Age of Sail
Windows - 1996
Description of Age of Sail
A wise man once said "wargames portraying Napoleonic era naval actions are like buses".
"How can this be master?" asked his fawning acolytes "for one is a collection of electronic ones and zeros which when processed in a certain way provide entertainment and the other is a large vehicle used in the transport of people".
"Simple" replied the sage. "You wait for ages for one to arrive and then three appear at once".
So me hearties, let us swing our best telescopes leewards and eagerly clap eyes on the proud vessel that is Age of Sail from Talonsoft. Lubbers who have not read my earlier review of Wooden ships and Iron Men by Avalon Hill, the first of the current crop of broadside 'em ups to appear, might be well advised to do so since there will inevitably be a fair amount of comparisons made between the two games.
An old gag but I like it. Before getting into comparisons, let's have a look at what Age of Sail offers. Age Of Sail covers the period between 1750 and 1820, that is the American war of independence and the Napoleonic war. The game allows the player to assume command of a single ship or a fleet and do battle against a comprehensive range of foes. Single battles can be fought or the player can embark on a naval career choosing the country they will bravely defend and the time period in which they will operate. Multi player options are available for those who find a computer intelligence limiting. Should the player be in search of a quick (and I use the word loosely) fight, they can select from over 100 scenarios that comes with the game or if none of these satisfy create their own.
Age Of Sail take a similar attitude towards land as Wooden Ships and Iron Men, it pretends it doesn't exist. No exciting inshore battles then with the leadsman calling out the soundings and a foul wind blowing you towards a rocky shore though Talonsoft have said that they intend to introduce the concept of land at some stage probably coinciding with the forthcoming release of Age of Oars or Age or Ironclads.
Age of Sail differs from Wooden Ships and Iron Men in one major respect. whilst Wooden Ships and Iron Men was a turn based game, Age of Sail is played in real time. Just how this impacts on gameplay, we shall see later. Age of Sail is also a Windows 95 game unlike Wooden Ships and Iron Men . More importantly for someone wanting to fight the great battles of the period, Age of Sail has less restrictions on the number of ships that can take part in an action so that it is possible in Age of Sail to fight the entire battle of Trafalgar whereas Wooden Ships and Iron Men only allowed the player to fight a portion of the battle.
All at sea
Age of Sail uses an interface which Word for Windows user will be instantly familiar with. At the top of the screen is a menu bar with some familiar entries (file, help) and some less familiar ones. Below that is a toolbar with a variety of buttons for everyday tasks such as steering your fine vessel and setting the sails.
The battlefield fills most of the screen and at the bottom is a row of windows portraying the direction and strength of the wind and the status of selected ships. Ships are selected by clicking on them and can then be given orders by clicking on the appropriate toolbar button. There are also shortcuts using the mouse for common actions such as manouvering and opening fire. The keyboard comes into play to some extent as well being used to select between giving orders to a single ship or an entire squadron. The interface works well and makes manouvering the player's forces as easy as could be hoped.
Sound and Graphics
Age of Sail 's designers have shown some originality in spurning a selection of sea shanties as in-battle entertainment for the busy admiral. Instead, you get some nice classical tunes. Sound as you might expect consists of the crash of cannon and little else. The sound effects are ok but not what you might call inspired.
Graphics are always a bit tricky in games of this sort because to get a view of the entire battle, individual units have to appear as little more than dots on the screen. Talonsoft have to some extent got round this by making it possibly to run Age of Sail in 1024x768 and 800x600 as well as the more traditional 640x400. Players will need a good monitor and better eyesight to take advantage of the higher resolutions though.
Zooming in to an individual ship reveals a nice selection of detail. Even better, battle damage is portrayed as well so that a ship that has taken a battering may well have a missing mast or two and sails that could be passed off as the finest lace available.
Rattle me rowlocks, it's Cut Throat Jake!
So to battle. Age of Sail includes over 100 single encounters for the player to try ranging from single ship encounters to the clash of fleets in battles such as Trafalgar. All the major sea faring races of the time are included and there is a scenario editor so that even if the historical encounter you want to play is not included with the game, you can design it yourself. Finally, there is the campaign option for those who want a bit of continuity in their lives. Players can choose which nationality they wish to be and which period they want their campaign to take place in (this establishes a theme for the campaign such as the American Revolution or the rise of the Royal navy). Starting with a small ship, the idea is that the player gains money and renown through a series of victories until they end up in command of an entire fleet.
I have a couple of problems with the campaign option (though I would hasten to point out that it is far superior to the Wooden Ships and Iron Men equivalent). One is that their lordships seem awfully generous with their ships. Readers of Hornblower (ok I know it's fiction) will know that the poor sod spent much of his time worrying that the admiralty was going to beach him permanently for some minor failing. I on the other hand have managed to loose a vast number of ships, often to greatly inferior foes and their lordships have dispensed another tub without so much as a "take better care of this one". It seems impossible to fail in the career option.
