Thursday, March 12, 2020

Blood, Bilge, and Iron Balls Review

A post about the Age of Sail rule set Blood, Bilge, and Iron Balls, with some house rules added, and some talk about hobbying in the end there. 

I admit it, I mainly got these rules because of the name.

Blood, Bilge, and Iron Balls Review

There was night recently where I was left to my own devices but didn't feel like painting miniatures and wanted to play something.  And because it was last minute and I have no friends it had to be a solo game.  I was groping for something easy to set up and take down which pointed toward the Age of Sail, because it's so easy to plonk down the ocean mat and some of my beautiful ships.

For my test game, I set up 2 French ships in line
and had 2 British ships attacking from an angle.
All ships are 74s

Let's Talk First About the Ship Record Sheets

I've never played an AoS game that didn't use ship logs.  It comes with the territory and is practically a necessity to track the many things that can happen on these complicated vessels.  As BW once put it; A Ship of the Line of that time was as complex as a modern day space shuttle. 

A record sheet

The book has all the ship logs for all types of ships, and can also be downloaded from the Pen and Sword site.

Here we see that we are concerned with hits to the usual areas of interest: the Hull, Rigging, Guns, Command, and Crew.  There's also a section to track the set of the sails and speed, and a table to track fires.  Fires seem to happen in the game a little more than I like but I love the way that they slowly escalate and then become a BIG HOT problem if not dealt with early.  There's probably a life lesson in there for our own BIG HOT problems. 

Some aspects that I really like:
Many of the hit boxes are grouped together in clusters called 'stars,'  for example; a crew star is made up of 7 points.  When the crew takes damage, you cross off the points of the star until it's all gone and then on to the next star.  A star is still available for use in repairs / boarding actions / dinner parties as long as it's not all crossed out.  This is a great way to illustrate the crew degrading over time.  The same thing goes for rigging damage, each mast is a little group.  There are some special stars that represent the marines and special parts of the crew who have unique skills; the sailing master, the gunner, and the carpenter.  When these stars are crossed out the ship functions less effectively which is a very nice touch to add some historical flavor to the damage.  For example, when the Gunner star is crossed out representing that the experienced gun captains have taken casualties, the ship gains a -1 to shooting. 

Also I really like the way marines are represented in the game.  Marines shooting from the deck and crows nests into the enemy ship were a big part of close range fighting.  Also marines are very useful in boarding actions as they should be. 

On the down side (depending on your perspective), the ships are all generic and the same across rates.  While a 74 3rd rate has more stuff than a 44 5th rate frigate, a French 74 is the same as a British 74. In fact, the  ship records don't differentiate between nations but just "here is a 74."  Almost all the ships also have the same movement rates as well, so there's no such thing as a faster sailing ship because it's got a clean bottom and shiny new sails.  And there are no skill rating for crews

On the whole the ship record sheets have enough going on with them that you feel like you are running a sailing ship of the line. A new player could probably control 4 ships pretty effectively and an experienced player even more.  though playing 1 ship would be boring. 

And now that we understand the record sheets, we can get into the game play.

Game Play

The game turn is essentially made up of 6 phases; a Sailing (movement) phase, a Firing phase, and a Repair for each fleet.  So in a two player game with one hero controlling the British and the other villain controlling the French (to take a classic example) there would be a British Sailing phase, a French Sailing phase, a British firing phase, a French firing phase, and you get the idea.

But the fun part is, these phases are done randomly.  You either can use cards or chips drawn out of a colorful sack like I do.  So a turn can end up being British Sail, French Fire, French Repair, British repair, French Sail, and then British Fire.  This creates a lot of tension in the game and allows for a bit of luck (or some might call it skill, though others would call it dumb luck) where maybe one can fire twice on an enemy before she can return fire depending on how the chips come out.
This activation sequence also makes the game pretty solo friendly, which is pretty good given my friendless existence. 

My ships get up close and personal in my test game.
Ships shooting from close and point blank range will really pound each other to match sticks.
Around this point I realized that I liked these rules. 

Sailing Phase

Moving the ship is very easy in this game but still ticks enough boxes of sailing that it feels like sailing ships and not space ships.  A ship's speed is determined by how much sail it has set, it's attitude to the wind, and how many masts it still has standing.  Sail Set is a little too simplified, it's either Full, Half or Battle Sail, or None.  But perhaps see my house rules below.  Ships can turn while they move and turn better downwind then upwind which I like.  Ships have to move their full distance and basically it means a ship at half sail is gonna move around 2-6 inches and at full sail around 6-10 inches. Since there are no crew skills tacking is automatic, which I also like because I think rolling for that is a PITA. 

