January 27, 2023

5 Questions With… John Carnahan, Designer of Captaincy

Brant Guillory, 19 December 2022

Following its successful Kickstarter earlier this year, Captaincy is now available through Wargame Vault, among other places.  For ship-to-ship combat in the Age of Sail, Captaincy gives players a new look at the mechanics of commanding a ship in battle, from target acquisition all the way thru boarding actions.  Designer John Carnahan joins us for our 5 Questions with…

What is it about the Age of Sail that you enjoy so much? Why is this the period for which you wanted to design a wargame?

My eyes are drawn to the ships. How can you not look at them? They’re the culmination of technology before we started burning carbon. They’re articulated by ambient forces and human muscles. They’re like mecha from the Enlightenment.

As John Keegan pointed out, they had more range than ships would have again until nuclear power. Thus they enabled the spread of European colonies. They are symbols of elan as well as cruelty. They’re harnessing nature but still pathetically vulnerable to nature.

 

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What’s the span in years that the rules cover, and how does the game address, in a fun and convincing manner, the differences in sailing capabilities and gunnery practice ranging from the Napoleonic Wars to the 9 Years War?

The rules cover 1560-1815. So, from the first large scale galleon battles to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Most of the distinctions between ships from different eras are baked into the ship tableaux. These are player boards offered as a free download on Wargame Vault, along with some historical notes.

In sailing, there are important changes around 1680. Ships begin to carry jib sails, and are steered by wheels rather than elongated tillers. Captaincy gives ships with these new features a chance to make wider turns. I’ve probably underrated this improvement in the interest of having all eras be enjoyable within the same rules.

When gundeck cannons fire, in the game, they drop on a track toward having worse modifiers next time. This reflects metal and human fatigue, but it also amounts to a variable rate of fire as a ship with a better gun track will deliver more damage during a game session than a ship with a worse one.

Different rates of decay printed on these tracks represent several technological milestones. Reliable bronze cannons on French naval carriages in the 16th century, vs Spain’s preferences for wheeled cannons that could be rolled ashore. Unreliable iron cannons in the war fever of the 17th century, crammed into hulls with little ability to predict seaworthiness. Flint triggers replacing fuses after 1740. Carronades after 1780.

Somewhere in there is a tipping point at which cannons become a decisive weapon and not just a prelude to boarding, but that point is only grasped in the interaction of individual ships and players.

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Your design notes discuss some different aspects of boarding actions. How does ship-board combat work without devolving into a skirmish minis game?

There are two worries that converge in Captaincy’s boarding events. The first is morale. As ships suffer cannon fire, they draw poker cards for morale damage. Six cards force a surrender, but black suites count as two cards each. You’ll often be approaching a target that already holds two or three poker cards. Does that mean they are desperate and can be easily overcome by close action, which causes a lot of morale damage? Maybe. Or maybe they are mostly holding red cards, and you should keep your distance for another turn – a question that also relates to the effectiveness of your ship’s cannons.

The other theme that culminates in close action is a track that shows the posture of your ship’s deck. At one end, when you approach the battle, the track is set to maximize sailing labor, which lets you re-roll bad movement dice. At the other extreme, the track favors combat. The whole workspace of the deck has been rearranged to create an ambush. In between, there’s a setting that shows the crew taking cover, which helps against muskets and grapeshot, but doesn’t resist boarders. You have to decide what matters most as you close in: sailing, defense against firearms, or the potential to board.

Once you get into close action, the fighting is resolved by secretly choosing attacks or defenses in a rock-paper-scissors sub-game. These last-moment tricks don’t create wild swings of fortune, but can break the tie between close levels of confidence, close levels of preparation.

So that’s the picture of boarding I’ve tried to create. A man runs toward you from a long way off with his fist raised, but at the last moment he pulls out a knife.

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The bulk of the design is a pretty basic “one player, one ship” starting point, but obviously can scale up to accommodate multiple players, and in some cases, multiple ships/player. What happens to command & control when you start scaling up like that? How does a group ‘coordinate’ without exceeding the historical limitations of communication at the time (while obviously still having fun with the game)?

At sea, there is little visual clutter to impede signals, and vehicle crews can read each other’s intentions the way drivers read each other on a highway. Keeping track of an infantry battalion spread over a forested ridge would seem to be a much greater communications challenge. Yet rules that restrict table talk or link it to signals are more typical of naval games. Maybe that’s a way to keep players from executing perfect maneuvers, when there’s no terrain to channel their movement.

As soon as a modern regatta leaves the harbor, sailboats are lagging or drifting off course due to differences in crews, rigging, and hulls. They all have position finders and radios, they can all communicate about the course, but they can’t all follow it with the same precision.

I’ve tried to depict sailing performance using a dice rolling and sorting mechanic for travel. Having made travel more uncertain than usual, I didn’t make any rules to impede communications. A game with a large number of ships should feel like herding a flock of ornery beasts, as it is.

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A lot of designers start off trying to “fix” something they didn’t like about another game design. What were some of the early inspirations for Captaincy and what are some of the mechanics you like/retained and what were the ones you were determined to change?

I’ll answer with a quote from this paper (PDF) by the naval historian Sam Willis: “The majority of historians have portrayed the performance capabilities of the sailing warship almost exclusively in a negative light. It is a peculiar approach indeed to write the history of sailing warships, indeed the history of sailing warfare, from an understanding of what sailing ships could not do, without an appreciation of what they could achieve, and yet that is the consistent pattern of the mainstream of maritime history.”

This also applies to age of sail wargames. Your vessel lumbers around like a hearse except that it stops moving when you point it windward. This is the “negative” emphasis that Willis is criticizing – the vehicle is defined by the one thing it could not do. Yet in every other respect, tall ships were more agile than the coal burners that replaced them. In addition to turning on the rudder in the water, each of their sail sections is a rudder in the air, able to create backwards and sideways as well as forward propulsion, and to balance these forces against one another to control or bank the ship’s headway. In this perspective, a contrary wind is not an obstacle, it’s a source of leverage.

I’m leaving the first era of sailing games behind and inaugurating a new one. During this rigorous mental labor I haven’t played the more recent designs, but it looks like Post Captain has a mission similar to mine.

 

Thanks for joining the Dragoons for this look at Captaincy!


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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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