Stringbags out of the Darkness

At long last, Taranto. It only took 6 years.

Background: Looking back on my own posting history of this blog, I can see that I’ve wanted to do a game about the Raid on Taranto (1–12 November 1940) for a very long time. I see initial plans (and purchases) that date back to 2015. I’ve changed the concept behind it drastically in the six years since, but last weekend, I made it happen at long last. My initial idea was to make a game much smaller in size than what I ended up with. The Ships were all easy to get (at that time, no so much now) Axis and Allies War at Sea Italian ships. The ship models were always going to be 1:1800 or whatever that scale they used. I purchased enough PicoArmor Fairey Swordfish models to recreate the entire Royal Navy squadron, plus some. Here’s where the project stalled the first time– I was not enchanted with PicoArmor’s Swordfish models. To quote myself,

I like the Pico Armor planes but the Fairey Swordfish is not my favorite– it’s not made very well, the drilling, mounting, drying and fiddling about element is very high.. so this process is going to take a while, lots of hands on piece work involved and I have about 30 planes to mount. The Fullmars by contrast, come together very quickly and seem to balance on the end of the wire better than the Swordfish do. There has to be a better way…

Eventually I put it all on a shelf and pursued other projects. I was still liking the concept but wasn’t sure what rules I would use. I wanted something dirt simple so was leaning towards the early Victory at Sea rules– but I wasn’t crazy about how unimpressive Torpedo attacks were in that system– you kind of have to nail that in a game about Torpedo raiding. This was happening about the time I had some major home revisions and it all became a second priority. So, onward to 2020-21 and you know, that Plague thing. A couple of life events had happened. I read the Osprey Campaign book about the raid, making me ask myself– didn’t you have some Taranto stuff half finished? I also had an opportunity to play Gary Graber’s Torpedo Raiders (a solitaire game by Minden Games, worth the money) which had been published in 2016. Also, I got into 3D printing. This was a serendipitous confluence of events. I could make as many Stringbags as I liked, in whatever scale I wanted, and I would bet they would be easier to work with than previous attempts. I was right on all counts– with a little trial and error, I soon had a fleet of reasonably authentically painted Swordfish (22 plus, enough to field the entire OOB plus some spares in case they break). I scaled them to be kinda sorta 1:285th scale.

AND they based on a plastic base with no problem, being very light

A deadline brought it home: As you might know if you read this blog from time to time, I’m involved with a group that puts on a small show on the East Coast in the Mid-Atlantic region. We had made ScrumCon one and two happen, and had to cancel ScrumCon three right at the point where we had had a pretty decent success of a show at the new location, because of COVID. It is what it is, it’s not as if this wasn’t happening to everyone concerned. Well, 2021 rolls around and we are looking at postponing the already postponed ScrumCon 3 again, and we decided to do a virtual venue game like other shows around the country are doing. Joe Procopio, the gentle Alpha Dog of the ScrumConners, put a call out for events and I blurted out, well, I have this Taranto thing that tickled my fancy… and volunteered. Suddenly I had to take this mishmash of halfbaked concepts, ideas for rules etc. and make a game out of them. What really helped was buying Torpedo Raiders as one of my Wargame Depot “Deals of the Day” right about at the right time. I liked Gary’s simple mechanics for using card decks for resolution– sure, they were gamey but I wanted to make an entertainment, not a simulation, right from the start. So I discarded the Victory at Sea (Mongoose Publications) rules idea and decided to create a miniatures based game that used some elements of card draws like Torpedo Raiders to quickly simulate combat. It worked like a charm in the rather rushed playtests I did solitaire. I had to discard the notion of using cards as range measuring and had to ADD elements I thought would keep people engaged (like the Alert Level and threat zones), but the resulting amalgamation works reasonably well. It might need some tightening here and there but real play with real people proved it to be a very workable concept and it was (I believe) entertaining to boot.

