What is Man O'War?

 


 
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Man O'War is game, unfortunately out of print, allowing players to simulate naval battles set in the fantasy world of Warhammer. As an admiral of an ocean-going warfleet you must command your ships - squadrons of Ships of the Line and heavily armored Men O' War - in the battle for supremacy of the high seas.

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Driven by the winds of Chaos, a Nurgle fleet ventures onto the waters of Ulthuan shores.

Since Man O'War is the naval translation of all battles taking places among the races of Warhammer Fantasy, most of those races are represented in the game: Empire, Bretonnia, High Elves, Dark Elves, Orks, Skavens, Dwarves and Chaos Dwarves, Chaos powers and Norsca. Undead fleets were introduced in issue #6 of the Citadel Journal, but no miniature have ever been released for them, officially or not. Goblins have no fleet of their own, although it's more than hinted that they are part of the Ork fleet (notably because Ork fleet features Doomdivers as anti-flier armament.) Wood Elves are deliberately missing, since it was assumed that the Forest of Loren had no access to the sea. There are other notable absents though, like Lizardmen or Ogre Kingdoms; it's not because authors discarded the eventual seafaring skill of those races, but simply because they did not exist as independent factions at the time Man O'War product line was published.

The Man O'War range

Man O'War is a project of Nigel Stillman, one of the author of the first editions of Warhammer, the core wargame system of Games Workshop. Mr Stillman had for long the project of taking battles to the sea and Man O'War is the result of his attempt, with the help of Andy Jones and Bill King. The game was originally published in 1993 and was quickly followed by two expansions, Plague Fleet and Sea of Blood. It seems that those add-ons have been designed at the same time than the boxed set, only to be released later.

The boxed set of Man O'War contains main rulebook, templates, counters and scenery - in form of islands and sand bank templates; in short, everything required for gaming with the six starting lists (Empire, Bretonnians, High and Dark Elves, Dwarves and Orks.) Miniature wise, the content is a bit below what gamers usually expect from Games Workshop regarding a starter set: only twelve plastic wargalleys are included, or four squadrons. This is clearly not enough for an interesting games. Yet, those miniatures are useful because they are quite versatile, allowing players to create the basis for an Empire fleet, a Pirate fleet, and even Chaos fleets from them.

Plague Fleet introduces extra fleets essentially affiliated with the dark powers. There is a universal Chaos fleet, four Chaos Power fleets (each affiliated to a different Chaos God), Skaven fleet and Chaos Dwarf fleet, along with all templates and counters required to manage those ships. There are also a number of "chaos scenery" pieces figuring strange areas of the sea where the alternate reality of Chaos affects the natural laws of physics. Chaos powers come with their own special magic sytem, more dangerous and powerful than the regular one available for other races. The plague fleet rulebook introduces special scenarios taking place in the dreaded Seas of Chaos.

Sea of Blood introduces Sea Monsters, Flying Units and additional ships for several of Man O'War fleets: Empire Ironfists, Empire Hellhammers and Dwarf Dreadnought. The expansion also introduces allies and the Norse fleet, a race basically designed to fight mostly as an ally for another faction. The box contains no miniature but plenty of templates and counters, namely those for the fleets described in the core set. Sea of Blood includes gaming material for factions introduced in Plague Fleet.
Sea Monsters can be used by any army. On the other hand, flyers are for every race except Norse and Skaven. Sea of Blood pushes the bound of battle size by expanding the regular size of a game from 1'000 pts to 1'300 pts, justifying this need as a necessity to include flying units and anti-flier armament into a fleet roster. Indeed, those three extra hundred points do a lot for the variety of the game, allowing far more flexibility in fleet construction. It's of course written that those extra points can be spent freely by each player; for this reason, 1'300 point format quickly became a standard battle size for Man O'War games, regardless to the presence of flying units in each force.

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Contents of the boxed set.

Along with the expansion boxes, all miniatures were released over the years. Their packaging was sometimes strange; for example, Slaanesh boxes included a single Hellslicer and a single Hellrammer, while each ship had to be purchased in squadron of three in the fleet list. Over time or depending on the country, some miniatures were sold in boxes or in blisters. Yet, it's worth noticing that all Man O'War miniatures have been available, contrary to other games from the same publisher where players still have to make their own conversions. Since each fleet comprises only a dozen miniatures from a few different models, it's possible to achieve a complete collection of all Man O'War fleets. The game has a great collector value, another reason for its enduring popularity.

