A Pirate’s Life for Me! – A Review of Oak & Iron

Oak & Iron

Historical Naval Tactics in the Age of Piracy

Author: Mike Tuñez
Publisher: Firelock Games
Available Formats: Physical (miniatures)
Core Box – $69

Rolling Boxcars is known for reviewing roleplaying games, but we all play boardgames as time permits. I may be an outlier with my interest in historical wargames. I have a particular interest in The Golden Age of Piracy. Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by this period and when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance to play and review Oak & Iron.

Oak & Iron is a 1/600 scale miniatures game set in the age of fighting sail. It allows players to recreate battles between small fleets and squadrons of armed sailing ships representing various nations, including pirates. The game purports to offer a simple, intuitive, and highly playable game accessible to new players and veterans alike. While at the same time challenging players by providing tactical depth that is true to its nautical theme and the tactics of the period.

Note: Firelock Games provided Rolling Boxcars with a review copy for this article. If you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review, please visit our Product Review Request page.

Box Contents

Upon opening, you will be greeted with oodles of bits and bobs ranging from six multipart plastic ships (simple assembly required), punchboards, a 3′ x 3′ ocean playmat, dice, plastic damage/fatigue indicators, ship bases, and several decks of cards. Three of the punchboards contain terrain, while one includes:

  • Game tokens for indicating different statuses.
  • Five movement measuring tools.
  • The combat range measuring tool.

The multipart plastic ships consist of a nicely detailed single-piece hull (in brown), and two or more masts with sails (in white) are easily inserted into the hulls. Fully constructed ships sit on clear plastic bases, which allow for regulated movement. Within the box are also the saddle-stitched rulebook, now superseded by a digital version, and a plastic insert for holding the game’s components.

Note: I highly recommend you download the latest PDF ruleset for free at Firelock Games.

The quality of the components is top-notch! The tokens and terrain from the punchboards are easily removed and are pretty thick. The ship hulls themselves have a nice level of detail, which means it should be a straightforward process when I get around to painting them. The masts and sails are solid-piece construction, and the plastic has just enough give to it to prevent breaking when inserted or removed from the hull during our play sessions.

The cards are nicely weighted cardstock and should hold up without the need for sleeving. Though, I would recommend sleeving the initiative cards since these will see the most use at the table. The ocean playmat is sturdy enough to hold up to repeated use, but if you expect to play routinely, I recommend covering it with plexiglass to keep it flat or switching to a fabric or neoprene mat.

Game Rules

Setup

To learn the basics of the game, new players may begin with the four ship (2 per side) quickstart engagement with its prescribed initiative cards and ship deployment. Once they are comfortable with the basics, they may create their squadron as determined by the game’s scale—Patrol, Skirkmish, or Engagement. Patrols recreate small battles between pirates, privateers, and coast guard Squadrons; each squadron consists of 2 to 4 ships, and players have a 50-point limit. Skirmishes are suited to recreating larger actions (minor battles) between small naval squadrons and/or larger privateer or pirate squadrons; each squadron consists of 3 to 8 ships, and players have a 100-point limit. Engagements are for players wishing to recreate large battles, including the largest men of war sailing the seas; each squadron consists of 4 to 10 ships, and players have a 200-point limit. Build points are for purchasing everything from the ships and admirals to any number of ship and crew upgrades. A digital Force Builder is available for free on the Firelock Games website. It helps to speed up the process of building their squadron.

With the squadron built, players turn to the setup sequence consisting of a six-step process. At the start, players draw cards from several small decks that will aid the rest of the process. Beginning with advantages and conditions, players alternate assigning cards from those previously drawn. These cards convey unique advantages that can assist players with strategic planning. Next, objective-based terrain derived from the Objective card is placed. This is followed by players selecting and placing additional terrain; the Setting card determines the amount and type. Once the terrain is placed, minor adjustments are possible for pieces falling within a side’s deployment zone. Finally, ships are placed within the deployment zones, and the first initiative card is selected and placed face down. The game is ready to play.

The Game Turn

Games of Oak & Iron are played out over ten turns, after which time a winner is determined if a squadron’s admiral doesn’t strike their colors (losing) first. Each of the ten turns follows the same format, which is broken into four phases—Initiative, Movement, Attack, and The End. Each phase is played in an alternating fashion known in wargaming circles as “I go, you go,” beginning with the player holding the initiative.

Initiative

The Initiative phase is used to establish who has the initiative for the remainder of the turn. Players reveal their previously selected and secreted initiative cards. The player with the highest value has won the initiative. In the event of a tie, an event card is drawn, its effects resolved, and then the player with the highest admiral value is given the initiative. Players then select the next turn’s initiative card and place it face down off to the side. Lastly, the card text on the revealed initiative cards is read aloud, and any effects with the word “immediately” are then applied if all other conditions can be met. Effects triggered during other phases or activities of the turn will occur then.

