Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Tinkering with Gridded Naval Wargames

I credit Bob Cordery and his gridded wargames rules (including the Portable Wargame series) with kindling my interest in periods and battles I otherwise wouldn’t have experienced. His Gridded Naval Wargames recently drew me to the basement wargaming table for some maritime combat action. I’m not a huge naval wargamer. I’ve dabbled in Fletcher Pratt’s game (“The Quest for Naval Minis”). I created a solitaire game simulating the submarine action of Operation Drumbeat. I’ve considered buying into Ares Games’ Sails of Glory, but have second thoughts when I look at the price and complexity. Cordery’s rules – rife with interesting asides, historical insights, and practical examples – inspired me to explore the genre and tinker with the rules...as many gamers do to improve upon mechanics and enhance their play experience.

Cordery’s Gridded Naval Wargames examines an early naval game by a Royal Navy officer, Lieutenant Chamberlain, in 1888 – The Game of Naval Blockade – and reinterprets the rules in a format suitable for warships from the ironclad era to the 1920s dreadnoughts, along with a different system for African patrol boat action in World War I, rules for coastal actions that mesh nicely with his Portable Wargame rules, and notes on adapting the main rules for World War II naval action (including aircraft). He also demonstrates a sample game with each system filled with blow-by-blow moves and photographs. The basic game employs some core concepts. Using a playing surface with a square, offset, or hex overlay, ships fire and move until one’s “floatation points” (a measure of how much damage it can take) reach a critical point where the crew disengages as expeditiously as possible (or, if the points run out, the ship sink). To attack players roll a number of six-sided dice equal to the guns’ attack power, minus one for each space of range to the target, often with a limited overall range: dice inflict one point of damage for each “4” or “5” result and two points for each “6.” Torpedoes roll 4D6 with no reduction for range (though their range remains about 4 spaces). Other rules cover firing directly forward or aft as well as torpedo “fire arcs,” the particulars of movement, and period-specific rules. Overall they offer a basic framework to explore this era of naval warfare, even pushing into WWII if one’s willing to work out stats for ships and armament based on the book’s designations.

My little ironclads face off on my square-
gridded blue felt Hampton Roads, with
appropriate blue and gray dice.
One of the reasons I bought a print copy of Gridded Naval Wargames was to have a basic system for running the clash of ironclads in Hampton Roads during the American Civil War (living in one of the most fought-over counties in the Civil War I can’t avoid exploring that history). My son helped inspire me to dabble with the ironclads rules; on a recent visit to Manassas battlefield he asked if there were any important Civil War naval battles and I was pleased to tell him that perhaps the most important one occurred in Virginia. So I bought a three-foot-square bit of blue felt, marked a grid of three-inch squares on it, and crafted tiny (and very rudimentary) model pieces for the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (taught to us northerners as the Merrimack in history classes...we’re also instilled with stories of pilgrims instead of the Jamestown settlement established 13 years earlier). At some point I intend to buy or craft a hex grid on an ocean background, but for now an easy-to-make square grid must suffice.

As a wargamer I frequently indulge in solitaire gaming – I firmly believe in James Dunnigan’s statement that “Solitaire play is valued as a means of perfecting tactics and techniques in a particular game that will enhance the chances of success” – so I spent a few hours sending my wood and cork ironclads against each other, with some interesting tactics and results. Both ships – as presented in the rules – seemed evenly matched, but the Union found the most success keeping the Monitor, with its slightly longer range and more powerful guns, just out of range of the Virginia. Most battles seemed like a die-rolling contest with some maneuvering into and out of range of gunfire; most ended in a stalemate with both ships having reached their critical points, much as in the historical battle.

I’ve also read about the Battle of the RiverPlate fought in the early stages of WWII, especially given the story that Fletcher Pratt’s group wargamed a similar engagement several months before the December 1939 battle with much the same results. I’d gamed it a bit using Pratt’s rules and some top-down ship counters from Topside Minis. The historical battle pit three British cruisers against a German “pocket battleship.” While the cruisers took solid beatings – including one forced to retire – they ultimately hammered away at the Admiral Graf Spee, forcing it to seek shelter in Montevideo harbor and, ultimately, scuttle her rather than risk another confrontation while heavily damaged. I gamed this scenario only a few times using the Gridded Naval Wargames rules considering I was juggling four ships with different capabilities. Using historical specifications I determined which classes of ships each belonged to and their armament as interpretted by the rules. The first game the cruisers quickly hammered away at the Graf Spee, but on subsequent games I delayed the entry of the two light cruisers to give the Germans a fighting chance. Those few games seemed more balanced, with the British and Germans each winning one.

