Sunday, September 16, 2012

Row better and Live More!

After the first two opportunities to play test my Row Well and Live! ancient naval rules, I've been able to work out some of the more nagging problems and get a better idea of what works well.

We played the third play test at Fix Bayonets, held in Steilacoom, WA in old Fort Steilacoom on the grounds of the Western State Hospital (i.e., insane asylum). This play test went very smoothly and only a few minor changes resulted from it. The overall changes from the first play test to the last are summarized below.


Crushing the hull of your opponent's ship is sine qua non for ancient naval battles. In the first game, the ramming wasn't quite right. I fixed it into a worse state in the second game, but gained some insights that made it play out ultimately to produce the exact results I wanted.

My baseline for ramming attacks is that I want the speed, relative size of the ships, and where the target is struck to matter most. This lead me to the initial idea of a Ram Attack Value computed primarily by those factors. For example, a penteres (size 5) striking a trieres (size 3) amidship at seven knots would do 11 points of waterline damage. That's about the right number, but too deterministic. There's no variable that can make the difference between delivering a smashing blow and a somewhat disappointing bump.

Game 1 also introduced the phenomenon of a ship starting forward of its target, but still delivering a midship ram by running parallel and then turning in at the end.

This smacks of cheese
It's not what I intended, but the rules rewarded it. Gamers are ingenious people; they will always find the low-hanging fruit. That is why we play test. We discussed ways to prevent it and the best suggestion to bubble to the top was to count only hexes moved straight before contact. We tested that theory in Game 2 and found it wanting. The biggest problem was that a ship moving at 7 knots and starting one hex away counted only 1 towards its Ram Attack Value, but a ship moving at 3 knots starting three hexes away counted 3. We had some anemic rams that were certainly not what I wanted to see.

John Kennedy suggested some kind of hit-dice solution, which got me thinking. I ultimately came up with a formula that determining the number of ramming hit dice as follows: 1 D6 for each knot of attacker's speed, add or subtract variable D6 based on the size difference between the ships (subtract if attacker is smaller, add if larger), and the position of the target struck (+2 for midship ram, -2 elsewhere). Results of 4-5 are 1 point of waterline damage, results of 6 are 2 points. The only die roll modifier is a -1 for each turn the attacker made in the move to contact.

Saturday's game showed that this was the right stuff. We had one picture-perfect ram that sank a ship. We had a few other dodgy rams that provided some damage, but not enough to even cripple the target. We also saw a few ram attempts that just missed.

I also needed to revise the attacker damage part of a ram attack. Game 2 saw ships hurting themselves worse than their target. That kink seemed to have been worked out in Game 3 as well.


One of the features of the rules is the ability of a ship to shoot multiple times during the turn. Most players liked how this worked, but after a few games I thought it was too much. We typically saw ships passing each other and shooting at every opportunity. There is a cumulative -1 modifier for each shot after the first, so ships would deplete their ability to keep shooting after a single pass between ships. In Game 3, I modified it so that a ship can only target another ship once. Ships can still shoot multiple times, but not at the same target. It sped up play and lessened the amount of damage. We saw no wholesale slaughter of deck crews from shooting in Game 3 like we had in Game 1.

I also learned from the first games that I put the shooting values too high. I've cut the chance for inflicting a hit and raised the chance for saving it. I'm also in the process of re-doing the ship cards so that the shooting value for the marines is about 20% of its boarding value.

Grappling and boarding

In Game 1 we saw the phenomenon of ships that were rammed grappling with and taking their attackers by boarding action. This happened in every case. The original grappling rule was that an attempt used 2 x D6 and the result had to be higher than the combined speed of the ships. It worked theoretically for moving ships, but no one ever attempted that. Instead, when there had been a ram and both ships stopped, the combined speed was 0, so any grapple attempt was automatically successful. Again, not what I intended.

On advice from Al Rivers, I worked out an opposed die roll for grappling. Each ship rolls 2 x D6, with the target ship adding the combined speeds. The result in Game 3 worked out well. We had some good boarding actions, but not every attempt succeeded. That's how it should work.

Overall impressions and next steps

It's nice to see a project come to fruition. I conceived these rules while lying sick in a hotel room in California three months ago. They ultimately play the way I conceived them—except that I've discovered that players can manage more ships than I thought and the number of ships in play can safely be set much higher than the dozen or so I initially assumed. (I think I need to make more initiative counters.)

I have 19 ships painted with another seven in the works and several more unpainted (or yet to arrive from the UK). I also have a small archipelago of home-made land bits for the playing area. I am pretty pleased with myself. Most of my projects dwindle and die somewhere between conception and the "Oh look! A shiny thing!" moment when another project pulls me away.

I need to do a thorough edit of the rules and add some ship data and pre-fab ship cards. I also need to do a final version of the quick reference sheet. At that point I'll post the rules somewhere for others to access and play.

I see several opportunities to play in the coming months and perhaps a chance to be picked for this year's D.A.N.G. I also plan to run this at Enfilade! in May. It's eminently schlepp-able and has been declared Enfilade-worthy by no less an authority than Gene Anderson.

Now with this project essentially done, I can get back to dry land and re-focus on my dormant 1672 project.


Thanks to my playtesters for their time, patience, and input: Dave Schueler, Kevin Smyth, Gary Greiss, Michael Ng, John Kennedy, Steve Puffenberger, Al Rivers, Scott Murphy, Scott Abbot, Gene Anderson, Damond Crump, and Mike McClellan.

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