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"What age of sail era to choose?" Topic

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Mr Byron09 Sep 2018 6:16 p.m. PST

I've decided to expand my naval miniatures collection into the age of sail (up to now it has been only pre-dreadnoughts). My first problem is choosing an era. The Napoleonic era seems like the obvious choice, and I suppose the same miniatures would be suitable for gaming naval conflicts from about 1750 or so up to the age of steam.

But the more I look at it, the more I'm tempted to focus on the 17th century, with the Anglo-Dutch wars and so forth. I have a couple of questions in that regard:

(1) For what timeframe would miniatures for that era look reasonably correct? I'm guessing say, 1630ish until 1730 or so?

(2) Does anyone have recommendations for a rules set for 17th century naval wargaming? I see lots of discussion of Napoleonic era rules, but not the 17th century. (I'm imagining there are enough differences to require different rules -- I may be completely wrong in that assumption). Ideally, I'd like to find something simple enough to work for large fleet engagements. Something like a 17th Century "General Quarters" would be great.

Regardless of era, I'm thinking of sticking with 1/2400 scale and buying the ships from Tumbling Dice. They seem like robust little pieces that won't require an excess of rigging, and small enough to permit fleet engagements in a reasonable space. The sample (Napoleonic era) 74 gun ship-of-the-line I purchased looks promising.

Is there an era you prefer? What draws you to that era?

Thank you for offering your thoughts!

-- Byron

BrianW09 Sep 2018 6:43 p.m. PST

My preferred era is Napoleonic, thanks to all those Hornblower novels I read as a kid, and my preferred scale is 1/1200. However, since you want to focus on 17th Century, I think you're right to go with 1/2400 scale. Those battles were HUGE by later standards, and even with smaller ships, I don't think you could do it in 1/1200 without renting a gym or something.

The most distinctive thing about 17th Century models (IMO) is the spritsail topmast, out at the end of the jib. Those stopped being built on new ships sometime around the 1720s. Since all the ships in a fleet aren't new though, I would guess you could use them up to the 1730s or early 1740s. That comes from looking at paintings from the War of Jenkin's Ear, so it is only a guess.

I have no experience with that period of naval gaming, so can't give you any opinions about what rules might be best. You're right though, in that it is very different from later periods. For example, no Fighting Instructions to mandate line formations.

I have the same problem with recommending ships as I do with rules. I do know, though, that Pithead just started a line of 1/2400 Anglo/Dutch, so you might want to consider them as well. There are some pictures of them here: link

Mr Byron09 Sep 2018 7:19 p.m. PST


You've hit on two things that give me pause about the 17th century -- (1) the huge number of ships in some of the fleet battles, and (2) no "Fighting Instructions," which reminds me of the problems created by the somewhat primitive command and control in that era. Both could create gaming difficulties.

Thank you also for the link.

Oldgrumbler Supporting Member of TMP09 Sep 2018 10:44 p.m. PST

Line of Battle by David Manley is an excellent ruleset that covers both eras. Easy to play but comprehensive.

Yellow Admiral10 Sep 2018 5:42 a.m. PST

My quick answer to the OP is: if you're going to collect and build all the ships of all the fleets you want to play with, pick any period that strikes your fancy, but if you want to collaborate with other gamers, go with Napoleonic naval.

Also keep in mind that the further you get from the Napoleonic period, the fewer interested gamers you find willing to play Forrester and O'Brien did a lot to make Nelson's era a living part of most gamers' psyches, but the long stretch between 1588 and 1792 is mare incongnitum to most gamers.

I chose to collect Napoleonic fleets in 1/2400 and I mostly used them for AWI-era actions, because I found the see-saw fleet contests of the AWI a much more interesting source of gaming scenarios than the British-dominated Napoleonic Wars (and I was inspired by A.T. Mahan, not C.S. Forrester). There was very little visible difference between ships of the two periods, and the minor differences are beyond the resolution of the human eye in 1/2400 scale anyway.

- Ix

Yellow Admiral10 Sep 2018 5:53 a.m. PST

The most distinctive thing about 17th Century models (IMO) is the spritsail topmast, out at the end of the jib.
I respectfully disagree that was the most distinctive thing. I think there were several things:
  • Steeply raked, high sterns
  • Riotous proliferation of carving and decoration, especially around the stern galleries
  • The mizzen lateen sail
  • Huge lanterns on the stern rail

For illustration (and inspiration!), check out the pictures of gorgeously rendered Langton ADW models at Mike's Leadpile.

I would say the 1/1200 ADW offerings (esp. Langton) are mostly useful for the period from 1660 through 1720ish. I haven't seen any of the 1/2400 ADW ships, so I can't say, but given their small size, they'll probably be good for a wider time frame.

