Heart of Oak

Brief Description These rules, by the author of the Privateers and Gentlemen series of novels, focus on the importance of ship handling. Combat is abstracted, in the sense that players worry about whether to fire, not how to fire. Also included are advanced rules (including bomb vessels, ships' boats, and heated shot). tournament rules (adding such complexities as fore-and-aft rigged vessels and a new boarding system), and campaign rules.
Period Age of Fighting Sail (1755 to 1815)
Scale One turn represents one minute of actual combat. The ground scale is 1mm = 1 meter. Each figure represents one ship.
Basing Individual. No recommended figure scale.
Contents 40-page rulebook, 3 reference cards, black-and-white counters (must be cut apart)
Designer Jon Williams (
Publisher First edition published 1978. Second edition published 1983 by Fantasy Games Unlimited

What You Think

John Cunningham (
Heart of Oak remains the most elegant and enjoyable set of Fighting Sail miniature rules yet produced. If you like things nautical, and wish to sail your ships into battle, Heart of Oak is for you! It is a must for any fan of CS Forester, Patrick O'Brian, and Alexander Kent.

Heart of Oak places you in command as the Captain of your ship, and commander of your squadron. The system emphasizes realism in its sailing system, and a player's most important decisions revolve around ship handling and tactics -- maneuvering one's ships into the best firing position. In this, HOA excels, and adds flavor to any Fighting Sail game. It has detailed (yet still playable) rules to cover tacking, wearing, luffing, and nearly any conceivable sailing maneuver -- you could even play out Horatio Hornblower's nightmare -- having to "box haul" on a lee shore while faced by a French man of war. It has all of Horatio's tricks accounted for. Faced by a faster ship and need to escape? Why, "start your water" and "wet your sails."

Players start their turn by allocating crew to guns and sails, to boarding parties, damage control and fire fighting parties. Movement is plotted in advance in two "legs" of movement, and players then take turns moving ships one by one until the first leg is moved, followed by the second leg of movement. Combat is done on the fly, with ships being able to fire at any point during their movement. The system assumes that your gunners are competent and will load the most effective shot for any given range. It takes into account using grape shot, and ship-borne musket fire, by increasing crew casualties as ships close the range on each other. A player's primary decision in gunnery is whether or not to fire at rigging or hull, although advanced rules also cover double-shotting your guns, hot shot, and the like.

It is a versatile system that allows players to fight nearly any style of naval battle for a several hundred year period, including galley combat for those who wish to duke it out with the Spanish Gaurda Costa, or Moorish pirates. As such it is easily adaptable for any sailing combat period running from Elizabethan to the end of the Age of Sail in the 19th century. However, given the movement and orders system, it is more suited for small actions (of several to a dozen ships per side) than for re-fighting Trafalgar, but it remains the best Age of Sail miniatures system out there.

Although it is out of print, the occasional copy can still be found at game conventions -- keep an eye out for it, it's well worth the search!

Robert Jones (
Heart Of Oak is a great set of rules. The only problem with this set of rules is they bear a remarkable and point-by-point similarity to a set by another designer that Mr. Williams playtested. The primary reason I'm sure he will let it go out of print.

The other rules were called Tars and Spars and remain unpublished to this day. Mr. Williams was introduced to the set by Mr. John McGregor in Santa Fe in late 1975. Lou Zocchi is familiar with the history of this design. Regrettably, Mr. Williams seems to have lacked the inspiration and insight for any other set of rules either before or after Heart Of Oak. He has written several SF novels that have gotten some notice and probably has reserved his creative juices for these endeavors. I doubt he'll return to wargame design, though I'd be interested in hearing of any new rules he might be working on.

[Editor's Note: Designer Jon Williams denies the plagiarism charge.]

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Last Updates
11 October 1999designer's email added
20 May 1997Robert Jones' comments
27 January 1997John Cunningham's comments
7 December 1996page first published
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