Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Great Wee Fleet Project continues

I have a lot of irons in the fire these days. Most active are the 1672 project, the Renaissance project (more on that later), the Irish project, and the ECW project (again, more later) with AWI and ACW warmish and sure to heat up at any time. On top of all these is the serendipitous Great Wee Fleet project. These days all I can do with my hobby time is work on projects. I haven't gamed since February and still may not for another month or more depending on the shifting whims of my state governor.

I've always been a fan of obscure subjects for my wargaming enthusiasm. The pre-Dreadnought period fits that niche nicely, especially the nichier aspects of the niche like a lot of what-ifs that could easily have occurred on far away stations given the pre-WW1 flexing and saber-rattling between the great powers and wanna-be great powers over colonial territory. Kaiser Bill was especially eager to grab what could be grabbed. He was rather disappointed when America grabbed all that Spanish territory in 1898, but Germany still managed to grab several places in the Pacific and get concessions for bases in China. Japan had come out of its isolation and wanted more and more influence in the East. The French were in Indochina. The British were, well, everywhere. On a hot day in a contended place, anything could happen...

When Kevin Smyth got the ball rolling on gaming this period, it didn't really take a lot of persuading. I just had to psyche myself up a bit before I jumped in with both feet. A lot of the psyching was fondly looking at my money before saying goodbye to it. The greatest variety of pre-Dreadnought ships available in 1/1250th scale comes from Navis and Hai in Germany. The models are made for the collector market, so expensive as all get-out. A single unprotected cruiser can run up to $50.00; even small gunboats are in the $40.00 range. Building a wee flotilla or two can make a strain on the exchequer that requires a whole naval appropriations bill. The price of admiralty is daunting.

Kevin's big plus for the using Navis and Hai ships for the project was that they don't need to be painted, they're good to go right out of the box. That's true, but the colors the ships come in are hit or miss. The navies of this era had a variety of paint schemes. Ships on foreign station tended to be painted white with buff or ochre upper works. The models from Navis and Hai tend to come in gray or white. Some details are painted, others are just left the base color.

Gazelle, Arcona, Temerario, and T-14
After mulling it over a while, I determined to paint the ships and got to work on the German cruiser Arcona, one of the ships in my most recent buying binge. I wanted to paint it in a scheme that might be used in the Far East, like China or the Pacific. After looking online and chin-wagging with people on the Naval Wargaming Facebook group, I went with a white hull and yellow ochre upper works and funnels, finished off with a black wash. Ship models are actually pretty easy to paint.

SMS Arcona, WIP - the ship is complete, but the base is not done
I based my ships using  a variant of the sizes recommended in David Manley's Fire When Ready rules. Manley's bases are for 1/2400th scale. I doubled the dimensions for 1/1250th, but found that I had to move the lengths up a notch to accommodate the models. For example, the Arcona was 344' long. In FWR, ships up to 350' are mounted on a base 15-20mm wide and 40mm long. However, the model itself was just over 80mm long, so I added another 20mm in length to give me a final dimension of 30mm wide by 100mm long. That's actually the correct dimension for a ship 350' to 450' long.

I used .020 sheet styrene over a layer of flexible magnetic sheet. All my earlier naval projects have been troubled by problems of storage and portage. The ships on their bases bounce around a lot in transit. I went with magnetic bottoms for by 1/600th ancient galleys and have been meaning to retrofit magnetic bottoms to my vast ACW naval collection. Someday...

.020 plastic layered with 1mm magnetic base
I paint the bases Vallejo Blue Green with some splotches of turquoise and green, then cover them in gloss gel medium, which dries clear and creates a glossy, transparent rippled surface. Touched up white white wakes, they look pretty nice.

SMS Arcona
SMS Gazelle
Since painting Arcona and Gazelle, I went on to my two smallest Japanese ships Chishima and Kohei-Go. Both ships had very, very short careers in the Japanese navy, so the first what-if of my what-ifs is "What if these ships didn't sink days or months after their commissioning?"


Our idea is to focus on smaller engagements between smaller ships like protected/unprotected cruisers and gunboats. Ships that mostly run 1000 to 6000 tons displacement. The behemoths of these engagements would be a rare armored cruiser.

