Blue Cross, White Ensign – Boardgame Review
Blue Cross, White Ensign: The Imperial Russian Navy during the Age of Sail. Boardgame review. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: Mike Nagel. $60.00
Passed Inspection: Accurately simulates Age Of Sail movement and combat
Failed Basic: Lots of game jargon throughout the rules, game seems incomplete without the Maneuver Cards and Duel Map
Every five years or so it seems, GMT releases a volume in their Flying Colors series of games depicting naval warfare in the 18th century gunpowder era. I was lucky enough to review the second volume, Serpents Of The Seas, and I am happy to report that Blue Cross, White Ensign carries the tradition of good gaming set by its predecessors very well. The title refers to the flag of the Imperial Russian Navy; the game focuses on fleet actions between the Russian navy and its Swedish opponents in the Baltic, and the Russians fighting the Turks in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
The box contains a rules book and a scenarios book, two player aid cards containing all the charts and tables you’ll refer to through the game, and three 22 x 34 inch maps, mostly open sea hexes with a variety of shallows and shoals scattered about. You get three countersheets, one sheet of 140 double-sized counters representing the big cruisers and battleships known as “ships of the line,” and two sheets providing 560 total smaller counters for markers, commanders, and smaller vessels such as sloops and schooners. A blue d10—remember to read the 0 as zero and not as ten—and about ten bags for counter storage finish off the game’s components. But they don’t complete them; GMT left out the Maneuver Cards and Duel Map, without which you cannot play the smaller one-on-one ship fights, and the Maneuver Cards are also a nice option for the fleet-action game. A terrible oversight. For sixty dollars, I shouldn’t have to raid my copy of Serpents Of The Seas for parts to fully enjoy what this game has to offer.
This is Version 3.1 of the rules, with changes to earlier rules marked with a star. The changes are small, an extra sentence here, an adjustment to a modifier there. But they can impact the game significantly. For example, in Serpents Of The Seas any ship may oppose Pass-Through Movement (when one ship moves through a hex occupied by another), but in the adjusted rules section a ship cannot oppose if it is Fouled or Grappled. I strongly advise anyone who is familiar with earlier editions of the game to re-read the starred sections and pick up on the nuanced adjustments made to the system.
The system itself is simple in concept, complex in execution. Movement is hex to hex, and since most of the hexes are blue, open-water hexes, movement costs one point per hex. Ships face towards one hexside, and the number of movement points they have depends on the wind. Yes, The Wind, that fuel source of 18th-century naval operations. The wind gauge (direction the wind blows) is pre-determined at the beginning of every scenario; at the start of each turn beginning with the second, a die is rolled to see if the wind shifts one hexside in direction.
The movement points a ship has available depends on whether it is facing the same direction as the wind— “running” with the wind, four MPs—or is “reaching” by facing one hexside to either side of the wind gauge, in which case it gets five movement points. A ship facing into the wind but on an angle is “beating” and has two movement points; a ship unluckily facing directly into the wind has no movement points and is “in irons.” Movement points also depends on whether a ship has full sails up and if the weather is calm or breezy; an oared ship will have movement regardless of the wind. A ship must move its full movement rate each turn. I haven’t even mentioned backing sails, tacking attempts, slipping anchor, and hitting shallows. As you can see, the system has a wealth of tactical options for each individual ship. The base system is simple, with rules layered on top like a delicious cake.
Since the scenarios focus on fleet-to-fleet actions, the game uses a variation of the now-classic Commands Initiative rules. Leaders exert authority over a number of hexes equal to their Command Range; alternatively, ships may be set up In Formation—all ships are within four hexes of another ship in the same formation, all face the same direction, and one ship has a commander counter. Players roll for initiative, modified by either the Quality of their overall fleet commander or by the Audacity rating of their fleet (given in the scenario), with the high roller choosing which command / group of ships he wishes to activate and move; Out Of Command ships are activated individually, putting them at a disadvantage. Players alternate moving groups of ships or single ships this way until everyone has completed all their moves.
Combat occurs during movement. The combat rules are charts-heavy and require a lot of modifiers to be applied to a lot of numbers. Ships have Rates, which are the number of guns they carry. Lower numbers are better, with first-rate (Rate 1) ships being the monsters of the ocean, fifth-rate (Rate 5) ships being literal cannon fodder. Take the Rate of a ship, modify it by any damage it has taken or whether it is under full sails, and cross-reference the adjusted Rate with the range to the target to get your Firepower Value. Modify the Firepower Value, consult the Hit Determination chart, roll a d10, modify that number, and after consulting several charts and modifying several numbers you learn whether or not you hit and did damage. Ships take damage measured in Hull and Rigging points. Enough Hull hits and the ship sinks, while enough Rigging hits causes it to become a sitting, er, floating duck.
The Swedish navy is a power, with decent commanders. The Russians are sort of the stereotypical tortoise, slow but patient and rock-steady. The Turks enter battle fairly well, but when they start losing they really start losing (-2 to any rolls to break off battle as they suffer losses). Adding the “unicorn” guns to the Russian navy allows them some positive modifiers in battle, and when properly applied that can swing a fight in their favor.
I really enjoy this game. Although the rules are a little challenging at first, with a dizzying mix of gamespeak and nautical terminology, as you play the scenarios it becomes second nature to reach with the wind while maneuvering to hit your enemy’s rake line. All the modifying and chart reading of combat can get a little tedious, especially when you have fleets of a dozen ships per side leading to a dozen different combats each turn, but it speeds up as you gain more experience with the system. Even with the slight clunkiness of the combat system, the results feel right, and the tactics you have to apply fit perfectly with the Age Of Sail. Not only does it succeed as a simulation, but it does what these sorts of games are supposed to do: teach you more about the subject. While having fun blasting enemy vessels with broadsides, you’re picking up some sailing terms and learning a little bit about Swedish history.
The major downside is that for sixty dollars you get an essentially incomplete game. The game includes optional rules for using Maneuver Cards, a wonderful device for adding even more tactical flavor to the ship-to-ship combats; too bad the Maneuver Cards are not included. And there is a section of the rulesbook on Duel Rules, an abridged game sequence for fighting one-on-one ship battles, a part of the game I really enjoyed five years ago with Serpents Of The Seas. The Duel rules require the Maneuver Cards (not included) and a special map (not included). If you own Serpents Of The Seas you’ll have the necessary parts. Come on, GMT, we shouldn’t have to track down one game to get the pieces we need to play another game! Back-printing the Duel map on one of the three maps in this game wouldn’t have been too much to expect, and give us some paper Maneuver Cards to cut out of the scenarios book.
Even incomplete, though, I’ll take Blue Cross, White Ensign. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in naval wargames and in gunpowder era (Age Of Piracy through Napoleonic conflicts) simulations. John Paul Jones makes his second appearance in the series; after the American Revolution (which was covered in Serpents Of The Seas), Jones entered the service of Catherine The Great of Russia and became one of her naval commanders. Which allows me to repeat a line from my earlier game review of this series. John Paul Jones would have played this game, and so should you.
Armchair General Rating: 87% (higher if they had included the cards and Duel map)
Solitaire Suitability (1 is low, 5 is high): 2 (part of the strategy is trying to figure which ships your opponent will move in what order)
About the Author
Sean Michael Stevenson is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who has been playing wargames since the days of SPI. When not playing games, he can be found reading books on history and working as a writer on small-press comic books.