Clinton Smith
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Easy Sailing

Fighting Sail was published in issue 85 of Strategy & Tactics magazine, and was designed by Joseph Balkoski. The game is a low complexity, relatively abstract interpretation of naval combat during the Age of Sail. It is a fast and easy game that is, nevertheless, very evocative of naval battle in the 1775- 1815 period.

The rules are a quick read being only about seven pages in length (with a lot of illustrations) and, more importantly, they are a model of clarity. This is a game that can be learned very quickly, and played without frequent referencing of the rules. Unfortunately, due to the inherent limitations of the magazine game format, FS is somewhat limited in scope. There are only nine scenarios, and only 55 ships are included in the counter-mix. Seven of the scenarios are based on battles that involve no more than six ships. Four of the scenarios are one-on-one duels.

So, what we're dealing with here is a game that isn't trying to be the definitive simulation of its subject. Anybody looking for a generous amount of historical detail probably would be better off with Wooden Ships & Iron Men or Close Action. The appeal of FS is that it is more streamlined, with very little bookkeeping involved. Most of the ship data needed to play is on the ship counters themselves in the form of four ratings: Fire Value, Sailing Value, Rate, and Crew Value. A running tally of hull and rigging damage, and the occasional critical hit, does have to be kept track of on a seperate sheet of paper.

Despite its simplicity FS was an innovative game when first published and, rather surprisingly, it still feels innovative in 2007. Balkoski's design is based on four somewhat unusual ideas (when compared to most of the other Age of Sail games at least):
1) The map uses squares instead of hexes.
2) The orders issued to ships are general rather than specific.
3) Movement is sequential, and incremental, rather than simultaneous.
4) No combat tables or charts are used.

Dare to be Square

I believe that FS might have been the first S&T game to use a square grid map. One advantage of squares is that ships can face in eight directions instead of six. This may not seem like a big difference to some people but it does give movement a more natural feel (or less unnatural, at least). In FS ships can sail in a direction perpendicular to the wind. In hex-based naval games ships are always required to move either windward or leeward. Sometimes I don't want to move windward or leeward, and I can easily imagine that actual ship captains occassionally didn't want to either.

A second benefit of the use of squares in FS is that the distance between adjacent squares is defined as either 2 range points (when the squares share a side) or 3 range points (when the squares are diagonally adjacent). This method of distance determination is more accurate than counting hexes in a zig-zag fashion. On a hex grid the distance as the finger counts is sometimes more than the distance as the crow flies. Admittedly, though, the difference is rather small. I just thought I would mention it for the sake of thoroughness.

On the negative side of the squares vs. hexes ledger, first of all, is the fact that in FS ships are often left with one or two movement points that must be wasted because they are not sufficient to allow movement into the next square. This undoubtedly annoys a lot of people. I used to be one of those peope until I realized that it is really no different than a land game in which a unit can't move into a forest hex because three MPs are required and it only has two left. It is a minor issue, really, once you get your mind right.

The main disadvantage of squares that I want to point out is that it results (in FS anyway) in an overly generous 90 degree field of fire for ship's guns. The hex-based naval games usually have a more historically resonable 60 degree field of fire. It just seems a little too easy to bring your guns to bear on enemy ships in FS. This is probably my least favorite aspect of the game.

While I'm not entirely convinced that the use of squares was the best overall choice, I do think that in respect to the 8 point facing system, Balkoski's humble little game actually has a more satisfying historical feel than the hex-based games with their 6 point facing limitation. I'm glad that Balkoski decided to break out of the same old boring rut of automatically using hexes, and try something different instead.

Deciding what to Wear

During the Command Decision Stage of the game-turn a Command (order) must be chosen for each ship. This is done by placing the appropriate type of command chit on a ship (upside down in order to hide the chosen command from the opponent). Later, while moving during the Action Stage, a ship will be limited by the requirements and parameters of its chosen command. There are five possible commands:
1) Ahead
2) Port
3) Starboard
4) Tack
5) Wear

A ship with an Ahead command must move straight forward without turning. A ship with a Port command must make at least one turn to the left, and may not turn to the right during the game-turn. A ship with a Starboard command must make at least one turn to the right, and may not turn to the left during the game-turn. A ship with a Tack command must remain in the same square in which it began the game-turn, and must turn 135, 180, or 225 degrees. A ship with a Wear command must move one square downwind, and must turn 135, 180, or 225 degrees.