The plan is to use David Manley's Fire When Ready as the preferred rules. When it comes to naval wargaming, we're Manley men here in the Pacific Northwest. I like FWR, it's a fun game that goes quickly enough and is suitable for larger actions with larger ships like battleships and armored cruisers. I'll need a few games under my belt to see if that holds true when the action involves smaller ships.

The way a ship's damage value is calculated in FWR is based on its displacement. Smaller ships don't have a lot of damage to take before they become an artificial reef 30 fathoms down. That's not much of a problem when the gun sizes are smaller and don't inflict a lot of damage. However, firing HE instead of AP—which is a good option when all the ships are mostly unarmored—adds +2 points to any damage inflicted. If a ship's defensive value is 7 points, it could easily take half its defensive value in damage on a single hit. Very small ships, like the USS Petrel, a gunboat that was part of Dewey's squadron at Manila Bay, would have a defensive value of 3 points. A single hit from a 4.1" gun firing HE could obliterate it.

Although I haven't found anything in the rules that says so, I expect that shooting may represent several shots for smaller QF guns and single salvoes for larger ones. The turn scale is 3 minutes.

An alternative I've been mulling over is to use R.A. Walker's old The Devil at the Helm rules from 1978. Kevin and I used these decades ago to play a Manila Bay game using our 1/1100th scale Houston's ships. The rules have a lot more detail, but seem a bit inchoate. There's a lot more prep to do to make up the ship cards. For the Manila Bay game, I made up fairly elaborate charts with detailed deck plans showing the placement of all the weapons. I did it all in Aldus FreeHand 4.0, a now long-defunct software product. I can't open any of the files in Adobe Illustrator, so all that work would need to be redone from scratch.

The advantage of The Devil at the Helm is that it's more granular in how it models naval combat. Guns fire in single shots, larger guns may need 2-4 turns of reloading between shots. It might take several hits, even on smaller ships, to do critical damage—unless there's a lucky shot as Kevin's son Patrick (now Patrick Galactic) can attest when he played in our game somewhere back in the 90s.

Walker also has a later set of rules called Steam and Steel published by Navwar in 1991. I haven't really dug through them too much at this point. They seem to give smaller ships even shorter shrift than FWR. These may get a playtest, I think. Like with FWR, reading rules and playing the game are two different experiences. What seems too easily done, i.e., blowing up a ship in one shot, may be harder in an actual game. If my dice rolling is anything to go by, it may be impossible—though not impossible for my opponents.

Tsushima, by Graham Short (2002) is a larger scale set for  the period 1880-1906. They have a similar feel to FWR, but with an interesting method of assigning variable damage. Each gun uses a die to determine damage points. The dice range from D4 to D20 to 3xD10 depending on the gun size and range. I had thought of a similar idea myself once. I think it has a lot to recommend it. There's no guarantee that a hit will do a determinate amount of damage. Tsushima is intended for use with 1/3000 to 1/6000 scale models. It's also focused on actions between larger ships. The one hit and "bang you're dead" factor for smaller ships applies even more than in FWR given that a 6" gun at short range can do D8 damage and a typical cruiser will have about 5-7 damage points max. A gunboat has 3 or less.

Another set I've given thought to is Age of Iron: Navies in Transition 1865-1890. It's just a little bit early for the period we're looking at, but can be used with a little imagination and/or suspension of disbelief. I think I picked up my copy at The Emperors Headquarters in Chicago in 1990 or 91. At the time, there really weren't any available models for the period, but they've always intrigued me. I played the ACW Age of Iron rules by the same authors. I liked some aspects of them, but only played them once. (They might be worth giving another try in some future post-COVID age.)

I have a pre-made set of ship charts for the Battle of the Yalu (1894), which I've always wanted to do using the Houston's Ships 1/1100th scale ships I have for that battle. Mssrs. Walsh et Pugsley also have an later pre-Dreadnought set, which I have. Somewhere. I recall it also to be more focused on the BBs of the era and not the cruisers and gunboats.

It's fortunate that naval gaming is versatile. There's usually no special basing that's required. It's easy to run games using different rules. Our ACW naval games are a testament to that. We've played several different sets of rules with the ships we have.

