Monday, 13 June 2011

A game from the archives

I recently wrote a post on the FUNNY LITTLE WARS Yahoo Group about a lawn game I ran at COW1998. It was a re-fight (in the loosest sense of the term) of the Battle of Santiago (1898) and involved model ships made out of Oasis (the grey, dry blocks of foam used by flower arrangers) and 'spud' guns.

Having re-read the article I wrote about the game in THE NUGGET No.130, I think that some of my regular blog readers might like to read the article. It contains all the rules used and the scenario, and shows that you develop fun games that can be played by a large group of people in a fairly short period of time.

‘Where is Sampson?’ – The Battle of Santiago (1898)

This session arose out of a long-standing interest I have had in naval wargaming, coupled with the appearance over the past few years of large-scale ship models in games at various wargames shows throughout the country. I began to ponder on the possibilities of fighting naval battles in a large hall or on a lawn using large-scale models, and soon found that I was not the only person thinking along these lines. I also discovered that there are several groups of enthusiasts in North America and Europe who fight such battles using radio-controlled models on large lakes. Their models are usually 1:72nd, 1:96th or 1:144th scale (each group seems to have its own favourite), are propelled by electric motors, and fire BB shot from CO2-powered cannons. Furthermore their balsa models sink when they have been repeatedly holed beneath the waterline and the ship’s pumps are unable to cope with the increasing in-rush of water – very realistic indeed! This system appealed to me, but the cost would be prohibitive and it would be impossible to stage at COW.

I was, therefore, in a quandary. What I wanted was a cheap alternative. I also needed a battle to re-fight. The answers to both these problems came to me somewhat serendipitously. I happened to be looking up some information about the Spanish-American War when I realised that 100th anniversary of the Battle of Santiago fell on the weekend of COW. I mentioned this to my wife, who was, at that precise moment, arranging some flowers into a display using a block of florist’s Oasis. I immediately realised that the Oasis, which is about £1.00 for a block 9” x 3” x 3” (22.5 cm x 7.5 cm x 7.5 cm) and which can be cut with a bread-knife, could be the building material I was looking for. After some experimentation I found that I could build two or three simple but recognisable, approximately 1:300th scale models of turn-of-the-century battleships and cruisers out of one block of Oasis. All I needed now was a method of simulating naval gunfire.

Again chance took a hand. On this occasion I had reason to confiscate a “spud” gun from a pupil who was using it to fire at other pupils in a lesson I was covering for an absent colleague. Later, when I was idly sitting in my office with the “spud” gun, trying to decide what to do with it, it suddenly dawned on me that the best way to simulate gunfire is to fire a gun, and that I had in my hand a relatively safe, environmentally-friendly, bio-degradable way of doing just that.

As soon as I got home I set up one of my experimental ship models in the garden, “stole” a potato from the vegetable rack in the kitchen, and proceeded to undertake some target practice. The results were even better than I had expected. The “spud” pellets were easily capable of causing damage to the Oasis material that the ship was made from, and the holes looked very realistic indeed. No arguments would ensue about whether or not a shell had hit its target – the evidence was visible to all who wanted to see it! I now had the essential elements of my game – or so I thought.

The problem of finding enough “spud” guns caused a temporary set-back in my planning, but a trip to my local discount toy shop soon provided me with enough guns for the game at a cost of under £20.00. The ship models took me about three to four hours to make, and cost the princely sum of £4.00. The movement measuring tapes were made out of a roll of discarded tape found by my wife in her sewing basket. I now had all the physical elements I needed for the game; the next stage was the write the rules.

The Rules
1. General Rules:
Nothing may be done contrary to what could or would be done in actual war.

2. Moves:
Movement is alternate; the Spanish move first, then fire; the Americans move second, then fire.

3. Movement:
Ships may move up to the maximum length of their individual movement measuring tapes, subject to any penalties imposed by damage or speed changes.

4. Movement Measuring Tapes:
The Movement Measuring Tapes are graduated in movement units of 9” (22.5 cm), each movement unit representing the distance moved by a ship at 3 knots of speed.

5. Speed Changes:
Ships may accelerate from stationary at a speed change rate of one movement unit per move or may decelerate whilst moving at a speed change rate of one movement unit per move.

6. The Effect of Damage on Movement – Hull Hits
Every two hull hits on a cruiser and every three hull hits on a battleship reduces its speed AT ONCE by one movement unit.

