Goonhammer Historicals: Lenoon’s Year of the Ship

It’s been two years since I got into Napoleonics. Two years of the Guard, of marching across Europe, of muskets, habite-vestes, bayonets and pom-poms. My Guard army is now my single largest collection of miniatures and – beyond a couple of extra units now and then – is largely done. I’m not done with Napoleonics, of course, but I’d settled into a comfortable rut of not-quite-expert status, able to confidently bluff and bluster my way towards a kind-of-answer for most questions that came my way.Then a package arrived. A package with a T-shirt and a box and a faint whiff of salt water. Something I’d read, long ago, that suddenly became as important as Elan had been when I started the Road to Austerlitz. I’d mastered one battlefield, but now, apparently…. Oceans were battlefields too?

A Mysterious Package

Neither Master

I knew Oceans were Battlefields because, well, it’s much more part of my cultural-gestalt historical background. I think British people kind of know something about Trafalgar – there’s a pub and a street named after it in every town and city – and I’ve been kettled long enough on Trafalgar Square to have explored every inch of Nelson’s column you can see from ground level several times. On top of that, I’d read some Hornblower as a kid and man is Master and Commander a great movie. There was a base level of knowledge there, Britain as the major naval power, France and Spain teaming up to receive a historic thrashing from Admiral “Consensual-Bisexual-Thrupple” Nelson, the Americans were involved somehow at some point, Austria no doubt embarrassing itself thoroughly as it did throughout the period, etc etc. But I don’t really know all that much.

The best brig I’ve done so far – the glorious “Débraillé”

Naval wargaming seems to be pretty easy to get into, but Naval terminology is insanely, and I suspect deliberately, opaque. I get the need for port and starboard to replace relative directions left and right, but what the hell is a topgallant royal, a jigger-mast, a bowsprit, a bobstay, an able seaman or a master’s mate? Why is it fowksll and not forecastle? Why was Nelson so good and Villeneuve so bad? What the hell was Maturin doing on a warship, and what happened to the acting career of that kid who was also in Rome, he was great?

Lots, and lots of questions – and an embarrassing lack of answers. I have gone too far in emulating Napoleon, clearly, because it’s been all about the continent and nothing really about the water surrounding it. It’s definitely time to give some ships a go – as Greg says, perhaps it was inevitable.

Nor Commander

The thing is, I’ve played a grand total of two ship games in my time. Demo games of Dreadfleet, back in the day, and a single game of Armada against Goonhammer’s own master, Bair. I’ve never managed to get the hang of games where movement is determined by what you did last turn, because I don’t tend to plan ahead all that much. A couple of years of Napoleonics has helped with that – I now largely remember to reload after firing a unit in Sharp Practice and I’ll often, but not always, remember that cavalry need to recover after a charge in Black Powder – but still, I’m a play by the seat of my breeches guy, usually playing with half an eye on the table and the other one and a half on the bar. If I want to end up next year looking back at this all and thinking I can call myself a Master and Commander, I’m going to have to correct that.

The Frigate “Rigoureuse”

There’s a lot of ship games out there, but, for once, I want to get *good* at a game, and that means limiting what I’m out there to play. The salt-wreathed package that started all this contained the rules for Black Seas from Warlord Games and Armada from Mantic – deliberately very compatible games with rules shared between both – so that’s where I’m going to start. I’d like to play Black Seas and Armada – both strictly historicals and playing a French fleet against steampunk Dwarves (Britain) – until I get good at both. I’d like to play them with friends, but I’d like to play them with strangers too.

I’ve got a deadline to work towards too – November, when a big residential meet up will let me unleash a broadside of historicals excellence onto an otherwise sadly lubberly 40k crew. So by then I want system mastery, I want ships and terrain and scenarios. I would like, but probably won’t bother with, a sweet bicorne hat. The base level I think I’ll need to run a really good demo game (demo campaign? attendees be warned…) is:

    • Two fairly chunky fleets with squadrons, ship variety, big and small
    • A high degree of rules mastery to answer any and all questions quickly
    • At least one exciting scenario for nailbiting action
    • Some evocative and interesting terrain to fight around
    • A cool hat

Far Side of the Table

As always, I ended up building models without doing any research or looking up any info beyond how to build them, so I can present one Frigate (what the hell is a Frigate?) and two Brigs (what the hell is a Brig?) scatttered throughout this article. The rigging is all wrong, the ratlines aren’t where they should be, the painting is off the top of my head and the sails are buggered, but they’re a start. Once I get better at this, maybe these first ones will be revisted – or, more likely, they’ll just be examples of poor seamanship.

The French Brig “Inévitable”

The irritating condition of “knowing bugger all about this” couldn’t last very long though, so I also ended up picking up a bit of reading material. This started off reasonably, with CS Forester’s Naval War 0f 1812, and Mr Midshipman Hornblower. With those read, it started to get very very unreasonable, very quickly:

A reasonable start to the reading

Most of what I’ve picked up is non-fiction, because I’m reliably informed between Hornblower and Aubrey-Maturin you might not actually need non-fiction to learn about ships and how they operated in the Napoleonic period. I’ve no doubt that’s not true, but after re-reading Mr Midshipman Hornblower and Master and Commander, I’m hooked on both and in for the long (keel?)haul. Once I break for air in the Aubrey-Maturin series long enough to write something beyond “why haven’t you read these, damn your eyes” I’ll talk about them, but for now – go read them, you won’t be disappointed.

Deeply unreasonable

This series won’t be the same kind of thing as the Road to Austerlitz. It’ll have some updates like this one, but it’ll also have build and rigging guides, reading lists, painting tips, game reviews, how to play articles and – just maybe – where to get cool hats. It might even have more than me writing it, depending on how well I can press-gang the other historicals authors into the scheme. Hopefully It’ll all build to a one-stop shop for Napoleonic naval content on Goonhammer, and one hell of a battle come November.

However it ends up, welcome aboard. We’ll be going to some strange places together, and I hope you like weevils in your biscuits, grog, and supergluing thread to your fingers. Anchors away, cast off, beat to quarters, >insert other naval slang here if you know it, I don’t< – the Year of the Ship has begun.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Grog recipies you’re dying to share? or leave a comment below