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.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Mayhem on the wine-dark sea

The first play-test of my Row Well and Live! ancient naval rules went surprisingly well. Kevin Smyth, Dave Schueler, Al Rivers, Gary Greiss, Scott Murphy, and I played for about three-and-a-half hours at The Game Matrix in Tacoma. We had the place almost entirely to ourselves and it was a perfect setting for the first game.

I was able to test whether or not the rules were complete crap (thankfully, not), see situations where an enterprising mind could do things I didn't foresee or intend, and get some great feedback.

Last desperate prepping

Samuel Johnson famously said that "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." With even less than a fortnight to prepare, I found my mind wonderfully concentrated on completing rules, game tokens, ship models, and all the other fiddly-bits needed to put on the game. Even then, it came down to the wire.

Prepping yesterday took me until 12:30 AM this morning, followed by about three hours of sleep, then up with the cats working away at ship cards, ship models, quick reference sheets, and final, hurried rules amendments. Then on the road to 1) tank up at Starbuck's, and 2) drive 60 miles to Tacoma. Home now after all this, I am tired and my mind is much less wonderfully concentrated. More like shriveled.

The set-up and preliminaries

Kevin, Dave, and Scott were one side and Gary, Al, and I were the other. I pretty much evenly balanced the two sides with each having one big hepteres (septiremes) bristling with artillery, two penteres (quinqueremes) with towers and bolt-shooters, and two tetreres (quadriremes). Their side got a third penteres with towers, but no artillery. We got two hemiolas.

The good guys deployed for battle
I took about 10 minutes to walk everyone through a basic outline of the rules. Then I placed out some markers to indicate the set up areas and we deployed our ships.

The game

Al started things off by running one of his hemiolas into the midst of the enemy squadron and ramming Kevin's hepteres. It was a very David and Goliath move and he managed to inflict some waterline damage that kept kevin leaking for the rest of the game.

Al biting off more than his wee hemiola could chew
However, on the way in, he took a lot of missile and artillery fire from the ship he passed and the ship he hit. He lost all of the few marines he had on deck, who gave only desultory fire themselves. Stopped because of the ram, he was easily grappled and boarded by the overwhelming number of marines on Kevin's big ship.

This is what happens when you kick the hornet's nest
In a much more even contest, Kevin sent his tetreres against Al's tetreres and successfully rammed it, Inflicting waterline damage, damaging Al's oars, and—for good measure—getting his ram stuck in Al's ship. Not content with leaving Al leaking and crippled, Kevin then grappled to board his foe, whom he thought to be at bay. However, in the ensuing mêlée, Al took Kevin's ship in a surprising reversal of fortune.

Kevin didn't know when to stop
His prize won, Al never successfully extricated the captured ship's ram from his own, nor stopped taking water, nor repaired his oars.

Al sent his other fast-rowing hemiola screaming across the water to attack Dave's end of the enemy line (opposite me). For his trouble, he missed his ram attempt against Dave's tetreres, got his marines shot up, and got set on fire from incendiary missiles shot by Dave's penteres.

Why does it always end in flames?
I played cagey for a while, but finally roused myself and took up arms. Encouraged by the sight of Al's ship burning, I thought I'd start a fire on one of Dave's ships. However, I rolled the dreaded "1" and set myself on fire instead.

Well, this is embarrassing
While not deadly (I put it out at the end of the turn), it was a nuisance and it affected my shooting.

In the center, Gary made steady progress and ultimately breached the enemy line, setting one of Scott's penteres ablaze en route.

Classic deikplous maneuver!
I wound up getting rammed and damaged by Dave's tetreres, but I was able to grapple and board my attacker making it a nice hat-trick in the game of three successful rams followed by the target vessels taking their attackers.


At 3:00 we ended the game and spent some time discussing the rules and people's impression. Overall, the rules were well received. Most of the tweaks and revisions needed became apparent during play.

I was pleasantly surprised that everyone thought the initiative/movement sequence worked well. There was some concern that in a convention setting, having only one ship active at a time might cause conventioneers to fall off. I have to give this more thought. It worked as I hoped it would. I wanted to get away from a turn sequence where all the ships dash about each other in a general movement phase, whether simultaneous, phased, or IGO-UGO, before shooting, boarding, etc. I've played enough naval to feel a sense of disgruntlement at ships passing by each other without exchanging a shot only to be outside to arc or range when the shooting phase comes. The active/passive movement phase lets ships shoot and be shot at by everyone that come by.