Another problem is that careers offer little sense of continuity. One battle may see you in a scrap in the English channel, the next may find you in the West Indies. It's hard to maintain interest in how your character is doing.
Talonsoft has made a commendable effort to inject a large amount of realism into Age of Sail but for me, that has led to problems in the gameplay department. As mentioned above, Age of Sail is played in real time and for much of that time, the player will be twiddling their thumbs waiting for something to happen. When a ship is ordered to turn, it will not do so immediately. Indeed if it is a ponderous vessel, it may take several minutes to do so. Similarly, cannons take a considerable amount of time to reload (the default is three minute though that's probably a bit fast for ultimate realism) though the game does offer the option to choose how long reloads will take (anything between one and five minutes). This means that tactics have to be decided well in advance.
Should the waiting become too much, there is an option to speed gameplay up by varying amounts. This needs care in use since it is all too easy to speed things up too much and suddenly find that your main mast has disappeared when you blinked.
One time when the player is definitely grateful for the game's somewhat glacial pace is when they have command of more than one ship. There is no option in Age of Sail to assign command of some of the player's fleet to the computer AI though firing can be made automatic. Things are eased slightly for the budding commodore by the fact that entire squadrons (the players command may be split into several squadrons) can be issued orders at the same time somewhat reducing the need to micromanage each vessel in the fleet. Still, anyone who can play out the Battle of Trafalgar scenario in less than a week has my admiration.
He Doesn't Know what He's Talking About
This is the point when I finally convince the GDR readership that I've parted my moorings and should be shoehorned into a neatly fitting straitjacket at the earliest opportunity. Having just banged on at considerable length about how Age of Sail 's designer's commendable striving for realism has somewhat nobbled gameplay in my opinion, I'm about to announce that in some areas Age of Sail is not realistic enough. Hatstand or what?
The first problem is with movement. Like Wooden Ships and Iron Men, Age of Sail is restricted to movement in the 8 cardinal directions. No feeling the thrill as you realise that your fine craft can sail a point or so closer to the wind than your opponent. I know making this compromise must make the mechanics of the game simpler but still. At least Wooden Ships and Iron Men had the excuse that this sort of movement was part of the original boardgame. Allied to this is the fact that you can only perform one kind of maneuver, a 45 degree turn to port or starboard. There's no possibility of tacking or any of the other maneuvers associated with sailing ships.
Then there is the problem of crew allocation. In Wooden Ships and Iron Men, crew had to be allocated to duties on the ship so that to perform a tricky maneuver such as tacking, a certain percentage of crew had to be assigned to the rigging. This of course meant that less crew were allocated to the guns leading to a reduction in firepower. Age Of Sail does not bother with this at all meaning that it is quite possible to fight both side of the ship (i.e. have the broadsides on both sides firing at once) and change sail at the same time. I get the feeling that the main thrust of Age of Sail is towards commanding fleets and perhaps Talonsoft felt that managing the crew of each ship in the fleet in real time would be too much for the player.
Despite the fact that it is a Windows95 game, Age of Sail actually comes with a paper manual! A slim volume at 44 pages admittedly but welcome all the same. It's well done being heavily illustrated with both screen shots and suitably nautical pictures and contains everything the budding admiral needs to get going. The game also comes with a handy quick reference card.
Bugs and Moans
I have one or two minor grumps with the Age of Sail interface. When selecting a scenario, the choices are displayed in a scrollable window containing three lines of text. This may suffice in Talonsoft's other battleground games in which there is a much more limited choice of scenario but it is tricky finding the scenario you want in so small a window when you have a choice of over 100.
Similarly, in the scenario creator, there is no way that I found to limit the choice of ships shown to those from one country. The ships are all jumbled together and since it is not always possible to tell from a ship's name which country it serves, it can be tricky to find that last frigate to finish off a side.
As noted above, I played version 1.2 of the game. Version 1.4 is apparently due out soon which addresses some problems with gameplay. Don't ask me what happened to version 1.3, apparently Talonsoft decided to skip it.
I was disappointed with Age of Sail just as I was disappointed with Wooden Ships and Iron Men before it. Though competently presented, for me it just doesn't have that flair which would keep you up night after night seeking glory on the high seas. Though I hesitate to mention this for fear that a mob of rampaging wargamers will kick my door down and string me up from the nearest yardarm, I wonder if the approach taken by SSI with the Great Naval Battles series might not be a better approach to take to games of this kind. Serious wargamers will of course scoff at this.
If you simply must have a wargame portraying the clash of tall ships which should you buy? Of the two I've played, I would give the nod to Age of Sail over Wooden Ships and Iron Men simply because of its wider scope, its superior career option and Talonsoft's commitment to continue improving the game. There are other options though. Also available at the moment is Admiral: Sea Battles, a review of which should be appearing shortly in the GDR and on the horizon is Man of War from Strategy First, a title which sounds very interesting since it allows you to stand on your craft's quarterdeck and fight the battle from there in a full 3d environment. Don't hang up that telescope just yet!
Review By GamesDomain
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