On 21 October, 1805, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson led a British fleet of twenty-seven ships of the line and four frigates against a combined French-Spanish fleet, under Admiral Villeneuve, of some thirty-three sails of the line and eight frigates at Trafalgar. Nelson divided his smaller fleet into two lines of battle and then, in a surprising break with the naval tactics of the day, struck the French and Spanish line at right angles completely disrupting the enemy formation. Although Nelson — whose flag ship, the Victory, was at the head of one of the British lines — was mortally wounded, the enemy fleet was virtually destroyed. Twenty enemy vessels struck their colors, the Spanish admiral was killed, and Admiral Villeneuve was himself captured during the action.
The destruction of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar did not come without cost. Over 1,500 English seamen and marines were killed or wounded; French and Spanish losses, not surprisingly, were much greater; with some estimates placing them as high as 14,000 killed, wounded, and captured. However, England’s lop-sided victory was largely offset, at least in the eyes of the British public, by the loss of England’s greatest naval commander. Nelson’s death was a terrible, if temporary, blow both to the British navy and to national morale. Nonetheless his triumph at Trafalgar ended any prospect of a French invasion of the British Isles, and guaranteed British naval supremacy for the next one hundred years.
WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN is a tactical simulation of naval warfare during the period 1776 to 1815. The game uses a simultaneous movement and combat system to represent the unique character of combat during the ‘Age of Sail’. The two piece hexagonal grid game map is a surprisingly eye-catching, multi-toned blue rendition of a generic patch of ocean. The counters represent individual ships and range in size from the powerful 74 gun ships-of-the-line to the much smaller gunboats and merchantmen of the era. In addition, each counter carries three numerical values: the ship’s turning ability; its ‘battle sail’ speed; and its ‘full sail’ speed. Interestingly, despite the fact that the designer uses a number of novel game concepts in order to bring his simulation of sail-powered ship-to-ship combat to life, learning the game is actually comparatively painless. The rules to WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN are offered in both a ‘Basic’ and an ‘Advanced’ version. However, because the ‘Basic’ rules are intended primarily as a way to introduce the essential concepts of the game system, this description will mainly focus on the ‘Advanced’ version of the game. Moreover, it should be noted that before either version of the game can actually start, all players must prepare a ship’s log sheet noting all information pertinent to the game for each vessel that they control. Once this preparatory step is out of the way, regular action can begin. The game is played in turns, and each game turn represents approximately three minutes of real time. A single game turn is divided into a sequence of rigidly ordered but simultaneous player actions. This sequence of player actions proceeds as follows: Wind Phase; Unfouling Phase; Movement Notation Phase; Movement Execution Phase; Grappling and Ungrappling Phase; Boarding Preparation Phase; Combat Phase; Melee Phase; Load Phase; and Full Sail Phase.
Unlike most hex and counter game systems, the vast majority of the ship counters in WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN straddle two adjacent hexes, and the speed and scope of movement for individual ships is based on a variety of different factors; these can include: a ship’s draft (how much water it draws), any damage sustained, volume of sail, and the direction (gauge) and speed (velocity) of the wind during a particular game turn. Players will quickly discover, for example, the tremendous advantage conferred by having the right amount of sail (battle versus full), and of having the wind with them, rather than against them.
