Naval combat games have always been of special interest to me. Considering I spent 22 years in the Navy, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Or maybe it should; after 22 years you should be tired of something. But while I have no desire to return to my deck-scrubbing days, or to stay awake for two days just for sake of staying awake, naval combat still fascinates me.
I haven’t had an opportunity to play any really good naval games for a long time now. I picked up the Trafalgar rules set from Warhammer Historical a while back. I’ve read through them several times and I like the level of detail and they seem like they would play well. Unfortunately, though the Age of Sail is one of my favorite periods to game, I find the prospect of assembling and rigging sailing ships to be daunting. In the past I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to play with friends’ toys. Right now, I have three British 74’s from Langton in my lead pile that may never get done.
I have been playing Axis & Allies War at Sea a fair bit lately, and while that game is thoroughly enjoyable, it’s not quite what I was looking for. No offense to the game or its devotees, but it’s more like checkers with ship models than it is like a naval simulation. I continued searching for something more suitable. There are plenty of rule sets out there, but I needed something that would satisfy my historical/realism needs but that would not frighten off my fellow gamers. Good bunch of guys, but they’re unreasonably terrified of any game with a chart in it. Some of them have been known to curl up in the fetal position and whimper like a lost child upon seeing an armor penetration table. Seekrieg and Fear God and Dread Nought were out.
I decided to concentrate my search on rule sets that covered the pre-Dreadnought and WWI era; the period from roughly 1900-1920’s. I’ve been itching all over for a good WWI game lately and decided now was the time to scratch it. The rules I settled on are Victory at Sea: Age of Dreadnoughts from Mongoose Publishing. I became aware of Mongoose a few years ago when they re-released two role-playing games that I wasted a LOT of time with when I was a kid, Runequest (formerly published by Chaosium) and Traveller (formerly published by Game Designers Workshop). Mongoose did a good job with those games so I decided to throw the dice on their newest naval product.
The rules come in a nicely bound, hard cover book. Illustrations are in black and white, and there aren’t too many, but the quality is good. The actual rules only consist of about 18 pages. Twelve pages or so for the basic rules and a further 6 pages for advanced rules. The rest of the book consists of scenarios (5 generic, 5 historic), guidelines for setting up a campaign game and data sheets for ships from Britain, Germany, Russia, Turkey and the United States. The ship data includes,for capital ships, not just items of interest to the game, but also a brief historical rundown of the ship or ship class, a photo or two, and usually the number of ships in a class. Destroyers, torpedo boats and some light cruisers are given briefer coverage, consisting of just a line of game data. The last few pages of the book consist of turning and gunnery templates that you will need to photocopy (or download in pdf form from Mongoose’s website) and cut out. I mounted the turn templates on balsa wood, but you don’t have to do that with the gunnery templates really. It would be nice if someone offered these as clear or smokey acrylic templates…
While the physical production qualities of the book are top-notch, the editing is not. There are still placeholders in the rules for page and chapter references. For example, when a rule refers you to Chapter XX for more information, the text is literally “see Chapter XX”, not “see Chapter 7”. There are a couple of places where complete paragraphs should be removed (these are specified in an errata sheet available from the Mongoose website). In one case, the section to be removed is a cut & paste error. Text from Mongoose’s WWII game, Victory at Sea, was inadvertently carried over to Age of Dreadnoughts. Some errors in the rules are not covered in the errata sheet. One example is a problem with the “Agile” special trait that some ships can have. Agile according to the rules allows a ship to turn twice in a move. But according to the rules, all ships are already allowed to turn twice in a move. You have to go to the user forums on the Mongoose website to find out which is correct. These errors are significant and they do mar an otherwise good product.
The Highly Questionable:
Let me first say that Victory at Sea: Age of Dreadnoughts is not a hard-core naval simulation. I knew that going in, and was fine with that knowledge. The game has enough detail in terms of combat and damage to ‘feel’ like a sim, but it is easy to manage by novice or chart shy players. In short, it’s exactly what I wanted for my group. And while there are clearly many nods to playability over realism in the rules as you would expect, there is one thing that I can’t quite accept.
Every ship in the game has the same turn radius. The biggest, nastiest battleship turns at the same rate as the smallest destroyer. The way movement rules work, a ship is allowed to turn twice in its move, once at the halfway point and again at the end. So if a ship is moving 6″ it can turn once after moving 3″, then again after moving another 3″. Each turn can be up to 90 degrees, so every ship can turn 180 degrees in a move. This could possibly be justified because time in the game is abstract. Distance is not, 1″ = 500 yards, but time scale is not specified. This just doesn’t feel right to me, though I don’t have any data or math to back up my position.
Mongoose maintains a fairly active users forum, and this point has been raised several times there. The rules author has replied that his research showed that there was little practical difference in the turning radii of ships in the WWI period. He did not cite his sources, but I believe he did the research; I can’t help but question the conclusions is all.
While there are some problems with Victory at Sea: Age of Dreadnoughts I think it is a worthwhile purchase. The rules are easy to learn and play fast and they ‘feel’ right. The game is not a simulation and if that’s what you are looking for AoD may not satisfy you. But if you want a game that will let you play large engagements quickly, that you can easily introduce novice players to, or that you can run as a club or a convention event, AoD is worth a look.
This post is running long, so I will end it here. I had a chance to play AoD last weekend, and so my next post will be a summary of that game including the details of some of the rule mechanics and a nod to Panzerschiffe, a manufacturer of good quality, low-cost 1:2400 scale naval miniatures.