Rules for Naval Warfare from 1500 to 1850

My father, Gary Thomas, has always loved Naval warfare and hand crafted ships for both the Armada and Nelson periods. Although he has long since given up table top gaming and moved to computer games, in fond memory of those 1:1200 scale ships I thought I’d type up his rules. I have slightly edited the text, but the rule mechanisms remain unchanged.

By Gary Thomas


These rules are adapted to models to scale 1:1200. On this scale, ships of the time of the Spanish Armada (1588) are about an inch long, and ships of the Nelson ear somewhat larger.

Before the start of the game, the characteristics of the ships involved should be established, as should the scale of the game, and any geographic features such as wind direction and coastlines.

As examples ship characteristics

Name Nation Desc Year Tons Flot. Pts. Crew Short Batt. Med. Batt. Long Batt. Spd Turn
Hope English Med Great Ship 1559 600 30 60 4 4 6 5″ 45°
Revenge English Med Galleon 1577 450 23 45 4 6 8″ 90°
White Bear English Large Galleon 1565 1000 50 100 4 8 8 6″ 45°
Prince Royal English 1610 1200 60 120 2 6 12 6″ 45°
James English Ship 1633 875 44 88 2 2 12 6″ 45°
San Cristobal Portuguese Med Galleon 1588 700 35 70 6 6 2 7″ 45°
San Martin Portuguese Large Galleon 1588 1000 50 100 8 8 3 6″ 45°

(Refer to Ships Specification for further ideas.)

In the above, flotation points are 1/20 of tonnage and crew 1/10 of tonnage. A simplified game may be played with flotation points and crew equal.

Short range guns (cannon periers) had become unimportant by 1610, but, as carronades, were reintroduced in the Nelson period. Medium range guns (usually demi-cannon) were the main armament in the earlier years, but as weapons improved, they were displaced by longer range pieces (culverins), until by the end of the 18th Century virtually all ship guns, except a few bow and stern chasers, had the same range, that of the 32-pounder, the basic heavy piece.

In calculating guns in the above table, guns are grouped into batteries as follows:

Period Number
of Batteries
Battery Range Number
of Guns
Gun Type
Armada 2 short 1 whole cannon
1 short 1 cannon perier
1 medium 1 demi-cannonn
1 long 2 culverins
4 demi-culverins
Nelson 1 long 25 6-pdrs
18 9-pdrs (demi-culverin)
12 12-pdrs
9 18-pdrs (culverin)
6 24-pdrs
5 28, 30 or 32-pdrs (demi-cannon)
4 36-pdrs
3 40 or 42-pdrs (cannon)

The above takes into account that all the later guns are long range, and that a demi-cannon is approximately equal to a 32-pounder in weight of shot.

Reasonable ranges are:

Battery type Short Range Long Range
Short 0-4″
Medium 0-4″ 4-8″
Long 0-8″ 8-16″

Speed is on a scale of approximately 3/4″ per knot of speed. This gives moves of about 6″ for a ship of the line of 1800, and 9″ for a frigate of the same period.

Before the beginning of the battle, each player makes a diagram of each of his ships, showing dispositions of guns (which must be symmetrically placed, pointing to broadside, ahead, or astern), flotation points, crew points, speed, and some means of determining the ships allowable turn. This may be an angle, as listed in the first table, and assumed in the rules. However, an alternative is to prepare a template which shows various maximum speeds and turning circles. This template is placed in front of the ship when moving, and the ship moved to any point within this allowable area. In such a case speed and turn can be combined.

The time of start of the battle and the direction of the prevailing wind are decided before starting, by agreement or by throwing dice as follows (throw 1d6 for each):

Roll Time Prevailing wind
1 6 am North
2 9 am East
3 12 noon South
4 3 pm West
5 6 pm Throw again *
6 9 pm ** Throw again

* Alternatively, a 5 in the wind throw may be taken as no prevailing wind, and the dice thrown again to determine initial direction, a 5 meaning calm this time.

** Under ordinary circumstances, a battle ends at nightfall, taken to be 9 pm. However, as an example, the Battle of the Nile went on into the night because the French ships were at anchor and unable to escape. A throw of 6 for time may be ignored. It is included because it is used in campaigns, wherein one fleet may wish to avoid battle. In this case, the fleet wishing to escape may do so during the night by throwing a 5-6, which gives all its ships 12 hours free sailing.

