At the recent GUNS OF AUGUST convention in Williamsburg, VA, I was fortunate to experience a game of HAMMERIN’ IRON 2 demonstrated by the chaps at the Rules for the Common Man branch? subsidiary? of Peter Pig miniatures, namely Martin Goddard, Andy Barnett, Ralph and Sam Ashdown. The RFCM was demonstrating Hammerin’ Iron in rapid rotation all weekend long for whomever wanted to sit down and play, either a full up game or smaller demos. I have to commend Mr. Goddard for his patience, grace and good cheer as he managed to rapidly move his players through several back to back games of civil war naval mayhem.
Martin Goddard (center) explaining the finer points of hammering iron, and we don’t mean a blacksmith demonstration.
RFCM games tend to boil down and strip away mechanics until they arrive at what they consider the essence of the historical experience they are trying to portray with the game. AK-47 Republic, for example, is all about unit-building & army creation, patrolling, and surprise encounters with a range of exotic force types. Square Bashing is World War One trench warfare at it’s most abstract, in a design where the the grid terrain becomes the core mechanic of the game. So, too, have the RFCM team reduced the civil war naval gaming experience to a very narrow look at riverine combat.
“Narrow” is one of those words that is often misconstrued as a negative descriptor, as in lacking options or not possessing sufficient breadth. In the instance of Hammerin’ Iron 2, ‘narrow’ is not meant as a negative, just to describe the fact that the rules are a treatment of a randomly created, generic, somewhat ahistorical instance of river combat during the American Civil War. The game system can possibly recreate historical scenarios from the war, but I would not recommend it for reasons that I will touch upon later in this post. With that said, for what it does, it does very well indeed and is a very entertaining game experience– just don’t expect a very historical setup or outcome.
Hammerin’ Iron 2 is a game that recreates a generic clash between ships on an unnamed river sometime during the American Civil War. The river should be represented by a cloth, preferably overlaid with a hex grid of about 3 inches in size if one is playing with 1:600 scale miniatures.
Ships use hexes for movement and firing, and there are a few options that a perspective player might take for that. One is the use of a blank (presumably blue) sheet of cloth, and to make a series of independent hexes of the same general size (the rulebook states a hexagon made from an inscribed 5″ circle, which seems roughly 3″ between vertices). The ship is placed in the center of the hexagon, pointing 90 degrees perpendicular to a hexagon’s edge and the broadsides of the ship square on to the hex’s side points as it turns and/or fires. This is a fairly elegant visual for determining line of sight, broadsides and a simple resolution for facing. When the ship moves and turns, free hexes are placed on the side of the hexagon the ship is moving towards or turning into. The rules refer to this system of placing hexes as the “Free Hex system”. I find this charming and simple and I can’t believe I never thought of it.. it’s so straightforward and easy!
The rules tend to favor the hex cloth style of movement first and foremost and the Free Hex system is edited in where the movement systems diverge from each other (which isn’t often). The three inch (ish) hexagons seem suited for the 1: 600 range of ACW naval miniatures that Peter Pig sells (Range 7 from their catalog). Most of them are small enough to float in the center of a hex with no overlap– the only exceptions being (perhaps) truly mammoth boats like the Hartford, Blackhawk and New Ironsides.
Terrain is quite important for Hammerin’ Iron 2, because the same terrain bits are used in this game, over and over again. They are:
A 5′ x 3′ Sheet to represent a river— either printed with 3″ hexagons (as stated above, and for sale from Peter Pig, obviously)
Failing that, you must use a blank sheet (blue) with the Free Hex System described above and reserve about a half-hex worth of space on either side with suitable terrain to depict the shoreline on both sides of the river.
A Fort– small, medium or large– is placed by the Defender. Like the game mat and ship models, the fort is available in a few variations from Peter Pig or their distributors.
2 Islands— created by tracing the hex in a five hexagon pattern. There should be two, one flat (ideal for forts) and one slightly overgrown. The islands are placed semi-randomly during the setup portion of the game, but the defender has some influence over the process (so he can point his fort weapons strategically). You can see the flat island in the picture of the fort, above.
Land Objective (a series of scale buildings located in one of the shoreline hexes). These should be placed where they can be reached by naval bombardment, as they are a victory condition of the game. The attacker is tasked with reducing these.
3 Sandbar hexes. You will have three hexes that play the role of Sandbars in the game.. Sandbars can be placed by the Defender to channel the movement of the Attacker (say, towards the fort guns). In the picture below, An island (center, with fort) has three sandbar hexes placed next to it (right) to channel movement of the Union (attacking) fleet directly in front of the Fort Guns. Hexes must be placed contiguous to each other.. somehow.
The Shoreline Terrain to cover about half a hex worth on either side, all the it way up and down the river terrain mat (or sheet).
Note that these are part of the rules.. you can’t, for instance, add volcanoes or waterspouts or giant octopods– this game uses placement of the same terrain pieces to custom build a unique scenario every time. The rules describe the process of setting up the generic river in some depth and are quite thorough on the subject.
