Black Seas: The Age of Sail Battle Game Review08 Oct 2019 3
Black Seas: The Age of Sail Battle Game Review
Released 01 Oct 2019
As my recent articles suggest, there seems to be a sort of renaissance in Age of Sail wargaming right now. A new expansion for GMTs Flying Colors franchise is in the works, Ultimate Admiral – Age of Sail is close to dropping, and that leaves only the miniatures community to complete the trifecta. It's already done, actually, as gamers continue to swash their buckles and talk like a pirate with the Blood & Plunder system. Now, hobby giant Warlord Games has entered the fray, having started shipping rules and other nautical goodies for their new Black Seas, the Age of Sail Battle Game product line.
Fortunately, a certain, very respected miniature wargaming magazine (hint, hint, thanks Dwayne) is supporting the effort by a YouTube based Flip Thru of the rules, allowing me to enlarge and screen capture each and every page of the rules proper for investigation. Combine this with counters from Wooden Ships & Iron Men, not to mention some old GHQ Micronauts (Lord, remember those?), I was ready to set sail over the weekend. So, I did.
Black Seas, the Franchise
While this article focuses on a review of the actual rules and gameplay, it's good to remember that Black Seas is far more than that. Warlord has followed the lead of Warhammer, Flames of War and other popular miniature games, by producing its own one-stop shopping environment for its products as well. This means not only the 96-page paperback rulebook ($32 US and there is a hardcover edition), but also all the necessary models and accessories to go with it.
This translates into paint sets specific to each of the four nations represented, Spain, France, Britain, and the United States, complemented by a line of 1/700 plastic/resin/metal ship models. One can buy the latter as individual ships or various sets, but in most cases the vessels are generic. For example, the $48 US 3d Rate Squadron will get you three double decker vessels you simply paint as any nationality you want. Individual ships include Britain's HMS Victory and France’s l’Orient, with the Spanish behemoth Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad in preparation. They cost $38 US each.
Now that’s a lot of coin for one ship, but when we say one-stop shopping, it applies here as well. The handsomely boxed model also contains a Ship Data Card, Wake Markers, all flags and pennants for all nations, printed sails, acetate ratlines, and a spool of bobbin for rigging. Well, the price still seems damn steep, but if they produce America’s 136-gun, four decker USS Pennsylvania, that could tempt me.
Black Seas, the Rules
The rules cover fighting sail from 1770 to 1830, or the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812. Again, one-stop shopping applies, because Black Seas is more than just a rules book. It's really a reference book on the historical era replicated, of which game rules are but one part. The core rules make up but 23 pages, plus four more of optional, four pages of advanced rules, and four pages concerning weather and terrain. There are also 10 pages of 'national' rules, some of which struck me as odd. For example, if the French ship l’Orient catches fire it automatically blows up, as it did in the battle of the Nile. This implies there was something wrong with the vessel’s design vice a critical hit. Uh, no. Bottom line is, however, you can start playing by absorbing less than 30 pages of rules, and that’s not bad.
The book includes 13 scenarios, the first two keyed to the core and optional rules, the rest if advanced rules are used. Most are semi-historical, generic engagements, but the last is (of course) Trafalgar. There are also specs for conducting both a Black Seas campaign and combining naval play with the company’s Black Powder wargaming series. A Fleet List (aka, Army List for admirals) allows players to develop their own battles using a point system, a technique near and dear to the heart of British wargame designers for what seems like centuries.
The rest of the publication devotes itself to history and modeling. There are sections on battles of the era, the navies, crews, a schematic look at the Victory, and a guide to tall ships which examines the naval rating system plus a glossary of nautical terms. There are also guides to painting and rigging your ship models, and finally, the obligatory “cheat sheet”, index and bibliography.
Overall, the presentation quality, like the models themselves, is excellent and in full color. Osprey pictures abound with play examples proper to the supported text. I did find placement and organization overall a bit curious, with the Fleet List placed after the various history sections vice imbedded with the rules’ chapters. Nevertheless, the pub seems like an excellent value for the price.
Black Seas, the Game
Advanced copies of Black Seas have generated a bit of controversy, at least if posts on The Miniatures Page are any sign. The big issue seems to be whether the game is detailed or realistic enough. A lot of this is personal preference, but it seems to me the rules do tend towards a more simplistic, elegant portrayal of the era (“fast paced and fun” as opposed to “completely authentic”), while letting hardcore gamers pick and choose more complex processes as they desire. Start simple, work your way up seems to be the concept, and I like that.