Usually each move represents 1.5 hours. Thus, if the battle began at noon, it will end after six moves. However, if a longer battle is desired, moves can be taken to represent one hour, or even less.

The basic equipment includes ships, and the appropriate data about them, and pencils and paper to record damage, dice, a ruler for measuring moves and distances, a wind pointer, some way of measuring turns, broadside fans (pieces of cardboard showing the sideways arc of the broadside guns), say plus or minus 15°), a suitable area to play on (the author uses a table about 6′ x 3′), or any available floor, and an appropriate supply of seamanlike language. The expression “its time to splice the mainbrace” has been found useful.


In the next section are listed the basic rules. These are followed by special rules that apply to the later period, say from 17000 AD. Lastly, some rules to cover unusual contingencies are included. These may be ignored if desired. In the rules, “speed” means the listed speed of the vessel, and “drift rates” means the distance a dis-masted ship would drift in medium winds. It may be reasonably taken to be one inch.

Before going on to the rules, it should be pointed out that for moving, a reasonable time allowance is something like two minutes per ship per player to cover everything except damage calculations. Measuring ranges and angles before moving is definitely forbidden. Thus one cannot calculate just that point at which you can fire at him and he cannot fire at you, and move there. One can, however, estimate such a point by eye, and then move there.

Basic Rules for Naval Wargames

1. Before each move the wind strength and direction are determined by throwing one red and one black die. On a 6 on either die, or both (except during a calm when the wind direction is a hypothetical one in which the wind will next appear, and only a 4-6 is needed to change the strength) throw the affected die or dice again, and the wind alters as follows:

Roll Direction (Red Die)
1 45° away from the prevailing wind, or counter-clockwise if prevailing wind already, or if there is no prevailing wind.
3 45° toward prevailing wind, or clockwise if prevailing wind already, or if there is no prevailing wind.
5 45° way from prevailing wind, unless prevailing wind already
6 45° toward prevailing wind, unless prevailing wind already

And wind strength:

Roll Wind Strength (Black die)
1 Wind becomes calmer
4 Wind becomes stronger

2. Wind strength may be:

Wind Strength Description
Calm Ships cannot move in the first move of a calm, thereafter can make a 45° turn per move while the calm lasts.
Light Airs Ships that have lost no masts can move one drift move per turn, but may not sail closer than 90° to the wind. Ships that have lost one mast may make one turn of 45° per turn. Ships that have lost two masts must remain stationary.
Medium Winds Ships move up to their basic speed, not closer than 45° to the wind. Ships that have lost a mast move up to half their basic speed, not closer than 90° to the wind. Ships that have lost two masts drift one drift move downwind each move, without turning. ALL SHIPS MUST MOVE, AT LEAST ONE DRIFT MOVE.
Strong Winds As for mediums winds, but all distances doubled.

3. At the beginning of each move (after the wind is decided), each side throws two dice, and the highest scorer moves first and fires first. The sequence is:

  1. first player moves,
  2. second player moves,
  3. first player firers
  4. second player calculates damage,
  5. second player firers,
  6. first play calculates damage.

4. Every ship that is not dis-masted (has not lost two masts) may make one turn at th beginning and one turn at the end of each move. All ships ;may move each turn, unless dis-masted, in which case they drift.

5. When a ship is quarter damaged, and again when half damaged, throw one die at the end of the move. On a 1-3, a mast is lost. See under rule 2 for movement under these conditions. WHEN A SHIP IS THREE+ QUARTERS DAMAGED, IT AUTOMATICALLY LOSES A MAST.

6. If a drifting ship drifts onto a shore, it is lost. Drifting ships move first each move. If, in doing so, they collide with another ship, that ship starts drifing too, and must throw a 4-6 at the start of a move before beginning to move normally again. A ship may voluntarily start to drift (or “heave to”) but must announce its intention of doing so when it makes its previous move. To start moving normally again, it must throw a 4-6.

7. If a ship points deliberately closer to the wind than permitted the ship drifts, and a die is thrown at the beginning of each move and On a 5-6, it is allowed one turn. If in making this turn, it turns to a permitted angle from the wind, it may move normally next move.

