Friday, December 30, 2011

DANG X: Up the Carnot river without a paddle wheel

Tuesday we played the tenth Dave's Annual Naval Game (D.A.N.G.) hosted by Dave Schueler. This year's theme was the American Civil War. Dave provided a simple campaign system that had a Union flotilla hunting for an ironclad that is rumored to be nearing completion somewhere up the (fictional) Carnot river in (non-fictional) Mississippi. Several others of us provided 1/600th scale ships (since we've been playing ACW naval since the early 90s).

We divided into sides and each had a set number of points available to buy ships. The campaign was set circa 1863 (before the fall of Vicksburg) and the available ships weren't necessarily limited to ships that operated on the inland waters at that time. The selection was large, so limiting ourselves to just a few was a tough choice. The only constraint was that the Confederates had to chose at least one ironclad.

The Union players were:
Me (USS Essex)
Kevin Smyth (USS Monarch)
Dale Mickel (USS Tyler)
Scott Murphy (USS Tuscumbia)
George Kettler (USS Naumkeag, USS Rattler)

The Secessionists were:
Arthur Brooking (torpedo boats, flotilla commander)
Dave Creager (CSS General Beauregard, CSS General Bragg)
Mark Waddington (CSS Missouri)

In addition to the ships we paid points for, the Union had two transports with troops that could be landed and some barges that contained fuel and ammunition. The Confederates had a series of batteries at points along the river. We could run by these batteries (at a loss of victory points) or attempt to silence or take them (earning victory points).

Like a chump, I didn't bring my camera. As luck would have it, others did. Dave Schueler's blog has his recount of the game with lots and lots of photos.

Day 1: Action at Sullivan's Ferry

On the first day of the campaign, the intrepid Union flotilla went into action against a battery at Sullivan's Ferry, just above the confluence of the Carnot and the Mississippi rivers. Only slight damage was incurred in capturing the batteries, which was quickly repaired at night.

While anchored at night, a marauding force of Rebel cavalry—clearly lead by someone much less illustrious than Nathan Bedford Forrest—was surprised by the troops accompanying the flotilla. Prisoners quickly and effusively gabbed and provided us with the location of all the remaining Rebel batteries on the river.

Confederate progress on completing their ironclad was a bit delayed due to faulty workmanship and lack of a suitable work ethic—defects quite foreign to Yankees and their can-do spirit.

Day 2: Burning out secession one town at a time

At dawn on the second day of the campaign, Honest Abe's able seamen proceeded upriver to Hannahsville, a secessionist hamlet nestled on the river's brim. En route, another battery was subdued, again with little damage to the squadron.

Upon reaching Hannahsville, the tars made a merry bonfire of the nest of rebellion. The town burned spectacularly, with the exception of the few buildings deemed necessary to the war effort, such as Madame Crotchfyre's social club and the "Last Gulp" saloon, which entertained the flotilla's officers while the tars aboard ship tucked into a nourishing meal of rancid hardtack and brackish water.

However, while teaching this practical lesson in civics to Hannahsville, the Union ships were set upon at night by a squadron of steam launches armed with infernal machines on spars. The Rebels lacked the requisite mechanical skill to work their machines and the first few attacks were foiled by secessionist incompetence. However, they figured it out a bit by trial and error and the USS Naumkeag was lost due to a successful explosion beneath her waterline. The USS Tyler, was also struck, but suffered only the loss of her port paddle wheel and no loss of floatation.

Gunfire at night against the tiny, fast-moving craft was disappointing. However, one torpedo boat was hoist with its own petard while attacking Tyler, leaving just two. Also, having expended all but one of their infernal machines, the rebels were less likely to accomplish further success by these means.

Day 3: Pressing on

Despite the losses of the night, the Union flotilla was ever more eager to continue upriver. The Tyler's damaged paddle wheel (unrepairable on campaign) rendered it unable to keep up with the other ships. A brief captain's meeting determined that rather than abandon Tyler and her powerful broadsides of VIII-inch Columbiads, we would tow her using one of the transports.

Just above Hannahsville, the Union flotilla encountered Battery Mickel, which was taken with minimal damage to the ships.

Further on, the flotilla reached Dave's Mill, which we quickly burned down, which was unfortunate in that we later learned that we might have used the millwheel to repair Tyler. Still, it made a good fire and taught the deluded rebels the price of treason.

Rumors came to the Union flotilla that completion of the rebel ironclad upriver had been further delayed due to mechanical incompetence complications.

Day 4: Smyth's Ferry

The Union flotilla fought batteries at Smyth's Ferry. The batteries repulsed our initial attack, but fire from Tuscumbia's XI-inch Dahlgren's quickly silenced the battery and drove off its crews.

The flotilla also captured a steam ferry and pressed it into service. As we proceeded upriver, the new ferry provided tow service to the still-disabled Tyler.

Day 5: Setback at Battery Murphy

The Union flotilla proceeded upriver passing Kettler's Ferry until we came upon Battery Murphy. In the action against these guns, the flotilla prevailed. However, a shot from the batteries disabled Essex' engines leaving her without motive power.

A consultation of ship captains determined that repair of Essex was essential. There were reports of rebel ships nearby upriver and it was decided to width raw to Kettler's Ferry to make repairs to Essex and continue next day.

