The usual narrative of the naval action of the Spanish-American War begins with Admiral Dewey’s smashing of the Spanish squadron in Manilla Bay, and then skips to the crushing of the Spanish fleet at Santiago, Cuba. In fact, the situation in the Pacific was more complicated. Germany thought it deserved a slice of the Philippines and followed Dewey into the bay. Dewey was forced to keep his main force in Manilla to stare down the Germans, leaving the mopping up of Spanish enclaves on several islands to lesser ships and Filipino insurgents. Totem Games’ Clad in Iron: Philippines 1898 expands on its Clad in Iron: Gulf of Mexico 1864 to simulate this shoe-string operation.
The game’s map is a mixture of beauty and practicality. The background map is the Philippine main islands with other possessions of both sides such as Guam and Palau. Islands are done in green with raised elevations. The sea is marked with white coastal waters, submarine trenches and features. These graphics are pleasing and give a feel for the area but are cosmetic. The crucial graphics are the nine harbors and six trade route boxes.
The Philippine archipelago and nearby by islands are host to numerous harbours.
The harbours are composed of five major groups of slots with both sides having slots, the US slots with blue stars and Spain with beige ones. These groups allow each side to blockade or defend against blockading ships, to attack or defend the harbour with naval forces and to have opposing infantry units blaze away for control of the port. The other two groups represent harbour defences such as shore batteries and display the port’s name, initial owner and amount of supply brought into the port if it’s still open. Other port facilities can include shipyards, repair facilities, hospitals, training camps, fortifications, mines and supply ship slots. Trade routes, marked by white lines and container boxes, crisscross the area with directions to Singapore, Hong Kong, Kagoshima and the German colony at Finshhafen. Trade route boxes have on slot for each side’s ships.
When zoomed in very closely, troops can be seen standing on slots but are usually indicated by small pennants. Ships are represented in the tactical mode with the care and accuracy that is Totem Games’ trademark. Modern cruisers are the white pre-dreadnaught vessels of the period. Lesser craft are the hybrid steamers with masts. In the slots they are depicted from a 2D top-down view. Moving the mouse over any vessel or facility creates a pop-up – green for the player’s side, red for the AI – with loads of information on the ship. The feature helps only sharp-eyes players as the font is very small. The windowed map won’t center on the screen and refuses to be dragged to where all map edges can be seen. This flaw makes play comfortable only with fresh eyes.
Harbours require thought to defend and attack.
Battle animation in the manual mode has smoke billowing from stacks and wakes streaming behind according to the speed. Guns blast smoke while misses are indicated by water spouts and hits by damage. Heavy weather sees large waves tossing ships around. Auto battle just shows the fringes of broadsides. Battle sounds are the typical crashes but the background music includes Ravel and Rachmaninov – incongruous perhaps but soothing and unobtrusive.
The sixteen-page manual does an excellent job of explaining the game with a great amount of naval information. The three YouTube videos are narrated or captioned and provide great insight into the game.
Balancing the Budget
The game is played in one-month long strategic turn. A slot with a warship allows players two options: drag it to an appropriate empty slot for blockade defence or move it to a blockade or harbour slot of an enemy harbour; either group can hold up to eight craft in two lines of four slots per side. Early in the game, bringing ships down for defence is a good idea. Choosing a ship is signalled by a green check along with a hiss of steam and chugging of pistons. Some harbours have no blockade defence so the enemy can capture supply ships or even take control with troops easily. Ship types should correlate with coastal or high seas missions. Contesting trade routes and blockades could prevent the AI from building more ships but also increases maintenance costs. Moving troops between friendly harbours is done the same way as ships to the accompaniment of fife and drum; only amphibious troops can land in enemy harbours. “End Turn” allows the AI to do its thing.
The essential point to any action is how it affects cash flow. Moving ships from harbor or repairing them costs money as does constructing shore facilities. Building supply ships and warships is also expensive but supply ships are the primary money makers and should be built early. Aggressive actions should only be undertaken after a budget surplus is at hand and infantry is in place. Early actions should be about defending harbors and periodic raids on busy trade routes to hamper enemy build ups. With a good cash balance, more powerful ships can be built to deliver the coup de grace near the end of the game.
Battles can be fought in auto or manual mode as players’ choice. Auto mode takes place on the strategic map with vessels in opposing slots shown in top-down view hammering each other with broadsides. Shore batteries can join in against the attackers. Heavily damaged ships retreat by turning from the horizontal to the diagonal and sinking ships disappear. Infantry trade volleys until one side surrenders. Using auto mode makes for a quick turn.
A precursor of the Great White Fleet chugs toward battle.
Manual mode is for tactical naval tactics lovers only. Play remains the same as it was eight years ago, although the graphics now include weather and sea state so heavy swells affect gunnery. With manual play, sighting the foe even with the ships at full speed and with time compression takes a while. When the engagement finally begins, the ships are so evenly matched that battles can last twenty to thirty minutes of slow turns to cross bows or sterns until one adversary flees. Fortunately, an auto mode option is there to quickly resolve the battle when players have had their fill of the beautiful modelling and exciting (but prolonged) graphics and sounds.
The following turns allow damaged ships to be brought into repair slots at a price, and a stay for a few months. New ships can be built if enough money is available. Blockade and harbour defences can be whittled down so that marines can be brought in to overwhelm the garrison and control the port. Victory after twenty-eight turns is decided by the amount of points accumulated by control of harbours.
Clad in Iron: Philippines 1898 represents another advance in Totem Games repertoire and will only get better when the next update adds torpedoes and torpedo boats. One question remains: why is a Russian company the only one doing nineteenth-century American tactical naval games? Do they have a better sense of history? Are they no longer bound to twentieth and twenty first century paradigms as American developers seem to be? The great Shot and Shell board game of the period is just sitting around, ready to be ported to computers. Where are the American designers? Do they see no market for naval games of the period? One just shakes one’s head and is grateful that Totem Games sees the opportunity in this fascinating topic and continues their fine efforts.