On the late evening of November 11 and into the 12th, 1940, a plucky group of British pilots, flying antiquated torpedo bomber biplanes from the deck of HMS Illustrious, flew into the town of Taranto, Italy, home of the Italian fleet, safely at anchor (or so the Regia Marina thought!). What happened next caused pure pandemonium among the Italian fleet, as the already obsolete, slow moving torpedo planes wreaked havoc from above. Twenty two Swordfish (the beloved “Stringbags” of the Royal Navy) flew into town in two waves, with special planes firing barrages of flares to illuminate the ship targets, and the rest either bombing or torpedoing the ships at anchor. The raid heavily damaged three battleships, two cruisers and some smaller ships. The blow to Italian prestige was palpable. Can you do as well?

Stringbags out of the Darkness is a cooperative game based on Gary Graber’s Torpedo Raiders. All of the actions will be activated by card play as the attack waves move in from the outer reaches, testing for activation of the Italians at each step. As time passes and the Italians realize they are being attacked, the odds of flak increasing at every step will increase. Each player will command a group of 4-5 planes, some arriving in Wave One and some in Wave Two. Some planes will be responsible for Illuminating the area with flares, others will have orders to attack specific ships. Your targets are assigned at the start of game based on aging reconnaissance information. You will determine your target (over Zoom, when close) and drop your “fish”. Then you’ll try to get away alive, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. There will be a group victory level that will drive a strategic outcome and a personal victory level based on the performance of your flight.

GM: Walt O’Hara (Second Saturday Scrum Club)

Platform: Trying for Zoom.

Citation: My listing for this game on the ScrumCON website

So how did it play?

Surprisingly well! I had to stay up quite late putting all the assorted bits of rules together to put into one coherent narrative for Sunday, but I got it done on time. Nothing like a deadline to move a project forward. I had three players (I was hoping for four), but the game can scale up and down– I had written a three player scenario as well as a four player scenario. One must be flexible “in these challenging times”. I had a great group of players that were definitely enjoying the subject matter and were open minded about the ‘ahem” somewhat unique combat mechanics. This was my very first remote over Zoom game, and I wanted it to work. I took some tips from other GMs I have played with and that helped a lot. For one thing, I mounted the planes on VERY bright cardstock squares that could show what Wave they were in and which plane was which, based on historical designations. That made it very easy for the players to see where there forces were at all times.

Wave One, set up in the Green Zone (relatively low threat) Historical Plane and Pilot information on bright orange cards for visibility on Zoom.
And wave two used a different, equally bright color. Very helpful to see over a webcam

I ran Taranto outdoors on my back deck, so I could use the natural light to my advantage. Again, this helped a lot.

I was worried about cameras but a little test meetings in advance put all that to rest. Here I am using an old Samsung phone as a webcam. It worked like a charm.
Logitech web cam pointed down for the view from on high (it didn’t move)
Battle Cam 1, my Iphone, as a handheld. Probably the most useful camera in the setup.
“Recon Photos” from the night before, sent to my players.

I had to use Zoom, as it was something I was familiar with and although no expert, I figured if I could get the cameras up and working it would work out just fine. I sent a series of grainy black and white photos to the players the night before in their final briefing. I also asked all of them to provide a deck of cards, about four six siders and also to print out their rosters if they had time. I was going to keep track anyway so this was optional, but they might want to manage their squadrons actions based on whom had taken damage so far.

The View of Taranto the night of the raid

My “Stringbags” rules were designed to get the action to the main event, so I didn’t want to have the game be about flying for several turns. So I abstracted movement through various threat zones where increasingly difficult things start to happen to A) warn the Italians, and B) mess with the incoming raid. The raid did capture the attention of a wandering single Falco.42 patrol but discretion was the better part of valor so he legged it out of there, but increased the alert level. Like their historical counterparts, the gaming raid was incredibly lucky, and managed to get to the port with almost no incidents beyond raising the alert level, minor engine damage and adding barrage balloons and torpedo nets to the harbor defenses. These would spell trouble for the pilots eventually, but not on the flight to the port. Pretty much a historical result. The first wave, as the historical pilots did, approached the attack from either side, and not straight on. I didn’t take any pictures of it, but they had started getting flak hits in the yellow zone and a couple of planes were pretty shot up by the time they were arriving at the port, including the Commander of Wave One, Williamson. Oddly, just like in real life– although the leader of Wave One was shot down in the approach and captured, and his gaming version was not. Williamson and his Flight 1-1 (all torpedo load-outs) approached from the left, and flights 1-2 (bombs) and 1-3 (mixed Torps and Bombs) attacked from the right. To speed things up, the Second wave was on board during the movement phase right after wave one passed the middle zone.

