The Designer

Work on my Levy & Campaign series of medieval operational games had kept my interest in the Middle Ages burning. Along the way, I picked up the Against the Odds journal’s 2011 issue featuring “the first battle of the Hundred Years War”. The main game inside, Right Fierce & Terrible, gave a grand-tactical treatment that battle: Sluys, a 1340 naval grapple-and-boarding brawl off Flanders. Only some months after acquiring the game did I notice that its designer was Jeremy (Jerry) White, who this year drew critical acclaim for his likewise maritime design Atlantic Chase. Jerry’s ATO Sluys game looked unique as a situation, simple in mechanics, open in setup options, and beautiful on the table (thanks to graphics from Mark Mahaffey). I began to suspect I had stumbled upon a decade-old gem hidden amidst the mass of magazine games.

The Game

Right Fierce uses semi-random chit-pull for uncertainty in who will activate the next of each side’s three commands, plus varying fighting intensity via follow-up “Sally” combat that may or may not occur. Chunky squadron pieces carry smaller marine and leader counters and use easy movement rules that account for wind, current, sails or oars, shallows, and congestion. Straightforward combat by archery, ram, grapple, boarding, and melee seeks to capture squadrons and leaders and ultimately collapse the enemy’s morale.

The Fleets

Historically, King Edward III attacked in June 1340 to preempt a feared French invasion of England. It was a bold stroke: his fleet was smaller than that of France’s King Philip VI. And the French had an abundance of oared galleys that could out-maneuver sailed vessels in battle. But the English had a good number of high-decked, castled cogs, plus yeomen with deadly longbows crammed aboard.

The Plan

Jerry’s design offers seven scenarios exploring the various historical interpretations of how this vaguely documented battle went down. For my solo learning game, I chose “The Voice of Reason”, which plays out historian Susan Rose’s suggestion that the English approached from two directions.

The French start anchored in good order before the port of Sluys, guarding a water route to the key Flemish wool town of Bruges. They opt to chain a line of their lighter ships together. Chained ships are immobile but offer a denser defense (double the squadrons and the marines aboard—knights, men-at-arms, and mariners—may stack in a hex).

The English can divide their force as they see fit between northwestern and eastern approaches up the estuary, but they must make this choice before knowing the winds and currents that day. Rose’s premise is that Edward took some part of his fleet around Cadzand Island, through the narrower eastern gap, to approach Sluys out of the morning sun. Here, the English opt to do so with a stronger force (Morley and Edward), while a smaller group of lighter ships (Mawney) attempt a flank attack down the main channel.

The French intend a maneuver of their own: their chained ships will refuse their left while the main force exploits its nimble oared galleys to defeat one or the other English group in detail.

Helpfully for the English, it turns out that an incoming tide will carry Mawney’s ships in, while an easterly breeze will fill the sails of Edward’s main force. The French will struggle against the current and wind to exit their cramped formation.

The Approach

The battle is on! The French first try to sortie from their anchorage in hopes of catching the weaker enemy force before the English unite. But they make scant headway. (Sails and oars expend more movement points when against wind and current; moving next to other squadrons adds yet more, for the traffic jam on the estuary.)

The English, with the weather gauge, hold their weaker northern group back to thwart any French scheme to catch it before the King’s stronger eastern group can engage. The latter ships run full sail before the wind and rapidly close the distance to the enemy (ending turn 1).

But now the English misstep. Edward’s Admiral Morley veers his command up the wider channel, ahead of the King, in a bid to join with the northern detachment—which has perhaps held back too far. French commanders notice the flawed English coordination and take initiative to exploit it (a fortunate pair of activation chit draws). The heaviest French ships, under Quiéret, have just the speed needed to cross in front of Morley and meet his lead squadron three against one!

The Clash

Engagement in Right Fierce proceeds in this order: Ramming / Archery / Grapple / Boarding / Melee. The first clash in our battle is not by French but rather by Castilian ships in Philip VI’s service. Though not the bronze prow ram-equipped galleys of ancient Greece and Rome, these ships can attempt to damage and entangle enemies by ramming. Advantages go to speed, oars over sails, and larger over smaller vessels (higher castle factors). Wind and current direction and congestion also matter (the last hex entered may cost no more than 3 MP). In the event, the Castilians botch the ram and only damage their own ships.

Archery has no effect, as the French fleets’ crossbows do not have the range to reach enemy ships until grappled. The three adjacent French squadrons next all try to grapple then board those of Morley. High castles and lots of archers help achieve or defeat grappling attempts. The squadron led by the cog Christofer succeeds, and French knights storm aboard Morley’s ships!