I'm pretty happy with how this project is shaping up and the enthusiasm we're generating in the online chats with Kevin, Dave Schueler, Eric Donaldson, Bill Stewart, and John Gee. (Mike Lombardy is also on the emails, but he has no intention of getting wee with us.) We're psyching up for Freedom Day here in WA when all people of goodwill may once again go about their business. Maybe June, maybe July. Maybe the Murder Hornets will get us first.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Great Wee Fleet Project

I was innocently minding my own business working on various projects that entail buying a lot of figures that will take me forever to paint, when Kevin Smyth annouced that he was collecting 1/1250th scale pre-dreadnought era ship models for a gaming project.

I resisted. I truly did. In order to bolster my resistance, I started browsing the available products at Surely looking won't hurt and what I don't buy will make me stronger. So I'm gobsmacked that after manfully resisting temptation and just looking at pictures on a website, a package containing several small ship models should arrive at my home today. To my further surprise, they were all Japanese pre-1900 ships made by Hai models in Germany.

What could I do? It would have been heartless to leave them out in the cold. So now I'm the admiral of a Great Wee Fleet (well, 6 ships so far—and two of them mere torpedo boats).

Chishima is an unprotected cruiser built by the French. It was small and lightly armed with a main battery of five 3" guns and a secondary battery of six 1-pounders. It never saw combat, having been lost in a collision in November 1892, 6 days after it was commissioned. It's still a charming model.

Takachiho was a protected cruiser built by Elswick in England. Her sister ship, Naniwa, was commanded by the future Admiral Togo. Her main armament was two 10" guns in barbettes with a secondary battery of six 6" guns.

Akashi was another protected cruiser. Not as well armed as the Takachiho, with a main battery of two 6" guns in open mounts and a secondary battery of six 4.7" guns.

Kohei-Go was an ex-Chinese torpedo gunboat (formerly Kuang-Ping). At first, I couldn't find a lot of information on Kohei-Go, but that turned out to be because I just wasn't looking hard enough or smart enough. She didn't have a long career in the Japanese navy, sinking in a collision just months after being commissioned. Jane's doesn't have any information about here. Conway's provides information only about her career in Chinese service as part of the Kuang Yi class of gunboats. Jentschura provides details on p. 94 of Warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1869–1945. It mounted just three 4.7" guns, four 47mm Hotchkiss QF guns (3-pounders), 4 MGs, and four 15" torpedo tubes, the arrangement of which is obscure (Conway's gives them as 14" TT above water, Jentschura isn't so sure).

Shiritaka and T-22 are torpedo boats. T-22 was built in 1895 in Germany. Shiritaka was built in 1899 in Japan.

My plans for these ships is to use them with David Manley's Fire When Ready rules for the pre-Dreadnought era. Kevin is focusing on Americans and Germans with a few South American ships on the side. My thinking is to focus on potential/hypothetical naval encounters in the Far East, which could entail Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, British, French, and American ships. Like Kevin, I'm interested in scenarios involving smaller ships, no bigger than a cruiser—and mostly just protected cruisers at that. I've only played Fire When Ready using battleships and armored cruisers, so I'm not sure how well the rules model fights between unarmored ships armed with pop-guns. We'll see.

Pursuant to my interests, I manfully resisted some Navis models of German ships (Gazelle and Arcona). I am also manfully resisting a few more Japanese ships from Hai, one of which is the old central battery ironclad Fuso spiffed up in its 1894 configuration.

I'm strongly inclined towards re-painting these. They look pretty nice, but the finishes that come from Hai and Navis vary, the Akashi, for example, is gray while all the others are white. I also plan to put them on bases with magnetic bottoms. The masts are very delicate and storage and travel could take a toll. They come in boxes affixed with the WORLD'S STRONGEST DOUBLE-SIDED TAPE™. So strong, I haven't tried to remove them yet. I figure I'll have to slice them away with an XActo knife.

I've re-painted and based some Neptun 1/1250th WW2 ships that I use for Action Stations! (another set of Manley rules for manly men). They turned out quite well, so I have that to recommend it.