Sails of Glory Review

redoubtableSails of Glory was announced as a Kickstarter release by Ares Games just over a year ago.  The game was the highly anticipated sequel to the Wings of Glory series which spawned both a World War I and World War II version over the previous decade.  Andrea Angiolilo is the designer on Sails of Glory as he was on Wings of Glory and his influence is readily apparent throughout the product.  I backed this game at the Captain level which entitled me to a copy of the base game, Kickstarter exclusive ships, the entire Wave 1 release of ships alongside a number of nice stretch goals like cloth damage bags, double sets of tokens and shore batteries along with a wooden range/damage ruler and wind gauge.  I was eager to play this game throughout 2013.  Unfortunately, this game consistently disappointed me and ultimately, my copy is available for sale on eBay.

First, let me get my one caveat out of the way first: If you’re looking to sail ships around and blow stuff up, then you’ll really enjoy this game.  If, however, you’re like me and have at least a baseline expectation that the game will attempt to reproduce the era in a fun way – you’ll be sorely disappointed.

800px-Naval_Museum_Copenhagen_tiny_modelI’ll start with the components here because that seems to be the major draw for this game.  Model ships for the age of sail have long been relegated to nightmarish 1:2400 miniatures that must be ordered from Europe, assembled, primed, painted, and based prior to use.  The promise of highly detailed, pre-painted miniatures was enough to get any canvas and cannon junkie excited.  The ships are gorgeous in nearly every way.  They are, however, incredibly fragile being plastic and the bowsprit is particularly touchy as it is the most slender and protruding point on the ship.  The artwork throughout the product is evocative, detailed and tasteful.  I was impressed with the packaging, the pricepoint on the individual ships seems to me astounding, and you’re getting a value that I cannot imagine at $80 retail for this package.

2014-02-14 16.54.23My compliments for the components, however, end there.  Ships are attacked to the base through a small peg that extends down through a clear plastic sheet which covers the ship details card and into the garish blue base.  The pegs do not appear to be standard as some ships precariously wobble in the bases while others can be pressed firmly into place and hold well.  This does not appear to bear true for specific ships across sets either.  In the two sets that I’ve seen the same ship in both sets attaches to the base both snugly and so loose that it was a problem to handle the ship.  There are a number of different solutions that could have solved this issue, but I’m fond of a solution that’d put the peg on the base rather than the ship so that ships could be used in both the Sails of Glory game AND in other Age of Sail era games.  This would serve the dual purpose of supporting Ares’ product, while also giving Ares an opportunity to sell their minis outside their product range.

I am not a fan of the X-Wing miniature game from Fantasy Flight Games, but I do admire the component design that went into that product.  Many of the concepts pioneered for X-Wing needed a variation within the Sails of Glory game.  For example, it is difficult to tell which ship belongs with which command card during gameplay as the ships look remarkably the same with the exception of the flag off the stern of the ship.  Not to mention this flag is only visible from one side of the ship and two ships of the same class bear virtually the same paint scheme and when a ship is farther away the sepia colored ship sheets get covered by the ship themselves.  It leads to a lot of telegraphing what ship you’re working on planning for during the planning phase.  In X-Wing a small notch and a cardboard letter identifier is used.  This same technique could have easily be handled via interchangeable top-gallants.  Another issue with the components is that they represent seemingly random selections on the part of Ares Games.

French Line of Battle 2The 74 Gun 3rd Rate ship was the backbone of the era.  The first release focuses on the conflict between England and France, though will allegedly expand to include everything from 1650 through 1815 which is just a massive span of time and involved nations.  I totally respect Ares choice to go with known, well documented ships from the era.  I would suggest, however, that Ares did not consider the ships they selected from within the classes they put into Wave 1 and the starter pack.  This is evidenced by the historical scenarios which require, in every case, players to substitute ships for different ones in their same class.  So, you have Ares saying that they needed more documentation while producing documentation that suggests they had sufficient documentation on a ship to put it in a scenario but not in the game itself.  Like everything else I’ve seen of Ares throughout this project, they tend to say one thing and do another.  I will give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s unintentional rather than calculated misinformation.

