Sunday, January 8, 2012

Stackless in Seattle

Kevin Smyth and I hosted a Sail & Steam Navies game for out annual Drumbeat game day. I came up with a scenario that involved the Confederate squadron in Charleston coming out to challenge the blockade. It was the first time in our S&SN games that we had first-line Confederate ironclads in action and I was eager to see how they would do. I thought they would power through the blockading ships and power back. They were well armored, well-armed, excellent rammers, and all mounted Spar torpedoes as well. However, things didn't turn out so well...

The Confederate forces were the following:

CSS Charleston (ironclad ram)
CSS Palmetto State (ironclad ram)
CSS Chicora (ironclad ram)
CSS David (torpedo boat)
CSS St. Patrick (torpedo boat)

The Union ships at start were the following:

USS Commodore Barney (converted wooden ferry boat)
USS Kansas (wooden gunboat)
USS Octorara (double-ended wooden gunboat)
USS Keokuk (bad ironclad gunboat)
USS New Ironsides (bad-ass ironclad frigate)

The game also saw the first use of shoals as a "terrain" feature. We didn't get a chance to see how well ships navigated over them because the players just avoided the shoals entirely.

The Union started with their forces either anchored or moving very slowly. New Ironsides was anchored farthest back, with Commodore Barney as the sacrificial lamb closest in. The Confederates started on at full speed in a line ahead formation with ships ordered as follows: (L to R) Palmetto State, St. Patrick, David, Chicora, Charleston.

The Confederate squadron in line ahead
I figured Commodore Barney would be matchsticks in no time, but she put a lot of hurt on Palmetto State with minimal damage in return. In one cannonade phase, she completely destroyed Palmetto State's smokestack, which reduced her speed to a mere 4" per move phase for the rest of the game. This cause the Confederates to start to lose formation and the ships came on higgled-piggeldy rather than in a solid line. Palmetto State also had one whole section or armor shot away by Commodore Barney's pop-guns. Scott Abbot, who ran Barney, just couldn't miss or roll lower than a 10 for damage.

Commodore Barney packs a lot of hurt in her small frame
Palmetto State's fate with her stack was a portent of what was to befall the rest of the squadron. All of the surviving Confederate ships had their stacks shot away and the reduction in motive power that caused was a principle factor in  the eventual Confederate loss.

Chicora takes the lead as the other ships lose speed
St. Patrick also suffered from Commodore Barney's fire and was quickly sunk. This was another first for our games. Torpedo boats have been hard to hit and the few that were sunk were done in by failed torpedo attacks that became collisions with much bigger ships or, in one case, a torpedo boat blowing itself up while attacking.

New Ironsides and Keokuk out beyond the shoal water
At first, New Ironsides was only able to participate with a single 150-pdr Parrott rifle. Its massive broadside of seven XI-inch Dahlgrens had insufficient range to affect the oncoming Confederates. Kevin, who ran the ship on its maiden voyage, slowly got it up to speed, but lingered a while with its broadside facing the oncoming Confederates. Eventually as the range decreased, New Ironsides got in a few shots at long range using battery fire, which increased her effect and chance to hit. However, the initial results were poor except for pulverizing poor David with an XI-inch broadside (over 1100 pounds of metal against one little steamboat) when she got too close in an attempt to make a torpedo attack.

David (far left) attempts an attack on New Ironsides
After David was lost, Chicora took the lead and headed at full steam for New Ironsides. She took a pounding getting there: she lost her stack and had several sections of her armor beaten up. Eventually, her lack of speed made it impossible to actually make a ram attack on any Union ship. Her erstwhile quarry, New Ironsides, simply put water between them and headed round the shoal to get between the Confederate rams and Charleston harbor while Chicora limped along behind sending a desultory shot now and then at New Ironsides' stern.

Chicora steams toward New Ironsides in a vain attempt to ram
By this time, the other rams were also slow and beaten up. Charleston lost her stack and had a lot of scattered armor damage. She also had her steering shot up. They'd had enough and were heading back to cover under the guns of Fort Sumter and the other batteries protecting Charleston harbor.