All planes from flight 1-1 managed to drop their fish in the water. The blue chip is to indicate they are flying low.

Of the first flight Brian Hall, playing the Flight 1-1 of wave one (Pilot Williamson in the lead position) was the most successful with Torpedo Drops. In an example of a game reflecting real life, the Conti de Cavour was torpedoed and it did so much damage the ship was left with one “hit box” left.

The Cavour seeing its doom approach!

I rolled for fates at the end of the game and the ill fated ship sank in the harbor. The Littorio also took damage to her steering and I rolled she would be in drydock for at least several months. An additional cruiser was damaged sufficiently that I rolled her fate and she went down as well, just outside of the inner harbor.

One element that was NOT repeated in the game from real life: LCDR Williamson actually survived and managed to fly off, shown here after putting a torpedo into an Italian Cruiser (smoking). His Swordfish was like flying Swiss Cheese at that point.

Flights 1-2 (Swayne, Kiggell, Lamb, Ford) and 1-3 (Maund, Patch, Murray) were busily approaching from the Western side of the port.. but not without some serious damaged (particularly for Murray) coming from Flak fire. Their mission was to bomb port facilities and ships, and to light flares). The arrived about a turn later than flight 1-1 and were effectively blocking his egress due to all the barrage balloons and nets that had sprung up from the alert dice events they tripped on the way up to the port. So they opted to head North and try to pass through a gap between barrage balloons. The sky was getting crowded over Taranto, and flak and barrage cables were making it very unhealthy.

LT Sparke goes down…

Unfortunately, LT Sparke flew too close to a balloon cable, rolled badly to save (2d6, 11 and 12 failures, he rolled boxcars). He lost a wing and spiraled down into the harbor, where he was captured later.


Flights 1-2 and 1-3 flew in in a compact mass and lined up to drop bombs on port facilities oil tanks and engineering sheds. Their efforts paid off, destroying the fuel supply, and damaging two cruisers (recoverable later).

One of the net stand demonstrating why they are big threats in the game.

I sped up the bombing mechanics to get Flight 1-1 and 1-2 doing productive VP creating tasks– like bombing things and shooting off flares. As the rules are written Bombing was similar to a short range torpedo attack but with some factors not applying, like eyeballing the range. Instead, the player rolls for hits, glancing hits and misses. AND the ships shoots back. It was clear at this point that I had very much underestimated the time needed to play it out. Even staying an additional half an hour, the second wave was still a ways off and we had to break it off there. The player’s feedback appeared to be universally positive. Yay! It worked!

Lessons Learned from my First Zoom game

  • If you’re running a Zoom game, add a half hour to your estimates.
  • Design your components for maximum visibility.
  • Early on, decide how interactive your game will be.
  • Test your cameras early and often
  • Don’t leave a camera on Battery only, it will die at a crucial moment.
  • Have backups to your backups.

Overall, I like the game I came up with. I’m already interested in writing a follow up with other historical scenarios. Obviously, Sinking the Bismarck comes to mind but the actual torpedoing part was only a small part of a much broader campaign. I’m happy it worked and I’m rewriting and tweaking accordingly after seeing it played out in front of an audience. Mostly, I’m happy because I literally built this wargame from the ground up with materials I either had to make myself (3D printing or model making) and reuse a bunch of materials and models I already had on a shelf (the Axis and Allies ships I had already collected). Aside from some port facility models I picked up from Brigade models to (quickly!) make “Taranto port facilities”. So not a bad bottom line. The ships were owned, the planes were free, the terrain was free. All it took was some COVID induced boredom and lots of free labor.

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One of the last flying Fairey Swordfish at a British Air Show recently

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