Fire as they Bear! The Age of Fighting Sail at the Greenburgh Library
This past Wednesday, Next Gen was at the Greenburgh Library, which is located in Westchester County, NY. It's a small town not too far from the Hudson River, and is a hop, skip, and a jump from New York City.
The game I chose to run was an old favorite- The Age of Fighting Sail using A to Z rules. This ruleset is one of many authored by the late, great, Andy Zartolas, a fixture in the Connecticut gaming community and one of the founders of the Connecticut Game Club. While I would not say we were close, he did have a big impact on me when it comes to game based learning. I can very clearly remember speaking with him at an HMGS Cold Wars convention in late 90s, after having played one of his games. When he learned I was planning on becoming a history teacher, he had a whole conversation with me about how and why games could be a fun way for the students to learn. Needless to say, it was rewarding to share his sailing game with the Greenburgh players.
The players arrived right around 1:00pm. Andy's rules, on the whole, are really great for student gamers. They are the perfect blend of decision making, simple mechanics, and the kind of moments players remember. I've always found that students like naval games due to the record keeping aspect. In "Fighting Sail", players get a ship log where they need to keep track of their hull, crew, guns, sails, and general integrity of their vessel. As they take damage, they have to cross out boxes, make notes, and always be sure which heading they are on. The first 15 minutes of game saw us going through all of the materials, with the kids picking up on the rules quickly.
Greenburgh was kind enough to give us more tables than we needed, which meant we had plenty of space to set up in. Before the game, I packed all of the materials onto one table, with the players picking up things as they needed them.
For the battle, I used Sails of Glory ships, which are well made and easy to transport. While they lack the individual wire rigging and detail of more expensive models, they still look wonderful. I removed the ship cards and replaced them with the names of the vessels, followed by the number of guns. Some of the flags are incorrect- another project I'll need to tackle before the school year begins in September!
The other highlight of our pregame activity was talking a bit about the time period, which in this case, was 1805. The kids were quite engaged by our chat. We talked about the Napoleonic Wars, discussed how the vessels were constructed, and the kind of tactics they would use on the high seas. They were a bit surprised to learn how rare it was for these ships to actually sink, and why they were much more valuable as prizes to be brought home following battle. We also talked about the danger of fire, how to use the wind as an advantage, and why "crossing the T" was one of the goals of any ship captain.
The students picked up the rules very quickly, which resulted in fast play. I cannot recommend these rules enough. The sequence is pretty intuitive, with the players determining their overall speed, and dividing that into three increments. After each increment, players decide whether they want to fire or not, though they may only do so once in the phase. Fouling, grappling, and melee are all possible, depending on how close together the ships come to one another.
Shooting is by far the most fun part of the game. Players take their total number of guns on their broadside and divide by 2 for the initial shot, and 4 or 5 for subsequent shots. In some cases, students were rolling as many 20 dice to determine hits. Once hits are scored, players re-roll on the damage chart to determine whether they destroyed hull, sails, guns, or crew.
In our game, shooting began as soon as the players came into range. They did well overall, with the British ship "Victory" taking the worst of it. On one of the first volley, the ship lost something like 10-12 hull points. That said, things were neck and neck deep into the game. The turning point, in my estimation, was when the British ships, wanting to get their port guns into action (they hadn't fired yet, which meant they were fully loaded and would divide by 2, not 4 or 5), made a dangerous inward turn toward the French ships. This put them into "Crossing the T" territory. A brutal French volley followed. By the end of the game, the 4 ships were fouled right in the middle of the table. "Victory" only had a few hull points left. It was at this moment we had to cut the game, with the students eager and willing to play again soon.
All in all, we had an absolute blast. Huge thanks to Emily Dowie for helping to organize the day, and to the parents and players at the event. If you've never been to the Greenburgh Library, it's absolutely gorgeous, with plenty of natural light. I highly recommend stopping by if you're ever in the area.
As usual, if this event looked like fun and you're a teacher, librarian, gamer, or anyone else enthusiastic about student gaming, please use the contact form on our main website to reach out. We'll have more programming coming up before you know it!