Force Building III: Building for Sea Games

This is part 3 in a full series of articles on force building in Blood & Plunder. In the first article we looked at some general tips on generic force building, in the second article we looked at building for land games and now we get to look at building for games at sea.

With very different abilities and units valuable at sea, building a force for battles in ships is very different than building for land games. While Cover and Movement are some of the most important parts of land battles, both of those issues fade to very low priority in sea games where the ship provides both movement and cover to your entire force. In sea games, I feel the various tactics are much more distinct, easily identified, followed and built for.

In my opinion the scenarios don’t dictate how you build at sea as much as they do on land but the various tactics you can adopt are more important to focus on. Here are some general thoughts, then specific ideas for focusing on a few of the common tactics once might plan to use at sea.

  • Choose an appropriate faction. This is very basic but you should choose a faction that has a sailor unit in the Core Unit column. Land-based and militia factions as a rule just don’t do very well at sea. It’s possible but it makes it harder so go easy on yourself and use a faction that lends itself to sea battles.
  • You’ll need to bring a lot of sailors! No matter your faction most lists at sea will need several solid units of sailors of one flavor or the other. They will be doing your sailing, repairing, manning your cannons and swivel guns and they can function as a solid boarding party as well. Some of the larger ships take a good 20+ sailors to full man
  • Choose your preferred tactic and build accordingly. There are about 3-4 essential tactics for sea games, cannon focus, small arms focus, boarding focus and an evenly balanced approach. You can spend a lot of points filling a ship up and usually you can’t fully cover all 3 of these tactics before you run out of points. Choose an approach and try to optimize your crew to fit that tactic.
  • Always keep at least one unit unassigned on your ship so it can perform sailing and repair actions as necessary. If you get headed into the eye of the wind and have no unit to perform that Wear action, you’ll be in serious trouble.
  • If you have the option, go ahead and replace Matchlock Muskets with Heavy Matchlock muskets. The only penalty for the heavy muskets is you can’t move and shoot in the same activation and that rarely happens in ship battles and the larger gun gives you a better extended range.
  • The cannon ship is especially effective if you hyper focus on it so if that’s your preferred approach, don’t skimp on paying for nice a big guns, a Master Gunner character and plenty of models for your cannon crew.

Cannon Focused Sea Forces

  • Bring more than the minimum number of models to crew your cannons so you don’t have guns falling silent if you take a casualty or two. Bring at least 2-4 extra models per crew if you want those guns firing as much as possible.
  • You can pretty much always take the pistols off your gun crew in this style of list to reduce their cost to 3 instead of 4 points each.
  • In this tactic the goal is to destroy the enemy’s ship while damaging their crew at the same time. If you can get the enemy’s ship Fortitude down fairly early in the game, you can start applying damage faster and faster and the increasing number of Critical Hits in the late game can really hurt your opponent. The challenge is to keep you cannons firing as fast as possible and avoid being boarded.
  • You will want to keep at least one unit in your force unassigned so they can take sailing actions and countercharge or make a defensive attack against a possible boarding action.
  • Ships with lots of ports for guns are clearly good choices for this tactic. Sloops are great at lower point levels since they have 3 ports on one deck and the Light Frigate and 6th Rate Frigate are awesome gun ships at higher levels.
  • Dutch and English are probably the best nations to use with this tactic since their gun crews are top notch. The Strict rule found on some Dutch commanders (along with William Kidd) can give a very rare bonus to cannon accuracy and damage which can kick this whole force up a notch. If you do use Strict, you have to compensate with more Fatigue management.

Examples of Cannon Focused Sea Forces

150 Point English Navy Cannon Sloop of War

At only 150 points this list packs a punch. Using the Brigantine hull but the Sloop of War variant stats, this ship is pretty fast, can fire a Broadside of 4 Medium Cannons with a 0 cost commander and has built in Fatigue management through the faction’s Tough rule. And there’s still room for a crew on two forward Swivel Guns and a small unit to crew the ship itself.

200 Point Dutch Cannon Focus

The Dutch have it all when it comes to cannons. This list can deliver a Broadside of 6 Medium Cannons while benefiting from both the Master Gunner’s bonus and the Strict modifier making those cannons the deadliest in the game. This list isn’t great when it comes to defending against a boarding party so it needs to keep at a moderate distance. The Swivel Guns in the front can help with a defensive shot but with 3/4 units assigned to cannons, you don’t want to get boarded. The unit of 5 Zeelieden should be unassigned so they can manage the ship with all sailing and repair actions. The frigate has been downgraded to the merchant variant to make room for the Master Gunner while keeping the mode count at 32. Heavily Built from the faction rules helps make up for the loss of Fortitude.

