The Flare Path: HMS Uncertain

Reader #43, put down that euphonium. Reader #119, stick a bookmark in that “Paddington Station, 1967” daydream. Reader #723, you can finish that doodle of an IS-2 crushing a Kübelwagen later. Right now we’ve got work to do. Vital work.

During a recent email exchange with Johan Nagel, the man behind 2015’s cleverest wargame (and possibly 2017’s too) happened to mention that one of his other projects was becalmed at present. After prototyping ‘HMS’, a management wargame in which players captain 18th Century British warships, he realised that though “the concept sounds cool… it runs a high risk of being boring”. Struggling “to inject drama and tension in multiple and varied ways and at the same time giving an overall strategic objective that is compelling” it sounded like he was close to moving the project to the backburner.

Having perused the design document, admired the pre-pre-alpha screenshots, and dreamt about a Hornblower-em-up for decades, the thought that HMS might not make it as far as a grease-slathered slipway is heartbreaking. Perhaps together we can persuade Mr Nagel to keep plugging away. Perhaps together we can help him find that missing “clever mechanic to drive interesting decisions” – the magic ingredient that will leaven the constant round of patrols and combat.

To me HMS’s fundamentals look as solid as Victory’s stern post. Although the design doc says next to nothing about how combat will work, the descriptions of turnless crew management and Admiralty-driven globetrotting suggest the theme couldn’t be in safer hands.

According to the blueprint, ships will come crammed with stat-endowed (morale, discipline, health, fatigue, seamanship, gunnery) sailors. We won’t interact with these tars directly. All orders will be issued through the eight officers and petty officers highlighted in red above. Need sails furled or an anchor raised? Click on the 1st lieutenant. Require stores loaded or a press-gang organised? Select the midshipman. Want a mast repaired or guns serviced? Seek out the shipwright. Time to let the cat out of the bag? Cursor-rouse a brutish boatswain.

There are over thirty different order types distributed between the officers and together they paint a picture of eventful voyages. For every obvious command – all hands on deck, cease fire, board enemy ship… – there’s a thought-provoker. Ever initiated a burial at sea or a stem-to-stern fumigation while naval wargaming? No, me neither. I can’t recall issuing the order “Splice the mainbrace!” or “Send all women ashore” either. HMS is keen to take us to places we’ve never been before.

Exactly who reacts to a barked command will depend on the scope of that command. Part of either the larboard or starboard watch (watches usually switch every four hours) and further divided into divisions, men can be mobilised en-masse or in smaller subtler clusters. Presumably a ship’s company denuded by disease, desertion and battle, will find effective multi-tasking difficult. In situations reminiscent of FTL, there will be times when juggling damage control, sail management, and gunnery will be tricky.

An enthusiastic and able abstractor, it looks like Johan isn’t planning to permit unrestricted global navigation or build a fancy dynamic weather engine. Destinations are to be connected by simple set paths. Impacted by winds that shift, strengthen and drop, voyages along these paths will be punctuated by encounters with other ships busy on their own inter-nodal business. Successfully carry out the sequential, story-steeped ‘patrol x’, ‘blockade y’, ‘drop marines at z’ type-orders that drive play and fame and favour will be your reward. Sloop to frigate, frigate to two-decker, two-decker to three-decker… Nelsonian climbs will end, naturally enough, on the spacious quarterdecks of gun-bristling first-raters like the Victory.

‘Morale’ is a word that crops up frequently in the design document. In the same way that the Hearts & Minds score sits at the centre of Vietnam 65 and Afghanistan 11 stirring up trouble or smoothing progress, the ship’s morale – a figure derived from the individual morale stats of everyone aboard – will nestle at the centre of HMS. Johan is clearly more interested in man management than sail management so attempts to turn HMS into a kind of Age of Sail Combat Mission may be a waste of time. Where then could the design go to find that jolt of enlivening vitality it currently needs?