7. The Effect of Damage on Movement – Funnel Hits
Every two funnel hits on a ship reduces its speed AT ONCE by one movement unit.

8. The Effect of Damage on Movement – Bridge Hits
If a ship’s bridge is hit it will remain on its present course and at its present speed for D6 moves, subject to penalties imposed by further damage.

9. Waterline Hull Hits:
Any hit that is inflicted in the area where the bottom of the hull meets the surface of the sea is deemed to be a waterline hull hit.

10. Sinking:
A cruiser will sink once it has received 3 waterline hull hits; a battleship will sink once it has received 6 waterline hull hits.

11. Armament and Ammunition:
Each ship is allocated armament (a “spud” gun) and a supply of ammunition (a potato). Neither may be replaced during the course of the game.

12. Firing Procedure:
When it is a side’s turn to fire, the players kneel or crouch behind their model ships. When the umpires deem it to be safe, they will announce that the ten second firing period has begun. Players fire one handed over their models at the enemy and may fire as many times as the wish during the ten seconds, but may not fire once the umpires have announced that the firing period is over.

13. Damage Adjudication:
Once the firing period is over, the umpires adjudicate on the damage caused.

14. The Effect of Damage on Turrets:
If a ship’s turret or turrets are hit the player must fire with their other hand for the next two moves.

15. Ramming:
This is not permitted. See Rule 1.

16. Collisions:
Ships that collide will suffer D6 hull hits, half of which (rounded up) will be waterline hull hits.

17. Scuttling:
A player may scuttle their ship by declaring that they wish to do so at the beginning of their side’s move. A scuttled ship will take D6 moves to sink.

The Game Set-up
It is 9.30 a.m. on Sunday 3rd July, 1898. The majority of ships in the US squadron that is blockading Santiago de Cuba are at anchor, and their officers are conducting the usual Sunday inspections. The ships of the squadron are arranged in a rough semi-circle approximately two miles in diameter, with the semi-circle centred on the on the main fort defending the narrow approached to the harbour, Morro Castle (see map).

From west to east the order of the ships is as follows:
USS Brooklyn (Cruiser)
USS Texas (Battleship)
USS Iowa (Battleship)
USS Oregon (Battleship)
USS Indiana (Battleship)

In the absence of Admiral Sampson, who is nine miles away steaming eastward towards a conference with General Shafter at Siboney aboard the cruiser USS New York, Commodore Schley commands the squadron. At 9.30a.m. the quartermaster aboard Schley’s flagship – the USS Brooklyn – spots smoke rising from the entrance to the harbour, and moments later the leading Spanish ship – the flagship of the Spanish squadron, the cruiser Infanta Maria Teresa – dashes out of the harbour entrance, closely followed by the cruisers Vizcaya, Cristobal Colon, and Alimrante Oquendo. At once, the American ships sound “General Quarters”, and the first shots of the battle are fired … but where is Sampson?

The Re-fight
The Spanish sailed forth and immediately turned south-west. This brought them on to a direct collision course with USS Brooklyn, which bore the brunt of their attack. Lead by the Infanta Maria Teresa and Cristobal Colon, every Spanish cruisers’ gun were brought to bear on the luckless Brooklyn, and within a very short time her hull and upperworks were riddled by shot and shell. Despite this she attempted to fight on, and before she sank she was able to inflict some damage upon her attackers.

The USS Texas was the next American ship to become a target of the Spanish squadron, and very soon she was in a severely damaged state. However by this time the Spanish were themselves beginning to suffer from an accumulation of damage and problems with their guns, just as the faster US battleships came into range. In short order the Cristobal Colon, the Vizcaya, and the Almirante Oquendo were all pounded to a standstill by superior American firepower, and were scuttled by their captains in order to avoid capture.

Only the Infanta Maria Teresa was left to face the wrath of the pursuing Americans, and very wisely her captain took her up to full speed and maintained his westward course. Earlier damage had, however, taken its toll on the Spanish ship’s ability to steam at high speed, and gradually the American ships – now joined by Admiral Sampson in the USS New York – came within gunfire range. A hail of shells rained down on the luckless Spanish cruiser, and after suffering fatal damage, she struck her colours. Victory was America’s, but at the cost of a sunken cruiser and a badly damaged battleship.