Fire Phase

Ships can only fire when their sides card/chit is drawn.  Which can be a little maddening for veteran Age of Sail players who want to "fire as she bears."  There is no reload mechanic.  There is no special ammunition.  It might sound hard to get off any shots when you can't control when your ships fire but in my little solo test game I found it not to be a problem really.  Ships still fired all the time, and you had an interesting dynamic about adjusting your tactics depending on what cards were already drawn this turn.  Gunnery is pretty simple and uses D6s, and instead of breaking guns down by caliber its simply that larger ships with more and bigger guns get more dice.  A 74 has 7 guns and 7 dice, a 100 gun ship has 10 guns and 10 dice, and so on.  Modifiers are few and are basically just the range, and ships that are point blank from each other will pound each other to match sticks.  This is very streamlined and works, and is fun because you still roll a lot of dice.  I found that I didn't really miss looking up each gun deck and using 12 pounders on the top, 24 pounders in the middle, and 32 pounders on the bottom with each having it's own to hit number.  With these rules it's just the closer you are, and the more guns you have, the better. 

One annoying thing is that the modifier for firing high at the rigging is a -2 or a -1 depending where you look in the book.  It REALLY bugs me when modifiers are not consistent.  The use of Cannonades is an optional rule and not well thought out in my opinion and it’s probably easier to just leave them out since the weight of the broadside is already abstracted. 

Another thing missing is that there is no modifier for firing guns at full sail, when there REALLY should be.  Ships reduced sail in order to reduce the damage taken to their rigging and to create a more stable platform for their own gun decks, so I’ll be adding a house rule for that.  For those more familiar with the rules may see my house rules section down below if inclined. 

Each time a ship is hit is crosses off 1 point of a crew star and then draws a card from the damage deck for additional damage.  Rakes are handled by drawing more cards per hit, which is a nice mechanic.  The damage deck is made up from a deck of normal playing cards; each suit represents a different area of the ship: rigging, hull, crew and command, and the guns.  Jokers are like critical hits.  Higher values are more severe hits.  For example: Hearts are hits to the hull.  Low numbers are 1 hull hit while face cards are 3 hull hits.  So if a ship takes 5 hits it crosses out 5 points of a crew star (starting on 1 star and when it’s out of points moving to the next) and then draws 5 cards and applies those affects.  This is a fun mechanic and makes the damage to each ship start to be unique but not over whelming.  My only complaint about it is that the rules do not explicitly state when you shuffle the damage deck.  I’m assuming that you shuffle at the end of a turn but it bugs me when rules that use decks don’t state when to shuffle them; because when you do affects the probability.  Odds of getting a particular card go up the longer you deal from the deck.  I mean, we’ve all seen movies where people count cards at black jack right? I’ve never done it, but that’s because I’ve seen movies of what happens to people who count cards at black jack. 

There are also some nice mechanics to what happens to the ship when its chain of command gets hit; represented by the command star. 

Ships strike when various damage tracks are crossed off completely, however it’s been my experience that it’s always the crew stars being all crossed out that makes a ship strike.  There's no roll for morale, and I'm not sure how I feel about that just because I am used to morale rolls.  

Repair Phase

I like it when sailing games have rules for conducting repairs, but don't like it when those rules are a bunch of extra book keeping.  I'm hard to please as the wife will tell you.   These rules do repairs really well.  Basically for each crew star available it's 1D6 to assign to a damaged area.  This creates a nice dynamic where in the beginning of a battle, light damage to the ship is easily repaired, but as the battle progresses and more and more crew stars are eliminated the number of repair dice dwindles and eventually can't keep up anymore, and you have to triage what needs are more urgent.


After all the event cards (or chits) are played out, any ships involved in boarding actions then fight it out.  I like the way boarding is handled in the rules.  The sequence needs some minor clarifications but other than that the rules work well and do what I expected: Marines are really useful, the boarder can become the boardee if things go poorly.  Boarding actions go on for the goldilocks amount of turns (basically a few turns): so long enough not to be over instantly but short enough not to drag on and on.

After all that; it's reshuffle the damage cards and the event cards and start the turn over

British Gunnery

There's an optional rule that I didn't use for my play test but am planning on using all the time now called British Gunnery.  It states that a British ship may fire it's guns during the fire phase OR the repair phase.  It doesn't shoot twice, but just more options of when to fire.  The ship must have a full command star to do this.  If it does fire during the repair phase then it treats the fire phase as it's repair phase, but makes repairs at the cost of 2 crew stars per repair die.  I think this is a great rule to give the British the leg up that they had during this time period.

