Designed by Colin Keizer: © 1980 Metagaming
The importance of dominating waterways and how classical armies relied on the seas and rivers for supply and transport comes through in most strategic simulations of the Ancients period. However, ancient wargamers (that is, people who play simulations of ancient warfare, not grognards) seem to concentrate almost exclusively on land situations when it comes to tactical simulations. I know of only three board tactical games designed on this subject: Trireme (Battleline edition 1979, then reprinted by Avalon Hill in 1982); Chicken of the Sea (issue game in Gamefix #3, concerning a single naval battle during the First Punic War); and the subject of this review.
Metagaming probably created, and definitely lived and died, with the fad for simple ‘capsule’ size games that peaked in the early 1980’s. Most of the Microgame designs were abstracty tactical science-fiction games, but they also published some with historical subjects. Ram Speed: Bronze Age Naval Warfare appeared in 1980, as the second in Metagaming’s ‘Microhistory’ series of tactical games. It seemed to sell as well as any of its tiny brothers and, when Metagaming folded, went quietly out of print.
The components of the game are standard Metagaming: 40 ships and some miscellaneous markers for grappling and drifting, all on thin card for the player to cut out; a 12 x 14” plain blue map with small hexes and an annoyingly dark watermark of a Greek coin that obscures the grid; and a 19-page rulebook (they’re small pages), all in a 4 x 7” light cardboard box. Each counter represents one ship but there is not time or space scale given.
Players prepare for play by choosing a scenario (small battle, large battle, or convoy raid). They then build their fleets by buying empty ships with Build Points, filling them with missile weapons (from archers to onagers) and boarding parties (representing armed crewmen or marines), and creating record sheets for each galley constructed. This ‘design your own’ approach was used in many other Metagaming designs and allows players to construct their own situations later.
The sequence of play is quite simple: each turn, determine who goes first by rolling a die; the first player moves all his ships at once, then the second player (during this time all the ramming, shearing, grappling and ungrappling goes on); then there is simultaneous missile combat, then simultaneous combat between boarding parties where ships have been successfully boarded.
The rules for movement and movement-related combat are also simple: each ship has a movement allowance of 3 or 4 printed on the counter, which represents the number of hexes it can move forward each turn. Ships can also sideslip, change course, and back water to a limited extent, as well as being able to double or triple their speed thrice and once respectively in a game. As above, the movement sequence is strictly ‘Igo-Yugo.’
Ramming rules are simple: head for the enemy ship, see if you hit it (a single die roll based on the ramming and rammed ship types, with a few Die Roll Modifiers (DRM)), and see how much hull damage you did (damage based purely on the size of the ship doing the ramming). Shearing (moving alongside a ship to break its oars) is governed by the same procedure as ramming except there are some different DRMs. To board and capture a ship, you have to move alongside and grapple it: similarly, a grappled ship can escape this fate by attempting to ungrapple. In either case it is handled by a single die roll based on the opposing ship types.
There are also two types of simultaneous combat: missile fire from archers and siege machines on board the galleys, and fighting between boarding parties. Missile fire takes place at ranges of up to 6 hexes, depending on the weapon system being used. Archers and arbalests can damage rowers, boarding parties or other missile weapons; fire from catapults and onagers can damage hulls as well. Boarding parties fight when ships are successfully grappled; a ship that loses all its boarding parties is captured and can be either rowed to safety or filled with troops from the capturing ship and used against its former master.
Victory comes when one play has sunk or captured ships worth 2/3 of the total value of the enemy fleet: it’s that simple.
As you may have figured out by now, this is not a technically or historically accurate portrayal of ancient naval warfare. The movement rules, with so few restrictions on speed changes (guess the galley slaves are all from the Land of Evinrude!) and the sequential movement, are almost too simple. Suggestion: replace them with some form of impulse or simultaneous system of your own devising, one that acknowledges the Newtonian concepts of inertia and momentum.
I would also take issue with the historicity and practical value of placing siege machines like catapults and onagers on the decks of galleys. These siege machines were very heavy, could fire only on absolutely fixed lines, and had a slow rate of fire with a tremendous recoil for each shot. It was difficult enough for Napoleonic-era gunners to aim and fire muzzle-loading cannons accurately from the rearing and plunging deck of a sailing ship, let alone for Greeks or Romans to try flinging a rock high into the air from a capricious launcher with no traverse on the deck of a galley that was top-heavy to start with, in hopes of having the rock land on a moving target only 20 or 30 feet wide. (As an additional but minor point, onagers were not perfected or used widely until 300 or 400 AD, far outside the stated ‘Greek vs. Roman vs. Phoenician’ time period of the game.) Suggestion: keep siege machines off the ships and on shore, where they work best.
Ram Speed is typical of the 20-odd small games that Metagaming produced in its brief career: a simple, cheap, short, and painless study of a particular situation. Its abstract and concise nature makes it hard for period ‘feel’ to come through, but that can be an advantage as well. For example, I snapped this one up when it first came out, very quickly added some new maps with islands and castles along with new rules for ‘Greek fire,’ and used it as a naval combat module for the Dungeons and Dragons campaign my friends and I were playing at the time. It worked very well. If you can find a copy of this at a reasonable price (sold in 1980 for $3.95), my suggestion is to grab it, hang some extra bells and whistles on it to your own taste, and have some quick fun.
Hey Brian, excellent 'Review' upon this tarnished 'beaut', while I have to confess that the "Trireme" game was always more to my liking. There is another more detailed GAME upon this same topic and it is called ''Clash of the War Galleys'' at this LINK:
I was unaware of its existance myself, until just a few months ago when I happened across it at a 'Thrift Store' of ALL places! It could certainly 'do' with an updated version and perhaps even along the lines of yet another more 'popular' GAME series?