Thursday, April 9, 2015

Pull for Lucky Jack! (Part 2 of 2)

Regardless if it's a sloop, bark or galleon, all sailing ships have a lot of shared tactical considerations.  For one, every ship is vulnerable at the bow and especially the stern.  Only a small number of "chaser" guns can be mounted in fore and aft arcs meaning that the vast majority of a ship's firepower is concentrated in the flanks.  Compounding the lack of armament in the front and back, is the effect of "raking fire," shots that travel the length of the vessel potentially causing considerably more damage than if the shots bisect a much narrower section of the ship's profile.  Having the "weather gauge," i.e being upwind of an opponent, is usually advantageous in a number of ways ranging from holding the initiative to being more likely to pierce the target's hull below the waterline.  The reason for this being downwind vessels tend to tilt over a bit when turned perpendicular to a strong wind.  In extremely bad weather though the disadvantage might be on the windward ships because they lean so far over as to make it impossible to open the lower gun ports without sea water rushing in.

Naval gunnery was still in its infancy during this era and as such ship engagements tended to happen at extremely close ranges.  Technically most cannon were capable of sending a ball of iron out a thousand feet (300m) if not more.  However, due to "windage," gaps between the projectile and barrel, it was all but impossible to hit a target accurately or with enough punch left to be of any value unless the range were a fraction of that distance.  Rates of fire averaged out to about 2-3 volleys every five minutes, an eternity for FPS fans, but from gameplay standpoint I think it's fine since the long interludes between broadsides allow the player time to plan their next move.

Ammunition types also varied considerably.  Aside from cannonballs, chains or bars of spikes were used to damage rigging and sails.  Other than that "grape shot" was used to inflict harm on the crew while "fire arrows" could keep crews busy dumping buckets of water on anything combustible.  "Double shot," loading two balls in the gun at once, was sometimes employed as well since it essentially increased the weight of the broadside twice over.  Although it was really only viable at point-blank rages.  On rare occasions whatever happened to be on hand (referred to as "langrage") ended up getting loaded into cannons, effectively turning them into oversized blunderbusses.  Seaside fortresses, having the advantage of being predominantly made out of stone, could make use of "hot shot" by heating cannonballs glowing red before loading and firing them in the hopes that they would ignite flammable materials should they hit a wooden target.  Toward the very end of the age of sail explosive shells were introduced although this type of ammo could only be used in mortars found on land or in special "bomb ketch" ships.

Despite all the deadly weaponry brought against sailing ships and the men that inhabited them, sinking as the result of enemy fire was a fairly rare occurrence.  Wood, after all, is naturally buoyant and patching a hole in the hull quickly enough to prevent catastrophic flooding was well within the ability of a skilled ship's carpenter.  Because of this inherent resilience, and relatively safe placement of powder magazines, a much more common outcome was crippling caused by the destruction of masts or rudder control.  A warship that can't maneuver is like a soldier who has his hands and feet lashed together.  In such cases the only sensible course was "striking the colors" or more simply put - surrender.

A popular tactic for fast ships that were outgunned was to attempt a boarding action.  Pirates were especially keen on this since taking the opposing ship (and its cargo) for a prize was how they made a living.  While close quarters combat with cold steel was an essential part of capturing another ship, gunpowder weapons still held an important role.  Swivel mounted guns on the forecastle and poop deck were used to "sweep" the decks of enemies, sharpshooters would fire down from high above in the crow's nest, and primitive grenades could be used to gain a foothold on the enemy's decks.  Flintlock pistols tended to quite popular too since they neutralized threats quickly.  Long reload times meant that these single handed weapons tended to be one-shot affairs.  However, as a partial solution to this limitation, boarders could carry several loaded pistols with them.  The notorious English pirate captain "Blackbeard" was famously described as wearing a bandolier of "three brace" (six!) pistols in battle.

On modern gaming platforms it's possible to have realistic wind, water, smoke and fire effects.  Individual tracking for each gun could be used to calculating the effects of a broadside with unprecedented detail; right down to planks of wood, swaths of sail, lengths of rope and every single crewman (from the commanding officer down to the powder monkeys).  Granted all this might overwhelm even top of the line GPUs in large scale battles, particularly the physics engine in the event of catastrophic explosions like the one that destroyed the French flagship L'Orient during the Battle of the Nile.  When you get down to it though some of the most interesting engagements during the age of sail were one-on-one duels; Constitution versus Guerriere,  Drake versus Ranger, or if you prefer a fictional account HMS Surprise and the privateer Acheron.

So, overall there are a lot of layers to this onion, from the strategic decisions made by the admirals to the tactical ones made by individual sailors, game designers have a wealth of material available to them.  Some might look and cry that the time period is a huge knotted mess, but to me it's a wealth of opportunities as deep as the sea.  You just got to grab a piece of thread and go from there.

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