Shield symbols show Melee strength. The squadron hosting the fight adds its Castle. The image above (without dice) shows the pre-melee strengths. The English defend with 5 (knights) + 1 (Morley) + 2 (crew) + 2 (castle) + 8 (dice roll) = 18. The French sum 5 (knights) + 6 (crew) + 10 (roll) = 21.

The higher French total wins the melee by a small margin. The French knights suffer losses (flip one unit to reduced), while all defending English units—marines and squadrons—reduce as well. Morley’s knights still have three steps left, but he is in a spot and has already activated this turn so cannot yet respond.

Nobles back in England’s harbor had warned Edward not to risk his earls and army in a naval attack from which there would be no retreat if defeated. The first clash of the first great fight of what is to be a 100 Years War has indeed put at peril none other than the King’s fleet commander.

The Archers

French commanders already realized that they would face Edward’s main force before any chance of catching the weaker English northern group. They therefore had used their initiative to form an orderly line along their right to meet the enemy King’s approach, set safely against the mainland where their oared vessels handle more easily in the shallows than Edward’s sailing ships. (See “B” on map several images up.)

The King now can do no better to aid his beleaguered Admiral than to engage this French line. It is here that England’s special weapon comes to bear. English decks, castles, and crows’ nests brim with longbowmen whose arrows can find their targets even before the ships close to grapple. Archery in Right Fierce compares attacking archery against defending castle factors, modifying a base 5+ needed to hit (each archery factor, marine or squadron, rolls a die). The yeomen’s arrows take their toll of enemy men, including the rain of a viciously gruesome slaughter upon the knights and crews of one French squadron of nefs.

The badly bloodied nef squadron is now ripe for boarding (the French squadron is reduced, with just one step of marines left aboard). The English bowmen, loosing more arrows from their larger cogs, hinder the nef crews’ efforts to cut the lines of English grappling hooks flung aboard. The cogs’ men-at-arms grapple, board, melee, and capture the enemy nefs for their King!

The loss of ships and knights—in full view of the fleet—dents French hopes ( 2 French morale for capture of a 1 castle squadron and 1 for elimination of knights).

The English can now crew, sail, and fight from their newly won prizes, piercing a hole in the French defense. As battle lines form, Mawney’s group races south, still too far off to aid Morley. (turn 2 ends.)

The Admirals

With Morley’s lead squadron boarded, his trailing ships sail up in support and to fill a gap in the line. But these longbowmen miss their marks, the English crews decline or fail to grapple the tall and stoutly manned French cogs they face, and Morley’s men are too hard pressed to cut free of the French grapple.

The French now take action under Quiéret’s command. Quiéret’s own squadron and flag ship Riche de Leure grapple onto Robert Morley’s immobilized ships. More knights of France and the French Admiral himself clamber onto Morley’s cog to join the melee!

Prominent French noble Hugues (Hue) Quiéret had held the post of Admiral of France these five years past and about to reach the pinnacle of his fame. He had in that time overseen a highly successful naval raiding campaign against English shores and Channel traffic, won battles, and two years ago taken as prize the giant English cog now grappled to the enemy as Christofer, nearby Quiéret’s Riche de Leure.

His opponent, Sir Robert, 2nd Baron Morley, long holder of title as Earl Marshal of Ireland and naval veteran of the Scottish wars, had been made England’s Admiral of the North the year before Sluys.

Now Sir Robert would see risk to his own person from his tactical mistake the previous hour. French crossbowmen from the grappled Christofer have picked off English knights. French swords on Morley’s decks outnumber the battered English three to one (two French squadrons of 6 strength each join Quiéret’s knights for total melee odds of 21 to 7). The French overwhelm the defenders to capture Edward’s high Admiral!

In these same minutes, Quiéret’s other ships fan out down the estuary to delay the English squadrons rushing to Morley’s succor. French vessels earlier chained uselessly behind the battleline have cut loose to move up. What is more, the tide is turning and shifting the estuary’s currents to less of a hindrance to the French and less help to Mawney’s approach.

The Corsair

To Quiéret’s right, the French try to retake their lost nefs. Oared barges from a second line, including a Flemish squadron pressed into French service, take advantage of the new current to ram the captured ships. The ramming severely damages the nefs, and French mariners storm aboard to liberate the recently French vessels from their English occupiers.

But the English respond by grappling yet more cogs to their disputed prizes and flooding the melee with fresh men-at-arms, who bloodily repel the French boarding attack. Nearby, English boarders overcome French knights thinned by longbow arrows and seize several galleys. The English regain the upper hand!

