Saturday 27 January 2018

Fighting Sail: Rules Review

Not sure what it is. Maybe it is the subject matter.  Naval wargamers are notorious rivet counters.  Napoleonics players are so anal retentive they can argue for hours about uniform buttons.  Mix them together in "age of sail" and perhaps it shouldn't surprise that the age of sail rulesets tend to be more chore than game. In the past, I've found the most playable ones tend to have more boardgame than wargame in their DNA.

A typical Osprey, Fighting Sail has a good mix of colour photos and pictures. 

Fighting Sail tries to capture the "feel" of age of sail without the book keeping.  It aims to allow squadrons and fleets rather than 1v1 ship duels.  It has a hint of old-school Warhammer about it; if you hated Trafalgar and Man O War, you are unlikely to approve of Fighting Sail, which is a streamlined descendent; where the odd damage counter is the most book-work you will need.

It is interesting as the victory conditions is to reduce the morale of the entire enemy fleet.

Templates and counters are in the back of the book. Old school!
The Shiny
Fighting Sail is an Osprey book - and all it entails.  Decent pictures, photos and illustrations, standard softcover 64 pages.  A quick reference and photocopy-able templates are at the back. The index isn't great but the book is so small you barely need it. Not a lot to add.  As usual, the price point ($15) is good and makes it hard to criticise.  The author is evidently enthusiastic and includes background info to "set the scene" at the start of each chapter.

Barrier to Entry
A handful of d6, some turn/wind templates (found in the back of the book), and 4-5 colours of tokens for damage, cannon, anchor which is all you need.  As for ships: I regard them as playing pieces, not elaborate models (rigging them with thread etc = sadomasochism) so I recommend Tumbling Dice's 1:2400; they are sturdy and cheap at ~$4ea.

Even in Langton's "Fast Play" rules, you can subtract literally hundreds of hit points in different locations...
...and consult charts.  If you love this sort of game, then Fighting Sail - with its odd token to record damage and minimal bookwork - will not appeal to you. Games can occur in an hour, rather than a day. 

Activation/Sequence of Play
Roll d6 to see who goes first.  It is not quite IGO-UGO (or "20 minute dick punches" --thanks for the quote MagicJuggler) - as it is broken into movement and shooting sub-phases;  Player A moves, then Player B moves, then Player A shoots, then Player B shoots.  

You have wind template to check the ship's angle to the wind. This matters, as each ship has "Sailing Points" - the amount of dice you throw, or "potential" speed.  The success chance depends on the wind angle: a agile frigate might have 5 Sailing Points. It rolls 5d6.  If it is reaching, it gets 2" movement every 4+ rolled.  If it is close hauled to the wind, it might only get a 2" each 5+; if in irons a '6' might be needed to move...    Ships can tack or wear; using a template provided in the back of the book.  There are rules for collisions, entangling, grounding etc as you'd expect.

Ship stats from GW's now-OOP Trafalgar.  Fighting Sail strips back and streamlines this still further - you don't need to record damage anywhere. 

It's pretty simple; a 3+, 4+ or 5+ to hit on a d6 (at short, medium and long ranges) as long as the target is not within 30d of your bow (a template is available if needed).

A high roll can cause an "explosion" or critical hit - short range fire causes explosions on 5,6 and medium range on a 6. An "explosion" causes a hit and you get a re-roll.  Normally you only get one re-roll, unless it is raking fire, in which case you can keep rolling as long as you get explosions.

Squadrons of 2-3 ships can combine their fire under the right conditions.

Boarding combat is pretty quick and simple; both sides roll 4+ each boarding dice, and if the attacker wins he captures the ship; if he loses he is beaten off.

Ships get to roll d6 "saves" - as many d6s as they have "hull" points (so a 3-hull frigate would get 3 rolls) with a 4+ "saving" the damage.

Check the combined hits and consult a list; a single hit might just "disrupt" a ship's sailing ability; all the way to five hits that can cause catastrophic sinking damage.

Hits also cause damage to fleet morale; even if the ship itself is not sunk. This makes sense, as in this era ships were more likely to flee or be captured rather than decisively sunk. I like the focus on morale as a victory condition.