Personally, I’d be tempted to look for answers amongst the crew, specifically the officers and petty officers. Though the vessels and battle tactics of the period are fascinating, for me the most compelling aspects of Age of Sail literature like Kent, Forester, and O’Brian are the personality clashes and bonds. However abstracted its combat and rigid its over-arching narrative, any naval wargame that managed to place me in charge of a cast of characters capable of friendship, loyalty, enmity, jealousy, treachery, cowardice, recklessness and self-sacrifice would be a game I know I’d find engrossing.

In my soap opera slant on HMS most of the officers would start out as blank canvases. They’d possess collections of randomly determined traits (humanitarian, sadist, sot, sycophant, duellist, coward, glory hunter…) and be entangled in webs of constantly shifting relationship stats, but none of this would be obvious at the start. Mid-way through a voyage to the Caribbean to hunt a particularly troublesome American privateer, you’d realise that your 1st lieutenant had lost his nerve, that your two most promising midshipmen hated each other’s guts, and that the boatswain was a thoroughly bad lot. You’d find yourself in the midst of a colourful, dynamic human drama.

Losing a subordinate with a high seamanship stat to a blast of grape shot is sure to be annoying. Losing a subordinate with a high seamanship stat, an unswerving faith in his captain, and a wonderful way with the men to a blast of grape shot would, I hope, be genuinely mortifying. Suddenly the mood of the crew becomes harder to gauge, their mutinous stirrings more difficult to damp down. The dead man’s natural replacement is weak and incompetent yet well-connected. Do you appoint him or choose another and risk making a powerful enemy at Admiralty House?

Or maybe the breath of wind that will hustle HMS out of the doldrums is a dashed clever combat layer. Real-time Age of Sail tactical wargames can all too easily end up bland and repetitive, the party with the most guns and the weather gage invariably triumphing. Rather than risk this fate, perhaps Johan would be wise to try something daring with battle encounters. A whist-inspired card game? Interactive fiction-style text choices? Powder monkey tennis?

Okay, convinced as I am that HMS needs personalities to prosper, I confess I haven’t given the subject of combat a great deal of thought. I’m sure there are Bolitho and Maturin enthusiasts reading this with far better ideas. If the screenshots sprinkled through this piece put you in mind of a game you once pipedreamed – if you can think of ways in which HMS might be enriched and boredom-proofed – please share them. Who knows, something might sow a seed in Nagel’s noggin. Something might rekindle his passion for a project pipe-chewing quayside horizon-watchers like myself – and that cove over there with the H-O-L-D F-A-S-T finger tattoos – have been waiting for for years.

*       *       *

This way to the foxer


  1. wodin says:

    Love the sound of it. I agree personalities and sailor interaction should be a major feature that could throw up unexpected, interesting and exciting situation. Useless Cook, Pompous Officer alienating the men (could lead to suspicious death maybe), Mutinies, Pirates, become a pirate which causes all kinds of trouble with Officers etc…lots can be done. Make the combat detailed and indepth, realistic, interesting with a proper simulation running under the hood but enough info to the player to make it interesting aswell as impressive. Make sure you have a good AI and also make sure how well you fight isn’t reliant totally on your skills playing the game but the actual skills of the sailors and officer son board..all you can do is issue the orders:)

  2. wodin says:

    I’ve also been shown a design document to a tactical wargame that would be unlike anything seen before, realistic and reads like my dream game..again however unlikely to ever be realised sadly.

  3. Premium User Badge

    FhnuZoag says:

    What about adding sex?

    No really. Homosexual love affairs, sailors wives snuck aboard, visits to brothels, significant relationships with family back in Blighty…

    Add a touch of Victorian scandal to it.

    • Eightball says:

      This is a ship of His Majesty’s Navy, not a floating bordello!

    • Rorschach617 says:

      Victorian scandal? In the Navy of Good King George?

      We may be up for Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, Sir, but we do not allow anachronisms in this Service!


  4. Rorschach617 says:

    Tim, have you read “Cochrane: The Story of Britannia’s Sea Wolf”?

