So, How Do I Use Those Fancy Models I've Built?

I am sometimes asked about what rules I would recommend for someone just getting started with Age of Sail gaming.   The problem however, is that the question really isn't that simple.

What type of actions are you interested in:  Single ship, squadron or fleet?  A set of rules that is good for one type of engagement (single ship, for example) might completely fail when used for another one.  You don't want to try and play Trafalgar with a rule set that requires you to track crew management on every ship!

How much realism are you interested in?   Naval rules can sometimes tend towards excruciating levels of detail, also known as "rivet counting."  Rules for sailing ships tend not to be as detailed as sets dealing with more modern conflicts; perhaps this is because there are fewer systems on a sailing ship than a WWI dreadnought.  Nevertheless, some rules can get pretty complex, even in this era.

The rules listed below are the ones that I have played, and liked enough to keep over the years.  There have been a lot more than just these, of course.  Most of those I read through and, for whatever reason, they just didn't "click" with me.  I'll be the first to admit that I might have given up on some very good rules.  However, if you don't like a set of rules you probably won't enjoy playing them.  Life has enough opportunities to do things you don't like.  Consequently, I refuse to let my hobby be filled with things I don't like.

Heart of Oak

Boardgame Geek link
FGU store link

This is the first set of naval wargame rules I ever played, back around 1980 or so.  It is still quite popular, and has one of the most detailed sailing models you can find on a tabletop.  The author states in his Designer's Notes that he finds sailing and maneuvering the most interesting part of naval combat, so that's where the detail is.  In fact, the sailing model is so detailed that ships may move only 1 to 2 millimeters more than an opponent during a leg (2 legs make a turn, which is 1 minute of real time).

I still like this game, but to be honest, it is starting to show its age.  The first edition of the game came out in 1978, and my first copy (which I still have) is dated 1983.  In the 39 years since it was introduced, play aids and rules writing has advanced beyond where these rules are now.  It was state of the art in 1981, but now feels a little creaky.  It requires allocation of crew every turn, and you are definitely placed in the role of a ship's captain.  Experienced players might be able to handle a squadron each, but for the most part a player shouldn't run more than about 2 ships.

These are available as a PDF from one of the online sites, but it is a scan and hard to read.  If you really want a copy, you're probably better off paying for a hardcopy directly from FGU.

Kiss Me, Hardy

 Boardgame Geek link
TooFat Lardies store link
This is from the days when TFL printed rules from their home printer and sent them out.
The original cover, from the days when Rich Clarke of TFL
printed off rules on his personal printer and bound them.
And yes, I have this version.
Second edition cover.

There seems to be no middle ground where TooFat Lardies rules are concerned:  You either love them, or hate them.  I am a member of the first group, but I didn't get there right away.  I bought these in 2003, and did not care for them.  To be brief, they were just too weird for me to like.  Card based movement for squadrons?  Variable movement for ships?  Generic ship ratings?  Strange names for crew types?  They stayed in the box for a couple of years with no attempt to dispose of them, because clearly no one would want them.  Then, one rainy day I tried them out with a small scenario, and it was a "Road to Damascus" moment where these rules were concerned.  Everything that I thought was strange about them worked together to produce a battle that played quickly, was fun AND felt right.  Ever since, they have been my go-to rules for naval engagements.  They are aimed towards fleet actions, but do include modifications for smaller actions down to single ships.  A sure sign of how good these rules are is that both naval and non-naval gamers enjoy them.

No set of rules is perfect, of course.  Command and control is very light in the basic rules, and the generic ship stats don't really reflect the national differences in ship construction.  These issues have been corrected by add-on rules in the various TFL Specials and there is a very supportive forum at both the TFL website and Yahoo group.  As an older TFL title, you have to make your own cards for the game, but there are some online so this really isn't as big a problem as it might seem.  Besides, if you're willing to build sailing ships with rigging how hard is it to make some cards?

Post Captain

ODGW store link for print version
ODGW store link for digital-download

  Published by Old Dominion GameWorks in 2015, this set of rules is aimed at the same level of engagements as Heart of Oak.  These are definitely more complex than Kiss Me, Hardy or even Heart of Oak.  However, this is where the almost 40 years of game design principles puts in an appearance.  Instead of differing by 1-2 mm in movement rates with the same sail setting, ships in Post Captain move on either slow, medium or fast scales based on their sail setting.  To determine which scale to use, you place a gauge beside the ship and turn it so that it matches the wind direction, and this tells you what movement scale to use.  To me, this achieves the same effect as Heart of Oak without being as fiddly.  It's also much easier to use than it is to describe here.  There are also some very good ideas for pre-battle maneuvering that let you reduce the time needed to get into combat range.

A turn in Post Captain is 3 minutes, but is broken down into 3 one-minute segments.  The rules are a member of the General Quarters rules family, as you can see from the cover photo.  They are not, however, a slight reworking of the WWII rules.  Instead, it is a complete rewrite that remains in the same family, if that makes sense.  So far, both naval gamers and non-naval types have enjoyed it when I have brought them out, so it definitely passes that test.  The ODGW forum is not as active as the TFL one is, but you will get your questions answered.  Overall, it is a good set of rules and I think it is a fitting replacement for the old Heart of Oak.


  1. Thanks for your reviews. They are very informative.

  2. Kenny,
    Thanks for commenting on the reviews. I'm glad to know that they are useful.

    I've been thinking about adding some reviews for rules that I own and have read, but have not played. Those would be clearly marked as not played so that there was no mistake. Do you think reviewing non-played rules would be useful? I find myself torn on this.