Sea Dogs Attack! - The Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588 AD)
Fast and Easy Rules for Students

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By Matt Fritz

Historical Background: By the year 1588 tensions between Spain and England had reached the breaking point. The chief causes of conflict included religious differences, English attacks on Spanish shipping, and a costly war in the Spanish Netherlands. King Philip II decided to invade England and depose Queen Elizabeth I. He assembled a powerful armada of ships and sent them to the Netherlands to link up with a powerful army led by the Duke of Parma. As the Armada sailed up the English Channel they were harassed by English ships. When the Armada arrived at Calais they anchored off the coast while the army got ready for the invasion. The English used fire ships to attack the Armada. The tactic forced the Spanish to cut their anchors and left them scattered and vulnerable to attack. The English ships pounded the disorganized fleet until they ran low on powder and shot, causing considerable damage. With the Armada low on provisions and blown by an uncooperative wind the Spanish decided to abandon the invasion plan and sail north around the British Isles and back to Spain. The battered ships encountered bad weather on the voyage and many were wrecked on the shores of Ireland. Barely half of the Armada made it back to Spanish ports. The battle marked a turning point in the fortunes of Spain and England. The mighty Spanish Empire would see her power wane while the English Empire flourished with the help of a powerful navy.

Battle 1: The English squadron commanders led their ships towards the Spanish forlorn hope using the line-in attack formation.  They sailed past the bow or stern of the Spanish ships, each firing an effective raking broadside into the unfortunate Spanish galleons.  The Spanish fought bravely.  The first great victory for the English came when they surrounded and pummeled the San Martin.  The Triumph ripped into her with a well aimed broadside and the Spanish fleet commander was forced to raise the flag of surrender.  Elsewhere Hawkins, in command of the Victory, insisted on boarding and capturing the San Luis.  This move infuriated the other English captains because it took his squadron out of the fight at a crucial time in the battle.  It was regarded as a selfish move.  The scattered Spanish fleet struggled to get organized.  They tried to turn into the wind and close with English but found it very difficult to tack into the wind.  The crews performed brilliantly, but still found themselves "locked in irons" on occasion.  The English began their attack on the main Spanish fleet, which was still scattered and disorganized.  A few of the Spanish ships were too far from the main formation for protection, and these found themselves singled out and swarmed by English ships.  Howard's squadron found their hands full when they tried to pick on La Rata Santa Maria Encoronado.  The feisty Spanish flagship gave as good as she took, and the Ark Royal limped away in shreds.  The one major Spanish victory of the day came when the Triumph got careless and sailed  too close to the San Bernardo.  The San Bernardo quickly grappled the Triumph and Spanish soldiers swarmed onto her decks, capturing Frobisher and his ship.  Overall the English were getting the better of the fight, and many Spanish ships were left adrift.  The surrendered ships were carried by the wind and current towards the Banks of Flanders, further disrupting the Spanish fleet.  The battle was an English victory.

The Fleets: Right now there aren't any cheap plastic ship models available in a small enough scale for this battle. Here are some paper ships you can print and use. Ships should be mounted on 2" x 1" bases. The hit points of the ships should be indicated on the base of the ship using a marker or small damage or hit point markers.

Order of Battle: The OB omits the many armed merchant vessels, galleasses, and smaller ships. Many large Spanish ships have been omitted to represent the confused state of the Armada after the ships scattered in the night following the fire ship attack. The battle is meant to represent the action beginning about 7:30 AM when Medina Sidonia tried to hold off the English with five ships while the Armada was regrouping.

English Fleet (26 ships)

Howard's Squadron (5 ships)
1 Flag ship:
Ark Royal (Howard - Fleet Commander)
4 Other Ships: Elizabeth, Golden Lion, White Bear, Dreadnought,

Hawkins' Squadron (5 ships)
1 Flag ship:
Victory (Hawkins)
4 Other Ships: Mary Rose, Swallow, Foresight, Scout

Frobisher's Squadron (4 ships)
1 Flag ships:
Triumph (Frobisher)
3 Other Ships: Achatea, George Hoy, Elizabeth Jonas

Seymour's Squadron (7 ships)
2 Flag ships:
Rainbow (Seymour)
5 Other Ships: Antelope, Bull, Tiger, Tramontana, Scout, Vanguard

Drake's Squadron (5 ships)
1 Flag ships:
Revenge (Drake)
4 Other Ships: Swiftsure, Aid, Nonpareil, Hope

Spanish Armada (35 ships)

Forlorn Hope (5 ships)
5 Flag ships:
San Martin (Sidonia - Fleet Commander), San Juan de Portugal (Recalde), San Marcos, San Juan Bautista, San Mateo

Spanish Fleet (30 ships)
5 Flag ships:
La Rata Santa Maria Encoronado (Levia), Florencia, San Felipe, San Luis, El Gran Grin
25 Other ships: Santiago, San Bernardo, La Magdalena, San Juan, La Maria Juan, San Pedro, San Juan de Menor, Santiago el Mayor, La Asuncion, La Trinadad, La Santa Catalina, San Francisco, Santa Maria de Juncal, San Bartolome, San Esteban, Santa Marta, San Buenaventura, La Santa Cruz, La Urca Doncella, La Regazona, San Juan de Sicilia, San Nicolas Prodaneli, La Juliana, La Trinidad de Scala, Santa Maria de Vision

The Board: I covered a 7.5' x 5' table with a blue table cloth and used colored yarn taped around the edges to indicate the wind direction. Green yarn marked the East and South table edges (wind at your back, full speed). Yellow yarn bordered the West edge, and 2/3 of the North edge (close quartered, half speed). Red yarn ran 2.5' south from the northwest corner (can't move directly into the wind).