Many of the larger "state" ships of the 2nd and 3rd ADWs also served in the 1st ADW, but a large number of the ships in the 1650s still had a very "galleon" look about them. I generally consider the "galleon era" to extend from the about 1560 to 1650, the era from 1650-1660 to be a stylistic transition that it's difficult to model accurately with existing miniatures, and the 1660-1700 period well covered by Langton and maybe now by Tumbling Dice and Pithead. (FWIW, I also think the Valiant 1/2000 Napleonic ships look like awesome ADW ships if you add high sterns with lanterns and carved galleries, and change the sails… but that's a lot of work.)

There is an apparent change in coloration in the 1690-1720 period, which could be managed by just painting the models differently. By the 1740s the available art seems to show some changes to structure and style that may not be possible to replicate with paint. OTOH, there isn't a lot of naval art of the period between the WSS and the SYW, so it's hard to say what ship models in that era should look like.

- Ix

Yellow Admiral10 Sep 2018 6:41 a.m. PST

On a different tack: Whatever Mr Byron comes up with, I can't wait to see it. I still go back to stare at the pictures of the WTJ Pre-Dreadnought Fleet Review once in a while. Brilliant work.

- Ix

Yellow Admiral10 Sep 2018 6:51 a.m. PST

On the topic of gaming, the Napoleonic Wars are pretty well supported, and the second half of the 18th C. is easy enough to play by just modifying Napoleonic rules, but as noted, the fleet battles of the 17th C. tended to involve enormous fleets under poor control, and in my opinion it just isn't possible to do justice to the period with miniatures. The General at Sea rules are probably the best attempt yet to cover the period, but I'm not a fan of using stands to represent groups of ships. I'd be more inclined to attempt a modification of Jeff Knudsen's rules Admirals (or maybe try to rev him up to do it for me, heh).

There are quite a few campaigns and actions I'd love to try if I can ever get the miniatures and rules together. The third Anglo-Dutch War features some of the most brilliant underdog victories in naval history, and de Ruyter's 1676 campaign against the French around Sicily looks to me like a perfect subject for a naval campaign.

About 20 years ago I decided the galleon era from 1580-1640 was actually a perfect wargaming period, because there was almost no such thing as fleet tactics, and with few exceptions, big battles with dozens or hundreds of ships tended to become giant scrums, which is exactly the way gamers play naval games. I have largish collections of galleons in both 1/600 and 1/1200, though I have yet to get any of them on the gaming table.

- Ix

BillyNM10 Sep 2018 7:51 a.m. PST

If you want fleet actions Anglo-Dutch is great but the battles are huge and it's not well supported by manufacturers. If you go 'Napoleonic-ish' then I'd recommend the naval wars in the Baltic between Denmark, Sweden and Russia means terrain will be a driver in games and a nice mix with the galley fleets as well. If you want to command a ship rather than a fleet then the War of 1812 is the obvious one. As for rules – with reasonable sized fleets I'd use those in Paul Hague's book Naval Wargaming.

Costanzo110 Sep 2018 9:40 a.m. PST

No doubt. 1630- 1718. The most beautiful ships. The greatest variety of battles and tactis. The most balanced power among the fleets. The greatest number of ships. Do you want other?

Mr Astrolabe10 Sep 2018 11:36 a.m. PST

I've not checked this out but I'm guessing you'll get a great deal more variety of rule sets with the Napoleonic era. Certainly for me this meant a lot more research but ultimately the huge choice allowed me to settle on a rule set that I was very happy with, though I'd stress this was for single ship/small squadron actions.
Following on from this there are a lot more scenarios available for the Napoleonic era, some factual, some fictional, as a result of the huge volume of work on the period.

Vincent the Librarian10 Sep 2018 12:38 p.m. PST

For the larger ADW, you could break it down to different squadron fighting each other, which is what usually happened.

I like the ADW because the sides are more even, the English don't have the superiority like they do in the Nappy period.

You have more use of fireships which adds another factor.

There are some great fights during this period, sadly it is rather neglected.

Yellow Admiral10 Sep 2018 1:20 p.m. PST

I like the ADW because the sides are more even, the English don't have the superiority like they do in the Nappy period.
This has ever been one of my favorite aspects of the three Anglo-Dutch Wars, and there were lots of other see-saw 17th C. naval conflicts too Danish/Swedish wars in the Baltic, the Franco-Dutch war(s?) in the Atlantic and the Med, the British and Anglo-Dutch conflicts with the French in the 1690s… and on and on. The Venetians and Ottomans were still fighting over the Eastern Mediterranean all the way through the 1600s too, and they were still using galleys the whole time. Galleys appeared as auxiliaries in a lot of the other Mediterranean contests too. The first big fleet operations in the Caribbean happened during Louis XIV's reign, as well. I agree the 17th C. is a very underappreciated period in wargaming.

I really like R.C. Anderson's books Naval Wars in the Levant, 1559-1853 and Naval wars in the Baltic, 1522-1850 as sources of scenarios.

- Ix

BrianW10 Sep 2018 7:21 p.m. PST

I would not disagree with you on the other distinguishing features on Anglo-Dutch ships. I said that thinking of the 1/2400 scale ships the OP mentioned.

