Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Father-Son Naval Warfare

Among my (admittedly) many gaming diversions from the covid-19 pandemic I’m dabbling in naval warfare again: American Civil War ironclads and World War II South Pacific. Granted I’d previously explored the Battle of the River Plate using both Fletcher Pratt’s rules and Bob Cordery’s Gridded Naval Wargames along with flats from Topside Minis (which I’ve featured here before). I’d also tried Mike Crane’s The Virginia vs. the Monitor – or, Look Out Minnesota! with some home-crafted models (and the Minnesota fold-up piece provided in the rules). Both periods appeal to me, as did Cordery’s rules for their intuitive mechanics that easily accommodate some minor adjustments. I treated myself to some naval miniatures which, now they’re painted, are ready for some wargame tabletop action with my son.

I’ve infrequently dabbled with naval wargames – both in miniature and board formats – but Bob Cordery’s Gridded Naval Wargames provided rules useful across key eras of modern history: the ACW ironclad engagements and pre-dreadnought and dreadnought periods (with rules easily adapted to World War II battleships, cruisers, and destroyers). Some might recall a report of a Russo-Japanese wargame in the opening stages of the pandemic in early 2020. While Gridded Naval Wargames provided just the right amount of depth and engagement for my own solitaire battles, it also demonstrated how well it works with younger players who aren’t quite used to the complexities of many more comprehensive rules. So I embarked on two project expansions for my naval wargaming with an eye toward involving both a younger player (my son) and – once we feel safer with relaxed pandemic precautions and current infection rates – with an acquaintance who’s a fan of WWII history, particularly of PT boats (They Were Expendable being one of his favorite period films).

ACW Ironclads

Thoroughbred Figures ironclads
with my hand-crafted models
behind, along with stat cards and
a decorated storage box.
In my earlier dabbling with ACW naval warfare I’d crafted my own 1:1200 scale Monitor and Virginia out of wood bits and a shaved synthetic cork (for the Virginia’s casemate). These seemed adequate for exploring the Battle of Hampton Roads using different rules; but if I were to run games in public (as I’d hoped to do in the “Before Times” for the local museum or at the regional wargame convention) I wanted something far better looking...and more vessels for river engagements with multiple players. I’d seen Thoroughbred Figures’ display at Williamsburg Muster over the years, though at the time I wasn’t interested in ACW naval games. Thanks the internet I placed an order for several ships in 1:1200 scale – including the Monitor and Virginia, of course – and a set of shore artillery emplacements for variety. The models arrived quickly; I was impressed with the exceptional detail for that size. (Alas, the owner was involved in a motorcycle crash in early April and has, understandably, suspended operations and orders until he recovers; we wish him a speedy recovery.) It took me a while to paint all the models, prep the custom-decorated cigar box to hold them, and print up stat cards for each vessel (laminated so dry-erase markers could track damage).

Opening salvos deal lots of damage, as noted
with Litko tokens.

The final round: mutual destruction.
This past weekend I pried my son away from Roblox long enough to try some after-dinner ACW games with the new models. A quick review was all we needed to refresh our knowledge of the rules and see how they applied to our ships; we’d last played Gridded Naval Wargames a year ago in our Russo-Japanese War engagement, but the rules stuck and are easy enough to teach on the fly. My son chose to captain the CSS Virginia so I took the helm of the USS Monitor. We approached cautiously, but as the Monitor’s guns had a greater range his ship came under fire first. He chose a mad dash to bring me within range, though he tried keeping me in his broadside fire arc (not always successfully). The Virginia took a pounding but, once within range, opened up on the Monitor. Alas, the Virginia reached its critical point first and started to withdraw. The Monitor pursued, though in one turn took damage and reached its own critical point. Before they could withdraw very far a final salvo from each sank the other ship. An interesting yet more explosive outcome than the historical Battle of Hampton Roads, which resulted in both ships withdrawing without serious damage.

