Final Release Notes for Queen Victoria’s Navy

February 200, by Bruce Biskup

The idea for a naval game came to me over 7 years ago when I was playing a contemporary naval wargame depicting World War I. Like many players in the hobby, I thought that I could do better and I set out to try. About the same time, my friend Joshua Howard wanted to design boardgames and distribute them over the Internet. Over the years we had played several games and even tinkered with the rules. He too had some ideas for boardgames and wanted to give them a try. So we decided to collaborate together and what would eventually become our first professionally published game came into being.

The game I was trying to design was an operational level game that would describe why fleets were in conflict in the first place. The intent was to provide the opportunity for disparate engagements (unequal forces) since historically, no commander wants to fight a pitched battle. At the time, the design included a tactical component to fight the actual engagements. I choose the period 1860 to 1906 since that period saw a tremendous change in naval technology and innovation. There was also a distinct lack of combat during that period so I would not be as constrained in the design of the game as I would be if I were doing a historical game. Finally, except for the American Civil War, there are not many games devoted to this topic in this period. In the end, I never came up with a satisfactory operational level game system and my efforts were quickly concentrated on the tactical game.

The first real break for the design of QVN came when I was working with Joshua and a few others on our first game, Barons of Fyn. The inspiration was a ship control log that would describe the composition of the ship. With this insight, Joshua and I went on to create the game Sovereign Seas and the very similar title, Sovereign Seas Lite. Sovereign Seas featured a complicated ship control log and a very large set of rules. Although playable, I thought that the system was cumbersome and took too long to play. We released Sovereign Seas as a freely available postscript game and I was pleasantly surprised to receive some encouraging email for our efforts. One group was using the rules for an ahistorical role playing game set in that period. However, Joshua and I decided to leave the game as it was for the time being and work on some other game projects.

The next revision to the game occurred around 1995 when I tried to replace the ship control log with detailed counters. The idea was to make the game less cumbersome and speed up the play of the game. It was at this time that we changed the name Sovereign Seas to Queen Victoria’s Navy since I thought that the name sounded better. The revision turned into a fiasco as the counters were barely readable and the mechanics of using the counters drastically changed the feel of the game for the worse. Joshua and I had started using Adobe’s PDF format for our games to reduce the electronic footprint of the files and to make use of the better cross-platform benefits of the PDF format. The PDF version of QVN topped out at several megs due to the counters which in turn took too long to download. Players also had to construct many double sided counters. I am quite adept at making such counters but we considered it too much to ask our customers to put up with. I concluded that the game was a dead end since it was too cumbersome, took too long to play and was really not that much fun and as before, we stopped work on QVN to concentrate our efforts on other game projects.

The final major change came when Joshua met James Ernst of Cheapass games and told me about his game designs and operation. I finally met James Ernst when I attended my first Origins gaming convention in 1997. James Ernst designs simple, inexpensive games that have a humorous slant to them. Although not everyone is a fan of his games, his success has reminded the industry that there is still a market for inexpensive games. Both Joshua and I came away from Origins 1997 with the feeling that we could redesign and repackage several of our existing games into a smaller format. The smaller format required simpler rules systems that were more playable. Fewer components (maps, rules & counters) meant cheaper costs to produce. For the first time we realized that we might be able to actually sell our games.

QVN Post Origins 1997

About 2 months after Origins 1997, I had completely redesigned the rules for QVN and returned to the ship control log concept with a much simpler layout. To keep the cost down, we had to have as few counters as necessary which influenced my decision to use only ahistorical scenarios. The few historical engagements of the time (Lissa 1866, Yalu River 1805, and Tushima 1906) actually involved a rather large number of ships. We set ourselves a goal of reducing the rules to 10 printed 8.5″×11″ pages, folded in half booklet style, printed front and back. The original rules were pruned by omitting concepts that were not used in the scenarios and simplifying the wording of the rules wherever possible. Ahistorical scenarios were also used to avoid special rules that would be required to push the outcome to a more historical result. Using ahistorical scenarios has the advantage of allowing me to include more interesting vessels and situations describing might-have-been situations during the period covered by the game. I consider this design feature as an asset with QVN. Once this revision was complete, the next two years saw many minor tweaks and numerous rewriting of the rules to make concepts clearer and the mechanics simpler. The last year was almost exclusively devoted to details about printing the game. Most of the work was about how to keep the printing costs reasonable so that we could actually print the game. From the beginning, Joshua and I have wanted to deliver a quality product to our customers. For us, quality means an enjoyable game, with reasonable components, that can be purchased at an affordable price. I believe that with QVN. we have succeeded in meeting our goals and I hope that those who purchase the game will believe this is true.

