Earlier I had looked at the famous engagement between the frigates Chesapeake vs. Shannon using For Honor And Glory rules. I noted that those very simple naval rules had difficulty depicting the historical events from the famous duel.
This time I decided to try re-creating the famous fight using the slightly more detailed Fighting Sail rules published in Strategy & Tactics magazine No. 85 in April 1981. As before, my primary source for the historical details was Theodore Roosevelt's seminal work on the topic, The Naval War of 1812.
Like many wargames from that era the rules, while not exactly complex, were kind of convoluted and counter intuitive in their operation. That said, the rules had some innovative aspects that later served as an inspiration for other designs such as Flying Colors.
The main focus of these rules was the maneuvering between the ships and the interaction between firepower and the "rate" of the ships to create a unified set of rules that could handle everything from First-rate ships with more than a hundred guns to small gunboats with one or two small guns.
Roosevelt's account indicates that two ships were very evenly matched in material strength, with the main difference being in the quality of the respective crews. And even in this regard, it wasn't that the American crew was bad, because Roosevelt believes the evidence suggests that the Chesapeake under the skilled leadership of James Lawrence would probably have beaten the typical British frigate of the time -- a Java or a Macedonian. But the Shannon was not your typical British frigate of the time -- or of any other time for that matter. Its skipper, Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke was perhaps one of the finest frigate captains ever to sail. By the time of the battle he had been in command of the Shannon for seven years and most of his crew had been with him throughout this time. Broke had the moral courage to ignore Admiralty regulations that prohibited "wasting" ammunition on target practice and the foresight to insist on exercising his crews constantly in gunnery and other skills. The Shannon was a crack ship in very sense of the word.
The two ships have nearly identical stats in game terms. Both are 5th rate ships, which was their historical rate. Both rate Sailing Values of "A," which is the best available in the game. Both have very similar Fire Values of 54 for the Chesapeake and 55 for the Shannon. This basically means that the Shannon is one "pip" better under the two-die combat result system used in the game. Instead of totaling the dice roll the die rolls represent two digits. So a roll of a '2' and a '6' isn't a result of '8' but is a '26.' So physically the two ships are nearly identical , as it should be.
The Shannon Crew Value, however, is a "9," which is the highest that appears in the game system -- matching such legendary ships as the USS Constitution under Hull and the HMS Lydia under Hornblower! Still, the USS Chesapeake isn't a bad ship, as its Crew Value of "8" matches the British standard seen in most other battles. It's a mild edge, however, and not enough of one to make a match between the two ships a forgone conclusion.
The scenario setup given in the game, shown below, is at odds with Roosevelt's account, as Roosevelt shows the Chesapeake on the starboard side of the Shannon by the time they got into cannon shot range.
So our initial maneuvering will be an attempt to account for this. Both captains select a Command Chit in secret from among the following choices: Ahead, Starboard, Port, Wear or Tack. Broke's Shannon will order an Ahead 6, which will move the Shannon directly ahead three squares from 0811 heading East to 1111 East. The movement system used in Fighting Sail accounts for the geometric effect of squares instead of the more usual wargame hexagons by counting each square as 2 points of distance orthogonally and as 3 points of distance diagonally. Each turn the players roll for who has the "weather gauge" when the ships have the same movement allowance, otherwise the player controlling the faster ship decides who will move. For simplicity in recounting the events each ship's move will be dealt with in turn, although in actuality there may have been some alternating moves on occasion. In this case it made no difference. Lawrence, aiming to close the distance, orders Starboard 6. This moves him from 0807SE to 0908, costing 3 distance points, where he turns 45 degrees to South and moves one more square to 0909. The last movement point is wasted, as it costs at least 2 to enter another square.
On Turn 2, Broke, fearing a stern rake, orders Starboard 6 himself and winning the weather gauge, moves to 112, turns SE and then moves to 1312 and turns South. A ship ordered to make a turn must make at least one turn in the indicated direction, although it can make more than one if it has sufficient movement available. Endeavoring to get closer, Lawrence meanwhile order Port 6, moving to 0910, turning back to SE and moving to 1011.
Roosevelt indicates that Broke was very concerned that Lawrence would rake his ship, but that Lawrence either missed seeing his chance (unlikely, given his skill) or passed on it (perhaps out of misplaced gallantry or out of arrogance). In game terms, however, it's unnecessary to ascribe either incompetence or arrogance to Lawrence, as the hidden selection of the Command Chits unavoidably makes close-in maneuvering a dangerous guessing game. While the Chesapeake could have raked Shannon, it's also true that a well-timed guess by Broke might have turned the tables on Lawrence and ended up with him being the one raked. Lawrence elects to avoid that possibility on Turn 3 by ordering Starboard 6 again and moving SE to 1112 and 1213 and then turning south. Broke for his part, orders Ahead 6, moving directly South from 1312 through 1313 and 1314 to 1315. This series brings us to roughly the position depicted on Roosevelt's schematic diagram of the fight.
Both captains elect to sail straight ahead on Turn 4 (Ahead 6 for the Chesapeake and Ahead 2 for the Shannon) and trust to their gunners for victory. Winning the Weather Gauge roll, Lawrence moves into 1214, then 1215 and fires and then into 1216. (in the actual event the first shot came from the Shannon, but in game terms the broadsides were essentially simultaneous.).