Of course, there’s ship models. Peter Pig has a nice range of ACW era naval ship models in their Hammerin’ Iron line (range 7), but one should not hesitate to add ships to the mix from other manufacturers or scales. I have no idea what the hex size would be for 1:1200 scale, for instance, but I know there are some very nice miniatures lines in that scale. Bay Area Yards and Thoroughbred Models make ships compatible with the Peter Pig resin models, so they should also be considered. The prospective player should realize that there are very strict procedures for defining the point values for ships based on a complex formula that encompasses tonnage, gunnery type, and armor. Each ship is assigned a hit point value not to exceed 50 points a ship and each side, attacker and defender, must start with a fleet no more or less than six ships– a restriction that enforces play balance and discourages designing one or two very tough ships that are almost impossible to sink (a phenomena the RFCM refer to as “The Yamato Syndrome”). The point value of the ships in range 7 are available online in the files section of the RFCM Yahoo Group– which is pretty handy as it can save you a few steps. Fleet composition is further modified by removing a random ship from the defender side to compensate for the fort and also to determine what turn the the defender’s ships will enter the battle space. It is possible for a battle to conclude without every ship committed to the battle to actually be present because they haven’t arrived yet.
Once you have defined a ship the pertinent information (especially the hit points) are recorded on the ship chart (available as a PDF download) and ship hits and damage are recorded as the occur in combat.
Movement is a matter of moving 0,1,2,3 or 4 hexes, which is a factor of speed. A ship can be rated fast or normal– most ships are rated normal, and the fastest (four hex speed) ships are blockade runners. Players are given an allotment of little order cards that are placed face down next to their ships– order cards are either SMOKE (which are mostly movement oriented) or GUN PORTS (which are mostly firing orders). When it is their ship’s turn the card is revealed and the ship moves and/or fires.
I think fire combat in HI2 is fairly straightforward. Since every ship is always pointing towards a flat side of a hex, firing a broadside becomes very easy to figure out– a ship is either at an angle to be hit or not, and it’s very obvious. The front and rear arcs are described by the width of the hex side you are facing. The standard restrictions for line of sight etc. apply. Since most combat takes place withing 3 hexes it’s pretty easy to figure out at a glance. Resolution occurs via the big modified bucket of D6 method.
Ramming is also straightforward, and follows a series of steps which checks the angle of approach, allows the targeted ship a change to fire a reaction broadside, then the ram goes home. Resolution by giant bucket of six siders.
Damage reminded me a little bit of SILENT DEATH in that the player maintains a ship status chart and most importantly a record of damage “hit” points. As the ship takes damage, the points are checked off. When the player hits or passes a multiple of five (5, 10, 15, 20, etc.), he checks for critical hits on a standard “bad things happen” chart. When the points go below a threshold the ship enters into the “Battered” state and a marker is placed on the sheet. The ship’s performance becomes quite degraded in a battered state. When the ship runs out of points, it sinks and a wreck marker is placed where the ship was.
Combat has some other nuances beyond moving and firing and ramming– there are Assets that are part of the scenario build part of the game. These are “extras” like submarines, army support, torpedo boats and mines. Asset combat — such as it is, is really handled like a random event on a chart. Still, they can be quite nasty when deployed. In the game I played, A submarine took out the CSS Arkansas (see below) and mines took out a union Ironclad.
A Union submarine asset (The USS Alligator?) takes out the CSS Arkansas
Hammerin’ Iron 2 rules have many elegant elements– victory conditions are perhaps the most noticeable of them. HI2 is a game recreating a very inequal historical contest. The Confederates were operating under severe disadvantages– they didn’t have an industrial base broad enough to create ships with the same level of technological advances as the Union. In a toe-to-toe fight, ship to ship, the Confederates will likely lose more often than not. Thus, the designers added in elements that balance the game in other ways so the Rebs have a chance at victory. In summary, I would certainly recommend Hammerin Iron 2 to both novice and experienced wargamers. It is very easy to follow and pick up. There will be some setup costs associated with the game outside of just buying ships– terrain, especially. I don’t consider them to be especially egregious. The mechanics will probably be criticized for being ‘too gamey’ by lovers of games like IRONCLADS by Yaquinto. The balancing elements– delayed arrival of ships, victory conditions, restrictions on six ships only in both fleets– these do seem artificial when you are reading about them before playing the game. In practice, I found HI2 to be very enjoyable to play and quite engrossing right up to the end. I was impressed enough to purchase the rules right then and there and plan on running this game myself in the future– it may become my “go to” game for conventions for ACW riverine scenarios. I will still run other ironclads rules when I want something more historical, but for a great game, with a lot of excitement and fun associated with it, I’m going to turn to Hammerin’ Iron 2. Strongly recommended for clarity, simplicity and entertainment.
Supplemental Post on 1:1200 scale ACW information