Monday, November 28, 2011

Smokey Waters:
Gaming ACW Ironclads

Earlier this year I played in a ACW naval game run by Kevin Smyth at the Fix Bayonets game day held at Fort Steilacoom in Steilacoom, WA. It was the first time I played ACW naval in a long time and the first time I played the Sail and Steam Navies rules from Bay Area Yards.

I got pulled into ACW naval gaming by Kevin about 18 years ago now. Back then, we had 1/1200th scale ships produced by Houston's Ships (a.k.a. Lyzard's Grin). The first ship I even painted was Houston's USS Chillicothe—an ugly little model of an ugly little ship. The rules we used were a miniatures adaptation of the old Yaquinto Ironclads board game.

Over the many years we played ACW naval, we tried a number of different rules, but none ever held us like Ironclads. The rules were detailed without being too difficult—although every game I ever ran seemed to require me to run the charts for every shot fired from every ship by every player. What Ironclads had going for it—and still has—is the nice bits of chrome that make the game interesting. Every gun was called out by type and the stats for each gun type was unique. The ACW on the water being an ersatz affair, there were a lot of different gun types. Even Union forces, which attempted some kind of standardization, had numerous ships with a hodgepodge armament. You could double-shot your guns for greater penetration (at the risk of bursting the gun).

We later expanded to 1/600th scale using Toby Barrett's excellent Thoroughbred Figures range. That range has expanded considerably—as has my collection of them. Despite selling off a number of unbuilt models to Bill Stewart, I still have several awaiting some attention from me and I've recently added more to the crowd. The new rules have filled me with some enthusiasm and I'm in an ironclad frenzy right now.

Since the Sail and Steam Navies (S&SN) game at Ft. Steilicoom, I've played two more games: one last Saturday and one today. I'm starting to get enough experience with the rules to be able to compare it to Ironclads and to the other games that came and went for us. On the whole, I like S&SN and I've invested a lot into it (more on that later).

Today's game pitted a small Union force of two ironclads and one timberclad against a Confederate fort supported by one ironclad and two wooden rams. The action took place on a nameless river. The record of it in the CSN archives has been lost and the USN decided not to record it.

The Union, consisting of the USS Essex, USS Indianola, and the USS Tyler came on to fight a Rebel battery, but were intercepted by a force comprising the CSS Arkansas, CSS General Beauregard, and CSS Governor Moore. All the Confederate ships were rams.

I rage the Union forces and Ken Kissling and Steve Puffenberger shared the Confederate command. Ken ran the Arkansas and the battery while Steve ran the two cottonclad rams.

The river was against me, which reduced my already pathetic speed. I chugged upstream with the Essex in the lead, followed by Indianola and Tyler.

Essex and Indianola chug ahead
The action started pretty soon. The Rebel battery mounted two 6.4-inch Brooke rifles and I was in range by turn 2. The results of Ken's first fire were less than desultory and that remained the hallmark of the battery's performance for the entire game.

The Johnnies came down at speed made even more rapid by the benefit of having the river flow in their favor. I soon began to worry that I would be easily outmanouvered, which is even more worrisome when facing rams.

Governor Moore and General Beauregard
As soon as the ships were in range of each other, we started trading shots. I had a definite advantage in firepower. The Essex fairly bristles with guns as does the Tyler. Indianola has fewer, but the forward battery are XI-inch Dahlgren smoothbores with a wicked punch. However, this gets into some of the interesting differences between S&SN and Ironclads.

Ironclads has a separate chart for every gun. That makes every shot unique at the cost of reduced speed of play and a great deal more fuss in play aids. Guns have a penetration factor that doubles or triples as the range gets closer. Wooden ships hit by shells that penetrate have increased damage. The result is that shooting—especially against wooden ships—can be devastating.

S&SN rates guns somewhat generically by type (rifle, smoothbore) and size (small, medium, large). If a gun shot hits the target, you compare the Gun Round (GR) value, that can be modified by range and other things, to the armor value of the target area hit. If the difference is greater for the GR value, the shooter rolls D10s equal to the difference to get damage results. (If the values are the same or if the armor value is greater, only on D10 is rolled.) Actual damage on the target occurs on 9s (armor hits) and 10s (hull hits) or on triples that can be gun hits or critical hits. 8s are suppression hits, which can accumulate causing crew morale issues. The result is that, generally, it's tough to do a lot of damage by gunfire.

