Thursday, 20 February 2020

All at Sea - Cape Ortegal, 4th November 1805, Dumenoir's Opportunity

Picking up where Jack and I left off from last month with our play-testing of War by Sail from Ostfront Publishing.

The rules are available through Wargames Vault, in the link below, on which you can see a short video showing the rules in action to get an idea of the basic mechanics. Our principle change has been to add a chit driven activation system, taken directly from Kiss Me Hardy rather than the dice driven activation as illustrated in the video, together with combining turning and sailing straight into one complete action.

We continued adopting, adapting and improving, this time joined by Bob and David and playing a set-piece engagement where both parties were looking to fight for very different reasons.

As explained in the first post we were focused on developing some chase scenarios where one party could gain victory points by escaping and or causing damage to the pursuer equally as well as just damaging the pursuer enough to turn from the hunted into the hunter by finishing off the wounded opponent. I aim to do some more of these type of games to better hone the set up for them.

French commander at the Battle of Cape Ortegal,
Vice Admiral Count Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley

In this scenario we set out to play the game where both parties were offering battle and for this game I chose the action that occurred on the 4th of November off Cape Ortegal on the northwest corner of Spain that juts out into the Bay of Biscay, during which Sir Richard Strachan engaged four French survivors from the Battle of Trafalgar the month previous, under the command of Vice Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley, who had also commanded his squadron in the van at Trafalgar.

I say both parties offering a fight, which was not at first the case, as Dumanoir had at first considered returning home with his surviving squadron, then thought better of it by deciding to make a nuisance of himself in the Bay of Biscay, only to find himself challenged and pursued by Sir Richard Strachan's four third raters and three frigates, which gradually gained on the retreating French squadron.

Realising running was not an option, the French admiral was forced to offer battle, and by the time he made the decision to turn and fight, he had forgone the chance of turning to offer battle with a more favourable wind, which had now shifted against him.

The set up for our game

I know some gamers turn away from eras or periods where one side in a conflict greatly outperforms their enemy for one reason or another, declaring the engagements it offers as uninteresting games, because victory so often favours one side.

This has never been something that has bothered me for I have always thought that these games are more of an intellectual challenge in considering how the weaker side and its commander could have done better and by rewarding the player for identifying the ways to improve the outcome in the action over and above their historical predecessor.

Thus it comes down to how you decide to describe 'victory' in your scenario and thus weighting the objectives for both sides appropriately.

The set up sees both sides approach each other with a bow wind blowing left to right, with the British 36 gun, 18 pounder frigates Phoeinix and Santa Margarita out ahead of the British column, now with HMS Hero out of position and missing HMS Namur because of the chase it has been performing.

In the historical battle, the four French third rates were battered by their equivalent British opponents, easily allowing the accompanying British frigates and the remaining fightable British third rates to take command of the situation and complete the capture of all four French ships who seeing the situation they now faced struck rapidly.

Thus any British player should be expected to do a better job or match that of Sir Richard Strachan by taking all four French third rates.

For Dumanoir's performance it would seem reasonable that any outcome the other side of an outright British victory would seem like a good performance on the part of the French player.

The French squadron, to right is led by Duguay Trouin, followed by Dumanoir's flagship, Formidable, followed by Mont Blanc and Scipion, the British 74 HMS Hero is seen out of position after the chase, at the rear of the British column opposite, led by Strachan's flagship HMS Caesar.

To make the scenario more interesting, our set up differed from the historical event in that we assumed Dumanoir was more decisive in his decision making that he actually was, by assuming that the decision to turn on the British pursuit was taken earlier while the wind was still blowing ESE instead of from the SE to which it veered by the time he made the decision to turn.

This was an interesting component to our game as it meant both sides approached each other at half speed contending with a bow wind, and that during the course of our game the wind did indeed veer to the south east by the end of play, which allowed the French to keep the wind to their advantage.

The 1:700th models really lend themselves to the 'dolphin eye' view of the camera, over and above what you can do with the smaller scale models, allowing you to create pictures straight from the National Maritime Museum collection.

HMS Caesar, leads HMS Courageaux, with Dumanoir's squadron in sight ahead 

Having Bob and David join us allowed for two more minds to input on the changes Jack and I had made during our first play-throughs of the rules and the addition of more ships, activation chits to draw, instead of cards to shuffle and more players, would test the ability of the game to flow along and all of us still getting to grips with the mechanisms of play.

Thus Bob took command of the heavy British squadron, Strachan's ships of the line, and David took the two British frigates, whilst Jack assumed the role of Vice Admiral Dumenoir.

The view of the French squadron from the British 36 gun frigate HMS Santa Margarita

The latest addition to my collection is the Bucentaure, nearest to camera, standing in as the 80 gun Formidable, Dumenoir's flagship

The steady approach forced on both sides by the prevailing wind meant that the first opportunity to open fire with their long eighteen pounders was offered to David's two frigates as he closed on the French column.

