Sunday, October 11, 2009

Session Report For Honor and Glory Lawrence vs. Broke

I've always thought that a good wargame should be able to recreate not just the historical outcome but the means achieved to get there. At a bare minimum it should be possible to physically copy the actual movements and battles of the actual event, but ideally it should also be plausible in game terms.

It's amazing to me how often wargames fail to do this. For one simple, yet obvious example that should be familiar for most wargamers, in the introductory wargame Napoleon at Waterloo the chateau at Hougoumont always automatically falls on the first turn, freeing up the French corps attacking that site for further action elsewhere. In the actual event, of course, Hougoumont held out for the entire day and tied up that French corps during the critical phase of the battle.

So I thought I'd try a little experiment and see how a few wargames tack up when put to the test of recreating the course and outcome of a historical battle, in this case the naval engagement between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon during the War of 1812.

I selected this engagement for several reasons. It's a famous and well-documented battle with little controversy over how it was fought. It's a standard scenario in most naval games covering the period. It was very quick, the decisive phase lasting just 15 minutes and small, there were just the two ships involved. Finally, it was not a complicated battle with a lot of maneuvering. Both captains were eager to come to grips with each other directly.

The opposing sides

My primary source for the historical course of events is Theodore Roosevelt's highly regarded 1882 work The Naval War of 1812, with supplementary use of the Osprey title American Light and Medium Frigates 1794-1836 by Mark Landas.

The USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon were very evenly matched ships, at least on paper. Both were rated as 5th-rate frigates in the style of the times.

The Chesapeake was one of the original six frigates of the new U.S. Navy. Laid down as a 44-gun frigate in 1798, although of a lighter build than the famous Joshua Humphreys designs, the Chesapeake was was re-rated as a 36-gun frigate by the War of 1812. During her engagement with the Shannon the Chesapeake carried 50 guns, mostly 18-lb long guns and 32-lb carronades, with a couple of smaller guns. Her broadside weight was 542 pounds of metal according to Roosevelt, who said American cannonballs during the era tended to be underweight. 379 men were aboard.

The Shannon was a fairly standard 38-gun Royal Navy frigate in design. She carried 52 guns, also mostly 18-lb long guns and 32-lb carronades, with a few smaller guns. The weight of her broadside was 550 pounds and she carried 330 men.

The biggest difference between the two ships was the experience level of the crew. The Chesapeake sailed into battle with a brand new crew, although many of the individuals had served on other ships. There was no time drill the crew in their duties beforehand, however, which probably reduced the effectiveness of the crew somewhat. The Shannon, on the other hand, had a well-drilled crew that had mostly served for a long time on the ship. The British ship's captain had drilled his crew extensively in gunnery, which was unusual among British ships at the time. This would prove to be an important factor in the fight.

The two captains were both highly skilled, competent and aggressive leaders. Captain Philip Broke of the HMS Shannon had, as has been mentioned, drilled his crew extensively in gunnery with much firing at targets. To our 21st century sensibilities this is simple common sense, but ammunition was expensive in the 19th century and the military sciences rudimentary, so Broke's attention to training was definitely progressive.

Captain James Lawrence was newly promoted to frigate command, having already won fame in a single-ship duel as commander of the brig USS Hornet when it captured the brig HMS Peacock. Both ships were very evenly matched, but the Peacock got much the worse of the affair.

The Shannon had been cruising off Boston for a considerable time, attempting to goad the Americans into sending the Chesapeake out. Broke had even gone to the trouble of sending a letter to Lawrence, challenging him to come out and fight. The letter never reached Lawrence, however, as he needed no goading. In fact, he was already on his way out of the harbor and the two ships closed for action on June 1, 1813.

Roosevelt's account includes a diagram of the action, reproduced below:

The notable aspects of the fight, as can be seen in the diagram, is the limited maneuvering involved and the extremely short duration of the fight. Roosevelt's diagram picks up the action as the first broadsides were exchanged and shows both ships running before the wind, with the Chesapeake to windward.

The rules

The naval rules in For Honor and Glory do not specify a scale, but as guns are allowed to fire just two hexes and most naval gunnery of the time was effective out to around 800 yards we can probably assign a hex scale of 300-400 yards and a time scale of about 5 minutes per turn.

