The Basic Game
Form Line of Battle, 1987 from Raider Games, UK, is a
set of miniatures rules for ship-to-ship combat written by Stephen
Harrison and Robin Peck. It is set vaguely in the "Age of Sail,"
but the nature of the rules make it clear that it focuses on
Note: since this review was last revised (March, 1997), I have
learned there is a second edition of Form Line of Battle available
Enterprises. I have not yet seen a copy, however, so cannot comment on
any changes - I may have a review of the second edition at some
point, but don't hold your breath.
As the author of GURPS Swashbucklers, I have a
long-standing interest in age of sail miniatures games, and have
played many of them. Form Line of Battle is currently
my favorite, at least until I finish my own rules, which should
be, given the rate I've been working on them since 1987, about the
year 2016. Maybe sooner, but don't count on it...
At any rate, I've tried lots of them, and have slowly rejected most of
them. Some I simply find too complex - this doesn't mean the games
are bad, simply not to my taste. Others, such as Campbell's
Close Action (not to be confused with Langton's
Signal Close Action) are too heavily chart-bound. I
found myself spending more time looking at charts and tables and
record sheets than at ships - this was not to my liking, either.
So for me, the best so far is Form Line of Battle. I'll
be the first to admit it's far from a perfect game - it has its flaws,
some self-admitted by the authors. But what it does right is to be
simple enough to play smoothly, have very few charts or tables, use
very simple record sheets, and give a good feel for combat in the era.
The flaws include a few unrealistic results and the very simplicity
which is its strength may turn off some gamers. Not me, though: I'd
rather have a simple game that returns 90% of the accuracy than a more
accurate game that is much more complex. And Form Line of
Battle fits this description: it returns enough accuracy to be
satisfying, and is simple enough to be smooth-playing.
Cards and Record Sheets
Form Line of Battle uses a simple system for
command/control: each side has three playing cards of a given color -
card value is irrelevant. Shuffle the six cards (three red, three
black), and draw them one at a time. When your color card comes up,
it is your turn. The first card of your color drawn represents the
command/control phase, and the other two cards are move/combat
Ship record sheets are very simple - you can have a whole fleet on
sheet of paper, or even use 3x5 note cards for smaller engagements.
A ship is classified in two basic ways, and also requires a small
space for notes. Ships are first rated for combat - historical
British ratings are used from the Napoleonic wars: 1st Rate
through 4th Rate for Ships of the Line, and 5th & 6th Rate for
Frigates. Ships are also classed by Maneuverability: Class
1 are Ships of the Line and Merchant ships, Class 2 Frigates and
sloops. As a ship takes hits, its combat Rating goes "up" - meaning
its firepower decreases. (Note the new Rating on the record sheet.)
Its movement class doesn't change, though damaged masts and wheels
can affect maneuverability. Sticking to historic usage of the
terms "First Rate" and so on makes for some awkward mental adjustments,
I must admit - but if you can remember that a First Rate ship is
better at combat than a Second Rate ship, it makes sense.
During the command/control phase, no movement or firing takes place.
Instead, orders are issued (used in multi-player games: the flagship
can send six words per turn to other players), the crew attempts to
put out any fire on board, repairs are made, anchoring and weighing
anchor occurs, grounded ships are refloated, fallen masts are cut
free, grapples are cut, and broadside-fired markers are removed. Note
that all of these actions, except issuing orders and removing
broadside-fired markers, require a certain die roll to succeed.
During the movement/combat phase, each ship for a given side moves
straight forward - turns are only allowed at the end of movement. The
distance moved is based on dice; the number of dice rolled is based on
attitude to the wind and Maneuver Class. So a Class 2 ship (more
maneuverable) broad reaching (going across the wind) rolls 4 dice for
movement, while a Class 1 ship running before the wind rolls only 2
dice. In order to account for some control over your speed, the owner
may decide to move the total number rolled or any one die
result rolled, in centimeters, straight forward. One of the few
tables in the game shows how many dice to roll for each class of ship
in each of four positions relative to the wind (beating, broad
reaching, quarter reaching, running).
Ships may turn up to two or three points at the end of their move,
depending on their Maneuver Class. "Points" in this game are twice as
large as real mariners' points: that is, there are 16 points in
a circle in the game, so 2 points equals 45 degrees. The game
includes a ship's compass, wind direction spinner and indicator,
turn template and point of sailing indicator as well as fallen mast
markers and a broadside angle gauge.
Ships which accidentally move too far - say you roll all sixes, when
you hoped to move no more than four centimeters this turn - are out of
luck. This can range from simply sailing into a vulnerable position
to ramming another ship to running aground on a lee shore! I like
this aspect of movement - although it introduces luck into movement, I
think in this case it's realistic. I admit there are no rules for
skillful shiphandlers, however, but if you try to include too much,
the game bogs down. If ramming or running aground, check for loss of
Tacking requires three movement phases, and you run the risk, during
the second movement phase, of going "into irons" - losing control and
drifting. It happened in real life, nice to see it in the game.
Combat is handled by simply declaring a broadside at any point in your
movement. You may fire a broadside only once per "round" - a round
consisting of your command/control phase and two movement/combat
phases. Place a wisp of cotton to show a fired broadside - if you
fired in your first movement phase, you can't fire again in your
second. You may also fire in your opponent's phase - simply announce
firing as he sails by - but the phasing player always has the option
of firing first.
The only detailed table in the game is the damage table. Each combat
uses three sets of dice rolls - a bit clunky, but actually exciting.
First the attacker rolls 1d6 and adds the opponent's rating,
plus any distance and rake modifiers. Then the defender rolls 1d6 and
adds the attacking ship's rating. Subtract the attacker's result from
the defender's result: the final number tells you which column to use
on the damage table. (Columns are given from -12 to +8 - the lower
the number, the heavier the damage is likely to be.) Finally the
attacker rolls 2d6, and looks down the column determined above to find
the damage - the lower the roll, the more severe the damage. Damage
results range from Sinking outright to Striking colors to an increase
in Firing Rating of one, two, or three levels (remember, First Rate is
better than Second Rate, so you don't want to see your firing rating
go up!) to a wheel hit or mast lost or fire breaking out to no damage
at all that shot.
This system works well. While a bit awkward, it's nowhere near as
chart-intensive as Close Action, for example, and the
record keeping is much simpler: simply adjust your firing rating (the
most common result), or note a wheel hit or mast lost or fire, and get
on with the game.
Including the opponent's firing rating in the formula is an
interesting way of balancing ship size and vulnerability. Basically
it means that as you take damage, you are not only less likely to
damage an opponent, but are also more likely to take even more
damage next time you are fired upon. This is probably true, as
the oak of those days acted as armor. As it became battered, it
offered less and less protection. By the way, a frigate class ship
cannot increase the fire rating of a ship of the line in the game,
except if raking. It can cause wheel, mast, or fire damage,
Also included are very brief and easy rules for boarding, grappling,
various types of damage, drifting, ungrappling, capturing vessels,
running aground and refloating, dropping and weighing anchor, etc.
None of these are given much detail in the game - usually roll a d6
and hope you get the range you need to succeed, and get on with the
game. Only boarding is slightly more complex, and only slightly -
those who want detailed boarding action should look elsewhere.
Personally, this is to my taste - your mileage, as they say, may
That's basically the game. Due to its simplicity, it's suitable for
large fleets, either with many players or even controlled by one
person per side. The scarcity of tables, the ease of record keeping, the
handy templates included all add up to a game where you can fight out
a twenty-ship encounter in two to three hours. Very satisfying,
unless you're a stickler for detail.
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