At this time, fate intervened. I hadn't expected the Confederates to take such a pounding and I had a couple aces up my sleeve with more Union ships that could come in as needed. While certainly NOT needed, I couldn't help but bring on USS Sangamon from the north to interpose herself on the Confederates' line of retreat. It was kind of cruel, but I really wanted to see how a XV-inch Dahlgren worked in the game and the XV-incher's main target—Confederate ironclads—was conveniently at hand.

I ran Sangamon and took her in holding my fire until I got close. When I finally fired, just outside of close range, my XI-inch hit, but the mauling XV-inch missed. Kevin said it served me right for attempting overkill. So, we'll have to wait for another game before we see the effect of XV-inch guns on rebel ironclads.

Post mortem

I think the tweaks I did for the rules worked out well in the game, although I may go back to making 10s a hull hit. I was a bit surprised at the amount of destruction dealt out by New Ironsides. Kevin and I both had misgivings that the Confederate rams, which also mounted torpedoes, would get in, sink New Ironsides and be back quickly. The loss of speed due to stack hits early on meant that the Union had a lot of time to shoot away before the Confederates were anywhere near striking distance.

Confederate ships had decent rifles, but nothing to compare to a XI-inch Dahlgren. Their best guns had a GR of 6, while New Ironsides had armor of 5-7. There was no chance they could do a lot of damage by gunfire; they had to get in with a ram or torpedo attack. The Confederates also didn't seem to attempt to much against the wooden ships. Octorara was untouched and Barney was only slightly damaged—despite spending the first turns of the game in a shoot-out with Palmetto State. Kansas held back at long range and took pot shots with its 150-pdr Parrott, taking only a few minor hits in reply. Kekokuk was less well armored than New Ironsides, but was never seriously targeted.

The design of the Confederate rams didn't help them too much in a gun fight. The guns only bear at limited angles and there is a big dead zone where none of the ship's guns can bear. There were several time when the Confederates just got shot without being able to reply.

The scenario needs more tweaks. The points values of the ships favored the Confederates by 107 to 73. I had originally planned it to be a night game using blinds for the ships until they were identified. The limited visibility and -2 to shooting "to hit" rolls would have favored the Confederate's chances to get in close and ram without taking a lot of damage. When I play this scenario again, I'll try that approach.

I may also retire New Ironsides. It's too powerful a ship, which is historically correct, but all play balance is lost. She took a lot of punishment while on station at Charleston, including a torpedo attack by David, but stayed put through it all. It's no wonder the Confederates never seriously tried to use their ironclad rams to break the blockade, but limited them to harbor defense instead. A determined sortie would undoubtedly run into New Ironsides and various Passaic-class monitors, which would have shot the rebel rams to bits.


  1. I've been thinking about gun attacks with shells a little more. We haven't really used them much because they seem ineffective. I went back to read the rules again about shells and I realized we have been playing the shell rules wrong. We should have been checking for a fire anytime a shell hits a target and more than 1 damage die is rolled (the number of Armor/Hull hit is a modifier to the fire die roll check). So if you are firing a shell you get to check for fires, even if you didn't cause any damage (as long as you rolled 2 or more damage dice). This would make it more attractive to fire shell at wooden ships, although I think there should still be a chance for starting fires on ironclads too (I'm thinking about this some more).

  2. By Jove, you're right! I think that makes an excellent case for using she'll more than we do. I so wanted to see the effect of XV-inch shell this game. I'm thinking about a Trent's Reach type scenario next. I want to see if Onondoga is as big a bad-ass as New Ironsides.

  3. Also, armor hits DO NOT reduce the armor rating. We've been applying too much "Ironclads" logic.

  4. Just found your write up. Well done! I recently decided to get this on the table, but will be using the designer’s “counters” as I only have a few minis at this time. I played the previous version (Under Both Flags) at a con and loved the system. Wonderful game.