Beat to Quarters

By on 14 October 2009

Beat to Quarters (BtQ) is the companion game to Duty and Honour (D&H), although it’s fully playable in it’s own right and doesn’t require that you own (or have even heard of) D&H.

Full disclosure time here – I’ve met Neil, the author, a couple of times at cons in the UK and have spoken to him quite a bit on UK based forums. I’ve suggested errata for D&H and chipped in with some very minor suggestions for BtQ whilst it was being developed. Neil’s been kind enough to mention me in the front of both books but my contributions have been very minor! I do however admit to being a fan of D&H and I was expecting great things from BtQ before I even got my hands on a copy of the game. I have tried to be as subjective as I can in this review but I enjoy both the subject matter of the game and the system used already.

The game is set over the period of 1780 – 1815 and focuses on the PC’s being members of a English ship during these turbulent times. It is easily used to simulate crews and ships of different nations, but the writing and style are most definitely favoured towards sailing in one of His Majesty’s vessels.

BtQ uses the same resolution system as D&H, it’s a diceless system that uses a standard deck of playing cards per player (and one for the GM). When testing a skill or ability the GM will draw a card from his deck (known as the Card of Fate), the players then try to match either the suit or face value of this card with cards from their own deck. An exact match is a perfect success, with same value card being a critical and the same suit being a normal success. This does mean that the PC’s always have a chance of getting a better success than an NPC – as the card of fate comes from the GM’s deck, he can never get a perfect success.

Players gain extra cards by bringing in reputations they have with other NPC’s or various Institutions, or by using traits. (If you want more detail on this then you can read the reviews of D&H!)

In play this system works very well, when making tests the player and GM state what will happen if the PC fails or succeeds, then draw the relevant cards and compare. It’s quick and fun, and it can be quite tense if the cards are drawn one at a time on particularly important tests.

Character generation is quite a nice, involving experience in BtQ and is a mix if randomness and player choice. PC’s are defined by a character’s experiences, both before and after joining (or being pressed!) into His Majesty’s service. With players gaining skill and attribute (here called Measures) checks based on cards being drawn for each experience, as well as a set amount of points. To better explain this I’m going to run through generating a character now.

Step 1 Character concept
I want to play a young Midshipman, who has recently volunteered for service in the Royal Navy. As a fairly inexperienced young officer I’ll only give him 4 experiences.

Step 2Nationality, Religion and Class.
Nationality and Religion are both “colour” choices and don’t really effect the game, other than in so much as a GM and the Players decide to focus on the bigotry of the time period. Class decides a starting characters wealth, and points available to spend on Measures and Skills as well as what skills are available in this step.
I decide that my character is the ambitious youngest son of a Naval Officer. He’s going to be English and Protestant. As his social class is Naval Officer he gets Wealth 2, Measures 4 and Skills 4. I put 1 point into each of the 4 measures (which already all start at 1 each) and buy the following skills at 1 point each – Command, Courtesy, Diplomacy and Seamanship. As a special bonus for this class, I also receive the Read and Write trait for free. I decide to call my character Anthony Stapleton and decide he’s 17 years old.
Name: Anthony Stapleton
Class: Naval Officer
Religion: Protestant
Measures
Guts 2
Discipline 2
Influence 2
Charm 2
Skills
Command 1
Courtesy 1
Diplomacy 1
Seamanship 1
Traits
Read and Write

Step 3 Life Before Recruitment
Having already decided that my character has 4 experiences in total, I now need to decide how many I want to have happened before Anthony joined the Navy – I go for 2. First I need to draw 2 cards. I get 2 number cards which enables me to add 2 points to any skills of my choice.
I also get to add 1 point to either a Skill, Measure or Reputation of my choice for each experience.
I decide that the experiences Anthony had before joining were attending several balls in Portsmouth for eligible young ladies and gentlemen. Here he struck up a brief romance with the daughter of a Naval Captain, much to his stern dissaproval. For his second experience he and a group of impetuous youths decided to steal a small ship and take it out on an adventure around the Solent. The foolhardy youths got caught in a summer squall and only just managed to get the ship back to Portsmouth after battling against the elements.
With these experiences in mind I add 1 to Influence, 2 to Seamanship and gain the Reputation – Personal: Hated by Captain Bryson.
I also get to draw a further 2 cards to show the booty I aquired during my adventures – I get gain a Personal and an Institutional reputation.

Name: Anthony Stapleton
Class: Naval Officer
Religion: Protestant
Measures
Guts 2
Discipline 2
Influence 3
Charm 2
Skills
Command 1
Courtesy 1
Diplomacy 1
Seamanship 3
Traits
Read and Write
Reputations
Reputation – Personal: Hated by Captain Bryson +1
Reputation – Personal: Stolen the heart of Jenny Bryson +1
Reputation – Institutional: Member of the “Pompey Crew” +1

Step 4 Your Ship
At this stage everybody who’s playing decides on the ship we’ll be sailing in and details some of it’s crew and Captain.
It’s an involved process and too long to go into here – although it is lots of fun. I’ll skip to the chase and say Anthony will be serving onboard HMS Cyclops, a 6th rate ship of 28 guns.

Step 5 Recruitment and Training
First of all I need to choose the profession onboard that Anthony has trained in, I go for Sailor and gain +1 to Maritime, Seamanship and Scavenge. Anthony also gains a set of skills, measures and Reputations for being a Midshipman.