Bellepheron Burning SinkingAnother component issue are the crew action tokens.  It’s a great way to handle the crew actions, however, there are so many that it ultimately makes selection either obvious to your opponent or creates long pauses while turn planning is handled.  The game felt like a lot of work for very little payoff which I’ll talk about more and I felt like the token solution for crew planning was a big contributing factor in that assessment.  Written crew notes, or a slider of some type might have worked well.  After all, there are only ships with 4 crew actions.  Dedicated boards per ship rather than generic boards with dedicated ship inserts might have been a better way to handle this.  With everything tracked on sliders the sheer volume of component handling would have been greatly reduced for players.

Enough about the components!  Let’s talk about the meat of the game.

Aquilon vs BellepheronThe objective of any game is to have at least one of your ships still sailing at the end.  Scenarios could add some variation to this, but ultimately, the base game is about lining up ships and doing battle.  You have ships which contain crew who perform actions like shooting cannons, reloading those cannons and attending to the repair of your ship.  You have a detachment of marines which are abstractly represented and can be used to fire their muskets/rifles while you’re close to enemy ships to devastating effect in many cases.  Movement is handled, like all “of Glory” games via maneuver cards while damage is done here with chit pulls that include outright damage and special damage to parts of the ship or crew members.  Damage ultimately reduces your ship’s capacity to fight.  Game rounds are played out by planning your crew action and selecting a ship maneuver for the subsequent turn.  Ships can continue to fight until they take enough physical damage to render them useless or enough crew damage to render them combat ineffective.

Sails of Glory ships with three sets of rules:

  • Basic – Great for playing with children.  I cannot imagine a scenario in which adults will enjoy these rules.  They are beyond basic and the game could literally be about anything.  I recently suggested that at the basic level this game is basically Rainbow Kittens Farting Tanks – there simply isn’t anything there that’s convincing me the game is about the Age of Sail.
  • Intermediate – Great place to start learning the game unless, again, you’re playing with children.  Cannon reloading and damage is addressed here, but you’re still not managing crew.  It’s a little more approachable than the Advanced rules, but let’s face it…the Intermediate ruleset is still pretty garbage.
  • Advanced – My review will cover the advanced rules.  I believe everyone should be playing with these rules, unless you’re a child, and they aren’t that hard to approach.

Movement

Wind AttitudeMovement is handled via a few variables:

  • Wind Direction – Every turn you pull chits to determine which way the wind is blowing and whether it will change.  Change is not random and requires some relatively good chit pulls to make it happen.  I think the frequency of wind change seems about right.  You could always encounter a game in which the wind seems ruled by an unhappy toddler throwing ships about like discarded toys during a temper tantrum, but generally speaking the wind change is reasonable.  You’ll align your wind gauge with the wind direction and move it over to touch your main mast to determine how your ship is affected by the wind which may put your “In Chains” or give your varying degress of movement.
  • Sail State
    • Backed Sails allow you to turn the quickest, but you also move the shortest distance.
    • Battle Sails give you the best combination of maneuverability and speed.
    • Full Sails give you the best speed with the least maneuverability.
    • Movement cards provide you with the tracks on which you’ll place your ship for movement based on your sail state and wind direction.
  • Maneuver Card – You select maneuver cards from a deck that’s somewhat tailored for your ship class.  There are definitely differences between the turning rate of a 3rd Rate ship and a 5th Rate ship.  How historical these turning rates are is up for debate…there is a larger issue with movement in my opinion.

I know that Andrea’s signature mechanic is the card-based movement.  In Sails of Glory you’re playing the maneuver card you selected last turn and laying out the card you’ll use in the subsequent turn.  In this way, you can get caught by wind changes or getting taken aback by the wind.  Sails are set, however, for the current turn.  So, you can effectively back sails from Battle sails and pull that move from Top Gun where Maverick “hits the brakes and let him fly right by.”  Physics suggests, of course, that at best this should execute in the following turn.  Another curious thing about the wind direction is that you’re not allowed to line up the wind gauge until it’s time to actually move.  However, with wind changes being relatively infrequent you can just look at the game mat that Ares provides and following the regularly spaced guidelines and determine how your ship is positioned.  I don’t understand the strictness here because if the wind gauge is between colors on your base then the captain of that ship gets to pick which color it’ll take.  This can be incredibly beneficial because one of the taken aback maneuver cards effectively lets you turn a 180 degree turn across two phases which is effectively the Immelmann maneuver from Wings of Glory.  I don’t know much about how these ships handled, but the game turns must be handled as a function of minutes so whatever Fast & Furious: English Channel Drift maneuver this represents seems pretty far flung.