A ship with a Port or Starboard command can turn either 45 or, at most, 90 degrees within a square. Despite the fact that there is no movement point cost to turn, any ship with a low movement allowance (something that is very common in FS, as we shall discover presently) is going to be somewhat limited in its turning ability unless it performs a Tack or Wear maneuver. Also, the only way to turn the bow of a ship directly through the wind is by Tacking (a ship that Wears is turning away from the wind). The Tack and Wear commands definitely see a lot of use in FS. However, because of the historical difficulty of those maneuvers any ship with a Crew Value of 5 or less is not allowed to Tack, and any ship with a CV of 4 or less is prohibited from Wearing.

The importance of the crew-based restrictions on Tack and Wear maneuvers can be clearly seen in light of the following facts. First of all, a ship's CV is reduced by 1 for each hull hit it sustains. Now, the really interesting thing is this: Most American and French vessels have an initial CV of only 6, while most British ships begin with a CV of 8. After the iron starts flying through the air Britain's opponents can very quickly find themselves laboring under a significant maneuver disadvantage.

Learning the A, B, Cs of Sailing

Each ship in FS possesses a Sailing Value, of which there are three types. Sailing Value "A" ships are the most manueverable, SV "B" ships are of average manueverability, and SV "C" ships are the least manueverable. The movement allowance of a ship is based on its SV and its orientation to the wind at the beginning of the game-turn.

Here are the 5 different orientations to the wind in FS, along with the movement allowances of each class of SV (given as A/B/C):
1) Taken Aback, or facing directly into the wind-- movement not permitted.
2) Beating, or having the wind 45 degrees off the bow-- 3/3/3
3) Beam Reaching, or having the wind perpendicular to the ship's length-- 4/3/3
4) Broad Reaching, or having the wind 45 degrees off the stern-- 6/5/4
5) Running, or when the wind is coming from directly astern-- 4/4/3

As you can see, the movement allowances of the ships are quite low, ranging from 3 to 6. These numbers are effectively even lower than they appear due to the fact that it costs 2 MPs to enter an adjacent square via a side, and 3 MPs to enter one via a corner. The truth is that there is not much difference between the three classes of SV. Sailing Value might be the least important characteristic a ship possesses (although, it does sometimes play a part in determining which player has the Weather Gauge, which I'll explain later).

A nicely efficient feature of FS is the fact that the command chits serve a dual purpose. Each chit has 3 or 4 numbers on it, one near each of the chit's edges, which represent the number of movement points available to the ship in question. After all commands have been revealed each ship's chit is adjusted so that its starting movement allowance is facing forward. After a ship moves into a new square its command chit is rotated to indicate the number of movement points remaining. If there are too few movement points left to permit entry into another square the chit is removed. In the case of the Tack and Wear commands the chit is always removed since those maneuvers use all of a ship's allotted MPs. This method of keeping track of a ship's remaining MPs is necesary due to the ofttimes intermixed nature of movement in the game, which would otherwise make it easy to forget how many movement points a ship has left.

Taking off the Blindfold

In many of the best known Age of Sail games, including the aforementioned WS&IM and Close Action, movement is plotted in its entirety at the beginning of the game-turn, and then executed simultaneously for all ships. The purpose of doing so, I believe, is to portray the historical lag time between the decision to do something and being able to actually do it, the resulting difficulty of reacting to enemy moves, and the general chaos and confusion of battle (sometimes the combatants could hardly see anything due to all of the smoke drifting through the air). I like to refer to this as the "blindfold effect" because it creates the impression of being unable to see what's going on, and react to what's going on, during movement. Pre-plotted movement is fairly realistic for a game with a time scale of, let's say, four minutes or less per game-turn.

