Oak & Iron – Naval Battles in the Age of Piracy Review

OK, if you are still hunkered down in pandemic mode, copious amounts of alcohol are likely part of your essential food group, especially when the ankle biters are with you 24/7. If so, Firelock Games advises you to stem that craving with a “yo, ho, ho and a (big) bottle of rum” by setting sail with their newest game system, Oak & Iron – Naval Battles in the Age of Piracy. I did and here are my thoughts.

In the Cargo Hold

When you purchase Oak & Iron you aren’t just buying a set of rules (you can download it as a free PDF), but an entire game system in one large, heavy box. What you get for your $69.00 US is a Core Set that not only includes the rules, but also a large game map, several large sheets of thick “easy punch” out game markers and terrain sections, a bunch of eight sided die, six 3D printed 1/600 ship models with sails and clear plastic basis, five sheets of flags and several card decks. From a personal perspective I am not too keen on the game markers, part of the “I am an artist and the game is my canvass” syndrome I have, so would likely substitute a normal ruler and small colored rings. That said, the markers are exceptional – intuitive, logical and like all the other paper parts of Oak & Iron, just drop dead gorgeous. The 17th Century parchment motif used throughout is striking and very evocative of the period.

The full color glossy 32-page rule book exudes the same atmosphere and is truly one of the best organized products I’ve seen, deftly taking the player by the hand and slowly but surely walking him through common sense stages to set up and play the game. First, every component in the set is displayed and carefully explained, then the process for setting up a quick starter engagement follows. The rules themselves are only 12 pages long, 15 if you add in the optional rules such as Raking Fire or Targeting Rigging. Each part of the sequence of play begins with definition of terms appropriate to that portion of the game only, and small designer notes in red grace the margins at points within the book where further explanation is necessary. I know Mike Tunez wrote the rules and maybe he designed the layout, but whoever it was had to have a degree in organizational management. Very impressed.

The various card decks were also produced with the same amount of care. Many of the cards manage various types of random events, but there are also personality cards for various historical admirals while there is also a data card for each ship, by type, on the table. Unlike the firm’s popular Blood & Plunder pirate rules, Oak & Iron is designed to simulate multi-ship combat between squadrons or fleets and is also point based. Using a Light Galleon as an example, its card will show the base number of points the vessel costs (17) as well as its Broadside Value (5), Crew Value (2), Fortitude (3) and Speed (3 for Large Sail and 1 for Winward). A set of sliding scales with plastic clip tracks Fatigue, Damage and Extra Crew, while purchasable upgrades appear front and back. For example, our Light Galleon could receive a Stout (well built) upgrade for the cost of six extra points, meaning that it becomes Crippled when it receives 10 points of damage vice seven.

The ship models are exceptionally well sculpted, but not over sculpted as in other games. They are generic designs of typical vessel classes and in the Core Set you get the Light Galleon, Fluyt, Brigantine, Petit Frigate, Sloop and Corvette. The amount of detail is perfect for models this size, normally eyeballed from two feet plus away. And because the game covers the period 1650 – 1750, we are talking the Anglo-Dutch Wars with sumptuously decorated vessels. I remember when I was but a lad, building plastic models from firms like Heller, and was drawn to ships like the Sovereign of the Seas, Wappen von Hamburg and the Saint Louis. Sorry, but Old Ironsides can’t hold a candle to the eye candy produced by ships like these, and if firms like Model J Ships of Spain are an indication, the Oak & Iron stuff paints up just fine.

Battle Sail and Broadside

As noted before, this game covers fleet actions before the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. That means no Nelson (yay!), no Trafalgar (yay!), no HMS Victory (yay!) and no Santissima de Trinidad (ok, step back, that’s my favorite ship). Instead the player sails in the world of the incomparable Lieutenant-Admiral General Michiel de Ruyter, and sure enough, the Dutch United Provinces are one of the factions represented. The rest are England, France, Spain along with Captain Jack Sparrow and his ilk.

Oak & Iron uses the card bidding system common in all Firelock games to pull this off, and its wildly successful. The game has but four phases – an Initiative Phase, a Movement Phase, an Attack Phase, and an End Phase. For a general engagement battle, players enter the Initiative Phase each controlling a squadron of between 5 to 10 ships for a total cost of not more than 200 points. A national faction card defines exactly how those points can be spent to build ships, and buying an Admiral completes the process. Each player also collects five Initiative Cards that are either generic or nationality specific. However, adding an Admiral’s Rating could increase that number, with de Reuter’s +3 adding three extra cards for a total of eight.

