Flying Colors from Mike Nagel and GMT Games has been out now for over a decade. Released in 2005, a later “deluxe” 2nd edition added thicker counters to the game and included errata fixes. The game covers fleet actions from the late 18th century into the very early 19th century and attempts to capture the feel of fleet actions in that time period. Subsequent expansions have added more ships, the War of 1812 and Imperial Russian naval actions against Sweden and Turkey. There are more commanders and ships than you could use in a lifetime!
I like to ask a few critical questions of games in my reviews rather than meander through each review. I don’t care too much about components, rulebooks, packaging, unless it prohibits enjoyment of the game. If you want to see what comes in the box, there are plenty of videos, pictures, and descriptions around the web to satiate your appetite. Flying Colors poses several problems that must be addressed to qualify it as a solid age of sail naval wargame.
The central question is whether or not the game encourages period appropriate fleet tactics. Does it discourage boarding, does it encourage the French to shoot for the rigging? Are there incentives for British to pound away between the wind and the waves? Does the game encourage battles to stay “line” battles or to strategically break the line when the moment is right? Does the game reflect the appropriate timing for a ship to strike and how is boarding handled?
It’s a tall order for any boardgame to touch upon each of these points. In fact, there are many games that cover this time period and topic. Few of those games, however, match the scope of the battles. For example, Wooden Ships & Iron Men is intended to provide a more tactical game of ship to ship combat with pre-plotted movement as a central gameplay mechanic. Close Action from Clash of Arms provides a more detailed version of Wooden Ships & Iron Men for those who want to dive even further into running your own ship. Fleet action games exist, but aren’t always from the right period. Nagel, for example, drew heavily upon the work of War Galley, a game from the Great Battles of History series, to get the feel of fleet actions. Frigate, a 1974 release from SPI, might be the closest in terms of scope and intent.
If we’re to seriously examine this game, then we need to first ask, “What constitutes a fleet level action from a ship-to-ship game?” After all, if I can cobble enough miniatures and people together I could use Wooden Ships & Iron Men to play out the Glorious First of June! True, and it is something that happens with Close Action. There is currently a game with 70 players who each control a ship going on that I’m a little bummed I missed out on this time. So, we can’t look at the number of ships involved as the sole determining factor. Flying Colors, after all, published rules and a map for ship-to-ship duels in the Serpents of the Seas expansion. The same is true of Frigate from SPI that has introductory scenarios that feature a handful of ships.
For me, the difference comes down to the way the rules enforce line combat. Flying Colors addresses this in two specific ways. The first is through the use of commanders placed aboard specific flagships in each scenario. The commanders have ratings for quality and command radius. While quality modifies initiative, which can be the difference between life and death in Flying Colors at times, it is command radius that matters more.
Command radius determines how big an area the commander can exert his influence in the battle. While ships remain in the line, the command radius can travel from ship to ship to help preserve the cohesion of the fleet. When the battle inevitably breaks down into chaotic action as one fleet attempts to break the other’s line, command radius helps reinforce the need to protect the flagship. Central to this is the concept of Formation Commands and ships acting out of command.
Tactical games don’t have a need for these concepts because one player is effectively controlling each ship as an independent captain would command it. In some fleet actions, this was very much the key to success. After all, one of Lord Nelson’s more enduring leadership lessons was to instill subordinates with the capacity to act according to his combat wishes. Summed up so well in the famous quote, “…in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.” However, this independent action is not Nelson’s first priority as you can see in the quote. That initiative and guns blazing recommendation is, “…in case the signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood….”
Commands allow players to control many ships at once in Flying Colors. This is a massive advantage to controlling ships individually as command phases pass back and forth across the game. After all, if I can use one Formation Command to put six 74-gun broadsides into your ships, I’m nearly guaranteed victory. There’s no guarantee a ship can even act if it’s out of command. Each out of command ship must first roll against the fleet’s Audacity Rating to determine whether it may act. As you might imagine, the trick is how to ensure that your one or maybe two commanders have the range to retain their influence.
