New Features in Under the Southern Cross, Part I

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Designing a game that is part of an established and well-liked series such as Mike Nagel’s Flying Colors (FC) requires a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, the setting for Volume IV requires some special handling: river shoals and sand bars, the preponderance of small vessels like gunboats and schooners, and some of the unusual tactics historically employed such as towing heavier warships by their own boats through shallow waters and over shoals require some special handling. At the same time, continuity with the other games in the series, keeping the flow of play and the “feel” of the FC system, means that any changes have to be very carefully considered and approached with caution.

River Shoals

The first such example is the handling of shoals in the river battles. Speaking with Mike Nagel (actually emailing would be a more accurate description of our contact) about it, he pointed out that in previous games, shoals were really intended to keep ships from moving into certain hexes of the map. In most of games I’ve played of the first three games of the series, I have found that to be generally true. But in the Rio de la Plata and the Uruguay rivers, the shallows and bars formed an integral part of the battle area and interaction between ships and the shoals figure prominently on nearly every turn. While the hazard these shoals present must be modeled, the current series rules of rolling for each shoal hex entered would quickly bog down our game into a die rolling exercise and disrupt the natural flow of play. The solution was two-fold:

First, River Shoals are treated differently than their oceanic cousins in that when River Shoal rules are in effect, grounding roll is made per shoal AREA entered, not necessarily per hex. For example:

Here we see a portion of the Battle of Martin Garcia, which occurred northwest of Buenos Aires where the Uruguay empties into the Rio de la Plata. The Argentine Patriot squadron under Brown is closing on Romarate’s Spanish squadron anchored across the best channel for passage of the island of Martin Garcia. Each of the colored areas with a “-0” or “-1” is a River Shoal, the number being a DRM for grounding checks made for that shoal. Now, under the current grounding rules, a moving ship would have to roll for grounding in each hex it enters. Not only would this would quickly bore even the most interested naval war gamer, but the rate that ships would run aground would far exceed historical outcomes.

In Under the Southern Cross, a roll is made only when a ship enters a new shoal area or activates within a shoal area. So, Brown’s flagship (the famous “Black Frigate”, Hercules) will only roll once for grounding for each turn it activates in the “-0” shoal area it currently occupies. This helps speed up the game and brings grounding rates back into line with historical averages.

We have also created a new grounding table for River Shoals which retains many of the features of the existing Grounding Table: DRMs for shoal depth, ship draft, etc., but also incorporates two new results.  The first we’re calling “Touched Bottom”, which represents the loss of momentum a vessel suffers when it scrapes over the top of a sand bar. The ship is not considered aground, but loses any remaining MPs. Secondly, we have split grounding results into a “Hard Aground” and an “Aground, May Refloat” result.

Ship’s Boats

Ships Hard Aground are treated exactly as in the existing Flying Colors games—they are immobile for the duration. Aground, May Refloat ships have the opportunity, through use of their own launches and boats, to work themselves off the shoal and rejoin the fight (or escape!).

As happened in the actual Battle of Martin Garcia, the deeper draft Hercules has run aground under the Spanish guns, a perilous position to be sure, and potentially catastrophic to the Patriot cause if Brown is killed, but let’s assume the River Shoals grounding result was “May Refloat”. On its next activation, Hercules may launch its boats and have the crew try to haul Hercules off the shoal.

Ships’ boats are represented by a rotating marker showing the status of the operation. “Launch” and “Recall” are opposite ends of a towing operation with boats being lowered or raised respectively, lines rigged to the capstan and crews preparing kedge anchors. Only when the marker is in the “Tow” position can any attempt be made to refloat. Players may also find that tactically it makes sense to tow their larger vessels through shoal waters (as the Brazilians did at the Battle of Monte Santiago) and thereby save some time freeing a ship if a grounding occurs.  While the Ship’s Boats rule adds a new capability, it comes with a price: Any ship employing boats fires at a higher (weaker) rate number, as some of the gunners are now serving the boats instead of the guns, and movement is extremely limited.

So, our new River Shoals rule makes use of existing rules and tables, only changing a few numbered results of a familiar table refining a few results definitions. We hope that players will find the only new concept introduced, Ship’s Boats, to be intuitive enough with a little practice. So far, I’m pleased with the results of our self-imposed rules tight-rope walk, maintaining the balance between the playability of the familiar Flying Colors series and the color and uniqueness of the environment of Under the Southern Cross.

In Part II, we’ll examine some of the other new rules in Under the Southern Cross including river and tidal currents and a new way of modeling gunboats.

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