300 Point William Kidd Cannon List

This is a less “traditional” cannon list because it relies on a large quantity of smaller guns. Even Light Cannons hurt when you’re firing a broadside of 11 guns! Kidd is an awesome commander for a cannon list since he has both Strict and Expert Broadside so he will get plenty of hits with his cannons and his critical hits won’t ever whiff. With Strict and no Inspiring, you have to compensate for the Fatigue you’ll be putting on your own men so there is a Musician (adds Inspiring to the commander) and both the Grizzled Veteran and the Son of Neptune to add Tough to two units and gain two extra rallies. The hardest part of managing this list is keep track of all 5 Command Points and trying to coordinate epic broadsides! The Marins are meant to be the unassigned unit with the Son of Neptune so they can perform sailing and repair actions. Between them and Kidd’s Sailing Master ability, that 6th Rate should be reliably zipping around the table bringing those massed guns to bear every turn.

Boarding Focused Sea Forces

  • The boarding tactic is high risk and high reward and very exciting! If you’re focusing on this tactic, you need plenty of speed, a couple strong boarding units and some small arms fire and/or explosives to soften up the enemy crew before boarding. You’ll probably leave out the great guns and favor Swivel Guns along with some musketry for range attacks before you board. For ships you want something fast with either a 5″ speed or at least a 0″ windward penalty.
  • In smaller games, Piraguas, Sloops and Tartanas are great options and in larger games, Corvettes, Light Frigates and 6th Rate Frigates have the speed to board reliably.
  • For commanders and characters, you’ll want a good leader with at least 2 and hopefully 3 Command Points (in larger games) to deliver the overwhelming boarding action in one activation. Officers and Reformados can also be great choices, especially if you’re running a fleet of smaller ships like Piraguas. Using a Sailing Master for some extra speed can also be excellent. With this character you can even exceed  your normal top speed at the cost of a Lucky Hit on your rigging and if you’re planning to grapple your ship to the enemy’s, that Lucky Hit won’t really matter in most cases.
  • For boarding parties, you want units with strong Fight numbers, Hard Chargers, brace of pistols and explosives. Some of the best boarding parties in the game include Dutch Enter Ploeg (they appear as support units in many sea factions), French Marins and the English Forlorn Hope. The Dutch Zeelieden aren’t quite as deadly but they’re also pretty stout and very well rounded.
  • Explosives can really be decisive in boarding actions whether you use the deadly killing power of the Grenados, the fires started by the Firepots, or the safety of the Stinkpots. While stinkpots don’t do any damage, they are probably the best option for this tactic. They are easy to safely throw into the enemy’s ship and once thrown unit within the cloud of smoke can’t make any ranged attacks at all which means you can charge without any fear of a defensive attack (unless they have lances or pikes).
  • Almost any nationality can play a strong boarding tactic but the French are notably nasty with the Hard Charging Marins and amazing Flibustiers with their Brace of Pistols. The Dutch are just as good if not better with good faction rules, better Fight Saves, and the unsurpassable Enter Ploeg with their deadly weaponry. The Pirate/Brethren of the Coast factions are also ideal for this tactic.

Examples of Boarding Focused Sea Forces

100 Point Brethren of the Coast Boarding Party

This is a small list but will hit hard once grappled and has some small arms fire options as it approaches. The Tartana is nice and speedy but still provides Hard Cover to your men as you chase down your prey. You can leave the Marins and Enter Ploeg prone until you get closer while your Flibustiers soften up the enemy with some musketry. Once close, the Enter Ploeg can toss a Stinkpot to disrupt all defensive attacks then barge in with their pistols and tough Resolve and the Hard Charging French can mop up.

200 point Spanish Corsair Sloop of War Force

This list is a contribution from Guy and uses a lot of cannons to soften up the enemy before boarding. The Sailing Master can make this ship move 6″ to close that last gap to grapple. It’s only 3 units, but if you can shoot your cannons at close range, abandon your guns, then charge in with 12 Marineros hitting on 4’s with pistols, it’s going to be a slippery deck when you’re done. Be careful managing your Command Points because there are 5 potential CP but only 3 units to take them. That makes it more flexible as far as which unit activates first but you be careful keeping track so you don’t give a unit 2 CP in one turn.

