American Civil War Riverine
The 'Noddy' Approach
by Andy Callan (originally
published in Miniature Wargames, No. 14, 1984)
One of the troubles I've always found with most sets of wargames
rules is that they assume the player is going to want to use them
on a regular basis. Accordingly the authors feel obliged to try
and cover every possible aspect of the historical period they are
trying to represent with rules and odds for every conceivable tactical
situation. This is all very well for rules designed for the Nationals
(say) for a period in which the reader knows he's going to have
a continued interest. But what about 'sideshows' periods? You know,
the sort of thing that is going to grip your imagination for a few
weeks only and then get set aside perhaps to be revived, equally
fleetingly, only a year or two later. What you really need there
is a set of rules that are quick to learn and give a fast moving
and decisive sort of game.
The answer, of course, is to write your own set, tailored to your
own particular requirements, and using what has been called the
'back of a postcard' or 'one braincell' approach. With such rules
it is the result that is the important thing, not the calculations
by which you arrive at it, so simple game mechanisms are preferred
to complex ones as long as they still give a reasonably historically
The simple rules given here, that I designed for ACW riverine actions
can be taken as an example of how you might go about quickly getting
down to the bare essentials of a playable game. In fact these are
so basic that I've christened them 'Noddy' rules, which I hope gives
the right impression of simplicity and lack of too much seriousness.
I don't for a minute expect they'll be everyone's cup of tea ....
(see my 'final word for the purist' below).
I can't remember exactly what it was that first tempted me to have
a go at wargaming the actions of the ACW freshwater navies but I
think the names had something to do with it! I found irresistible
the likes of USS Weehawken and Kickapoo or the CSS Tuscaloosa and
Peedee, fighting on rivers like the Yazoo and the Tallahatchie.
The vessels that fought on the rivers, at least in the early days
before total Yankee superiority, were equally colourful, seeming
mostly to have been a rag-tag collection of converted civilian vessels,
variously protected with odd sheets of armour plate, railway iron,
baulks of timber, bales of cotton or nothing at all, and armed with
whatever guns the builders could lay their hands on. Equally attractive
was the way that the naval commanders on the rivers seemed to go
in for a 'brute force and ignorance' school of tactics, on the lines
of 'if it moves, shoot at it; it it keeps moving, try to ram it;
and if the enemy tries anything fancy assume it isn't going to work!'
The reasons for this were quite simple: inexperienced commanders
were dealing with new, untried military technology (steam and armour
in an unfamiliar setting (rivers rather than the open sea) and so
had to make things up as they went along. Such tactics led to a
hectic, desperate and decisive style of fighting which sounded to
me like it had a lot more potential for an enjoyable wargame than
the intricacies of manoeuvre under sail or the endless firepower:
armour equations of twentieth century naval encounters. What was
needed though, was a set of rules that would reflect the slap bang
wallop of the real thing.
My first thought, as a confirmed wargaming landlubber, was to run
to commercially available rules, so I got hold of a couple of sets,
only to find myself instantly disappointed. They were just far too
complicated - one set I came across listed no less than 22 different
types of gun, each with its own factors - and generally seemed to
suffer from the fault of assuming:
a) that you had the time and inclination to get used to their cumberous
b) that it was possible to precisely quantify every aspect of the
(makeshift) technology of the time.
This was no good to an impatient wargamer like me. I wanted to
get down to gaming as soon as possible but I also wanted to try
and start from the same position as the commanders of the time,
where nobody really knew what the best tactics were or how well
any enemy ship might stand up to your gunfire or ramming. In short,
I wanted a game where the players wouldn't be sure whether anything
would work until they tried it.
So the only thing to do was to attempt to write my own rules. In
the event this was forced upon me as, after half an hour trying
to work out the ship points value for a single vessel according
to the incredibly convoluted formula given in one set of rules,
I realised that I would have to act fast if I was still to be able
to start the game I'd promised to lay on that night. The basic set
was written in about ten minutes and looked (and was) laughably
simple but, to my surprise, it seemed to give a game that was fast
moving, action packed and enjoyable, while still being broadly in
keeping with what happened in the real thing.
Anyway, here is a 'perfected' version of the original set. It's
easy to see where Noddy comes into it - measurements are in inches,
only one type of dice is used, ships and guns are classified into
a minimal number of categories and chance plays a major role in
NODDY RULES FOR ACW RIVERINE ACTIONS
Rulers, protractor, 6-sided dice, 1:1200 models.
1 move = 1 minute.
1 knot speed = 1 inch movement. (At 1:1200 scale this means that
1 inch = approx 30 metres).
Against current: 2/3 top speed (to nearest inch). (Current is 1
In reverse: 1/4 top speed (to nearest inch).
Change of speed: Up to 2 knots per move (i.e. acceleration or deceleration).
Turning: Riverboats = up to 60 degrees per turn.
Ocena-going vessels or monitors = up to 45 degrees per move.
Ironclad rams = up to 30 degrees per turn.
Order of play:
- Write orders.
- Make 1/2 move.
- Make turn (if any).
