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Posted on Feb 12, 2010 in Electronic Games

Ironclads: High Seas – PC Game Review

By Jim Cobb

Ironclads: High Seas. PC Game. Totem Games. $19.99

Passed Inspection: Great graphics, challenging AI, realistic physics, nice interface, neglected topic, useful editor

Failed Basic: No multi-play, lack of weather and land.

Keeping some small, fast vessels in reserve to finish off enemy cripples is a good idea.

Totem Games’s Ironclad series just keeps growing in response to gamers’ wishes. The first version was turn-based and focused on littoral and harbor clashes. The turn-based engine produced some strange situations such as ships sailing past opponents without receiving fire. The next version, Ironclads: High Seas, fixed that problem with a real-time engine but didn’t afford players much latitude in creating scenarios. Totem has responded not only by releasing a scenario editor but also by including two new ships for this game of naval combat in the American Civil War.


The game is available by download from Activation requires a one-time exchange of emails; answers from Totem Games are timely. The game is DRM-free.

Angels in the Detail
Ship graphics are superb. Spars, rigging, smokestacks, deck guns and hatches are finely detailed. Hull planks and gun ports are shown clearly, down to holes and scorch marks from hits. Fires blaze and ships keel over. Stack and gun smoke are persistent and drift realistically. Speed and damage percentage can be seen by holding the mouse tip over ships. An info panel at the bottom of the screen describes details such as flooding amounts, current and maximum ship and group speeds as well as gun number, position and type. Wakes and bow waves reflect vessels’ speeds and courses. Unfortunately, the sea state is always smooth.

Zooming in and out, rotating and tilting views allow players to either look at the big picture or be on the same level as the crews.

Sound effects are splendid. Guns boom. In zoomed-in mode, fires crackle and roar. The music is nice but can be turned down or off with the config file in the game folder.

Suiting One’s Self
The campaign starts early in the war when ship selection is limited, and so is the money with which to purchase ships. The lack of historical scenarios makes the campaign series abstract, with each side testing each other with limited resources. For example, either side can choose from three ship types at first and can only spend $1.5 million dollars to outfit as many as three squadrons of up to five vessels each. As time progresses and victories are won, more types are unlocked and more money is available. A good Union commander should be able to outspend a Confederate AI while a similar rebel admiral may turn the tables on the Yankees. Eventually, fourteen ship types are available, ranging from sloops and gunboats to heavy monitors, slab-sided ironclad ships and Confederate casemate rams. Ships are rated for speed, armor and guns. Smoothbore and rifled cannon are mounted broadside or in pivot mounts. Rifles include Parrot, Dahlgren and Brooke guns; smoothbore calibers range from 6.4" up to 15" hull-breakers. Penetration, accuracy, damage, and relative rate of fire for these weapons are shown in charts in the six-page manual. The new editor allows historical clashes to be simulated because the player purchases the craft for both sides. Hence, the Alabama and Kearsarge battle can be played out by selecting one sloop-of-war for each side.

Column Clash
Battle begins with the opposing forces a fair distance apart. At times in the campaign game, the Confederate forces will outnumber the Union’s because the South has many small, fast-but-weak vessels. Speed and maneuver orders for columns are only done through the lead ship. A panel at the bottom of the screen allows one-click access to any column and any ship in the column. Clicking on a ship does the same but can be difficult in a large, hectic battle. The speed indicator has four speeds each in forward and reverse directions, along with "Stop." A slide bar handles degrees of port and starboard turns with the midpoint representing helm amidships. Putting the helm amidships is vital unless the formation needs to steam in a circle. Damage, radical course changes and collision with friendly and enemy vessels can disrupt the formation.

The arcade level of play allows quick maneuver and rapid rate of fire-fun but ahistorical. The normal and historic levels of play replicate how the vessels of the American Civil War operated. Changes in speed come into effect slowly, representing the early boilers of the period. Since collisions occur frequently and at least one of the vessels involved stops, the slowness in reversing speed affects play. Directions may be changed quicker by turning in increments than by a radical turn at maximum speed. Rate of fire may seem slow, but these guns were large muzzle-loaders requiring large crews. Therefore, some chances for good shots may be missed due to reload times. Judicious use of the "Hold Fire" button can alleviate this problem.

Damage from shot and shell can be either above or below waterlines. Hits topside can cause fires and wreck guns. Penetration below causes flooding and damages engines. Crews will attempt to contain damage, but ships that suffer around 60% damage will automatically attempt to flee. Keeping some small, fast vessels in reserve to finish off enemy cripples is a good idea. Battles end after a few hours or in the unlikely event of all ships of one side sinking or running. Time can be accelerated only if ships maintain enough distance for safe maneuvering.

Ironclads High Seas is a fine product. One hopes for multi-player or hot seat function and a re-visiting of the harbors of the first version. However, Totem is now working of the Spanish-American War and the highly neglected naval war between Prussia and Denmark in 1864. Naval gamers can barely wait.

Armchair General score: 85%

About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he deals with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online, Gamesquad and Gaming Chronicle.


  1. This is a GREAT game, and I rarely use all caps. Also on sale for $17.99 on Steam at the moment.

    One thing Jim Cobb may not have mentioned–all the game data is in xml format. So even a noob like me can pretty much change any parameter in the game, from ship armor to the flight and power of cannon shells.

    The demo can keep you occupied for days. But please buy the full version

    Thank you, Totem, for opening up the game to us!

  2. I can’t fire at will, so all of my ships ultimately sink.

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