    I spotted it in a charity shop and have read it many times. Recommended read. From that book, I would ask of a game of this period is a detailed “Career mode”, maybe starting as a midshipman, and having to navigate the path to promotion via preference, skill or both. It would add an interesting twist to the game, serving under certain captains might allow the player to learn skills which they, in turn, can train their subordinates in.

    eg. Serving under a “James Cook” would allow the player to boost their navigation skills and, once in command, teach their midshipmen likewise. Vice versa, serving under a flogging martinet may allow the player the choice of hard discipline or humanitarian command styles.

    Time ashore could be also used as a learning experience for the character in a career mode. Maybe a mini-game where the player draws cards from randomised decks chosen beforehand. Just talking off of the top of my head here, but I can imagine a player going through the preference route to promotion would aim to draw cards from a “Society” deck, where the cards would be “Be invited to Ball”, “Meet Lord Such-and-such”, “Write letter supporting the Lords of the Admiralty” and so on. A player aiming to be the best Captain could draw from “Science and Technology” or “Service” decks, where he could pick up skills in shipwrighting/navigation or learn combat tactics from other similar officers.

    OK, this is getting long now. Foxer time.

    • Shiloh says:

      Great idea. You could round out the character further as well – for example, a “Pretty wife” card allowing for somewhat quicker advancement thanks to the First Sea Lord’s roving eye, but detrimental to your morale if you’re away at sea for any length of time.

      My personal catnip though with any naval games would be the navigation aspect. Armed only with a sextant, a clock and a gun deck bristling with 24 pounders, the world’s oceans would be naught but highways leading to fame, riches, glory and the confounding of the King’s enemies! (OK, I’ll step away from the poop deck for a while)

    • Rorschach617 says:

      I was worse than hopeless on this week’s foxer, so I’ve come back.

      I would recommend the option for the player to take a more hands-on approach for his captain as the situation demands.

      Lets say the game has an FTL-style UI. The Captain being on the bridge would allow the player greater overview of the battle and maybe a passive buff to the crew’s morale. But moving him to the gundecks might buff the accuracy of cannon fire while forcing the player to rely on the AI’s ability to avoid navigational hazards. Greater character skill might unlock special “critical hits”.

      • Shiloh says:

        I think the key is definitely the characters, as Tim, you and everyone else has mentioned. In a similar vein to Tim’s B-24 AARs, the Holy Grail is emergent gameplay – you come home from six months at sea with a hell of a tale to tell of the triumphs and tragedy that befell you and your shipmates – only to find that “Pretty wife” is at the centre of a major scandal in society and you’re now the laughing stock of the Navy…

        • Rorschach617 says:

          “Pretty Wife” having an affair would be an interesting situation for the player, so long as it is grounded in the logic of the time.

          I’m thinking that both Nelson and Wellington were both flagrantly unfaithful to their wives and were not ostracised by society or even ridiculed in the gutter press due to their heroic status.

          Coming back to port to find the wife has caused a scandal could be devastating to a captain that has just spent 6 months on boring blockade duty in a scow. At least you can always challenge the bounder to a duel.
          On the other hand, returning to London with three captured enemy warships in tow and the player would find little inconvenience, his hero status would shield him from the scandal, even allow him to divorce, remarry and improve his promotion chances.

    • Rorschach617 says:

      Just a quick mention but this, I believe, goes without saying.

      Prize money and corruption must be modelled accurately. For some players, the accumulation of wealth would be a goal. Accurate prize money calculations would be critical. Likewise, official corruption and ill-feeling towards the player/captain would restrict his income and therefore add an element of challenge to the game. This would feed into how the player uses his time ashore.

    • Tim Stone says:

      Thanks for the recommendation Rorschach. Cochrane will be accompanying me on my summer hols this year.

  5. Arioch_RN says:

    I’d be up for some of this thank you very much.