Ships can attempt to repair damage (remove a token). Accumulated damage can also cause a ship to strike as well as halving gunnery and sailing points etc.

A criticism: I think the damage section is the only area I had to re-read to understand; I think key info was spread over too many pages.

It's nicely laid out, but I'd have preferred less illustrations and some campaign rules added...

This is very important - morale is 10% of the fleet's total VP value. It can be lost through damage, sinking ships, boarding, collisions or capture - the latter is the most vital as captured ships ADD morale to the capturing fleet. Once morale reaches 0 the player loses.

Weather & Special Rules
There are "advanced" rules for weather, grounding, fog, squalls etc which are so straightforward they might as well have been part of the main game. There are rules for shore batteries, fireships, bomb ketches and multi-player games.

Fleets & Scenarios
This has a vibe of "40K army list" - you must have a commander, and you may have x amount of points to spend (Ships cost points: ~100 for a 1st rate, down to ~20 for a frigate.) Admirals and captains may have special abilities; a "Disciplinarian" or "Gunner" admiral can automatically pass a Morale roll or get an extra broadside once per game for his whole fleet.  There are also captain skills for individual ships:  a; a Navigator can re-roll '1's on sailing dice, and a Marksman can do the same when firing cannon.  There are also "legendary" captains and admirals with unique traits, and even some legendary ships such as the Bellerophon, Constitution or Victory with their own special rules.
Even fleets like Russia and Portugal are included.  There are six missions or scenarios ranging from protecting convoys to blockades to pursuits.

Tumbling Dice are my go-to brand for small scales; they are designed as gaming pieces first and foremost; they are very sturdy, practical, and have exaggerated features that "pop" well at tabletop distances. 
No campaign rules....
I really feel these rules would work great as a campaign, and I really felt their absence. The 64-page limit of Osprey probably is an issue here, but there was plenty of stories and background info included; surely even a simple campaign could have been squeezed in. I really feel this was an opportunity missed - my first reaction after reading the rules were "this would work great as a campaign...  ...oh, phooey."

The rules are simple, but there's still plenty of examples to show what is intended...

It has a definite "old school GW/Man O War" vibe and I'm sure age of sail pedants purists will find something to nit-pick, but it's a very playable set of rules for this era, without the book-keeping and fussiness that plagues most non-boardgames rules from this genre.  I found myself comparing it to GW's Historical's OOP Trafalgar - but Fighting Sail is much more streamlined than its forebear.  I'd say it's two biggest flaws are that the streamlining would make 1v1 duels a bit dull (the focus is squarely on fleet/squadron actions of say 6+ per side) and the lack of a campaign.

Recommended: Yes.  I'm actually painting my 1:2400 sailing ships at the moment. The other rules I've played I was content to try once with bare metal ships, and then quietly shelve.


  1. Not meant to be a hijack,'s the internet! ; )

    If interested in sailing ship stuff, I highly recommend checking out Jeff K's take...

    ...if not for his rules, than at least for his ships which allow gamers to try the genre with a minimum of effort.

    1. Not a hijack at all. I like the comments - there is always good stuff to learn and check out.

  2. I thought Fighting Sail was a little *too* streamlined for me when I first picked it up; now with little ones all about it's at the right level of complexity and speed for my schedule. But part of me still misses hit points (it's the Battletech player it me)!
    Also, I'll admit I've only ever done wargaming like this as one-shot scenarios, so I didn't notice the lack of campaign rules.

    1. --"But part of me still misses hit points (it's the Battletech player it me)!"

      I'm sure there's a ointment you can rub on that, that will clear it up... ;-)

  3. Bought these, liked what I saw and dug out my part painted 1/2400 ship collection - Disaster - the hulls were all there, but the masts were missing :-(.

    The rules have drawn harsh criticism from the usual pedantic quarters - until they lost interest and returned to their fidget spinners.

    I personally feel they're pitched nicely for gamers who don't want to ingest the Admiralty midshipman's navigation course, but prefer a quick enjoyable game.

    1. --"The rules have drawn harsh criticism from the usual pedantic quarters"

      I'm not startled by this. Like aerial wargames, this is a genre that deviates little from its 1970s forebears. Unless masts have their own individual hitpoint tables, and your wind rose has 36 direction points... it won't be up to scratch.

