Saturday, 9 January 2016

Those Black Ships Again

As I commented recently, Santa bought me about 150 ancient galleys. These are 1/3600 ships from Outpost Wargames Services. As they sell in packs of 25, perhaps 150 now does not sound so many. I got two packs of triremes without sails, and one pack with, for a total so far of 75 boats. Then I added a pack of merchant ships, a pack of penteconters and lembi (50 oared ships and boats) and a pack of quinquiremes, for a total of 150 or so vessels. I confess, I’ve not counted them.

Firstly, while small, the models are not tiny. You can easily see the individual ships, the triremes are about 9 mm long. The most taxing question at the ordering stage was whether to have the ships with sails or without. I got the merchants and penteconters with sails, and most of the fighting ships without, except a third of the triremes. At a first look and ponder, this seems to have been a reasonable decision.

Next up, of course, is painting them. I have written before of the aesthetic problems I find inherent in model ships. For these, I know that the hulls were coated with pitch, and therefore the outer hulls should be black. I have not started to paint them yet, but I am going to grit my teeth and go with that if I can, even though everything within says they should be brown. I shall report on progress in due course.

Thirdly, there is the issue of rules. One of the selling points of the ships this size is that you can have hundreds on the table at a time. Some ancient sea battles did include hundreds of vessels, and so this does not seem to be an unreasonable way forward (as, indeed, it seems fair enough with 6 mm and 2 mm wargame figures). You just need a different viewpoint, one which does not see, in the case of land battles, the individual soldier or the sub unit as the scaling factor of the rules, but the unit and higher formations.

As with land wargames, so with sea ones. I think I want to start off by ensuring that the vessels are in a recognised formation. I suspect that this might be true all along the line, even down to World War One, where the formations were imposed. World War Two might be a bit different, where air power required the formations to be dispersed. Nevertheless, in the ancient world, a tight formation of galleys was used to prevent the enemy closing and ramming any individual in the formation. If the formation was broken, by enemy action or by currents or shoreline, the galleys were much more vulnerable, and the battle became a bit of a ship-to-ship scrap. The implication is that the squadron with the most intact formation is likely to do best.

I can find no set of ancients wargame rules that do precisely this sort of thing. Most rules, so far as I can see, focus on the ship-to-ship action. The idea of higher level formations is ignored. I am sure that such rules are excellent, insofar as they go, and reproduce such actions very nicely. But it is not really that aspect of the action which is the determinant of a mass battle. The formations and their breaking seem to me, at least, to be the determining factor.

Thus, the first rule of my ancients wargames rules (tentatively entitled ‘Are You Sure They Should Be Black?’) is that all galleys in the fighting line start in a formation. The formation could be as big as the whole fleet, wings thereof, and individual squadrons of three vessels upwards. But they have to start in at least one formation.

The formations can be broken down. So a wing is formed of several squadrons, or even of different lines. A squadron could be a few ships in line by beam or in line ahead, as second line galleys were used for protecting the front line galleys as well. In a formation, the vessels in the squadron get some bonuses for not being able to be easily rammed from the beam, which is the most likely cause of damage, incapacitation and sinking of a galley. Once the formation is broken, the ships are more vulnerable, particularly to formed opponents who can overwhelm isolated galleys.

Aesthetically, I think I am going to mount the galleys on individual 10 mm by 20 mm bases, and so the formations will have to be indicated by sabot bases. At the moment I am thinking of pieces of thin blue card, as the actual size of a formation is indeterminate until you actually put the models on the table. So far as I am aware, ancient squadrons were formations of convenience, and often were formed around the city from which the galleys came or a particular commander. I do not think that a squadron had a fixed size.

Of course, the next stage is to come up with some combat rules. I am thinking of giving each ship a ‘seamanship’ factor, and using an average of that across the squadron (or perhaps, and more simply, the best) for the capacity of the squadron to break an enemy formation, in the same way as the Polemos ‘charge’ rules work. Once an enemy formation is broken, then the ship to ship combat can be employed, with the ships from the unbroken formation getting a bonus. Of course, the unbroken formation will be broken by the combat, so it is an ephemeral advantage.

I need to paint some of these models, and I also think I need some sunk galley markers. Outpost doesn’t make them, unfortunately, but I am thinking. Triremes did not sink to the bottom when holed, but sunk until they were approximately flush with the sea. They could be recovered and repaired, so long as the sea was fairly calm. But that will probably overtax my modelling skills.


  1. You might be interested in an ancient naval version of the Hail Caesar rules published in Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy magazine some time ago - it's called Hail Agrippa and can be downloaded for free from the WSS homepage:
    Looking forward to reading more of this project - this is something I've been contemplating myself...

    1. Thank you for the heads up, I'll take a look.

      As for the project, there will be more in due course, and it has taken me ages to get around to it. If Santa hadn't intervened it would still be on the drawing board.

  2. Looks to me like you're on the right track. For painting, some tan decks and brightly painted rams should perk them up.

    I was going to be all useful and mention a set of '70 ancient naval rules set at roughly the same level but I can't remember the name of the rules or even the company now, possibly FGU so this is just bytes with no barque.

    1. I'm finding that you do need to go with 'bright' for painting the decks and other bits. I thought my yellow would be sufficient, but really it should be a couple of shades more electric so you can really see the ships.

      Still, I am learning things about the ships, so nothing is wasted.

      Oh yes: *groan*.

    2. 'bytes with no barque'. I doff my cap to you Ross. ;-)

      I shall have to shoehorn that into a conversation with my son somehow. Mind you I'd probably have to explain to him what a barque is.