Naumachiae - Ancient Naval Rules

Miniature Wargames Issue No 184, September 1998
By Mark Romans.

If Cecil B. De Mille (that master of bringing the ancient world to life) had wanted Charlton Heston to perform a task of more epic proportions than parting the Red Sea, it would have been to locate a decent set of ancient naval rules. Previous offerings have included peculiar game mechanics such as simultaneous movement (a bizarre idea for a game depending on contact between ships to resolve combat!) and a hexagonal grid (why not just stick with a board game?), as a result of which, my collection of galleys have been firmly wedged at the bottom of the wargames cupboard, rather too close to an old pair of trainers to warrant retrieving without a very good reason.

Thankfully, Rod Langton and Martin Johncock have finally come up with a system which is playable, realistic and most importantly, fun.

While the rulebook weighs in at a hefty 124 pages, the actual core rules form only a small proportion of the whole. Naumachiae, unlike some wargames, is certainly not a historical thesis masquerading as a game. The first few sections deal with the varieties of ship and the equipment they can use, points values for calculating opposing fleets, setting up terrain and weather etc so they can be safely dispensed with once play begins. Indeed, much thought has been given to the layout of the rules with separate chapters concerning different activities such as oar rakes, boarding and missile fire. These are clearly divided, and an introduction at the start of each section, and summaries at various points, make the contents both easily accessible and quick to learn. Where a subject falls into more than one sectiion, it is cross referenced, so finding one's way around is simple. The rules themselves are clearly explained and there are plenty of examples, illustrations and highlighted text to clear up any lingering doubts. Those who have experienced Rod's Napoleonic naval rules (Signal for Close Action) will find themselves immediately at home here as many of the concepts and terms are similar, but newcomers too will be in for a pleasant surprise.

At the heart of the system lies the Ability Chart which defines how well, or poorly, the ships function. It determines everything from the sending of signals and performance of various tasks by the crew, to movement and firing. Players state what they intend their ships to do then roll to determine whether those actions have been carried out. Thus, a player can announce that his ship will turn, accelerate and fire at the enemy, only to find that the ship does indeed turn, but fails to increase speed and the artillery and marines misjudge their aim. Initially, galleys are given a class which represents the competence of the captain and crew and the condition of the vessel. As damage is inflicted, the vessel's class deteriorates and players find themselves having to make higher ability rolls to keep the ship functioning as they wish. Abstracting the effects of combat in this way is not everyone's cup of tea, but it does minimise book keeping while producing realistic effects.

Another novel innovation is the basing system. Galleys are mounted on an elongated octagon which makes life simple when determining where ships strike each other. These should be fairly easy for players to make themselves, but Rod produces a set of textured metal bases which will be a boon for players (like me) who wish to get started with a minimum of effort. Damage resolution is easy, with each side of the base having a value corresponding to the strength of that part of the ship's hull. This is combined with factors such as the course of approach and speed of the ramming ship, and the total is expressed in a reduction in classes. Once the class of a vessel has been reduced below a certain level, it becomes a partly submerged hulk. More dramatic effects occur when a large amount of damage is inflicted in one go, and it is perfectly possible for small or damaged ships to be completely shattered in one strike from a more powerful opponent.

Firing is conducted by artillery and missiles thrown by marines on board the ships or occupying friendly shores. Again, as with Signal for Close Action, a good ability throw can mean extra effects from shooting and a poor roll may end in some mishap to the firer, such as the artillery crew dropping onto their own deck the inflammable projectile they were trying to load. Critical hits and fumbles in Rod's naval games always give room for some added spice or some serious groaning about the dice!

Movement can be made under oars or sails alone, or with a combination of the two, the last giving an extra turn of speed without overly tiring the crew. Movement allowance under oars is given in four bands: slow, cruise, fast and ram speed. Ships can only move up or down one band per turn, this again being dependent on their ability throw, and the faster speeds will lead to the rapid exhaustion of the crew (remember how the Roman commander made even the hunky Chuck suffer in Ben Hur?!). It thus becomes essential for an aspiring tabletop admiral to judge the critical moment to signal the attack and for the ships to gauge their approach to contact carefully.
Other rules cover aspects such as grounding, specialised weapons like the corvus and the harpago, the effects of fires and boarding. The last of these is fast and bloody: Roman galleys equipped with large numbers of marines and a corvus present a tough nut to crack and their opponents would be advised to follow the example of their historical counterparts and attempt to defeat them by manoeuvre.

