Battle of Drepanum refight AAR

By George Arnold

As I mentioned in the latest issue of Lone Warrior magazine, I’m determined to break out of a rut and play more games. For various reasons, my actual game-playing has suffered the last couple of years — maybe longer. So I thought I’d set up an ancient naval galley scenario from the old board game of “Trireme.”

Doing so would also accomplish a couple of other things that have been on my mind: Santa had helpfully responded to a request of mine and provided some additional photo equipment — a couple of compact studio lights and a tripod. I want to learn to take better photos and that seems to mostly be about lighting and a steady camera. I’d use the new equipment to chronicle the progress of this game and to learn how to get better results with my camera.

Also, I’d been working on a more detailed version of the very fast-play galley rules that I’d described in LW No. 182. The latest version of my “Classis” rules still plays fast, but uses the ramming and boarding factors from “Trireme.” This scenario would allow me to do a play-test of my current version of Classis.

The historical background: Drepanum was a naval encounter off the west coast of Sicily between Romans and Carthaginians during the First Punic War. Drepanum was a Carthaginian naval base and the Roman fleet attempted a surprise dawn attack to catch the enemy fleet there off-guard. Unfortunately for the Romans, they were slow to get into position and the vanguard of their fleet — the fleet was trying to enter the harbor in single file — fell into confusion when the Carthaginians realized they were under attack and hurried out to sea to confront the Romans.

(More, and photos, on the “Continue Reading” link)

Drepanum was also the battle in which the Roman admiral, P. Claudius Pulcher, was said to have sought favorable omens before beginning his attack, with on-board chickens in a coop being offered grain. When the chickens refused to eat — a bad omen for the coming battle — Pulcher grew angry and had the magic chickens thrown overboard with his perhaps apocryphal statement that, “If they won’t eat, then let them drink!” Poor chickens.

It was bad for the chickens, but it got bad for the Romans too. After cruising toward Drepanum harbor, each Roman ship swung to the left and formed up in line ahead to face the oncoming Carthaginians. But that placed them with the coast immediately behind them — and nowhere to retreat if they got into trouble. With better-trained crews than the Romans, the Carthaginians used their skill and their more favorable position to destroy or capture most of the Roman fleet. A handful of Roman ships escaped, one of them Admiral Pulcher’s. He went back to Rome disgraced, eventually being exiled from the city.

Gaming considerations: In its scenarios, Trireme uses scaled-down versions of the historical number of ships. While the real Battle of Drepanum in 249 BC is said to have included about 120 ships on each side, the scaled-down Trireme version features only 18 ships per side, certainly a more manageable number, with each model ship representing 6-7 ships in the actual battle. That was also a do-able number in terms of the 1/1200 model Navwar and Langton model galleys that I could put on the playing table.

My table was a 54-inch-by-21-inch affair of foam-core, overlaid with posterboard (spray painted blue) and featuring a grid of hexes (29 by 10). Each hex was sizable enough to provide space for a model ship and any accompanying counters that might be needed as the game progressed. Some 3mm soft foam hexes added on the Roman right represented part of a peninsula that helped create the actual harbor of Drepanum. The slow Roman fleet had still not cleared the peninsula when the Carthaginians appeared and the Romans deployed from line astern into line ahead for battle. The coast behind the Roman fleet, along which it originally had been advancing, was considered the edge of the board to the rear of the Romans. They could not retreat off the board in that direction without being lost to wrecking ashore.

Drepanum is a simple enough scenario in Trireme. All ships on both sides are cataphract quinquiremes (heavy 5s). So, all basic ship factors were the same — easy to remember and unnecessary to further identify ships on the board. As per history, the Carthaginians were given an advantage in their crew ratings: expert for the Carthaginians, average for the Romans. As per the Trireme scenario, the Romans, having embarked extra marines to be used in boarding fights, would receive a bonus in any boarding action. Finally, each Roman ship also carried an engine (another boarding advantage) and a “corvus,” a type of “iron hand,” which would provide a bonus to any Roman ship trying to grapple an opponent (a necessary preliminary to boarding an enemy ship).

In my Classis rules, heavy 5s can move a maximum of two hexes per turn. Movement is by initiative. At the start of a turn, both sides roll a 1d6. High number gets that number of initiative points. So, if the Romans roll a 3 and the Carthaginians roll a 2, the Romans get 3 initiative points that turn.  Significantly, one side or the other can win the initiative any number of turns in a row, depending on the dice. Which means that the opposing fleet might find itself caught flat-footed and stationary as the enemy approaches.

Initiative points can be used to move entire groups of adjacent ships at a cost of 1 point. But when going into combat or under some other conditions, each ship must be ordered with individual initiative points. In practice, this means the fleets should close together rapidly, then the game breaks down into a series of individual combats.

Victory conditions for this game were drawn from the DBA set of rules: The first side to lose 1/3 of its ships would be the loser. In this game, the first side to lose six of its ships to sinking or capture would be considered to have lost the game.

The game: The following is a review of how the game progressed, with photos:

The set-up at the beginning of the game. Click to enlarge.

The set-up at the beginning of the game. Click to enlarge.

At the start, the opposing fleets lined up on their respective sides of the board, Romans in the foreground, Carthaginians in the distance.

Detail of the confusion on the Roman right at the start of the game.

Detail of the confusion on the Roman right at the start of the game.

A notable feature of the Roman set-up was that the extreme right of their line began the game confused and disorganized. The photo above shows the four ships heading in several different directions.

Situation at end of Turn 2.

Situation at end of Turn 2.

