The Fleets of
Granada: The Fall of Islamic Spain

Granada: 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 peace.

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.
A 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 die roll.

Other Navies

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.

Game Options

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 the Venetians).

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 Spanish pieces.

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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.