    2. Worse, it looked to me like authors of established rules piling onto the newcomer.

      You come across some fantastic people on wargame forums, and a few of the other type.

    3. I remember before I bought it I read a review that said "you can't aim for rigging or hull" as a flaw.

      It is a flaw, IF it is a 1v1 duel where you (the wargamer) is the captain of a ship. If,in a fleet game like FS, you are an admiral, you SHOULD NOT be choosing the precise aim point; it can be abstracted as you can presume the individual captains will choose the correct shot type for the situation.

      So choosing the correct shot type for each ship in your fleet, as an ADMIRAL in charge of a dozen ships is LESS realistic, imo.

      However as wargamers we like to micromanage; we want to be the battalion commander AND individually aim the shots of a single sniper....

    4. I've revisired some of the old threads, and my conclusion echoes many of the themes of this blog.

      1. There will be two types of gamer: Serious sailing types, who will never be satisfied with less detail (and a few of these who shamelessly sock-puppet for their own set of rules). The other type probably play WW2, Napoleonics or Ancients, but think "I like the look of those sailing ships - a quick and easy game might be fun". - No rules author will satisfy all the gamers all of the time.

      2. Many customers are conflicted souls, they want the shiny new rules, but then gripe when they're not the same as the old set they used to play. I quote one review "The problem I found is that they don't feel like a set of age of sail rules."

      As games have gone public through social media, there are some fascinating examples of this latter "Make it new, but don't change anything" syndrome.

      My favourite was the kings of war forum asking what gamers would like to see in the next edition (KoW being a mass battle fantasy system, popular with gamers who've "had itr with Warhammer"). The bulk of suggestions could be summarised as "Make it more like Warhammer".

      The therapist sighed, and opened Psychiatry 101, it took him back to his undergraduate days. "All therapy is futile unless the patient really wants to change".

    5. ---"Many customers are conflicted souls, they want the shiny new rules, but then gripe when they're not the same as the old set they used to play."

      You'd be amazed how often this is true in videogames as well....

  4. Not hijack but I also reviewed this here:

    I have Trafalgar knocking about too but have not reviewed it yet.

    Thanks for calling out Tumbling Dice as I have not picked up ships yet. The single cast Old Glory ones did not do it for me.

    1. I see we seem to concur on the pertinent points.
      - fleet not 1v1 duels
      - morale important
      - focus on gameplay not book-keeping

      I normally dislike exploding d6, but as it only happens once (most times), I'm fine with it.

    2. I recommend TD for pretty much anything small. They are gaming pieces first and foremost and can handle a lot of abuse. No broken masts etc. They ARE chunky and have exaggerated detail, but I find that a bonus at that size - indeed, for example I feel their 1:600 aircraft look better on the tabletop than the technically "nicer" more finely detailed Raidens etc.

  5. Dunno if repeating a hijack is worse...? anyway... ; )

    The talk of fleet actions and gaming pieces leads me to repeat my recommendation for Jeff's cardstock stuff:

    Looks like a (relatively) cheap and quick way to try out the genre?

  6. As an Age of Sail affectionado, I May (?) an exception to the usual hull-plank counters and also quite like these rules. I too did a review back when they first came out:

    We recently played a 3 v 3 game and got two battles fought in a 3 hr gaming night - nice! I too lament the lack of campaign rules. It felt all the way through the book that we were leading up to them and then they got cut to reduce the page count.

    Overall, these are FUN. Best played with a sense of humour and lots of movie quotations. Highly recommended if you are at all interested in the genre

  7. "As an Age of Sail affectionado, I May (?) an exception to the usual hull-plank counters "

    Aren't you my separated at birth twin? I'd expect you to like them!

    I also got them ages back but they got shelved due to other projects at the time (it takes aaaaages to paint AoS ships even to my quick-and-nasty standard; they end up OK but it's just unsatisfying to paint them)

    Btw, I'm also working on a War-of-Roses-knights-with-pyschic powers-riding-dinosaurs game at the moment... ...I suspect it would also be up your alley....

  8. Excellent Blog, and comment section. Cheers!