On the morning of April 23, 1680, a force of 68 English privateers approach the two islands of Perico, off the coast of Panama. The pirates are in a rough flotilla of small craft – canoes and piraguas – and Perico is the anchor of trade in to and out of Panama. In 1671, Henry Morgan famously raided Panama and burned the city to the ground. This time, the Spanish survivors aren’t taking any chances; three small ships carrying a more than 200 men in total, are sailing directly towards the privateers.
We made a resolution: rather than drown in the Sea, or beg quarter of the Spaniard whom we were used to conquer, to run the extremest hazard of fire & sword.Bartholomew Sharp, Buccaneer captain
The battle which followed was hard fought, and bloody. At the end of the 3 hour battle, over half of the men on each side were either dead or wounded, including several of the commanders.
Prepping the Scenario
I first heard about the battle of Perico Bay in Episode 42 of ‘The Pirate History Podcast’ by Matt Albers. If you’re a fan of Blood & Plunder and haven’t listened to this excellent podcast, you’re really doing yourself a disservice. Mr. Albers has a great narrative style, and B&P has finally caught up with the podcast’s focus on the Golden Age of Piracy in the early 18th century thanks to Raise the Black.
I immediately knew that I wanted to try getting this battle onto the table top as some kind of convention game. One of my first games of Blood & Plunder was a gigantic 8-player sea battle run by Firelock at one of the HMGS conventions, and “big fleet battles” are always popular with players.
The first thing to do was to gather up forces for the game. The entire South Seas Adventure was very well recorded. Around the same time that I was working on coming up with my scenario, I was informed that Firelock was working on an entire scenario booklet for their “organized play” content. I was able to see an advanced version of the commanders and their Perico scenario.
The official scenario’s historical forces called for 300pt lists, with 3 Spanish Barks against a Piragua and 4 Canoa. Since that was going to be a multi-player event open to new players, I wanted to create my own lists. I also don’t own 3 barks, and wanted to really “sell” the idea that the buccaneers were heavily outnumbered – so I decided on 2 Brigantines and a Sloop. The buccaneers would arrive with 2 Piraguas, and 6 Canoa. The goal was to keep the lists relatively homogenous; the English were mostly just Freebooters, while the Spanish were kept a mix of just 1 or 2 units on each ship. This makes it easier for new players to show up, pick up a list, and understand what’s happening.
The next step was to get my miniatures in order. I had to buy the 6 Canoa and 2 Piraguas. There was one other major hurdle: one of the Spanish ships was crewed by Africans. This was before Firelock produced the awesome Native and Militia plastic kits with a bevvy of African heads to use. I had to source African miniatures equipped with muskets. With some help from the community, I decided to use Askari from Foundry’s “Darkest Africa” line. I’m not a fan of the sculpts, because not only are they smaller than Firelock figures, but they have very “overly-caricatured” faces (to put it politely).
Fortunately, sea-faring scenarios like this one don’t usually require any terrain. I would have liked to have added a little bit, just to “jazz up” the table, but having to paint up just over 100 minis, plus all the Buccaneer vessels was too much to tackle in the time I allowed myself (more on that, later)
Running the Scenario
The scenario’s first outing was at Fall-In 2019. I was able to get 6 players around the table. Many of my players at Historicon were veteran Firelock gamers, especially because the event was held in the tournament space rather than in the “event” hall.
I made sure that each player in the factions had equal numbers of units. The Spanish had 3 units each. The scenario could actually handle a 7th Buccaneer player, but that list could also be easily split into each of the 3 other Buccaneer lists, leaving them with 4 units each. With ‘Army Scale’ activations as described in my ‘Big Game’ article, the game flowed smoothly and fast.
The first game ended with a narrow Spanish victory, and played so quickly that the players wanted to reset and change sides. A few players left to other events at the convention, and were replaced with others who had been spectating from the edge of the board.
Game 2 ended with a Buccaneer victory. They focused their attacks on a single vessel, and after a lengthy battle, they managed to get aboard and strike the Spanish out.
I’ve had the game out twice more. Once at Games’n’Stuff in Maryland, as a sort of demo-day. It was a great time, and also ended with a Spanish victory. Evening the odds, I played it again with friends, and the Buccaneers were able to carry the day. With a 2-2 finish across 4 games, I would say that the scenario is plenty balanced. It’s really a straightforward sea battle, using a slightly modified ‘Take and Hold’ from the core rules as its premise.
One of the most interesting findings of the battle came from trying to balance history with gameplay. Historically, the Buccaneers rowed themselves into the Wind’s Eye, in order to make it more difficult for the Spanish to engage them. The Firelock scenario attempts to mirror this, by having the Buccaneers deploy with the wind to their backs. The trouble with this is that historically, the Spanish sailed right in amongst the buccaneers, but in all my playthroughs of the scenario, the Spanish only risked that tactic once. In all other games, they deployed as a wall of wood and iron, and let the Buccaneers come to them.
I have also tried to balance the forces somewhat closer to the 3:1 odds that the Buccaneers also faced. Even with 6pt Freebooters, or 8pt Veteran Freebooters, trying to get to 3:1 with equal points costs really hamstrings the Buccaneer players. They’re forced to “stretch” their list, like a player who doesn’t quite have enough miniatures for a 250pt sea force. They’ll have loads of grenades, smokepots, bayonets, swivel guns, and other things that aren’t nearly as useful as just bodies.
These are issues that I’m hoping to balance as I consider my next scenario game. Possibly something for Historicon this July. Possibly something with Mr. Stede Bonnet.
If you’d like to read more about the Battle of Perico, you can check out Firelock’s writeup for it and the scenario on the Organized Play section of their website. There is also a wealth of firsthand reporting from this event and the entire South Sea adventure, thanks to the unusual number of lettered men on the expedition. William Dampier’s “A New Voyage Around the World” covers this journey. If you prefer your history a bit more “wet” and narrative, there is the recent novel ‘Born to Be Hanged’, by Keith Thompson.