06 October 2011

The Grand Alliance

Since I started tabletop wargaming with some passion two years ago I've had my eye on Games Workshop, specifically the Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and I even went so far as to sign up for a forum for players with a preference for Wood Elves, even tinkered with some Mantic elven spearmen figures in some Autumnal colors, but I never purchased any new GW products.

Until now.  When I saw the news of the Dreadfleet release I started looking for information on Man'O'War in a way I started looking for information on Battlefleet Gothic when I bought and started playing Battleship Galaxies two weeks ago (and BG was the first Hasbro game I've bought in decades).  Sure, I read the hype along with the skepticism, but critics of everything produced by GW remind me of the days when I was involved in the live rock music scene when I lived out on the West Coast with cool dudes talking about bands selling out because they got a record deal.  Dreadfleet caught my interest because it's a fantasy naval game, and I can't seem to get enough of those lately.

I bought a copy of Traflagar a few months ago, a bit late, but I was interested in how the system compared to Uncharted Seas as well as some other historical naval games I've played, like Wooden Ships & Iron Men or Flying Colours.  I suppose my used copy of Trafalgar was technically my first GW purchase, but with Dreadfleet my money when directly to GW through my FLGS.  And I felt justified by my purchase, especially after I opened the box.  Sure, there were an awful lot of skulls on those islands, but nothing a little flocking couldn't help, and the models certainly looked better in person than they did on the Beasts of War video I watched the previous week.  The scale was about right, and I saw no reason why I couldn't incorporate most of these ships, wrecks, and islands into my regular games of Uncharted Seas.

But the system, simple enough, really grabbed my attention with the FATE and DAMAGE cards.  Sure, Uncharted Seas is designed for fleet actions, fun and fast, but Dreadfleet looks like a game for a few big ships firing broadsides into each other at close range.  So, why not take the system for a spin?

The sea mat is a bit on the dark side, but it doesn't look bad with my relatively dark painted ships on the surface.  I placed my Shroud Mages battleship to stand in for the Dwarven Grimm's Thunder.

And my Thaniras Elven battleship standing in for the High Elven Seadrake.

Each ship only has 6 stats, not so many as I seem to think Warhammer involves, and they all seem familiar with other naval game systems.  Speed is the number of inches moved in an activation; Hull is a number of "hit points" while Crew represents an abstracted number of sailors and, possibly, marines; Broadside is the number of dice thrown for a broadside attack; Handling is the minimal number of inches moved forward before a 45 degree turn; and Armour is the saving throw against hits from an attack.

There is also a captain with a Command rating for giving special orders with each activation, Swashbuckling for jumping into boarding actions, and a special ability.  This is what has been missing from my US games, putting some stats with the names my usual opponent and I invent for our ship captains, although tracking stats for more than a dozen ships per fleet would bog down the game.  Again, Uncharted Seas is primarily a fleet action game with a dozen or more ships per side.  This game comes with 5 ships per side with no prospect of more to arrive on the horizon.

The opposing ships approach each other, a strong breeze from the north, astern the Seadrake--which we award initiative without rolling, because it has the wind gauge.  There is nothing to check in the Status Phase, so I move onto Phase III and I pull our first FATE card.  We should have each pulled a FATE card, but clearly we were too eager to get to the action; the wind was picking up and the ships were closing (nudge their starting positions just a few inches closer yet...).

You can see the texture of the sea mat behind the card, a thin cloth which I had no problem with snagging the hulls of the US models.  The condition is interesting, and there is an icon to change the direction and force of the wind, affecting ships belonging to both players.  Some other FATE cards affect just one particular ship or can be added by the drawing player to a ship, like special ammunition.

Then the meat of the action, Phase IV, and Captain Yrellian orders "Hard-a-Starboard!"

The crew doesn't seem to hear his order above the din of the howling wind as indicated by my roll of 2 which does not meet or exceed the Command rating of 3+; but no matter, we still have plenty of movement, and with a handling of 2 we can make a 45 degree turn after only 2" of forward movement.

The Elven ship has a movement of 16, plenty even if the wind is no longer blowing from the stern arc.  Moving ahead 8" and then turning to starboard, then another 2" and then turning again to starboard, making the 90 degree turn I had intended to place the port broadside right down the bow of the Dwarven monster.

The range bands are in 6" rather than 8" increments, so my eye is a little off, and I'm just barely within the first range band.  But I checked the rule book and range is determined by the two nearest points of the bases, and I'm clearly not using based ships here, so we call it good.

I pull out my fancy new dice bag, something my wife bought for me last month.  And after checking the broadside rating I grab 2 dice.  At range of 6" my ship will score hits on 4+ and because this is the first shot fired by the ship I apply +1 DRM, and then for a raking shot another +1 DRM is in order, meaning any roll but a 1 will score a hit.

But the Dwarven ship has an armour save of 3+ so one of those hits doesn't do any real damage and he is forced to draw only a single damage card... which happens to be double crew!  The crew rating of 3 for the Grimm's Thunder is effectively knocked down to a single point.  Still, at close range and good modifiers, even with the dice in my favor, I realize it's not enough to put the Dwarven ship out of commission, and now my opponent can turn the table on me.

He jumps straight into activation without bothering to issue a special order, and the Dwarven ship moves ahead.  A speed of 9" is enough, and I'm not surprised when first a turn to starboard and then a turn to port brings the Grimm's Thunder to a position of crossing the T.

Only three dice are rolled, the third a special red die represent the flame canon special ability of the Dwarven guns.  Still, considering the first broadside fired from this ship, the close range, and especially the stern raking position, any roll but a 1 will score a hit.  My stomach drops as I realize my Elven ship is doomed.  But then I remember those sixes don't explode into additional rolls!

With an armour rating of 6 on the Seadrake nobody is surprised when all of those hits cause damage, and I draw three cards in addition to the Set Ablaze condition caused by the special hit from the red die.  It turns out not to be enough to destroy the ship, but who would have believed our mascot, Mr. Monkey, would have been struck down by roundshot as rigging split apart and sails flew in the howling wind.

With these damages it's clear my ship has thrown away the advantage of keeping distance as the Dwarven guns and armour prove slightly superior at close range, and that fire on board is likely to cause more damage during the Status Phase of the next turn.  Looks like my best chance is to turn and board where my superior numbers of crew and modifier for the Elves outraged that the Dwarves would kill our pet monkey give us a fighting chance at defeating the Dwarven Privateer.