Each game-turn in FS represents seven and a half minutes, so the "decision cycle" would probably be too long if a pre-plotted, si-move system was used. A different approach was needed, and what Balkoski came up with is a kind of compromise (in the best sense of that word) where a ship is committed to a general type of move, but possesses a certain amount of leeway (surprisingly, I just realized for the first time that the word leeway has a naval origin) in exactly how it executes its command. The precise move that a ship makes isn't determined until the actual moment that it moves. In addition, movement is incremental, with the movement of ships often alternating between the players in a chesslike fashion (a feeling which is heightened by the square grid map). As a result, the decisions of the players can, and often must, evolve during the Action Stage. You have to react to what your opponent is doing, and he must react to what you are doing.

Each type of movement system is appropriate in its own way given the designer's choice of time scale. They do feel very different, though, and a player who dislikes one approach might actually love the other. Personally, I prefer the more "hands on", less "programmed" approach of FS. It also is more solitaire friendly than the si-move games, which might be a consideration for some gamers.

The Weather Gauge

Since movement in FS is sequential, and incremental, rather than simultaneous, a method for determining the order of movement during the Action Stage is required. After commands are revealed each ship's movement allowance is determined. Whichever player controls the most ships that have the highest MA on the map is said to possess the Weather Gauge. It is that player who controls the order of movement. The Weather Gauge player can move all of his own ships before any enemy ships move. Or, he can compel all of the enemy ships to move before he moves his own ships. Or, he can intermix the movement of both side's ships in any conceivable order. In short, he has absolute power over the sequencing of movement.

It has been said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is often true in FS because of the relationship between fire and movement in the game. Each ship has the option to fire (once per game-turn) immediately after it enters a new square (or completes a Tack maneuver), and any desired turns are completed. Fire, like movement, is sequential rather than simultaneous. Because of this, the God-like power of the player possessing the Weather Gauge can result in a very artificial, and unfair, advantage. There are numerous gamey tactics that he can use to minimize his opponent's success in combat, and to maximize his own success.

Fortunately, there is an optional rule that goes a long way toward correcting the above problem. The optional rule requires that only ships with the highest remaining movement allowance can be chosen to move. For example, a ship with 3 MPs left can't be chosen to move next if there are any ships with 4 or more MPs available. This is much more realistic, and imparts a greater sense of simultaneity to the movement of ships. I can't imagine why the optional rule isn't the standard rule, as it is far superior.

Fire Value

I love the way that fire combat is handled in FS. Instead of using a CRT, you try to roll less than the firing ship's Fire Value with an 11-66 dice roll. FVs range from a low of 32 to a high of 63. This system allows for a fine gradation between the ships. There is actually a difference between a ship with an FV of 43 and one with an FV of 44. Let's face it, in a CRT based system those ships would probably be lumped together on the 40-44 column, or even worse, in an odds based system like SPI's old Frigate game, they might both attack using the 3-1 column.

If the fire dice roll is equal to or less than the FV, but no more than 40 less the FV, 1 hit point of damage is inflicted on the target ship. If the dice roll is from 41 to 80 less than the FV, two hits are inflicted. If the dice roll is more than 80 less than the FV, 3 hits are inflicted. The reason that dice rolls that much lower than the FV are possible is because there are modifiers that increase a ship's FV, such as First Broadside (+10 at 4 to 6 range points, +20 at 3 or fewer range points), Bow Rake (+10), and Stern Rake (+20).

Naturally, there are also modifiers that reduce a ship's FV. The number of range points to the target ship is divided by 4 (fractions are dropped) and multiplied by 10. The product is subtracted from the firing ship's FV. The number of hull hits inflicted on the firer is divided by 2 and multiplied by 10 to create another negative modifier. If rigging fire is being conducted at 6 range points or less, 10 is subtracted from the FV. If the firer has just performed a Tack, 10 is subtracted from the FV.

