Friday 31 March 2023

Wargaming Naumachia?

Playing out ancient naval warfare (ναυμαχία or naumachía in Greek) on the tabletop is a tricky biscuit (if ever there was such a thing…?). It is a niche within a niche; naval wargaming has always attracted a smaller crowd than land battles, and among naval players the Age of Sail and 20th century gaming are the most popular theatres.

Why the lack of engagement with naval warfare from the ancient period (and here I speak of the ancient Mediterranean in particular)? I’m not sure there is a single answer, but I’ll posit a couple of suggestions. The 20th century is within living memory (some of us were even born in the late 1900s!) and the engagements of WWI and WWII are firmly entrenched in our collective memory – at least in the West. While the Age of Sail (and here I mean the broad sweep of the 16th-19th centuries) is slightly more distant, it heralds romantic notions of swashbucklers and empire builders. This is especially the case in the Anglophone world where the cultural psyche has been fine-tuned by (often apocryphal) tales of plucky England taking on the bigger boys and getting away with the prize. It has an enduring appeal and sure, didn’t I publish Galleys & Galleons for that precise reason.

Roman squadron on patrol (1/1200 scale from Langton)

But what about ancient naval warfare? To an extent naval warfare suffers from the same biases in the written evidence that effects ancient land wars. The written sources tell us about the big ones, your battles of Salamis, Arginusae, Mylae and Actium. These battles pitched hundreds of ships, mostly very similar in form, against each other with only the scantiest accounts of the strategems involved. Trying to replicate that on a tabletop is not a hugely attractive prospect for most. Lines of ships approach each other, dice are rolled, and one lot sink or flee. There is no rock-scissors-paper interchange between say heavy infantry, cavalry, and missile troops on land.

Merchant freighters (1/1200 scale from Langton)

Furthermore, the names are all a bit strange, and not overly consistent. One man’s triērēs is another man’s trireme. With their banks of oars and bronze rams, the war galleys all look a bit alike, and certainly the overall aim – to sink or capture ethe enemy – can make the tactics a bit monochrome.

However (and it is a big however), what we don’t hear so much about are the smaller engagements – the raids and patrols, piracy and escort duties. It is these smaller engagements of anywhere up to a dozen vessels a side that have the greatest potential to make for exciting naumachia. 

An ambush underway (1/600 scale from Xyston)

At this scale you can explore the variable quality and capabilities of distinct vessels, as well as the different maritime traditions of the main protagonists. Here you can play with different notions of ramming, boarding, shearing oars, missile fire and artillery. You can also make the distinction between wargalleys and merchant freighters or transports. Without getting bogged down on whether your archers are stationed in the bow or the stern, at this level, you might even find that late in the season a ship’s timbers become fouled or waterlogged, or that a crew is depleted from disease or simple attrition.

Juicy mechant vessels on the watch for pirates (1/600 scale from Xyston)

The challenge then, is to make an engaging game specifically representing ancient naval warfare. To reflect simultaneous activity, there needs to be unpredictability in the turn-order, and movement must be dictated as much by momentum as by choice. Each vessel needs to be able to monitor the resolve of its deck-fighting crew, the capacity of its oarsmen, and the strength of its hull. But if this is one of my games, we need to have a touch of uncontrolled chaos, and a streamlined approach to combat to keep all player engrossed in the flow of battle and the tides of war. Yes, I rather like the sound of that.

Horses for courses - a hemiola and two tetrērēs (1/600 scale from Xyston)

In the meantime, for anyone looking for a bit of background, there are various academic books and articles out there, as well as a couple of good novelisations of ancient mariners. I’ll list a few below, but if you have any recommendations, do please add them as a comment below!

Background reading
  • Morrison, Coates and Rankov, The Athanian Trireme: The history and reconstruction of an ancient Greek warship (2nd ed. 2000).
  • Grainger, Hellenistic and Roman Naval Wars 336-31 BC (2011).
  • De Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World (1999).

The Mandrocles series by Nick Brown follows a Samian marine in Athenian service during the early 5th century BC. So far there are three in the series, but it is crying out for more.
  • Luck Bringer (2013)
  • The Wooden Walls of Thermopylae (2014)
  • Athens is Burning (2022)

The Sun’s Bride, by Gillian Bradshaw (2008) focuses on the helmsman of a Rhodian pirate-hunter in the 3rd century BC.


  1. Mark from Thailand31 March 2023 at 17:28

    Don Marco da Pattaya has asked me to say that (1) he’s reasonably sure you didn’t write G&G because you were infected with the Hornblower virus, and (2) he has played c16 Mediterranean galley warfare with c50 ships per side using the WRG “rulettes” and found that really fun!
    Speaking for myself, my discovery of Guilmartin’s ‘Gunpowder & Galleys’ in the 1970s was an epiphany.

    1. Clearly Don Marco is exercising his right to work within a completely different chronological framework! ;)

  2. The ability to play ancients and age of sail with the same modular ruleset is actually what got me into Galleys and Galleons. I think the system really shines for small engagements, and isn't as tedious as some of the other ancients rulesets I checked out.