Wooden Ships and Iron Men

"Keep an eye out for Lord Nelson, will ya, matey? It's been almost ten years since anyone's published an age-of-sail war game - but here's one that could hit with the impact of a broadside of grapeshot."

- William R. Trotter

Remember those great ship-vs.-ship duels in The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, and John Paul Jones? The tension as the ships maneuvered for range and advantage? The shirtless gun crews, fuses lit, bending tensely over their cannon? The crash of that first broadside? The stabbing muzzle-flames and rolling banks of smoke? The excitement of watching the enemy's hull splinter, his sails shred, his masts shatter and crash to the deck, trailing tattered canvas, like some huge, mortally wounded albatross? Wooden Ships and Iron Men has it all!

Given such visual drama, one wonders why a whole decade had to pass before a new age-of-sail PC war game appeared (I do not count games such as Pirates! or Uncharted Waters, in which nautical combat plays only an incidental part).

Graphics are gorgeous in Wooden Ships and Iron Men, and realism is enhanced by skilled use of perspective.

I suspect the reasons were partly technological - only now have PC graphics become sophisticated enough to rival the visual excitement of the classic movies cited above - and partly due to marketing perceptions. Wouldn't such a game appeal only to a small, specialized audience?

Not necessarily. C.S. Forrester's classic "Hornblower" novels have never gone out of print in more than half a century, and his contemporary successors - Dewey Lambdin and Patrick O'Brien - regularly land on the bestseller lists. The romance of those stirring days is as timeless as the appeal of the Arthurian myths.

"When we'd completed Fifth Fleet for Avalon Hill and were discussing our next project," recalled Mike Inella of Stanley Associates, "I got very excited about the chance to do Wooden Ships. It's a great board game, to be sure, but I thought we could do a PC treatment that completely eliminated any feeling of counting hexes. We want the player to feel like he's really in these battles; that's one reason why we used the very unorthodox true-perspective technique in the graphics."

The heart of WSIM is the powerful scenario builder, which allows you to swiftly recreate any of the great historic duels, or to construct engagements of your own devising. Victorious captains will especially appreciate the VCR feature, which saves entire battles in the form of movies, so you can replay them to your heart's content. Losing captains will appreciate the added feature that allows you to "jump back in" and take command at any point in the battle -just in case you turned to port at the wrong moment or waited just a few seconds too long to unleash that broadside.

Here's John Paul Jones about to open fire on the Seraphis. Since the British ships mounted more guns, recreating Jones' victory is not easy in Wooden Ships and Iron Men.

In the campaign mode, you assume command of an American ship at the start of the War of 1812 and take her out on a cruise. The game's a bit like Silent Seriice in this mode, since there will be days when nothing happens and your logbook entry will be terse: "Wind from the North. Exercised men on deck. No sails sighted."

On other days, you may intercept a valuable merchantman, or fight a duel with a British frigate. In combat, there are plenty of decisions: take men off the guns and send them aloft, in order to gain more maneuverability? Try to hold fire until you're within chain-shot range, or open up at 1500 yards and hope your solid-shot takes out a mast? Form a boarding party?

The scenario editor makes it easy to set up any engagement you're interested in, and the VCR function lets you build a library of movies depicting your gallant victories.

Combat graphics rival the battle scenes in those classic movies: great rolling clouds of smoke, forests of water- spouts, clouds of splinters, holes in the sails ... all the right stuff, all rendered very realistically in terms of color, perspective, and detail.

Fans of this historic era are going to love this game. Mike Inella summed up its appeal very aptly: "Despite the brutality of shipboard life in those days, there's an incredible swashbuckling romantic appeal to the subject. Just think of all the great, ringing phrases: ‘Don't give up the ship!,' or ‘I have not yet begun to fight!.'

"In every one of those battles, you had skilled, determined, men on both sides, whose very honor was at stake. Ironically, if you set up the Seraphis Bonhomrne Richard scenario in the game, John Paul Jones almost always loses. But his iron determination not to lose his ship tipped the balance, despite the odds. We've tried to incorporate that heroic quality into the game."

Relive the exploits of naval heroes from several countries - many of the scenarios are devoted to battles that are not well known, but are just as dramatic as the famous engagements.

From what I've seen of the Alpha version, Wooden Ships promises to be a heroic game indeed.

Wooden Ships and Iron Men recreates history's most stirring naval battles.

  • Game: Wooden Ships and Iron Men
  • Developer Stanley Associates, Inc., 300 N. Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, (703) 684-1125
  • Projected price: TBA
  • Percentage complete: 8O%

In a nutshell:

This PC conversion of a classic Avalon Hill game lets you recreate some of history's classic ship-to-ship duels and practice a fascinating but arcane variety of tactics.

What is so special? There hasn't been a game devoted to this subject - since The Ancient Art of War at Sea, published in four-color CGA graphics almost a decade ago - in PC terms, that really is ancient. Fans of the Nelsonian era have had to make do with board games and a lot of imagination.

Why should I care?

Has there ever been a more beautiful instrument of war than a ship-of-the-line under full sail? Has there ever been an era of warfare whose basic brutality was more clothed in romantic legend? Wouldn't it be a helluva rush to fire a broadside of chain-shot and see the enemy's mainmast come crashing down like a chain-sawed redwood?

When is it coming out?

Winter 1995

The crew status screen lets you assign men to the sails, to repair duties, or to boarding parties.