The most important FV modifier of all is that for Rate, which represents a ship's size, and the number and heft of its guns (Rates range from 1 to 7, lower rated ships being larger). When a ship fires its own Rate is compared to that of the target ship with the difference being multiplied by 10 to create a modifer to the FV. To illustrate the impact of Rate in FS consider the following example using the British Acasta (FV- 54, Rate- 5) and the French Jupiter (FV- 51, Rate- 3). If the Acasta fires at its French opponent, its Fire Value is reduced by 20. If the Jupiter returns fire its FV is increased by 20. What that means is that, in this instance (which assumes there are no other applicable modifiers), the Acasta has (effectively) an FV of 34 while the Jupiter has (very effectively!) an FV of 71. Everything else being equal, the French ship has a 67% probability of inflicting 1 hit, and a 33% probability of inflicting 2 hits. The British ship must settle for a 44% probability of inflicting 1 hit.

So, while one might initially assume that a ship with an FV of 54 is better than one with an FV of 51, that could be a bad assomption. The truth is that a direct comparison of FV is only valid when considering ships of the same Rate.

Damage

When fire combat occurs the firing player must specify whether it is directed at the hull or rigging. When a ship receives a number of hull hits equal to 10 minus its Rate it has been damaged severely enough to force its abandonment (ships don't actually sink in FS unless they blow up, a fairly rare event). Abandoned ships are dead in the water, and they are very vulnerable to being captured.

When a ship receives 2 rigging hits its maximum movement allowance is 4, and when it receives 4 rigging hits its maximum movement allowance is 3. Larger ships cannot absorb any more rigging damage than smaller ships before their movement is affected (although they are harder to damage, obviously, thanks to the Rate modifier). Sailing Value C ships are not affected at all by rigging damage of 1 to 3 hits since they never have more than four MPs anyway. They are only affected by four or more rigging hits when Broad Reaching. SV A and B ships are only affected by 2 or 3 rigging hits if they are Broad Reaching. The fairly low movement allowances of FS, coupled with the 2/3 range counting system, make this degree of abstraction necesary. It's an excellent example of why FS very likely will not appeal to gamers who are looking for detailed realism first and foremost.

Overall, though, the most important effect of rigging damage is portrayed in the game: If a ship's sails take too much damage, that ship won't be going anywhere in a hurry, even when it is positioned most favorably in respect to the wind..

In my opinion a good house rule to play with is that ships with 6 or more rigging hits should be considered dead in the water. Another house rule that might make sense is to stipulate that ships with 4 or more rigging hits should be prohibited from making a Tack, and ships with 5 or more rigging hits should be unable to Wear.

Critical Condition

A little spice is added to fire combat in the form of Critical Hits. When the fire dice roll is a doubles result one of three possible Critical Hits has occured, depending on the outcome of another roll. The three types of CHs are: Wheel, Mast, and Fire.

A Wheel CH causes a ship to immediately have its command chit removed (even if it has movement points remaining) and the ship is subject to Drift (it might have its bow orientation randomly changed). In addition, each game-turn, after its command has been determined, a ship with a Wheel CH must roll equal to or less than its current CV or its command chit is removed and it will Drift again. The British, with their higher CVs, obviously tend to handle Wheel CHs better than their opponents.

Mast CHs result in reductions to a ship's maximum movement allowance, in similiar fashion to rigging hits. Also, a ship that has taken three Mast CHs is dead in the water. A ship with at least one mast down in addition to two or more rigging hits is also dead in the water.

A Fire CH means that the target ship is ablaze. It immediately takes an additional hull hit. Every eighth game-turn, during the Strategic Cycle, a die roll is made for a ship that is on fire. On a roll of 1 the ship blows up, and is destroyed. On any other roll it simply takes another hull hit. Fires cannot be put out.

Fouling, Melee, and Prizes

When two or more ships occupy the same square (whether enemy or friendly) they become fouled. As long as ships remain fouled they are considered dead in the water. During the Melee Stage (immediately following the Action Stage) of the game-turn Melee combat is mandatory between fouled enemy ships. Melee is very simple in FS. Each ship has a Boarding Value, which is its CV minus its Rate. A die roll is added to each side's total BV (there can be more than one involved ship on each side), and the sums are compared. If one side's sum is larger than the other's by 150% or more, the former ship (or ships) has captured the latter ship (or ships). If one side's sum is negative or zero, and the other side's sum is positive, the latter side captures all of the other side's ships.