Vice Admiral Lord Collingwood
Combat in WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN, as the earlier game turn description should suggest, will take one of two basic forms: fire (whether shot, double shot, grape shot, or chain) and melee (crew versus crew). In the case of fire attacks, the type of gun loading that a player selects will be based on the expected range between the opposing vessels; and whether he is seeking to bring down an enemy’s rigging, or, alternatively, is firing to inflict damage to the enemy ship’s hull and/or crew. Not surprisingly, allowing one’s vessel to receive fire from the stern (the dreaded ‘rake’), as was the case historically, is lethal. In the case of ‘melee’ attacks, these crew-versus-crew actions occur during boarding. This brings us to another interesting aspect of the game: the clever but reasonable way in which the designer has woven ‘morale’ into the various elements of the simulation. Each ship’s crew will begin the game rated for ‘morale’; hence, each crew compliment will be classified as elite, crack, average, green, or poor. What this means is that, while ship size is important, crew quality is at least as important, if not more so, when it comes to virtually every element of the play of the game. In fact, the signal advantage of almost always having a better quality crew than his opponent is the British player’s main ‘ace in the hole’; particularly, when it comes to fire effectiveness and melee combat. The ultimate object of ship-to-ship combat, of course, is to either sink or capture the enemy vessel. However, an intervening step in this process will virtually always be the infliction of damage on the opposing player’s ship or ships. Damage, as it occurs, is recorded on the affected ship’s log sheet, and will take one of three basic forms: hull damage, rigging damage, or crew casualties.
The victory conditions in WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN vary depending on the number of ships involved and the type of action being simulated. In most ship-to-ship actions, a player wins when the other side either surrenders (strikes his colors) or is sunk. In multi-ship battles, the opposing players receive ‘victory’ points for any enemy vessels sunk or captured; the player with the greatest number of victory points at the end of the action wins. It is also possible for an action to end in a draw.
Beginning of the Battle of Trafalgar
WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN offers players twenty-three different scenarios beginning with the American Revolution and ending with the Napoleonic Wars. These scenarios range from simple ship-to-ship engagements to complex, multi-ship naval battles. In virtually all cases, the scenarios are open-ended. That is: the opposing players blast away at each other until one or the other wins, or until a draw becomes obvious. To show the breadth of the different types of naval actions covered in the game, the scenarios have all been listed; they are: Scenario 1, Valcour Island, October 11, 1776; Scenario 2, Ranger vs. Drake, May 2, 1776; Scenario 3, Battle of Ushant, July 27, 1778; Scenario 4, Battle of Flamborough Head, September 23, 1779; Scenario 5, Arbuthnot and Des Touches, March 16, 1781; Scenario 6, The Battle of the Chesapeake, September 5, 1781; ‘Campaign Game’ Scenario 7A, Suffren and Hughes (same opponents in all Scenario 7 actions), February 17, 1782; Scenario 7B, April 12, 1782; Scenario 7C, July 6, 1782; Scenario 7D, September 3, 1782; Scenario 7E, June 30, 1783; Scenario 8, Battle of the Saintes, April 12, 1782; Scenario 9, Nymphe vs. Cleopatre, June 17, 1793; Scenario 10, Mars vs. Hercule, April 21, 1798; Scenario 11, Battle of the Nile, August 1, 1798; Scenario 12, Ambuscade vs. Baionnaise, December 14, 1798; Scenario 13, Constellation vs. Insurgent, February 5, 1799; Scenario 14, Constellation vs. Vengeance, February 1, 1800; Scenario 15, Trafalgar, October 21, 1805; Scenario 16, The Battle of Lissa, March 13, 1811; Scenario 17, Constitution vs. Guerriere, August 19, 1812; Scenario 18, United States vs. Macedonian, October 25, 1812; Scenario 19, Constitution vs. Java, December 29, 1812; Scenario 20, Chesapeake vs. Shannon, June 1, 1813; Scenario 21, Battle of lake Erie, September 10, 1813; Scenario 22, Wasp vs. Reindeer, June 28, 1814; and Scenario 23, Constitution vs. Cyane and Levant, February 20, 1815.
British Royal Navy sailors laying a gun at Trafalgar
It should be noted that most of the game’s scenarios can easily be played on a one-on-one basis; however, some of the larger actions — Trafalgar, for example, calls for a total of sixty vessels — are best played by teams. In addition, along with the regular historical engagements offered with the game, the designer also includes instructions so that players may design their own scenarios. Finally, for those players who want to increase realism at the expense of playability, the game also includes one-and-a-half pages of ‘optional’ rules that cover everything from Timed Moves to Copper Bottomed hulls.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATION
The USS Constitution vs. the Guerriere
In the end, the game design of WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN, is much more detailed and richly-textured than this short description might suggest. Almost every aspect of naval combat that took place during the ‘Age of Sail’ is at least touched upon in this game. Thus, for those players (like me) who are fans of ‘lucky’ Jack Aubrey, or of the Hornblower series of novels, suffice to say that if you encountered a particular type of sea-going action in one of Patrick O’Brian’s or C.S. Forester’s many fine books, then you will probably be able to duplicate that action on the WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN game map.
