Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 92 / JANUARY 1988 / PAGE 32

The Ancient Art Of War At Sea

Keith Ferrell, Features Editor

Requirements: IBM PC, XT, AT, or compatible; 256K RAM; joystick or keyboard driven; not compatible with MS-DOS 3.2 or PC-DOS 3.2.

The heroic age of fighting sail continues to exert a powerful influence on the imagination—centuries after sail was superseded by steam, wooden hulls by armored ones. There's something romantic and adventurous about the thought of well-trained sailors scurrying through high riggings, crack cannon crews loading and firing broadsides, stalwart captains placing their flagships in harm's way for crown and country.

Of course, there was a dark side to such romance, as there is to any colorful conception of combat. Life at sea was harsh, morale could sink as rapidly as a scuttled ship, and close combat after grappling was brutal and bloody.

Now Brøderbund has captured both aspects of the heroic days of naval combat in The Ancient Art of War at Sea. This handsome, ambitious package puts players in charge of fleets of flagships, frigates, and ships-of-the-line, facing armadas of determined enemies. The program disk contains several recreations—or near recreations—of classic naval battles.

There are also several built-in scenarios of unspecified date, designer wars at sea pitting your fleet against huge navies and impossible odds. Some of the scenarios play the "what if?" game: What if the Bismarck had been a powerful sailing vessel two centuries before World War II? And if the scenarios aren't sufficient in number and variety, there's a powerful game generator/designer that let's you custom tailor your own naval battles to your own tastes.

Screen Games

War at Sea is a game of many screens, each serving a particular function. Upon booting up, you're asked if you wish to go to war. Enter no, and you can choose from game design, alteration of defaults, and visits to "Ye Olde Options Shoppe" to add or remove frills from the campaigns. Enter yes, and you're presented with the first of a series of parchment scrolls; these are working scrolls, by the way. Nicely animated, they furl and unfurl at your command, with a cutlass-shaped cursor by which you adjust options and select scenarios. Via the scrolls, you can also alter aspects of each scenario, making shallow and rough waters more or less dangerous, increasing the speed at which ships are repaired, and so on.

The 11 scenarios strike me as well selected, with enough variety to give a sense of all the different strategies and tactics possible in seafaring war. Since the package also includes a game designer, there's a near-infinite combination of conflicts.

Five of the prepared scenarios are imaginary; four are based pretty closely upon historical conflicts; two are "what if" scenarios; the eleventh is, as nearly as I can figure, the product of a vicious designer. (It's my favorite of all the scenarios.) Each scenario comes with a designated enemy commander, each with his own set of tactics and skills. You have the option of changing the commander, though, and testing yourself against, say, Blackbeard at Trafalgar, or Lord Nelson and the Spanish Armada.

Once you've selected a scenario, a story scroll unrolls, giving you background information on what you're up against. And soon, you're actually up against it.

The imaginary scenarios have much in common. You're up against implacable and, at first, seemingly inexhaustible fleets of enemy ships. Your own resources would be stretched thin if they were fully supplied—but they're not. It's up to you to allocate resources, put ships in port for repair and resupply, and position your squadrons where they stand the best chance of holding off the enemy, at least for a while.

Of course, if you're bold enough, you can take the offensive, driving deep into enemy waters in hopes of capturing their crown before they capture yours. As admiral, you must choose both offensive and defensive squadrons carefully—the loss of your flagships means the enemy has won.

Navigation is accomplished on a scrolling scenario map that shows land masses, shallow and rough waters, wind direction, and the position of both friendly and unfriendly forces. Crown cities are shown on the map, as are ports. Ports must be supplied by merchant vessels, which are easy prey for the enemy.

At The Helm

At the beginning of the scenario, your craft are at anchor. Position the cursor over one of the anchor icons and you have several choices. Info tells you how many ships are present and what their supply, hull, and sail status are, and whether they are frigates, flagships, or ships-of-the-line. A fleet information option gives you a sense of the odds you face.

With a sense of the ships available, you can put squadrons in motion as provided by the scenario, or detach ships to form other squadrons of up to three vessels. Since some of the squadrons must sail quite a distance, you can take advantage of the time speed-up options offered on the master menu, increasing the rate of time passage for long sailing and slowing it for close maneuvering or combat.

While your ships sail, so do the enemy's. This phase of the game, viewed on the map screen, takes the form of a deadly dance, with dark black enemy icons moving into your territory while your own white icons move along the courses you've set for them. As the results of engagements show, victory in a sea battle is strongly affected by position, with the flotilla running with the wind at a decided advantage over ships positioned against it. Tacking for wind advantage becomes crucial as fleets near each other.

Wind isn't everything, though. A crack crew can help you through even the toughest of odds. Crews don't become crack, however, automatically. Brøderbund addresses this with a practice option that lets you drill your crews until you're familiar with their operations. No amount of drill can fully prepare you for combat, though.

Close For Action!

When combat occurs, it is realistic. A message line on the navigation screen informs you of looming encounters. When an encounter takes place, ship icons transform into crossed cutlasses. Placing the cursor over the encounter presents you with two options. One is informational—you can discover the forces you have, and those you're up against—the other option, Zoom, shifts your perspective to the battle screen.

This screen gives you a close-up view of the battle at hand. You've got the choice of two views: a long view of the battle that's useful for maneuvering, and a close view for combat. Watch the wind direction. Adjust your sails as necessary—War at Sea teaches you pretty quickly the disastrous results of getting caught with sails furled, as well as the advantages reaped by catching your enemy bare masted.

In The Ancient Art of War at Sea, screen maps let you position your forces in harm's way.