However, all that shooting took a toll. Al's hemiolas only had three marine boxes to start with and got hit by some pretty hefty opponents, so it was no surprise to me to see his marines go poof under a hail of missiles. However, the bigger ships also took a lot of marine losses from shooting. Dave's ultimately losing ram against my ship was caused by the number of missile casualties he took in his transit. Gary shot him and I shot him multiple times. When he finally rammed me, he had three marines remaining out of an original 15. I had 10, so taking him was no problem. I need to lessen the effect of shooting and increase the probability os saving hits.

I was surprised that so little fatigue points were lost. My fear going in is that ship's rowers would be exhausted too soon. The only ship that went from "fresh" to "worked" was one of Al's, but that was due to hits on his rowers (which are taken as fatigue loss) and not from exerting themselves.

I have a short list of other revisions to incorporate this week and then send out the draft for review. Come Saturday, I'm running another play-test with a different group up here in Kirkland at The Panzer Depot.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Game on!

I'm almost set for the first play test tomorrow of my Row Well and Live! ancient naval rules.

It's been a whirlwind of little tasks this last week. Among the many things to finish (mostly within the last few days) are:

  • The rules. These are a full draft, but I've been tweaking and reworking them—including a complete revision of the shooting and boarding rules. I spent a good portion of today going back through and editing heavily.
  • Ship cards. I've been toying with these for a long time and probably even now don't have it right. They've been through several permutations and I've only just gotten an acceptable version. I'm at work now competing them.
  • Counters. So many counters to make for shooting attenuation, ship damage, etc. I print these from Adobe Illustrator, cut them out and glue them to small plywood bases from Litko. Each counter is double sided. I got it down to a system, but it still takes time to cut, glue, trim, and finish each counter.
  • Terrain. I finished another two island pieces beyond the three I posted about earlier. This task, too, is down to a system. With all the foam I have left, I can see making several more islands. (But there is still that storage issue...)
  • Ship models. I've been working on another dozen for some time. These were completed just today—mostly, there are still a few last touches to do in the morning.
  • Checklist. My big fear is that I will rush out to go to Tacoma tomorrow and forget something. I've got it all written down, so I'm set—unless I forgot to write something down.

In the midst of all this game-prep activity are other things like socialization with human beings, work around the house (who was I kidding about a "deep clean"?), and various randomizations.

Many randomizations come from my cats. I live to serve, or so they believe. They also have disdain for my computer time. It is a meaningless exercise from which they try to seduce me every time I sit down to it.

Their main tactic is to walk across the desk as I'm working or to sit on my lap. It's nice to have a cat purring away on one's lap, but it makes working at a computer a little awkward.

Rhiannon's favorite tactic is chair theft. While working this morning on my rules, Rhiannon (a.k.a. Ree, a.k.a. sweet pea, a.k.a. Miss Fussypants, etc.) was ensconced on my lap, but I had to get up. Ree protested this, as she often does (I live not only to serve, but to be a warm resting place whose sittings and risings are ordained by my feline masters). As soon as I got up, she grabbed the chair and would not be moved. Second only to actual leather, pleather retains heat well enough to be a desirable warm spot once the human's rear end has vacated it.

I busied myself with other things, hoping she would move herself once she saw me active elsewhere, but no. The only thing to do was to roll my desk chair away with Ree on it and use my painting table chair, which is smaller and much less comfy.

It also provides no lap-space. A deficiency Maebh (a.k.a. Mavis, a.k.a. Maebh the Merciless, a.k.a. Miss Fluffybottom, etc.) noticed with significant disapprobation. She paced from one thigh to the other, but found no suitable resting place. Eventually, she sat on the desk emitting her squeaky purr, nuzzling my face, and—most importantly—impeding my work.

At long last giving up (or merely executing a devious tactical withdrawal), she wandered off to snuggle with Grendel, who couldn't be bothered to bother me. As the day wears on—and after their dinner—the cats siesta until later in the day. It's the perfect time for getting things done.

My stuff is staged for loading in my inconvenient car:

  • Ships. Two cigar boxes full.
  • Counters. A nice plastic container with 10 compartments.
  • Dice. My love 'em/hate 'em ancient dice. I'm up to 24 now, so I can use them in bucket o' dice games. I also have small dice for marking continuing turns and fire levels.
  • Mat. Rolled around a heavy 5' long cardboard tube I got from Creation Station.
  • Rules. Forgetting these would be a big faux pas.
  • Ship cards. See above.
  • Clown hair. This is actually a red-dyed cotton fluff produced by Flames of War to mark burning things. We typically used it for naval games to mark shipboard fires.
  • Wet erase markers. For use on the ship cards, which are in plastic sleeves.
  • Plastic sleeves. I found 5x8 clear pockets at Office Depot. I know I have some already, but like most things, they're lost somewhere.
  • Terrain. The islands I made and the rocks I bought.
  • Camera and tripod. I want to record the play test no matter how desultory or triumphant.
What else? We'll see tomorrow...