Given than humans spent several centuries puttering around the oceans on wooden sailing ships, it’s surprising that very few games focus on honest-to-goodness Age of Sail naval warfare. The good folks at SprueGames took note of this and brought forth Salvo!, a turn-based naval combat simulator set during the 17th to 19th centuries. While Salvo! lacks the bells and whistles that a big-name developer and a deep-pockets publisher can provide, it makes for quite an appealing little outing for the salty seadogs among us.
Salvo! is not a game that players can dive right into and enjoy. While not as complicated as many of the titles produced by Shrapnel Games, Salvo! still requires a fair amount of effort upfront to learn the ins and outs. A lengthy tutorial is provided, which I highly recommend new players walk through at least once. Unfortunately, the tutorial is provided in a separate window from the game, so a great deal of time will be spent tabbing between windows in the desktop. After players have gained a basic knowledge of play, they can jump into one of the many campaigns and scenarios provided.
The campaigns themselves are quite varied, and span an impressive array of naval history. Players can take command of naval powerhouses, such as England or France, and dominate the high seas. There are even scenarios chronicling the early United States naval battles on the Great Lakes. Admittedly, my knowledge of naval history is limited to a few viewings of Horatio Hornblower movies, so I’ll just have to assume the various campaigns and scenarios are historically accurate.
Game play takes place on a 3D hex-map, and feels much like a board game. An impressive array of ships is available for command. For the micromanager, each ship can be individually controlled, allowing players to determine crew duties, ammunition type, and turn-by-turn sailing direction. For those who like a more hands-off approach, ships can be gathered into sailing groups, allowing the competent AI to take the helm of each individual ship while the bigger-picture tactics are under player control.
As this is a sailing game, wind plays a large factor in the overall combat. Players must learn to master tacking and gaining upwind advantage if they hope to do well. In fact, most fights are won or lost by outmaneuvering the opponents, not by simply overpowering them. Being able to position the readied batteries for a deadly volley, while avoiding as much return fire as possible is a trick I have yet to completely learn. Thankfully, the turn-based nature of the combat allows for some careful consideration of each and every move.
As the fights wear on, ships will undoubtedly take damage. In addition to causing physical damage, catching a barrage of cannon fire will also disrupt the crew for a time. And a disrupted crew is an inefficient crew, meaning less responsive movement, slower reloading of batteries, and a longer response time for damage control. Some cannon loads, such as grapeshot, are designed specifically to damage and panic the enemy crewmembers. After all, many times it’s much more advantageous to decimate the enemy and capture their ship than it would be to send them to the briny deep.
Capturing vessels is a bit of a complicated procedure. First, the attackers must get close enough to grapple or foul the enemy vessel, so that a boarding party can leap aboard. Readying a boarding party is in itself a tricky proposition, as each hand assigned to the boarding party is one less hand working the sails or batteries. Each turn, a boarding ship may attempt an attack, which the computer resolves according to the size of the boarding and repelling parties. Boarding parties can whittle away at the enemy crew, or they may get in a lucky shot and capture or kill the enemy captain, after which they gain control of the vessel (something that never happened to me, but I’m told it’s possible).
Between campaign missions, players get a chance to return their ships to safe harbor to restock crew and ammunition, refit or sell captured ships, and repair their fleet. These in-between times are almost as important as the missions themselves, requiring players to juggle resources to the best of their advantage. With a limited crew available, do you run a greater number of ships at a skeleton crew, sell a few of the excess vessels, or convert some of the ships to the suicide fire-ships?
Salvo! controls reasonably well, especially considering the enormous amount of numbers being crunched behind the scenes. The turn-based format keeps things from becoming too frantic, allowing players to check through several screens for each ship until everything is prefect. I had a bit of trouble at first with some of the menus, but after a while (and a few trips through the tutorial), I felt comfortable with most of the controls. And while the interface is functional, graphically it’s just not all that exciting. There certainly aren’t any flashy graphics, but those that are available do a decent job of conveying everything that’s happening. The ships themselves are quite detailed, and given the number of different vessels covered by the game, this is an impressive feat. Damage shows quite visibly, as sails become tattered, masts split, and the ships start to look more like sieves. The 3D view allows for an at-a-glance estimation of each ships current condition, while a quick mouse click will bring up a more detailed menu. The overhead map works well for controlling fleets and getting a big-picture view. The audio for Salvo! is almost non-existent, though, consisting of a few cannon-fire noises and the occasional creaking of the boats as they move along.
Salvo! is fun, but I just didn’t become hooked. I can see this appealing a lot more to those interested in historical naval combat, but for me it just wasn’t enough to keep my attention for more than a handful of hours. Like many of Shrapnel’s games, Salvo! will do well by its intended audience, while most others should give the demo a run before committing their time or money.
A solid little turn-based naval combat simulator set during the Age of Sail. Naval wargamers will undoubtedly enjoy themselves, although less dedicated gamers are advised to check out the demo first.