We played the game to the code of the era, not allowing the French to open fire on the smaller fifth rates until fired upon, and David kept his powder dry as he continued to manoeuvre towards the rear of the French column as it advanced on the three British third rates.

Likewise, particularly given the French position of looking to disable their pursuers to make good their escape, we had the French firing on the uproll looking to shred their opposites rigging whilst Strachan's boys were doing their utmost to put as many holes in French hulls as they could in the shortest amount of time possible.

Both main columns looked to increase their speed of approach by turning with the wind, that saw the lead French ship pull slightly ahead of the column and draw close enough to Strachan's HMS Caesar to attempt a disabling broadside against the British flagships rigging.

The resulting barrage missed the upper area and crashed in among the top deck causing the first crew casualty marker, easily shrugged off by the British 80 gunner.

As the British column turned likewise with the wind, the return fire from the lead British third rates proved decisive and a resultant fire on the Duguay Trouin from the early exchanges brought a devastating end to the first contact as the French 74 was rent apart by a massive explosion as the fire got quickly out of control.

Jack opens fire at long range with the Duguay Trouin on HMS Caesar, aiming for the rigging with his lower deck 32-pounders, as David looks on

Duguay Trouin opens fire on HMS Caesar and HMS Phoenix, a British frigate out of camera , that has just fires at the French 74.

The exchange of fire at the front of the French column was quickly followed by an exchange of fire at the rear of it as the British frigate HMS Phoenix turned across the stern of the Scipion to deliver a crashing stern rake into the French 74, only to be replied to with an equally crashing return broadside as she crossed the rear of the French ship,taking down two masts on the frigate and effectively taking it out of the action.

HMS Santa Margarita, the remaining frigate, wisely kept its distance for the remaining parts of the game as the heavy ships set about each other in earnest.

The action commences as the opposing columns make contact and with British frigates feeling out the rear of the French column

Suddenly the Dugauy Trouin, with a fire amidships is torn apart by a massive explosion amid the smoke of gunfire

The French were keen to keep the wind and thus steered along the length of the table as the British not looking to tack so close to the enemy mirrored their move by wearing around to run a parallel course.

These few moves to get their respective columns into position for the next exchanges saw the wind gradually move towards the south east as the ten turn way point was reached, after which the game would end by a variable die roll, that would see an addition three turns added.

The French turn towards the British line as the wind veers to their advantage allowing a rapid approach to close range

The French now had the wind up their skirts and with Jack compelled to leave before the game end, David took over the final French manoeuvres as their ships bore down on the British line, in a very Nelsonesque approach to deliver their broadsides close in accompanied by exchanges of small arms fire from the opposing marines.

The new wind is indicted from the south east as the French column moves into the attack

As the two columns drew near, the opposing lines of ships opened fire as the targets presented, with the French needing to draw blood to offset the loss of the Duguay Trouin which held the scenario in the realms of an outright British victory with the fifteen points to nil it generated.

As expected the last two turns was close up and bloody with the British just as keen to maintain their fifteen point advantage by equally mauling the remaining French ships.

However it is difficult to control events when 32 and 24 pounder gun decks start pouring on the hurt at musket range and with the last round of play determined as turn thirteen it was not entirely clear who had come out on top amid the smoke and damage markers, not to mention two fires.

The exchanges of broadsides are now close up and personal as two of the French ships move into musket range and with ships on both sides showing fires braking out

Once all the morale checks and fire checks were concluded we set about totting up the final scores, which showed one French third rate sunk, one struck giving the British commander twenty-five victory points.

However two of the British third rates were now totally dismasted and drifting, one a bloodbath through lost casualties and one with heavy casualties awarding the French commander twenty-six victory points, resulting in an 'Indecisive' result.

The little marker tokens amid the smoke and flames denote the damage that is occurring from the multiple hits on both British and French alike, giving the appearance of the flotsam and jetsam that would litter the surface of the water in battles of this era as bits of rigging and hull was blasted overboard.

The French had improved their result over the historical outcome achieved by Dumenoir, even though the remaining two French third rates, now damaged but still able to fight would have to deal with HMS Namur 74 and three British frigates closing on the scene of battle, with the outcome of that encounter by no means certain to favour the French.

The game rattled along through the day, playing as we did thirteen turns from about 11am to 5.30pm and a hour for lunch.

The use of chits rather than card shuffling was much better and helped speed play and the inclusion of the KMH wind change mechanism worked like a dream producing an historical outcome.

The gem of the War by Sail rules is as commented previously, the gunnery mechanism that allows the players to use the guns that each ship carried with all the pros and cons that the different armament arrangements offered the historical captains.

Bringing Home the Prizes - Sir Richard Stachan's HMS Caesar 80, tows home the captured Formidable back from Ortegal

There is much more period feel when you grab fourteen d6 to roll for hitting with fourteen lower deck 32 pounders, then an equal number of mid deck 18 or 24 pounders, then finishing off with upper deck 8 or 9 pounders and hopefully a few 32 or 18 pounder carronades, range permitting, totting up the damage points and finding the result caused by all those hits or not as the case may be.