QVN Game Design Concepts

The basic premise of QVN is that the players are fleet commanders who are fighting Manhanian style naval engagements that feature capital ships. Smaller vessels such as torpedo boats were ignored since the initial rules that I developed to handle them were extensive. In addition, all of those small ships took a big bite out of our counter mix. Counters are the single most expensive component for most games. Fleets travel in groups (or squadrons) so I have included simple command and control rules and penalties for losing control of the formation. Players therefore will normally fight their ships in small groups. This feature helps make the game multi-player since different players can now control several ships. I also created simple rules for weather (expressed as sea-state) and fighting at night. Night fighting became possible during this era due to the invention of the electric light and the rapid electrification of ships in the navies of the world.

The gunnery model turned out to be the most interesting part of the game to design and develop. My research showed that although the weapons were capable of great range with reasonable accuracy, the fire control techniques used were primitive. As late as the 1900s, gun captains in the British navy would sight and train their weapons over the barrels without the use telescopic sights. It is interesting to note that the 12″ breach loading cannons mounted on the HMS Dreadnaught of 1906 were the same 1893 pattern gun used in the British pre-Dreadnaughts of the 1890s. The differences in effective combat range between those 15 years were the result of improved gunnery techniques, crew training, and better propellant used in the charges. However, the gun and shells were identical to those used in the 1890s. I designed a changing range scale where the definition of short, medium, and long range are based on the year date of the scenario. This range scale is somewhat subjective as accurate data is hard to locate but I believe that it is a good representation of the average capability at each particular period. This scale also helps to illustrate how changing technology drove improvements in the effectiveness of the ships themselves and helped drive the naval arms race in general.

Individual guns are grouped by size (primary, secondary and tertiary) for rate-of-fire purposes. The damage caused by some of the smaller weapons is the result of the rate of fire and not necessarily the striking power of the individual round. Some of the weapons described in the game are muzzle-loading cannons or very large, early pattern breach loading cannons that had slow rates of fire. The 17.7″ muzzle-loading cannons of the Italian Duilio could fire only once every 15 minutes and event then all four of the guns could not be fired as one broadside because the hull of the ship could not take the shock. For such weapons I have included an automatic –1 or –2 column shift listed in the notes on the ship control log.

The weapon penetration values are based upon published data wherever possible. I admit that this too is highly subjective as I was never able to locate information for all weapons portrayed in the game. In addition, the data is not easily corroborated since the tests were in no means standardized. I assumed perfect ammunition and I grouped the weapons together by bore size and caliber length on a spreadsheet. Similar weapons were given similar capability where I was missing data. When I had to make up data, I tried to err conservatively and made the weapon weaker.

Classifying ship armor posed another problem as technical details of each vessel was not readily available to me. I assumed that all armor was vertical since the fire control used during the period of the game allowed only direct fire combat. Each hull point represents about 500 tons of deep load. I used the ratio of the belt length to hull length multiplied by the total number of hull points on the ship to determine which hull points were protected by the belt armor. The remaining hull points were protected by the deck armor. I used the maximum armor thickness to determine the armor rating for each part of the ship except in situations where information about the vessel recommended against this. Weapons in barbette mountings were given reduced protection due to the exposed position of the gun crews. Armor composition was taken into effect when determining that thickness of the armor. I came across several references that described a consistent ratio between wood, iron, steel, and Krupp steel. I converted everything into an equivalent thickness of iron. Each armor grade represents about 1–2 inches of iron equivalent. My game probably underrates the protection of an armored ship. British commentators during the Russo–Japanese war indicated that armor was superior to the guns of the day. This was probably due to the poor quality of the ammunition of the time. I choose not to model ammunition quality in the game so as to simplify my analysis.