This is one of the best points of the game. It helps ensure that you keep your ships of the line in the line as long as possible. It also works to encourage the side without the weather gauge, in some scenarios, to work toward breaking the line. One of the best things about the game, however, is that it discourages “bumper boats.” In Wooden Ships & Iron Men, the rules seem to encourage a fair degree of banging ships together and boarding. This bumper boat style of play suits the kind of swashbuckling low-complexity approach to the topic that has made it so fun over the years. Historically speaking, it’s inaccurate. While boarding helped to secure prizes both merchant and military in nature, the approaches were carefully considered. After all, going bow first would just result in an uncomfortable tenure under bow raking fire sure to decimate any ship. Further, the bow of a ship in the 18th and early 19th century is its weakest point because of the joinery necessary to achieve the bow’s unique shape.
There are, of course, still rules, but it’s not without risk. In Flying Colors that means that the odds for a successful boarding aren’t as great as they are in Wooden Ships & Iron Men, but also because it’s no guarantee that you won’t foul the rigging and be able to cut away when you desire. The larger the ships involved, the more likely the ships are to become fouled. Further, the ships must ensure they are successfully grappled together. There is an opportunity for the target ship to evade such an attempt, but once engaged in melee combat it’s a matter of an opposed roll based on the Marine values and rates of each ship.
I do want to take a moment here and say that the level of detail included in Flying Colors for something like grappling, evasion, collusion/fouled rigging, and melee combat is in odd contrast to the intent of retaining a fleet level combat game. It’s here, in these nooks and crannies of the rules that I think people begin to forget that the intent is to provide reasonable odds and systems for the handful of ships that might engage in melee combat rather than encouraging tangled fleets trying out “Nelson’s Patent Bridge” between three ships.
On the subject of combat and tactics, I am particularly fond of how Flying Colors handles gunnery. In order to resolve combat, the rules only require that you determine the firepower which is a combination of the range to the target and the firing ships rate and roll on a hit result table. The system, once you remember the modifiers of course, is straight forward and quickly managed. It’s one of the great joys of the game. There are hits for the rigging and for the hull as you might expect from a game like this. The French are encouraged to fire at the rigging as they did historically and the British are encouraged to fire at the hull for similar reasons. The roll of the ship is managed by whether the shot is windward or leeward which adds bonuses and in most scenarios the French and British are aligned with their strengths already as they were historically.
My main critique of the game falls here. The French did historically try to take out the rigging of the British. It was not, however, for the reasons found within Flying Colors. It was to avoid or escape an engagement. If a squadron of ships found themselves being pursued and were somehow overtaken, it was advantageous for them to escape as quickly as possible. Knocking out rigging would afford them that opportunity and deny the British the ability to bring another supporting squadron into the battle. The scenarios in Flying Colors, however, provide that battle has been joined already. Rigging hits are staggeringly powerful in game terms.
A ship must strike its colors (surrender) if it meets either criteria below:
- It has been dismasted and is within 5 hexes of an enemy ship.
- It has fewer than three hull hits remaining due to damage.
Once the criteria are met, they will roll on the “Strike Table” which says that a ship rolling because of hull damage only needs 4 or more while a ship rolling because of rigging damage only needs a 6 or more. This is also where the commander comes into play and the fleet’s Audacity rating which acts as a de facto commander rating on non-flagships because both the Command Quality of the commander and the fleet audacity are subtracted from the roll. In most scenarios, Audacity is between 1 and 3. So the average ship, once dismasted has a fairly good chance of striking. This is further exacerbated by the Hit Results Table which makes it easier to get rigging damage than hull damage for good reason.
I’m not sure what the solution to this would be. When 750 pounds of shot come scorching through the air above the decks, that lead will rip holes and tear cordage! As the British player, it can feel unfair on an emotional level. That said, I’m not convinced that it influences scenario outcomes. It may be specific instances where a British ship has failed to stay in command or lay down enough weight in shot at their target first. Rigging hits slow a ship down, but hull hits reduce a ship’s rate which lowers the damage they do AND makes them more vulnerable to capture.
This is a lot of detail, but what does it all mean about Flying Colors and its expansions?
Flying Colors is, without question, my favorite age of sail boardgame. The game’s map can get cluttered at time with chits and markers. However, you can use separate tracking sheets rather than putting the tokens on the map. Some people even play with miniatures. The record-keeping nonsense aside, nothing gives me a more authentic feel than this game has over the past 7 years since I first got my copy. I am looking forward to GMT Games next expansion for the series called Under a Southern Cross which takes us to South American AND…where we get to see Jack Aubrey himself in action! Well, not quite Jack Aubrey, but the real life gentleman upon whom the character was based, Thomas Cochrane. Here I am next to Cochrane’s uniform and personal effects in Edinborough from July 2017.