Close view is where the action takes place. Here the ships are revealed in detail. Practice has taught you the capabilities of your crews and their craft. You can quickly get a sense of the enemy's strategy by way of their actions upon initiating combat. Some of the adversaries simply force their way forward, heedless of the damage into which they sail. Others fight a more thoughtful battle, tacking to get the wind on their side, firing when the shot is sure to do the most damage.

Your own strategy takes shape as well. If you have a squadron, you must order the other ships to follow your lead, or shift your command from ship to ship as you move through the firing order. The cannon can fire from one side of the ship at a time, and it takes time to change firing sides; reload time must also be figured into your combat plans.

There is a stateliness to these battles that belies their viciousness. Even as damage is taken, men are lost, and ships are sundered, the spectacle of high-masted warships maneuvering around each other takes on an almost chess-like elegance. The elegance, as well as the damage incurred, is well-represented by War at Sea's excellent graphics and animation. Ship types are easily recognizable, movement is smooth, course alterations are realistically depicted, and damage is evident as sails are shredded. Separate sections of the command screen deliver vital information about wind, sails, and headings.

Some battles can be resolved at a distance. Other situations, though, call for grappling and boarding—or for being grappled and boarded by your opponent. In either case, another screen is revealed and you are placed in command of sailors armed with swords and marines armed with rifles. You can order attacks and crossings from railing, quarterdeck, or poopdeck, or you can stand and try to repel enemy boarders. Again, animation is exemplary, even when delivered via a Hercules card rather than a CGA. The game's designers are helping put to rest accusations that PCs can't animate. Your men move from place to place as ordered. When killed, a figure collapses to the decks. In victory, the victors raise their arms in salute before you are returned to the main navigation screen to ready yourself for the next battle.

History At Sea

The program spans the great age of fighting sail, with historical scenarios that range from the Spanish Armada in 1508 to Trafalgar in 1805. As impressive as the imaginary scenarios are, it is in the recreations of history that The Ancient Art of War at Sea really came to life for me. You can get a sense of the sorts of odds faced by participants in classical battles, try your hand at changing the course of history (not always wittingly—under my command, the English fleet fell to the Spanish Armada more than once), and pit yourself against some of the great fleets and commanders.

The historical scenarios include: the Spanish Armada (1588), with you as the English; the Nile, merging battles that occurred in 1676 and 1798, with you facing the French; Quiberon Bay (1759), in which you play the French and face the English; and Trafalgar (1805), in which you take Nelson's place and attempt to match his skill in facing powerful enemy fleets.

As the mingling of history in the Nile scenario indicates, not all of the battles are purely historical. This is especially true of one of the most anachronistic of the scenarios—Bismarck. This scenario involves sailing ships, as do they all, but the setup is that of the Bismarck, which you command. You have a great battleship and a companion ship of near-equal size, as well as two smaller warships. The British have placed every ship on alert, with orders to sink you at all costs before you reach open sea. It's anachronistic, but challenging.

There are a few other anachronisms. One of the enemy commanders you face is Thor Foote, a bold and headstrong Viking. Ship names seem to be drawn from all over, with quite a few American presidents lending their names to ships in, say, a battle that occurred years before those presidents were born. These sorts of liberties, though, seem restricted to the imaginary battles.

Design It Yourself

If anachronisms bother you, you can create your own games. War at Sea's campaign designer is well thought-out and thorough. It consists of five screen pages of components. These range from coastlines and inland areas, to deep waters, rough and shallow waters, wind cherubs to indicate direction of the wind, even identifiers and decorative pieces. An onscreen grid is used for positioning each piece of the map. Rules for positioning are clearly presented, and have been kept simple.

Ship selection doesn't vary from the prepared campaigns—you have frigates, ships-of-the-line, and flagships. As in the main game, these are classic versions of those ships, standards that represent the class of ship in question rather than any particular vessel. If one could wish for anything more from this very complete package, it would be the ability to custom design new ships and classes of ships. Another would be for a wider selection of opponents.

Build squadrons after you've built a map. Name the ships yourself, and position friend and foe on the screen. Give the new campaign a title. The campaign designer includes a blank scroll on which you can write your own account of the battle you've created. New campaigns may be stored on formatted disks, and data disk becomes an option on the introductory menu. Although the manual is not completely clear on this, The Ancient Art of War at Sea can be copied to hard disk or backup disk, but requires the original master disk as key disk in drive A when the game is played.

Manual Labor Of Love

The impressiveness of the onscreen game is matched by the documentation that accompanies the program. Documentation, in fact, is too restrictive a word for War at Sea's manual. This is a handsome book of well over 100 pages, printed on high-quality coated stock and filled with well-reproduced illustrations.

Actual game instruction occupies only a portion of the manual. The rest is concerned with giving historical perspective on, appropriately enough, the art of warfare under sail. The program's authors, Dave and Barry Murry, are talented historians as well as game designers. The history lessons included in the manual are clearly written, with judiciously selected illustrations and illustrative quotations.

Especially interesting was their look at the evolution of naval combat tactics. Lessons learned from these pages can be applied with good effect to the battles you encounter on the computer. A reference glossary is included in the appendices, but, oddly and unfortunately, there is no bibliography or guide to further reading. It would have been nice to know which sources the authors drew upon for their recreation. (Source citations are given beneath the illustrations and can be used as a starting point for more reading on this fascinating subject.)

The Ancient Art of War at Sea is the kind of game that won't be gathering many barnacles on my shelf. I'll be sailing this one for some time to come.

The Ancient Art of War at Sea
Brøderbund Software
17 Paul Dr.
San Rafael, CA 94903-2101