Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Black Ships

I have been reading about the Athenian navy. John Hales’ book ‘Lords of the Sea’ is an interesting, populist account of the rise and fall of Athens seen from the point of view of the navy. For example, he argues that it was the navy, or at least, the employment of thousands of lower class Athenian citizens that was the causal factor in the growth of Athenian democracy. If this is the case (and I am no expert classicist) then the Athenian navy could be claimed as an idea from the world of warfare which projected back into other worlds. A trireme, he suggests, was a true leveller. The one hundred and seventy rowers had to be in tome no matter which class they came from.

That is in the nature of something of a digression. What I really wanted to talk about is the colour of the Athenian navy. As is inevitable for a wargamer reading a book about, well, almost anything, I have started to imagine what having a Greek navy would look like. There are a number of aspects to this, but the first issue is what colour the ships would be.

The fact is that the ships should be black. Now, my mind’s eye does not really do black ships. Ships from the age of sail and before were made of wood and should look wood coloured. We can of course argue as to what colour wood is, exactly. It can vary from light to dark, and, of course, weathered wood is a different colour again. Nevertheless, in my painting of a variety of wooden vessels, somehow brown, of various shades and hues, has come to the fore.

And yet Greek poetry, from Homer onwards, indicates that Greek ships were black. They may have been Athens’ wooden walls, but the ships timbers themselves were black. The blackness comes from the fact that the timbers were coated with pitch, to preserve them. If the shipwrights could get hold of it, they are alternatively painted with tar. Now again we can argue over the precise meaning of black. It could be anything from a rather faded grey to the blackest of, um, pitch black. But I can certainly put away my ‘Natural Wood’ paint tin for another day.

Here, of course, I have a problem. Black ships just do not look right. I can manage modern ships which are grey, with occasional rust spots and dazzle paint. But wooden ships are wooden, and should look it. I appear to be suffering from some sort of cognitive dissonance, here. I know the material is wood, and I know that the material can be painted, but I also seem to think that wooden ships should look wooden, and that is brown not black, even if I know that they have been painted with pitch.

That is the first problem with my Greek navy, quite aside from the fact that I do not have any Greek naval vessels. The next problem is the sheer size of the fleets. I do not think that this is a problem unique to ancient navies, by the way. As I recall, the British and Dutch fleets in the seventeenth century were a fair size as well. The problem is how to wargame such an armada (the Armada was pretty big too).

I think the issue is this. In a land wargame we can pretty well choose our basic unit at the level we want to wargame. The basic unit can thus be an individual, a squad, platoon, company, battalion, regiment, brigade, division, wing or army, and I suspect you can find wargame rules to cover all of these levels. Thus, depending on the tactical level we wish to play at, we can select our unit size and get on with it, tackling the emergent characteristics at the appropriate level.

For naval wargaming, the obvious unit is the ship, the individual fourth rate, trireme or whatever. The thing is that although the navy can be divided into higher level  units, such as squadrons and divisions, the basic unit of operation remains the individual ship.

For example, often in accounts of ancient naval action we have lines of ships which face each other. So long as the lines hold, the action is muted. There is manoeuver, to attempt to flank the enemy, or brute force to try to get through them. If one of the lines charges, however, this unit level breaks down. Ships have different sailing / rowing capabilities. Some outdistance others. The faster ones become vulnerable to being rammed by alert captains on the other side. The action is no longer at a level of a number of units of ships, but at individual ship-to-ship activity.

The problem is that as a wargamer, I want to have my cake and eat it. With an Athenian fleet of say, one hundred and fifty triremes, I need, to make the game sensible, to group them in units, squadrons, if you well. But to do the determining ship to ship stuff, I need a much finer grain of detail. I cannot even really say, as we do in land wargames, that the unit is doing stuff but remains a coherent object on the battlefield until it runs away. Naval units do not remain that coherent anyway. The basic unit reverts, more or less quickly, to the individual ship.