And That's Basically the Game, But What Else is in the Book?

There's a bunch of ship logs, a few scenarios, and a campaign section.  Full disclosure, I haven't read the campaign section; because who am I kidding, I haven't played a campaign in over a decade.


BBiB is a good AoS ruleset that provides a fun game overall.  Most of the mechanics are streamlined and easy to pick up, and provides just enough historical flavor in the way that the ship operates, takes damage, makes repairs, and used the crew to make me feel like it's about sailing ships.  What it gains in streamlining it looses other aspects that are typically in AoS rule sets; all ships of a type are the same, there are no rules for elite or poor crews, sailing is generic etc..  But these can be added with some simple house rules that I discuss below.  Overall, a recommended rule set for playing multiplayer games with each player controlling 3-5 ships.

Stews House Rules and Clarifications:

This is a section mainly for those who already have the rules and want to read how I will tinker with them.  

One thing missing is speeding up or slowing down.  The only way change speed in these rules is to change sail (only 3 options) and change direction to the wind, because ships don't have brakes.
Yet while ships often 'hove to' by turning into the wind to slow down and reducing sail, they in fact did have brakes as there were a number of ways to slow the ship down while not changing it's heading; spill wind from the sails, use less sails, back sails, etc..  SO in future games I'm gonna try out this House rule:
Ships start the sail phase moving at it's indicated sail setting.  At the end of the sail phase the player announces whether the ship is reducing or adding sails (because other ships can see what she is doing) and the player can then adjust the sail speed either left or right or up and down.  Example: A Ship with 3 masts at half sails wants to slow down next phase.  He announces this to the other players and then can choose to either shift to left to No Sail or shift down to using 2 masts speeds. 

Two thing missing is a modifier for firing the guns while at full sail, as I talked about above.  Here's my idea: -1 modifier while shooting if at full sail, and if hit while at full sail the ship takes a rigging hit as well as the usual hit to the crew.

Three thing missing is the ability to rate crews.  No crew is better than any others.  The amount of crew stars a ship gets is based on it's size..  I think one way to give a crew a boost is to assign it an extra crew star or two; in this way the ship will make more repairs and stay in the fight longer because it can take more hits.  Conversely if you want a ship to have less stamina you can take away a crew star.

Four thing is some ranges for smaller ships.  My AoS models are all Langton 1/1200 ships and the rules are written for slightly bigger ships as the author expresses on his blog here.  The ranges I'll use are: Point blank is w/in 2" (this is basically base to base, if you measure from mast to mast), Close Range is 4", Medium Range is 8",  Long range 12", and extreme range 16".  I'll keep the sailing distances the same though as moving around 6" a turn seems about right to me.

With All This Talk About Sailing Rules, I feel Like A Ship is Coming On...

Or maybe two of them.

A WIP shot of the two ships on my hobby desk.
Both are painted, and now just need to be assembled and rigged.
Hopefully correctly.  I am rusty at making ships.

A French 76 in the works.
But really, what't the difference between a 76 and a 74?
In most rules, not a thing.

A British 80 gun in the works as well.
This will be my version of the HMS Caesar

These completed ships will most probably be the next post.  Try not to hold your breath till next time.

I've also been very distracted of late in real life, and my time spent blogging and commenting on other's blogs has greatly been curtailed.  SO if you have missed my inane comments on your brilliant blog posts, rest assured there are good reasons.  I finally found enough time to complete this post just so my online presence doesn't completely disappear.  I appreciate your brilliant comments on my inane posts.


  1. Stew, many of your photographs are missing (just blanks spaces), this has happened on a couple of other blogs over the last couple of days. The blogger could see them on their device .... but the paying public couldn’t! One blogger re-uploaded his pics and that seemed to work.

    Yours views on these rules interest me, as it is a subject you are familiar with, so if you like them, they must be good. This land lubber has some Warlord 1/700 to build (Black Seas) and some 1/2400 (Tumbling Dice), also to build - some good rules might move this plastic / lead mountsin up the queue.

    1. Same here for me too with respect to missing photos. Your review is much appreciated.

      I miss your inane comments. Hopefully, life will return to normal. When it does, we may find ourselves in a New World.

    2. ^*^#%*>#!!!!

      Thanks for the alert. I have reloaded the images and hopefully that works. I can’t imagine reading through a post of mine without the awesome images, it’d be too boring. How did people blog before easy to insert images. Shudder.

