Blue Cross, White Ensign Review

By Bill Gray 18 Sep 2019 0

Blue Cross, White Ensign Review

Released 01 Dec 2014

Developer: GMT Games
Genre: Table-Top
Available from:

It doesn’t seem we’ve reviewed this hex and counter series before, so it's really about time. Right now, there seems to be a Renaissance of “fighting sail” interest across most of the wargaming world. In video game land, developer Game Labs Inc has recently introduced their MMO “age of sail” experience called Naval Action, as well as their Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail standalone computer game (of which yours truly is a playtester). Pewter pushers continue to revel in the immensely popular Blood & Plunder pirate franchise, while industry behemoth Warlord Games is ready to publish their own Black Seas product line, both rules and miniatures. Look for a review soon.

At first glance, however, not so much for cardboard critters. Considering at one time stalwarts like 1974’s Wooden Ships and Iron Men set the standard for such gaming, this seems a bit unusual and fortunately, it is. GMT Games has refused to furl its ensign in this regard, with its Fighting Colors series about to enter a deluxe third printing, followed soon by a new fourth expansion volume called Under the Southern Cross. With that in mind, this review looks at the very latest version of the game on the streets right now, the 2014 release of Volume III – Blue Cross, White Ensign (BCWE) covering the Imperial Russian Navy.

Blue Cross White Ensign 2

Fun (Historical) Fact

At this time, the monarch defined the state so while the king had a flag, his country normally did not. An exception was maritime ensigns as there was no territorial link to define nationality on the high seas. Thus, Admiralty Law allowed three types of ensigns - civil, government and naval, each permitted a completely unique design. Peter the Great chose a blue St Andrew’s Cross (saltire, not Latin) on white for his navy as the apostle visited Kiev, becoming the patron saint of Russia.

Ship’s Rating

The first thing I noticed about BCWE was how heavy the box was. This turned was due to the collection of maps included. There are three 22 x 34-inch hex map sheets, all printed in varying shades of light to medium blue, punctuated by a small white letter here and there. There are three – not two as shown on the box cover – counter sheets with the game, two of which are the normal half-inch size and one of 1 by ½ inch counters. The latter has the large ships of the line in the game with a dark green background for the Russians, olive green for the Ottomans and medium blue for Sweden. The two sheets of smaller counters have leaders and smaller vessels such as frigates, plus a host of administrative counters such as Adrift, Out of Command, Fire Port or Starboard, and Dismasted markers.

Blue Cross White Ensign Reference

One of the things I’ve noticed in most games of this naval genre is a large number of admin markers in use, and BCWE is no exception. Thankfully, however, the ship and leader counters are quite attractive and simple. The ships include a top-down view of the deck while the leader counters have a generic portrait, of which one is Colonial icon John Paul Jones. Outside pure information such as a ship’s name and historical rating, there are only three numbers on them. One is the number of marine strength points on board, the second is the damage number and the last a game rating of the ship, such as 1st rate for the big tubs sailing around. One can say the same for leader counters which have a command radius number in hexes, and a command quality rating as well.

The rest of the paper includes a 24-page Flying Colors series rule book, of which only 16 pages are the core rules, and is a black and white production, something unexpected from GMT. The Play Book is 32 full-color pages long and includes an intro, special rules, notes on ship names, an example of play, a bibliography, and 12 scenarios. Scenario specific rules are few and there are only five special rules for this entire volume. They are rules on Russian Unicorn cannon, Turkish Break-off, Turkish Movement Bonus, Frigates in Line of battle, and Victory Point Determination. If you’re thinking this really doesn’t sound too complicated a game, you would be right and, in many respects, this is one of the product’s hallmarks.


Rounding out the game complement are two four-page player chart sheets, of which two pages are the double gunnery tables used in the game. The rest of the charts are small, simple and include specifics for Movement, Tacking, Wind Adjustment, Sternway, Grounding, Ships on Fire, Fire Determination, Carronade and Raking Fire. A set of poly storage bags and one D10 die completes the package, and if you have a Boardgame Geek account, you can also download a fan designed Flying Colors Wind Wheel.


As noted, BCWE seems simpler than other games I’ve played on this subject. The reason is that the game puts the emphasis on the player as a fleet commander rather than multiple, individual ships’ captains. You won’t find a scenario on a single ship on ship action such as Constitution vs Guerrier, because that is simply not the focus of the game. Also, the game acknowledges the chaos of war and is a bit more random in its sequence of play, something of a trademark for GMT these days. Scales are individual ships, 10 minutes real-time per turn and 100 yards per hex.

