Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, August 10, 2012

WBC: When ships were made of wood

The Wooden Ships and Iron Men tournament has become an enduring staple of my experience at World Boardgaming Championships.  My post a few days ago described my loss in a one-on-one engagement, but I enjoyed a fair degree of success later in the competition.

First thing Friday morning I engaged Malcolm Smith in a battle of maneuver.  Each of us had one 40- and one 36-gun British frigates.  We spent much time - about 18 turns - just dancing for position before I finally got aggressive and closed the range, just as he had separated his ships enough for me to concentrate fire.  I managed to demoralize the crew of his 40-gun frigate and knock away one mast with chain shot.  With his maneuverability degraded, I was able to isolate and rake his 36-gun frigate several times to force it to strike its colors.  In the ensuing two-on-one battle with his remaining 40-gun frigate, he managed to force my own 36-gunner to strike, but by that point his remaining ship was only one shot away from striking colors as well.  Malcolm graciously conceded the heat.
Despite one having a damaged rudder (right, foreground), my frigates isolate and rake my opponent's 36-gun
frigate while her 40-gun partner (left) struggles to close the gap with damaged rigging and demoralized crew.
Ship models provided and painted by GM Tim Hitchings

Fleet action:  Russian blunders
Saturday morning found me with an opportunity to command one of two fleets in the annual WBC WS&IM Fleet Action.  I won the dice roll and had the opportunity to choose between commanding the attacking Swedish fleet of moderately-sized Ships-of-the-Line or the defending Russian fleet that included huge 100-gun triple-deckers as well as frigates.  My examination of the scenario indicated that the Swedes had by far the superior opening position.  They would start the battle with the weather gauge and the initiative; the Russians would start unalerted, at anchor in the harbor, sails furled, guns unloaded, while the Swedes approached in the fog.  But I got stars in my eyes from the Russian 100-gun SOLs, and I thought that once I got them underway, they would do terrific damage.  So I accepted the challenge to command the Russian fleet.  That was my first mistake.  The Swedish fleet would come under the command of Malcolm Smith, my opponent in the two-on-two action the previous morning.

My second mistake was not to review carefully the field of fire for the Russian fort that was situated on pilings near the middle of the harbor.  Clearly this fixed fortification would be an important element of the Russian defense, and it would be important to exploit its power with a thoughtful choice of my fleet anchorage.  I mistakenly assumed that the fort was sufficiently elevated that it could fire over my own ships, so I anchored in a line directly across the front of the fort, thinking my fleet would be in its protective shadow (as my Spanish fleet had been at Manila Bay at HistoriCon two weeks before).  But instead, the fort was not much higher above water than the ships themselves, so that my fleet blocked the fort's field of fire for much of the battle.  That was, indeed, my second blunder.

Finally, I somehow thought it important to maximize my ability to maneuver once I'd weighed anchor, so I spaced my ships apart in line in their anchorage.  This spacing turned out to my third disastrous error of the battle.

The Russian fleet awoke in a blissful fog that morning.  I had anchored my squadron of four ships in a column - a frigate in front, the two SOLs in single file behind it, and a second frigate in the rear - such that the fort was to my left and my starboard broadsides pointed to the harbor opening to my right.  We noticed dim outlines of large ships entering the harbor in the fog, and somehow my lookouts thought nothing odd of the fact that they were approaching in formation.  "British merchants" must have been the explanation.  

Unexpectedly, the fog thinned to reveal that the six approaching ships were in fact Swedish men-of-war.  A gunshot warning brought all crews to quarters.  First order of business was to reload my starboard broadsides so as to attempt to get a shot on the approaching enemy.  I was able to get a few volleys out, aided by the stability of my ships at anchor, but as I turned next to the task of unfurling sails in preparations to get underway, the Swedes interleaved themselves among my ships in a manner worthy of Lord Horatio Nelson and raked my rigging mercilessly.  
Russian squadron (yellow hulled ships) cut anchor and desperately attempt to organize as the Swedes (dark
hulls) penetrate the Russian line with devastating broadsides in the early minutes of the battle.
Ship models, fort, status markers, and hex mat provided by GM Tim Hitchings

There was no time to weigh anchor or switch to springs.  Instead, my SOLs and rear frigate cut anchor and got underway immediately.  My lead frigate had already lost two masts in the opening minutes of the battle, so I deemed that there was no sense in having her cut anchor; she'd be adrift before long anyway.  Instead, she stayed at anchor in hopes of getting a shot at a careless passing Swede.  But my enemy unloaded volley after volley of chain shot on her, so that she was denuded not only of rigging, but of her entire crew.  She was indeed a ghost ship of the Czar's fleet.

One of the Swedes sailed between my SOLs too aggressively and turned up the line between my column and the fort.  My alert crew managed to grapple her and hold her fixed in front of the fort's guns, which pounded away at her hull until she struck.  Earlier, my lead frigate and SOL had managed to concentrate fire on another Swede and force her with relentless broadsides to the hull to strike colors.  So two Swedish SOLs were out of action.  

But the Swedish relentless barrages on my rigging had taken their toll.  Three of my four ships were completely dismasted by the end of the day, though hulls and guns were nearly intact.  One Russian SOL was still underway, barely, giving as good as she was getting, when out of the fog came reinforcements - Dan Long commanding another squadron of Russian SOLs who lit into the Swedes and forced a third to strike her colors.  My brave Russian crews held fast to the remains of their vessels as the Swedes had to settle for the damage they'd done.  

The GM, Tim Hitchings, awarded a narrow victory to the Russian fleet, although I have to say it was a Pyrrhic victory indeed.

Next post:  Advancing to the semifinals


  1. Exciting battle!
    WSIM, always a great game.

  2. Very exciting, all the more so because of some tactical blunders on my part...