The initial setup given in For Honor and Glory doesn't match Roosevelt's account, showing the two ships beating before the wind with neither ship having a clear advantage in wind position.

For Honor and Glory's naval rules system is extremely simple. Ships can move in any direction, with the distance determined by how many "plotted moves" are available. In this case, each side had three, for an effective base movement rate of 3 hexes. Ships that start their turn with the wind coming from their rear three hexsides get a bonus of one more plotted move to use, and if only one ship has the wind behind it that ship gets the "weather gauge" and moves second. If both ships or neither ship have the wind to their back then the ship with "commander's advantage" moves second. In this scenario the Shannon has the commander's advantage.

Firing is handled by rolling a number of d6 based on the ship's "Gun rating." Both ships, unsurprisingly, have the same gun rating here, a "two." The effectiveness of the guns depends on the range and whether or not the target's "T" is crossed. The least effective shot is a 2-hex broadside to broadside one, which hits on a 6 only. The best position is a one-hex T-crossing shot which hits on a 4, 5 or 6. Intermediate situations hit on a 5 or 6. Crossing the T is strictly defined, being achieved only by firing ships directly ahead or behind the target.

The damage-absorbing ability of the ships is expressed by a damage rating, which is how many hits the ship can take before destruction. In this case both ships are a "6." A ship that takes hits equalling half its value is penalized by losing one plotted move per turn and firing at one less die.

The final important rule concerns boarding. Ships that end up in the same hex may get involved in a boarding action. A dice roll is involved, with a larger ship having an advantage in either boarding of avoiding a boarding action. If a boarding action begins it's resolved by having the two ships' "Marines" fire at each other sequentially (defender first) with 6's being a hit. Each Marine factor allows one die roll and each hit reduces the Marines by 1. If reduced to "0" the defending ship is captured. The attacking ship has the option of calling off the attack, which otherwise continues to the bitter end. Here the British ship has an unexpected advantage, with a Marine factor of 4 compared to the American ship's 3. I can only assume these numbers were assigned based on the historical outcome, because the Shannon actually had a smaller crew than the Chesapeake, including fewer marines.

The Battle

Turn 1

The Chesapeake begins in Hex 3L facing in direction 3, with the HMS Shannon three hexes ahead of it in Hex 6L also facing in direction 3.

The two ships closed on each other under reduced sail, according to Roosevelt's account, although the breeze still allowed both ships to move pretty fast. The details of the sail states are not reflected in For Honor and Glory's rules however and the bottom line is that both captains' aim was the same, to get in close.

So we will assume that both ships will turn immediately, with the Shannon making the tighter turn in order to close the distance quickly, so Chesapeake orders are 1 straight, right turn and then 1 straight to end up in Hex 5L facing direction 4. Shannon's orders are Right turn, 1 hex forward and then another Right turn to end up in hex in 7L facing in direction 5. Under the rules a chip can fire at any point in its move and the Shannon is in a position to fire at range 2. In FHAG there's no penalty for firing at every opportunity, but in the actual event the Shannon's crw had been orderd to hold fire until the range was much closer. Here's where we find our first major departure from the historical event. While in the game the player isn't forced to fire, there's no reason NOT to and a player would naturally fire. We will assume the Shannon fires its two dice but fails to roll a 6 on either one.

Turn 2

Both ships have the wind to their rear, and so are allowed 4 plotted moves, but the British ship retains the initiative because of the commander's advantage.

At this point Roosevelt informs us that "Broke was afraid that Lawrence would pass under the Shannon's stern, rake her and engage her on the quarter."

This is a real danger in the game, as well, and so Shannon's orders will reflect this fear, with plotted moves of "X" (no move), 1 straight, 1 again and 1 straight, ending in Hex 7J facing direction 5.

Roosevelt tells us, however, that "either overlooking or waiving this advantage, the American captain luffed up within 50 yards upon the Shannons's starboard quarter." We will reflect this with this series of plotted moves for the Chesapeake, 1 straight, right turn, X and finally 1 straight, putting the US ship in 6J facing direction 5.