Movement

Movement allows players to maneuver ships into position for attacking, boarding, or running aground for on-land objectives. Not overly complex. The most challenging part of this entire phase is determining your position relative to the wind, which determines your movement speed. The four-step movement process is—Determine Speed, Seamanship Action, Movement, and Crew Action.

First, we must determine speed, which defines a ship’s movement distance, then a ship’s Point of Sail. There are three possible Points—Large, Windward, or In The Wind’s Eye. Large means your sails can catch the wind fully. Windward means you are essentially cutting across the wind; your sails can only partially catch the wind. The Wind’s Eye means your ship is heading into the wind and unable to make forward progress.

Determining if a ship in In The Wind’s Eye or not is not too difficult once you have done it a time or two. Unfortunately, the explanation in the rulebook needs clarification. In particular, it references the “windward” side mid-point as a point of reference. The term “windward side” is not defined anyway in the rulebook other than as a Point of Sail. A new player may not know it means the side facing the wind. However, the visual examples provided are very helpful. Once Point of Sail is established, Speed can be found on the ship’s card (see inset)—the value to the rear (sailing large) or the left or right (Windward).

Before a ship physically moves, a player may attempt to take one Seamanship action—Change Heading (turn), Adjust Speed (up/down), or Cut Free (if Entangled). When attempting an action, roll five dice (reduced for fatigue). As long as at least one skull and crossbones or sail icon results, the attempt is successful.

Now it is time to move a ship on the table physically. Five movement tools are provided, numbered 1 through 5, and correspond to both Speed and the physical distance a ship moves. Movement has only a few hard and fast rules.

  • A ship must move all its movement, even if it collides (optional rule) with something.
  • Turning may only occur at the start or end of the movement, never during.
  • A ship may execute one turn during movement unless it has special abilities (such as yare); partial turns are permitted.
  • Turns must be executed using the movement tool used to move this turn.

Once a ship has completed its movement, a wake marker is placed behind it to signal it has completed its move for the turn.

The last segment of the Movement phase is Crew action. In this optional segment, a ship may take a single Crew action. There are eight Crew actions—Reload (removes one reload marker), Rally (removes one fatigue point), Repair (reduces ship damage by one), Change Sail Setting (raise/lower sails; impacts speed), Boarding (attempt to board a ship within yardarm distance), Row (special movement applicable under certain circumstances), Transfer Flag (transfer an Admiral card from one ship to another), or Landing Party.

Attack

What is a naval game without ship-to-ship combat? If they can meet the conditions during the Attack phase, ships have three attack options—broadside, Partial Fire, and Close Combat. Broadside is when a ship fires all of its cannons on one side; a ship may fire broadside from both sides during a turn so long as the side does not have a reload marker. To fire a broadside, a target ship must be in range (at least cannon range), line of sight, and within the broadside path of the firing ship. The broadside path is the space between two parallel lines drawn outward from the corners of the firing side of the ship (see inset). A ship has a Line of sight if two lines from the firing ship’s mid-point can trace to both the target’s mid-point and corner of the bow without intersecting any other obstacle. Finally, range uses the range tool. This ruler is graduated into a pistol (shortest), musket (mid), and cannon (longest) ranges. Each range also has visual indicators of what die results constitute hits as a quick reference. If eligible, the firing ship attempts a broadside by rolling its broadside value, increased by upgrades and skill, and reduced by fatigue (to a minimum of one). If any dice score a hit unless special ship abilities apply, one fatigue is applied to the target ship. Damage is only applied if the number of hits equals the target’s fortitude value in even increments. Critical hits may result when the skull and crossbones are rolled. A second roll is made to determine if there are any critical effects. A reload marker is added to that side of the ship, and the wake marker is removed to indicate the ship has taken an Attack action.

The Partial Attack does not have the full weight and might of a ship’s broadside; rather, it uses swivel guns and crew weapons. Therefore, there are some differences between Partial attacks and Broadsides. This attack must be within musket range but is not restricted to the broadside path and may draw a line of sight from any side. Attack resolution follows that of a broadside otherwise. However, it uses the crew rating instead of the broadside rating.

Close Combat may be taken between two entangled ships or two landing party tokens.