Naumachiae really provides little to quibble with, perhaps unsurprising given its pedigree and there are only a couple of areas which give some room for initial scepticism. Missile fire from friendly shores, for example, has a range of only 10mm and I have some doubts how often ships will come into such close proximity on a wargames table. A curious omission is the wind change chart from the playsheets. The results are included but the absence of the dice score to produce them means that players will have to refer back to the rulebook regularly. These glitches, however, are extremely minor and would be finding fault for its own sake.

Rod and Martin have gone to a lot of trouble in preparing Naumachiae. In addition to the rulebook, players are given the usual aids such as turning circles and wind direction indicators, but also a booklet on historical tactics, a summary of the development of the ancient warship, fleet lists and two introductory scenarios with the ship data cards already completed.

All in all, this is an excellent set of rules: comprehensive in its coverage, well thought out, well written, and thoroughly deserving to inject some new life into a long neglected aspect of naval wargaming. Buy them and try them - even if the cat has to go hungry!

Review by David Manley for:

Wargames Illustrated and Journal of the Naval Wargames Society, Vol 23, Issue 4.

Those of you who tour the shows may have seen Rod Langton's ancient rules being played over several years. Well, the wait is at last over: the last playtests are complete and the rules are now available. Unlike Rod's Napoleonic rules, these are written by Martin Johncock with additional input from Rod and Carol Langton.

The first thing that strikes you about them is the format. Instead of the usual A4 or A5 portrait forms, Rod has gone for an A4 landscape style - quite distinctive. Presentation is excellent with large, clear text and some lovely illustrations. At £14.60 they are not cheap, but for the price you get, as well as the 124 page rulebook, a 24 page supplement covering fleet lists, warship development and tactics, a card with wind direction and attitude indicators, compass and turning aid, three A4 quick play sheets, and five sheets covering two introductory scenarios. These also include completed Ship Data Cards and are an invaluable starting point for the new player (or reviewer!). So, they look good and distinctive, but how do they play?

The answer is, very well. Each turn is subdivided into two parts (one for each player). The first, or Initiating player, checks for wind change, then resolves signalling, announces orders for their ships, makes an Ability Throw, then adjudges the outcome of moves and combat. Having completed this, the opposing player goes through the same sequence, but without the check for weather. The astute reader will have noticed the words 'Ability Throw' above - yes, these rules use Rod's famous Ability Chart, as pioneered in his Napoleonic naval rules. Poor rolls here will mean that ships fail to manoeuvre as planned, missile fire misses (or even damages one of the firing ships), fires rage uncontrolled and signals are misinterpreted. Good rolls mean everything goes to plan or, for particularly good rolls, mean excellent results, maybe a critical hit. The key to the chart is that only one roll is made, its effects covering the whole of the players turn. This reduces the tedium of endless die rolling and leads to a fast completion of a turn, even when large fleets are in use.

The key to ancient naval warfare is the ram and Martin has developed a simple yet effective system. Models are mounted on rectangular bases with the corners cut off at a prescribed angle. These extended octagonal bases are used to determine the location and aspect of the ram, and hence the type of damage inflicted, whether straightforward rams or oar rakes. Perhaps the only criticism is that, once players close to ramming distance there is a tendency to 'hold back' looking for the opponent to make a mistake and allow a decisive attack, but since one could imagine the players historical counterparts doing just the same thing perhaps this is a good thing. It is noticeable that this reluctance to close lasts only a few moves until the wargamer's natural tendency to charge sets in, and mayhem ensues regardless! Moving on, the rules also cover boarding actions, missile fire such as spears, bows and bolt throwers, and more esoteric special weapons such as the Corvus, Harpago, swarms of bees, quicklime and Rhodian fire pots. The whole ensemble is finished off with a glossary of common nautical terms encountered in the rules.

I was most impressed with these rules, which just ooze quality. I think they capture the feel of ancient naval warfare quite well and they are bound to be a success. The rules are written in a clear, concise style, helped by the large typeface and the two column layout, the use of copious examples and many explanatory diagrams. Finally, the rules are set off very nicely by some excellent line illustrations by Giles Read.

Yes, they are expensive, but as they say, you get what you pay for, and they are most definitely worth the price.

Top of page

Previous page