Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Portable Naval Wargame Pre-dreadnought Playtest 1

"You may fire when ready, Gridley"
-- "Sir, do you think that someday the game will take longer than the real battle?"
"For some, definitely. For other, wiser gamers, one can hope not."
USS Olympia art NH 91881-KN.jpg
Ah, the perils of failing to prepare... Public Domain,

I always have space in my life for quick-playing historical miniature games that evoke history, put forward key command decisions, and require a little to modest outlay of cash, time, and effort. My ideal standard is "can I bang out a couple of these games in the span of time between putting Admiral Winkie to bed and going to bed myself [at a reasonable hour soasnotto ruin my next day of work]. So with many rule sets to choose from, I find myself trying out a Portable Wargame for the first time.

This being a first playtest of the Portable Wargame Pre-dreadnought rules, located HERE, I wanted to stick closely to the RAW, tempting as it was to add things, etc. The principles being that one should _always_ try the RAW to better understand the designer's intent and to show a little humility...after all, games don't always play the way they read and “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble”. Furthermore, you just might learn something and be a better gamer / designer yourself! So I curbed my enthusiasm.

However, I did have to try to figure out if ships always faced a hex side [very likely] or could also face the spine - the issue being that moving _straight_ sideways across the board is impossible with 6, not 8 directions. I decided to go for the spine and see what happens With 12 directions to face I also made a 1-point turn free, while a 2-point turn [equal to one hex side to one hex side] costs 1 hex of movement, per the rules.

The plan is to use counters from my classic version Avalanche Press board game, "1898"  [now renamed and expanded] on a hex mat, respecting the small / portable game format, and incidentally setting myself up for the arrival of my 1/3000 ships which will be around the same size. Key questions being:
- can I fit this into my 3x3 desk area?
- can I fit this into under an hour?
- are the mechanics tedious and exhausting or do they let me think about squadron commander decisions as opposed to advising gunners on other ships as to the rounds to use, the windage to try, the aiming point, and other impossibilities?
Let's see...

I spent a couple days trying to classify the ships according to the rules and drawing up ship rosters for a Battle of Manila Bay scenario:

Ships are defined by TYPE, within which they are uniformly armed, moving and floating in 8 Classes from Dreadnought to Torpedo Boat: Dreadnoughts max at 8 fire dice firing up to range 8 but only a 2 hex move, while the lowly TB at 2 / 2 dice & range but a 5 hex move. Certainly, one can adapt this to an applied historical standard with little effort if desired.

Interesting game mechanics are:
- The TURN starts with all gunnery / torpedo attacks simultaneous.
- Initiative roll: loser moves first, followed by winner
- GUNNERY is a total of dice, say 8 for pre-dreadnoughts, that lose 1 dice / hex to target. So there no differentiation of gun type - ships fire a total broadside with decreasing effect with distance. Thus, a pre-dread firing 8 dice at a ship 4 hexes away has 4 dice left with which to shoot.

I found my 25"x25" Chessex vinyl hex mat, heretofore never used. While the Spanish fleet was historically weaker than mere ship specs would express, my assumption in this replay is that the Spanish fleet was forewarned and better prepared than in the historical event. I stuck a hill in the "northeast" corner to represent the edge of Manila Bay, and went at it full speed!

In game terms, they had the following forces:
Spanish: 2 Protected Cruisers, 2 Light Cruisers, 3 Destroyers and 1 Torpedo Boat.
Americans: 1 Armored Cruiser, 3 Protected Cruisers, 3 Destroyers.
The Spanish were lined up building up steam in their anchorage, and limited to 1 hex of move Turn 1. The USA could enter anywhere from the West board edge at full speed, and took the first move on Turn 1. 

Above, the US fleet enters with its faster ships in the lead, followed by the rest in order of gunpower. I figure this central approach would put the US in a position to engage the ES if they moved forwards, but plenty of time to react if they tried to shift away. I was only partially right! All ships are out of range, even the AC Olympia with a 6/6 battery.

Turn 2. US wins the Initiative roll. The ES move directly ahead, hoping to cross the "T" of the advancing gringos. This they are able to do so the US turns left, hoping to catch the rear of the Spanish fleet and destroy the small boats right away. 

Turn 3, gunnery [above]. The Olympia is the only ship that gets a hit, there being few dice and you need a 4-5 for 1 Hit, or a 6 for 2 Hits, each Hit removing one Flotation Point [once the green FP are gone, ship must retreat off board].

Turn 3, ES movement. US again wins Initiative, 6-3, so the Spanish move first. They turn right to close range as their best guns are 4/4 while the Olympia is at 6/6. They also drive their DDs in for a torpedo attack on the US line of battle.

Turn 3, US movement. The US responds by circling their DDs left to engage what will in future be where the ES fleet will be [they hope] while the cruisers accept the challenge and engage the DDs at close range, the better to engage them in gunnery. With Torpedoes having a 3-hex range and the hit factor unaffected by range, it is better for the guns to get into point blank range as they can't avoid the 3-hex attack. There's no mention of ships being in the same hex, but I said "up to one big ship of each side, and 2 small ships = one big ship, so the two Spanish DDs are in the hex with one US PC each.