The End

The End phase is a housekeeping and winner determination phase. First, any entangled ships with an opposing Shaken crew may be captured or destroyed. Capturing a ship increases the size of your squadron. Destroying a ship grants a free “cut-free” action. Next, and most importantly, players count their “Strike Points.” Points are earned for various negative things, like having a crippled ship or if one of your ships is sunk or out of action. Once Strike Points have been determined, both players assess if they withdraw and thus lose. A withdrawal happens if the Strike Points earned in this round exceed the number of ships currently in their squadron. If no one withdraws, gameplay continues; determine a few other housekeeping actions and return this turn’s initiative card to your hand and proceed to the next turn of the game.

Additional Rules

There are several additional rules in Chapter 5. Rules here include such things as collisions, raking shots, targeting rigging, formation sailing, targeting crew, and the like. Now, when you see “additional rules, ” in most wargames,” these are prefaced with something like “These are optional rules…” That is not the case here. These rules should not be seen as optional but rather implicit rules. I would have preferred these rules to be placed in the section to which they pertain, simply for ease of learning and use. To that point, I skipped over reading these in my initial reading of the rules because I assumed they were optional rules, and I do not like to include optional rules in the first run-through of a game.

Gameplay

In short, the gameplay did live up to the expectation of being friendly to new players. Though there were some struggles. The rules provided in the box were part of the problem. My issues were resolved once I downloaded and read the updated rules. Once I got the hang of Points of Sail, things moved along smoothly.

Neither of us attempted to board the other player’s ships during our game, instead opting to pound the crap out of each other with Broadsides and Partial Attacks, which served us well. Much of our Seamanship actions became attempts are tactical positioning, and the Crew actions became resource management actions to reduce fatigue and damage points when and where we could.

The game box indicates gameplay should last 45+ minutes. Using the quickstart provided in the rulebook, our learning game clocked in at nearly 120 minutes, not including set up and tear down. I could see two experienced players with loads of tactical knowledge playing a Patrol scale game finishing it in or around the 45-minute mark. I think the average player will likely have longer game sessions, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

What I Liked

  • Once we understood the Points of Sail, taking actions was fun. Making decisions about turning and when to turn became critical and made all the tactical difference in the world.
  • Staying Formation, while not easy, is essential for many of the initiative card effects. Additionally, it allows a squadron to be rather effective, but tactically, there will come a time when you may want or need to split the ships. These decisions fascinated me.
  • Combat felt like a war of attrition, which it was historically. Fatigue mounted with every attack, but ship damage was not always a guarantee. If I was willing to bring my ships into closer range, thus increasing my chances of hitting with each die, I was likely to render more hits and more opportunities to damage the ship; risk versus reward decision.
  • The building of a squadron from the ground up, to include all the available upgrades, is nice.
  • The quick reference sheet on the back of the rulebook

Improvements I Would Like to See

I have a few recommendations for would-be players and the publisher.

  • The game plays out over ten turns (max), but there is no turn track. I would recommend repurposing one from another game or creating one you can toss in the box. It will come in handy.
  • The downloadable updated rules now include a glossary, something the original rulebook did not. However, the glossary is nothing more than an index. I would like to see a true glossary that defines terms used within the rulebook.
  • There are some marginalia designer notes, but there is a distinct lack of historical context. It would be nice to see a page or two about the period for new players; in particular, a recommended media list would be great.
  • The game is designed to be played as one-off engagements regardless of scale. It would be great to see a future expansion that allows for a continuous narrative through a series of linked battles. For example, if I am playing as Pirate Captain Hornigold, and the British Admiralty is stalking me in the West Indies, a campaign of linked battles could easily tell that narrative. Mechanically, I don’t know if or how to pull that off, but it’s something worth exploring.
  • Players – print out two copies of the quick reference sheet on cardstock. You’ll thank me for it.

Final Thoughts

Hands down, Oak & Iron is a fun miniatures game that does not require vast financial investment and works very well in small spaces requiring as little as 3′ x 3′ and no more than 3′ x 4′. It is, as advertised, accessible to new and veteran players alike and offers tactical depth for those looking to explore it further.

Initially, without seeing the contents of the core box for myself, I balked at the price point slightly. However, the quantity of the contents and the quality of those components are both hearty. As a result, I feel Oak & Iron is reasonably priced, as are the expansion boxes. There is a lot of game and replayability for the price.

The optional expansions available through Firelock Games provide additional ships and other accessories to expand your game’s replayability and enhance your play experience. Although not required, I look forward to getting some paint on these ships and making a few upgrades to some components, like making my own turn track and perhaps finding a suitable piece of fabric to serve as the playmat.

I am quite happy that Firelock Games sent me this copy of this wonderful game for me to review. I am also looking forward to finding unique ways to incorporate it into my roleplaying games. Specifically, an upcoming Kickstarter I supported, Pirate Borg, was designed to use 1/600 scale ships for naval combat scenes. This is just another way for games to make their gaming dollars stretch a little further.

~ Modoc

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