When Peter Jackson created the Battle of Helm’s Deep (or, as Tolkien called it, the Battle of the Hornberg), he had surely already watched Ralph Bakshi’s cartoon version. In that depiction of the battle, Bakshi substituted cavalry for the relieving force of infantry that Gandalf leads to the rescue. Jackson ran with that change, creating a dramatic visual of a dawn charge, led by Gandalf, which singularly turns the tide of the battle.
When Renzo Martinelli created September Eleven 1683, he had surely watched Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
There has been online speculation that either the Battle of the Hornberg and/or the Battle of Pelennor Fields were based on the historical battle which relieved Vienna on September 12th, 1683. In particular, Jackson’s version of the battle has a number of key elements that parallel the historical Battle of Vienna. His defenders, initially few in number, are augmented by the arrival of reinforcements as the enemy closes in, included the “foreign” elven troops (a significant departure from the book). Also, Jackson illustrates the books description of “blasting-fire,” portrayed by Bakshi as a magical spell, as a black powder mine, which is then used to breach the walls. Again, a strong parallel with the attack on Vienna, where the Turks were relying primarily on sappers and demolition to defeat the defenses.
Enter the 2012 film, September Eleven 1683. The title itself deserves exposition. The film is a joint Polish and Italian creation of an English-language film dramatizing the Battle of Vienna in 1683, where a coalition of Christian armies defeated a massive invasion of Ottoman Turks, ultimately reversing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The original title was 11 Settembre 1683, the date in Italian. The Polish title is Bitwa pod Wiedniem or The Battle of Vienna. Internationally, the English title was one of these two titles translated. In the U.S., the title was Day of the Siege: September Eleven 1683. In some cases, the subtitle was de-emphasized and in other cases dropped. When I watched it on Netflix, the visible title was simply Day of the Siege. On Amazon, the graphic shows the subtitle replaced, offering Day of the Siege: A Battle of Blood and Steel. In the UK, even more oddly, the release title was Siege Lord 2: Day of the Siege, a reference to the director’s earlier work Barbarossa, as it was called everywhere else, but released as Sword of War in America and Barbarossa: Siege Lord in the UK.
One has to wonder what political correctness is involved with all these machinations. The answer may be apparent as the movie opens, quoting French historian Marc Bloch.
Misunderstanding of the present grows fatally from the ignorance of the past.
This is not necessarily a movie about the September 11th back in 1683, but one perhaps much more present. While the filming began in 2011, it was actually conceived in 2001 but delayed by an inability to raise funding. Viewed in this context, the various contemporary messages throughout the film seem pretty obvious.
In a number of ways, the film is a flawed work. For a massive, on-screen epic depicting such a large engagement (including the largest-ever cavalry charge), the limited budget is obviously going to fall short. Many scenes are done with fairly-transparent computer generated graphics, including both the armies and the famous scenery of Vienna and Istanbul. One particular scene looked, as it flashed past me, as if it was using computer generated effects over a water-color background scene.
On top of that, there is my small world problem. How does one reduce such a huge military campaign to a TV screen, big budget or little. This film does it, in part, by telling the story as a personal struggle between Kara Mustafa (the commander of the Ottomans) and Marco d’Aviano (a Christian monk, advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor). The film goes so far as to have the former save the life of the latter in childhood, such that their fates are intertwined. It is, of course, easier to film the personal.
I am also convinced that the filmmaker was aware of the similarity with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and deliberately parallels the story (at least to some extent). Jackson had a lot more money to put into the huge battle scenes and it probably doesn’t hurt for the viewer to remember that big-budget spectacle while watching these battles. Just to give a concept of the scale, the Battle of the Hornberg involves about 10% of the force as the Battle of Vienna. One trick he probably should have taken from Jackson is the use of maps to allow a character to convey the geographic complexities of the battle to the viewer. A map is briefly shown in a scene where Kara Mustafa declines to defend against the (albeit slim) possibility of an attack from the mountain (Kahlenberg) where, in fact, the final attack actually came. I, for one, was left confused about the physical positioning of the actual battle.