Tyler struck amidships and soon to go down
My idea for the scenario was that the Rebel flotilla would be little more than an annoyance to the bombardment group. I figured that the wooden rams would be shot to pieces in a few turns. However, events transpired otherwise. The reverse side of meagre shooting results is the power of ramming attacks. Ramming is fairly effective in S&SN. It's even more effective when the rammers move quickly and the rammed don't. The Rebels' wooden rams move at a rate of 12" per movement phase. There are two movement phases in a turn, so they can cover 24" of surface every turn. That closes the distance rapidly. It's not too difficult to hit a target because the movement is I go, you go. When it;s the rammer's turn to move, the target is sitting still. (In Ironclads, ramming is more difficult because the moves a pre-plotted and done simultaneously.)

Arkansas and Essex trade shots—ineffectively—at close range
The result was that after a few disappointing shots, Steve's rams were upon me. I gave it my best, but the ineffectiveness of the shots and the effectiveness of the ramming meant that my ships were doomed. It turns out we were playing it wrong in the one sense that bow-to-bow and bow-to-stern rams are not allowed; those situations are treated as a collision instead. Playing it right might have made some difference because I may have been able to maneuver in such a way that it was difficult for ram attacks. However, the legal rams were tough enough.

The Essex was the first ship to go down. Steve rammed it earlier in the game and it limped along within one lower hull box of sinking until another ram (a stern ram) inflicted the remaining damage.

The Tyler, whose 8" Columbiads made the most effect on the Arkansas, was hit next (again in the stern). While not sunk outright, it, like the Essex, was badly hurt and succumbed later to another hit.

The Indianola kept at it. The best armored and heaviest armed of the flotilla, it got a few good shots with its big Dahlgrens, but the results were never stellar. I wiped out a few smokestacks, but never brought an enemy to a sinking or near-sinking condition. Once all three Rebel ships were concentrated on it, the Indianola was doomed.

Indianola rammed from every angle
I'm now working on ship cards and more models for Dave's Annual Naval Game. It's the most productive I've been in years. Models I've had sitting unbuilt are now in play and I'm looking forward to a lot more ACW naval gaming in the coming year.

The following is a rogues' gallery of some of my favorite ships built recently or in the past:

CSS Baltic
Tubby, but irresistible
The Baltic is a tub: poorly armed, poorly armored, and underpowered. It looks like a floating cow-barn. However, it is compelling in how it epitomizes the nature of the American Civil War on water. An ersatz ship built to protect Mobile Bay. it was eventually disarmed and its armor used to protect the CSS Nashville. I especially enjoy playing games with this king of ship. I ran it in a game earlier where it held its own for most of the game until a lucky shot by the XI-inch Dahlgren on Kevin's 90-day gunboat blew out its steam locker and left it floating with no power and a scalded crew.

CSS Charleston

Sleek and deadly
The Charleston is one of the first rate ironclads purpose-built by the Confederacy to protect its harbors. Its heavy armor and heavy rifles make it a deadly opponent to Union warships. Its bête noir is the Passaic class monitor whose XI- and XV-inch Dahlgrens can smash it up. I haven't played it in S&SN yet, but it's a tough fight in Ironclads.

CSS Virginia II

Capital ship of the Capital Navy
The Virginia II was named after the first Virginia (a.k.a. Merrimac) which made such an impression in its foray into Hampton Roads and subsequently fought what is probably the most famous ship-to-ship duel in history against USS Monitor. This Virginia was likely the most powerful ship in the Confederate navy. However, stuck on an obstruction at Trent's Reach in 1865, it had great bloody chunks torn out of its armor by the XV-inch Dahlgren's of the twin-turreted monitor USS Onondaga.

Postscript: The cost of S&SN

As I intimated earlier, even though Sail & Steam Navies is a $20.00 PDF that comes on a CD. Actually printing it out into hard-copy rules, game aids, and ship cards is expensive. I admit that I've gone deluxe on these items because I want them to last. I don't have a color printer or laminating machine, so I do it all at Kinko's for big bucks. I hope it's all worth it and that I'll get a lot of bang out of my bucks playing S&SN for the near future (until something else shiny captures my gaming attention).

So far, I have to say that S&SN is the best rules for this period since Ironclads, which remains my favorite (with a few reservations).