Wooden Ships & Iron Men is a turn-based game that allows you to recreate naval battles from the 18th and 19th centuries. You begin the game in a Pirates-style main screen from which you may play a scenario, a campaign, or a game via e-mail. If you choose the Scenario option, you can also visit the Scenario Editor to create your own missions. (It's pretty average - simple to use, but limited in the types and names of vessels.) If you're happy with the canned scenarios, you jump straight to the combat view once you've made your selection.
The campaign mode is definitely the road to take with this game. As the commander of a US ship during the War of 1812, your job is to sink as many English ships as possible. The campaign is presented as a Captain's Journal. You may encounter many enemy warships, and fleeing from combat is sometimes the best course. Since you can't replace injured crewmen during the voyage, a charge into the guns of the English ship-of-the-line would be truly insane. When your ship runs out of supplies, the game is over.
The game screens are in adequate SVGA. The ships look good when the view is zoomed in, but you'll rarely be able to see your opponent's ship from here. Control is simple - a couple of clicks of the mouse enable you to change course, load the cannons, or reassign your crew to stations. You give the orders, then tell the computer to execute them. This turn-based system has some weaknesses, the biggest of which is your inability to respond to the movement of the other ships until the next turn begins. It's quite common to give sailing orders that force you to continually grapple with another ship. (Shorter turns would remedy this problem immeasurably.) The sound effects of combat include simple splashes and booms.
As it stands now, the game is a faithful conversion of the old board game. The computer AI causes some head-scratching, but does make the game entertaining.
The period of time between the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars has hardly ever been given the computer game treatment. There have been few land warfare games, such as Koei's Liberty or Death and SSI's Battles of Napoleon, and still fewer naval warfare games. In the development stages for some time, Wooden Ships & Iron Men is one of the first games in recent memory that tries to bridge the gap in this era of naval warfare.
Naval battles in this time period (1776 to 1815) are very different from those of World War Two or today. Typically, engagements consisted of attacks at close quarters (by today's standards), boarding party actions and blasting the enemy into submission -- not necessarily in that order. Captains would attempt to move their ships into range of each another and fire broadside after broadside until one or the other would fall or strike the colors (signifying defeat). Skillful maneuvering was tricky, and shifting wind patterns could spell disaster in a very short period of time.
Wooden Ships & Iron Men attempts to simulate this type of warfare and succeeds to some extent. Each battle is shown in a two-dimensional or three-dimensional viewpoint, and each ship is rendered in graphic detail (which looks rather good in the three-dimensional mode). Battle damage to sails is clearly visible and gives you a sense of how well that ship is doing. There is also a total of five zoom levels, and the player has the option of overlaying a square grid on the water's surface, which is measured in yards.
Because ships in this era were driven by wind and not by steam, the wind's speed and direction play important roles in the movement and speed of ships. Ships trying to sail directly into the wind will go nowhere (or even backwards), while those with the wind at the port or starboard rear quarter (not directly from the rear) will move the fastest as the wind catches most of the sails. How fast the ship will go also depends on the type of sail (battle, plain, or full) deployed. Full sail will produce the most speed but is much more vulnerable to enemy fire, while battle sail is less vulnerable and produces less speed. Usually, most ships in an engagement will use battle sail.
Essentially, how far a ship will move during a three-minute turn is calculated at the beginning of the turn, and its course is displayed as a straight line. At any point on this line, the ship may be turned in increments of 45 degrees (within certain limits if the ship has already turned during that turn), and the remaining distance according to the new direction of the sails relative to the wind is then shown. Each ship's movement is plotted this way. When all the plotting is done, the player may end the turn, and the two sides' ships move simultaneously. Unfortunately, there is no way to "jump" to a position on the line and say, "I want to turn to port here." The player is forced to wait until the ship's cursor slowly trods its way up to the desired position.
The player may only indirectly affect combat by choosing the range to fire, the type of ammunition loaded, the option to use grappling hooks to board, where on the enemy ship to fire and the distribution of men. During the movement of the ship in a turn, it will fire at an enemy, given the restrictions placed by the player, and will score hits or misses according to range, experience and so forth. Therefore, the player does not directly control exactly when the ship fires, although usually, depending on the situation, the ship will fire when you want it to. Critical hits, such as killing the captain outright, may also occasionally happen.
Also during the course of a turn, the player may move a ship's personnel from one position to another. For example, most of the time, the bulk of the personnel (90%) man the cannons, and the rest are required for the sails. However, during boarding party actions, a percentage must be assigned to that position, as well as damage control parties. If the player wishes to change sails, more men must be assigned to that position as well. Reassigning men from the cannons reduces the ship's effective fire power. This part of the game is rather abstract; there are no specialized duties for the crew, as everyone can do everything.
Ships may take damage in four different ways: crew casualties, destruction of the cannons, destruction of the rigging and penetration of the hull. Where the cannons are aimed (the hull or sails) and the type of ammunition used (roundshot, doubleshot, grapeshot or chainshot) may also determine the amount of damage done to each of these systems.