Deployment: The ships deploy as shown on the map. The English fleet can begin anywhere along the northern edge of the map so long as they are not closer than 12" to the Spanish Forlorn Hope. The English squadrons used the "line in" attack, sailing in a line behind the leader to deliver broadsides against the enemy. The Spanish Armada is disorganized, and the ships must start at least 6" apart in the area shown on the map. This does not apply to the Forlorn Hope. The Spanish, once they were regrouped, fought in a close defensive formation.

Sequence of Play:
1. Drift
2.Spanish Move
3. British Move
4. British Shoot
5. Spanish Shoot
6. Grappling & Boarding Actions

Drift: Any ships that are fouled or grappled may attempt to get loose. The commander wishing to get loose rolls a die. The ships remain fouled or grappled if the roll is 1-4. If the roll is a 5-6 the ships are freed and may move normally this turn. Both captains may roll (but not drifting wrecks), and if either is successful the ships are free. Any ships that remain fouled or grappled and any ships that surrendered on a previous turn now drift downwind 3" (SE). If a drifting ship's base hits another ship it may become fouled (see below). If any ship drifts onto the table edges marked in green it has become grounded and cannot move for the rest of the table (the south edge is land and the east edge is the Flanders Banks (sandbars). Grounded ships can still shoot, grapple, and fight boarding actions.

Movement: The speed of movement depends on what direction the ship is pointing at the start of the turn. If the ship is pointing towards the green then the wind is behind the ship and it may move up to 6" and make one turn up to 90 degrees. If the ship is pointing towards the yellow it is close quartered and may move up to 3" and make one turn up to 90 degrees. If a ship is pointing towards the red then it is "locked in irons." If must pass a skill check to move. Spanish ships need to roll a 5-6, British need to roll a 4-6. If the roll is successful the ship may move up to 3" and make one turn up to 90 degrees. If the roll fails the ship does not move. Note: ships may not turn through the red during their move. If they turn towards the red during their move the ship must end its move pointed in that direction and attempt a "locked in irons" roll next turn.

Start Turn Pointing at


 Locked in Irons Skill Check
Green 6"   British 4-6
Yellow 3"   Spanish 5-6
Red Pass Check or 0"      

Fouling: If at the end of any drift or movement phase the bases of two ships are in contact there is a chance they will become entangled. Roll one die, the ships are fouled on a 6. If two or more ships are fouled then this is indicated by placing their bases so they overlap. Fouled ships do not move, they drift, but they may fire. Ships may attempt to cut themselves loose during the Drift phase.

Fouling & Grappling
Fouling 6
Grappling 5-6
Cut Loose 5-6

Shooting: Ships may fire once to the front OR broadside. The front is defined as the area in the 180-degree arc in front of the ship. The broadside of the ship is defined by the base (see diagram). Ships may only fire a broadside if part of the target ship's base is in this area. British ships roll 5 dice when firing broadsides, Spanish ships roll three dice for broadsides. Ships roll just 1 die if firing to the front. Flagships always get to roll one extra die. The firing ship rolls its dice to determine hits. Long range is 4"- 8" and 6's are required for hits. Short range is 0" - 4" and a 5-6 is a hit. A rake is defined as broadside fire at short range from a ship whose base is mostly in the front or rear of the target ship as defined by the target ship's base (see diagram). Raking fire hits on a 4-6. Flagships can take 6 hits, other ships can take five hits. When a ship loses its last hit point it surrenders (strikes its colors). This can be marked by putting some cotton on it. A ship which has surrendered can no longer move or fire. It is not removed from the board, however, since it will drift and can become an obstacle. Note: each ship may only fire once per turn, and ships may not fire through or "over" other ships, or fire fire through narrow gaps between ships.

# Dice  

To Hit
British Broadside 5   Long Range 4"-8" 6
Spanish Broadside 3   Short Range 0"-4" 5-6

Fire to Front

  Rake 4-6

Flagships: +1 die

Grappling: If there is an enemy ship within 1" the captain can attempt to grapple and board it. If one of the ships wants to grapple the captain should roll one die and he is successful on a roll of 5-6. Both captains may roll to grapple, and if either or both are successful then the ships are grappled. Move the bases of the two into contact so that they are overlapping. Grappled ships do not move, they drift, but they may fire. Ships may attempt to cut themselves loose during the Drift phase.

Boarding Actions: If two or more enemy ships are grappled or fouled together they must fight a boarding action. Each ship may attack once, and may target any enemy ship that is directly grappled or fouled to them. English captains roll one die for each remaining hit points. Spanish captains roll 2 dice for each remaining hit point. Hits are scored on a 4-6. Ships that lose their last hit point surrender. If all the ships in a boarding action surrender on the same turn then the captain's roll one die. The high roller is the winner (re-roll ties) and survives with one hit point.

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