Now isolated in the shallows at the extreme right of the French line, Genoese galley captain Egidio Bocanegra, known as Barbavera, considers his options. In French service this day, he is reputed originally to have learnt his trade a Mediterranean corsair (privateer). When the French, anchored before Sluys, had spotted English sails on the horizon, Barbavera had proposed a sortie to sea in order to use the advantage of maneuver outside the confined estuary. The French commanders overruled him.

Crowded now against the Flemish shore, Barbavera could back away to rejoin the fleet for a coordinated defense. Or he could use his oars to slip around the English sailing ships to maneuver alone behind the enemy line. Or he could strike the foe who sailed in front of him.

What a lucky day for the mercenary! It is the enemy King’s sails that billow directly ahead. A king’s ransom is too great a lure: Barbavera will attack!

The King

Edward stands transfixed, at good vantage aboard the cog Thomas, and watches the Genoese galleys close in for a ram. His ponderous sailing ships fail to avoid the Italians. Prows crash into hull planks—several English vessels are damaged and entangled.

(See “a”: high ramming dice rolls damage and grapple the target.)

As the ships close, Genoese crossbowmen let off their bolts at Thomas. They do not so much hope to harm many of the enemy, who are well protected on the tall cog, but rather are sniping at the exposed figure of the King. Some of Edward’s best knights are struck as they pull their monarch to safety.

(See “b”: Thomas’s 2-castle subtracts from the galley’s 0-archery, so no 5+ success role is possible. But any attack on a leader’s hex requires a casualty check. A roll of 12 kills the leader, unless heroic knights—the unit’s star symbol—sacrifice a step instead. Yes, the French side shot crossbows merely in the hope that the English King would roll a 12 on two dice, which he did! Edward’s knights lose a step to save him.)

French knights aboard the galleys climb up onto the stricken cogs, shoulder to shoulder with Barbavera’s crewmen and the corsair captain in the lead. They are looking for the King. Edward’s knights stand ready, and the cogs’ high castles buttress their defense. The first blows of the melee fall heavily on the French and Genoese boarders.

(See “c”: The English roll wins the otherwise nearly even melee. The English reduce one unit—they will choose Thomas squadron. The French must reduce both their knights and the galley squadron, as results in the next image show.)

At the battle’s opposite edge, Mawney’s group of English squadrons—picking their way around and through French and Castilian screen—have yet to join the main battle line. The screening ships suffer from the longbowmen aboard the passing English. But the delay purchased gives the heavily manned and still fresh French reserve under Béhuchet time to refuse the French fleet’s threatened flank. (Turn 3 ends.)

The Constable

Nicolas Béhuchet, Constable of France, had led the brutally successful naval campaign against England alongside Admiral Quiéret. As Constable, Béhuchet stands second in rank only to the absent King Philip and is thus commander-in-chief over Quiéret.

His battle preparations this day had included massing his marines on the largest ships of his chained squadrons, since loosed and under oar and sail. He will now swing this hard-hitting force into the lighter and soon to be outnumbered barges of the approaching English reinforcement.

God appears to grace the Constable’s plan. The wind at this moment shifts to a southerly breeze that, along with the tidal current, will speed Béhuchet’s hook around the incoming English.

Mawney’s force—on its path toward Quiéret and his hostage Morley—has enveloped the Castilians and even boarded, captured, and then disengaged from a weak French squadron of barges (see “A”). Béhuchet’s French now ram and board the captured and several attacking English barges (“B”) as the Constable leads his men-at-arms onto an enemy deck. Furious fighting is joined all along the line.

Back on the French right, longbowmen among the English men-at-arms shower the decks of Barbavera’s reserve ships that have come up to reinforce the fight between Edward’s knights and those of Barbavera. Then the English nefs nearest Thomas and captive galleys under English command grapple themselves to the tangle of ships over which the King and the mercenary spar. The Genoese captain’s situation grows critical.

When English men-at-arms board and capture Barbavera’s own poorly guarded galleys from behind him, his squadrons see that he is out of their reach. These French second-line ships already gave up most of their marines to the Constable on his order, and English arrows have further thinned their few men-at-arms left. Moreover, the center of the French line is reeling as the English capture the Flemish barges there. Weak and perhaps needed elsewhere, the would-be reinforcements pull back from danger for now (see “A” below).

On the French left, the Castilians extricate themselves (“B”). In the center, Béhuchet’s attack sets one or more English ships afire. (Tied melee rolls mark the host squadron Afire, neutralizing its castle.) Nearby, Quiéret—under a darkening cloud of English arrows—pulls his valuable captive Morley back to the comparative security of Riche de Leure (“C”). As the dead of l’Armée de la Mer pile up faster than those of the English, French hopes set more on the Constable’s strong left swing than on Barbavera’s derring-do.

to be continued…

Stay tuned for the second part of this exciting report which will be published next week.