#Wargame #Retroplay – The Ironclads (Excalibre Games,1993)

The next game in my 2019 Charles S. Roberts Wargame Challenge is The Ironclads. This game, by designer John Fuseler, was originally published by Yaquinto in 1979. Long ago I owned a copy of the Yaquinto edition, and equally long ago I made a terrible mistake and traded it away. In the years since, I picked up the newer (as in 1993 vintage) Excalibre Games Second Edition. Among The Ironclads fans, the Excalibre Games edition is heavily criticized. The two biggest criticisms are the use of side-view ship counters (instead of the classic top-down view) and the horrendous font selection in the rule book. I am not going to argue a counterpoint; I strongly agree that the criticism is fair and richly deserved. However, I will argue that even after all these years the core game engine of The Ironclads delivers an awesome American Civil War naval wargaming experience.

Some of the game mechanics used in The Ironclads shows it’s retro-wargame heritage. Preparing to play takes a while because for each ship the player must create a Log Sheet which requires a (somewhat) tedious transfer of information from Data Cards to the Log. A modern solution would be a file with print-on-demand logsheets. Indeed, the files pages for The Ironclads on BoardGameGeek includes just such a file!

The Ironclads uses Plotted Movement which is certainly not a game mechanic in vogue these days. However, in The Ironclads it works given the smaller speeds and impact of river currents on the ships. Gunfire Combat requires the use of multiple tables (Gun Hit Probability Table, Position of Hit on Vessel Table, Section of Vessel Hit Table, and Hit Damage Table). This sounds complicated and time-consuming but I found that if I rolled five d6 (2x black, green, white, and red) at once I streamlined the entire process. The 2x black d6 determined a hit, the green plus white gave me the location (Position & Section) and the red determined damage. Roll them all at once and go!

I will admit that Ramming Combat is a bit complicated as it requires the use of four different combat tables and some math. Thankfully, I find that ramming occurs only occasionally in my games so the rule is called upon infrequently. I would make reorganizing the combat tables as a whole a priority effort in any updated edition.

As I relearned the game, I was surprised by just how much “game” the Basic Game covers. The Advanced Rules are few and very easy to add to the game with little real increase in complexity. 

My battle used Scenario 2: Ossabaw Sound, Georgia, June 17, 1863. This battle features CSS Atlanta‘s run down a river against two Union ironclads; USS Weehawken and USS Nahant (both Passaic-class Monitors). This is an interesting battle if for no other reason then the match up of guns. For the Rebs the best guns on Atlanta are 7″ Brooke Rifles which are best against the Union monitors when within 7 hexes (~700 yds). On the Union side both monitors have 11″ and 15″ Dahlgren guns in a turret which should easily penetrate Atlanta – when within 4 hexes (~400 yds). The Dahlgren guns can also only fire every other turn. Atlanta must run down river (avoiding shoals) and try to inflict maximum damage to at least one monitor and either make a run across the last stretch of open water board to escape or return upriver to her starting position.

Historically, the real battle was not much of a contest:

At the crack of dawn on 16 [sic] June 1863, after toiling along the shallow waters of the narrow and winding reaches of the river and losing several days, the first because of running aground, then again because a boiler’s valve had to be replaced, the Atlanta advanced into Warsaw Sound and was immediately sighted by the Federals.

[U.S. Navy Captain John] Rodgers steered to attack with both his ironclads. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the Atlanta grounded and heeled enough to make it impossible to use her guns. The Weehawken, followed by the Nahant, closed to within three hundred yards and began to pound the inert, immobile ship with their huge 15-inch and 11-inch Dahlgrens. It was no longer a battle: it was target practice that would fast become an execution. (Raimondo Luraghi, A History of the Confederate Navy, Naval Institute Press, 1996; p. 215)

The capture of CSS Atlanta (at left) by USS Weehawken, in Wassaw Sound, Georgia, 17 June 1863 (americancivilwar.com)

My battle ran a bit different. Atlanta and Weehawken first met in the river. Atlanta was a bit speedier with the current pushing her along while Weehawken was slowed moving against the current. Both ships were also restricted in their maneuvers by the need to avoid active shoals and only got a few shots off at each other before it became a stern chase for Weehawken. Atlanta then had to get past Nahant which had fewer shoals to worry about and was able to close the range. Both Atlanta and Nahant took damage. 

At this point Atlanta should have simply escaped but, when reading a bit about Atlanta’s captain, William H. Webb, I noted this description of the man: “…he lacked not bravery but good sense.” (Luraghi, p. 215). So Atlanta did not flee but continued to fight.

The rest of the battle consisted of Atlanta trying to fight from within her “immunity zone”; at ranges between 500-700 yards where her Brooke Rifles could damage the monitors while staying outside of the most dangerous range of the Dahlgrens. At this range her armor was proof against at least the 11″ Dahlgrens. On the other side, although Weehawken and Nahant could only fire each gun every other turn they had the advantage of numbers and boxed Atlanta in. Atlanta found herself being ground down and by the time she had sufficiently damaged Nahant to partially meet her victory condition she was in turn also crippled. Atlanta tried to exit the board (the second part of her victory criteria) but was run down by Weehawken and pounded into a sinking condition for a Union victory.

Even as I write this post-action report I am amazed by the narrative of battle The Ironclads builds. Mechanically the game flows quickly even with plotted movement and multi-roll combat resolution. With a bit of some organization the different tables that must be referenced and those multiple die rolls can be found and resolved quickly. In replaying The Ironclads after so many years I discovered not a complicated simulation of naval warfare in the American Civil War, but a very playable wargame that enables players to build a vivid narrative experience of those battles.



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