Name: Anthony Stapleton
Class: Naval Officer
Religion: Protestant
Measures
Guts 2
Discipline 3
Influence 4
Charm 2
Skills
Command 3
Courtesy 2
Diplomacy 2
Maritime 3
Seamanship 5
Scavenge 1
The Arts 1
Traits
Read and Write
Reputations
Reputation – Personal: Hated by Captain Bryson +1
Reputation – Personal: Stolen the heart of Jenny Bryson +1
Reputation – Institution: Member of the “Pompey Crew” +1
Reputation – Institution: Respected by the Ward Room +1
Reputation – Institution: Indulged by HMS Cyclops +1

Step 6 Naval Experiences
Much like step 3, Anthony now has 2 experiences to detail, although these have now happened since he joined the navy. I decide that he has served on a deployment to the East Indies Station, where he had a run in with an East India Company officer. Also he was involved in an action against a French ship of the line, where he distinguished himself well in a brutal boarding action.

After all this the character looks like this:

Name: Anthony Stapleton
Class: Naval Officer
Religion: Protestant
Measures
Guts 3
Discipline 4
Influence 4
Charm 2
Skills
Awareness 1
Command 4
Courtesy 2
Diplomacy 2
Maritime 3
Seamanship 5
Scavenge 1
The Arts 1
Traits
Read and Write
Reputations
Reputation – Personal: Hated by Captain Bryson +1
Reputation – Personal: Stolen the heart of Jenny Bryson +1
Reputation – Personal: Well liked by Captain Wainwright +2
Reputation – Institution: Member of the “Pompey Crew” +1
Reputation – Institution: Respected by the Ward Room +1
Reputation – Institution: Indulged by HMS Cyclops +2

Step 7 Traits
This stage in character creation is choosing your Traits, these are various character tropes that give bonuses in specific circumstances. For Mr Stapleton I choose;
Swimming, Stargazer, Fearless, Is But A Scratch Sir!, Strong Swordarm.

Step 8 Wealth
In this final stage Anthony hasn’t rolled any increases to his wealth during his experiences so doesn’t get any bonuses here other than a generic +2 for Officers.

Those of you who have played Duty and Honour may have realised that not a lot has changed here other than a few new skills and that you generate a ship instead of a regiment. So what else has changed? Well, obviously there are full on rules for ship battles and boarding actions. These are very nice, using a range mechanic slightly reminiscent of 3:16. Basically ships make positioning rules to close or escape from each other before blasting the hell out of each other when in cannon range. The actions of the PC’s during ship combat effect how well the ship does in the ensuing combat and give bonus cards (or negative modifiers if they did poorly!) to the draw in the resolution phase. This takes the place of the expanded skirmish rules that were in D&H, and to be honest they work a lot better. It really manages to get across the feeling of 2 massive floating gun platforms blowing chunks out of each other. There is also a very good example of the rules in action should you be a little confused after a first reading.
Also new are detailed rules for weather, (which obvioulsy effects a naval campaign much more than it would have done in D&H!) and rules for imbibing large quantities of alcohol!
2 of the nicest additions are the “Captain’s Favour” and “Ear of the Gun Deck” rules, some lovely social conflict rules for Officers and Ratings respectively that allow for hefty bonuses, or penalties, for earning either the confidence or enmity of the Captain or crew.

The way that scenarios/adventures are structured in BtQ is one of my favourite things about the game. The GM comes up with a Naval Mission, such as “Break the Blockade at Port Royale”. However it’s a collaboration between the Players and the GM as to what scenes or “Challenges” they want to see in the game. Each Mission requires that the players succeed in a set number of challenges, if they fail too many then the whole Naval Mission is failed. For example, the above mission could look like this:
Mission Name: Break the Blockade at Port Royale
Challenges: 4
Deadline: 2 (if 2 challenges are failed then the whole mission is)
1. Negotiate resupply of ship
2. Attacked by The Minerve
3. Hurricane!
4. Night attack at Port Royale

However players also have Personal Missions, specific things that they want to do in the game. These range from seducing the governor’s daughter to humiliating the French Captain or anything else the players come up with. Just like the Naval Mission, these missions also have a required amount of challenges and a deadline.

Succeeding in missions (both personal and Naval) give you bonus’ to Measures, Skills or Reputations, likewise failing in missions can reduce or injure these. The more challenges that are needed to succeed, the bigger the bonus. It all works quite well as the players become more experienced in the areas they are actually creating missions related to.

As a physical thing the book is quite attractive, with decent art and pleasing layout. A few gremlins have crept in and there’s a couple of grammatical errors here and there, but nothing that makes it anything less than a thoroughly enjoyable read.

All in all Beat to Quarters is a very well designed game that is immensely suited to playing in the age of sail. Like Duty and Honour it’s a nice mix of indie give and take between the GM and the players in the structuring of missions, and traditional conflict resolution.

If you’re at all interested in replicating the type of adventures made famous by Hornblower and his ilk then I can think of no game that could do a better job.

Reviewed by Jez Grey

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Guest isn't a real person, but this review has been written by one (a real person that is). They kindly submitted it for publication here. Their details are contained in the body of the review.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: UK Role Players » Latest News » Omnihedron Games launches Beat to Quarters

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