Monday, April 25, 2022

Wargame Design- Castles in the Sky

I am sure many of you have noticed that the Osprey Wargaming Series has another title coming out in June.  This one is called, Castles in the Sky- A Game of Flying Battleships.  This book was 5 or 6 years in the making, and has been one of my most difficult games to get "right".  There are a couple of things you will need to know about it right away: 

  • This game is 80 pages long, longer than a typical Osprey Blue Book
  • All the art in this book is new and unique, never before seen in any Osprey book
  • All the model shots are new from Brigade Models taken just for this book
  • This book is V5.2 of the rules, and took many people's help and assistance to get this far.  This one was a community project just as much as something I wrote.  Big thanks to all those who helped along the way, there are too many Usernames, names, and handles to document without getting into trouble for missing one, but you know who you are!  Huge thanks.
As many of you know, the first game I made from scratch was a 40K wet-navy wargame, and I see my efforts here as a return to my "roots".  This is a game that sprang from a few different sources of inspiration: 

  • Castles of Steel and Dreadnought by Massie.  Two works about the naval arms race prior to World War I between Britain and Germany.  They are the sources of the name for this book. 
  • My studies in college about naval warfare and work on pre-WWI diplomatic history
  • The Aeronef genre of games such as Aeronef, Imperial Skies, Leviathans, Sky Galleons of Mars, Dystopian Wars, and many more
  • Musings on the Delta Vector blog 
  • A variety of wargames from oceans to space and beyond

As I approached Castles in the Sky, I had a few key design elements that I wanted to be sure to capture in the rules.  I will let you read them and decide if I was successful in my goals.  My design notes did not make it to the final book for space reasons, so you will have to read them here instead.  I hope you enjoy or gain some insights.  

Castles in the Sky had the following design goals: 
  1. Scale and Model agnostic
  2. 3D battlespace
  3. Meaningful choices to be made
  4. Ships that can take a pounding, until they can't
  5. Battleship > Cruiser > Escort > Battleship
  6. Maneuver matters
  7. Some relationship to naval warfare of the period..... but flying
Scale and Model Agnostic

If you have played any of my other Osprey Wargames, you will have a pretty good idea of how I accomplished this task.  I used generic measurement units called MU instead of a specific distance for the game.  I also made the "center of mass" (often the peg-stand) the focus for all measurements.  This means that any sized model on any sized table can be used.  Most of the scenarios use either 36MU by 36MU or larger.  

3D Battlespace

One thing that makes air combat unique, is that it is 3D.  Therefore, I wanted to add altitude as a key component and differentiator in the rules.  Therefore, a ship's altitude is a key part for targeting, adjusting speed, and sinking too.  It is possible in the rules to cause a ship to crash, and never actually penetrate its armor! 

The rules have 9 altitude bands, with ships being able to go up and down in height.  As they gain height, they loose speed, and as they go down they gain it.  If you go too fast, too slow, too low, or too high you can cause your air ship to stall.  That's bad, because if you stall you could literally fall out of the sky!   

In addition, targeting opponents at different altitudes can reduce your ship's firepower.  This can make your shots ineffective or even impossible if the difference in altitude between ships is too great.  Air ships will have to maneuver into the proper position to trade fire for advantage.  In addition, ships can use altitude changes to maneuver away from combat just as well as they can maneuver into combat.     

Meaningful Choices

This game creates meaningful choices at a tactical (on the table) and the Strategic (off the table) level.  On the table, maneuver is critical as you determine how and when to engage with enemy ships and align them to your advantage.  There is also a strong command and control element with a limited ability to give special commands that allow your ships to exceed their normal limits, turn sharper, accelerate faster, fire more accurately, take more hits, etc.    

A simple example of choices in the game is the Ammo roll.  Essentially, if you do not roll any hits while shooting you have to test for a malfunction in your guns that can put them out of commission in future turns.  As a target gains distance, altitude, category differences the number of firepower dice you roll gets reduced.  Therefore, if you are only rolling one or two dice, the chance to jam your weapons increases!  Therefore, you have to decide if it is worth it to "fish for a crit" with a low probability shot at the expense of potentially losing your firepower for when the probabilities of a hit are much better.     

Off the table, choices about fleet composition are crucial to performance on the table.  Different weapon systems provide benefits, different ship classes fit different roles, and the right mix of warships is needed to achieve your objectives.  In addition, adding escorts to your fleet provides command and control or initiative benefits.  Every ship has a role to play from the smallest torpedo boat to the largest battleship.  What will be the right mix?    

Ships That Can Take a Pounding..... Until They Can't

World War I battleships had an amazing amount of armor plate and endurance even against the powerful shells and weapons aligned against them.  In Jutland, you can read about dreadnoughts taking shell after shell with very little impact.  Then, they suddenly and decisively can no longer hold up and explode, get crippled, or sink.  It happens quickly and with little warning.  

