Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A close-run thing...French and Dutch sailing ship action in 1796.

The date is June 21st, 1796.  France is in the throes of revolution and the Terror, and her armies are trying to gobble up territory around her borders.  The Revolutionary Government has decided to send the French navy to test the willingness of the tiny Dutch Republic to fight, rather than submit to France's control.  The fleet is not a large one, but then no admiral wants to risk failure and the wrath of the Directory...and the guillotine!

Admiral Malcolm deBailey, an English Scotsman seeking fame and fortune, has volunteered to take a fleet to capture or destroy a Dutch fleet that has taken advantage of the British navy mutinies to scour the seas for some privateer booty of their own.  He has under his command the Tonnant (74), Neptune (74), Aigle (64), Berwick (64), and a lone scouting frigate, the Sybille (36).  The sure-minded Brit has decided to engage two Dutch squadrons: first, under Commodore Bingham, the Brutus (64), Wasenaar (68), and the Argo (40); second, under Captain Eubanks, are the Haarlem (54), Erfprins (54), Delft (50) and Amphitrite (36). 

The game is called Form on The Admiral's Wake, written by my friend Brian Dewitt.  They use hexes for movement, and game mechanics are controlled by cards that are shuffled and turned in each game turn.  The rules are very simple...literally two pages...and in my opinion are a blast to play.  I truly get caught up in anxiety and anticipation waiting for just the right card to come up so I can pull off my tactical masterpieces on the table.  There are cards specific to each nationality, and cards that apply to all at once.  Some cards are move only, some are turn only (which is indeed separate from movement), some allow reloads for crack/elite crews, some for all get the idea.  Some nationalities have more cards than others; I'm assuming Brian did his usual thorough research in coming up with the fact that the British and Americans reload faster than others, move more often than others, while the Spanish and Russians move less often than most.  French are pretty average, as are the Dutch.

This was our weekly gaming get-together, although this week only three of us could make it.  We've played the rules before, so the game went quick.  We set up with the French under Malcolm on a reaching position and running on course to cross the Dutch line.  The Dutch under Ron and Rob were also reaching before the wind.  Things went fairly evenly for the first turn; the French came down towards us and we moved towards them waiting to see who turned first.  I didn't bother to take photos at the beginning of the game because it really didn't seem like it would be much to see...Malcolm would ride down, cross our T, we'd founder around and laugh and then game over for the Dutch.  However, as you roll at the end of each turn for wind direction change, Ron rolled and sure enough, the wind shifted one hex-side the French were running down upon the Dutch and we were close-hauled...crap!!  Now there was no doubt that the French, with the wind behind them, would easily pull well into position to cross the Dutch T.  We were separated into two squadrons, with Commodore Bingham ahead and to windward of Captain Eubanks. Ron was in place to take the worst of the cannon my mind I was hoping Malcolm would be so busy pounding Ron that I could slip around the front of his line and take out his lead ship (or two!).

Sadly I don't have photos of the first few turns but the maneuvering played out with the poor Dutch unable to do much as Malcolm's French heavies crossed the T of our lead ship of the line (but fortunately at too great a distance to benefit from the rake bonus) and then the French squadron turned to gracefully move down the starboard side of the Dutch fleet (which had somehow managed to shake into one long line astern of the flagship, Brutus), exchanging broadsides as they went.  Malcolm's dice were they often are in sailing ship games!...and he dealt out far more hits on Ron's squadron than Ron was able to give back.  It wasn't long before the poor Wasenaar was pulverized into a crippled hulk, barely able to keep sailing.  In fact, after the French passed by Ron's squadron and began exchanging broadsides with my ships, the Wasenaar didn't even attempt to wear ship...Ron just sailed it straight out of the battle!!  It was already starting to look ugly for the Dutch when Lady Luck, that oh-so-fickle dame of the gaming table, evened the odds.  Ron rolled a broadside at the Berwick, which had taken some damage already, and hit with five out of six dice AND scored a critical hit.  (When you roll d6 to hit, you also roll one d12; if the number on the d12 is equal to or less than the number of hits you scored, you get a critical hit).  There are 12 possible critical hit results; a 12 is a major explosion that sinks the target.  An 11...which Ron a minor explosion that deals an additional d6 hits.  He rolled a 6, which put a total of 11 hits on the poor Berwick and broke her back on the spot.