Nonetheless, despite my fondness for Aubrey and Hornblower, and despite the fact that WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN was a long-time favorite among my circle of regular wargaming opponents, I personally never really invested much time in the game. I think, in fact, that I may have only played one or two scenarios in all the time that I’ve owned WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN. In retrospect, given my broad-based tastes in a variety of different simulation topics, this lapse is a little hard to explain. I just don’t know why I never played the game more frequently, except perhaps that I have always had a preference for carrier operations when it comes to naval games; that, and I didn’t then, and still don’t care much for record-keeping. Still, my personal ambivalence towards the game seems to put me into the minority when it comes to other players who generally like ‘blue water’ games.
The Four Days Fight, 1666, painting by Abraham Storck
In any case, whatever my personal feelings, I have to admit that WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN certainly appears to deliver in both the excitement and historical ‘chrome’ department. S. Craig Taylor seems to have done a superb job of creating a realistic, but not overly cumbersome simultaneous movement-action system. Moreover, the game — at least, so its many fans tell me — just plays well, time after time. This challenging, but manageable mix of action, ‘fog of war’, and period ‘feel’ probably accounts for why, even after thirty-five years, the game still remains surprisingly popular with a large number of enthusiastic players and still shows up at major tournament events. As proof of this, by the way, WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN currently enjoys an impressive ‘Geek’ rating of 6.94 over at http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/237/wooden-ships-iron-men. Thus, for this and the other reasons that I have enumerated, I believe that this game would probably make a very good choice for the novice or casual gamer (assuming that they don’t mind keeping a few written notes as the game progresses), but is probably a MUST OWN for anyone with a genuine interest in naval combat during the ‘Age of square-rigged Fighting Ships’.
- Time Scale: 3 minutes per game turn
- Map Scale: 100 yards per hex
- Unit Size: individual ships
- Unit Types: ship-of-the-line, frigate/corvette, brig/sloop/schooner, gondola/galley/radeau, gunboat, privateer, merchantman, fireship, bomb ketch, and information counters
- Number of Players: two
- Complexity: average
- Solitaire Suitability: below average
- Average Playing Time: 2-10 + hours (depending on scenario and number of ships involved in the action)
- One two-piece 22” x 28” hard-backed hexagonal grid Map Board
- 40 ½” cardboard Counters
- 135 ½” x 1” oversized cardboard ‘ship’ Counters
- One 8½” x 11” WOODEN SHIPS & IRON MEN Rules Booklet (with Scenario Instructions, Critical Hit Table, and various ‘Basic’ Game Combat Tables incorporated)
- One 8½” x 11” back-printed ‘Advanced’ Game Tables (with Hit Determination, Hit, Wind Effects, Melee, Fouled Rigging, Grappling, and Critical Hit Tables incorporated)
- One 8½” x 11” pad of Ship’s Log Sheets
- One six-sided Die
- One 5½” x 6½” Avalon Hill Customer Reply Card
- One 11¼” x 14½” x 1¼” flat cardboard Game Box
For those readers who are somehow unfamiliar with the "Hornblower" or "Master and Commander" series of books, I heartily recommend them all, particularly for those with a bent towards highly-detailed, 'Age of Sail' historical fiction.
For enjoyable movies based on the novels, both the classic with Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo, or the more recent Russell Crowe offering are worth viewing.
Recommended ArtworkThis map of the Battle of Trafalgar depicting the British breaking the French and Spanish line by Alexander Keith Johnston makes an interesting game room wall decoration.