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The Flare Path: HMS Uncertain

A first-rate idea

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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.

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This way to the foxer

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Tim Stone

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