The fall

The complete Man O'War product line was discontined in 1995. Reasons are unclear - some claim that the line did not sell well, while others argue that Games Workshop had given Man O'War the usual lifespan allowed to side games. The latter explanation seems plausible considering the life cycle of similar lines before and after this period, like Necromunda, whose commercial success is beyond doubt. Many hoped that the game would be revamped and released again in forthcoming years, but the end of Man O'War arrived in the middle of a policy shift from Games Workshop regarding side games, which were increasingly seen as diversion from core games (Warhammer and Warhammer 40'000) rather than introduction to them. This obviously didn't pleaded in favor a new release of Man O'War, a game with its own rule system and a unique scale.

Perhaps that the reason Man O'War was discontinued had nothing to do with management and policies but simply with miniatures themselves. Apart from plastic wargalleys sold in the boxed set, all Man O'War ships were exclusively cast in metal; many included frail features and were often available only in squadrons, meaning a high number of duplicates had to be cast. Therefore, it's probable that molds worn out quickly. This explains why some miniatures are especially valued on the secondhand market, like most vessels from the Bretonnian fleet. Once the molds became unusable, little could be done but to remove the product from sale. Earning money from miniature sales, Games Workshop could not continue selling a game whose supply was exhausted.
(Note that a common misconception regarding miniature casting is that new molds can be created again from the green stuff sculpt; if it's theoretically possible, it's also very likely that the green stuff prototype of a miniature is destroyed while creating the master mold.)

Naturally, those explanations refer to miniature production technology in the 90s.

Finally, rumor has it that Man O'War won't be seen again because all computer files regarding the game has been lost. According to this story, the accident occurred while Games Workshop moved to new offices in Nottingham. Perhaps it was just a problem of backup, or perhaps a mere lack of foreplanning in the move. It's probably why Games Workshop is rather lenient regarding scanned versions of rules, templates and counters that can be found on the Internet.

Games Workshop has a tradition of maintaining a shroud of secrecy over its work; we'll propably never know the real reasons behind the end of Man O'War even if plausible explanations are presented above. It makes little difference after all those years. The only sure thing is that it won't be published again from Games Workshop. Yet, it's not because a game is not published anymore that it ceased to be fun playing it; Man O'War still stays immensely popular, for good reasons.

The game system

Man O'War complexity is low, making it ideal for newcomers and people searching for a game playable in a single evening.

A typical turn of Man O'War starts with an initiative roll, which can also change wind direction if both players roll a tie. Then, there is a magic phase, where each fleet wizard can try to cast a spell and/or dispell one cast by his opponent. The rest of the turn is based on unit activation: each admiral alternatively plays a squadron (three smaller vessels) or a Man O'War (large units) then lets his opponent do the same.

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An Imperial Wolfship squadron.

During its activation, each ship moves then fires. There are a number of movement modes: sail, steam, oars, magic, each one bringing benefits and drawbacks. Sails are the fastest but require the ship not to have head wind. Oars allow rear movement and spot turn, and so on. Of course, most ships only have a single way of moving, but others are less restricted in their movement modes.

Once the movement of a ship is completed, it can open fire on any enemy ship in its fire arcs. Each vessel has a number of canon batteries in each location and roll that number of dice against its target. Checking the target's location template, it's easy to see where each salvo lands or misses; for largest units, it's possible to aim high or low. The location eventually hit is allowed a saving throw to avoid destruction. In case of damage, the location is effectively lost, reducing the ship's abilities: it can lose a mast, a cannon battery or its steam boiler, and so on. Further damage can cause critical hits, ranging from the hilarious Captain's Chart ("captain's secret rhum stash is hit...") to worse consequences, like a blaze or a break below the waterline. A ship usually sinks because of the cumulative effects of critical hits.

Gunning down enemy units is not the only way to eliminate opposing warships - a boarding action is another possibility, albeit more dangerous for both protagonists. In that case, crew from both ships fight back and forth until one of them is destroyed or the winner of a round of assault decides not to push his attack. If one crew is slaughtered, winners have no problem scuttling the now abandoned enemy ship or taking it as a battle prize.

Men O'War and ship of the line squadrons are handled the same way. Player alternate activations until all ships have been addressed. The turn ends with a series of record keeping events, like management of debris, blazes, etc. After that, both players are ready for the next turn. Games ends when victory conditions of the scenario are met or when one side is destroyed, surrenders or flees the battlefield.

Critics of Man O'War

Man O'War game system has both merits and weaknesses.

Rules are pretty much complete: nearly everything is covered, from the magic system to crew experience, monsters, allies, shore forts, special terrain and so on. The system is balanced enough to allow groups of players to create their own special rules (for example ports, strong currents, river battles...) as they see fit. Contrarily to other Games Workshop games, turn is made through alternate unit activation and not I-go-You-go system; this makes each turn interesting because each player is involved fully in a turn instead of waiting his opponent to finish all moves while only rolling for saves. The unit activation rule is also great for battles with three or more players, with only few alterations to core rules.