During the night, an attack by secessionist cavalry was decicively repulsed, thus gaining more renown for the expedition.

Day 6: End of the rebel monster

The damaged to Essex' engines being repaired, the flotilla set out to run down the rebel ships upriver and bring them to a decisive battle. The enemy withdrew  from our advance through the day. Even after joining with the ironclad, which had finally come down river, the rebels kept moving upstream until we thought they would mire themselves in the swamp at the head of navigation.

However, this withdrawal was merely a ploy to allow them to strike the Union flotilla at night when our superior gunfire would be minimized. What ensued was a fateful and sanguinary affair that ended the rebel threat.

The Union squadron deployed with the Rattler out front as a picket. Further down the river were the Monarch, Essex, Tuscumbia, and Tyler (initially towed by the captured ferry).

The Confederate squadron came on with CSS Missouri in the center. Persistent mechanical failures had reduced Missouri's speed to an almost negligible rate. Rather than let her be destroyed on the stocks without a fight, the rebels towed her downstream into battle. This masked her forward battery, so she need to turn broadside to the Union ships in order to fire.

Accompanying Missouri on her port side were the CSS General Bragg and CSS General Beauregard. Also, the lone armed, surviving torpedo boat was at the extreme left of the line.

As Missouri advanced and turned broadside to the Union ships, Lt. Cmdr Smyth in Monarch saw his change for a ram. Getting steam up as aggressively as possible, he braved Missouri's fire and pressed in.

The rebel rams came downriver quickly aiming to smash into a Union ironclad or two. However, the Union ships were diligent not to present a target for the rams. As things transpired, the tin clad Rattler (to which Lt. Cmdr Kettler had transferred command after the sinking of Naumkeag) was struck by the Beauregard and sunk. Splashing throughout the water, Kettler was able to make it to the ferry (now cut lose from towing Tyler) only to be struck by Bragg and lost. Lt. Cmdr Kettler has the brave distinction of commanding every Union ship lost in the campaign.

Essex, a slow ship—especially against a current—made its way bows-on to the rebel ships. Beauregard passed provocatively close by without getting shot (a rules anomaly), but Missouri hove into range soon enough and I got a few ineffective shots off.

Soon Commodore Arthur and his one remaining toped boat came towards Essex. I turned bows-on to him but didn't have enough movement left to run him down. The torpedo boat obliged me by smacking itself into my bow and getting crushed.

The Bragg and the Beauregard continued into the Union main line, but found little else to ram besides the Rattler and ferry. By now, too, the Union ships had found the range. In one explosive turn, Essex found itself in a target-rich position and got shots off with all its guns at once. Coupled with the fire of the Tyler, the hits were starting to count and Cmdr Creager took his ships upriver.

Finally, a lucky win of the initiative roll, let Lt. Cmdr Smyth ram Monarch into Missouri. With a resounding crash, Monarch stove in the side of the rebel monster. In doing so, however, Monarch found itself fouled with Missouri and was threatened with the prospect of being dragged under. A timely roll (generously modified by the GM) enable Monarch to escape a watery grave and Missouri settled to the bottom alone.

Cmdr Creager continued upriver with his damaged rams to eventually perform the Confederate naval tradition of scuttling them and the campaign was won by the Union.

Thoughts on Sail & Steam Navies

The rules we used for the game is our latest enthusiasm, Sail & Steam Navies by Bay Area Yards. There is a lot to like about these rules. They are streamlined for easy play without genericizing too much. The main thing we notice are that the rules heavily favor ram attacks and minimize the effect of gunfire.

The reason for this is twofold:

1) The game sequence of Shoot - Move - Move makes it difficult to target ships coming at you. A ramming ship can be out of range or out of arc in the shooting phase, and then make two moves to make a ram attack without ever being shot at, even if most or all of their move is within range and arc of enemy guns.

2) The effect of shot is not terribly destructive. Once you actually hit, you roll a number of D10s equal to the difference between the gun rating (GR) and the armor value of the section hit. Each D10 has only a 20% chance of causing actual damage (armor or hull hits) and a 10% chance of causing suppression, which is easily removed in the repair phase. Triples can cause critical hits or damage guns, but only of the section hit allows that. I've had several occasions to roll a lot of D10s and get triples for a hit on a ships smokestack that did nothing because there is no critical hit for a stack and no guns in the location.

What's needed are some house rules to address the issue. What will work would be changing the sequence to allow shooting at any time before or between moves or allowing only a single move per turn. Another change is to increase the effect of hits so that there is a greater chance of doing damage. As written, the rules give a suppression on a roll of 8, an armor hit on a 9, and a hull hit on a 10. Changing this to suppression on a 6, armor hit on a 7 or 8, and a hull hit on a 9 or 10 may work. (Or possibly suppression on 6 and 7, armor on 8 and 9, and hull on 10 because armor hits on section that have no armor or have lost all armor become hull hits.)

Theoretically, the bigger the gun (higher GR) means that you'll roll more D10s and therefore have an increased chance of inflicting damage. I'm no statistician, but I think that it's a lot like playing the lottery: the number of tickets you buy doesn't really increase your chance of winning. Rolling multiple D10s doesn't change the fact that each die has a 70% chance of doing nothing and I've rolled a fistful of dice too many times with no effect to be mollified by theoretical mathematics.

Other than that, the rules are a lot of fun to play.