A second game with an additional
ironclad on each side.
We played a second game with two ships on each side, adding the CSS Arkansas and USS Cairo. Both squadrons approached cautiously, this time my son taking care to keep my ships in broadside range as we drew closer. Once again the Virginia took on the Monitor, trading shots and quickly wearing each other down. The Arkansas and Cairo opened fire on each other. But with Arkansas weakened with a salvo from Monitor, it was no match. Alas, the Cairo was the only ship to sail away from the engagement mostly intact, all other ships having sunk each other in the fray. Overall both games took about 30 minutes each to set up and play. I used a host of Litko markers to note various game conditions. Broadside markers indicated which ships fired (and for the second game, the direction indicated their target). Splash markers indicated single minor hits, with blast markers noting major hits. They weren’t terribly necessary, as my laminated ship stat sheets had spaces to mark hits with dry-erase markers...but the tokens looked good and my son enjoyed placing them as the die rolls indicated. I was also very proud that my son found enjoyment in the game whether he won or lost; he seemed wrapped up in the action, getting excited about every close call.

USS Cairo limps away.
The game has promise for future activities once the nation safely opens up from pandemic precautions with a majority of the population vaccinated. The rules are easy to explain, especially with stat cards for reference, and offer a quick-start experience for young players exploring wargaming at history museums or local conventions. I think I need to buy a few more ships, adjust some stats for the smaller ironclads, and craft some shoreline terrain. With a little more work it might be ready to move from the basement wargaming table into a more public sphere.

SOPAC Patrol

A view of some of my ships, cards,
and the storage box.
I’d intended to explore some WWII naval action in the South Pacific for some time, also with an eye to running games at museums and conventions. Although I bought into Warlord Games’ Cruel Seas for this purpose, it’s taken me a long time to acquire all the models I wanted and assemble/paint them...an ongoing task. I also fear the rules aren’t quite geared toward newcomer or kids, but I realize this also might depend on the teacher briefing potential players. I wanted something I could use with the Gridded Naval Wargame rules, which I’ve used before for WWII naval battles (such as the Battle of the River Plate). With an acquaintance interested in PT boat action and an affordable set of ships, the South Pacific theater seemed a good place to start. I placed an order with GHQ, whose 1:2400 scale Micronauts range provided everything I wanted for my scenario: a pack of three Asashio-class destroyers, two Japanese freighters and a tanker, and a pack of 18 PT boats. It took some time to assemble, paint, and mount the models, especially the tiny PT boats, but I eventually had a nice force for the scenario I had in mind.

One of GHQ's amazingly detailed
tiny PT boats.
I’d originally intended to field a force of PT boats to intercept three freighters, each escorted by a destroyer. For our first foray, though, I scaled my grand plan down a bit, pitting a few PT boats against a destroyer escorting a freighter across the board. My main concern: finding the right number of PT boats to balance a single escort and the freighter. I ran the scaled-down scenario a few times solitaire, playing both sides, and realized two or three PT boats seemed right. So after dinner one night my son came downstairs and commanded the American forces against a lone Japanese destroyer escorting a freighter. The smaller boats took some hits, but suffered no complete losses while harassing the Japanese ships, ultimately destroying both with torpedo hits before the freighter could escape off the edge of the board. As with the ACW naval scenarios our game lasted about 30 minutes, even using my revised critical damage table, which inflicted the loss of one flotation point with an additional damage effect (in this case, the destroyer lost some fire control effectiveness, reducing its range and power, and the freighter lost its port rudder capabilities). Once again my son enjoyed maneuvering his ships into the most advantageous positions for attack and, of course, rolling handfuls of dice (4D) for torpedo attacks.