Blue Cross White Ensign 1

The BCWE Sequence of Play is as follows:

  • Wind Determination. Players determine if there is any change in wind direction.
  • Command Determination. Both players decide which of their ships are in or out of command.
  • Initiative Determination. Both players roll a die, add their fleet commander’s command rating and the player with the highest modified results determines whether he or his opponent will go (ie, Activate part of his fleet) first this turn.
  • Activation Cycle. A player may activate a single formation within his fleet, or a single out of command vessel, and try to have it move, fire and/or disengage. When finished, his opponent does the same, and the players continue to alternate doing so until all formations and vessels have performed their duties.
  • Melee. Both players resolve any new melees.
  • Status Check. Both players check the status of each vessel for Ship Fires, Drifting, Striking, Sinking and the removal of Broadside markers.
  • Victory Determination. Both sides check to see if either of the opposing fleets has met the conditions for victory.

Obviously, the Activation Cycle is the main course of this nautical gaming repast. During this phase in command ships sail, but out of command ships may not move adjacent to an enemy ship or fire its guns (unless already engaged) as determined by a die roll compared to its side’s Audacity Rating, which is both scenario and nationality dependent. If moving, the number of hexes a vessel can travel is very dependent on its relation to wind direction. The game assigns movement points depending on whether a ship is Running, Reaching, Beating or In Irons, and whether the ship is moving under Plain or Full Sail. In a clever twist from other games, a unit must spend all its movement points somehow, someway. Ships running partially against the wind may try Tacking, while it is very possible for a ship’s movement rate to change next turn due to it turning and receiving the wind from a different direction. There are also rules for movement reduction due to Backing Sails, as well as procedures for ships passing by each other or colliding.

Blue Cross White Ensign 3

Firepower comes next, and I found this procedure a bit simpler than movement. Essentially, a ship may fire after it has expended one movement point and may fire twice per turn (once from each side of the ship, even simultaneously) at any point as it moves. Prior to its sending iron balls down range, enemy ships may first fire defensively if within range, line of sight and arch of fire. Doing so requires the player to determine his ship’s Firepower Value which is based on its rate (as in 1st Rate Ship of the Line) which can be modified up or down depending upon such things as firing during a Tack or Dismasted. The resulting value can be changed plus or minus such things as the Audacity Rating or whether the ship carries Carronades.

In general, 1st Rate ships have a range of 10 hexes while the smallest vessels (and all Carronades) have a range of five. The player then uses this final value and announces he is either firing at the hull or rigging, rolls the die and hopefully inflicts multiple Damage Points on his opponent. Every three rigging hits reduces the ship’s ability to Tack by one, with 15 totally dismasting the ship and causing it to stop. Hull hits reduce the ship’s Damage Rating and when it reaches zero, it is vulnerable to sinking. Fire combat ultimately determines success or failure by distributing Victory Points for each ship sunk or damaged and each leader killed by game’s end. It is quite possible for a fleet not even make it to the end of the game if it rolls poorly on a mandatory Break-Off check.

BCWE also includes a slate of Optional rules such as Anchoring and Shore Batteries, but I did not use them to write this review.

Blue Cross White Ensign art


I played the first day of the Russo-Swedish battle of Krasnaya Gorka (May 23, 1790) for this article, and although the results were pretty indecisive, quite enjoyed the experience. Without question, the movement part of the game was the most difficult to master. In particular, turning by either moving the bow or stern was new, as was having a new base movement rate from turn to turn due to wind direction based on this change of direction.

When coupled with a general change of wind direction possible each turn, planning ahead was difficult. I also learned that one of the big differences between dry and wet warfare was that while textbook formations were spot on at the beginning of the game, it was almost impossible to stop the battle from becoming a one-on-one, barroom brawl. This made the game uncertain until the end and most certainly favored the commander who could react to the moment vice looking ahead. And, since you asked, shoot the hull, not the rigging and yes, the Santissima de Trinidad is here (just called the Ches’ma, carrying all the Russian Unicorns in the Baltic).

All in all, an excellent entry into the genre, and I really liked the concept of fleet commander vice having to worry about the minutiae of pure tactical play. Seriously, when you have a game of this type that works well, and yet does not have those infernal individual ship data cards, you have something incredibly special. Consider a standing invitation to the Captain’s Mess extended!

Blue Cross, White Ensign Review

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