So, my favorite hobby is to play miniature wargames, which should come as a surprise to nobody. I like naval games, and obscure conflicts nobody talks about. The Naval Battle of the Yalu is both of those things– obscure and naval. TLDR history version: Back in 1894, Japan was getting up to some shenanigans in Korea, “The Hermit Kingdom”. The Chinese Qing dynasty considered Korea their sphere of influence and Japan just had to piss off, and the First Sino-Japanese War happened. Japan went through with landing an army and making plans to reinforce it through the sea. The Chinese sent their polyglot Beiyang Fleet to intercept the fledgling Japanese Imperial fleet, and thus the stage was set for the first fleet action between opposing coal-burning, steam powered, modern navies. The historical results were horribly lopsided– the Beiyang fleet got their ass handed to them, losing 5 ships sunk and 3 damaged, vs. the Japanese just having 4 ships badly damaged. There’s a lot of reasons why this is a very interesting sea fight. For one thing.. wow, these ships were wildly varied. The Beiyang fleet had two of the most heavily armored ships in the area in the Chi Yuan and Ping Yuan, both built by the British and sporting modern Armstrong guns. Many of the ships on either side were foreign purchases and must have represented a logistical nightmare to provision. It’s no wonder the Chinese were so reluctant to risk their “fleet in being”. The other interesting tidbit for Yalu is that this was NOT the era of big battleships– this was the era of Protected Cruisers and Armored Cruisers– with patchy armor and erratic power plants. The Japanese believed in discipline and drilled their fleet often. The Chinese in contrast were corrupt, tend to not sally forth very much and leadership was by captains who were routinely feathering their nests by looting naval stores. In the ensuing battle, it was a minor miracle the Beiyang fleet did the minimal damage it managed to do.
Fire When Ready (Metagaming Concepts, 1982)
For rules, I chose Fire When Ready, a very old Metagaming microgame that was at least 30 years old. Read Seth Owen’s review on BGG.
I’ve played the actual board game as a board game, but only via Cyberboard. Why? Well, not many people were eager to play Microhistory line games back in the day, and games like Ogre, Melee and Wizard were way more popular. I love microgames and kind of have a thing for them, despite the Metagaming products of the era having awful graphic standards. Although some of the later games were pretty terrible, I always thought the early ones and the Micro-History games were hidden gems. Fire When Ready actually had a pretty solid pre-dreadnought design hidden in the crappy graphics and ugly typesetting. Secondly, there really aren’t that many pre-dreadnought era rule sets out there. There are a few, but I didn’t want to learn something new just yet. So I rummaged around in the vaults and found an old (still in shrink wrap) copy of FWR. Note, I’ve owned 4 or 5 copies over the years– the production values were so poor the box always disintegrated on me.
I had time on my hands when they were rebuilding my house back in 2017, so I painted up a couple of predreadnought fleets: the battle of Yalu and the battle of Santiago. I’ve always wanted to game Yalu in miniature format, so with the COVID epidemic forcing us to stay in, I thought I’d gt up to a solo game last night. Why not? It sure beats watching more depressing epidemic news.
One headache I’ve had was the names of the Chinese fleet. Chinese is not an easy language to grasp for many Westerners and the ship names reflect a Westerner trying to interpret Chinese vowel sounds. In a nutshell: I’m aware there are more modern versions of how to depict Chinese spelling but I’m going with the information that was current in the 1980s.
The other roadblock, sort of, was the design. The rules suggest that players plot movement simultaneously and execute them simultaneously. That’s just not going to happen in a solitaire game. Instead, I came up with a reasonable compromise:
Basically I had to take turns plotting and moving and then execute gunfire all at once– finalizing damage at the end of the turn. It worked pretty well. I’d just keep track of damage done and mark it with a single underline, and when it was “permanent” the next turn, I’d double underline it.
The first few turns were pretty standard stuff for a naval wargame. Lots of jockeying around for position and the right angle to attack each other with. Both fleets deployed in a long battle line, and both dispatched a force of lighter craft to torpedo the enemy.
Initial gunfire at long range was ineffective. The mechanics of Fire Combat were not very complex but they require explanation. To shoot at another ship in FWR, you first check the fire angle and range. I’m glad I had a naval hex map, as it made range and angles relatively easy. Next you check what level of firepower can apply at that particular range. In FWR classic you have to “pre plot” it, but that’s a pain in the butt solitaire. SO I winged it– if a ship has a shot, it put down a plot token (red for Japanese, black for Chinese). They are numbered so I could track the shot back to the firing ship’s position in the line of battle. At long range, the hitting power number is pretty low. That number is further modified by poor gunnery ratings and then double checked against the ship’s training rating (I admit I didn’t do the training penalty for most of the game, more on this later), then target ship armor rating is subtracted. After modification, the firing column on the hit table could be negative. You can still roll on the table– it ranges from negative six (where damage is pretty light) to positive six. So at the most extreme ranges (more than 12 hexes) you’re not likely to hit much.