In the game, each model represents a single ship, but try as I might, I could not find an exact scale for play. I think I could extrapolate this, but it doesn’t seem necessary for play. What is necessary is the Ship Card, one for each vessel. The card has a top down look at the ship, while symbols around the image show the number and type of gun sections (light, heavy, carronade and mortar) on starboard and port. Each section has its own colored D10 so that a single role can adjudicate combat. The card also indicates the number of Ship Points (really, damage points) the ship must lose before it sinks. This is one of the areas that have raised eyebrows, because these points represent an aggregate damage assessment fusing sail, rigging, hull and crew loss into a single number. Traditionally such games have separated and tracked each.
As an example, a 5th Rate Frigate might have two heavy, one light, and one carronade section on each side (and perhaps a light gun section forward). A port broadside would thus use two blue, one red, and one black D10 when it shoots. The same frigate lists 36 Ship Points, so it would need 36 points of damage before it sinks. Two sliding markers keep track of this, and the card also displays a colored Turning Angle, a Rate of Knots (speed in inches) number and a Break Point number. In the case of the latter, our 5th Rate has a Break Point number of 12 which means that when the number of Damage Points drops below 12, the ship must roll a Skill Test each activation. If it fails, it strikes colors and surrenders. Or at least I think so. So far as I can read, the game doesn’t actually make this link, but enough evidence is there to make the connection.
Sequence of play is quite simple, and IMHO quite innovative because this game really makes wind issues a big deal. The first phase determines wind direction for the turn, while the second phase uses this result to determine which ships activate for operations and in what order. This determines Wind Gauge and using a game supplied measuring stick, the ship closest to where the wind starts activates first, performs all functions, then the next closest and so on. Whether friend or foe is immaterial.
An activated ship then performs the following in order. It checks the attitude of the wind, declares the level of sail for its turn, then it moves. Depending upon the level of sail it could move multiple times, with Light Sails allowing one move, Battle Sails allowing two and Full Sails allowing three. The ship must move its full amount in each move and must complete all moves the Level of Sail allows. At the end of any move it may turn or fire, but only once per turn can it send shot down range. It may board an opposing vessel at the end of its final move. As an example, our favorite 3d Rate Frigate has a Rate of Knots of four, meaning at full sail it must make three moves, each of four inches, when at Full Sail.
Firing is both simple and typical. Ships with Inexperienced or Regular crews must fire at the closest targets, but Veteran crews can pass a Skill Test and fire on any eligible target. Each gun section on a ship may individually shoot at different targets inside range or arc of fire, with typical ranges being 20 inches for heavy guns and eight for carronades. A D10 is rolled for each section with a modified To Hit number of five or less needed for success. Die Roll Modifiers plus or minus will raise or lower the To Hit number and include crew skill, range, target skills and whether the guns are firing high at the sails and rigging. For example, firing at three inches less is a modifier of +2, meaning a seven or less will hit, and it also inflicts double damage points. The number of damage points caused depends on gun type with a heavy cannon causing two, light gun one, and a carronade three. An unmodified roll of one on a D10 causes a Critical Hit check on one of two tables, for Hull and Firing High respectively. Typical results are a Rudder Hit for a Hull check and a Mast Hit for Firing High, with penalties to follow.
The Boarding phase follows and afterwards the player marks the activated wind jammer for completion, and the next ship follows. There are, of course, a host of extra rules available. Some allow fire with various kinds of ammunition (chain shot and so on), Raking Fire (aka, crossing the “T”), Sailing in Line and reducing a ships firepower based on the number of damage points taken. Again, think of a diner menu where you pick what you want, though I will admit a bit of surprise with what Black Seas made optional and what it did not. Naming Raking Fire as optional is sorta like doing the same with skirmishers in Napoleonics.
I went through a couple of games of British vs Spanish over the weekend, so if you felt the earth rumble then it probably means the Santissima Trinidad just let loose another broadside. In general, the game worked as advertised and I enjoyed the lessoned record keeping of the game’s damage system. Historically, game results seemed valid. Wind Gauge was by far the toughest aspect to get a handle on, not helped by a text that could likely do with a bit of extra editing. Nevertheless, this same aspect was not only challenging, but represented the chaotic nature of any military operation quite well. I’ve always liked this type of design perspective, and here Black Seas did not disappoint. Finally, on a personal preference note, for a hobby that thrives on realistic eye-candy, I thought the game used an awful lot of extraneous markers.
These are quibbles, however. Overall the rules are well worth the money and performed their job quite well. My only further recommendation is that 1770 is way too late a start point. In general, the age of sail begins in 1571 at Lepanto and ends in 1862 at Hampton Roads. For every Nelson there is a Lieutenant Admiral Maarten Tromp, and for every Trafalgar there is a Scheveningen where nearly 250 ships hammered each other. These are men and times deserving recognition, and Black Seas could be the right platform to deliver it.