Wargames Illustrated issue 421, from January 2023, comes with a full ancient naval ruleset: Thalassa, from Room 17 studio. Of course, I had to pick it up and check it out!
This, however, is not a review. I never played the rules, because I haven’t got the pieces and the game calendar is fully booked and frankly at this point I am not able to open YET another project… therefore I am not doing a review.
Instead, I want to share a few observations on three topics: the concept behind Thalassa, the rules themselves and the overall package of ancient naval-related stuff offered in this issue of WI.
The rules concept, I think, is potentially very interesting. Clashes between small numbers of triereis and pentekonters, represented in high details down to their crew composition, and all customizable by the players.
However, I believe the setting they chose to develop this concept into does not fully exploit that potential. Thalassa's setting is fleets actions, and battles between poleis. But with each ship being modelled in such detail, and having up to fourteen different characteristics, and six different types of crew stands to choose for each ship, and moving individually during the game, players will probably be able to deal with half a dozen ships each. Even if it was double that, you cannot realistically represent the dynamics of a large engagements. Face to face conventional battles using these rules are probably going to be not really satisfying.
Instead, at this scale, you would probably have much more fun in an asymmetric warfare environment. You could have pirates chasing freighters (the difference between the two could be very theorical…), or warships chasing pirates (same!), or warships performing special operations such as extractions or blockade running, or pirates competing for a specific loot target, or warships performing raids or other amphibious tasks in enemy territory, or all sort of naval small combat episodes you could imagine. Of course, you are free to use the rules as you want, so my suggestion is to ignore battles and try to imagine a scenario with special objectives. You could use the scenarios included in rules such as Lion rampant for inspiration.
Still, if the authors framed the rules as asymmetric skirmishes instead of fleet battles they would have given us stats for freighters, the different cargos, for non military crews, rules for landings, etc.. all sort of other small war useful stuff. Maybe this could be an idea for an expansion to be published in next issues of WI?
About the rules themselves. Well, as I haven’t played them I cannot judge them. However I can underline a few things I read and liked or did not like. What I did like is the use of current and drift. It is a very "gamey" idea and not at all realistic, however it fits with the general spirit of the rules and is an original thing which provides players with additional options and spices up the game. Nicely done. I also really like the detailed boarding and fighting procedure. Given that the ships are scaled to 6mm, this is a very nice touch allowing you to actually play with your epibatai.
What I did not like: in the end it’s an IGOUGO, ship-for-ship ruleset (even if you are allowed, once per turn, to try to activate two ships). This means that the rules could be prone to a neverending sequence of ramming which starts as soon as the first couple of ships are in range and ends only when both fleets are fully engaged. It is the feared “I-ram-you-then-you-ram-me-then-I-ram-you-again-then…” effect.
Also, I did find the overall treatment of triereis a little too much un-historical from my very personal point of view (which is admittingly beyond normal). I really cannot see triereis in action with the sails on, come on! Would you play Napoleonic warships without masts just because they look cooler (they don't, but you get my point)? I also cannot see the oars rowed as if the ship was backing water... oars should arc from perpendicular to the ship to pointing towards the bow, not towards the stern! Check the Olympias here at around minute 1 if you don't believe me! I know these choices were made because they make commercial sense, but it still bother me that only in ancient naval these kind of historical absurdities are tolerated. Phew...
Finally, what about the package. WI422 does not only offers the rules. It also includes a nice little scenario for Thalassa (which is indeed more similar to the skirmishes that I was discussing than to an open warfare scenario). It includes a battle report which is very useful because it helps you understand the rules better. Also, it includes a painting guide which is extremely good, especially for painting wood, and is useful beyond this subject.
There is also an article which provides you a prime on ancient naval warfare. Given its length and its nature is very basic indeed, but is well done ( even if, weirdly, the author seems convinced that triremes specifically - and not galleys - were the dominant warships in the Mediterranean for some 600 years. Hmmm...). Thanks to the gods, it does provide a not wholly inaccurate description of diekplous, with no mention of the outdated notion of the diekplous as an oar-breaking manouver.
Last but not least, WI provides you - if you are a WIPrime member, which I am - the STL files for the ships and all the little other things you’ll need, such as crews and warmachines and tokens! Now, this is modernity! The ships themselves are a kind of pimped-up version of Olympias. In many ways they are surprisingly accurate and well done - the epotis, the raided stern, the parexeiresia and the rostrum. A few details veer towards the "mad max-esque", surely to make the ship look tougher: look at the raised prow.
All in all, the overall package is certainly an interesting offer in terms of value for money and if your goal is to chase pirates in the Thyrrenian sea I suggest you pick it up and give it a try. And let me know how the rules work!
All pictures in this post come from Wi421, January 2023, or from the Thalassa rules themselves.