- Any vessel not turning may fire.
- Complete move.
- Any vessel not previously fired that turn may fire.
Throw one dice to get free. Needs 6. Three attempts only.
a) Only three classes of gun are recognised:
- 'Baby-sized' (up to 18 pounder) (= 'light').
- 'Mummy-sized' (in betweenies) (= 'medium').
- 'Daddy-sized' (over 8 inches or 100 pounds) (= 'heavy').
Baby-sized guns fire once every move and have a basic fire value
Mummy-sized guns fir once every move and have a basic fire value
Daddy-sized guns fire on alternate moves and have a basic fire
value of THREE.
b) Ranges (all calibres):
Point-Blank = 0-3 inches.
Effective = 3-18 inches.
Long = 18-36 inches (not Baby-sized guns).
c) Arcs of Fire:
10 degrees only. Turreted vessels may fire in any direction.
d) Armour Classes:
Best (e.g., monitor turret) = 12.
Ironclad or shore battery = 9, 10, 11.
'Tinclad' (i.e. thin iron sheet) = 8.
'Woodclad' or 'cottonclad' = 7
Unprotected = 6
e) To core a Hit:
For each gun firing throw one dice. Take score and add value of
gun, plus or minus the following. Hit if you equal or exceed armour
+1 Rifled gun.
+1 Target stationary (not inc. shore battery).
+1 Firer stationary (not inc. shore battery).
+1 Point blank range.
-1 Firer on fire/filled with steam.
-1 Change of target this move.
-1 Target bow/stern on (= smaller target).
-1 Firer in shore battery.
-1 Long range.
f) Effects of Hits:
If hit is scored dice again:
6 = Special effect (see below).
4, 5 = Lose 1 knot speed.
2, 3 = Lose 1 gun (or half knot speed if no gun where hit struck).
1 = Lose half knot speed.
g) Special Effects:
Throw two dice.
2 = Freak shot penetrates magazine. Ship blows up and sinks immediately.
3 = Helmsman/pilot/captain, killed. Ship continues on present course
for one move until someone takes over.
4 = Vessel holed and lists to port. Lose 1 knot speed. Guns on
starboard side cannot depress enough to engage targets.
5 = As 4 but port side guns out of action.
6 = Single gun shutter damaged and will not open. Dice x moves
to free it. Choose gun nearest point of impact.
7 = Steam pipes damaged leading to loss of pressure. Rate of acceleration/deceleration
reduced to 1 knot per move.
8 = Smoke stack damaged. Lose 2 knots off top speed. Minus one
on all subsequent firing throws as there's smoke everywhere.
9 = Screw/paddle jammed with debris. Vessel slows to halt. Dice
x moves to clear.
10 = Steering mechanism damaged. Ship continues on present course
for dice x moves before repaired.
11 = FIRE. Needs dice of 6 to put out. One attempt per move and
total of four attempts only. If still on fire crew abandons ship.
Minus one on all firing dice while vessel burns.
12 = Boiler holed. Ship fills with steam and drifts to halt. Crew
abandons ship for dice of 1 or 2. Otherwise as floating battery.
h) Ammunition: Assume unlimited.
A regiment firing from the bank needs a dice of 6 to have any chance
whatsoever of any effect. Dice for a special effect with only a
throw of 3 (i.e., helmsman hit) counting for anything.
j) Shore batteries:
Ships firing on-shore batteries need to score a hit and then throw
a 6 on the effect dice to knock out a gun.
Throw one dice.
+1 Rammee stationary.
+1 Rammer each knot over 6.
+1 Rammee side on to ram.
-1 Rammer without reinforced bow.
-1 Rammer each knot under 4.
Result: 6+ Rammee crippled, drifts with current. Rammer loses 1
4/5 Rammee loses dice x knots. Rammer loses 1 knot.
2/3 No effect on either vessel.
1 or less Rammer loses dice x knots. No effect on rammee.
Any ship whose speed drops to zero as a result of enemy action
drifts with the current (1 knot). If the speed drops below zero
then the vessel will sink in dice +5 moves.
Morale Rules: there aren't any.....!
Notes on Play
This is a game for two or more players, with an umpire taking an
important part in things. Apart from being responsible for keeping
track of mines, shallows' etc (see below), he's essential to resolve
disputes about who's capable of ramming or shooting at whom, as
well as stepping in to break down a move into short segment if it
looks like a collision might occur. In all circumstances the umpire's
ruling should be the final word on the matter and it's entirely
in keeping with the spirit of the game if he chooses to penalise
a recalcitrant player with a randomly chosen 'special effect'.
A certain amount of book-keeping is needed but, by comparison with
most naval games, this is at a very basic level. To play the game
you need a card or other record giving each vessel's vital statistics.
Something like this is quite adequate:
'B', 'M' and 'D' refer to the (unbelievably sophisticated) gun
categories given in the rules and the numbers refer to the armour
classes. Strike off guns and reduce the top speed as the vessel
suffers damage during the fighting.
