Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pull for Lucky Jack! (Part 1 of 2)

I've talked about the oar driven galleys of antiquity and the iron-hulled steam driven ships of the industrial age, but until now I haven't paid my respects to wood and sail.  That period of time from the late 16th century to the early 18th century where the oceans were fought over by broadsides and boarding parties, cutlasses and flintlocks, but most of all by tall ships and firm hearts.

Very few have tried to adapt this era in naval history to a video game, and of these few even less have had much success.  Part of the problem is the shear amount of nautical terminology, such that it's almost a language unto itself.  This barrier to entry is in partially the result of people spending large amounts of time in isolated floating communities wherein a distinctly separate subculture emerged complete with unique songs ("Yo ho, yo ho..."), superstitions ("Right foot first!"), and expressions ("Yar!").  In all seriousness though the only way to tackle this sea monster of design with any hope of success is by a two pronged approach, the macro and the micro.

Regarding the macro, I've heard it said that sailing is the art of getting nowhere in a hurry.  Unlike modern GPS linked propeller driven vessels, sailing ships depend on trade winds, sea currents, sun sighting, and the stars in the sky to navigate.  The fastest route was rarely the shortest, and the speeds at which these craft traveled would seem unbearably slow to modern day first world car driving, bike riding, plane flying sensibilities.  That said, time compression is always an option (heck, it works well for Kerbal Space Program) and a kind of strategic overlay would do wonders for comprehension.  From here players could make meaningful choices.  For example, shoals pose greater danger to larger ships with a deeper draft, but rough seas are more of a threat to smaller ones.  Frequent visits to port reduce the threat of malnutrition such as scurvy, but raises the danger of diseases like malaria.  It's a lot to take in, but the trick is to using broad strokes that capture enough to achieve verisimilitude without becoming overwhelming.

On a micro level there's even more to consider.  Any game set during the age of sail needs to have tactical gameplay.  Players need to be able to tour their ship, turn the wheel, and give the orders.  At the same time they need to know which thing does what.  Unlike modern classifications such as destroyer, cruiser and aircraft carrier, tall ships had less than easy-to-comprehend labels.  Sure, some terms like "brig" and "fluyt" are precise enough, but others like "man o'war" or "ship-of-the-line" are awfully vague.  Worse still are ship types like "cutter" and "yawl" which to my landlubber senses seem to be one in the same.

Further exacerbating the confusion is the fact that the ship cannons were also lacking when it comes standardization.  Rating a gun by the weight of its cannonball was one method used (typically 6 to 42 pounds), but the system was somewhat deceptive because the length of the barrel varied depending on the bronze casting.  Topping this all off, ships of this era didn't necessarily carry the number of guns they were made for.  A brig, for example, might be rated for 18 cannons, but it could carry more by placing them on the weather deck or quarter deck.  Then again it might carry less for better stability or simply because of insufficient crew to ready a full broadside.  Generally, it was up to individual captains to decide how to outfit their ship.  This all might sound discouraging from a design standpoint, but in my mind this situation allows for an incredible amount of player driven customization.

Rigging is similar in that on a fundamental level sailing ships tend to fall into one of two groups; "square" rig or "fore-and-aft" rig.  The former works best for traveling downwind while the latter allows for easier sailing upwind.  In practice though most ships used combinations of these two forms of rigging to various degrees.  Adding to this are "studding sails," essentially extra canvas fastened to the existing sail plan to get a bit more speed.  Put simply each sailing ship is uniquely different from the next from the figurehead on the bow all the way to the name on the stern.  The British Admiralty understood this and as such tried to stratify warships on a scale of first to sixth.  First rates had the heaviest broadside while sixth rates had the lightest, but still more than frigates.  In reality though having big ships with up to three decks of cannons wasn't a guarenteed way to dominate the seas.  The ocean is a big place and things like speed and seaworthiness are just as important as raw firepower.

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