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Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: Sails of Glory by Ares Games

by Rich - thanks to my brother Jason for the unboxing pics

Sails of Glory is a game of naval combat, set in the late 1700s-early 1800s. Wooden sailing ships of the Royal Navy go toe-to-toe with the mighty French fleet, against the imagined background of Napoleon Bonaparte's European campaigns.

In SoG, you can command agile frigates and second-rate ships of the line in epic sea battles. The ships are 1/1000 scale and come pre-painted. The whole game looks pretty, and the rules and scenarios are versatile and impressive. Your reviewer has never played Ares' "other" game - Wings of Glory - but his trusty podcasting partner and fellow crewmember Jared says that the comparisons are many between the two games. Let's have a look, shall we?

First things first: what do you need to play?  As one of the hundreds of kickstarters of this project way back in May 2013, my set came with everything that Ares released for the game, including the whole first wave of ships.  

A good place for everyone to start with is, well, the starter set. This box comes well stocked with a rulebook (which you can also read here), 4 ships, templates, counters, rulers, and everything else you need to play the game. A wind indicator, er, indicates the wind, an attitude indicator establishes where your ship sits in relation to the wind direction, and the combat rulers determine range for your cannon and muskets. Really all you'd want to add is maybe the ocean mat (although blue felt works just as well), and the terrain packs for some variety. To play an actual game, you'll need some ships and their "logs" (see below), a "mat" for each ship (ditto), a ruler, a wind attitude indicator, and the 5 sets of damage counters (see: Combat).

This is what you get in the starter set, minus the 4 ships
Ship packs

Inside the ship pack - note the folded-up ship "log" behind the model

In addition, you can purchase individual ships from the British and French fleets. A ship pack (which usually retails for $12-$15) comes with the model, a reversible reference card with statistics for two ships (so one model can play as either of two ships in a game), a deck of manuever cards for that ship, and a "ship log". The log is used in the game to display how much damage you've taken, and how much firepower and crew you have. You'll use this log in conjunction with a very important item that comes in the starter set, called a "ship mat."  The ship mat (weird name, I know) shows any actions you have taken or are going to take with your ship (reloading guns, choosing amount of sails, repairing damage, etc.).

The spread-out ship "log" of the French Two-Decker Aquilon, placed in the top of the ship "mat."  The Aquilon has taken damage to her hull and crew, and has both broadsides loaded with round shot. The "mat" acts as a sort of base for a ship's "log."
There are Basic, Standard, and Advanced Rules to use. The Standard rules seem to offer the sweet spot in terms of interesting gameplay, as your options for movement and combat are greater than Basic, but not as complicated as Advanced. I still haven't played the Advanced rules, but they seem to cater to the full simulation crowd with things like fires, sail- and rudder-damage, crew repairs, variable wind directions, and other battle situations.


Without steam engines, you'll be dependent on the wind to get your ship from A to B. If the wind is at your back, you'll fly. If you're facing the wind, you are extremely limited in what you can do (read: a sitting duck).  The colors on your ship's base indicate your attitude to the wind, and you simply line up the attitude indicator with the main mast of your ship (pointing in the direction of the wind) to determine what maneuvers you can take. Once you've got a color, you pick a corresponding maneuver card from your deck, and slide the maneuver card under your ship. No rulers, no measurements, just line your boat up with the colored lines. Simple, if a bit awkward, because all players move their ships at the same time! 


Your wooden ship carries dozens of cannon and a complement of musket-wielding marines with which to punish your enemy (there's a boarding mechanism in the Optional Rules). The combat ruler shows if you're in range, and the firing arcs on your ship show how much firepower you can bring to bear. These firing arcs correspond to three numbers on your ship "log", the first is for your forward arc, the middle for the broadside, the last for the rear arc. You'll notice that the number is highest in the middle, and that's because here you can bring more guns to bear. If you're in range, you simply draw as many damage counters as you have numbers for the firing arc you're using. If you're at long range, draw from the "A" counter bag. Short range is the B counter, Musket range (the width of the ruler) is E, and the C and D counters are for chainshot and grapeshot special ammunition. Players conduct their shooting simultaneously, as with moving.

Color-coded damage counters. Different symbols on the bottom indicate types of damage in the Advanced Rules.
The counters you pull have numbers on them. Basically, your ship has a number limit (called it's "burden") to how much damage it can take. Once you've hit the limit - or lost enough crew members due to enemy fire - your ships strikes her colors.

So how does it play?  
"Much like Wings of Glory," says Jared. "Like a historical wargame," says Rich. As a 1v1, you have to like historical wargaming to like SoG. Combat is all kinds of fun; when ships are in lethal range you're really smashing each other, and sometimes you can sink a ship in two, or even one round of shooting.

Jared and Rich running through a demo game. That's Jared's "hurry up" stare.
It's the maneuvering that slows things down a bit. These old boats take time to turn, so after you make that initial pass and the first volley, you can spend a lot of time circling each other without even firing a shot. In these cases, it's the wind direction that usually gets the last laugh as one player finally flounders long enough to get pummeled. That being said, it's probably a very fun party game. We found that the more ships on the board, the better. Managing one ship takes a bit of micromanagement, and managing 2 seems to be the limit for one person. So you'd probably want more than one person on your team if you're going to have more than 2 ships, and as I mentioned, that's not a bad thing. The opportunities for a large group to have fun playing together - each player controlling one ship as part of a large fleet - are definitely there.

For our 2v2 game, it took about 1.5 hours, including setup, to play. That's with 2 ships per team: 1 ship of the line and 1 frigate.

What does the future hold?
Summer 2014 releases will bring the mightiest warships to the fray: first-rate ships of the line carrying 100 or more guns, individual famous units like the HMS Victory and USS Constitution. I for one will be purchasing a couple of those.

Overall Score:  3.5 out of 5 Pints of Grog

Ever since watching "Top Gun" as a 10 year-old, Rich (sylvansealy on the forums) has dreamt of flying the not-so-friendly skies. Poor eyesight may have kept him from being Maverick's wingman, but it did not keep him off the highway to the digital danger zone. Rich's fondest early video game memories revolve around the classic "X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter", flight sims, and real-time-strategy games. When he's not gaming or juggling his 4 kids, Rich can be found co-hosting the Outpost 309 podcast with Jared every few weeks.

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