The next few turns are a blur; the Dutch were wearing ship and praying for reload cards (once you fire, which you can do on any action card, it takes two reload cards to fully reload your broadside), while the French were passing through our lines and blasting back at us.  During this, poor Brutus took the brunt of the hits and became crippled and eventually struck her colors.  It fell to Captain Rob to pull his squadron together and attempt to turn a slight defeat into a major victory for the Dutch.  Ron bravely pursued the action with his frigate, too. 

Now we catch up to the pictures I took.  This first one shows my Haarlem passing between Aigle and Tonnant (Neptune has broken away from the squadron and is out of camera) and Haarlem has caught fire from the close-range blasting she is getting.  Just upwind of the Tonnant (on the left) are my two smaller ships Erfprins and Delft, with Ron's frigate in the background.  I'm not sure where my little Amphritite has gone to!
A closer view of the above: Haarlem bracketed by Tonnant and Aigle.  Hang on, brave lads!  Support is coming!

 At this point, in this picture above, Haarlem has fallen behind the French heavies but one of my smaller ships has managed to fall in behind the Tonnant...albeit with flames spreading from her rigging!
 This is a picture of what joy looks like...I just needed one more lucky hit to force Tonnant to strike her colors and here it was...two hits AND a critical hit.  Tonnant was no more.  It was turning into a pyrrhic victory for the Dutch.  Malcolm decided to start running, but as we found out, there are more move cards for the Dutch, plus there are more move cards for undamaged or uncrippled ships...and that was my squadron!  The French had suffered so many hits while moving down our combined squadrons' line that now every hit drove them closer to the crippled point.
Tonnant, surrounded by my squadron, being pummeled into submission.

 In the interest of playing the game out, after running before the wind for several turns, Malcolm and his French were finally caught by my squadron and so the Frenchman turned with fear and vengeance in his eye, and in one lucky turn of shooting beat my poor Haarlem to the gunwales and forced her to strike (the little white ring on the main mast).  Meanwhile, brave Delft (50) is going toe to toe with the remaining French heavies.

 Delft managed to inflict enough damage to slow the French ships of the line enough for the remaining small ships to catch up and it was like hyenas on a pair of wounded lions.  Being practically undamaged for most of the game, my little ships were far more maneuverable than the French wounded giants, and I was able to get into position to inflict some serious rakes on them.  In the picture below, Aigle finally strikes to the Delft after one fierce round of boarding action!
At this point it was time to call it a night.  Sybille wisely left the area of battle to seek out French reinforcements, and the Dutch sailed home to claim a very close-run thing.  As always, it was another very enjoyable game of sailing ships!


  1. Great battle report, and great ship pictures! Hats off to Admiral Rob.

  2. Excellent engagement - well done the Dutch! I like the sound of Form on The Admiral's Wake. I am only a recent convert to card driven games - but a convert I am! A hex sea mat would be a good addition to my shed - alas the postage for sending mats to Aus mean these purchases often give way to the ever urgent need for MORE LEAD!

  3. They really are a fun set of rules. Just enough national flavor to make it agreeable, without any obvious biases, yet simple enough mechanics to make a quick-moving game. I wonder if there is a British supplier of might be a good time to get one! Sorry...couldn't resist dog-piling on the Brexit jokes.

  4. Ha ha ha, I'm not afraid to take advantage of a trade opportunity! It's rare day that the Aussie $ trades favourably with the USD or GBP. I've got that Baccus ACW project to kick start again ... hmmm.