Due to the importance of CV in melee combat, boarding actions are another area of the game in which the British usually have an advantage. Generally, though, both players will probably prefer to avoid melee for several reasons. For one thing, a large part of the appeal of an Age of Sail game is just that- to sail, to maneuver, not to drift about in a fouled state (and once fouled ships will often find it difficult to become unfouled). Second, boarding actions were, historically, not exactly a common occurence. Third, Melee is a very risky proposition. It is putting a lot of faith in a single roll of the die. It is probably more prudent to force the abandonment of an enemy ship through fire combat and then merely sail adjacent to claim it as a prize.

Following the Melee Stage, comes the Unfouling Stage, in which ships may become unfouled on certain die rolls. As mentioned above, it is not that easy to accomplish. A ship has only a 1 in 6 chance of breaking free of an enemy vessel, and the probability is only 50% when fouled with a friendly ship.

Victory goes to the player who earns the most victory points. VPs are awarded only for capturing and retaining prizes (a prize is worth a number of VPs equal to 10 minus its Rate). A ship that is heavily damaged is worth nothing to the opponent as long as it remains uncaptured. There is no time limit in the smaller scenarios (those with six or fewer ships), so the players do not feel any artificial pressure to hurry up and finish off the enemy through Melee before time runs out.

The Battles

The nine scenarios contained in FS are mostly small actions, and five of them are battles from the War Of 1812. For the smaller scenarios I've given the Rate of each ship.

1) Don't Give up the Ship. The USS Chesapeake (5) against the HMS Shannon (5). June 1st, 1813.
2) Wasp Vs. Frolic. A battle between two carronade-armed ships, the USS Wasp (6) and the HMS Frolic (6). October 18th, 1812.
3) "Beat to Quarters". This is a fictional scenario based on a battle in C.S. Forester's novel Beat to Quarters. Horatio Hornblower's HMS Lydia (5) takes on the Panamanian frigate Natividad (4). July 20th, 1808.
4) "Old Ironsides". The USS Constitution (4) against the HMS Guerriere (5). August 19th, 1812.
5) "Old Ironsides' Last Fight". The Constitution takes on two British sloops, the Cyane (5) and the Levant (6). February 20th, 1815.
6) Action Off Venice. The ship of the line HMS Victorious (3) and the brig HMS Weazel (6), take on a French squadron consisting of the ship of the line Rivoli (3) and the brigs Jena (6), Mercure (6) and Mamelouck (7). February 21st, 1812.
7) "I Have not yet Begun to Fight". A mixed American-French squadron, including the frigate Bonhomme Richard (5), the frigate Alliance (5), and the sloop Pallas (6), under the command of John Paul Jones, encounters the HMS Serapis (5) and the HMS Countess of Scarborough (6). September 23rd, 1779.
8) "We Have Met the Enemy and They are Ours". The famous Battle of Lake Erie fought between an American force of nine ships under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry and a British squadron of six ships. September 10th, 1813.
9) The Battle of Santo Domingo. A French squadron of eight ships (including five ships-of-the-line) meets a British squadron of eleven ships (seven SOL) in the Caribbean Sea. February 4th, 1806.

Small battles such as the first five might be worth playing in a highly detailed game like Close Action, but with a simple and abstract game system like that of FS they are relatively uninteresting. Most of the play value is contained in the larger scenarios. Those are very entertaining, if in short supply.

Cannon and Sail

Fighting Sail is an excellent game. It is a game that I keep coming back to as the years pass because it is playable, enjoyable, and it has a fair amount of historical flavor, but doesn't bog down in a plethora of details. For me, it is the best game on the subject that meets each of those criterion.

Strangely, it's because of my fondness of FS that I often contemplate the game with a certain amount of melancholy. That's because the game was shortchanged by being relegated to publication in S&T magazine, so it never achieved its full potential. Magazines just are not well suited to this type of scenario-based game system. FS deserved to have dozens of scenarios and hundreds of ship counters. In fact, a game proposal for a truly spendiferous boxed version of FS actually appeared in the feedback section of issue 87 of S&T. That hypothetical, deluxe version had the working title Cannon and Sail. In addition to new rules for stuff like sounding, narrow passage, shore defenses, fire ships, and anchoring, the game was to include 50 to 60 scenarios (including all of the most famous fleet battles of the Age of Sail, such as Trafalgar), 2 to 5(!) large mapsheets, and at least 800 counters (including virtually every ship that appeared in a major engagement during the period).