200 Point Spanish Corsairs Double Piragua Force

The Spanish Corsairs are a fun faction to play with an aggressive boarding tactic. They have two faction rules that make that tactic especially strong for them: they get an additional 1″ per move on any ship or boat under Sweeps power and they get to re-roll failed Grapple attempts. This means they can buzz around at 5″ per move in these Piraguas regardless of wind speed or direction and grapple with a 76% success rate. With less access to explosives and Brace of Pistols the Spanish have to work a little harder in the melee combat. The idea here is to put the Marineros and Piqueros on the Sweeps until they get a chance to board. The Corsarios can fire their muskets as they close and then fix their bayonets and charge. The Marineros Piqueros will apply that same Fight Save penalty with their lances and if you can time it right, you can use the Stinkpot on the Marineros to stop those nasty defensive attacks. The Grizzled Veteran’s Battle Hardened applied to the Corsarios  who already have Swordsmen would make them very sturdy in a prolonged melee. The Reformado is a poor man’s Officer here. The Experienced Corsair Commander has Commodore which is very useful with a split fleet like this.

300 Point French Buccaneers Boarding Frigate

The French hit hard when they board. For 4 points the Marins are unmatched for the price. Here we have L’Olonnais, a Ruthless commander with 3 CP attached to a large unit of Flibusters with Brace of Pistols along with a bunch of Marins with pistols (and a Stinkpot) and a good sized unit of Enter Ploeg with more explosives. Some swivel guns give you some ranged options before you board and the 6th Rate with a Sailing Master gets you up close fast. Keeping some of your units prone is a good tactic if the enemy has a lot of ranged firepower, especially those 6 point Enter Ploeg. The French don’t have great Fight Saves so you want to overwhelm the enemy on your first try. With those 3 Command points you could Grapple with a unit of Marins on the front deck, , order a unit of Enter Ploeg on the middle deck to throw Stinkpots/Firepots from the center deck (5″ range should work), order order another unit of Marins to charge from the front deck, then move the Flibusters, to the front deck, charge, and possible charge again if the enemy falls back.  You could even swap out one of the characters for a Reformado and have a 4th CP for Grapple or Charge actions…  If you can set things up, a big commander like this can absolutely smash another opposing force with a big activation like this.

Small Arms Sea Forces

  • A small arms tactic will load up on accurate musketry and Swivel Guns and try to keep at a medium distance and suppress the enemy crew (especially key enemy units manning cannons) with continuous small arms fire.
  • High veterancy, good Shoot numbers, Fast Reload, Marksmen, Drilled, Ball and Shot and flexible command points are valuable in this tactic. This usually means you’ll be running pretty high cost units like Boucaniers, Freebooters or Veteran Freebooters supported by some cheap cannon crew on as many Swivel Guns as you can put on your ship.
  • Maneuverable ships are good choices in this faction to keep out of the enemy’s cannon arch whenever possible. It’s also valuable to have some Fighting Tops to load up with muskets so you can take advantage of the elevation bonus when firing down on the enemy’s decks.
  • A fleet of Canoa or Piraguas can be decently effective with this tactic as well as long as you can keep them from being rammed by larger ships. Seeing a canoa full of 7 or 8 point models get rammed and half the models fall out and die feels really bad…
  • Good characters for this tactic include the Grizzled Veteran and Son of Neptune to manage Fatigue so you never lose actions and possibly the Marksmen but I find he seems more expensive than the value he brings to a list, especially since he doesn’t have a Command Point. A Captured Merchant can also be a good defensive measure to keep your high value marksmen models safe. Actually any of the Advisor & Hostage characters are decent choices for this tactic. Unlike the cannon and boarding forces, this force style is more likely to play all the way to the end of the standard 6 turn game without a “decisive” moment. You’ll be shooting away all game trying control the game and whittle down the enemy faster than he can hit you. If you can keep that Advisor/Hostage until the end of the game, it will count as a Strike Point against your enemy and could tip the game in your favor.
  • If your small arms are successful enough, you might find you have a chance for a boarding action but don’t risk it if it’s not assured of success and it looks like you’re already going to win without it.
  • English and French Buccaneers and Brethren of the Coast are excellent factions for this tactic.

Examples of Small Arms Sea Forces

100 Point French Buccaneers

It’s hard to give sea forces a lot of flavor at this low point level but this force has 17 accurate muskets and Buccaneer guns shooting pretty consistently off a Bark. The French are particularly good at this tactic since they have the unsurpassed Boucaniers, cheap Engages and their commanders can take Buccaneer guns instead of pistols. In this case, that 0 cost commander is another 8 point Veteran Boucanier! This is a flimsy ship, so you really need to focus fire on any enemy gun crews that might set their sights on you. You don’t want to be losing these expensive models to cannon fire if you don’t have to. The Bark only offers standard cover but 2 out of the 3 units in this list have a solid Shoot Save of 6 which helps make up for that.