That period feel is not the same as with other age of sail games I have played where you are simply rolling a die generated factor based on those different gunnery load outs, and the points of damage totting up really captures the battering the target ship is taking during a particular combat - great fun.

Thank you to Bob, David and Jack for indulging me in a day of just playing with model ships, such fun to add to the pleasure of putting these models together.

I look forward to doing some more of these game reports as the collection grows and looking to further develop scenario set ups with War by Sail.


  1. Very pretty looking game. Keep dry old chum!
    Best wishes,

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      Thank you. You can't beat the odd ship game now and then.


  2. A most enjoyable AAR coupled with some very nice looking ships. Thank you.

    How do these rules compare with 'Post Captain'?

    BTW I really like your sea mat. May I know what manufacturer or where I can purchase one?

    Many thanks for all of the excellent report that you have published.
    All the best to you JJ

    1. Hi Rod,
      Thank you glad you enjoyed the read.

      I can't comment on Post Captain as I haven'y played them. As regards War by Sail, like any set of rules they are not perfect and we have already tweaked aspects to our preference, and there are still some other aspects that I may well tweak as we go, but there is something about them that seems to capture something that I haven't got from other rule sets I've played, along with my comments about the gunnery mechanism described in the post.

      Thomas Jensen, the author, has poured a lot of work into the rules by composing a set of ship lists for 1550 to 1815 illustrating typical armament set ups together with specific ships from the periods and different nationalities, plus a ready-reckoner to set up ships based on your own research, which is something I really like.

      The sea mat is from Tiny Wargames

      Thanks for your comments, much appreciated

  3. Very nice. Did you gave any penalties to the French for damage sustained at Trafalgar? I thought that the Duguay Trouin had jettisoned some upper deck guns for example. The rules bring to mind a set called "Prevailing Winds" designed for 1812 lake battles. You rolled a d20 for each firing gun and then if a hit was achieved damage was adjusted according to the caliber.

    1. Hi Eric,
      Thank you.
      Yes I adjusted the gun load out for the Formidable, which I have a reference for jettisoning her quarterdeck 12-pounder guns to aid her escape from Trafalgar. The rules make that a simple adjustment.

      Yes I have seen this kind of treatment used for other Great Lakes rule sets that I have collected off the net over the years, probably because the ships are relatively small and the mechanism is a good fit. These are the first rules I have used that do it for large ships, but in a way that makes it easy for players to get their heads around quickly.

      That point was illustrated in our game where after a few turns of firing all the players had quickly mastered the gunnery stats for each different calibre gun without looking them up on the reference sheet and we were rattling through the turn sequence - always a good sign and shows a flowing game not stuck on rule interpretation.

      We have tweaked things with these rules to suit our needs, hence these play-test posts to prove our concepts and I still have thoughts about others I will try out, but the core of the rules make for a fun game.


  4. Another stellar AAR! great to see people enjoying these rules. And always good to see an indecisive result- that's good game balance in my opinion!

    1. Hi there,
      Thank you, yes indeed, the rules offer lots of opportunity to tailor accordingly and produced a scenario that offered chances to both sides. I am working on some other additions to allow for variable crew morale and skill factors which should allow scenarios to be different each time they are played.


    2. (This is Tom Jensen from Ostfront Publishing by the way) - we'd be happy to publish a supplement with your additions and edits if you're interested at some stage in the future. We could easily dress it up in the official War by Sail page backgrounds and make a cover. Let me know if you're interested once you feel your additions are complete.

    3. Hi Tom,
      I guessed it might have been you.

      Thanks for putting together a fun set of rules. I would be very happy to share our ideas, and it would be good to chat offline and I can outline more clearly what we have done to 'your baby' and some of the other ideas I have in mind.

      If you care to drop me an email via the contact form device, top right on the blog page, just below the Tiny Wargames banner, I will get back to you and we can pick this conversation up.


  5. Wow great AAR! Formidable table you have there and I love the sea mat. Really enjoyed reading this. I must investigate these rules. While I like KMH, this gunnery mechanism sounds like just the ticket for my taste.

    1. Thank you, glad you enjoyed the read.
      Our game provided a lot of entertainment and fun and we came away with more ideas to add to what we have done so far.


    2. Do you think you might be writing up all of these tweaks and improvements to share in the near future 🤞

    3. Yes certainly, I'm in the process of putting together our own QRS to capture the mods we have already incorporated, and this blog is all about sharing the love.

  6. Great AAR JJ. Hope you and Tom have a successful meeting and you get a rules addition added.

    Regards Peter

    1. Hi Peter,
      Thank you, sadly the current situation has brought a halt to not only face to face gaming but also our travel plans which are now postponed, hopefully to this time next year, so fingers crossed.