Let’s start with Wooden Ships and Iron Men, Avalon Hill’s release from 1975. It made its mark by distilling the rules for miniature sailing ships so that they could be played as a board and cardboard-counter version, something that might have more of a mass appeal. A “bookcase” game would appeal to gamers, not just modellers.
Developer, S. Craig Taylor, wrote the rules after having also released a set of miniature rules. Taylor’s boardgame version was first released by the company Battleline Publications in 1974 before being republished under the Avalon Hill mark. Taylor is also know for having designed the naval classic Flat Top, also released by Battleline and then Avalon Hill.
Wooden Ships and Iron Men was not the only game in town. SPI, naturally, had their own Age of Sail tactics offering. Frigate was actually released before Wooden Ships and Iron Men came to Avalon Hill (also 1974), but it was Wooden Ships and Iron Men that would be the gold standard for more than twenty years. Even today, when the AH classics are rightfully considered out-of-date, Wooden Ships and Iron Men still has its adherents. Some will insist that it not only stands up among more modern wargame designs, but continues to be the best available treatment of the subject.
Jump ahead to the second half of the 90s, and we’ll see some innovation.
First off, the boardgame world gave Wooden Ships and Iron Men got some fresh competition. The ponderously-titled Close Action: The Age of Fighting Sail Vol. 1 was released in 1997. While ’97 is still in the in-between zone of wargame design (e.g. it features an Avalon Hill -inspired pink wind-and-movement card), the consensus is that it improves upon Avalon Hill’s classic. For what it’s worth, it even ranks higher than GMT’s more recent Flying Colors.
Why 1997? My theory is that it the home computer market, the gaming industry in general, and the improvements in computer wargames. Notably, the user-friendliness and common code base of Windows 3.1 helped this niche market appeal to a wider auidence. Still, is it coincidence that the biggest box office bomb of all time, Cutthroat Island, was released in 1995? Probably. That film coulda*, shoulda brought the glory of Age of Sail on film to the modern theater, but failed to do it. As such, it probably didn’t start any trends, unless you count the made-for-TV Horatio Hornblower movies coming out of England starting in 1998.
No matter the factors that made it happen, 1996 saw the release of a computer version of Wooden Ships and Iron Men by Avalon Hill’s newly-revived computer division. Shortly before, the head of the software line (Jim Rose) had left to form Talonsoft. In 1996 Talonsoft also released an Age of Sail game called, well, Age of Sail. Coincidence? Age of Sail was Talonsoft’s (and programmer John Tiller’s) sixth game, following Waterloo and a pair of American Civil War games. There was also, around about this same time, a game called Admiral: Sea Battles. It’s a game I know nothing about except to have seen it compared unfavorably to Age of Sail.
Where Wooden Ships and Iron Men ran on DOS, Age of Sail was programmed for Windows 3.1. While it shared the basic Tiller look-and-feel with Waterloo, it was continuous-time rather than turn based. So well did it outshine Wooden Ships and Iron Men, I can remember that many considered it to be, at least in spirit, the computer conversion of Wooden Ships and Iron Men.
I picked Age of Sail up in a Talonsoft Napoleonic four-pack, some years after the initial release. I vaguely remember playing it a bit as well as being frustrated, although I certainly don’t remember why (stability, AI??). I also recall that there were a lot of user-made battles, extending the covered time span of the game well beyond its original scope of the American Revolution, French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812. I’ve revived and reinstalled that old original at least once since my Windows 3.1 machine got discarded and was mightily tempted to do so again today. But then I decided that I don’t really want to play a game from 1996. I want to play Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail, just with that scenario editor and all those historical user-made scenarios along with it.
