The Spanish Armada was a fleet of 130 ships that sailed from A Coruña in August 1588, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia with the purpose of escorting an army from Flanders to invade England. The strategic aim was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and the Tudor establishment of Protestantism in England, with the expectation that this would put a stop to English interference in the Spanish Netherlands and to the harm caused to Spanish interests by English and Dutch privateering.

Routes of the Spanish ArmadaThe Spanish decided not to attack the English Fleet anchored at Plymouth and instead chose to sail up the English Channel to meet up with the Duke of Parma’s army at Calais to ferry them across to invade. But when the Duke was late, the Spanish Fleet was attacked by English Fire Ships and scattered. In the ensuing Battle of Gravelines, the Spanish fleet was damaged and forced to abandon its rendezvous with Parma’s army, who were blockaded in harbor by the Dutch. The Armada managed to regroup and, driven by southwest winds, withdrew north, with the English fleet harrying it up the east coast of England. The commander ordered a return to Spain, but the Armada was disrupted during severe storms in the North Atlantic and a large number of the vessels were wrecked on the coast. Of the initial 130 ships, nearly a third failed to return and the attempt was foiled. Many feel that this event was the reason that the Reformation was allowed to happen, as if Spain had invaded England, things might have been very different.

The Invincible Armada

The Invincible Armada Game Setup
A look at the initial setup of the game.

We posted an unboxing video of this game, which comes from the Twenty Decisive Battles of the World series from Turning Point Simulations. In my opinion, this is a medium weight game as the rules aren’t overly complex, but each side has very different goals in the game and differing capabilities.

armada-countersThe really unique aspect to this game’s design is the use of two different types of maps to track the action between the English and the Spanish. The design uses a Strategic Map, which is more of a timer for the game and tells the players where they are in relation to the game’s end goal, as well as a Tactical Map where players move around counters representing squadrons to engage in combat or to avoid conflict. The goal for the Spanish is to meet up with the army from the Netherlands in Gravelines (or in the game, Strategic Map Box 11) and escort them across the Channel to allow for the invasion of England and the English must try to damage the Armada enough that they are ineffective once they reach their end goal and will be decimated by the mighty fire ships.

Armada Strategic Map Closeup
The Strategic Map which shows the location of the Armada along the track. There are 12 boxes on this track.

Combat

Another unique aspect of the design is the use of a type of action selection mechanic armada-tactical-matrix-markersduring combat. When combat occurs, each side chooses and shows one of three Tactical Chit Markers that provide three choices; Stand Off, Close In and Try to Board. Once a chit is chosen, players consult the Tactical Matrix to see how their choices will affect this engagement. For example, if the Spanish choose Stand Off but the English choose Close In, both sides would be allowed to roll 1 die and the English would be granted a DRM of +1. Players then consult the Battle Table for results of the fight, which will result in a number of hits including 0 hits on a roll less than 2, 1 hit on a roll of 3-6 or 2 hits on a modified roll of 7 or 8. These hits are then marked with a  chit and each ship has a certain amount of Strength or hits that they can take before being sunk. We loved this part of the design but it took us several rounds to figure out the matrix. As the Spanish, you are definitely good at boarding but don’t want to choose this option regularly as you are really trying to avoid conflict and damage. The English, on the other hand, are better as they Close In and generally receive DRMs or get to roll their dice first in combat of this nature, so the English should be on the attack and be aggressive. One other part of the battle sequence that I felt was very well done and thematic was the English Battle Withdrawal. At the outset of a battle where the Spanish are attacking the English, the English get to decide if they will withdraw. They must have a legal vacant hex to move into (cannot move diagonally) and then perform a Retreat Check where they roll 2 dice and must roll less than 8 to succeed. This can be brutally frustrating for the Spanish as they will have only a few opportunities to attack at advantage and due to the English ship’s superior maneuverability, they can flit away from battle more often than not. I can’t tell you how many times I knew I had him only to see the dice preserve him as he would sail away to fight another day.

Armada Tactical Matrix

Along the way, randomly determined weather will vex or assist the Spanish in moving toward the rendezvous and there are also random Event Chits that will be drawn each round during the Event Chit Draw Phase after each side has taken all of their actions. Some of these events will happen immediately and some can be held by the drawing player until later when needed.

As the Spanish, I tried to hold over Event Chits such as Soldiers (Reroll 1 miss if either player tries to Board), Priests (Reroll a failed Morale Roll) or El Capitan (Roll to Rally 1 squadron with a -2 DRM) as they are best used when a roll is very important.  Also, you will notice that there are 2 opposed Events in relation to Parma, who is the leader of the Army that you are attempting to rendezvous with in the Gravelines. For the English, Parma Late grants a -1 DRM to the Parma Roll and conversely Parma Ready provides a +1 DRM. This roll is utterly key for the Spanish and you had better hope that you get this chit and that the English don’t as that roll can be utterly brutal (more on that later).

Armada Battle on the Tactical Map
The Tactical Map which shows the relative positions of each of the Squadrons. The Spanish are yellow while the English are red. Notice the Moved markers having been placed on the Spanish counters after they took their actions.

Another key design aspect that we really enjoyed was the continual struggle to decide how to manage your ships, their condition and your supply of ammunition or shot. Each squadron that chooses not to move has three options including Repair, Rally or Resupply. They can only choose one such action and it is determined by a die roll.

Repair

As you will sink if you take hits equaling your Strength, you must decide to Repair or your ships are doomed to visit the bottom of the English Channel. You get to roll 2 dice and modify the result with any appropriate DRMs (such as +2 for the English if in port, +2 from the Carpenter Event Chit or a +1 DRM from any of your ships that have that benefit noted on their display). On a roll of greater than 8, you may remove one and ONLY one damage marker!