Another thought where rules are concerned are Grand Fleet Actions in the Age of Sail by A&A Games. They cover from the Armada up, and as I remember were pretty simple while still looking like they would give a good game.

lloydthegamer Supporting Member of TMP10 Sep 2018 10:24 p.m. PST

Oddly enough just last night my buddies and I played our first game of Tiller & Whipstaff ANGLO DUTCH FAST PLAY by Rod Langton. For a sailing ship game they were easy to play. Being the first game we played single ship vs. single ship and had a good time, good enough that on Tuesday night we're going to do a bigger battle. We used my collection of Warartisan's 1/600 paper ships.

Yellow Admiral10 Sep 2018 10:56 p.m. PST

Tiller & Whipstaff needs to be a *much* bigger game than 1-on-1. grin


- Ix

Blutarski11 Sep 2018 5:48 a.m. PST

Interesting question.
I prefer the American War of Independence period, as it features good qualitative balance among the opposing navies (Spain alone excepted). Numbers are also more equal. The downside, to be fair, is a vastly reduced number of "dramatic" British victories.


lloydthegamer Supporting Member of TMP11 Sep 2018 8:36 a.m. PST

That is what we realized, but I wanted to keep it simple for a trial run. The rules are quite nice and did give a very fast one on one game, tonight we'll have a small squadron affair 6 or 7 ships to a side.

Cursd Captain11 Sep 2018 11:37 a.m. PST

An important question here is the scale of conflict you want to represent. It sounds like you want a full historical battle on a table. In that case, as others have mentioned, the French/English wars in the Americas (before Napoleon) offer the most viable and balanced scenarios for late 18th century ships.

I however strongly support more gaming in earlier periods. The question becomes, what are some ways the 17th century should play differently from the 18th century?

If you are interested in the ship to ship level, the early ships are less maneuverable because they lack wheels and jib sails. They are heavily overgunned -- really covered with ornate decorations and guns like a Warhammer model. This makes them tilt away from the wind, and several of those guns are too close to the water, so they don't fight as well on the lee side. They can project a lot of shot on the windward side, though.

If you buy the argument I'm making, it changes the value of having the weathergauge. A line of 17th century ships works best as a mobile wall against an enemy coming from upwind. It is shield more than a sword, which is why big battles between these lines could end inconclusively. The foe with the weathergauge is perhaps advantaged in initiative, but disadvantaged in fire.

In general, the rate of fire is lower for all participants that at Trafalgar, which makes boarding more important.

As on land, military professionalism is almost nonexistant at the start of the 1600s and is fairly extant by the end. This isn't just a matter of signalling, but of who has authority of the ships. Up to about 1680, a lot of the ships belong to individuals rather than the state. A merchant skipper who has been conscripted into the war is not easily part of the chain of command and does not want to risk the ship he needs for his livelihood.

So: reduced turning, bias toward upwind fire, bias toward boarding, more individualism. It seems like these points could be added to any set of rules, and the last one is more an agreement about how the commanders can act or what their goals are. Can others here think of simple modifications to convert the 18th century into the 17th century?


Sergeant Paper11 Sep 2018 6:10 p.m. PST

You could also look at the Perfect Captain's (free to download) rules if you want to do smaller actions, they cover 16th century actions. Smaller ships can be done in larger scales (which looks great on the table).

"Spanish Fury: Sail" which includes '… the Spanish/Portugese, English and Dutch navies, as well as Turkish and Venetian. French and Hansards are provided for to a lesser extent.'

"Lanterna" covers the 16th century in the Mediterranean

And "Spanish Fury: Voyage" provides 'A campaign game of action in the Caribbean during the mid-late 16th century, for use with SF:Actions! (ground combat rules) and SF:Sail! (warship rules)

AdmiralHawke26 Sep 2018 1:48 p.m. PST

I share Yellow Admiral and Blutarski's interest in the American War of Independence for some similar reasons:
A) The balance between the French and Royal navies; if the British had an edge it was slight.
B) The sheer number of fleet and squadron battles over the four years from late 1778 to late 1782 (and into 1783 in the East Indies).
C) The involvement of the Dutch, Spanish and Continental Navies.
D) Some outstanding commanders, notably Howe, Hood, Rodney and Suffren, alongside some mediocre and poor ones.
E) The availability of a wide range of high-quality 1/1200 miniatures from multiple manufacturers, as most Napoleonic-era ships were either the same or very similar to those that fought in the American War.
That said, the Anglo-Dutch wars have much to offer too, particularly if you extend into the 1690s to involve French fleets as well.
I look forward to seeing what you choose. :-)

138SquadronRAF Supporting Member of TMP27 Sep 2018 9:32 a.m. PST

I'd agree with Ix, Jeff Knusen's "Admirals" rules are the best approach to fleet actions and cover the entire period.

For choice, all are interesting but the late 17thC has a particular appeal.

GHECKO2227 Sep 2018 4:34 p.m. PST

Free Armada period rules at

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