Alas! A few months later SPI sank beneath the waves.









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Robert Trifts
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Were you the one who outbid me for this a few weeks ago on eBay? arrrh

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Clinton Smith
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It wasn't me, Robert. I have been thinking about buying a third copy, though, so watch out for me in the future.

Your comment has conveniently reminded me of something that I wanted to say in my review but unfortunately forgot about. As another example of how Fighting Sail was handicapped by its publication in S&T I intended to mention that the game comes with too few command chits for the larger scenarios. For example, in the Santo Domingo scenario the British have four ships that are Sailing Value C but there are, if I'm remembering correctly, only one Tack chit and one Wear chit in the pool of SV C command chits. Consequently, one advantage of having more than one copy of the game is that you have more command chits available.
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Wulf Corbett
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Steel_Wind wrote:
Were you the one who outbid me for this a few weeks ago on eBay? arrrh

Could have been me cool

I'm currently playing Siege of Jerusalem & reading John Carter of Mars & Turning Point Stalingrad rules though (eclectic games collection, mine), so it'll be a while before I play it. I am particularly fond of games with this sort of restricted IgoUgo mechanism, as it makes solo play so much easier. If only I could find a good air combat version...

Wulf
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Kevin Roach
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Very nice review, I wondered how well it would play. Now I know.
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Robert Trifts
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Wulf Corbett wrote:
Steel_Wind wrote:
Were you the one who outbid me for this a few weeks ago on eBay? arrrh

Could have been me cool

Wulf


Ah well - no harm done. Picked it up on auction tonight - unpunched - and grabbed a copy of Close Action (sans box) for only $6 to boot. So overall it was a tolerable day for naval acquisitions via eBay

Now for some Langton minis!

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Clinton Smith
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Close Action for a mere $6.00?

I've gotta classify that as robbery. arrrh
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Robert Trifts
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I am a happy man today as my copy of Fighting Sail came in the post.

Having the chance now to read the game rules through (for the most part) I must compliment the OP on an outstanding review that truly does the game justice and is a model of accuracy and clarity.

I shall play the game through a few time before posting my own comments.

As always, I am on the search for the perfect Age of Sail game - and I fully expect not to find it here. But I do hope that Fighting Sail will have much to say about the matter, however, and I continue to hope that at some point a moment of clarity will come to me where a useful synthesis of naval board games and minis rules might emerge through the fog.




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I guess this is considered gauche, but I've been trying to sell a copy of FS, and haven't received a single bid, even for a lousy $3! The over-all rating is good, and the review above is good--but no one at all is interested?! Well, OK, I guess I'll keep it. But I surely don't understand the dynamics of eBay sometimes.
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Bill H
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"A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation." LP Jacks
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Nate J wrote:
I guess this is considered gauche, but I've been trying to sell a copy of FS, and haven't received a single bid, even for a lousy $3!

There you go, Nate, I just put in a bid on the strength of this review. Thanks for pointing out your auction. I only wish you'd had a "buy-it-now" option, I hate waiting.

Edit: I hate losing even more, but congrats on your sale.
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Jim Zoldak
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I think Avalon Hill's Flight Leader has exactly that sequence of Play. Give it a try.

Jim
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Clinton Smith
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Flight Leader has a sequence of play similiar to Fighting Sail's? That is definitely interesting information. Now you've gone and intrigued me enough that I'll probably have to buy a copy of Flight Leader. I keep trying to save my money but people like you are always screwing with my plans...
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David Hughes
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What a fine review. Excellent read, well written, thoughtful, analytic - just a great effort all round!
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Lewis Goldberg
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Boy the way Glenn Miller played // Songs that made the Hit Parade // Guys like us we had it made // Those were the days.
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Scotty Dave wrote:
What a fine review. Excellent read, well written, thoughtful, analytic - just a great effort all round!


Indeed.
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