This is captured in Castles in the Sky with a set of mechanics that include firepower vs armor, friction, and determining damage after the shooting stops.  This allows the warships to shrug off a surprising amount of shells and explosions and still operate.  However, death can come shockingly quick as armor is peeled away, the next shell is just that much more likely to cause critical damage. 

Every weapon has a Firepower rating which is the number of dice you roll to hit.  Typically, the closer you are to a target, the type of target, altitude, etc will impact the number of dice you roll.  For every hit, you cause Friction that can impact the ship as shells explode and cause various issues with command and control.  Weapons also have a power rating, so every hit is then re-rolled and add the Power rating.  If the result exceeds the target's Armor, then a damaging hit is caused.  

However, the results of a damaging hit are not recorded until the End of the turn.  This most likely causes a ship's armor to go down by 1.  This makes the next hits more likely to cause damage in the future.  There can also be other special effects like lighting a fire, damaging the rudder, destroying a weapon system, etc.  Therefore, an airship can take multiple hits and fly away unscathed, but once that first one penetrates; a ship's ability to resist drops rapidly.       

Battleship > Cruiser > Escort > Battleship

World War I naval combat had a peculiar paper, rock, scissors logic to it.  Battleships could beat cruisers with cannons, cruisers could outgun escorts, while escorts could be a major threat to battleships with torpedoes and mines. Castles in the Sky emulates this as different classes of air ships have distinct advantages and benefits.  For example, a light battery can roll its full firepower against an escort, but loses two against a battleship due to the size difference.  The same applies the other way as well, so battleships have a tougher time making hits stick on an escort.  This is largely due to how different guns and weapons have maximum effect against different targets, therefore a battleship's guns may not always be the best answer to a threat.  

The Firepower vs Armor rating also creates mismatches where the power of a gun maybe insufficient to penetrate the armor of an enemy ship...especially at range.  It is entirely possible for a ship's gun to fail to scratch a heavily armored ship.  However, even ineffective hits can still cause Friction which impacts a ship's speed, command and control, and ability to return fire.  As mentioned, if you put enough Friction on an enemy ship; you could cause it to stall and crash; and never penetrate its armor at all!         

Ships can use altitude or speed to avoid enemy firepower easily.  Escorts can move quickly and nimbly and can often choose when and how to engage.  Meanwhile, Battleships are slower and less maneuverable so rely on their enemies choosing to engage them.  Therefore, no fleet can be made of single ship types as the enemy will be able to exploit the mismatch to avoid or engage as needed.  Battleships struggle against escorts, and escorts struggle against Battleships, while Cruisers can bridge the gap between both with some limitations.      

Maneuver Matters
Many of the mechanics and systems overlap into this simple maxim; maneuver matters.  The way the altitude, firepower vs armor, damage systems, and weapons interact means that a commander can not simply rely on firepower to win the day.  They have to maneuver the right tools for the right job into the right place at the right time to gain victory.  Plus the interaction between unit speed and firepower range also make maneuver vital for maximum penetrative power. 

The game uses fixed weapon ranges in bands of 8MU.  Airships of various types have a maximum speed of 6-12 MU.  The further away, the more difficult it is to hit and penetrate an enemy ship.  This was a deliberate move away from historical precedent in order to encourage enemy ships to maneuver for close action, rather than standing apart at maximum range and shelling each other.  

Some Semblance of Naval Warfare of the Period..... Only Flying!
Of course, there is always someone who has a different perspective or knows more about the subject than I do.  This subject is no different.  Obviously, the rules are not a 1:1 match of historical naval warfare as this is NOT a historical game.  It is not intended to recreate historical naval battles.  After all, I am pretty sure that there were no aerial battleships in World War I!

That said, I wanted the ideas of naval combat from the period to apply to these rules at a basic level.  Correctly timing your naval turn, using line of battle, broadsides provide the most shots, light ships can screen larger ships, etc. to apply to these flying battleships like they would at Jutland, Heligoland Blight, Dogger Bank, etc.  These rules are intended to have the right feel to them.  

Ship classes and designs are loosely based on existing naval ship designs of the Powers and the periods.  Again, some abstraction and lines needed to be drawn and where they were drawn will be a matter of conjecture and debate.  However, a 16 inch gun is still a heavy battery.  A torpedo tube is a torpedo tube.  Top speed is top speed.  These features were put into the designs in the book.     

Final Thoughts:

Well, there you go.  A high level overview of Castles in the Sky.  

Like I said, this game has been through a lot of versions, with some big changes and some small changes.  I have been working on this game for 5+ years, and have shared it out to the community multiple times.  However, only some of that is what you will find in this book.  The core mechanics have changed a lot over the versions as I tested, updated, and play tested some more.  This is the best and most complete version of the game I have made yet.  

Plus, the book looks amazing!  Osprey did a great job on this one.  Great new art.  Great new photos.  New 80 page length.  Fantastic.  

I hope you like it.  

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  1. Thank you as always for sharing these. They are inspirational!

    1. I am glad they are helpful and inspirational. Sometimes, they feel really dry as I write them. LOL!