Another issue I have with movement in the game is that when you collide, and I say when because I mean WHEN, your ships just bang into one another over and over again in 90% of the cases.  Couple that with the trouble telling your ships apart because of the aforementioned poor component design and you have a recipe for trouble.  Anyone telling you they’ve never wrecked their ships is straight up lying!  Time will help you develop strategies so you don’t, but rest assured you will wreck your ships at one time or another and when you do be prepared for them to be sunk or nearly sunk from the experience.  Why?  Well, the game assumes that once you’ve struck your sister ship you go into reverse and slam into her hull over and over again until you manage to break free of the cycle.  During this time, both ships are taking damage based on their rate from the most damaging token bag.  This can lead to incredibly anticlimactic games.  I won’t dispute, at all, that ship to ship collisions should be painful, but when you can crash planes in Wings of Glory and not blow up immediately most of the time I kind of feel like some common sense should reign here and it simply does not.

Combat

Le Berwick FiringCombat is a pretty simple affair.  You load your cannons with a type of shot (single, double, chain, or canister) and once loaded you’ll use one of the game’s cardboard damage rulers.  Now, I’ve said that you will use your cardboard ruler here specifically because the wooden stretch goal ones that shipped with the game are not engraved properly by nearly 1/4 inch.  Regardless of its accuracy, the color coded cardboard ruler is far more useful regardless of aesthetics.  Once you’ve determined if your broadside is loaded, and that you have both range and a crew action marker queued up allowing the shot your opponent gets to pull damage chits.

Damage chits come in a number of varieties:

  • Pure Damage – This is applied to the hull integrity of the ship.
  • Leak – Your ship has sprung a leak and will continue to cause repairable damage until you’ve fixed it via crew action.
  • Fire – Your ship has caught fire and will continue to cause irreparable damage until you’ve fixed it via crew action.
  • Rudder – Your ship has lost maneuverability.
  • Mast – Your ship must now select from the broken mast maneuver cards until your crew can repair the mast (somehow…)
  • Crew – Your crew is hurt, too scared to work, or otherwise indisposed.
  • Combination of damage + special damage.

Your ship can take damage which reduces the crew action capacity and brings you closer to combat ineffectiveness.  My problem here is that the sheer effect of the combat damage is so devastating that I cannot imagine any captain of the era remaining engaged as long as you’re forced to remain engaged in this game.  The French, for example, had tactical doctrine instructing captains and gunners to aim for the rigging in order to outrun their opponents and fight another day.  The British could fire so much faster than their contemporaries, with some accounts going almost to twice as fast, that they would just plug away at their opponent’s hulls.  These two tactical doctrines are not reflected in any way shape or form in this game.  The reload rate is the same for every ship and even the relative tonnage being thrown in a broadside between say a 3rd Rate and a 5th Rate isn’t sufficiently different to really be too big of a threat to the 5th rate.

I found combat an bloody affair, but totally unsatisfying.  This game is all about fire and movement.  The downtime for planning is tedious even with two ships and the combat resolution is so quick that you feel like you put a lot of effort into almost no payoff.  There are moments of redemption when some seriously lucky low, or no, damage occurs and it’s a lot of fun to joke with your friends.  However, too often, the combat resolution just leaves everyone groaning about the planning phase and how to prioritize dealing with the damage.  This leads me to another complaint about the game actually.

You can fire AND repair once you’ve been damaged.  The order of operations is such, however, that you cannot queue up a bailing team for leaks or a firefighting team for fires that might break out.  This was a common practice and often ships with a full compliment there were men dedicated to pumping the bilge during battle and for repairs already.  Buckets would have been filled prior to battle and at the ready for fire team to put out fires.  However, this reality is thrown overboard in the same way physics is thrown into the mysteriously blowing winds of Sails of Glory.  You must wait until the damage has happened before you can react.  Again, any captain of the era that poor at ship and crew management would likely have never made it beyond Midshipman.

Another curious thing about the game is that your ships don’t move much like sailing ships at all.  If you trace how ships have moved, they circle around one another, they double back on their enemies in a short period of time, and they can quickly adjust speed to seemingly pivot in place.  It reminded me of…well…World War I airplanes and definitely not of historical ship battles or even fictional ones.  I am not sure how the game was playtested, but it doesn’t appear to bear the influence of anyone outside of Ares Games who might have been the least bit objective about the gameplay.  I felt like the game required far too much effort for far too little payoff at every level from physically dealing with the components to the crew management to combat resolution and ship maneuver.  This game simply doesn’t have the fun factor I had hoped for or even more than a passing resemblance to the Age of Sail which it claims to represent.

