Sunday, 13 November 2016

Fighting Sail

The last couple of months have been really busy, not that you'd know it from my lack of posts here. Hopefully I'll be able to free up some spare time to write about the latest batch of models and games, but for now here's some thoughts on Osprey's "Fighting Sail" rules by Ryan Millar

I preordered a copy from Amazon when it was first announced and had my copy arrive on the day of release, but I've only just recently had a chance to play it. Alas I wasn't all that impressed.

Lets start with the good points. FS is well presented, mostly well written and illustrated with pictures from various Osprey titles and a selection of GHQ models which aren't so brilliantly made that they demoralise the reader. Plenty of diagrams, counters and play aids to copy and cut out (and these can be downloaded from the Osprey site so no need to get worried about bending the pages back too much). A good selection of fleet lists (Britain, France, Spain, the USA, Russia, Portugal and the Netherlands as well as privateers and pirates). And the rules are very simple and play quickly. 

The problem I found is that they don't feel like a set of age of sail rules. The movement rules use dice to determine how far a ship can move which is fine (FLoB) uses dice as well, albeit in a different manner). But under these rules it is quite permissible to turn directly into the wind, move a considerable distance directly upwind and then make a turn to put the ship back on a point of sailing with the wind over the port or starboard side. For example, I had great fun driving a US privateer rolling seven movement dice with a "navigator" trait (this allows some reroll of failed dice) moving in ways that no sailing ship should ever be seen to be doing. A simple house rule removes the problem - turn into the wind and lose all remaining movement points unless they are used to perform a tack -  but I can't help thinking that rule should have been there from the start. 

As far as manoeuvrability is concerned, all ships are equal. So a nimble schooner rigged privateer turns as quickly as a lumbering 1st rate. Which, combined with the movement and initiative system gives some interesting and atypical possibilities as ships of the line deftly manoeuvre around frigates into the perfect raking position - in one game recently a British 64 did just that, sailing around the Constitution to perform a rake which killed the US ship in a single turn of gunnery). Suggestions? - increase the minimum move between turns for ships with lower manoeuvrability, or place a limit on the total number of turns that can be conducted in a single game turn.

Also on the movement front, any damage causes a ship to take an "anchor" token which slows movement. Further damage affects fighting ability, which is a simple halving of effectiveness - no graceful degradation here but since this is a fleet action set of rules (in theory) thats OK. It is possible to remove damage if a discipline test is passed, but damage tokens come off before the anchor token (the author states "damage control takes precedence over getting moving"). To me this feels completely wrong, going against the evidence one sees in reports from actions. I would prefer to see anchors removed first, at least as an option that the player controlling the damaged ship can take. Ships just seemed to slow down far too easily in this game. Also, as befits a set of fleet action rules, there is no choice of shooting at hull or rigging (much to the annoyance of some friends playing the French - another house rule perhaps that allows players to select rigging over hull, automatically makes the first damage token suffered an anchor and allows a ship to hold 2 tokens).

The initiative system and its interaction with the movement system (initiative winner moves a ship first, then the other player moves one of theirs, players continue to alternate) mean that the initiative is practically always with the larger fleet. Which is critical when also combined with the degree to which ships can manoeuvre. 

Ships die very quickly in this game, especially at short range. Awfully fast, in fact many ships in a stand up slugging match were dead in the water after a turn of gunnery and sunk or struck after 2. Which makes for a quick game, but again doesn't really feel right.

To me thats quite a lot of negatives and, whilst the production and supporting material in terms of presentation, fleet lists and scenarios is good the whole package was, for me at least, disappointing. I expect these rules to be similar in their appeal to Warhammer Trafalgar - popular because of who is publishing them and appealing to casual gamers but ultimately disappointing for those with a deeper knowledge of the subject. Which is a pity since I think that, with a bit more effort, they could have been so much better. 


  1. Cheers for the review David they certainly seem to have followed the trend of the previous Osprey rules, all style no substance. Shame as a good set of AOS rules would be welcome, back to Signal Close Action it is.

  2. I think one could make an argument that it's harder to write a lightweight set of rules than a horribly detailed one – because the detailed one can basically say "you can do what real captains of the time could do", but the lightweight one has to abstract that into systems that are simple enough for fast play while keeping enough flavour that you know you're playing Age of Sail rather than galleys or MTBs.

    I don't know of anything else Millar has written. These days I'm distinctly inclined to look at the author's track record before the publisher's.

  3. I concur with your assessment of Fighting Sail - they're just not that good.

  4. I agree with your assessment, not just because it was my Constitution that was sunk in one round! Rod Langton's Signal Close Action Fast Play shows that a simple set of rules can still be fairly true to life.

  5. Glad I read your review. I was in Waterstones at the weekend and while browsing the osprey stand I almost bought these but having read the review I think I will pass.... as it turned out I had to spend my money on a Peppa Pig book for the little one instead..

  6. Thanks for the review of these rules. I had been on the fence about getting them. There are some Osprey rules I like, but the naval rules haven't seemed to hit the right place for me. It is hard to balance ease of play with enough detail/period flavor. Maybe it is just that I know more about naval stuff or that level of abstraction works better for land games.

  7. After trying out number of age of sail rulesets, I came into conclusion that the underlying problem of simple sets such as Fighting Sail, or Sails of Glory appears to be that the guns are obtained from modern era, while the other stuff is partially from age of sail (in case of Sails of Glory I understand it in a way as paved road towards "Dreadnoughts" or some other game that uses same plain engine - it is more or less Wings of Glory anyways).

    If, however the designers would look it from the angle of period tactics, doctrines, and strengths / weaknesses and have some understanding of the evolution of sailing ship warfare it would be quite easy to figure out that:
    1) Sailing ships have restricted movement, predictable but restricted. One can with a level of certainty say where a ship is going to be in few minutes time.

    2) Gunnery is more about the weight of shot than what is being fired. Most common cause for fire or explosion was the careless handling of fuses, powder or burst of gun when _firing_.

    3) Sailing ships were able to take quite lot of punishment from the period weapons, and precisely because of that relative inefficiency of the fire, tactics allowed two lines of ships approach each other and accept the fact that they were fired upon.

  8. Interesting comments. Thank you. Interestingly, I do not appear to have experienced the same game issues. I can certainly see the issue with frigates, especially with good die rolls.. Our own games are largely with Ships of the line, and for that the rules work just fine for us.