During Initiative opposing admirals play a single Initiative Card for their squadron. Whichever side has the highest value goes first that turn. In the case of a tie, an Event Card is drawn and its results played (Calm – all ships decrease movement by one), then the side with the highest Admiral Rating wins the Initiative. If there is a tie here, a Challenge Test is taken to determine a winner. However, the random event presented on the winner’s original Initiative Card is implemented. For example, if a Dutch Initiative Card worth four is played and the Dutch win the Initiative, they also get an Adaptive Tactics bonus and get to select a discarded Initiative Card from the enemy and apply it to all friendly ships. Initiative Cards are either returned for future play or discarded as indicated on the card.

Movement comes next and the players alternate moving a single ship at a time, with the Initiative winner moving one of his ships first. For each ship a player consults the vessel’s data card and the wind direction to determine the distance it will sail with a free change of heading at the end. Also, each ship may attempt one Seamanship Action (eg, change heading at the beginning of the move or increase or decrease speed by one) and one Crew Action (Reload, Rally, Repair, Change Sails and so on) by rolling a Skill Test. This test, modified by current Fatigue, uses five of the game’s unique eight-sided die and succeeds if a Sail or Jolly Roger symbol pops up. The die themselves do not have numbers but instead small badges like those mentioned, plus a Sword, a Pistol, a Musket and a Cannon. Also, again, Admirals have an impact. Because de Ruyter is Beloved by his men, a successful Rally removes two points of Fatigue rather than one.

In the Attack Phase any ship that ends movement with a field of fire towards an enemy within range may fire two (one for each side of the ship) Broadsides or Partial Broadsides using a number of die equal to its Broadside Value minus Fatigue. If the enemy is within cannon range only, then a cannon symbol or Jolly Roger (indicating a Critical Hit) scores a hit. On the other hand, if the distance is within upcloseandpersonal pistol range, then a Pistol, Musket, Cannon or Jolly Roger icon each strike home. Depending on Skill Value, one or more die could get a reroll, and there are other modifications as well. Nevertheless, shooting will hopefully inflict both Fatigue and Damage Points on your adversary who will eventually become Shaken, Captured, Destroyed or Sunk.

The End Phase is pretty much an admin phase, but there is one important aspect deserving of mention. This is a Withdrawal Check. Each squadron has a number of Strike Points equal to the number of ships starting the game. If the number of Strike Points exceeds the current ship total, the Admiral orders a withdrawal ending the game in defeat. Strike Points are gained at the rate of one for each ship Crippled, two for each Captured or Sunk and three if the flagship is Out of Action. Players can earn extra Strike Points via the use of Objective Cards in some scenarios.

Safe in Port

There are lots of Age of Sail games swimming around right now, and all are quite good. But from a personal perspective I have to admit Oak & Iron proverbially “floats my boat” best. In the games I played over last weekend the action was smooth, quick and exciting, plus quite unpredictable due to the way the multiple card system works. As a retired colonel, this is as it should be. Most games give too much control to the player where real conflicts reward leaders who can control chaos and react to the unexpected. That’s why Napoleon said, “Give me a general who is lucky,” and Napoleon didn’t become Napoleon for being stupid. I also enjoyed the impact the Admirals had on the game, especially my favorite nautical squeeze Michiel de Ruyter, and keying Initiative Cards by nationality while mandating some random event if successfully played is both clever and fun. It produces a game that feels historically correct and is always in doubt until the end. I also just enjoy this period of canvas naval warfare more than others, so it’s good to see a game emphasize pre-Nelson activity for once. Trafalgar? Please. We’re talking an Anglo-Dutch slugfest involving 163 ships in a battle fought over four days in 1666.

And then there is the Pandemic Point Value. The nature of the game with its extensive use of cards means that a single player can easily have a competitive match by randomly drawing face down cards of various types for both sides when the game directs. The rules are free and you can even see for yourself with the previously discussed Tabletop Simulator version, so by all means give it a try. Now this is a very appropriate bonus in these pestilence infused times.

Of course, the Core Box is just the start. Firelock Games will sell you a single 3d Rate Ship of the Line with accessories for $15.00, and there are five more boxed sets ranging from $24.00 to $49.00, each counting several ship models with all the trimmings. These include Blackbeard’s Revenge, Gentlemen of Fortune, Merchant Men, Men of War and Ships of the Line. These are priced quite lower than the competition, so trust me, if you are able to safely scrounge a few shekels from your stimulus check, do so. I have a great recommendation where to spend them.

For our US Customers, Amazon US still has some stock left of Oak & Iron’s various expansions, such as Ships of the Line, which are currently running a slight discount vs. getting them from Firelock direct.

This article was kindly donated to Wargamer.com by the author.