“You need to give the Austrians a safe word.”
Update, January 23: Civil War Talk user Thomas Aagaard challenged what I wrote about the Danish Jylland‘s armament being all rifled guns, saying that most of them, like those of the Austrian ships, were relatively small smoothbores. And he’s right — Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1860-1905 gives Jylland‘s original armament as forty-four 30-pounder smoothbores, with the all-rifle armament coming at some later date. The ship’s data in the game simply appears to be incorrect for 1864, giving Jylland a much longer-range, harder punch than she actually had..
The Danish squadron (upper left) turns to intercept the Austrians (lower right).
Sunday afternoon the group I game with fought out a scenario based on the Battle of Heligoland in May 1864. The action was fought between the Danes and a squadron of Austrian ships, acting on behalf of their Prussian allies, with three ships to a side. The real battle essentially ended in a draw, with both sides (of course) later claiming victory. The battle is famous for allegedly being the last major action that did not involve armored warships. It’s interesting from the perspective of the American Civil War because it’s a good example of what could happen when traditional wooden ships faced modern, heavy rifled artillery and exploding shells.
For this scenario we used the old Yaquinto game Ironclads (1979), along with its expansion set that brings in non-US ships and scenarios. Ironclads leans heavily toward the simulation end of the spectrum; it’s definitely not a beer-and-pretzels game. on Sunday there were six of us playing, with our host acting as game master, navigating the myriad charts and tables required in keeping track of the detailed bookkeeping. In Ironclads, every single shot is tracked and damage accounted for; the six of us would all be considered novice players, so we were slow, but even so it took us four hours or more to get to the middle of turn seven. Ironclads is a good example of tactical game design as it was in the late 1970s, when there was no end to the amount of fine-grained detail that designers tried to shoehorn into their games, even if the final product was damn near unplayable (e.g., Air War).
Every turn included a vigorous discussion about firing arcs. Every. Single. Turn.
With six of us playing, each player commanded one ship. Mine was the Austrian screw frigate Radetsky, second in the Austrian line. The Danish ships were bigger and more heavily armed than the Austrians, but more important, they had heavy guns that could outrange the Austrians. My teammates and I recognized that our only chance was to get in close, where we could use the small, 30-pounder smoothbore guns that comprised most of our armament. (In the game, the Danish screw frigate Jylland is entirely fitted with 6- and 8-inch rifles, with up to four times the range of the craptastic Austrian 30-pounders.) It didn’t go well for the Austrians; the flagship, Schwarzenberg, was set afire early in the action and I got pummeled in Radestky as I tried to close the range to the Danish line. Radestky came under fire from all three Danish ships, and was very quickly reduced to a floating wreck in the space of just three turns — which represents maybe ten minutes of real time. One lucky shot took out my steam plant, shutting down the propulsion, and in the next turn my steering was disabled, leaving Radetsky dead in a water and on fire, surrounded by Danish ships at close range. We were getting beat so badly that my friend playing the admiral quipped to our host, “if you ever run this scenario again, you need to give the Austrians a safe word.”
My ship, the screw frigate Radetsky (center), dead in the water and ablaze. This will not end well.
While this recreation of the Battle of Heligoland was not particularly fun for those of us playing the Austrian side, it did provide some insight into how devastating naval artillery had become over the preceding few decades, and in particular the deadly combination of rifled artillery and explosive shells when used against unarmored, traditional wooden warships. if this had been a real fight, it would have been a bloodbath, with both of the larger Austrian ships destroyed in short order and the third, a small paddle steamer, having to make a run for it.
Ironclads is a solid game, but it’s also a high-friction design that wears out the players pretty quickly, given the necessity of cross-referencing eleventy-four different tables every time a ship fires a gun. It would be hard to imagine fighting out a big action like the Battle of Mobile Bay using this game, although I know it has been done many times. On the plus side, for the naval buff it includes all sorts of granular detail that is appealing. I think we may do this again soon, although someone else can play the Austrians next time.