From the Spanish point of view, this hasn't worked that great for the big ships - they are out of or at extreme range while the tail of the battle line is in range of the US ships. However, there's high hopes that the Torpedo attack will work, there's some drama!

Turn 4, Gunnery. The Reina Cristina [end of line] gets hammered by the Olympia and Baltimore. The exchange of cruiser Guns and Torpedo / Guns results in the TB Gen Lezo sinking [ didn't have any torpedoes, oops] and the Velasco losing its 3 Green FP and now needing to leave the action. However, the US PCs take some bad damage - the Boston has to leave the battle and the Raleigh lost 2 FP.

Turn 4 Movement. They finally win an IN roll, so the US fleet executes a complex plan. The Boston heads to the North board edge, away from the ES fleet and towards the US DDs, escorted by the Raleigh. The two other US line ships, including the powerful Olympia, start turning into the rear of the ES line. The ES respond by pulling away as fast as possible, turning towards their own DDs who are chasing the smaller US ships.

Turn 5 US Gunnery results in the Baltimore sinking the heavily damaged Reina Cristina, and the Olympia putting the Castilla to the halfway point with some great shooting. However, I somehow got confused and sank her [thus illustrating gamemaster incompetence but driving the historical result thru Spanish incompetence and lack of preparation].

Turn 5 ES Gunnery. All misses. Is this the inevitability of history in action???

Turn 5 Movement. Spanish win IN, and US cruisers fall behind [perhaps picking up survivors from the stricken Spanish ships??] while the Spanish maneuver for revenge: DDs against the two weakened PC Raleigh and Boston, and their two PC against the US DDs.

Looking at the above, it is definitely possible for the Spanish to turn this around by sinking some of these 5 isolated US ships - but will they?  WILL THEY??

Turn 6 Gunnery. The dispersed situation of the ships results in just a couple hits on the DD Petrel and one on the Don Juan de Austria. BUT, the star gunnery of Olympia results in 2 Hits at max range...with one dice! When in doubt...roll well.

Turn 6 Movement. US wins back the IN, finally. The Spanish ships try to place themselves for some solid gunnery. The US DDs dodge into the lee of the Luzon to avoid fire from the Cuba. The Boston makes it off the board, while the Raleigh positions itself to advantage. The Baltimore and Olympia pursue the last two strong ES ships.

Turn 7, North Gunnery. The ES DDs rip up the Raleigh, showing that they, at least, practiced gunnery during peacetime! They give it 3 Hits and knock out its green FP - it will have to withdraw. In return, the Raleigh manages only one hit on Don Juan de Austria.

Turn 7, West Gunnery. The ES guns are poor - should've got 4 hits, but flagship Luzon got a 2-hit on Concord. In return, the US gunboats inflict 3x as many hits and trash the Luzon, which will now have to retreat off the nearby board edge. At the least, Petrel and Condorde should've been lost for that exchange. Ah the perils of failing to prepare!!! The menacing [and lucky] Olympia is thankfully out of range, as is the Baltimore.

Turn 7, Movement. The Spanish seize the IN back, and US maneuvering doesn't stop the the Isla de Cuba maneuvering well and getting the DDs into her sights. Raleigh joins Boston off the board, and the Luzon departs the battle with the Velasco, also.

Turn 8, gunnery [forgot to turn dice over]. Spanish manage 3 Hits but fail to sink McCulloch, altho they knock out her green FP. But, they don't lose more ships, so that's good news! 

Turn 8 US Movement. Options are dwindling but the Spanish win IN. The US close up with the untouched Olympia and Baltimore...

Turn 8 ES Movement. The Cuba pushed ahead quickly to try and sink a US DD, while the ES DDs curve around the rear of the US battle line to avoid the full broadside power, and shelter in the lee of the Baltimore from the Olympia. Cunning plan and good handling!

Turn 9 Gunnery. ES DDs once again show they practiced in peacetime, putting some Hits on the nearly fresh Baltimore. The Olympia again shows itself the master of long-range gunnery, and puts 2 Hits on the Cuba with one lucky long-range shot [give that gunner an extra rum ration!]. This is joined by the Petrel putting another 2 Hits on Cuba who then misses entirely, perhaps due to the damage control efforts?

Turn 9 US Movement. Spanish win again, so the US tries to block in the Cuba best as they can. The two DDs blocking from the front, the cruisers from the rear...

Turn 9 ES Movement. The Cuba retreats along with the Austria. With no possible way to hold off the US cruisers, the Uloa sails off the board, also. Note that one of the US DDs also has to retreat.

Final tally of destruction: ES lose three ships sunk [one mistakenly], and four retreated. The US has four retreated, almost 5 with Baltimore, and none sunk [without a Castilla error, the result could've been quite different, almost a tie, I think].