200 Point Pirate Fluyt

This is a very strange list but there’s some logic to it. Jean Hamlyn has Ruthless and a Buccaneer Gun so he can be a big boost to a unit of Freebooters. His Vendetta against anyone and everyone will help manage Fatigue without adding another characater. The Fluyt is very tall which can potentially give small arms an advantage when firing down on smaller vessels. While not fast or maneuverable, small arms don’t require as precise of sailing as cannons do. The Zeelieden are an unassigned unit with Expert Sailors so they can manage the ship. With 13 Buccaneer Guns and 18 Swivel Gun dice a turn, this list can consistently pepper the enemy with small arms fire if they are less than 20″ away. The Pirates’ False Colors rule can help them get nice and close before unleashing their volleys as well.

250 Point English Buccaneers in Canoa

This is a fun but risky play style. If you put your units in canoa they can use paddles and punt around and harass the enemy with small arms while proving to be hard targets with cannon since they have the Low Profile trait. It sounds like this was a historical tactic but I’ve only had limited success with it. Losing Hard Cover and opening yourself up to being rammed by larger and faster ships can make a game end very poorly for a player who mismanages a list like this.

Balanced Sea Forces

  • The balanced approach is good if you don’t know which scenario you might be playing or if you’re playing at higher point levels and you just want to pack out a ship with all the fun stuff you can fit! The basic idea here is to include cannons, a strong boarding party and ranged small arms on your decks.  You’ll prepared for any situation but it will be slightly harder to leverage maximum value out of all your units.
  • One of the challenges for this type of list is making sure you can use every unit every turn. You don’t want that big 80 point boarding party unit contributing nothing to the battle for the first 4 turns of a game! One solution is to use multipurpose units like Forlorn Hope for ranged and melee, Kapers for Cannons and then ranged attacks or Enter Ploeg on cannons or swivels and then deploy them as a boarding party later in the game. Marineros Piqueros are a great dual purpose unit for cannons and cheap boarding  party. Don’t be afraid to give one unit a couple different roles it can fulfill as needed.
  • You can use a wide variety of ships for this style of list. Even the hulking Fluyt can be useful here with high decks, up to 6 pairs of cannons, possible fighting tops and the possibility of getting Heavily Built.
  • I’ve played a lot of this style of list with the Spanish and it seems to be a good fit. That might be because they don’t have great access to super high quality units in any of the previous 3 categories… but still, I’ve had fun with this.
  • Most sea going forces can put a list like this together without too much trouble. I don’t think this force style is as strong as some of the other discussed above, but it is flexible and can rise to most tasks.

Examples of Balanced Sea Forces

200 Point Balanced French Royal Navy

With 4 pairs of cannons, a solid unit of Infantrie, a whole bunch of Swivel Guns in the front of the ship and a lot of brawling, hard charging Marins on the guns, this list can do anything you want it to. Being in a Brigantine it isn’t particularly fast so adding a Sailing Master might be a good move.

300 Point Balanced English Navy Force

This is a strange list. I’m not sure I love it but it did win me a game. It has some of everything. It has a full deck of Heavy Cannons so it can hit a ship super hard if it can line up a good shot. It also has plenty of Militia and Swivel Guns on board to provide covering small arms fire. The Militia are also armed with Bayonets to defend from a boarding action or carry the action into the enemy’s ship. The Officer and Reformado can also make a boarding action much more deadly if it comes to that. It can’t do any one thing super well, but it has opportunities to exploit any situation that might come up in a game.

350 Point Balanced Spanish Armada de Barlovento

With a Heavily Built Fluyt, 2 units of muskets, a nice group of Swivel Guns and a large unit Marineros Piqueros and Very Inspiring, Expert Broadside and Sailing Master from De Garay, this list has plenty of options for how it wants to approach a game. A Stinkpot on the Soldados makes their charge easier if you want to board, and their Expertly Drilled can make their small arms fire very deadly. The Zeelieden get the cleanup and sailing duty with the Carpenter attached.

Final Thoughts

I find force building for sea games very fun and more consistent than building for land games because there is less variation in both terrain and scenario. If you decide which style of force you want to play, you can build a fun force that will be viable for most any game and situation.

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