The combat system is a direct result of my impression from my research that it was difficult for hits to be scored against an enemy vessel except at relatively short ranges during the period described by QVN. According to my research, attempts to improve gunnery combat did not occur until after the Spanish–American war. The U.S. Navy concluded that less than 3 % of the rounds fired hit their target. Independently, a British captain learned that one could train gunners to compensate for the roll of the ship and thereby improve the chances of hitting a target at longer ranges. Training for long range gunnery was not widely practice in the British navy until after 1904. True long range gunnery did not come about until 1912 when the British navy began to introduce directory fire control on their capital ships. As a consequence, the secondary batteries on a ship are more important than the large main batteries in QVN. The higher rate of fire of the secondary batteries makes scoring a hit with the secondary batteries more likely than with the primary batteries. This concept underscores the reason for the seemingly eccentric designs of the ships in this period where multiple gun calibers were employed. The lighter guns were intended to rake the decks of the target ship to disrupt gunnery and fire fighting activities. The medium guns were to inflict damage on vulnerable parts of the target ship while the large weapons were to destroy the heavily armored or better protected parts of the target ship. Since all weapons were to be used against the primary target, the range of combat was necessarily short.

The combat table is a bell-curve with no die modifiers. All modifiers are column shifts with most of the shifts to the left where it is more difficult to hit. I purposely separated the act of hitting a target from the act of inflicting damage on a target. Several naval games combine this step into one action by combining the hitting power of the weapon with the rate-of-fire of the weapon. Combing this process into 1 step could result in a weapons becoming much more effective than actually possible due to either a high rate of fire or a very large round. By separating the combat step into two phases, I could emphasize the difficulty that the primitive fire control placed the ability to score an effective hit with the guns of the day while maintaining the possibility of horrendous damage if a large caliber hit is scored.

Players of QVN will note that torpedoes are included in the game but are even less effective than guns in scoring a hit. There are several reasons for the ineffectiveness of torpedoes in this period. First, the speed of the torpedoes is slow and the range is limited to less than 2000 meters. Finally, the warheads are small and the detonators are fairly unreliable. Contemporary torpedoes used compress air for propellant which leaves a distinct trail which ships could use to avoid a hit. An interesting exception to compressed air propellant was the U.S. Howell torpedo which used a spinning flywheel to turn the screw. Although a Howell torpedo left no wake, the steam engine required to spin up the flywheel was quite loud and the range of the weapon was still short. To me, this illustrates the ingenuity applied to problems by nautical engineers during this period which makes it interesting to me.

The damage table is fairly straight forward. Since a bell curve is also used, the most common hits are against the belt and hull. Since hitting a target is difficult in QVN, I did not want any hits wasted so I included a cascading hit progression. If a hit is scored against a nonexistent component of a ship then the hit cascades towards a belt/hull hit. I also added the possibility of starting a fire to help offset the low probability of hitting a target. The idea for this feature came to me after reading an article on lessons the British Navy learned after the Russo–Japanese war. The British concluded that fire was a major hazard to ships in combat and went about reducing flammables located on the decks of the ship. Therefore, I believe that the fire rules quite appropriately expose ships in QVN to destruction by uncontrollable fires.

I have been criticized about the critical hit table since the chance of scoring a magazine explosion is extremely small. Although examples of this happening are very rare, such explosions did occur. My rebuttal is to point out the Ht1 and Ht2 critical hits are located in the table so as to more likely to happen. Large caliber hits that cause Ht1 or Ht2 hits are likely to heavily damage a vessel or render the hapless target incapable of combat. Those additional hits are likely to start fires which inflict even more damage to the ship over the following turns. If a ship is destroyed by an outright explosion or due to accumulated damage, the result is the same.

For ship speed I used the maximum speed listed in the ship data. This speed was normally trial speed and is not really representative for ships in service. This was a simplification on my part. One concept I did included was the notion that a ship is generally easier to accelerate than decelerate. The rules in the game reflect this premise but the rates are subjective. The same can be of the turning rate. The turning rate is based upon ship length and not outright size. Again, this is somewhat subjective since there are other factors that influence the turning radius of a ship and I did not always have access to detailed data for me to use. For ships that are unusually larger or very hand I will include a note on the ship log that notes a different turning rate.

Finally, I tried to design scenarios that were plausible to a certain extent or that used interesting vessels like the Italian Duilio or the British Inflexible. I purposely included several navies so that players could see several different styles of ship design. I also tried to include scenarios from across the period covered by the game to help illustrate the changing pace of the naval arms race that occurred at that time.

It has been a rewarding experience for Joshua and me to bring QVN to print as we have. I would like to thank all of those who wrote us to comment on the beta versions of QVN. All comments that we received were helpful to improving the quality of the game and were much appreciated. We sincerely hope that all, who purchase our game QVN, enjoy it as much as we do.