Age of Sail Rules Page

Bellerophon, 74

Welcome to my age of sail rules page. Over the years, I have played many different rule sets for the age of sail miniature period. I've played Wooden Ships and Iron Men, Ship of the Line, 1st Rate, Heart of Oak, Close Action, Clear For Action, and Signal Close Action (formerly "Hoist the Signal for Close Action.) Of these, my current favorites are Clear For Action and Signal Close Action. On this page, I review what I like and don't like about these rule sets.

Clear For Action

Update: (January, 2006) I'm not sure if Clear for Action is still available. I haven't seen it for sale for quite some time. Clear for Action is a computer assisted rule set. This is not a computer game. There are no fancy graphics. There is no computer opponent, so you can't play against the computer. A computer is used to input orders and keep track of ship statistics, position, and situations. Each side secretly enters its orders, then the computer calculates the outcomes of sailing and gunfire and boarding actions. The miniatures are moved on a table-top just as with any other miniature game. This is the best rule set by far for frigate duels and actions involving small numbers of ships because you can delve into the details of ship handling and combat without getting bogged down. Because the computer handles all of the calculations and record keeping, you can work with a very sophisticated sailing simulation that still plays quickly and efficiently. This is the rule set for folks who like to get into the fine tactics of naval warfare. "Should I allocate more of my crew to the guns, sails, or boarding parties? Chain shot or double grape shot? Can I sail 5 degrees closer to the wind?" These are all questions that a captain will find himself faced with in a Clear for Action scenario.

The game comes with a number of stock scenarios, and a number of scenarios from the French Revolutionary period are available as add-ons. The game has a sophisticated scenario editor that allows you to put together any scenario you wish, including provisions for creating coastline, variable water depths, shore-based gun emplacements, etc. There is an extensive database on just about every conceivable ship configuration of the fighting sail period.

While this game is ideal for individual duels or small ship actions, it is not entirely suitable for large actions, particularly when captains are managing more than a couple of ships. The need to enter orders through the computer and view combat results and ship statistics through the computer creates a bottle neck that makes more than two or three people per computer very slow. You can link two computers together to alleviate this somewhat, but with more than 2 or three people per computer, the game goes a bit slower than paper and pencil rules sets. In addition, when you are handling more than a couple of ships, it is difficult to remember to deal with the details that are necessary for success.

Overall, this is a great rule set for small ship actions, and a wonderful gaming experience for would be captains of sleek frigates. There is a Clear For Action Web page that has information, updates and player created scenarios for the game.

Signal Close Action

This is the 4th edition of the popular rule set from Langton Miniatures. Signal Close Action is a good rule set for fleet actions. It can handle large numbers of ships without bogging down. It is a move/counter-move game rather than a simultaneous movement game, so there is no need to plot ship movements in advance, which speeds up game play considerably. Unlike many age of sail games, Hoist the Signal is played on a surface without hexagons, squares or other lines. Movement is measured in millimeters and centimeters and turning is done on the 16 points of the compass (22.5 degree increments.) This sounds complex, but in practice it is quite simple, and it provides for much more realistic (i.e. smaller) variations in speed and turning ability between ship types because speed, wind direction, and turning angles are not defined by hexes or squares.

The move/counter-move system used in Signal Close Action works well. As a gamer who cut my teeth on such simultaneous movement games such as Wooden Ships and Iron Men, Ship of the Line, and Close Action (the hex based game from Clash of Arms), I was suspicious of how a move/counter-move system would work. It seemed that it would be too easy to rake other people if you could react to their movements while their ship "stood still." This concern is nullified by the elegant sailing model that Hoist the Signal Uses. As in real life, it is not possible to stop or start or turn quickly. These are big ships with lots of inertia, being influenced by the wind, and the game models this very well. Movement and maneuver consists of lots of relatively small adjustments, and rakes and other tactically significant maneuvers tend to be set up over the course of several turns. Often, you can see a rake coming, the enemy approaching closer and closer to your exposed stern, but if you haven't positioned your ship correctly, there may be nothing you can do to avoid it.

Record keeping is similar to other rule systems, and requires keeping track of cumulative damage to hull and rigging. Gun and crew losses are not tracked separately and are abstracted as part of the overall damage. Die rolling is kept to an absolute minimum, which saves time over some other rule sets. Depending on the scale of the battle and the preferences of the players, dice can be rolled for each ship, or else several ships or even the entire fleet can share a single die roll. A unified "ability chart" determines a ship's success with gunnery, sailing, turning, repairs, fighting fires, and all of the other tasks which a crew might find themselves employed. The rules allow for such things as boarding from boats, "cutting out" enemy vessels, and bombarding shore batteries etc.

Overall, these are my favorite rules for battles involving more than 2 ships per side. They play fast, and the sailing modeling and the small details give them a realism and flavor that imparts a great feeling of the fighting sail era.

You can download ship charts for all of the Signal Close Action ship types in Word Perfect format by clicking HERE.

Campaigning In the Age of Sail

People who are interested in a campaign game to accompany their miniature wargaming have few options. The long out of print Privateers and Gentlemen is an interesting role playing game set in the age of sail. These rules allow for the creation of an ongoing role playing campaign. Privateers and Gentlemen is designed for use with the Heart of Oak miniature rules, but could be modified without too much difficulty to fit other rule sets if desired. I own Privateers and Gentlemen, and several of the adventure modules, but have never actually run or participated in an active Privateers and Gentlemen campaign.

A very interesting Web page is the Campaign for India Page. This is a moderated age of sail campaign set in 1782-83 that revolves around the struggle between the French and English for control over the jewel of the British Empire, India. I've been following the progress of this campaign for some time, and it looks quite intriguing. Unfortunately, it appears that it will be quite some time before we see a commercially available product based on this concept. Still, there are lots of good ideas here for folks wishing to set up a campaign system of their own.

Last, but not least, there is Avalon Hill's mega game, Empires in Arms. For those who have the time, Empires in Arms is the ultimate Napoleonic campaign game, covering land and sea battles, economics and diplomacy. There are some rules in Avalon Hill's Napoleonic miniatures game, Napoleon's Battles that convert Empires in Arms battles into tabletop miniatures battles, and with a little work, it seems like it would be possible to convert the sea battles in Empires in Arms into table-top miniatures format as well. Sounds like fun, maybe when I'm retired and my kids all grown up, I'll have the time for another Empires in Arms game and can try implementing some miniatures battles into the naval combat segments.

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