Two Japanese destroyers escort
a freigher and a tanker.
For this scenario I made a few adjustments to the rules, especially since the small PT boats have guns with minimal range and power and only four torpedoes. With their speed and agility I allowed PT boats to turn any amount spending one movement point. They could also occupy a hex with another ship, particularly useful when maneuvering with other PT boats (though they can’t ram). The freighters and tankers gained 2D from their deck guns fore and aft, essentially allowing them to fire at a PT boat in an adjacent hex with one die. The larger Japanese ships could not fire at a PT boat in their own hex, though moving into a hex with a PT boat would allow them to ram the enemy vessel. I did not allow destroyers to use torpedoes against PT boats, believing their shallow draft, smaller size, and high maneuverability would exempt them from such attacks (a ruling Warlord Games’ Cruel Seas uses, too, though historically torpedo hits on PT boats were possible).

The Japanese destroyer fires back, caught
in a torpedo crossfire from PT boats.

The PT boat finishes off the freighter
while the destroyer waits to counter-attack.
Winning initiative determining who moves first proved the key to victory in this scenario. If PT boats move second they could easily line up torpedo shots on targets; Japanese ships moving second could usually maneuver around possible torpedo paths. I expect having another destroyer or two on the board would complicate the situation for the American forces, though I might reduce the number of PT boats to two for each destroyer/freighter pair. Right now the “full” scenario includes three destroyers, three transports, and any number of PT boats...but I should read up in Cordery’s books about adding aircraft patrols and possibly submarines.

Overall we were pleased with both games. The rules remain easy enough for kids to understand yet contain enough depth on the table to offer some interesting player choices and some engaging naval action. Hopefully I can develop them further and bring them to a wider audience as pandemic restrictions ease and museums and game conventions start welcoming people back.

A Note on My Stat Cards

In all my Gridded Naval Wargames sorties I’ve used stat cards to summarize each vessel’s capabilities...especially when using my optional critical damage tables. When a ship takes a critical hit on a roll of a “6” the vessel loses one flotation point (just like a regular hit) but the target player rolls 2D6 and consults the table for additional effects: loss of one value of movement, inability to turn to port or starboard (or at all), loss of gun effectiveness, etc. (I also allow a vessel to forego attacks in one turn to try repairing one point of damage to a system on a die roll of 4-6.) The laminated stat cards allow players to mark both flotation point losses and other damage; PT boats mark off how many of their four torpedoes they use in an engagement.

Different ships display different stats. Obviously ACW ironclads aren’t going to have notations for torpedoes or secondary weapons. Larger WWII ships include primary and secondary weapons plus torpedoes. I still need to adjust a few ships, possibly noting special modified rules (like those for PT boats mentioned above), and modify some of the ironclads based on potential firepower. At some point in the future – when I feel comfortable enough in my adjustments and revisions – I might convert some stat card sets to PDF for the personal use of fellow wargamers on the internet. Right now I have stat cards for all my ACW ironclad models, my handful of Russo-Japanese War vessels, my SOPAC Patrol ships, and the key players in the Battle of the River Plate. No doubt I’ll create more should I branch out to explore other naval engagements.

Overall they’ve proven helpful aids in my Gridded Naval Wargames experience. They keep track of multiple ships in a large fight and multiple stats for larger vessels. For kids they offer a chance for some in-game record-keeping experience, a reminder of ship capabilities, and a visual aid for quickly determining a ship’s condition.


  1. I love your individual warship record cards. They combine simplicity, elegance, and all the information a player requires.

    All the best,


    1. Thanks, Bob. I wanted something for my own reference, but also suitable for games with kids or convention games as play aids. They seem to work in all respects (though I've yet to try them at a con...).

  2. This is really cool. I haven't played miniature naval games. Only the board games "Wooden Ships & Iron Men" and "Battlewagon". But this interests me.

    1. Gridded Naval Wargames offers an intuitive set of rules one can adapt and adjust as needed. It's my go-to rules for ACW, dreadnought and WWII naval action.

  3. Thanks for that photo of your stat card. Tony.

    1. You're welcome, Tony. Hope that helps. I may consider revising the ones I have and putting them online sometime in the future. (Along with my critical damage tables.)


We welcome civil discussion and polite engagement. We reserve the right to remove comments that do not respect others in this regard.