    Man-management akin to the upcoming UBoot, combat sort of mashing up FTL with Atlantic Fleet, and go on then, piping the hands with a Bosun’s Call, Zelda Ocarina of Time style :)

    Or, um, how about timed shouting at a gun crew for the combat? A bit like that indie game Receiver where you had to go through a precise sequence to fire a handgun but with timing. Two Six Heave!

  6. rb207 says:

    obviously everyone interested in this thread should consider reading Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series. Because it is superb! Loosely influenced/Based on cochranes career

    • GernauMorat says:

      Yes, go read Patrick O’brian. Unlike Hornblower, they are well written and brilliantly researched, and overflow with interesting characters as well as plenty of adventure. Can’t recommend them enough. If this game lets me plat out Aubrey/Maturin adventures I will probably never play anything else.

  7. celticdr says:

    I was thinking Crusader Kings II would be a good reference for the designer – the dynamic of that game with characters having traits (both good and bad) and having to deal with the possibility of mutiny and meting out punishment to the crew via pop-ups with choices could also work well… so yeah, similar to what you said Mr. Stone – to give the game more character Johan just needs to give the characters characteristics :)

    • JB says:

      When Tim was writing about characters/traits, CK2 was precisely what popped into my head too!

  8. Premium User Badge

    Grimsterise says:

    Yes, an O’Brian it up! Sloth debauchery! Malapropisms! The lesser of two weevils! and of course: Why is a Dog watch called a ‘Dog’ watch?

    • Arioch_RN says:

      It is cur-tailed! My bankers are Hoare’s!

      • Premium User Badge

        Grimsterise says:

        Don’t speak to me about rears and vices, I’ve been in the Navy my whole life!

    • picaroon says:

      Press ‘q’ to drink the tincture of laudanum.

    • alh_p says:

      The bottle stands by you sir!

    • GernauMorat says:

      “Jack, you have debauched my sloth.”

      Probably the greatest line in the entire series.

  9. Michael Fogg says:

    Unrelated to wargames, but with regard to interpersonal drama in a Royal Navy-like setting there’s this recently released game called Herald:An Interactive Period Drama on Steam. Looks like a mix of adventure game with Telltale-type choice game. Haven’t seen any coverage on RPS.

  10. Gothnak says:

    I don’t know if people saw it in the comments section of offers this week, but there are two Paradox sales this week, one on Steam and one on the Humble Store. I just spent £30 on some decent wargames on Steam.

    • Shiloh says:

      There a Slitherine sale on at the moment as well, possibly a bargain or two to be had if you’re a fan of AGEOD’s take on strategy gaming.

    • phlebas says:

      Also Steam currently has a sale on many Slitherine games including 50% off 2015’s cleverest wargame.

    • Gothnak says:

      I am of course an idiot. I meant Slitherine (Steam) AND Paradox (Humble).. :p…

  11. wizyy says:

    Just change the time to the golden age of piracy
    Be a captain of a pirate or privateer ship
    Have the chance of mutiny
    I’d jump right in to play something like that.

    • Rich says:

      It would avoid some of the rigidity that you get from the navy. Proper Articles of War buffs would be disappointed, but it might help to make it more fun.

  12. DrMicMc says:

    So, I’m another who’s been waiting for a game like this one. I think a nice complement to officers with character and personality would be a more complex crew. As well as morale, why not add loyalty / criminality / attitude / language / background.

    You might have a long serving crew, recruited from portsmouth docks. You’ve taken good care of them. When you take a prize you are careful to weigh up the risks to the crew and officers you send over to it.

    Or maybe you impress sailors from every ship you stop on patrol, relying on the fact that the Spaniards, Dutch, French and Americans hate each other more than they hate you.

    What happens if you are disgraced and lose your commission? Game over? Or do you take a loan to fit a ship and set off to the East Indies with the hope of bringing back a hold full of spices and silk? If you make it you’ll be the toast of London Society, if you fail, perhaps you’ll be driven to piracy to salvage your pride?

    Just my two cents. I registered as I’m pretty excited by this concept and wanted to have a comment.