The Carthaginians started out winning the initiative for the first two turns and advanced quickly toward the Roman line.

The Roman roight at the end of Turn 3.

The Roman right at the end of Turn 3.

On the third turn, the Romans won enough initiative points to (mostly) straighten out the confusion among the ships on their right, so that the entire Roman line was almost completely facing the Carthaginians, which is the best position in which to receive an attack. (One Roman ship lacked enough turning movement to make a 180-degree swivel, so, at the end of Turn 3, was still 60 degrees away from fully facing the enemy.)

End of Turn 4.

End of Turn 4.

On Turn 4, the Carthaginians regained the initiative and moved adjacent to the Roman fleet all along the line.

End of Turn 5.

End of Turn 5.

On Turn 5, the Carthaginians again won the initiative and made four ramming attacks, including one against the Roman flagship (the third ship from the Roman left), one by the Carthaginian flagship against its opposite number in the center, and one against the out-of-position ship on the Roman right. The result was that three Roman ships (including their flagship) were crippled, and one Carthaginian ship (the one attacking the Roman flagship) was crippled. The photo above also shows the two flagships belatedly marked by red (Roman) or yellow (Carthaginian) counters to make them more identifiable in the photos.

The Romans now got lucky and won two large initiatives in a row. They used their advantage to attempt to grapple, then board enemy ships, in both of which actions the Romans had the edge in game terms. Grappling was generally successful, boarding less so. The end of Turn 7 saw one Carthaginian ship captured by Roman boarders, but two Roman ships captured by their opposing Carthaginians. One of the captures by the Carthaginians was of the ship fighting the Carthaginian flagship. In retrospect, that Roman ship should have spent its initiative trying to make repairs and recover from crippled status, since that status left them at an even greater disadvantage in a boarding action. The end of Turn 7 also saw two other sets of ships grappled together, including the Roman flagship.

End of Turn 7, Roman left.

End of Turn 7, Roman left.

End of Turn 7, Roman right.

End of Turn 7, Roman right.

The two photos above show the status on the left and right of the board at the end of Turn 7. The counters beginning to accumulate around some of the ships are hard to read in the photos, but, aside from the counters marking the flagships, the other red and yellow counters mark ships captured by the opposing side (as with the flagships, Carthaginian counters are yellow, Roman red). The blue counters mark ships that are crippled (counter placed behind the ships) or grappled (counters placed beside the ships’ bows).

The initiative flipped between the two sides for the next two turns, bringing on a confused and spreading melee. Overall, the Carthaginians appeared to gain the upper hand. Each side lost a ship sunk following ramming attacks — the Roman ship was sunk on the Roman left — and the Carthaginians captured the left-most Roman ship. With the Roman flagship now having become the extreme left of the Roman line, the Carthaginians were threatening to begin rolling up that flank. Meanwhile, the Carthaginian flagship in the center was maneuvering to begin rolling up the Roman left from the opposite direction. It’s become a dangerous situation for the Romans — their line has been breached in two places.

End of Turn 9.

End of Turn 9.

At this point in the game, the Romans have lost 1 ship sunk, 3 captured (and 4 ships crippled). The Carthaginians have also lost 1 ship sunk, but only 1 captured (and only 1 crippled). The advantage clearly is with the Carthaginians, 4-2 in victory conditions, with 6 being the needed for a win. (But the dice can always turn fickle.) In the End of Turn 9 photo, note the two hulks on the left, replacing ships that have been sunk. The hulks are for visual effect only. They play no part in the game. Their hexes are now considered empty.

End of Turn 10.

End of Turn 10.

The Carthaginians win the initiative and continue maneuvering in the center and on the Roman left. In the center, another Roman ship is sunk and the Carthaginian flagship turns and moves into the sunken ship’s hex, getting into position to attack the next Roman ship in line. On the Roman far left, another Carthaginian ship advances to the edge of the board, getting into position to turn and attack the Roman flagship from the rear. (The Carthaginians are now ahead in game points 5-2.)

End of Turn 11, and the game.

End of Turn 11, and the game.

Another initiative goes to the Carthaginians. Their flagship attacks a Roman from the bow beam (gaining a slight combat advantage), while the Carthaginian ship facing the Roman attacks it head-on. The attacks are rolled separately and both score a cripple on the Roman. Two unrepaired cripples equal a “sunk” so the Roman ship goes down, making, at the end of Turn 11,  the game score 6-2 in favor of the Carthaginians, the 6 also being the game-winning point. The game ends with a substantial Carthaginian victory.

Conclusions: In several ways, this turned out to be a very satisfactory game. First, I played a game! (It’s been a while.) For that, mission accomplished!

Also, I was able to improve my photography, taking photos of the action as it proceeded. That had everything to do with learning more about my camera and making proper use of the lights and tripod I’d recently acquired. Using the macro and zoom functions, I was able to get cleaner, crisper shots of the close-in action that I’d had trouble with in previous efforts to take pictures of my games. There’s still more to learn, but I have made some progress.

As far as the game itself, it played fast and the rules produced a straight-forward and decisive result in only 11 turns, all of which helped maintain my own interest. As anticipated, the big hexes on the game board allowed for the counters that inevitably accumulate in galley games to be much more manageable, instead of a piled-up mess. That helped make this one of the more enjoyable galley games I’ve played.

Finally, the simple mechanism of rolling for initiative each turn added some real tension to the game and played a big role in deciding victory and defeat. The fact that this game produced broadly similar results to actual historical accounts of the battle was interesting, but, if the dice and initiative had swung the other way, the results could have been completely different. For now, the current version of my Classis rules is looking like a keeper.

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