The base Fire Value of the Chesapeake is 54. Running through the potential modifiers, the first thing we do is compare the rates of the two ships and subtract the rate of the firing ship from the target and multiply that by 10. This is an important modifier in battles involving ships of disparate sizes but in this case both ships are Fifth rate ships, so the difference is Zero. The second step is to take the range in range points (2) and divide that by 4 (equaling .5) and drop any fractions (in this case it ends up a 0). This would normally be an important factor as well, but in this particular fight all the shooting was done at point blank range. The third step is to divide the number of hull hits on the firing ship by 2 and multiply that number by 10 and subtract the result from the firing ship's Fire Value. As no damage has been inflicted yet, this is also a Zero, but later on this will become an important factor. The fourth step is Rigging Fire. If the range is 6 range points or less (it is) then subtract 10 from the firing ship's fire value. Roosevelt notes that the Chesapeake fired a lot of grape shot and even bar shot, so it's safe to assume that the American ship was trying to do rigging damage -- at least initially. So we will assume that the Chesapeake's firing was at the Rigging and assess the penalty, bringing the ship's Fire Value down to a 44. The fifth step and sixth step assess penalties and bonuses, respectively for tacking and rakes, but neither applies in this situation or later, so the modifiers are Zero. Finally, there is a +20 bonus to the Chesapeake's fire value because this is the ship's First Broadside of the game, making the final Fire Value a 64. We know that the Shannon was hit, but not badly, so we will assume an average die roll of a 25 (a 2 and a 5) for One Rigging Hit on the Shannon.
This lengthy description of the combat system illustrates how convoluted it is, although perhaps making it sound more complicated than it is in practice. Still, in the interests of space I won;t run through it again. In most cases the modifiers didn't apply, so I will only point out the times they did.
On Shannon's turn, the ship moves one space to 1316 and fires. The only applicable modifier is the First Broadside, giving the Shannon a Fire Value of 75, so it can't miss. The Shannon's fire was, however, very effective and we will assume a die roll of 22. This is more than 40 less than the Fire Value and so Two Hull hits are assigned to the Chesapeake. This reduces the Chesapeake's Crew Value to 6. The 22 is also doubles, so a Critical Hit is inflicted. The fire was at the Hull, so this is a "Wheel Shot Away" critical hit which forces a "Drift" die roll. A subsequent roll of a 5 turns the bow of the Chesapeake 45 degrees to Starboard (right). While the Chesapeake's wheel wasn't actually shot away, the Shannon's fire did cause damage that had a similar effect and so the game allows us to recreate the historical unplanned starboard turn made by the Chesapeake.
For Turn 5 the Chesapeake orders Ahead 3 moving through 1216 and 1117 facing SW while the Shannon orders Starboard 6 through 1317 SW and 1218 W. Each ship fires as it gets adjacent to its enemy. The Chesapeake is damaged with two hull hits and no longer has a First Broadside, so her final Fire Value is a 44. We know that the Chesapeake's fire did do some significant damage to the Shannon, so we will assume a roll of a 41 that inflicts a Hull Hit, reducing the Shannon's Crew Value to 8. Note that it's no longer possible for the Chesapeake to score 2 hits with one broadside because no possible roll is more than 40 less than it's Fire Value. The Shannon's Fire Value remains at 55 and we will assume a very average roll of 34 which inflicts another Hull hit on the Chesapeake, reducing its Crew Value to 5.
On Turn 6 The Shannon Orders Port 6 to stay in position for more pounding, moving to 1118 where it fires then to 1018. Another average roll against its Fire Value of 55 inflicts another Hull Hit on the Chesapeake, reducing the Crew Value to 4. The Chesapeake has an order of Ahead 3, which would place it in the Shannon's square (1018) and foul the ships. Under the rules the ship could make an emergency turn to avoid fouling, but in the historical event the two ships did foul each other, although the British ship did try to avoid it. The Shannon was winning at this point and so ha little reason to risk the uncertainty of boarding, so in game terms we can assume that Lawrence decides to make one last throw at winning and moves into 1018 to foul. The Shannon has already fired for the turn, and so it doesn't fire in the Melee Stage. The Chesapeake at this point has taken 4 hull hits and so loses 20 off its Fire Value, making it a 34. The Shannon did have 83 men out of her crew of 330 become casualties, including 30 killed, so it's not unfair to grant the Chesapeake a die roll of 13, inflicting another Hull hit on Shannon and cutting her Crew Value down to 7.
In Fighting Sail the outcome of boarding actions is handled simply. Each Ship subtracts from its Crew Value the number of Hull Hits it has suffered and the Rate of the ship and adds in the value of a die roll. If the higher total exceeds the lower total by 150% then the higher total wins. In this case the Chesapeake's Crew Value of 8 is reduced by 4 for Hull Hits and by 5 for being a Fifth Rate for a total die roll modifier of -1. The Shannon's Crew Value of 9 is reduced by 2 for Hull Hits and 5 for being a Fifth Rate to a +2. Both sides fought the brief deck action with gallantry, so if we assume better than average rolls of 5 each, then the Chesapeake compares a final total of 4 to the Shannon's 7, which is more than 150% greater and the Chesapeake is taken.
The overall conclusion is that Fighting Sail does a pretty good job at reflecting the actual battle, while suggesting that it could have turned out differently. The Shannon has an edge, but by no means an insurmountable one. As a matter of fact, one effective rake by the Chesapeake could erase most of the British ship's advantage. If Lawrence did indeed voluntarily pass on his chance to rake the Shannon then Fighting Sail suggest that was a very poor choice.