The Fleets of
Granada: The Fall of Islamic Spain
The Fall of Islamic Spain is almost
exclusively a struggle between two land powers:
the more powerful Spanish armies of the newly united
Castille and Aragon are trying to grind down
the tough but outnumbered Moors. With terrain
on their side, and often troop quality as
well, the Muslims are trying to fend off the
Spanish invasion and make the Christians fight
long enough that they’ll agree to make
Granada is a beautiful game; the
original paintings by Terry Moore Strickland
make the pieces a joy to handle, and her map
is quite nice as well. Lorenzo Sperlonga painted
an original cover.
Yet despite this beauty and the exciting
contest for two players, the naval pieces
are often overlooked.
Each side has a small navy. The Spanish player
has five naval units, representing the Castillian
fleet. The Moor has four ships, all of them
representing possible Ottoman reinforcements
that can only arrive after 1486. Like the
Moorish ships, the Spanish ones only enter
the game as reinforcements.
The Castillian Fleet
In the game, the Spanish player uses his
or her ships to try to deny the Moor reinforcements,
while the Muslim player is trying to keep
the ports open so North African and Ottoman
troops can come to his or her aid.
During the actual campaign, the small Castillian
fleet deployed at the war’s beginning
in the Straits of Gibraltar in an effort to
interdict the flow of reinforcements from
Morocco. They proved fairly inept in this
role, and the game’s designer, Rob Markham,
chose to leave them out rather than complicate
the game with more rules. Not until 1487 did
the Castillian fleet make a positive contribution
to the campaign, when it aided King Ferdinand
in the conquest of Malaga.
Castillian caravel, 15th century.
During this period, Castille had begun to
operate caravels, small sailing ships armed
with perhaps two to four cannon. The gun deck
(and gun ports) did not appear until 1501,
when according to legend a French shipbuilder
named Descharges invented it. Instead, ships
grappled with one another and their crews
fought hand-to-hand, just as Mediterranean
sailors had done for thousands of years.
Other European navies had begun operating
“great ships” (or as the Italian
states called them, “great galleys”)
by the early 1400s, what would later be called
the carrack. However, there’s no evidence
that Castille had any carracks in its fleet
in the war with Granada. Portugal had begun
mounting heavy cannon on the caravels it deployed
in the Straits of Gibraltar during this period,
but it does not appear that King João
II transferred this technology to his rival
Ferdinand even after the wedding of João’s
son with Ferdinand’s daughter in 1490.
The most famous Castillian caravels of course
were the three taken across the Atlantic by
the Genoese Cristoforo Columbo. But even with
some caravels, Castille’s navy still
depended on the galley, the reliable oar-powered
warship of the Mediterranean states.
Ships of Granada
Granada herself had but a negligible navy,
depending on her allies for naval aid. In
past wars the Wattasid Sultans of Morocco
could be depended on for ships and men, but
internal struggles there limited the available
aid for Granada’s last war. While a
number of fighting men slipped across the
narrow seas to aid Granada, these volunteers
had been assembled by Sufi religious leaders
for the most part and did not represent a
serious state effort. The Moroccan fleet had
withered away over the previous decades, and
even had the will been present most of the
galleys were not.
The game pieces available to the Moorish
player represent the Ottoman fleet, which
in the actual campaign made no appearance
in the western Mediterranean. However, both
Muslim and Christian expected to see it, and
thus they are able to appear through reinforcement
As King of Aragon, Ferdinand also ruled
the island of Sicily, and Aragon maintained
a substantial fleet in Sicilian waters. In
addition, his cousin (also named Ferdinand)
ruled the adjoining Kingdom of Naples. Naples
and Sicily, along with most of the rest of
Italy, had been fighting against Venice in
the so-called War of Ferrara. The Venetians
had devastated Aragonese and Neapolitan naval
bases and destroyed many of their ships, and
Ferdinand feared this would free them to come
to the aid of Granada.
Therefore, Isabella threatened the Venetians
(and their rival Genoese as well) with reprisals
against their merchants resident in Castille
if they accepted contracts to move North African
volunteers across the Strait of Gibraltar.
How much this impressed Doge Giovanni Mocenigo
and the Senate is debatable. With their city
under papal interdict and enemies all around,
the Serene Republic had no desire for a foreign
quarrel despite a wish to punish Ferdinand
for interfering in Italy.
Among the Christian powers, centuries of
rivalry had prevented a unified front until
the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella. Ferdinand’s
dynastic match with João of Portugal
was a negative one: designed to forestall
Portuguese interference rather than acquire
their aid. Pope Sixtus called for a crusade
and provided cash, but his own armed forces
were fully committed to the struggle with
Venice. Ferdinand of Naples had the same problem
plus the threat of French invasion. Ferdinand
and Isabella fought their war alone.
The Spanish player should probably start
with one naval unit, drawn randomly. We’ve
added two galley pieces here; replace two
of the 5-strength caravels with 4-strength
galleys. Each time a naval reinforcement is
called for, draw it randomly from the available
pieces. Place the initial Spanish ship in
any sea area not occupied by the Moroccan
ship (see below).
To balance that, we’ll give the Moor
the Moroccan Navy. This is the 3-strength
galley. Place it in any sea area during setup.
Each turn, the Moorish player may make one
additional reinforcement die roll for Venetian
forces. No modifiers apply. On a result of
10, one Venetian ship appears as a Moorish
reinforcement (place the same as an Ottoman
ship). As soon as any Ottoman unit enters
play, all Venetian units are immediately removed.
The Moorish player may not decline to roll
for Ottoman reinforcements (in hopes of keeping
We’ve included a free
download here with the new pieces. The
7-strength pieces are Venetian; the 4-strength
galleys with gold numbers are the additional
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.