Temptation quelled, I’ll now jump ahead to 2001. Before I do, though, let me make one more honorable mention while we are still in the 1990s. Even Age of Sail, with its real-time improvement over the basic mechanics of Wooden Ships and Iron Men, lacked something of the spirit of the topic being simulated. In addition to the three games mentioned above, there was, at roughly the same time, a Strategy First title called Man of War. Perhaps this was a game that could capture something of the romance of sailing where others had failed. The idea was that movements would be plotted on a 2D map, a map rendered to resemble planning table in the admiral’s cabin. After issuing orders to the fleet as a whole, via signal flags, the player would be transported to the deck of his flagship where he was observe a 3D rendering of the battle. These two phases would alternate, four minutes in a chunk, until the battle was resolved. Conceptually, it was a design that could capture the feeling of being on a ship and feel like an Admiral Simulator. In practice, while reviews praised it for novelty, it seemed to flop. While looking good on paper, this concept didn’t actually work.
I was actually very eager for such a system to get it right. I recall reading reviews and comments and watching for discounts on the game, trying to find the balance where a mediocre game might be worth investing if it were discounted enough. In 1999, a sequel was released (Man of War II: Chains of Command). It spruced-up the 3D plus added in a scenario editor and more campaigns (this last bit was promised for the original but never delivered). Again, reviews were lackluster and the my wait for it to grace the discount rack was self-defeating. Man of War II failed to handle the shift to Windows XP and quickly those “nice looking 3D graphics” felt incredibly outdated. I never did play the game, but I suspect after an initial appreciation the design became simply an awkward, low-res 2D ship game with bad UI interspersed by 1990s “animations” of your battle results. So sad.
But back to 2001. Talonsoft’s days were numbered, but I’m not sure we knew it at the time. Talonsoft had just been sucked up by console video-game maker Take-Two, a company who had gone public and was using its stock to push into the PC game market. Talonsoft and Grand Theft Auto** maker BMG Interactive were among its earliest (1998) acquisitions. Under new ownership, Talonsoft released the Century of Warfare version of The Operational Art of War (2000) and was about to release Divided Ground (oops). Right there between the two, they decided to do a sequel to Age of Sail, creatively titled Age of Sail II.
The creative direction was something of a departure for Talonsoft and for hard-core wargames, but with the general winds of the PC Game industry – fingerprints of the new owners, I suppose. The sequel would use a 3D engine, allowing some rather impressive-looking ships (with little specks running about the decks!). In addition to all the features that come along with 3D (e.g. a user-controllable camera), the newer version added land masses and fortresses, opening the scenario list beyond the open-sea encounters found in the original.
To achieve this facelift, Talonsoft employed (as was the custom at the time) a Russia-based development team. With PC gaming already having made the jump to 3D, there was a vibrant market developing games and game engines. For genres like first-person shooters and role-playing games, this transition more than made sense. However, 3D was now making headway in the strategy world, especially the popular RTS class. This caused some heated philosophical discussions gaudy, buggy 3D replaced the highly-optimized, sprite-based games of the year before. In this brave new world, it seemed like Russian developers were taking the lead. They had access and experience to cutting-edge 3D rendering as well as a more-than-competitive cost structure. The wargaming community, especially, debated the issue long and loudly. It wasn’t that we were against nice-looking games (although sometimes that seemed the case). Isn’t, though, any effort that goes into producing a better rendering of cinematic action by definition effort that can’t go into making a better wargame?
Wherever you stood in that argument, you might concede that Talonsoft’s approach seemed reasonable. The upgrade was to a game that was already real-time and already semi-3D. The developer, although cost-efficiently Russian, was a known quantity as they had recently completed a successful Sid Meier’s Pirates! rework called Sea Dogs. Once the game was released, however, experience seemed to bear out the predictions of all the naysayers. We could all see Age of Sail II was a major evolutionary step in wargaming. However, between the concepts themselves (your Age of Kings training will not help you here) and the bugs, it took the patience of someone predisposed to love the concept to actually enjoy playing the game. Buggy it was. Reviews consistently said that game was released untested and unfinished, even though many optimistically anticipated patches. It was also clear that the 3D engine was sucking up the bulk of development effort. Although the game looked wondrous, minor bugs (and a few major ones) persisted in the graphics. Other problems came about when the game hit customers’ computers. Scaling ship-on-ship encounters into fleet action would bring all but the most cutting-edge of graphics cards to their knees. And with fixing graphics failures and crashes-to-desktop on their plates, the development team would have had little time left for honing the AI or improving the wargaming elements.