      Thanks Norm. I ALSO have some black seas ships that I got for Christmas. I’ve been reluctant to start them bc I’m not sure I need ships in 2 scales but the models are nice. The BS rules I thought were terrible, fits that the abbreviation is BS, but these rules would work great. πŸ˜€

      Thanks Jon, I miss you too. ❤️
      I’ll get around to your blog soon. You don’t help though by writing a post every other day it seems. I just can’t keep up.

      Hopefully y’all will come back for the photos. πŸ˜€

    3. Photos are back! Nice ones too! The captions make much more sense now.

  2. Another comment on missing pics mate.

    But otherwise, sounds like an interesting rules set.

    I especially like iron balls and own a pair or steel for when I'm inebriated and feel like I can take on the world.

    1. Thanks Dai. I’m hoping to try the rules out on you if we can ever find the time.

      I also have iron balls when the wife lets me and says it’s ok. πŸ˜†

  3. Thanks for the detailed review, I have a copy of the not out of production warhammer rules which are very similar. But somehow I haven’t managed to collect enough ships of the right size perhaps this should be a project for the future ?

    1. Thanks Matt. I’m unfamiliar with the war hammer rules but I’m happy to inspire a new project in others. Bout time it happened to someone else, usually it’s me. πŸ˜€

  4. Aww, I'll be your friend! As long as the wife lets me leave the house...

    1. Thanks Barnes. I know you’re my friend, one of the many that I never see. It’s more because schedules are a bear bc of kids. Kids ruin everything. πŸ˜€

  5. Nice review of the rules. Does having all the record sheets the same by class mean that you can handle more ships? I.e. not needing to keep checking to see if this ship has better or worse crew, extra heavy guns etc.

    More painted ships in the future is also exciting.

    1. Thanks Laz, though let’s not get too excited bc progress is slow. πŸ˜€

      It’s not so much the ships being the same that helps, even in more complex games like a Post Captain one 74 is very similar to the next. It’s more bc the rules are a lot less complex and there are less things to track for each ship. I think one could comfortably 4 or more ships with these rules.

  6. I appreciate you stopping by my site with comments, particularly since you're busy! Naval combat is something I know nothing about but I enjoyed reading your review all the same. As someone else with few friends, it was nice to hear you got a solo game in too. I would say you inspire me in regards to your varied tastes in games too. I'd love to be able to play a couple of different ones as the mood strikes though to be frank. Hopefully one day I get there. Finally, those ships you're painting look great. I look forward to seeing more in the future!

    1. Thanks Kuribo. I’d like to think my friendless existence is more due to the demands of everyone’s families and not my social skills, but time will tell. πŸ˜€

      My varied collection is simply the result of time spent in the hobby. It’s been around 15 years or so, and my collections are small compared to others. But you’re right that’s it fun to have a little variety. πŸ˜€

  7. I've always wanted to like naval, particularly age of sail, but it never has liked me in return. Nevertheless, I appreciate the look of it when well done--and your ships are a treat. I always find it interesting to see a solo game report: it never occurs to me when I'm in a gaming gap to do one (until I read that someone else has).

    1. Thanks Ed. Truth be told I don’t especially enjoy solo games. I really only do them to try out new rules or maybe a very detailed battle report. Otherwise I’d much rather paint up something. The lead pile is always calling...πŸ˜€

  8. Interesting write up of the AOS rules, nephew no 2 has AOS sail rules ( the warhammer ones) but still hasn't got any ships, I guess its only been 10 years, I'm not holding my breath for a game! Lovely detailed ship models and nice to see before the rigging and sails go on!
    Best Iain

    1. Thanks Iain, a decade is a long time to wait. Might have to do it yourself. It was kinda nice to zoom in on the decks, there’s a lot of detail there that easy to miss when covered by the sails and rigging. πŸ˜€

  9. Great work on those ships Stew. Very much enjoyed the post as always and glad that I manged to log on correctly to be able to leave a comment as Google is throwing curve balls at me in recent months. Take care.

    1. Hi Carlo! It’s been awhile. Sorry google is being strange with you. It can be extra aggravating when computers don’t work for you but seem to be working fine for everyone else. πŸ˜€
      Glad you liked the ships.

  10. Nice review Stew. These are our go to ruleset for our Napoleonic naval games. We have used them for small Friday night games all the way up to the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar.
    Easy to pick up, slightly harder to master, great fun though.

    1. Thanks Tony! As a veteran of the rules what did you think of the house rules I presented? I’m hopeful to try them out again soon-ish. πŸ˜€