As a game designer one has to rely on the feed-back of the players in order to make any judgement on the success or otherwise of one's game. In this case the feed-back was very positive indeed, and included the following comments:
1. The gunnery system worked very effectively.
2. It was easy to see whether or not a ship was damaged, and where the damage had been caused.
3. The game moved along at a cracking pace, and the players had plenty to do.
4. It was fun!


  1. Sounds splendid. Were there any photos taken?

  2. (Imagination+History)x Good People=Fun Wargame.

    Pity COW is so far away.

  3. Conrad Kinch,

    Unfortunately no photographs were taken of the game (it was still the age of film and developing!).

    A great pity ... but there you are.

    All the best,


  4. Ross Mac,

    That is exactly how it is ... and the formula must be a successful one considering how long COW has been going.

    It is a long way away for you ... but one day ... one day ... (I hope!).

    All the best,


  5. Thank you for the summary of the game - brilliant!


  6. I have very fond memories of that game. What was very instructive was to watch the shooting deteriorate and the guns jam as the player's ships started to take hits.

    A classic example of a simple mechanism generating a complex outcome - what WD is all about.

    Nice one Bob!


  7. Hi Bob,

    This must surely be the naval equivalent of 'Funny Little Wars'!

    Cordeguay and Forbodia should have navies capable of fighting in such a magnificent fashion!

    Shame about the pictures but should the idea be revisited at some point I have no doubt that a photographic record will be kept for posterity.

    Sounded great fun.

    All the best,


  8. Bob,

    Inspiring as always! I'm having difficulty visualizing what the models looked like, though.

    Is there any chance you took a picture of one of the ships? If not, could we prevail upon you to construct such a ship and publish a photo of it?

    More than ready to keep you busy, as always,


  9. Necessity is truely the mother of all invention, I am greatly inspired by your use of the oasis. All too sadly I realise that were I to ask Mrs C. for the loan of her breadknife to carve a battleship I should be simply confirming her worst fears for my sanity.

    Perplexed of Twickenham.

  10. My goodness, this sounds like it was splendid fun!

    Surely it calls for revisiting . . . and perhaps Cordeguay and Forbodia should have some navies . . . don't you think?

    -- Jeff

  11. Funny Little Wars - Garden Campaigns (Paul),

    I am glad that you like it.

    In my mind it 'fits' quite well with FUNNY LITTLE WARS as it places similar time constraints on the players … and the ‘spud’ guns are of a similar vintage to the good old Britains 4.7-inch gun!

    All the best,


  12. Nic101,

    If memory serves me correctly, I seem to remember you also ran a re-fight of the same battle at that COW using some very nice model ships.

    Having re-read the article in THE NUGGET, I am minded to run another game at a future COW, just for the fun of it!

    All the best,


  13. David Crook,

    I suspect that you are right about the two game designs being similar.

    Whether or not Cordeguay and Forbodia ever get navies is something that will no doubt be up for discussion at COW ... but you never know! If they do, it will be an opportunity for a session that can be photographed for posterity.

    All the best,


  14. Brian Carrick,

    Dry Oasis (the grey stuff) is – in fact – a very versatile modelling material, and I know of at least one modeller who built a whole load of buildings for an AK47 battle using it. They cut it into the required shapes and painted them with vinyl paint from cheap sample paint pots.

    I will not comment about the use of your wife’s favourite bread knife for modelling, except to say that when I made my models, I went to the local pound shop and bought a knife especially for the purpose. I saw no need to confirm her worst fears about my sanity … and I would suggest that you might wish to follow a similar course of action!

    All the best,


  15. Bluebear Jeff,

    As I wrote in reply to some previous comments about this blog entry, your suggestion might well come to fruition one day … and hopefully sooner rather than later.

    All the best,


  16. Chris,

    The models were rather ‘blocky’ to look at, but their profile was reasonably accurate.

    If I get a chance, I will try to write a suitably illustrated ‘How to …’ article about how I built them.

    All the best,


  17. I remember this game well! Not least because I was in command of the 'luckless Brooklyn' to which Bob refers. The incident prompted me to write my forst (and so far only) poem, subsequently punlished in Nugget. Shame there are no photos. Perhaps we could appeal for old COW photos at this year's COW?

  18. Tim Gow,

    I had forgotten that you were in command of the Brooklyn!

    I do think that I should re-visit this game at a future COW. In the meantime, an appeal for photographs of COWs from the 1980s and 1990s might fill the gap.

    All the best,