8. If the wind direction changes, and a ship finds itself pointing closer to the wind than
permitted, throw a die. On a 1-2, apply the preceding rule. Otherwise, take an extra turn as to
lie away from the wind in the same direction as before. 9. When guns are fired, throw a die for each battery. 4-6 indicated a hit if the target is within close range, a 5-6 if within long range, for the battery. Range is measured from mainmast to mainmast. Subtract 1 from both flotation and crew of target for ech hit. When flotation is reduced to zero, the ship sinks. In real life a ship would nearly always surrender before this point is reached.

10. Fore and aft guns bear if the centre line of the attacking ship passes through the target in the right direction. Broadside guns bear if the broadside fan, placed with its based against the waterline of the attacking ship, covers the mainmast of the target. The fan may be placed at any point along the side of the attacker. The whole of one broadside must be fired at one ship.

11. If a hit is scored by the throw of a six, the SECOND PLAYER must remove a battery from the target ship. Only the remaining batteries of the target can then fire.

12. To board, the attacker brings his ship into contact with his intended victim, and must throw a 4-6 to grapple. Each ship then throws one die per five surviving crew, subtracting 2 from each attackers dice, and three from each defenders dice. These give the number of enemy crew killed. Next repeat with the surviving crews, but this time, subtract 3 from the attacker and 2 from the defender. Then the defender throws for morale. If one side is more than twice the size of the other, subtract two from the dice score.

Roll Result
1-2 Smaller side surrenders or is repelled
3-5 Continue fighting
6 Larger side surrenders or is repelled.

Having repelled boarders, the defenders may cut grapples by throwing a 4-6, at which point they may move if they have not already done so. Next move, the first mover may board or attempt to cut grapples, if still grapple, or attempt to grapple if not. If boarders are not repelled, the attacker may voluntarily withdraw, otherwise the ships drift, without turning, and fighting continues.

Additional rules for the later (Nelson) period

1. If a ship is ake (that is, if the centre line of the target passes through the attacking ship)
at close range, damage, crew losses and gun losses are all doubled. 2. When a ship is a quarter damaged, and again when it is half damaged, throw a die. On a 1, throw again. If this is also a 1, the ship blows up, and any ship within 3″ catches fire. If the second die is a 2-6, the ship itself catches fire. When 3/4 damaged, throw the second die automatically.

3. Fires. If a ship is on fire, throw a dice at the beginning of each move. On a 5-6, the fire is put out, and the ship may move and fire. Otherwise the fire remains, and the ship drifts and may not fire its guns that move. If a ship is on fire for 5 consecutive moves, that is, throws dice as above 5 times in a row , and it is still on fire, it blows up, and any ships within 3″ catch fire.

4. Ships of the line (say, 64 guns or larger) may not fire on frigates (less than 50 guns) unless the firgate fires first, in which case the frigate is fair game for any ship.

Optional rules

1. Ships boats.

In a calm, or in light airs, boats can be lowered to tow the ship. After the first move of the calm or light airs, ships may not more than 1/2 damaged may move one drift move (upwind if they like), provided that before moving normally, they remain stationary, or drift or one move.

2. Masts

If a mast is lost, a new one may be jury-rigged in five moves, provided the ship is not fire on at close range in that time. Moves in which the ship was fired on at close range are not counted in the five moves. Only one mast may be jury-rigged in this fashion.

3. Towing

Any ship may tow a ship not grater than twice its tonnage at half the speed of the larger ship, under the following rule.

A frigate may tow a ship of the line (or another frigate) at half that ships speed. To establish the tow, the frigate moves to the front of the other ship, and a die is thrown. A 3-6 is need to a calm, 4-6 in medium winds, or a 6 in strong winds. During this time both shps drift. When the tow is established he ships move immediately.

