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Posted on Aug 15, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Confederate Iron Clashes with Federal Courage in High Flying Dice Games’ “Thunder on the Water”. Board Game Review.

Confederate Iron Clashes with Federal Courage in High Flying Dice Games’ “Thunder on the Water”. Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Thunder on the Water. Publisher: High Flying Dice Games. Game Designer: Paul Rohrbaugh. Price $14.95 (base game) $28.95 (with mounted counters and the custom draw deck).  

Passed inspection: A fast playing game of a pivotable naval battle in North Carolina waters.

Failed basic:  A number of typos in the rules and player aid chart that can cause some confusion and some questions on unit names and ratings.  

A long time ago, I lived in eastern North Carolina. At the time I was doing a fair bit of travelling between the Outer Banks and Greenville and often found myself traveling around the waters of Albemarle Sound. As I passed through Plymouth or crossed the bridge at Edenton, I’d often think of that epic naval battle fought between the Union Navy’s wooden warships and the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle. After assisting with the Confederate victory at Plymouth, the ironclad had then sortied in attempt to steam south to the Pamlico Sound and help in the assault on the town of New Bern. Success would place much of the central section of coastal North Carolina back in Confederate control.

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It’s a battle I’ve brought to the tabletop on several occasions using miniature models. It was a bit of work building and painting all those model ships and hauling them to a game outside the house is a real chore. There were a handful of alternatives using board game alternatives like playing the old, out of print Yaquinto game ‘Ironclads’ or the GMT game ‘Iron and Oak’. But now there is a quick, compact and easy way to bring this battle to the tabletop using High Flying Dice Games new release – ‘Thunder on the Water’.

Designed by Paul Rohrbaugh, ‘Thunder on the Water’ (TOTW) leverages the core rules of Paul’s earlier naval war game designs ‘Duel of Iron’ (Hampton Roads) and ‘A Bold Fight’ (Mobile Bay). Like those other games, Thunder on the Water is a small ‘filing cabinet’ game with an 11” x 17” map depicting the waters of Albemarle sound at the junction of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers near the small town of Edenton.

Thunder on the Water arrives like most games from HFDG – in a clear plastic bag with the contents behind a cover sheet. The game consists of the aforementioned map; a rulebook; 17, unit counters representing ships and batteries, 115 markers; and a player aid card. In addition, my review copy contained a custom card deck that is used for unit activation during play.

The map depicts the watery arena for the battle. The Chowan river and the Roanoke rivers flow in the from the northwest and southwest. The northern and southern shores bound the battlespace leaving clear water to the east. Terrain types are simple – open water, shallow water and land. The land terrain has three features – open ground, swamp and the town of Edenton on the northern shore. Superimposed on the map is a hex grid for regulating movement and calculating ranges. Comparing it to a modern NOAA navigation chart, it would appear that the map is scaled at about 1000 yards per hex.

The rules are a short five pages of text that includes the designer’s notes, a short bibliography and the random events table. The rules appear to follow the same format as the previous titles in the series and lay out the sequence of play, as well as the details on the movement and combat mechanics.

Unit counters depict the various ships and land batteries used during the game. There are 11 Federal units – 8 wooden gunboats and three shore batteries. Opposing them are 6 Confederate units – the ironclad CSS Albemarle, two small wooden gunboats and three shore batteries. The counters have a top down representation of the vessel and contain the key game information regarding firepower, general firing arcs, protection and speed that you will need during play. The batteries have a side view of a twelve-pound field gun, again with the key firepower and protection information required for game play.

The 115 markers are used during the play of the game to indicate damage taken by the various units. In addition to damage ‘points’, there are a number of markers to denote any critical hits that a vessel may have suffered. These are the ‘usual culprits’ found in a naval game – bridge hits, steering, fire and the like. Rounding out the markers are the administrative counters used to track game turn, tide current and visibility and a number of obstruction markers that can used with an alternative scenario.

I need to note that the counters in the basic game are unmounted. You’ll have to spend some time with scissors or a paper cutter to separate them before you can play. Alternatively, you can spend a few more a few more bucks and get mounted counters. You’ll still need to cut these out (using a sharp blade or heavy-duty paper cutter), but you’ll get more durable counters.  

The Players Aid Card contains a number of the commonly used rules related to movement, fire combat and ramming. It’s a handy reference that can sit next to the map and be ready for review without flipping through the rulebook.

The card deck is used to determine unit activation (more on that in a minute). It’s a nice way to clearly communicate which side is active and how many units are to be activated on that card draw. The custom activation deck is not a mandatory purchase as the rules clearly instruct you on how to build the same type of deck using a standard playing card deck. But the customer deck removes any question about who is active and with how many activations.