The game is smooth and fast-paced. Only a handful of dice are rolled at once and the number of factors they combine is simply amazing: hit or miss, location hit, target saving throw, consequence of damage, range... Game is pretty visual, with ship templates ending full of blaze and damage counters. Piling those damage markers gives a good impression of a battered ship!

Yet, there are several drawbacks. The game is quite random, and like many Games Workshop publication, game balance is far from perfect: some fleets are a lot stronger than others or have glaring weaknesses that can be exploited by an unscrupulous player for an easy win. This is specially true with fleets introduced in Plague Fleet expansion, where authors mutter than Chaos fleet should be used in special scenarios. Unless a player is unusually skilled or lucky, a Plague Fleet will crush a similar-sized fleet from another set; to use an extreme example, a Norse fleet (geared towards boarding actions) has nearly no chance of winning against a Slaanesh fleet (geared towards killing enemy crew). It's not necessarily a problem as long as all players are aware of this trait and accept it, but it makes the game ill-suited for tournament play. On the other hand, some admirals are always up to a challenge!

Another criticism is related to fleet management. Every ship has its own record template to record blazes, damage, below the waterline hits and wound inflicted to the crew. If it makes for a detailed game, the surface taken by all those cards and the number of counters can become troublesome, if many ships are involved in the sea battle. Moreover, remembering which ship corresponds to which template can be difficult during the course of a game, where the arrangement of miniatures can be very different from the layout of the ship cards on the table. It is probably the reason why Man O'War is impracticable for massive clashes, unless players can accomodate an extra table for those ship cards and find a way to manage everything.

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High Elf Eagleship.

To avoid this issue, many players have scans of ship cards and print them at reduced size as a disposable resource, or use a single one for reference and mark damage for their fleet on a separate paper sheet. Not everyone is annoyed by this situation though: with all the information stored on a ship card, it's not necessary to browse through booklets, making the game run smooth. Finally, the visual of each card makes the game ideally suited for beginners and facilitates fleet composition. But this is clearly a limiting factor for larger battles of Man O'War, and probably the reason why only the most diehard fans of the game allow themselves to play battles of 2'000 points per side or more. Man O'War isn't especially suited to skirmish battles - a 1'300 point game gives a well sized fleet - but proves impractical for massive clashes.

Becoming an admiral

Many people still have an interest in Man O'War, despite the game has been out of print for more than ten years. This endured popularity is really a tribute to the game system and its excellent "fun factor". There are, naturally, also new players who are eager to join but turned off by the apparent difficulty of gathering rules and miniatures.

Yet, this daunting challenge might by exaggerated a lot. Rule wise, there is no need to buy anything; Internet provides plenty of websites allowing a free download of rulebooks, fleet lists, and scans of original templates and counters (try the Sea of Claws, manowargame & manowargameArchive, dougram's site, or this one for french versions.) This gaming material is not even required for playing if both player know the game well or have a copy of some tables. No need to print everything, except perhaps the ship templates for easier reference, and a couple rulers (for ship going about and cannon ranges.) But basically, to play Man O'War you only need the miniatures.

When the game was released, most ships where sold at £4.99 for Men O'War, and £4.99 per squadron of smaller ships of the line or £9.99 for squadrons of biggest ones. In the 90s, it was seen as expensive even through Games Workshop standards, but despite those prices Man O'War was probably the cheapest game in the publisher's catalog, simply because few miniatures were required to build a fleet. Ironically, the high prices of miniatures has since then exploded due to rarity and it didn't even hindered the game's popularity - perhaps Games Workshop could have charged even more for the miniatures! Those high prices are explained by player demographics: it seems that there are more people joining the game than people leaving it.

Nowadays, it's still possible to get Man O'War miniatures, and even boxed set and expansions for people interesting in paper and cardboard. As usual, eBay provides the bulk of this irregular supply; but there are other sources, like BoardgameGeek or Chaosorc, with a large amount of miniatures available - but beware of the price tag. Using proxies is always possible, but no metal substitutes exist for exotic races. And playing with cardboard shapes is always a bit depressing... But some people achieve impressing results from this material and toothpicks for masts. And there are still suitable alternatives in the historical miniatures market, like Valiant Enterprises or Warrior Miniatures.

For this reason, launching oneself into Man O'War is not difficult, just expensive. Yet, this cost should not be considered an obstacle. Man O'War miniatures are much sought after: if fleets are pricey to collect, they sell just as well. The market price of Man O'War is perhaps the best testimony of the popularity of the game. More than a drawback, consider that a guarantee that you won't be disappointed.
created on 21 Mar 2007

 

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