British Line of BattleAll that said, I believe there is a wide audience for this game.  People who want to put some ships on a table, sail them around within the context of the rules and blast at each other will have a good time if they can suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the experience.  This is an event game and even I would love to be a part of a Sails of Glory mega-event with 20-50 people controlling one ship a piece and battling it out across a giant table.  There’s a lot going on for this game in the looks department, but almost nothing in the brains department.  It’s a lot like that gorgeous lady your meet at a party and when you finally get introduced and speak you immediately realize how stupid she is and cannot wait to get away.

 

I think there’s a niche for this game and there will definitely be a market, but I’ll stick with the Wings of Glory series for which I own over 80 planes.  It’s not a perfectly historical game either, but at least I understand why and where and physics at least seem to play a passing role in that game.  Sails of Glory may float your boat, but for me it was dead to the wind from the first play onward.  I’ll find my Age of Sail in another port like GMT’s excellent Flying Colors or with Clash of Arms’ Close Action.

Keith

I began wargaming in 1987 with Axis & Allies and in 1988 discovered Avalon Hill's Gettysburg 125th Anniversary Edition and have been hex & counter wargaming ever since.I enjoy all eras and scales of wargames. I have only rarely played a Euro or Strategy game I didn't like.

Boardgaming provides a great way to unplug, be creative, and spend time with friends and family.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for your excellent and thorough review Keith. I would like to make some points in response to your work –
    Firstly the peg issue. I think this issue has been way overstated. I think anyone who has played this game to any depth will soon discover that ease of removal of the ships from the bases is important to the functionality of play. Many times you will find that the model will get in the way of accurately measuring range, possibility of raking, firing arcs and also when adjudicating possible collisions and, when the ships get in close to each other and the accurate positioning of manoeuvrer cards is needed – being able to simply lift the model with one hand from the base by the sail, without interfering with the base’s position, facilitates game play and these functions enormously. That said the pegs are more than adequate to secure the models to the bases for all normal handling situations i.e. within 45 degrees or more from the horizontal. The occasional slight lean only adds (in my opinion) to the model’s aesthetics i.e. bobbing in the water, leaning from the wind etc.
    You state:
    ”I don’t understand the strictness here because if the wind gauge is between colors on your base then the captain of that ship gets to pick which color it’ll take.”
    I must correct you here. Page 10 of the BASIC rules states:
    “If the attitude indicator passes exactly between two different colors, the player always chooses the most favorable (fastest) color of the two.”
    What makes you believe that the movement system is unrealistic for ships? Do you have some experience or academic reasoning for this? You state:
    “Another curious thing about the game is that your ships don’t move much like sailing ships at all. If you trace how ships have moved, they circle around one another, they double back on their enemies in a short period of time, and they can quickly adjust speed to seemingly pivot in place. It reminded me of…well…World War I airplanes and definitely not of historical ship battles or even fictional ones.”
    You mention specifically the ability for ships to do a 180 degree “Immelmann” into the wind. Well I was on a tall ship not two months ago, a 20 year old reconstruction of a ship built in the 1840s, which did precisely this – stopped into the wind and turned about 180 degrees and then continued with the wind and all this in a matter of minutes with a skeleton crew, some of whom were trainees.
    Someone recently posted to a forum (sorry I cannot find the exact link now) a captain’s after action report from the period between a US ship and two British frigates, which was an overview diagram of the battle. This illustrated the ships manoeuvring much as they do in SoG, evening showing the US ship reversing at one point!
    I too have found colliding with my own ships frequent and frustrating (and brutal!), but I would put this down to inexperience on my part and not a fault of the game. I experienced the same learning curve with X-Wing. After a while you get a feel for the varying performances of each manoeuvre deck and how to coordinate them. I rarely have unintentional collisions now in X-Wing. The only gripe I have is that the designers did not include a rule for colliding with stationary ships, which can indeed cause a perpetual traffic jam, and this is not an infrequent occurrence when playing with the advanced rules with ship wrecks. Di Meglio has now made a preliminary ruling on this:
    “If you want a ruling right away, I would suggest that (if the ships do not get Entangled) – in the turn after the collision – you place the moving ship to one side of the static ship, no matter what is the manoeuvre you planned. After that, you’re unstuck and can move away normally.”
    I would also like to point out your statement:
    “I am not sure how the game was playtested, but it doesn’t appear to bear the influence of anyone outside of Ares Games who might have been the least bit objective about the gameplay.”
    Di Meglio has recently stated in response to the collision debate:
    “It’s quite a specific case that never came across during playtesting (which, btw, was not just done in-house by Ares, but involved several people, including more than a few with previous experience with naval wargaming).”
    This brings me to a point about the general lack of appreciation of the efforts of the designers and their associates that I have been reading in the various forums. It seems to me that many people are already modifying the design of the game, “house ruling”, after very little experience with the game -as if the designers could not have possibly known better or considered these avenues of design after, no doubt, hundreds of man hours of thought, playtesting and research. This attitude is by no means isolated to these forums, but seems to be consistent across many genres and games. I would hope that a more appreciative acknowledgement of the designer’s efforts be generally more prevalent in these discussions.
    Finally you conclude: “I’ll find my Age of Sail in another port like GMT’s excellent Flying Colors or with Clash of Arms’ Close Action.” Could you please provide a comparative reasoning for why you feel that these games are better than SoG (I have played neither). Why do they simulate ship movement and firepower better that SoG? It seems to me that these games are certainly better for simulating fleet sized battles where the handlings of the ships are abstracted enough to allow a single player to control a large number of ships. BTW I cannot see any reason why SoG could not also simulate such large engagements – room and manpower withstanding.
    Thank you once again for your thought provoking review.
    Frank

