Thursday, March 6, 2008

Fire When Ready review

Fire When Ready was a Metagaming "Microhistory" game published in 1982 covering naval combat in the pre-dreadnought era.
First, a little bit about the components. Fire When Ready was published before the availability of inexpensive but good quality desktop publishing tools, so it can't be held to the same standards of more recent designs. Still, even by the standards of its time the game components are below average and not even equal to most other Metagaming games.
The map is the usual Metagaming standard of a heavy-stock paper. As it depicts a patch of open sea there's naturally no terrain, but rather ac countably the map is pink instead of blue.
The ship counters come in a light, perforated counter sheet. The larger fleet is red counters with blue printing, which is a difficult to read clashing color scheme. The smaller fleet is blue counters with white print. The counters themselves are simple, with an overhead view of the ship type, a large letter identifying the ship type (B:battleship; C: cruiser; D: destroyer; T: torpedo boat) and an ID number.
The final component is a 30-page rule book. It's not type-set, but appears to have been printed using some kind of computer printer, so it's not particularly attractive to look at, but it is legible.
It all comes in a small cardboard box.
Overall, even considering that the game is meant to be an inexpensive one, the presentation is substandard.
Fortunately there's a fairly good game underneath that poor presentation that succeeds in providing a surprisingly authentic depiction of pre-dreadought naval tactics.
Players have to create their own data sheets to track the ships in their fleets, but most of the battles are very small, so this isn't a problem.
Ships have five major characteristics: Primary battery, secondary battery, armor rating, speed and training level. In addition some ships have additional characteristics such as a ram bow or torpedoes.
Ship movement is plotted in advance and then executed simultaneously on a scratch paper. This is fairly typical for tactical naval games produced in the 70s and 80s. Again, the small size of the scenarios generally keeps this manageable.
After moving, ships fire. The gunnery strength of the ship's battery is cross-referenced on a range table to give a final strength. The target's armor differential is subtracted from this strength to determine a "gun to armor differential." That differential determines a column on a gunnery results table. The firing player rolls two dice and determines a "hit type" letter. That letter is then cross-referenced on a gunnery damage table for the final results, which are generally reductions in the gunnery, armor or speed values.
Various special rules account for things such as collisions, torpedoes, ramming, arcs of fire, critical hits and special ship characteristics.
There are six scenarios.
The first is Revenge of Fashoda, a hypothetical clash between two closely matched British and French battle squadrons, each with four battleships, two cruisers and four destroyers.
The second is the historical battle of Manila Bay, with Dewey's fleet of four cruisers and two destroyers (gunboats) massacring a Spanish fleet of seven "cruisers" (actually gunboats) and three "torpedo boats" (also gunboats). This is meant to be a solitaire scenario. Most of the Spanish fleet can't move and there is a huge difference in training levels between the two fleets.
The third scenario is another hypothetical one, Dewey Fights Again, which assumes that the tense relations between Dewey and a German fleet that moved into Manila Bay boiled up into actual fighting. The German force comprises two battleships, five cruisers and two destroyers. Dewey's reinforced fleet has one battleship (the Oregon, sent to Dewey instead of Cuba), five cruisers and six "destroyers" (actually gunboats).
The fourth scenario is the rarely-depicted historical Battle of the Yalu in 1894 between China and Japan which basically destroyed Chinese naval power for a century. It would be a hundred years before China owned even a non-functioning capital ship. The Chinese fleet comprises two battleships, eight cruisers, two destroyers and two torpedo boats. The Japanese fleet has one (very weak) "battleship" (really an ironclad) nine cruisers, a destroyer and a torpedo boat. The Japanese fleet has much better training, however, which provides a decisive edge.
The fifth scenario is the Battle of Santiago from the Spanish-American War, also meant to be played solitaire. The Spanish fleet of four cruisers and two destroyers attempts to escape from the American force of four battleships, two cruisers and a "destroyer" (actually an armed yacht)
The sixth scenario is by far the biggest, depicting the greatest pre-dreadnought era engagement, the Battle of Tsushima. The basic scenario covers the main fleet action between the poorly-trained Russian force of 11 battleships and a cruiser against the crack Japanese fleet of four battleships and eight cruisers. There's also a "Grand Tsushima" scenario which adds another eight cruisers and nine destroyers to the Russian force while the Japanese get five cruisers and 10 destroyers. With a total of 56 ships this is best played by teams and will require a total of four maps. (The rules suggest photocopies of the original)
For a long time there wasn't much in the way of competition for this game, but with the arrival of Avalanche Press' Great War at Sea 1898 and Russo-Japanese War this is mostly left as a curiosity, although it does have great portability. It's one of the few full-fledged wargames that can fit in a coat pocket.

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