The alternative is to have a sort of ‘stands for’ view. One ship stands for twenty. My two hundred strong Athenian fleet is represented by seven or eight galleys which act as a trireme would be expected to act. This might work, but on the other hand it does seem to miss the point slightly. These were big actions. Representing the Greek fleet at Salamis with a dozen models would be like representing the Royalist army at Naseby with fifty toy soldiers.

So I admit to being doubly baffled, here. I am in difficulty over the colour of the (as yet hypothetical) ship models, and dubious about the rules, or even the scale of the rules, by which the actions could be fought out. The only positive I can see is that the water is usually described as ‘the wine dark sea’. Now wine I can deal with.


  1. I'm used to black ships, it was a common colour for sailing ships from the 18th to 20thC at least, from fishing schooners to warships so replicas abound. There's often colorful trim and decks and masts are often a light yellow-y wood.

    The question of games is a puzzler, the same thing has bugged me when looking at tank warfare. However, really, the way a line of ships break is the same way a phalanx breaks. One man in the wrong spot finslly goes down and an enemy steps into the gap. We've gotten used to an abstraction if this and speak of units as if they weren't just groups of men but I can't help but think back to some old school rules where a score of men might represent a thousand but in melee they fought their opposite number, much the same as the approach you mention.

    The trick of the illusion, I think, is to get the right balance. 50 toy soldiers might not do for Naseby but 500 might even though it still not 1:1.
    So perhaps 30 or 50 triremes? Small ones hopefully with very simple psint jobs. That's a lot of eyes to paint onto rams.

    1. The game, or rules, or whatever, is a bit of a facer. I think you are right - the idea of balance is important, so I think I'll have to experiment. The unit is an abstraction, albeit something which we can work with as units did exist. A ship is more neatly defined and i suppose less likely to go individually flaky.

      I can see what you mean for tank warfare, as well. again, we are used to considering the tank as the unit, yet something like Kursk is not going to managable on that scale.

      Definitely puzzled now....

  2. It's a poser, and no error. Fact is, you could easily wargame Naseby with 50 toys a side, a figure scale of, for example 1 figure stands for 100 men, and so long as your rules allow one model chap to act as 100 actual chaps did, all will be well. Three or four figures would represent a regiment, but could easily be made to act like one.
    Doesn't quite work so well for naval, does it? You have one model ship representing a squadron of, say 20, but if your rules make your ship act like a squadron of 20, it's likely to be a very dull game. All the clever, ship to ship manoeuvring stuff is lost and your opposing squadrons simply row/sail/steam into each other and decide the winner by dice rolls.
    The idea of having one model representing 20 ships, but still acting like one ship seems very wrong. But try as I might, I can't think of any naval rules I've ever seen that don't wargame individual ships.

    No idea what colour they should be, by the way, but if you use art (Homer, vases, etc) as a colour source, it struck me that some of the horses on the Bayeux Tapestry are blatantly green and yet I've never seen anyone field a Norman army with cavalry mounted on appropriately coloured horses.

    1. I think that that is the problem - ships act individually and can still function as a fighting unit even if their squadron has vanished, whereas a soldier cannot so function against a whole unit.

      I seem to recall that the Pike & Shot Society had some rules for the Anglo-Dutch wars which used the squadron as the basic unit, but I can't find my copy, if I ever had one. aside from that, individual ships are the rule of the day. I suppose that for Napoleonic games that is not too bad, but for Athens it doesn't seem to work.

      Maybe that is why naval wargaming is less popular.

  3. General Quarters (The oldest WW1 version) used an abstraction with one destroyer representing several.
    I believe there was a sliding scale which would halve or quarter the number of the smallest type of ship.
    If destroyers were quartered, the light cruiser numbers could also be halved.
    This was to permit the game to move along at a decent lick and concentrate on the capital ships.

    I never tried it, but the theory sounded fine.
    The Destroyers frequently worked ion flotillas of 12 or 16 (scaling down to 3 or 4 models).

    A similar thing might work for your triremes.
    A real life force of 120 ships in 4 squadrons might scale down to perhaps a 5th of the numbers - each squadron would still comprise a number of ships, capable of formation and tactical evolution.