It doesn't take long to learn this system, although movement can be a bit tedious at times. While simplified, this system of predicting where the enemy will travel in the timespan of a turn is a bit unrealistic. In multi-ship scenarios, the computer can act quite aggressive, but it has its faults. While "fleet" actions used squadrons or vans of ships, each ship in WS&IM is treated as an independent entity, and will move independent of each other. Most one-on-one engagements turn into long, boring stern chases in which the computer will try to run almost every time. Unfortunately, it forgets to switch from battle sail, and this makes it easy to catch up with when you use full sail. The computer is also extremely susceptible to ramming into other ships whenever it feels like it, even its own ships.
Initially, trying to board a ship is easy enough. Just get within 50 yards of an enemy ship and try to grapple on. Allocate a percentage of men to the boarding party, and maybe load a barrage of grapeshot for good measure. The combat portion is rather arbitrary, and after the turn, the computer will determine the outcome. Suffice it to say, crew quality counts greatly during combat, and the player may end up having the tables turned so that his ship is captured instead.
Of course, the player may opt to play it safe and blow the enemy to smithereens, and this works just as well. Capturing ships really plays no role in a scenario and has only a marginal role in the campaign game (see below). Historically, the opposite is true, but Wooden Ships & Iron Men fails to convey this.
Ultimately, that is one of the main problems with WS&IM: it's too disjointed and unsatisfying. There are only 18 scenarios in the entire game, 14 of which involve the Napoleonic Period, including the Napoleonic War, the Quasi French-American War and the War of 1812. While each of the scenarios comes with adequate background information, and a simple victory point system, there is little else to stimulate the player.
Another big problem with the scenarios, and the game itself, is that there is no land. Land and submerged "features" such as sandbars do not exist. Because of this, some important battles, such as the Battle of Chesapeake Bay and the Battle of the Nile, are noticeably absent, as well as many other engagements that took place during this period which were influenced by land masses. Even Trafalgar has been given the rough treatment, with nearly half of the ships omitted from the battle (this is due to memory and gameplay constraints more than anything else).
The campaign game included in Wooden Ships & Iron Men is intended to give the player a better feel for the game and time period and to add a little personality and accomplishment, which the scenarios described above thoroughly lack. Unfortunately, the campaign game fails to accomplish much of anything.
It starts in a limited fashion. The player is forced to play an American captain during the War of 1812. The only choice, besides a name, that the player is allowed to make is which ship to command. If you want a challenge, pick one of the smaller brigs or sloops, or if you want the highest score possible, just pick the Constitution and go on your merry way. After this, the player's ship is sent out to sink British warships and capture merchantmen. The more warships sunk and merchantmen captured, the more victory points you earn. Each "turn" in the campaign lasts two days, and not much of importance may happen, or a ship of some kind may be spotted. The player has the option of attempting to close with the ship and identify it or to run away. If you've identified the ship and don't like it, you can still try to run away, although there is a greater chance for failure, and you'll have to face it. Everything is recorded in the ship's log, which can be saved to hard drive for gloating purposes later.
The problems start immediately, as the first order of business is to break the British blockade. If your ship is spotted, it must fight and defeat the British ship, whatever it may be. This is not good if you picked the brig Enterprise with a measly 14 guns and you run into a 40-gun frigate or worse. The entire process of meeting ships seems completely random. There is no fleet of ships to control, as every encounter is always one-on-one. And, as described above, the engagements always turn into stern chases once the enemy has been smacked around once or twice. Finally, there is no way to recruit new crew members, acquire new guns, or repair the ship to any degree. After two or three months, the supplies run out, the campaign game ends as the player returns home, the victory points are put onto the "Greatest Captains" list, and it's back to the selection screen. "Exciting" is not the word I would choose to describe the campaign game.
Thoughtfully, the designers saw fit to include a scenario editor to allow you to increase the small number of scenarios in WS&IM. The player can assign ships to each side, as well as mix up ships from the two eras, and even include the same ships over and over again. However, the scenario creator has several graphical bugs and a tendency to crash repeatedly. The scenarios themselves will occasionally crash when being played, usually right when they end.
What's left? The music is functional. The manual is typical of Avalon Hill, as it is in full color and explains the game fairly, with half of it dedicated to a historical overview of the times and naval combat in general. As a plus, play by email (PBEM) is included for the scenarios but is unavailable for campaign play.
Wooden Ships & Iron Men is a decent effort but falls short in a number of areas. Movement is very tedious if not largely unrealistic; the scenario creator comes with some fatal bugs; the scenarios feel detached and unimportant; and the campaign game is somewhat of a joke. Those looking for a really good naval warfare game set around the turn of the 19th century will have to look somewhere else.
People who downloaded Wooden Ships & Iron Men have also downloaded:
Wargame Construction Set 3, Waterloo: Napoleon's Last Battle, World at War Series (a.k.a. Operation Crusader, Stalingrad, D-Day: America Invades), Steel Panthers, V for Victory, West Front, Steel Panthers 3: Brigade Command (1939-1999), Civil War Generals 2
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