with two sets of solid rules in a black and white, low printer ink requiring format including enough simple diagrams to support the text and tables and both offering lots of great granularity in the games they are designed for.

Key aspects in both is the attention to producing battles of the era and not some sort of 'Pirates of the Caribbean' type game that usually ends up ignoring the Fighting Instructions and the struggle for commanders to maintain a coherent fighting formation and encourage players to dogfight with ships of the line, or take on the odd 'denizen of the deep', thus I think both sets will influence hugely my final choice of rules which inevitably will not be any one set but more likely my own concoction based on the ideas from all four to a lesser or greater extent.

Simple record sheets should also make it easy for players to keep track 
of each ship's status.

That concoction is coming together in anticipation of lockdown restrictions easing and table top gaming resuming so that I can play test the ideas with the chaps and I am eagerly awaiting the call up for a vaccination from the Chinese Bat Flu.

Finally the rules I have featured here in my personal analysis are by no means exhaustive but they all share the normal attention to aspects typical in all the rules for this period of naval warfare, namely sailing attitudes to the wind, gunnery, ranges and damage tables, critical hit tables etc etc, offering different emphasis as outlined, and I may not have mentioned your own particular favourite set, not because I am unaware of them, which I am probably not, but because the rules choices I have made fit in with the games I plan to produce and tick the boxes of my own criteria of high simulation and lots of fun to play, key aspects that are important to me.

And of course the next part of the collection is already well into the planning phase

I know I am not alone in the vain search for the perfect set of rules which are as rare as Unicorns, or should I say Kraken, but like many others enjoy the process of the search and then fiddling around with those that make the cut in an effort to create that Unicorn.

Next up: Six new French generic third rates in Revolutionary War trim join Admiral Villeneuve's Combined Fleet line up and I'll take a look at what's left to do on the Trafalgar collection, plus Steve and I are reaching a conclusion to our latest game on Vassal, Ardennes 44 from GMT.


  1. Interesting reading. It's such a familiar journey, a life long one it seems. Mine of course is playing big battle Napoleonic games & I think I've got that one cracked, for now at least because as you suggest, something new & shiny might catch my eye.
    Stay safe, best wishes,

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      I had a feeling I was not alone in this kind of meandering and it's just another facet of the hobby that makes it so interesting and fun to spend time pondering over and I'm sure we are all attracted inevitably to taking a look at 'new and shiny' just to make sure we haven't missed anything!

      All the best

  2. Excellent post as ever Jonathan.
    I went through a useful and interesting series of playtests of rules (lead by my friend Julian) and we came to settle on Grand Fleet Actions in the Age of Sail for multi-ship encounters. We comfortably and successfully played out first and second Algeciras and I expect that he'll have a go at Combat de Prairial, Cornwallis' Retreat and eventually Trafalgar in due course.
    I like the idea of these rules for a multiplayer game that one wants to complete in a single session, but am happy to use more detailed rules (likely some adaptation of Signal Close Action or Form Line of Battle) for a 'slow wargaming' version of the same.
    I have come to embrace the number of sets of rules for Napoleonic land warfare as they allow me to scale games up and down to suit (and to pick bits out of rule sets and stick them into others or to otherwise 'tinker' to my hearts content). Like you, I have whittled down the (near infinite) number available to a sub-set of two or three that I consider viable (at each level of game/simulation—I use that last term as I want a level of edification from wargaming, not merely a game—your comments seem to point to the same/similar attitude?).
    Regards, James

    1. Hi James,
      Yes indeed, I read your missive on the exploration into Age of Sail naval rules you carried out and found myself agreeing with much of your thinking which does indeed chime with my own.

      In the end the rules we opt for is a very subjective choice which is why I think it is so important to absorb as many other influences as possible that can inform that choice, be it reading a book or two, visiting a museum, listening to experts present, or walk the odd battlefield (although I wouldn't recommend the latter when it comes to naval gaming!).

      So once this first collection is complete I intend to spend the intervening time to the day we can gather around a table again in working through the ideas on how best to play with them, along with painting a few more models, and share those thoughts and models here on the blog.


    2. Not recommend walking a naval battlefield; love it Jonathan! :)