The British captain will elect not to fire when the US first comes adjacent, hoping for a better shot later, but by the final hex both captains will realize no better shot is in the offing and will open fire.

Now, as it turns out, despite the fact that the British ship was noted for its gunnery, the Chesapeake's fire was also very effective and before the short battle was over 83 members of the Shannon's crew were killed or wounded, for a casualty rate of about 25 percent! Roosevelt's account states that over the course of the whole battle the Shannon was hit 158 times and the Chesapeake was hit 363 times, for about a 2-1 ratio. Both ships roll two dice with 5s and 6s being hits, so we will credit the Chesapeake with a good roll that includes one 6 but the Shannon with an even better roll of a 5 and a 6 for 2 hits.

Turn 3

For the next turn both ships will continue ahead slowly. Roosevelt informs us that "at 5:53, Lawrence, finding he was forging ahead, hauled up a little." The Chesapeake moves X, 1 straight, X and 1 straight to end up in Hex 6H facing direction 5 and the Shannon moves X, 1 straight, X and X. to end in 7I facing direction 5. Both ships continue to fire with effect and we will assume that each score 1 hit. This reduces the Chesapeake to half damage.

Turn 4

The next turn finds us in difficulty again, as the game doesn't really lend itself to recreating the historical events. Roosevelt account says that "at 5:56, having had her jib sheet and foretop-sail tie shot away, and her spanker brails loosened so that the sail blew out, the Chesapeake came up into the wind somewhat, so as to expose her quarter to her antagonist's broadside."

In game terms this requires us to have the Chesapeake move 1 straight, turn right and then X., ending up in Hex 6G facing Direction 6. (Due to damage the Chesapeake is only entitled to three plotted moves). The Shannon's move has to be 1 straight, followed by X,X,X., which is somewhat risky in game terms because it would have allowed the Chesapeake to cut ahead of her for a rake. It's no great stretch to award the Shannon another hit on the Chesapeake with a stern rake by two guns with a 4-6 hitting. The Shannon ends up in 7H facing direction 5.

Turn 5

Our difficulties reflecting the actual course of events accurately in game terms continue, as the best move for the Shannon at this point would be to keep the range long, having a 4 to 2 advantage in remaining hull points and now a 2-1 advantage in firing dice. And indeed, Broke did attempt to delay the boarding action, Roosevelt tells us, but the wind blew the Chesapeake backwards into the Shannon so that her rear port quarter collided with the Shannon, leaving Chesapeake unable to fire while the Shannon could stern rake her. There's no way for this to happen in FHAG because there are no rules for drifting.

Instead we must assume that the player Lawrence would turn his ship right, and then X. X. to remain in 6G but now facing Direction 1. And we must assume that our aggressive player Broke would move X (to get in another rake -- we'll score another hit without being at all generous to Shannon), turn right (to pursue in case Lawrence tries to open the range) 1 straight and finally an X (to avoid potentially overshooting the US position) therefore also ending up in 6G, but facing in direction 6.

Given the grim situation (Chesapeake gravely damaged, unable to fire and raked), it's no surprise in either real-life or in game terms that Lawrence would attempt to board, it being his one chance at victory. The real Lawrence, however, never got the chance, being cut down by a musket ball at this point and mortally wounded. We can assume the player Lawrence, being immune, would however order a boarding anyway. The real-life Broke did not hesitate to order his crew to form boarders and led them over the side. In game terms a player Broke might be tempted to avoid a boarding action, given his solid advantage in the game, but the player might fear losing the boarding roll and prefer to be the attacker able to call off the attack if it's not going well rather than being the defender and forced to stick it out. So our player Broke will copy the real-life one and announce he will board also.

