Since I find myself back in the 1490s, I also took out a game I’ve mentioned before on that era, Slitherine’s Pike and Shot. The game is part of a series, originally released as a core game, then with an expansion, and now it is sold with a campaign/operational level included. Some version of it (I don’t know the details) is available on iPad. Furthermore, the engine has been expanded to Feudal Japan.
I picked it up not too long after it came out (2014 maybe?) and played it quite a bit at that time. I finally had to give it up as simply too addictive. The phrase “one more turn” has become a trite cliche in computer gaming, but I can’t count the number of games I’ve started to play “a couple of turns before bed,” and found myself finishing the battle hours later, unable to stop without seeing the results of the next turn. This includes, in the game I finished last night, a game that I was unable to stop even after I had won because there was a particular tactic I’d failed to execute (misplaced mouse click) and I wanted to see if it would have actually worked. (In fact, it did).
Pike and Shot, the core game, is a tactical representation of warfare in the 16th and early 17th centuries when individually-carried firearms were first becoming a factor. The arquebus, the musket, and the pistol would prove to be a disruptive technology, but techniques had to be developed to use them to the best advantage while avoiding their weaknesses. Early firearms were slow to move and fire, and ineffective against armor at longer distances. Against a cavalry charge or heavy infantry, protection was provided by mixed units of arquebusiers and pikemen – i.e. the Pike and Shot unit. The era is generally defined as beginning with the Italian Wars, in the late 1400s, and last until the development of the bayonet, which eliminated the need for pike. That couple-of-hundred year period of rapid innovation, as countries scrambled to counter and trump the innovations of their opponents, is the focus of this game.
The game is turn-based on a square grid. During a turn, the computer manages “opportunity fire” for the non-active player. While fairly transparent to the player, the underlying ruleset, through concepts such as Zone Of Control and reduced movement based on morale, eliminate much of the gameness of a turn based game. While playing this game, I don’t feel that I can rapidly maneuver my units around the stationary enemy to gain an unrealistic advantage. The armies of the time were slow and relatively inflexible and this reality helps to simplify the game. You can move, shoot and melee and that’s about it.
The UI is a very nice one, and may be part of what makes this game so addictive to me. The game was developed based on the Battle Academy engine, which was developed to be simple and cross-platform. Complex menu structures and long lists of hot keys don’t translate well to a mobile device, so the commands are all through two clicks – one brings up a list of permissible actions and the second selects it. The music is a nice mood enhancer that I still leave playing, despite having heard it all already in my many competed games. The battlefield sounds are also very immersive, with a very satisfying crackle of muskets followed by a puff of smoke on the screen. My one complaint is with the sound for crossbows– a high-pitched twing. This awful sounds certainly encourages driving weapons technology forward; I would like that particular weapon made obsolete as soon as possible.
The graphics are another detail that really makes the game. As it is a turn based game, functionally, the graphics don’t need to be doing a whole lot. However, the vision of the developers was to represent the game in the style of period paintings and drawings. The terrain is simple but functional. The unit graphics represent their formations, again in that period drawing style. There are minor animations, enough to help keep the game pleasant to look at, but not elaborate. Things like formation changes, casualties, or melee actions are not animate. To get a visual of the heath of the units, the game uses the flags carried by the units, which become ragged as the manpower and morale of the units deteriorates.
I can remember when I was trying to decide whether or not to get the game. I was afraid this one was going to be too simple. For example, I’ve grown to expect that that a historical, tactical game would used at a minimum simultaneous order execution, not turns. The game has also abstracted away ammunition and resupply, command and control, weather, etc. Even the scale of the game seems a little vague – there is no clock or obvious grid dimensions.
Once I started playing, however, I had to admit this game is getting so much just right. Yes, on one level, it is a simple game; you just move and shoot. Even so, the game feels right in terms of accurate portrayal of the battlefield.
For another example detail, consider command and control. You have direct
control over each unit in the game. Unlike what you might expect out of a “serious” wargame, there are no separate commander units, no command radii, no activation rules. But as you play through the battle, your ability to control your army starts to slip away. When a scenario starts, you can rapidly move your army forward, managing each individual battalion to try to engage the enemy on your terms. Then contact is made and you start to loose that control. When a unit enters melee, it is controlled by the computer – you cannot disengage and redirect. Units that are routed, not surprisingly, are out of your control but so also are your own units that take off in pursuit after the enemy’s routed units . Turning units can be difficult at the best of times and it may become impossible when in the presence of enemy formations. By the end of the game, only a few of your units remain under your control, and even with those the choices of actions are limited.
