Wargaming Elizabethan Naval Warfare

Andy Callan discusses the thinking behind the easy rules he is compiling for a forthcoming new title in our Battle For Britain paper soldiers series.

img_0890Making a game out of warfare at sea in this period is a tricky business. The problem comes with writing a set of rules that have the right balance between realism and playability. An entirely historical set would be unplayable and a playable set risks being entirely unhistorical.

Most wargamers have a vague idea of how naval warfare in the Age of Sail worked, but this is usually based on Napoleonic (or should that be “Nelsonian”?) examples – either from works of history or the novels of Patrick O’Brien or C.S Forrester (amongst others).

Things were not the same in the Age of the Elizabethan sea-dogs. The ships were very different, for a start. Drake’s flagship, the Revenge (pictured right), was the most famous of a revolutionary 9bc204b5d6be97fcf8129640a6664c1enew class of warship – the Elizabethan ‘race-built’ galleon – and the fighting and sailing qualities of these ships were clearly displayed in the Armada campaign. By later standards, though, these were only small ships – no bigger than a typical Napoleonic sloop-of-war. Tonne for tonne, they might have packed three times the punch of any contemporary Spanish galleon. But while they were exceptionally heavily-armed vessels for their time, they carried only the same weight of metal as small frigates of later centuries and their overall firepower was much less effective. The difference lies in gun drill and tactics.

Naval gunnery was still a relatively new art. The English had developed certain technical advantages (notably in their gun-founding techniques and the design of their short, truck carriages). But reloading at sea remained painfully slow, as guns were generally lashed to the ship’s sides and the idea of allowing the recoil to run the gun back inboard had not yet fully caught on. Spanish heavy guns were generally pre-loaded before action by crews of soldiers and sailors that were then dispersed to other battle stations. So they must have been, for the most part, one shot weapons – designed to be fired off at close range before the real business (boarding the enemy) began.

By contrast, the English preferred more stand-off tactics, but this was far from being a Napoleonic-style broadside action. There was no formal line of battle and no system of flag signals that would allow the Admiral to communicate his intentions. Instead, the preferred technique was to group together in rough squadrons and then, one at a time, for each ship to run down wind on the enemy. First of all they would fire off bow-chasers and such of the broadside guns as could be brought to bear forward. Then luffing up, fire the rest of the broadside and the stern guns; finally giving the other broadside, before falling away to go through the laborious business of re-loading. All this made for a comparatively leisurely style of fighting (although it may not have seemed like it at the time).

So, in contrast to a Napoleonic wargame, where we have large warships, fighting in line of battle and exchanging broadsides at a rapid rate, an Elizabethan equivalent must be built around relatively small vessels – fighting a series of individual tip-and-run skirmishes while firing relatively slowly. But at typical move rates, a game like this would be like watching paint dry! The only way to make a playable game is to telescope the action in time and artificially increase the rate and effect of gunnery. Otherwise nothing will have happened before it’s time to put your toy ships back in their boxes.

So much for the tactical problems of ship-to-ship action. On a larger scale, the operationsimg_0892 of the two fleets provide further difficulties for anyone wishing to make a playable game out of the Armada fight. Despite the huge size of the fleets (each made up of well over a hundred vessels of all types and sizes) all the hard fighting was done by a relatively small proportion of the ships present.

The Spanish of course, had a large number of supply and transport vessels, which clustered together and moved slowly up channel; all the time being protected by a “fire-brigade” of fighting ships which were moved here and there to wherever the threat from the English seemed most acute.

On their side, the English were encumbered with a host of armed merchantmen (most of them very small indeed) which were largely incapable of making any useful contribution to the fighting. According to one contemporary observer: “We had been little helped by them, otherwise than that they did make a show”.

This means that the movements of the majority of ships, on both sides, are irrelevant in terms of a wargame. So what I have done is to have the English Armed Merchantmen as a sort of tactical back-stop at one end of the playing area; the Spanish Urcas as a mass of shipping at the other. While all these “second-line” ships are static on the sea grid, their progress up-channel is represented by the coastline moving past them. This way, the players only have to concern themselves with the manoeuvres of the key fighting ships – a much more manageable task.

Even so, in order to make a playable game out of all this, while still making some attempt to represent the fighting abilities and sailing characteristics of the two sides, I have had to be ruthless in making everything highly simplified and stylised. This goes against the grain of most naval wargame design, which traditionally concentrates heavily on the technicalities of manoeuvre and gunnery – laying great emphasis on the detailed differences between individual ships and their armament. In my personal experience, such games usually satisfy only their designers, who find their fellow gamers lose interest when they fail to master the intricacies of the movement rules and realise how long it takes to work out the effects of a typical broadside.

So this is the sort of thing I have set out to avoid. The rules for movement and firing are really as quick and simple as I could make them (you should have seen some of the earlier versions!). In writing them I have tried to bear in mind what Sir Julian Corbett had to say about Sir Richard Grenville’s last fight in the Revenge (see Tennyson’s epic poem!):

Without a glow of (his) fire ships become but counters and tactics sink to pedantry”.

Most wargamers will have bad memories of naval games like that!

This entry was posted in General, Paper Soldiers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Wargaming Elizabethan Naval Warfare

  1. Bob Duckworth says:

    I love the ‘Paperboys’ series of books and games (especially ECW), and am very much looking forward to having a go at this new move to sea. Are you thinking of expanding this to cover the operations in the Med? I can imagine that Lepanto would be achievable – and look absolutely fantastic – with your simplified *playable* mechanics 🙂

  2. Peter Dennis says:

    Hi Bob
    We’re starting a new series of “ship profile models,’ the first new one inevitably being trafalgar , and out in spring18 . Lepanto is on my list along with Anglo Dutch war and possibly Jutland. A young German designer florian richter is taking the ship drawing burden, and how the series progresses will depend on reasonable sales , but I hope .we will do Lepanto one of these days. We may or may not include rules in the books, but if we don’t I hope they will be available to download from the helion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *