Sunday, January 20, 2013

Messing On The Mississippi

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Rat, The Wind and the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

p>Early on a rainy morning in late June, 1862, and a Union force of three warships is steaming downriver to capture Island No. 6, a Confederate fort blocking passage to Bluffsburg, the last rebel bastion on the Mississippi north of Vicksburg. Leading in line astern is the tinclad USS Chaffee, her sister ship USS Golconda, and the Cairo class casemate ironclad, USS Ironton. Behind them is an unarmed steamer carrying the troops tasked with seizing the island.

The Union commander aboard Ironton, Captain Holquist, is surprised to see two ships emerging from the mist in the middle of the river, heading upstream. He immediately assumes that they must be the Confederate ships guarding Bluffsburg, the scratchbuilt casemate ironclad Joshua and her consort, the cottonclad riverboat Maccabbee. As per his SOPs he signals the transport to turn about and retreat upstream while he moves to engage.

Aboard the Confederate ironclad Joshua, Captain O'Donnell unleashes his escort, the fast sidewheeler Maccabbe, with instructions to use her speed to work around the union flotilla and distract where possible. As the two Union escorts alter course to port to pursue, Joshua's forward gun, a heavy rifle, opens up and hits Chaffee as she turns and presents her unarmoured broadside. First blood to the rebs as the rifled shot knocks out one of the two medium smoothbores on Chaffee's starboard broadside.

An unconvincing green tablecloth fills in to represent the Father of Waters as Maccabbee makes her run around the Union line, while Chaffee and Golconda try to catch her. Now that I've got the ships done I must think about scenery.

Ineffectual fire continues as the range closes. Maccabbee takes minor damage as her speed, far superior to anything else on the river, allows her to work her way behind the Union flotilla, and then come in hard and bows on Ironton's starboard side. Maccabbee's boilers are going flat out when she hits Ironton, causing both ships significant hull damage and locking them together. It is only the lack of a ram on Maccabbee's bow that spares the US ship from a fatal wound. At that moment Joshua passes alongside Ironton's port side, and the two ironclads unleash thunderous broadsides at one another.

To Captain Holquist's dismay, point blank shot from his light rifles and medium smoothbores fails to penetrate the armour on Joshua's casemate, while a lucky shot from the rebel guns causes a critical hit, ripping a hole in Ironton's hull below the water line. The river begins to pour in. Meanwhile Ironton's starboard guns smash the hapless and fragile Maccabbee to bits and she begins to sink, still locked together. It is only the fact that Ironton is a larger vessel that keeps her from going under as well.

Joshua (top) steams by the unlucky Ironton, locked together with the sinking Maccabbee and herself taking on water. Note the very useful Litko "Flooding" markers.

The situation now goes downhill badly for the Union. Ironton and Maccabbee drift downstream and away from the fight. Ironton's critical hit is the worst possible result, a loss of three flotation points per turn (a 3 result on 1d3)and she fails three repair attempts in a row. While she frees herself from Maccabbee's sinking wreck, Ironton herself floods and sinks in middle of the the river, forcing Captain Holquist to watch the battle from a lifeboat. Golconda and Chaffee bravely engage the confederate monster, and Chaffee's captain desperately tries to ram Joshua, but causes no damage to her armoured stern and comes away much the worse, taking much hull damage.

To the right, Ironton and Maccabbee helplessly drift downstream, sinking. In the centre, Chaffee, with the blue paddlewheel housings, attempts to ram Joshua, and only gives herself a bloody nose in the process.

A circling duel follows, and while the Union medium smoothbores largely fail to penetrate, they do get lucky. At one point Joshua suffered three critical hits, having her two starboard gunports jammed and her rudder cable damager, restricting her to starboard turns. However the Confederate damage control is excellent, with Joshua making all her repair rolls. Joshua enjoys standoff advantage, as her rifled guns can hit the US tinclads at short range, while the Union ships' smoothbores fire less effectively at medium to long range. Soon Chaffee has lost three of her guns, one sidewheel is nearly crippled, and her hull integrity is below 50%. She exits the Union table edge. Joshua is now between the Union table edge and the Golconda, who gamely starts her escape run. Alas, it is not to be. The Joshua's bow rifle smashes what's left of Golconda's stacks, and the lack of updraught to the boilers reduces her speed to slow, giving Joshua ample time to keep broadside on and pummel the tinclad, whose return fire is ineffectual. Within a few more turns the Union skipper strikes his colours.

With one if its precious Cairo class ironclads sunk, with one tinclad lost and another facing many days of repair, Union control of this sector of the Mississippi is gravely weakened. General Moore's orders to move by land on Bluffsburg depend on cooperation from the Navy, but with that ironclad monster Joshua roaming the river, his whole operation is undermined. His boss, Old Brains Halleck, will not be happy. Meanwhile General Hatcher, whose division is slowly being pushed back on Bluffsburg, will find that with his river flank secure, he can concenttrate forces with a better chance of checking the Union advance. The battle is thus a major CS victory.

At least, it would have been if this was a real fight. This AAR describes my first attempt to get to know the Smoke on the Water rules from Canis Publications. The website for these rules claims that SOTW does not sacrifice realism for playability, and I have to agree. Other than a few head scratching moments with the collision rules (and things seem to collide a lot, even when playing solo and making probability rolls for individual ship moves), the mechanisms seemed easy enough, and the result seemed right.

What I need to work on here is play balance. I had historical ship stats for Ironton (a fictional member of the historical Cairo class), Chaffee and Golconda are based on the historical Fort Hindman class of tinclads, and Maccabbee used the stats for the CS Planter tinclad. Joshua however is a creature of my campaign, and I think I erred by giving it the stats for the CSS Tennessee, which was a pretty fearsome customer. Bluffsburg is supposed to be a minor town on the Mississippi, a mini-Vicksburg, and I doubt her workshops could produce such a monster. I need to reconsider her armament and armour before turning her loose for real, because as the above illustrated, a whole campaign can hang in the balance while people go messing about in boats.

Thanks for reading what has been a bit of a departure for this blog, namely its first naval AAR! AAARRRRRGGHHHH! Mike

23 comments:

  1. For the love of your boss, Padre, don't do that! I was wetting myself with fear as the results came up, seeing Bluffsburg turning into the mother of all foot-slogging, trench-digging, meat-grinding land-only campaigns.
    The rules seem to work well, though, looking forward to reading the reports once you apply them to the actual campaign.
    Cheers/The Penguin

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    1. Hello Thomas! Never fear, old chap, you may yet have to slog your way towards Bluffsburg. This playtest was my first attempt to live up to my new years' resolution made in this blog, namely to revisit and finish the Bluffsburg campaign. I intend to have that back into get by month's end.

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    2. Woho!
      Looking forward to that very much!

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  2. A stirring wee action there, Padre. You know, with a bit more luck and discipline, the CSA could have made the North's conquest of the Mississippi a much tougher prospect than it turned out to be.

    I agree green isn't really convincing for the Old Man River: brown is what you want. Asd for the frequency of collisions, my own One Brain Cell set (based upon another 1BC set written for much smaller scale models I lifted from a magazine) also features lots of collision. Lessons learned: 1. Don't follow friendly vessels too close in line astern. Bad if the leading one stops suddenly. 2. Get your ramming course right, or you fetch up on the river bank. Just...bad.

    For a historical scenario, the Fort Pillow action was an early Reb success, putting two Cairo class vessels on the bottom. As the river was shallow where they went down, both were shortly salvaged and took part in the Memphis battle.

    A question: does your rule set provide for infantry marksmen on board Confederate cotton-clad gunboats? They seemed to have made a difference historically. Their withdrawal from riverine service before the Memphis battle appears to have deprived the CSA boats the means seriously to discommode the gunners and ship-handlers on the Union vessels.

    Cheers,
    Ion

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    1. Thanks for your comment Ion, very informative. Careful shiphandling is indeed the order of the day. I gave myself a bit of an advantage playing solo in knowing where everyone was going. A game with multiple players per side, not being able to coordinate orders, would have a huge risk of friendly collisions, let alone collisions with the enemy, either intention or not.
      I haven't read all the advanced rules in SOTW yet so I can't say if there are rules for infantry marksmen. I shall check. In my campaign setting, where infantry are a precious commodity to the rebel commander, that would be a hard decision to cut loose a company or two for riverine duty.
      From what little I know of riverine operations in 1862-63, the Confederacy in the West put more reliance on forts than on ships, but I don't know as much about Fort Pillow as I should.

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    2. After the Memphis battle the Confederacy had hardly a worthwhile floating presence on the Mississippi and associated waterway except for the brief, 3 week period in 1862 when the CS Ram Arkansas took on the entire Union riverine fleet. Very early in the piece they CSA did try and conduct a riverine naval campaign (as well as the fort system).

      It seems that The CS Army felt the need for their troops on land rather than on the water. For all that the 'Father of Waters' is brown, and too thick to drink, it don't qualify as land. Too thin to plough, I gather. It is also possible that the effectiveness of the marksmen (in pretty large numbers, be it noted) were not appreciated at the time.
      Cheers,
      Ion

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  3. Great report, looks like a good game

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    1. Thanks Loki. I hope you're wife is better soon. It was fun to take a break from the Analogue Hobbies painting challenge and spend a day relaxing with a game. I hope you're taking breaks from painting as well - sounds like you have to be, being the domestic goddess and super dad at home!

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  4. Fun stuff! Do the rules deal with hazards on the river such as sand banks and sunken logs? These were big dangers to river shipping in those days, especially on the western rivers.

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    1. Hello Sean!
      There are rules for running aground. Because I was a generic tablecloth, I decided that there was a six inch danger zone along both long table edges where the banks were shallow enough to make grounding a possibility. In future I would like to include more defined riverbank contours, islands, and other features to make navigation more complicated. I believe that the advanced section of SOTW includes pilings and other deliberately placed obstacles, which could be widened to dead trees and sand banks in the river, etc. Definitely a good idea to make play more challenging.

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    2. Similar to my 1BC set. Get within 6" of the bank, you roll a D6. If you rolled more than the distance to shore, in inches, you were aground. Roll equal (consider each inch as an interval labelled 1 - 6 going out from shore), and you had a 50-50 chance of going aground (re-roll, high/low), Roll below, and you were OK. Shove yourself onto the bank and you were there for the duration.

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  5. Looks like you had a fun solo play-test Padre. I do enjoy a good ironclads game, and we're well catered for those at the club I go to (as Thomas can attest).

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    1. Thanks Tamsin! Who can't resist a good ironclads game? They are rather like those bumper carts rides you can take at the circus, only with big cannnons. :)

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  6. Very fine AAR there, Mike. Whenever we've played ACW naval, it's been a blast - usually from someone's vessel exploding. "Smoke on the Water" looks a fine set. We felt we wanted something very playable for these kind of games - I think we went for "Hammerin' Iron" from Peter Pig in the end. Great period and fun games.

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    1. Thanks Sidney! When I was asking for suggestions on the Lardies' list last year, the Piggie rules Hammerin Iron came up a lot. I opted to buy another set, River Wars, which I haven't tried yet, and Thomas the Mad Penguin has sent me another, so I have more options to explore. It is a great period, everything is in flux, new technologies every month of the war, seemingly - more interesting than steampunk!

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  7. Good to see you taking to the water. This is one of the few naval periods that I've ever been tempted by. Probably due to the old Yaquinto game Ironclads.


    The ships look great, the game sounded fun. I think the green looks more Mississipish than a blue cloth would have but of course you'll have to add some land for the forthcoming 3mm armies to operate on during combined ops.

    -Ross

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    1. Thanks Ross. I have a boardgame called "Shot and Shell" which I think is a descendent of the Yaquinto game. It is quite unplayable but the scenario guide is a gem.

      The Mississippi is indeed green, depending on the sun. It's also muddy. I know that from experience.

      Sadly no 3mm armies are forthcoming. I am having enough trouble with 6mm Napoleonics.

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  8. Good to see you bashing on with Bluffsburg.
    I know I want to read more about Col Von Daniken's heroic exploits! :)

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    1. You will notice that Von Daniken won my "Best Mini of 2012" award. That should tell you something, and I predict great things for him, though with him waving his hat in the air all the time he may well get shot.

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  9. An excellent write up, will definitely have to give those rules a try!

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  10. Thanks Kieran. I think you'll like SOTW and the price is right. :)

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