Serpents of the Seas – Boardgame Review
Serpents of the Seas (Flying Colors Volume II). Board game. GMT Games, designed by Mike Nagel. $69.00
Passed Inspection: High-quality game components; basic rules are quick to grasp; game design is very loyal to the period and represents the tactics and decisions of 18th-century naval warfare
Failed Basic: language barrier of gamespeak throughout the rules; combat rules are overly complex
John Paul Jones would have played this, and so should you.
Outside of World War Two, naval warfare gets short shrift when it comes to simulation gaming. Mike Nagel of GMT steps in to admirably fill this breach, at least for the Age Of Sail, with his Serpents of the Seas design. Set during the period sandwiching the American Revolution-from the Seven Years / French And Indian War through to the War Of 1812-this North America-centric game is the second volume of the Flying Colors series. (The first game, titled Flying Colors, was released in 2005 and covers roughly the same period but with more European action.) The rules are "2.0;" changes from the first game, which are marked with stars, are mainly small but important additions, such as rules on command transfer, commander casualties, and Line Of Sight changes, among other alterations.
You get 560 full-color counters on two sheets (half are ships and commanders, half are status markers). Two 22" x 34" maps marked with shoals and shallows are the terrain you’ll be fighting over; a third map for the Duel rules also includes all of the charts and tables for the game. You get two player aid cards (actually 4-page cardstock books), a deck of 54 Initiative cards, a d10, small bundle of plastic baggies for counter storage, and two books; harkening back to the SPI days, you get a rules book plus a scenarios book that includes any rules changes or special "this battle only" rules. The components are of highest quality, as we’ve come to expect from GMT.
Of course, as this is a GMT game, put on your rules lawyer hat; the text is a little dense in some places. Actually, though, once you get into the game and begin play the learning curve doesn’t seem so steep. In fact, the most off-putting thing the designer does, using actual 18th century nautical terms to describe the various ship movements, becomes second nature as you play-always a sign of good writing and editing. So going sternway when I find myself in irons actually makes sense now that I have a few games under my captain’s coat.
Another oddity of the design that seems not to make sense at first is the use of Command Radius and In Command / Out Of Command rules. This is the 18th century, how can a ship a hundred yards away across water in the middle of a battle be In Command and under the control of the fleet admiral?? If you think of command as the leader exerting direct control over the ship, it can’t. But in the game, "command" includes training, previous battle experience, pre-battle instructions, and quality (or lack thereof) of junior officers, not just signal flags and shouting. Also, the command rules allow you to move groups of units together rather than individual ships one at a time, a necessary conceit to avoid overlong games. So the Command rules work quite well within the design.
Once you choose or create a scenario, set up the map and mark the wind direction. Both players roll a 10-sided die and add the Command Quality of their fleet admiral to determine initiative. Players alternate moving their vessels; In Command ships can be moved as groups, those Out Of Command can only be moved individually. Combat occurs during movement, including defensive "chase them off" fire.
Like the movement rules, the combat rules are cleanly handled so that after playing your first game you’ll know all about chase guns and partial rakes. As a result of combat, a ship can be sunk or swept clean of crew, but there are also rules on involuntary Striking: when the men and officers of a ship can’t take anymore, they lower their flag in submission and sit out the rest of the fight. In our modern era of suicide bombers, this is a nice touch of civility and honor from the past. The rule also prevents players from fighting to the bitter end. You can only go as far as your sailors are willing.
Another nice player-limiting rule is Audacity. One side has Audacity, and though this can help with initiative and combat results, it also works against you in some instances for scoring Victory Points. In effect, the high Audacity side has to win; the other player wins by not losing. Another nice way designer Nagel puts players directly into the mindsets of Ye Olde Naval Officers.
Movement depends on the wind direction in relation to your ship, from 0 movement points ("in irons," facing into the wind) to 5 MPs ("reaching," moving 60 degrees, i.e., one hexside to either side of wind direction). A compass printed on the map makes wind direction easy to track and determine how it affects your ship. Certain special situations such as Pass Along (moving directly through a hex occupied by another ship, entering from its bow or stern), grappling, and other moves are covered. And no, you may not ram; the sailors aren’t stupid, no matter how crazy their officers are.
Combat is charts-heavy. Ships are Rated according to how many guns they carry. Lower numbers are better, so First Rate (1) ships are the toughtest, 5 and 6 are best for mop-up operations. (There are also smaller gunboats rated G or T depending on their armament.) Take the Rate of the ship (marked on its counter) and apply modifiers (+1 if full sails are up or the ship is on fire, etc.) Remember, positive modifiers raise the Rate, making the attack less powerful. Cross-reference the adjusted Rate with range to the target on another chart to get the Base Firepower Value. Modify that number, then consult the Hit Results Table. Roll a d10, modify that roll, then see how much damage you’ve done to the target. If any. Lots of modifying and adjusting numbers already modified and adjusted! GMT is still old-school; I’d like to see them try a faster "roll this number or better on the darn die" type system of the kind that works well with other historical simulations. As Henry David Thoreau said, "Simplify! Simplify!". (Wouldn’t it have been simpler if he said it only once?)
The deck of Initiative Cards (27 for each player) are optional tactical enhancements. Although they add complexity to the game, their use is recommended. Playing a card such as Hard Over! when in a pinch can save the ship (it automatically evades or avoids a Rake attack) and throws your opponent into disarray if that ship was the main target of his efforts. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and the Initiative Cards are a great way for players to swing momentum while staying true to the game and the period it reflects.
One minor grouse about the rules; there are many references and specific rules to two-hex ships, and nearly every example of play includes the larger vessels. But this game does not have any two-hex ships! I understand that this rules book is to replace the rules from the earlier game so two-hex ships have to be referenced, but maybe some of the examples of play for this game could have been restricted to single-hex ships.
Most of the scenarios reflect the naval battles of this period; rarely will you have more than a half-dozen ships or so on each side. These were the days of commerce raiding and Great Lakes battles. Since many of the battles involved only one or two ships per side, Serpents of the Seas includes Duel rules to re-enact engagements such as the Bonhomme Richard taking on the Serapis. The Duel rules are essentially a stripped-down version of the regular rules: no command rules, ships operate individually, Initiative Cards must be used (to simulate the more intimate, tactical scale), and the Duel map is much smaller. Unlike the regular fleet action game with maneuver and command cohesion, the Duel game is full-speed-ahead, blast-your-opponent-into-pieces warfare. Ah, I love it.
Serpents of the Seas is a beautiful-looking game. Don’t let the rules scare you; once you start reading them, the terms all make sense, the actions flow one into another, and before you know it you’re with Arnold at Valcour Island trading shot with the best the British have to offer. A well-done entry into both the (too small) libraries of naval warfare games and Revolutionary War simulations. John Paul Jones would have played this, and so should you.
About the author:
Sean Stevenson started wargaming with SPI and has spent the past 35 years as a freelance game designer and playtester. When not playing any of the 1000+ games in his personal collection, he can be found reading a book on Colonial America when not running several Pittsburgh area bookstores.