  2. Well thought response. I sold my copy. I think that is the end-game on my take on it at this point.

    The wording for the rule you’re citing about the gauge being in-between colors specifically includes the word “chooses” implying choice. It then goes on to suggest that the best course of action is the fastest, which again, is not always the best choice. It’s a poorly written rule and I was not the only person to have read it that way.

    Ships should be able to turn in the bases, I agree. The need to handle ships in game, though, without them wobbling all over IS critical and this game fails wholly at providing consistency. The critique here is less that the game did a poor job with the pegs, but that they used pegs at all after being able to witness a far superior component design in X-Wing. Even if Ares didn’t want to copy X-Wing other suitable, easy to quality control and cost effective designs could have been used. Instead, they settled on the worst possible design.

    Take a look at the battle between the Constitution and Java from 1811 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Java_(1811)

    What you experienced probably felt VERY much like a 180 and the ship DEFINITELY did go back upon it’s course, however, think of the pivot around the stern like the end of a sewing needle. There’s a tight loop with only the slightest forward motion halfway through the turn (like where you’d thread the needle). When the ship came back through what would have been 180, there’s no good way to stop its momentum because partway through the maneuver the wind starts pushing on the sails again and pulls you through further than 180.

    Wings of Glory has been house-ruled to death – It’s made it a better game.

    Flying Colors is specifically made for fleet engagements from the ground up. The scale is larger and therefore you’re focused on ships, alignment, and combat maneuver. The bumper boats of Wooden Ships & Iron Men isn’t there. You get to focus on commands and what sailing line combat actually looked like with combat modifiers and rules that seems specifically drawn from historical experiences. Mike Nagel has a ship-to-ship combat game on GMT’s P500 that looks amazing. Squares on the map with ships on octagon counters. It could be the game everyone’s been looking for at that scale.

    Close Action is the ASL of naval combat and if you want crew combat – this is where it’s at. You’ll have separate ratings for guns based on their compliment of crew for example. Men in the rigging is taken into account. Your position to the wind and signalling for command are all core components of the game that go deeper and with greater historical attention than either Flying Colors or Sails of Glory. The bibliography at the end is worth reading in and of itself. You can also tell that they’ve drawn from those resources in designing the game as well. It’s not just a “Hey check this out!” kinda thing.

  3. Thank you Keith for your thorough reply. Yes, the more i see the efforts of other companies in producing these style of games (eg WizKids and Attack Wing) the more I appreciate the brilliance and savvy of Fantasy Flight Games. They really are an outstanding company and I love X-Wing.
    I guess at the end of the day it’s the old balance between abstraction/playability versus historical accuracy/complexity. I am an Advanced Squad Leader player from way back and so I have been all the way to one end of the spectrum and thoroughly enjoy and appreciate that level of our hobby. These days with kids and my many other commitments I have tended towards the other end of the spectrum and so enjoy simplistic elegance more in my gaming tastes- and I guess ultimately that’s what it comes down to. Either way, it’s whatever gives you most enjoyment. All the best and happy gaming,
    Frank

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