4. Oared vessels

Generally these were of four kinds: pinnaces, larger vessels with auxiliary oars, galleys and galleasses. Pinnaces were used for scouting, and may be disregarded, usually. Vessels with auxiliary oars were relatively small, and ordinarily went under sail. The larger of them, the Bull and the Tiger, f the mid-1500’s later had the oar-ports covered over. Galleys were small and lightly armed compared to a sailing warship, or even a sailing merchantman of any size. However they were important in some areas, notably in the Mediterranean. Galleasses were larger and provided some of the most powerful vessels in the Spanish Armada. Unfortunately the author has been completely unable to find any tonnage figure for these galleasses, and has estimated them at 800 tons. Some figures for these classes of vessels are:

Name Tons Flotation Points Crew Points Short Batteries Medium Batteries Long Batteries Spd Sail Turn Sail Spd Oars Turn Oars
Galleasse 800 40 80 8 8** 3″ 45°* 5″ 90°
Galley 200 10 20 2 x 1/2 1** 3″ 45°* 6″ 90°
Auxiliary Oars 200 10 20 4 5″ 45° 3″ 45°
Pinnace 40 2 4 1/2** 7-8″ 90° 6″ 135°

* One turn only per move.

** Galleys, galleasses and pinnaces may have any proportion of their guns pointing forward.

None of these vessels can operate under oars in a strong wind and only galleasses can operate, at half oar speed, in medium winds.

An oared vessel takes on drifting move to convert from sail to oars, and one move, during which it can move to under oars, to convert to sail. It must however announce that it is raising sail.

If 1/2 damaged, oar speed is halved, if 3/4 damaged, cannot use oars.

Vessels under oars may remain stationary, but still use their double turn.

If a galley or galleass is abandoned, the slaves will immediately row for the nearest beach and beach the vessel.

5. Crews

A ship must have a crew equal to 1/100 of its tonnage in order to sail. In addition, one man is required to fire each battery. Thus if a ship is boarded, men may be allocated to repel boarders, and others to operate the guns.

Similarly, the boarding ship may leave men behind to operate its guns.

When a ships crew is reduced to 1/2, casualties from gunfire are halved. When reduced to a 1/4, casualties from gunfire cease, but the crew will attempt to break off the action. If this is not possible, throw a die. On a 1-2, surrender.

When a ship sinks, any ship within two drift moves may stop, and drift, to pick up survivors, up to a 1/4 of the crew of the rescuing ship, and up to a total of 1/2 those on the sinking ship at the time it sank.

During a boarding action, either ship may be fired on. Damage is done as usual, and guns may be destroyed, but the only crew killed are the gun crews, if any, of the destroyed guns.

6. Surrender and Prizes

A ship may surrender at the end of any move. An opposing ship is then detailed to secure the prize. If the surrender is the result of a boarding action, one ship must remain grappled for an extra move.

A proffered surrender must be accepted, except as provided below. If a surrender is accepted, the ship need not be secured immediately, but in any case may not be fired on.

Except in the case of boarding actions, a prize is secured by an opposing ship running alongside, or, if within two drift units and less than 1/2 damaged, by sending boats over. Up to 1/5th of a ship’s surviving crew can be sent in boats.

A surrender may be dishonoured if:

  1. The ship has not yet been secured after surrendering as a result of a boarding action, and reinforcements arrive. If the captured crew decide to dishonour their surrender, they join the reinforcements in the ensuing fight, otherwise they take no part in the recapture. Once secured, captives cannot fight until the ship is retaken, unless the prize crew put on board by the securing ship is less than 1/5 of the captives.
  2. If the prize crew is less than 1/5 of the captive crew the captives may attempt to escape by throwing a single die. If they throw a 4-6 they escape, and the prize crew become captives. They can attempt to escape once only.
  3. A ship which has surrendered, not as a result of a boarding action, and has not yet be secured, may change its mind, thus dishonouring its surrender.

The opponent may fire on any ship that has dishonoured its surrender, and is not obliged to accept any future surrender by that ship. When a ship sinks, all prisoners drown.

A prize cannot be fought, but if the prize crew is equal to 1/5 of the prisoners plus 1/100 of the original crew it can be sailed. A recaptured prize can be fought, provided it has sufficient crew.

If a ship with captives is fired on, no captives are killed if they are fewer in number than the crew of that ship, otherwise casualties are equally divided.

A surrendered ship must not move, fire, or attempt to avoid grappling or boarding, or the surrender is dishonoured.

7. Foundering

A ship that is 3/4 or more damaged, loses one flotation point per move in strong winds. This point may be saved by jettisoning a gun battery. If the ship sinks of this cause, it has foundered.

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