Black Seas from Warlord Games is a tabletop wargame that lets players fight sea battles during the Golden Age of Sail, 1770 to 1830. In this article, we're going to look at the starter set, Black Seas Master and Commander. We'll look at what's in the box and the rules, talk about the different ship construction options, and look at who the game is for.
This article forms part of our Nautical Tabletop Month that's running across all of November. We're going to look at different nautical wargames and board games, as well as interview developers about capturing the sea feel on the tabletop. We'll also look at nautical factions in popular wargames along with tabletop accessories that are available to keep your hobby ship-shape. You can see all the articles here on the hub. So come aboard as we set sail and celebrate all games nautical in nature.
You can buy all the Nautical Tabletop Month products from our tabletop sponsor, Firestorm Games.
Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a sea fight above all. - Horatio Nelson before Trafalgar.
The Black Seas Master and Commander set contains everything 2 players need to get started with Black Seas and also a solid foundation from which to build your force if you want to expand beyond the starter set. The Master and Commander starter set contains:
- 1 softback full Black Seas rulebook
- 9 plastic ships (3 Frigates and 6 Brigs)
- Sails, rigging, ratline, and flag sheets for the ships
- Tokens, ship cards, rulers, and markers
- Double-sided sea battlemat and some card scenery pieces
- 11 dice
The Black Seas Master and Commander experience begins with the ships. All 9 included ships come on plastic sprues and require assembly. The 3 frigates have some cosmetic options to make each of the 3 ships look different. Once constructed, the starter set includes some colored sails that can be glued to the masts. Even unpainted, with these sails attached, the ships look great on the tabletop. But to make them really stand out, the next stage is to paint them in your chosen country's colors and add their national identifier flags. There is also a further stage and that is to add physical rigging with thread and the ratline nets to the masts.
Each stage of detail after construction is an experience and is entirely optional depending on the level of hobby you want. The ratline, thread for rigging, sails, and printed flags for the Royal Navy and French are all included in the set. Adding the rigging, especially the first time, can be time-consuming, but we found it a great thematic process that really got us into the feel of Black Seas. There is a guide in the book to rigging, and Warlord Games has also produced a very in-depth video so you can see it done as well. There are also resources online for you to print your own sails, flags, and identifiers for other countries.
The included ships allow you to build 2 forces, each of 1 Frigate and 3 Brigs, with a spare Frigate that can be used as a merchant ship in some scenarios. Or if you have your sights set on a particular country, it provides a solid backbone for a single fleet from which to expand on.
Included in the starter-set is an A0 (roughly 33x47 inches) double-sided sea battle mat. Both sides have slightly different sea colors to represent different seas and a load of card scenery is included to add islands, beaches, and fortifications to your games. There is a nice touch with the island being divided into 4 pieces, so it can be used as an island or placed on the edges or corners of the map to represent land.
Our favorite and most thematic component is the white, black, and a mix of red, amber, and black cotton wool. The cotton wool is used to mark ships that have fired or are on fire and is common in more historical wargames, but the addition of it in the starter-set, which could easily have been card tokens, really shows the detail that Warlord have gone into with Black Seas. It might seem a minor thing, but after a turn of blasting broadsides between 2 fleets of ships, the cotton wool makes it very easy to see what's happened and looks incredibly thematic.
The rules themselves are as well thought-out as the starter-set components. The entire rulebook is extremely well presented, with great diagrams, easy to read tables, and the flow of rules takes you gracefully through each stage of the turn. There's some complexity, but that's expected with a game where you're controlling a variety of ships at the mercy of the sea and wind. The rules themselves are very straightforward, there's just a little more detail involved than players of skirmish or popular troop based wargames might be used to.
Thematically, wind plays an important part in Black Seas. The wind direction is rolled for at the start of each turn and can change from turn to turn, but never too drastically, so it's limitations can be predicted and played into. The direction the wind is coming from then dictates the order ships activate in, and also the speed that ships move, depending on the level of sails they have deployed. Sail levels are tracked with wake markers, which sit under and behind the ship miniatures, adding another thematic detail that could easily have just been a token, or tracker on the ship's detail cards.
The rulebook in the Master and Commander set is the full rulebook for Black Seas, and the sheer amount of content in its pages is actually remarkable. It's filled with huge diagrams and examples of the rules, scenes of painted miniatures, and thematic artwork. All the content is presented clearly, and the rules are split between the core rules and advanced rules like entanglement, realistic wind effects, moving under oars, rules of engagement, and weather/terrain.
13 scenarios are included, building up from a single frigate vs frigate, to the Battle of Trafalgar. The final half of the book is made up of a concise history of the era, a brief guide to ships including a full 2-page cross-section of the HMS Victory. There is also a list of optional ship upgrades, the special rules for countries, including famous characters and ships, the rules for running a Black Seas campaign of linked games, and also how to include Black Power games to represent the land battles. There is also a rigging and painting guide, including details on ship colors for the Royal Navy, France, Spain, and the United States.
The Bottom Line
Black Seas is a fantastic system. It has incredible detail, but it doesn't get bogged down in it. There's some complexity in working out how ships move each turn, that might not be for everyone if you just want a rules-light skirmish game, but anyone after a solid system, full of straight-forward realistic detail will find it here. The Black Seas Master and Commander set is incredible value for money. The rulebook and the ships alone exceed the RRP, so the addition of the map, scenery, and tokens make it a great starting point. The ships themselves also offer a perfect foundation for building up a force. The scaling up of detail of the ships is also perfect, and you really get a return for the effort you put in. A fully painted and rigged ship really pops on the tabletop, and Warlord has done an amazing job of giving players the knowledge and tools with which to begin. The rulebook itself is extremely well presented and full of a crazy amount of detail for the small page count.
Get This Game If:
- You want to play great games in the Golden Age of Sail.
- You want a game with depth and complexity, that doesn't slow the pace of the game.
- You want the option and guidance to add incredible detail to your ships.
Avoid This Game If:
- You don't want a ship game.
- You don't want to put miniatures together.
The copy of Black Seas Master and Commander used to produce this review was provided by Warlord Games. A special thanks to Dark Materials Miniatures for painting the ships.