Before playing these battles I’d acquired Osprey books about them, specifically Confederate Ironclad vs Union Ironclad and River Plate 1939, thanks to the regional used bookstore and its hit-or-miss selection of titles relevant to my interests. Reading about these battles – often related at a blow-by-blow level by these excellent sources – one quickly gets the sense of how design factors and combat damage affect a warship’s ability to function efficiently. Both ironclads at the Battle of Hampton Roads were ill-prepared for combat against a similarly armored vessel, the USS Monitor crew having been ordered to use a lesser charge than gunners thought necessary to penetrate the opponent’s armor and the CSS Virginia not mounting the proper guns to go after another ironclad. Both suffered various mechanical difficulties in the fight. Historically all the ships at the Battle of the River Plate took hits that impaired their ability to efficiently operate against enemy vessels. At one point HMS Exeter sustained damage that required command staff to set up a line of men to relay orders between the auxiliary bridge and the after-steering position. Eventually Exeter became so ineffective it had to disengage.

In an effort to add a little more depth to my Gridded Naval Wargame experience I started considering how one could simulate damage conditions within the parameters of the existing rules. When rolling attack dice a “6” result inflicts 2 points of damage instead of the usual 1 point on a roll of “4” or “5.” I found this process turns a battle in a dice-rolling competition between adversaries, beating down the flotation points until one or the other reaches the critical point and must disengage; though maneuvering, especially around islands or out of range of the enemy’s guns, can add some degree of strategy in evading attacks. It provides a good basic system overall, especially for new players, but not one with different degrees of damage to make the game a little bit more interesting. So I drafted a very simple critical damage system. Instead of scoring 2 points of damage for each “6” result, consult the “Critical Damage Table” for alternative damage (or, in some cases, just the straight 2 points of damage) that can force players to pursue their strategy with various handicaps.

When rolling results that no longer have effect (such as a second rudder hit preventing turning to port) or results that are not relevant for the period/ships lose 2 flotation points instead.

These are all well and good in limiting a player’s options when trying to carry out a particular strategy, but they can also limit player choice, a core factor in good games. So, with all these exceptional damage conditions I thought giving players the choice to forgo an attack to repair damage seemed a viable choice.

Damage Control: Instead of firing (both main and secondary armament) a ship can attempt damage control to repair one degree of “Gun/Fire Control Hit,” “Propulsion,” “Torpedo Malfunction,” or a rudder condition. Roll 1d6: on a 4–6 the crew successfully effects repairs, but on a 1–3 the damage condition remains in effect.

I played a few games of each scenario with these critical damage rules, though I didn’t use the damage control option (I was too busy juggling ships, attacks, and damage effects); if I continue I might need some simple damage markers to place on ships or ship stat cards to remind me of damage in play. In both scenarios critical damage added another element to the attack-and-move turn sequence. Despite some gun hits and rudder damage the ironclads still dueled to a stalemate where both reached the critical point and disengaged. Similarly the WWII ships suffered a host of damage effects that stretched out the battle and made for some creative decisions. In one game the Graf Spee, cruising near the board’s edge, took a rudder hit that prevented starboard turns...without enough room to effect a port-side maneuver, it moved off the board in two turns, conceding the battle to the British. In retrospect I should have opted to forgo attacks to try repairing the rudder, but two British cruisers were awfully close and hammering away at the Graf Spee. Overall I felt both battles had a deeper sense of action and player choice while retaining the character of the original rules.

Gridded Naval Wargames provides a solid foundation to explore maritime action from the dawn of ironclads into the early-mid 20th century. Cordery’s adaptations of the basic game from Lt. Chamberlain’s 1888 rules work well – with or without my critical damage table – but he also includes a slightly more complex game for a WWI historical battle on Lake Tanganyika, notes on further developing concepts in the book, rules for coastal operations, plenty of examples, and even a chapter on constructing simple Civil War ironclad models. Gridded Naval Wargames introduces newcomers and even experienced gamers to a very playable, easily comprehended naval warfare game system and might even offer some inspiration to longtime wargamers.


  1. Peter,

    Thank you for your very in-depth review of my book. Like a lot of people, you have expanded and developed the rules to meet your specific requirements, and I like your critical damage chart. It is not that dissimilar from a chart I used in my version of IRONCLAD DRAUGHTS, which I demonstrated a few years back at SALUTE.

    I look forward to revisiting your blog in the future.

    All the best,


  2. Based on your Tsushima Straits posts, might I suggest a modification to your critical hit table? Instead of a 6 being "roll on the table", make it "lose one flotation point and roll on the table." Change 2-4 to read "Lose a second point of flotation" and 12 to be "Lose two additional points of flotation". This keeps the regular hits from becoming more important than the critical hits and keeps the games from dragging out too long.

  3. That's a good suggestion, Patrick. Taking one hit of floatation point damage plus a complication with critical damage balances things out. In the Tsushima battle I often thought critical damage prolonged the action...maybe too much. Certainly something I'll try on the tabletop and consider when I get around to revising my "Critical Damage Table."


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