top of page

Up the creek without a paddle steamer

Updated: Jan 23

In recent months I have been ploughing through my (very disorganised) mountains of accumulated wargaming kit - if it is possible to plough through mountains.  Several old games or least their remnants have emerged and I am now attempting to resurrect some of them.

One such I rediscovered was a collection of assorted late 19th century ironclads, paddle steamers, gunboats and native dhows suitable for naval games from the American civil war to the Sudan campaigns.  The last time I remember that these models were used was at least 15 years ago.  Anyway I committed myself to hosting a game at the club.

The models are wooden and are large by naval wargaming standards - the hulls are up to 15 inches long.  28mm figures if they were used would sit comfortably on them.  They are not complete models in the sense that they are a collection of parts, which can be used to create a variety of vessels.

My memories of the last game played are a mixed bag - a bit of fun but not a competent performance by the participants or a sound recommendation of the rules.  The cause of this was the use of an early version of a laser pointer (a cat scarer in fact) as the method of simulating gunnery.  Nevertheless I decided to persist with this approach although using more modern laser pointers.  It was the aspect of the rules that made the game interesting by demonstrating the challenge of naval gunnery - the practical judgement of both aiming point and range of one moving vessel firing on another moving vessel. I admit I did fear a potential farce of a game.


The scenario chosen was an ACW riverine clash – an attempt by a Confederate flotilla to bypass the shore batteries and defending vessels to re-supply a besieged strongpoint (a la Vicksburg).


In setting up the game I had a choice of using the floor of the room or setting up on tables.  As the scenario was riverine and in consideration of the declining nimbleness of the ageing particpants (myself included) I chose the tables.  The resulting playing area was 20 foot by 6 foot – in retrospect a set up that was too restrictive and did not help to demonstrate the difficulties of naval gunnery.

The Confederate flotilla consisted of an ironclad and two paddle-steamers commanded by Doug, Rob and Piotr. They began the game at one end of the river and were tasked to reach the other end or destroy the defending force.


The defending Union force of an ironclad and two shore batteries was commanded by Philip.  The shore batteries were placed either side of the river at about half distance and the ironclad began at the other, defending, end of the river.  Their task was to stop the flotilla.


The movement rules and damage mechanics were relatively straightforward and I will leave it at that.  The gunnery rules were as follows.  All firing took place after movement.  Before movement the players wrote down orders for movement and the ammunition type and range (in inches) each gun was to use.  They also physically adjusted the aiming point of each gun model.  After movement a laser pointer was used to display the path of the fire from each gun and a marker was placed at the point of descent of the fire determined by the range.   Working back for 15 inches from the point of descent in three stages hits were determined on any vessel in the path of fire.  These stages were direct hit, superstructure (engine house, paddle and casemate) and upper structure (stack and pilot house).  This was to simulate the declining elevation of the shot before the final descent.


In principle the system worked, but in practice it was cumbersome.  The problem was the laser pointers – the range of the light was limited and holding steady the light down the barrel of the firing gun was not easy.  On reflection the old technology of the cat scarer would have been superior.  Overcoming these problems by using markers and tape measures slowed the game down.

The aim and range estimation of the players was far better than I had anticipated and much more so than in the last game I referred to.  This was probably due to the restricted riverine terrain and the too slow movement rates.  My apologies for doubting the abilities of the players, but if I was to re-run the game the terrain would be much more open and the movement of target vessels would be more difficult to judge.  The size of the playing area relative to the size of models is an essential consideration.

Although the game was far from finished both of the shore batteries had been knocked out and one of the paddle steamers was in danger of sinking.  We ended the game with the result still very much in doubt.

An interesting game even if not a fully successful one  - but one I may re-run after some reflection and a technical upgrade to the laser pointers.



Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page