Under the rules the players compare the current damage rating of the two ships. In this case the Shannon is a 4 and the Chesapeake a 1, for a difference of 3. The Shannon rolls two dice and adds the difference in the damage rating to the roll. In this case we will assume a quality roll of a 9 plus 3 for a final result of a 12. The weaker ship then rolls 2 dice straight, and we will give the Chesapeake a slightly below average roll of a 6. If the difference had been less than 7 there would have been no boarding action, which would suit the Shannon just fine. As it turns out the difference is exactly 7 and we move to the boarding procedure. Because there' s boarding action each player now rolls two dice again with the stronger player again adding the difference between the damage ratings to his roll. The Shannon would win a tie due to commander advantage. We will assume both players roll near average, a 6 for Shannon, boosted to 9 and a 7 for the Chesapeake so the Shannon is the attacker. This still suits Broke as Shannon now has a chance to end the battle right away and yet can call off the attack if it starts to go bad.

Finally we have the boarding phase, The defending American marines number 3 factors and on the first turn can get hits with a 5 or a 6. We will assume they roll average and get 1 hit on the Shannon boarders. The Shannon still has three marines left, after losing one, so Broke decides to push his luck and continue the atatck for now. He's rewarded with a hit. The remaining US mariens now only hit with 6s and their 2 dice miss. Broke's three boarders fire again and get another hit. The final US marine factor, having no choice fire again and gets a hit! At this point we may note that Broke was wounded badly. The player Broke, however, being unhurt, and well tempted by the fact that one more hit will end the battle elects to stay for another round and hits again with one of his 2 dice, reducing the US Marines to 0 and taking the ship!.


Overall, For Honor and Glory can't really replicate the course of the historical action very well. The simple movement system is simply unable to capture the subtle maneuvers that affected the action. The simple combat system also has trouble capturing the action. Our illustrative replay gave the Shannon good, if not exceptional luck, while not cutting the Chesapeake much slack. But in reality there's very little to choose from between the two ships and in a solitaire run-through I tried without regard to the historical account the Chesapeake actually emerged victorious by having better luck in gunnery and fending off a boarding attempt by the Shannon. That engagement also lasted much longer than five turns, with much more maneuvering by the two ships as they tried to get unanswered broadsides. I don't think many players would either "overlook" or "waive" the chance to rake the enemy like Lawrence did.

The final verdict is that For Honor And Glory, while achieving its goal of being very simple, probably overshoots the mark so much so that it can't be considered a good simulation. Historical decisions don't make sense in game terms and often are not even physically possible.


  1. Just makes me want to know how a game system such as CLOSE ACTION or FLYING COLORS does in comparison!

  2. It would be interesting to see what you might get using Wooden Ships and Iron Men. I may have to dust it off and try it.

  3. When doing exercises like this, it's probably worth considering what the focus of the game design is about when examining how well a game recreates or doesn't a given scenario. For example, my limited understanding of FLYING COLORS (I haven't played and don't own it) was that it was designed to let small number of players partake in large fleet actions; given that that's the (presumed) focus of the design, I would expect it to fare poorly in recreating accurately a single-ship action. Looking briefly at the description of For Honor and Glory, it claims to be a strategic level game, so I'm not terribly surprised at it's lack of fidelity for a small action.

    That said, I will be very curious to see your future reports; I expect CLOSE ACTION to fare tolerably, though it may not be able to resolve the action in the historical 15 minutes. And I've never participated in a boarding action, so I don't know how well that section of the rules will perform.

    Stephen Beckner: reviews I've read suggest that CLOSE ACTION is generally considered an improvement over WOODEN SHIPS AND IRON MEN, though there are formulas for converting WSIM scenarios to fit the CA scale.

    Seth, when you do your report on CLOSE ACTION, will you be using an of the optional rules like impulse movement and firing, or even Albert Parker's addon ruleset that offers up 12 points of facing versus the standard 6?

    CLOSE ACTION is the only game I've played that covers this era/level. I do like the system, despite it having some warts around its movement abstraction and other things. The other downside is that it can be a lengthy game.

    Where it really shines (and the only way I've played it) is in large fleet engagements where each player commands one or two ships and is limited to communicating with his/her teammates via 3-4 word signals once per turn. There's just getting underway a PBEM game on Trafalger with 60 players involved (which I'm participating in); they periodically get announced on the CSW Close Action forum as well as elsewhere. Also, Mark Campbell, the game's designer runs an annual live large fleet action somewhere in the Maryland/Virginia area, announced on the Close Action yahoo grouplist.