Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Grand Admiral: Castles of Steel - WW1 Naval Game

We played Grand Admiral: Castles of Steel last night. I have been looking for a fast-playing naval wargames rules set for WW1 for some years now and found this to be interesting, so I bought and downloaded it. Previously I have played a lot of General Quarters 2. GQ2 is a fine game but it does not play quickly enough for the size of game I want to play, i.e. Jutland.

Anyway, it all began many years ago, when I bought a Conflict Miniatures (formerly Knight Designs) 1:5000 fleet set with all of the ships required for Jutland. These tiny beauties ranged in size from approximately 10mm in length for a destroyer to 20mm for a battleship and I have always thought that they must be 1:10000 and not 1:5000 scale. For their size they are brilliant. Individual classes of ship are recognisable with the larger models and I was quite taken with them, but I always found naval wargaming to be a bit sterile. Still, I painted them all and they languished in the cupboard for years awaiting a willing opponent. Then last night I finally persuaded Steve to play. Yay!
The British squadrons are at the bottom of this picture. Light cruisers are on the left, battleships in the centre and battlecruisers on the right. The German battleships are steaming at full speed down the centre, while the two battlecruiser squadrons are manoeuvring up top left.
I quickly put together two small battle-groups of three squadrons each and offered Steve the choice of sides. He picked the Germans, so I wound up with the British. We set up our ships and set to. It was a simple engagement that saw both of us steaming towards each other, although my own efforts to cross the T were slightly subtler than Steve's plan of steaming right into the middle of my ships with his battleships while his battle-cruisers lagged behind. The net result was that I was able to concentrate fire on his battleships and sink them all before engaging his battlecruisers and sinking enough of them to win the game. Steve severely damaged several of my ships and sunk a few, but the advantage was definitely mine.

The game itself played rather well, although it took longer than I expected. The key mechanic of the game is the card draw for movement and firing. A deck is constructed consisting of Ace through Six and two face cards in different suits for each side (we used hearts for the British and spades for the Germans). Each player holds a hand of three cards at the start and plays one card from that hand when it is their turn. They then draw another card. Play continues until all the cards have been played and the deck is then reshuffled ready for the next round to begin. When a player plays a number card (Ace to Six) all ships of the side associated with that suit whose speed is equal to or greater than the number may move. When a face card is played, all ships of that side may shoot. Players are not allowed to discard or pass, so they must, at some point, play cards that let their opponent act. The key is to work out when this is most advantageous for you. I like this mechanism, because it adds a bit of planning ahead to the game and introduces some uncertainty. Both of these are things I like in my games.

For shooting, the game uses the bucket of dice approach which we enjoy, but it also provides an optional single die resolution system. With the bucket of dice you roll for hits first based on being at short or long range, and then you roll for damage for each successful hit by rolling equal to or greater than the target's armour value minus your gun's penetration value. Damage causes ships to first become crippled and then to sink. Thus, ships have two floating states which amount to full strength and half strength. There are no critical hits or other fripperies, because this is intended to be a fleet level game played in a reasonable length of time.

Grand Admiral is designed to be played on a hex grid but we just counted one hex as two inches and worked everything out from there. The only way this affected the game was that our squadrons would have been deployed in one hex each and could have turned as a squadron on one movement card. The way we played, they needed several movement cards for the whole squadron to change direction while remaining in line. This slowed movement down, but felt about right.

Overall, we enjoyed the game and will play again at some point. I shall certainly try to get Steve to play General Quarters too, but that will have to be for smaller games because of the extra detail in those rules. Now that I have used my ships, I think I may rebase them to be more user friendly too. At the very least, they need names that are visible without having to pick the ship up or have an encyclopaedic knowledge of ship profiles from the period. It might also prove useful to base them on small hexes to aid with working out arcs of fire. I look forward to the rebasing and hopefully playing with these figures that I have bought over twenty years ago now.

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