Saturday 16 October 2021

Writing Rules

Recently, the Heretical Gamer has taken up the challenge of Anglo-Norman wargaming with a series of games around the Anarchy of Stephen’s reign. He has used rules including DBA and Neil Thomas’ Ancient and Medieval rules, but not the ones published with the articles the scenarios are based upon. As I have not read the articles I do not know the ins and outs of the rules that came with them. I am not going to comment on the actions reported, as they seem to be good, well organised wargames to me, but ponder a bit about how rules could be written for the period.

The first problem to be encountered is that, really and truly, little is known about the fighting of the period. The actual activity of the soldiers is very hard to establish from the records we have, and the historical record gets more and more patchy the further down the scoial class you go. That is, we can have a fair stab (pardon the pun) at how knights fought, because the chroniclers were from the knightly class (even if, as most of them were, they were monks). The audience too was from this class and so wanted to know how their heroic sons, cousins and, of course, selves fought each other with honour and chivalry. The infantry are rarely mentioned.

The fact is, however, that infantry were at all (or most) of the actions. We are not sure how many (chronicle numbers are always suspect) nor do we really know what they did. We do not know how many archers there were, for example, nor how many of those might have wielded crossbows. Our sources are, simply, not interested in such things. We are on slightly firmer ground with the accounts of the Crusades, where infantry were acknowledged as being important, but then the warfare was different as the Franks had to adjust to a form of warfare which simply did not exist in the West.

Another problem which we have, that is related to the point about the chroniclers, is that the last hundred years or so has seen the era from the fall of the Roman Empire (in the West, of course) to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War as the era of the mounted knight being a battle winner. This might have something to do with various analogies, such as the medieval knight as a ‘tank’, where in the First and Second World Wars the tank was seen as the weapon par excellence which won battles. This might not be true, of course (I am not a world war wargamer, but I am aware that in both world wars artillery did rather have a voice in action), but the analogy was very attractive. It just seems to have been wrong.

The other point of view, actually similar to the above, is that nothing much of any interest happened in the Anglo-Norman era, at least militarily. There were knights and they won battles, so most people did the sensible thing and hid in castles, of which there were many, until the knights came to the rescue. It is acknowledged, naturally, that there was a bit more to it than that but really, not much. Most campaigns, after all, got bogged down in sieges and sieges are, of course, very boring affairs. Even siege weaponry only developed slowly over the period and did not really establish superiority over the defence until the advent of gunpowder.

So how, out of this lack of information, could wargame rules possibly be written?

Well, to be honest, no period is easy for rule writers. There is a great deal to be considered, from ‘historical accuracy’ (whatever than means) to playability as a game. As I banged on about ad nauseum a while ago, a set of wargame rules is really a set of interlocking and interdependent models for different aspects of a battle. Nowhere in the accounts of battles I have read do participants say, ‘It is the end of the turn, we had better check our morale’. Morale is an explanatory construct made by historians and wargamers to explain certain outcomes.

The further back in time, the less we know about combat. For example, no-one really knows how battles in the Wars of the Roses took place. Ideas vary from dismounted knights exhausted under the weight of armour practically collapsing when someone taps them to the same men at arms doing handsprings while toting poleaxes. Spool history back another two centuries or so and you have further compounded our ignorance and conflicting accounts.

We have to make some sensible inferences and deductions. If our sources do not mention particularly the difference between crossbows and ordinary bows, then they do not appear in the rules. If some of the spearmen in the sources are armoured and some are not, then we can represent that but need to really consider whether they performed differently on the battlefield and, if they did, why. The answer is probably not coats of mail, but discipline – the word ‘mercenary’ did not have its negative connotations that accrued later but were more reliable troops who were expensive but could be paid off at the end of the campaign.

On the other hand, there is a limit to what you can do with a pointy stick. So perhaps the distinction is not between armoured and unarmoured spearmen, but between levies and mercenaries, the latter having a bit more sticking power, not because of their armour but because of their semi-professionalism.

The range of troop types is fairly straightforward in the Anglo-Norman period, of course: mounted knights, dismounted knights, spearmen and archers (conflating crossbowmen and archers into one). Complications arise because the knights could dismount to bolster the infantry, but that could be accounted for. Beyond that, a simple matrix style of interactions should result in something playable.

Morale would be an interesting question. I would usually go for the whole army approach, and still would, but perhaps losing knight bases would count for more than infantry, at least if we believe the chroniclers. But maybe that is just adding too much chrome.


  1. Great to see this discussion.
    I've touted the 'Field of Battle' rules in the past - simply because they lend two things to the battle :
    (1) events are a little, but not too chaotic - the turn sequence being driven via card draw - which means that you manage the 'luck' that you're dealt, while remaining in some degree.
    (2)units in combat have certain probabilities in terms of winning their respective fights - but that doesn't mean that they will - and the result affects the overall army morale via a mechanism of counting down to zero.

    These concepts do seem simplistic, but if the methods of fighting in the period are less than clear, these concepts always add to the concept of an exciting game at least.

    1. Yes, I can see what you mean. Piquet makes a noble gesture in that direction as well, only resolving combat on the turn of a card, so you can't tell (and don't need to know) the details.
      The balance between game and history is a tricky one, especially when we know what a good game is but are not really sure about history. That's why 'historical accuracy' is in scare quotes. I have a feeling that the more historically accurate someone says a game is, the closer it is to the first wargame they had in the period. But I might be an old cynic.

  2. The idea that the mounted knight ruled warfare for centuries after Hastings has never had much to recommend it even on its own terms. Tinchebray could never have been fought the way it was if it were true, for a start. But we are condemned I think to use some rational estimation in constructing our wargames models since the evidential basis just isn't strong enough. That said, the technologies involved are hardly so unique that a bit of inference from more contemporary situations doesn't seem unreasonable.

    1. Oh, indeed. It is just that the mounted knight and his charge is heavily embedded in 'popular' historiography, and of course is based on the Chronicles of the exploits of the knightly classes.

      We can use other eras to infer what was going on, but that is always a bit risky and we have to bear in mind that they are models by inference, rather than anything based on contemporary account. But it is the best we can do.