Rally

If your ship is broken due to failing a Morale roll (you do a Morale roll each time you take a hit), you can attempt to Rally it by rolling 2 dice and modifying it by adding +1 per 5 hits shown on each Squadron making the check or a -1 DRM if the English are in port. On a roll of less than 8, you succeed and flip the Squadron to it’s unbroken side. One thing I really liked about the Spanish was that the lead ship captained by the Duke of Medina Sidonia offers a single -1 DRM to any one ship performing a Rally check per turn. Nice thematic touch! Your Spanish ships must be unbroken when attempting those dreaded Condition of the Armada Checks as each unbroken ship offers a +1 DRM, so this becomes very important for the Spanish.

Resupply

At first I was worried about having to track and do book-keeping for something as mundane as shot in a quick wargame, but to my surprise, this element was very well done and became a focus of battles.  After each battle in which a ship rolled battle dice, you must place a shot chit on that ship. A roll of only 1 die must then be made on the Low Ammo table and if the roll is lower than your number of shot chits, you remove them and place a Low Ammo marker. As expected, if you are without shot and have a Low Ammo marker, you are dead in the water and cannot fire. For the Resupply action, you get to roll only 1 die and add any DRMs and are successful in your Resupply if you roll 4 or greater. This allows you to either remove the Low Ammo marker or 1 shot point.

Armada Hit and Shot Markers
The Spanish display showing the condition of Antonio Oquendo’s ship as he currently has 6 hits (out of a possible 10) and has used 2 shot. Notice he gets a +1 DRM to Repair rolls and a -1 DRM to Rally rolls.

These three elements became one of my favorite parts of the game as you must focus on them sometimes and suppress that urge to attack. Really well done mechanics for these typically mundane aspects.

Condition of the Armada Roll

So my one real concern with the game and it’s design is the dreaded Condition of the Armada check that is required twice in the game, once when the Spanish Armada reaches the Gravelines, which is Strategic Box 11, and then again when they rendezvous with the Army and ferry them across the Channel to invade England.

Armada Condition of the Armada TableThis roll is based on the condition and readiness of the Spanish fleet and the more damaged or broken ships in the fleet reduces their number as compared to the condition of the English fleet. Here is a look at the Condition of the Armada table so that you can see the various DRMs. The roll is decided by chucking a d6 and then modifying the roll per the table. If the modified roll doesn’t exceed 10, then the game ends and the English are victorious. If the roll exceeds 10,  the game continues to the next phase, which after the first check is the Parma Roll followed by the final CoA check.

My real concern with this aspect is that the entire fate of the game is left up to a single die roll, modified by various factors that you can affect mind you, but still a die roll! I felt like we spent the first 90 minutes maneuvering our ships, playing cat and mouse and trying to get one over on each other, only to have it end with one roll. I rolled a 1 on my d6 and only was able to modify it to a 7. So, if I had rolled a 4 or higher, I would have passed that first CoA check and the fun would have continued but alas, it wasn’t to be. I don’t know how to fix this and cannot recommend any house rules for this aspect as I truly understand the thinking behind it. I think you just need to understand that the Spanish will fail about 60% of the time as that is what happened in history and this game attempts to simulate that outcome.

Should I Get This Game?

The Invincible Armada is a great little history lesson on an event that I really didn’t know much about until I played this game. I enjoy learning history while playing wargames and this is why I really enjoy CDG games as they provide a lot of history and background in their event cards. I have never really played a game that is so focused on the tactical maneuvering of naval ships and the results of their battles and skirmishes. The game design does a great job of focusing on specific concerns of this type of warfare including weather, ammunition, damage and the various tactics open to ship Captains of the time, including standing off and firing long-range cannons to throwing caution to the wind, being aggressive and attempting to board the enemy with a sabre clenched in your teeth! The mechanics in the design are neat (such as the Tactical Chit Marker selection) and somewhat fresh and very well implemented to create a 2 hour game on a very important struggle in the history of the world.

If you like a relatively fast playing wargame focused on navies with low counter density, a little bit of randomness, and asymmetric victory conditions, this game is one that you will enjoy. As mentioned above, my only real concern with the game was the fact that the Spanish must pass their Condition of the Armada check 2 times and also must pass their Parma Roll to meet up with Parma’s Army and escort them across the channel. These checks are brutal and felt a little disappointing as we spent 90 minutes skillfully attacking and evading each other on the well designed Tactical Map, only to have it come to a random die result at the end. You can mitigate this random roll by protecting your Spanish ships, Rallying them when broken and Repairing them when damaged, but in the end, if you roll a 1 on your only d6 and can only modify that roll by 4 or 5, you will come up short of the required 10 and fail, and the game will end in an English victory. More concerning to me is that you must pass this roll TWICE as well as succeed at the Arrival of the Army check in order for the Spanish to win. In my interview with the designer Mark McLaughlin, I asked how the balance for the game was and he stated that the Spanish only win about 4 out of 10 games, so a 40% success rate! So be aware when you are playing the Spanish!

In summary, I enjoyed the game quite a bit and found that it uses some really neat and well chosen design mechanics (really loved the Tactical Chit Markers) but it is not without some concerns. I look forward to a few more plays in the future, maybe as the English for a change of pace. What I really liked was the focus on the navies as I have never really played a game like this. To quote the designer Mark McLaughlin,
I like grand strategy, and grand strategy without navies is like peanut butter without jelly (and I do eat peanut butter straight out of the jar).”

We also did a quick video sharing our initial thoughts after our first play and for more information on the game, please visit the game page on the Turning Point Simulations website: http://www.turningpointsimulations.com/Details.cfm?ProdID=26&category=4

-Grant

Armada Spanish Display
An early game view of the whole Spanish display showing all of the ships in the Armada.