Once you’ve cut out your counters, built your activation card deck, it’s time to follow the set-up instructions. This is a small game, so you can quickly get the pieces on the table and ready to play. One thing I noticed is that the set-up instructions for the Confederates are a little off. The rules had the Confederate ships entering in the northwest corner from the Chowan River. In reality, these ships had exited the Roanoke River in the southwest and were steaming towards the east. It’s an easy fix, just change the Confederate set up hex to 0212 and flop the batteries deployments for each side (putting the Confederate guns on the south bank and the Union batteries on the north shore.)

The game is played over a number of game turns. Each turn is composed of a variable number of card draws. The card draw defines which side will activate as well as the number of units that can be activated with that card draw. When a unit is activated it can do one of three things – fire, or for vessels either move or ram, and repair. A unit generally makes only a single action on an activation, so it can either move/ram OR fire OR attempt to repair damage.

Players continue to work their way through the draw deck until a joker appears. The turn may end at that point if the Confederate player wishes, or it may otherwise be dealt with as a random event. The Union player has a limited ability to override the Confederate player’s choice. If play continues, the card draws continue until the second joker is drawn from the deck. At that point there’s an administrative end phase where critical hit damage is resolved and victory conditions are checked. Gunnery is resolved with a simple D10 roll with a handful of modifiers. Same goes for ramming. The method for integrating armor into the game is very abstract – but it also yields a reasonably historical result while speeding play along.

Put into action, you get a game that should move along very quickly. Flip a card, determine who is active. Take your activations, resolve gunfire or ramming. Flip the next card. Lather, rinse, repeat until you hit the first or second joker and end the turn.

The heart of the game does a good job of capturing the feel of the period. The movement rates and gunnery ranges are abstract enough that when integrated into the card draw activations, they seem accurate enough. Gun combat is down right easy to resolve. After a few rounds, you won’t even have to consult the charts. The armor penetration/protection rules a very simple, but also give a reasonable result. Damage is easy to track and retains the flavor of naval combat with the various kinds of critical hits to engines, rudders and bridges. Even the repair rules do a good job of showing how having a good damage control team can result in bringing a badly damaged ship back to battery, allowing it to rejoin the battle.

Taken as a whole, the game provides an experience that captures naval combat in the American Civil War. However, it’s a very different experience that what you might be used to with more classical naval wargames. Thunder on the Water provides what I think of as a good cinematic feel to the game play.

What do I mean by that? I’m going to digress for a minute and talk about traditional naval wargames. What I call typical naval games are quantitative exercises. A ship moving at 3 knots will cover 0.75 nautical miles in 15 minutes, and it will keep on traveling that distance in that direction until the captain changes the speed and/or heading. Ships at similar speeds move as a group. Ground scale is critical as it defines the movement and firing ranges for all game pieces. In a traditional game movement is either simultaneous or some flavor of IGOUGO. Gunnery is often some variation of the rock-paper-scissors process of rolling the to hit number – then rolling to penetrate armor – lastly rolling for damage to a specific area of the ship. A typical naval game features movement and firing by all units in a turn, every turn. Units may be excluded from some of those actions due to critical hits or a player’s choice to stop or not fire. 

However, that’s not what happens in Thunder on the Water. Remember what I said about the game providing what I call a good cinematic feel to the game play? What I mean by that is as activations become available, a player may choose to string together a series of multiple card activations to focus on a handful – or even one – units while leaving other units inactive. What this does is to create a narrative for the game where specific units are the focus of the story. The inactive units fade into the background, becoming part of the supporting cast of the story. I call it ‘cinematic’ as it reminds me of how a movie will focus on a few individual actions of the ‘main characters’. And while many of the ‘extras’ are visible in the scene (or in this case – on the map) they are not directly contributing to the events going on in the immediate moment.

It’s an effective tool that drives the game forward. It’s also likely to have traditional naval wargamers climbing up the bulkhead precisely because it is so very different from the classic approach to naval wargaming. It’s definitely NOT ‘Ironclads’, the old Yaquinto game that grognards often consider the gold standard for quantitative, process driven games of civil war naval combat.

Also, in contrast with the traditional approach is the almost total lack of movement plotting and damage tracking that usually require a number of worksheets and logs to allow the player to keep track of their planned movement and any damage the ship has taken. Much of that plotting can be tied back into the concept of a ‘decision cycle’ that reflects the cadence of movement and firing associated with a traditional game. None of that is present in Thunder on the Water. The draw deck produces a very different type of decision cycle and one that is dynamic and reactive based on the conditions at the time of the card draw.