Whew! what a great contest! Enjoyable game and not terribly taxing. Thoughts:

  1. Must pay better attention to gunnery results and not accidentally sink Spanish if they don't have enough problems already!
  2. In retrospect, I think that RAW says ships can't face the spines, only the 6 hex sides, with a ship. I don't like this since you can't move straight, laterally, on one direction of  the hex board.
  3. Need some Line of Sight rules, altho I winged it just fine placing the counters within the oversized hexes without any trouble.
  4. Needs some stacking rules.
  5. I really liked the simple gunnery mechanics - the drop off of net chance to damage [which is the only thing that matters] is reflected by rolling less dice, but a lucky shot or two in a broadside is still possible. Thus in one roll - instead of 2 - you get the same effect.
  6. The simple mechanics allowed me to concentrate on fleet / squadron issues, mainly maneuvering for gunnery advantage.
  7. The IGO-UGO movement by IN works well. You can try to out-think your opponent if you lose IN, but it's not easy, and they get a counter-move to advantage.
Some changes / additions I'd like to try:
  1. Fire torpedoes after gunnery - the reflects the torpedo as a closing weapon, sort of a torpedo run against defensive fire.
  2. Give torpedoes less chance to hit at longer ranges also - realistic and easy.
  3. Try once with RAW hex facing, just in case I'm missing something good about it.
  4. Make ships call their shots, and fire on closest target.
  5. Use simple Quality rolls for anything challenging, like acquiring targets, torpedo runs, any significant turns, breaking up a formation, etc.
  6. Add formation rules for squadrons.
  7. Add a Hit result chart for a few interesting things, like damage that affects: gunnery, torpedoes, steering, morale/Quality, speed, etc.
  8. Add weather, smoke, sea state, shallows, land batteries, and mines.
  9. Remove the Hexes entirely and play using the GQ3 time and distance scales, converting it all into centimeters.
Overall, I recommend these rules as a great place to get started with your friends, especially non-gamers. They can easily be made a bit more historical / realistic, yet they keep you thinking about fleet maneuvers not gunnery. This makes it a lot easier to put in important but often ignore things like weather, sea state, shoals, et al. Plus, it is portable, leaves interesting decisions in the player's hands, and not taxing on the brain.

VERDICT: Full steam ahead!


  1. Thanks very much for a detailed and enjoyable battle report. I am currently in the throws of writing a book about Gridded Naval Wargames, and the PORTABLE NAVAL WARGAME will feature - in three variants, ACW, Pre-dreadnought, and Dreadnought - as well as a couple of other sets of rules.

    The concepts behind the rules was to make them as simple and generic as I could whilst allowing players to alter and tailor them to their own particular requirements ... as you have done. I will include a battle report of a Pre-dreadnought game in the book that features a 1914 Turkish squadron fighting a number of Greek ships off the Dardanelles ( Because some of the ships had particular characteristics, I was able to incorporate those differences into the rules (e.g. the Greek Psara was designed for end-on fire and was allowed to fire the equivalent of broadsides dead ahead but her abeam and aft fire were restricted).

    All the best,


  2. I was so impressed by this blog entry that I have added a link from my WARGAMING MISCELLANY blog.

    All the best,


  3. Hey Bob, thanks for the flattering visit!

    I'll be happy to give you some input if you'd like it. My personal goal at this point was to add in some basic features of the ocean like weather, shallows, tide, etc, which make naval gaming, well, "naval gaming" the way hedgerows make Normandy and sand makes the desert!

    I was also planning to compile a single set of the two posted rules incorporating ramming and the ship types. If you'd like those WORD docs for your download page, I'll push them to you. You can also g mail contact me at aama19147 which is where I do a lot of my wargaming correspondence.

    Cheers, and keep up the good work!

  4. Having enjoyed Bob's Portable War Games on land, I'm also looking forward to the final product at sea. About a year ago I tried the rule set as it then stood, with this result;

    I'm looking to see how they might be extended to include air attacks:


  5. mechanically, I always think of air attacks as a type of artillery. The only difference is that one can oppose it and drive it off with AA fire [perhaps]. If one doesn't have AA...then it's just inaccurate artillery for the most part.

    In naval battles, its especially fun b/c ships are such fat targets but usually have AA, making the whole "death star attack run" pretty dramatic at times.

  6. Excellent write-up.

    Your point above about air attacks is interesting.

  7. Thanks!
    I give credit for my observation to Flames of War [who mechanically handle air attacks like artillery bombardments], Star Wars: Ep. IV A New Hope, and my reading on the Solomons Campaign. The fascinating thing is that the air attacks on the Guadalcanal anchorage didn't do a lot of damage so much as they interrupted operations and in that sense they served their purpose - to slow down the delivery of supplies, which is a strategic purpose.

    I think one thing that naval wargamers often miss [since they like to sink ships on a club night] is that the vast majority of fleet actions serve a strategic purpose, often having to do with supply lines, commerce, and the national economy, e.g. the U-Boat wars in the North Atlantic, Japan's Greater Asian Economic Co-Prosperity Sphere, et al. They have to do with securing bases, trade routes, etc.

    The facinating thing about WWII is that the lethality of planes v. their cost ratio was disproportionately in favor of air power. I'm preparing a playtest / review of Cactus Air Force b/c I hope it will serve as a great vehicle for air actions and naval sorties in the Solomons - we'll see!