Monday, 31 January 2011

Rules and Things

Even allowing for the fact that naval wargaming is something of a Cinderella compared to land games, it is surprising how little attention this period has attracted. If you want to game the World Wars, Nelson's battles or play with triremes, then you are really spoilt for choice. For the Sixteenth Century, however, I have yet to find a completely satisfactory set of rules. To date I have looked at some half a dozen different sets, and rejected most them for one reason or another. One major reason is that I want to fight larger scale battles as well as small, and I especially wanted to avoid bookkeeping, so those rules that require a log to be kept of each separate vessel are going to lose out to those that don’t, which is most of them. Ideally I want a set that captures the feel of the period without slowing a game up with micro-management of every ship. Barbarossa and Don Jon of Austria didn’t have to worry about it, so why should I?

Secondly, any rules that cover things like ramming (not a feature of combat since the Roman period) and/or the wind gauge (this is the Mediterranean Renaissance, not the Napoleonic Wars!) smack of anachronism and will also likely be passed over in favour of others. At present my preferred set is the old WRG rulettes set. Very brief and to the point, they reflect some of the doctrinal differences between the different nations and their galleys and allow for land forces and fortifications, important features of the galley warfare of the period. Most importantly they provide for a quick game with no record keeping. When I tried them out at a club meet in Tokyo, my opponent found them easy to use and was quite happy to give them another go in the future. I haven’t yet tried Langton’s “Serenissima” rules, or the “Lanterna” set from the Perfect Captain, so I can’t comment on those, but to date I haven’t found a set that gives me as good and as fast a game as the old WRG set.
The Ships

During the Sixteenth century, the basic war vessel for all the Mediterranean fleets was the war galley - the gallea sotil, or ordinary galley. This was the basic vessel that made up the bulk of all the fleets in the Mediterranean. Although there were differences between the vessels used by Muslim and Christian navies, the basic design of the galleys reflected a common standard right across the Mediterranean world. Typically a war galley would be around 38 – 40m in length and 5m in width and was powered by 22 – 25 banks of oars. At the beginning of the Sixteenth Century each rowing bank held three rowers, each with his own oar, giving a total rowing crew, or ciurma, of 144 to 150, or even up to 250, depending on the number of rowing benches and men per oar. This was known the alla sensile system and was retained by the Venetians and the Ottomans until after Lepanto. The rowers were usually free men, not slaves, and so could in theory provide extra fighters in a boarding clash. Firepower was provided by marines armed with bows (in the case of the Turks and North Africans) or crossbows and arquebusses, and by a battery of heavier guns. Unlike later sailing men-o’-war, war galleys’ guns were fixed to fire forward, so were placed in the bow of the ship, just behind a spiked prow that was intended to provide something of a boarding bridge after a ramming contact. This latter feature sometimes interfered with gunnery. Before the battle at Lepanto Don Jon ordered his ships to saw off the prow so that the galleys’ guns could have an uninterrupted field of fire. At the stern of the galley was a covered area that provided protection for the steering and the captain, and functioned as something of a command post. The galley was in fact so standardized that the navies of Venice and the Ottomans often made use of prefab models – the arsenals kept the relevant sections for ships in store and simply put them together as and when they were needed. Finding a crew was a bigger problem than finding a ship. As the warfleets got bigger, manpower shortages became more acute and, starting with the Spanish, states started to press criminals and other prisoners into the galleys. The navies of Venice and the Ottomans managed to avoid using such methods until after Lepanto, when they too were forced to follow suit simply because of the lack of other available manpower.

Very large galleys with up to 35 banks of oars were known as capitanas, patronas, bastardas or lanternas. These last are often translated as flagships, however, while most flagships were lanternas, not all lanternas were flagships. They carried extra troops and their function was to provide a strongpoint in the battle line from where attacks could be launched from, or conversely, from where a defence could be stiffened. Guilmartin describes their role as one of leadership rather than command. They carried extra large lanterns at the stern of the ship to indicate their role and position. The flagship proper was the capitana, which also carried extra large lanterns as a sign of command. The Museu Maritim in Barcelona ( has a beautiful full size replica of Don Juan’s lanterna, the Real, as it probably appeared at Lepanto and is a must-see for anyone with any interest in the period.

Also among the ‘big boys’ was the gallea grosse. As its name implies this was essentially a large galley, often a merchant vessel. They could carry a good battery of artillery and a large force of soldiers. Against this they were not specifically designed as warships and tended to be clumsier and less handy than the purpose-designed war galley. Venice succeeded in maximising their benefits and minimising their drawbacks by developing the galleass, a hybrid sailing ship/war galley based on gallea grosse hulls. The galleass featured a large armoured forecastle carrying (for a galley) an extremely heavy battery of artillery with a very wide field of fire, both frontally and to the sides; high sides (making boarding difficult) and numerous lighter swivel guns along the length of the ship. They were still slow and clumsy, but their sheer firepower made them formidable opponents.

At the other end of the scale was the galiot. Essentially this was simply a scaled down galley. Shorter and narrower, with around 12 – 18 banks of oars, these were light, fast craft less capable in a formal engagement, but much faster and far more effective when raiding. As such they were especially popular with the various Barbary nations. Some (like Barbarossa’s flagship) were the same size as a war galley, but most were smaller, carrying a less powerful battery of artillery and riding lower in the water. Smaller still were vessels known variously as bergantines, fregotas, etc. which were used for communication, scouting and reconnaissance. In a battle their role was to ferry troops between ships, providing reinforcements for those involved in boarding battles.