Much like it would be under a complex system of command and control simulation. But it doesn’t require all the extra detail to make it happen.
Back to the Beginning
After a couple of years hiatus, I started back in again with the basic scenarios. The set on the Italians Wars, which mark the beginning of the Pike and Shot era, represent a good reentry point. The first battle, chronologically, is the Battle of Seminara, which took place on June 28th, 1495.
The fight is came towards the end of the campaign of Charles VIII of France to take the title of King of Naples. He had been offered the throne when the then King of Naples, Ferdinand I, was excommunicated during a squabble with the Pope. Although the immediate issue was resolved, several factions continued to encourage Charles VIII to press his claim, with each trying to gain political advantage in the region. Once convinced to proceed with his invasion, Charles’ armies were able to advance through Italy against weak and disorganized opposition.
Ferdinand II of Naples, the grandson of Ferdinand I (his father, Alfonso, abdicated rather than fight for control with the French King), began building a more organized opposition. Ferdinand fled Naples south to Sicily where he solicited assistance from his cousin (also Ferdinand II, but this time the King of Sicily and of Aragorn and remember by most of us as half of the Ferdinand and Isabella union). The princes of Italy were able to bring Pope Alexander (VI) and Emperor Maximilian (I) into an alliance against France.
Thus emboldened, Ferdinand II (very recently of Naples) decided to retake Naples with an allied army departing from Sicily. Charles VIII had departed Naples and was returning to France with half of his invading army, the other half split among several garrisons in Naples. Receiving word of the approaching allied armies, the French consolidated several garrisons and met Ferdinand with a decidedly superior force.
The introduction in Pike and Shot states, appropriately, “At least our cause is just.”
The center of the French line were Swiss mercenaries, who had justly developed a reputation of the premier pike formations of Europe. On the wings, the French had their gendarmes, the “modern” successor to the mounted knight. These heavy horse units fought in plate armor with lance, and dominated the battlefield on the cavalry side of the equation. Facing this one-two punch, the allied army was completely outclassed. The Italian troops were no where near the caliber of the French. The Spanish, veterans of the Reconquista, were to be the hard core of the allied army. However, the light-unit tactics that worked against the Moors were inadequate against the heavy infantry and cavalry on the French side.
My scenario turned out much like the historical battle. As happened then, I was initially successful harassing the French cavalry with my javelin attacks from the Spanish light horse. However, as my line began to collapse from the middle, the panic spread throughout. The score wasn’t a complete blowout, leading me to believe that there probably is a way to get the win on this one. I’m not going to try it though.
The French victory turned out to be mooted by subsequent events. The allied army was not pursued and destroyed, and the Ferdinand escaped unharmed. He later captured Naples through other methods.
The true significance of this fight is often cited as the lesson which the Spanish took away. Realizing that their infantry was outclassed on the battlefields of Europe, the Spanish general Gonzalo de Córdoba developed the innovation of interspersing pike-wielding infantry with firearm-carrying infantry in a mobile yet primarily defensive formation. This began a technological arms race that is the Pike and Shot period.
The End of the Beginning
The final battle of Charles VIII’s Italian War occurred as Charles was returning with the other half of his army to France. The Pike and Shot scenario starts with the French army in column, to simulate the attack on Charles’ moving army. This may be a bit of liberty taken for playability purposes, as Charles had been aware for days that an enemy army opposed his passage.
In the game, I was able to win a victory against the French. In reality, both sides claimed victory. The French lost fewer men than the Italians, and were able to reform after the battle. Charles VIII returned to France with his forces. However, the Italians defeated the wing of the French forces that was guarding the treasure Charles had plundered during his conquests. After routing the guard, the Italian horsemen fell to plundering the treasure, possibly giving up the chance at winning a more decisive victory overall.
In any case, Charles returned to France with little to show for his invasion. His occupation of Naples was quickly reversed, his plunder lost, and his allies on the Italian peninsula alienated after the brutality of his invasion (any city that resisted his armies was sacked.)
The end result for Italy was also dire. The “Italian Wars” would continue, on and off, for another six decades in part spurred on by the recognition that Italy had no way to resist the larger powers of Europe in a fight, but much to give up in plunder.