Orders need to be written for each vessel, for each move: an arrow
with a note of speed and angle of turn (if any) will do, so the
umpire can check up in case of dispute. There is no need to write
orders for firing as it is assumed that everyone will fire at will
at targets of opportunity. As for fire effects, the umpire will
need a set of cards showing the various effects (e.g., Lose one
knot speed) so he can flash the appropriate one at the player
suffering the damage without his opponent seeing. The latter will
then have to gauge the effect of his firing by the subsequent performance
of the target vessel.
A riverine action needs only a minimal amount of terrain, of course,
so it can be quickly set up on the table. I like to mark out the
line of the riverbanks using carpet tiles (or odd sections of suitably
coloured carpet picked up cheap as remnants) and gradual curves
and confluences can easily be made using a small number of specially
cut pieces. Sandbars can be made from sheets of sandpaper or roofing
felt. The odd house or jetty adds to the visual appeal of course
and 1/300 or Hair-roller figures can be used without looking too
out of scale.
Mines (torpedoes as they were then called) and shallows often played
a crucial role in these battles so they really do need to be incorporated
in the game. Obviously, though, its no good marking them on the
table as they would have been invisible in real life, so there has
to be some provision for secrecy. One way is for the umpire to draw
up a chart of the danger areas before the fighting and show it to
the players, where appropriate (only one side would be likely to
know the exact position of mines, for example), and then take it
away again after an agreed period of time (a minute, say). It's
amazing how often players (realistically) forget all about this
in the heat of the action, and stray into their own minefields or
run aground on a shallow. Opportunities obviously exist for shallow
draught vessels to lure more ponderous opponents on to their doom....
I chose deliberately not to state any odds in the rules for the
success of mines as I think it ought to vary from game to game.
The mines of the time were notoriously erratic in performance and
before the test of action it was impossible for anyone to predict
how efficient any particular set of mines would prove to be. At
Mobile Bay, to take a famous example, the vessel leading the Union
column, the monitor Tecumseh, struck a mine and sank immediately,
but Admiral Farragut's gamble in 'damning the torpedoes' and ordering
the rest of the fleet to steam straight through paid off as none
of the other mines went off. It should be up to the umpire, therefore,
to work out his own odds for each particular game and then judge
how far he ought to plant seeds of confidence in the minds of those
using mine defences and apprehension in those who might have to
run the gauntlet, without revealing the exact odds to either.
Most of the vessels that took part in the well-known actions are
available as 1/1200 scale metal models, but if you're stingy (like
me) or like making models (me again) then you can get a lot of satisfaction
scratchbuilding your own. Obviously there are standard modelling
materials such as balsa which you can use, but for 1/1200 scale
I found various household odds and ends particularly useful. Biros,
for example, can provide funnels (from the ink tube) and paddle
wheels (from the casing) and I found I could even make the curiously
modern, submarine-like shape of the CSS Mannassas out of
the pen-cap. Various types of small nails can make excellent funnels
and linotile is ideal for the low hulls of monitors and rams. Use
your imagination and look at everyday objects in a new light and
you'll find uses for all sorts of unlikely things.
Commercial manufacturers usually include a sheet of basic data
with their models but a good general history of the river war (such
as John D. Milligan's Gunboats Down the Mississippi, published
by the US Naval Institute, Annapolis 1965) will include some details
of armament and performance. The last word on the subject, though,
is The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in
the War of the Rebellion, Series II, Volume I (Washington 1921)
which lists everything known about every vessel and which you might
be lucky enough to get through inter-library loan. Failing that,
of course, all you really need to do is look at any pictures of
the ship, read up how it performed in action, and make it up from
there. It's only a game after all! As a very rough guide,
these are the essential characteristics of the principal classes
of ships used on the rivers:
1) US Monitors: Single or twin turreted. Usually 2 heavy guns per
turret but early models capable of firing only one at a time. Slowish
(5-8 knots), armour excellent, draught about 10 feet.
2) Confederate Ironclad Rams: (Merrimac, Arkansas,
Palmetto, etc), slow and deep-draughted (10-15 feet) but
heavily armed (generally 4-8 heavy/medium sized guns) and well armoured.
3) Converted River Steamers: Shallow draughted and manouevrable
but speed varying according to the liberties taken with the original
design. Armour of varying degrees of (in)effectiveness and usually
a heterogeneous armament.
4) Union Ocean-going Vessels used on the river: Deep draughted
and cumberous on inland waters but very heavily armed (8-12 heavy
guns in broadside).
A Final Word to the Purist:
I make no claims for the accuracy or completeness of these rules
so please don't write in to complain that I haven't made special
provision for the Erisson recoilless spar torpedoes on the USS Gridiron
(or whatever). All I was after was a light-hearted game in which
wargaming landlubbers could whizz around ramming, running aground
and generally behaving in a spirit of mindless violence ... rather
like the original protagonists in fact!
The above article originally appeared in Miniature Wargames,
No. 14, 1984. This page was reproduced for the Internet by Nick
Dorrell, January 2005, with the permission of the author.
Click here, Andy
Callan, to return to the index of Andy Callan's articles.