Enter, now, another blight on the circa-2000 market. As game budgets swelled, the ability of a game company to fund development “until its ready” was curtailed. At some point, usually too early in the cycle, games had to be released, sold, and start making money, else nobody gets paid. If nobody gets paid, then you can’t keep working on an almost-but-not-quite-there game. Players understood this, even if we didn’t like it, and we became willing to buy buggy games so as to support the effort to patch them into the game we really wanted. For Age of Sail II, market forces said that they couldn’t put all their effort into patching an already-released game, one that probably had its best sales periods behind it. The solution was to push out an expansion.
The concept for the expansion was to take elements of the more successful*** Sea Dogs and bring them into Age of Sail. A pirate campaign would be added as well as a few fanciful elements, like armed balloons and submarines. If nothing else, the target audience for Age of Sail II would widened to cover other genres. The new game to be Age of Sail II: Privateer’s Bounty (the screenshot above is actually from that version).
As progress was being made on the expansion, yet the bugs in Age of Sail II looked ever more intractable, a decision was made to release Privateer’s Bounty as a stand-alone product, not an expansion. It would be, at the same time, a working version of the historically-based Age of Sail II and the new, fanciful pirate elements – in one package and sold for full retail price. It pretty much screwed any owners of the original Age of Sail II (I, myself, being one) out of their money but it was touted as the only way to get a functional game out of the door. A bit of slight-of-hand, shifting the product from the Talonsoft mark to another Take Two subsidiary (Global Star) helped obscure that it was all the same people selling you the same game twice.
Age of Sail II: Privateer’s Bounty remains playable today. Despite fairly strong recommendations, on the basis that this was the game that Age of Sail II should have been, the new version was not without its own flaws. Bugs continued to haunt players, including some game-wrecking ones. The UI, while superficially friendly and attractive, has its mysteries and quirks. So while the game features a large number of historical scenarios plus a scenario editor, and should have provided a long-lived wargame covering an important topic, I only recall playing a handful of scenarios before losing interest. I don’t remember whether it was outright bugs or whether I was disappointed with the simulation itself. I do know that I was and remain frustrated with the inability of ships to tack. Coming about will always leave you “in irons,” dead-in-the-water for a seemingly endless amount of time while you wait for the wind to catch you from the opposite direction.
It wasn’t that the sailing simulation was bad. It was, as far as I know, as good as it got. Nonetheless, it failed to capture the thrill of cinematic sailing action as the likes of O’Brian or C.S. Forester have prepped us to want to see. The true, and sometimes decisive, advantage of the weather gauge is not captured by what I’ll call (for lack of a better term) the static modeling of 2001.
So the century/millennium drew to a close. I’ll take this as a good place to break.
*I think I actually watched Cutthroat Island when it hit the Blockbusters. Failure is relative. Yes it lost a ton of money, bankrupted Carolco Pictures, and destroyed the career or A-actress Geena Davis, but does that necessarily mean the movie itself was so bad? My vague memory of it was it was OK, just less than I’d hoped for. Apparently from a cinematography standpoint, it looked pretty good.
**Something to remember. Grand Theft Auto was a successful game, but not crazy successful. It’s main claim to fame was that its gratuitous violence drew the attention of governmental figures like Senator Joseph Lieberman. Take-Two would turn the GTA franchise into a money-generating monster and, in doing so, make certain wargame developers into very rich individuals.
***I’m guessing here. I don’t have numbers on the relative sales of Sea Dogs versus Age of Sail II. While it was the same development shop (Akella), it was different publishers, so there is a lot of apples versus oranges in such a statement. Faulty memory aside, the simple fact is that fantasy-based pirate-themed games was a bigger market than realistic Age of Sail war games.