While the game’s mechanics generally work well, there were a few things that challenged my preconceptions of American Civil War naval warfare based on years of both research and gaming. I’ll start with the gun ranges. Depending on what you think the scale of the game is, the ranges are either too long or not long enough. If we use the scale defined in the rulebook of 200 yards per hex, all guns max out at 1000 yards – and that’s too short. If we use a revised scale of 1000 yards per hex (which matches up with the ground scale of the map), the ranges are a little bit on the long side – at least for the naval units. Given the state of gunsights during the war, it was common belief that a ship firing at another ship more the 2000 yards away was wasting its ammunition. I actually think the gunnery model is pretty good with the longer ranges incurring substantial negative modifiers that make long range gunfire at a ship a marginal activity, while reflecting the relative strengths and weaknesses of shore batteries.

Thunder on the Water has ramming rules, but those rules don’t seem allow two ships to become fouled (or ‘stuck’) together. A corollary is that there are no boarding rules included either. Historically, an attempt was made at boarding while the Sassacus and the Albemarle were fouled together. Sharpshooters and grenadiers blazed away at each other, but to no result. Certainly, boarding had a low-probability success during this battle, but it remained a valuable tool in naval warfare through the civil war.

Beyond that, I had a number of quibbles with the ship data. I freely admit, that some of this comes from being a bit of a rivet counter with civil war naval games. But if you going to buy the game, you should know what to expect. First off, the speed of the Albemarle seems too high. Given that the Federal double enders have a top speed almost three times as fast as the ironclad, I would expect that to be reflected in the speed ratings, but it’s not.

The double ender gunboats have their own issues, the first being that my perception is that they do not warrant the all-around fire arc given in the game. These gunboats were basically broadside ships, with the ability to pivot the heavy guns to either beam. They generally lack the ability to shoot forward or aft. (The Miami might be an exception to this.) I used a ‘house rule’ that they have the same broadside firing penalty as other broadside ships like the ironclad Albemarle.  Further, the Union gunboat Whitehead is rated in the game as a double ender gunboat. She’s not. She’s a fourth-rate auxiliary with only two guns. However, one of those guns is a 100-pound rifle. I house ruled this by keeping the Whitehead’s firepower the same while dropping her protection and speed values.

Lastly, one of the Union ships carries the name Syracuse. Unfortunately, there was no Union warship named Syracuse at the battle, or for that matter even in the US Navy, at least not according to references such as Silverstone’s ‘Civil War Navies’, Canney’s ‘Old Steam Navy’ or the online Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. In reality, this was the Union vessel Issac N. Seymour. It’s not a big deal as it’s just the name that is wrong. The ratings for the ship will stay the exactly the same which won’t impact play of the game.

I’m perplexed at the inclusion of the shore batteries in the game. Looking at several summaries of the battle, I found no reference to any shore batteries on either side. Certainly, the Confederate guns would have been on the march to New Bern, while the Union was hard pressed to keep a permanent troop presence around Edenton, much less deploy batteries of artillery.

There’s one odd reference in the rules regarding the fortunes of war chit. The rules are directing you to place the chit in either the Admiral Farragut or Admiral Buchanan boxes on the game board. Well, there are not any such boxes on the map. This looks like a text error that was ported over from the Mobile Bay version of the rules. Just ignore it and get on with the game. It has no impact on how you use the fortunes of war chit.

A lot of board gamers can’t find opponents, so they often have to play by themselves. For this sizable portion of the community, a game’s suitability for solitaire play is an important factor in the decision to buy the game. For these gamers, I think you’ll be satisfied with Thunder on the Water.

True to my experience with other games from High Flying Dice Games, there are no dedicated AI ‘bots or flow charts to automate the play of either side. However, the card draw mechanism provides a good randomized way to determine which side takes a turn and how many units will activate. That randomness with the draw deck provides an adequate level of fog of war. For a player willing to wear both hats, you can play both sides with relative ease.  The card draw mechanic means that you can’t predict what will happen on the next card draw, or exactly how long a game turn will last. The lack of hidden information (other than the card deck) makes this an easy game to play for the solitaire gamer.

Now you have a better understanding of what the game is about and how the game is played. The only question left to answer is – should you buy this game? The answer is that this is a game that will definitely appeal to a population of tabletop gamers. Specifically, Thunder on the Water will appeal to a fan of civil war naval combat who is looking to refight a pivotal naval battle of the war. While it’s not a traditional, process driven design, Thunder on the Water gives a good historical feel to the results.

Thunder on the Water will also appeal to those folks looking for a game with a small tabletop footprint. The short rules and low counter density make this a good choice to introduce someone to the genre of tabletop games. Thunder on the Water makes for a good solitaire travel game. You can slip it into your carry-on bag with ease and it’s perfect for a hotel desktop gaming session. So, weigh anchor and set a course for adventure!

Armchair General Score: % 91

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  4

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

Game Map
the Albemarle runs the gauntlet
The battle is joined
Union activation card

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