The film, however, does get a few things right. The actors playing some of the major historical characters (notably Emperor Leopold and Jan Sobieski) very much match the appearance of the real figures’ portraits. It also captures certain period imagery quite well, albeit as snapshots rather than as part of a cohesive view of the battlefield. Important, to me at least, was the depiction of a formation of arquebusiers to defeat a cavalry charge, a depiction of the “winged hussars”, and that same cavalry’s use of single-shot pistols.
We are merely players
Wargaming this scenario is bound to be problematic. What odds table would produce a victory of 11,000 defenders over an attacking force of 300,000? Of course, those aren’t quite the right figures. The oft-quoted 300,000 number includes many non-combatants in the total, and should probably be more like 140,000-170,000. Then consider the combination of the defenders plus the relief force to total more like 90,000 at the time of the battle. But even so, those are still long odds. It would seem to be a situation where Sobieski and the relief force got most everything right and the Turks got much of it wrong. If we didn’t have this historical example, could we ever predict it?
Pike and Shot offers two different explorations of this historic event. There are several user-made scenarios as well as one of their campaigns in the new(er) Pike and Shot: Campaigns product. I’ll start off easy with the user scenario.
Just looking at the scenario makes me happy. The battle starts with you, the player, leading Holy Roman Empire and allies, beginning the attack to lift the siege. You control all the forces inside the city, shown in the above screenshot, and outside, shown below. The Ottoman forces are arrayed between in their siege lines (again, above) and arrayed to meet your counterattack (below).
It is a nice touch for the scenario designer to have included the commands on the map, to give a little historical flavor to the battle. But only a little. Like many of the Cold War tactical battles, this is more of a “representation” than a “simulation” of the Battle of Vienna. While the makeup of the armies seems proportionally correct, the absolute numbers are scaled down considerably to fit the capabilities of the game engine. Several signature features of the battle seem to be absent. The deployment of the western artillery in “impossible” terrain isn’t included. The late arrival of the cavalry, just in time to save the day, is replace by the Winged Hussars being deployed from the start (they’re that middle line in the above screenshot).
The game scenario did mirror the historical battle in a number of ways. The Ottoman player led with his levies, holding back many of his Janissaries for an assault on Vienna itself (which did not occur in-game). As those formations broke, which they did easily, the disarray spread across the Turkish army. It took 9 turns to arrive at a fairly one-side victory. As I’ve said before, my desire in playing historical scenarios like this one more towards the pursuit of historical fidelity than balance and challenge, so an easy victory is not necessarily an indictment. That said, the victory did not feel like an exploration of the unique factors that lead to that success. It was more a simple example of how quality can defeat quantity – definitely a major factor at Vienna, but I want more.
Try, try again
At this writing, there are actually two Battle of Vienna scenarios posted on the official download site. The second is titled Battle of Kahlenberg and plays from the other side – as the Ottomans. It’s important to realize, though, these are two different user-made scenarios by two different authors. They are not meant to be mirror images of each other, and each has their own research, implementation and style.
The screenshot, above, shows the representation of the siege lines in this second scenario. It is the very bottom-left corner of the mini-map (that tilted square in the lower right), to give a sense of perspective of the overall battle. The siege-lines itself have only few token units, and no defenders to trade shots with, as in the first scenario. It simplifies the focus, as well as gets away from the probably-ahistorical integration of the two-different-time-scale parts of the battle into a single scenario. While the Ottomans were rushing to break the Vienna defenses before the relief force arrived, this probably didn’t include literally hoping the cannons would knock over a wall while the Polish Cavalry was charging in from the opposite direction.
In thinking about this difference, I’m reminded of another factor in scenario design. It is particularly obvious in some of the Field of Glory user-made scenarios. In both games, victory is achieved by routing a critical mass of the opposing army before they do the same to you. That “mass” is expressed as a percentage. Therefore, one aspect of scenario design is having the right sized army so that it breaks when it should. In Field of Glory, I’ve played scenarios where there are units in unreachable hexes – they can never take part in the fight, but count towards the math of when their side will break. So the decision to represent a portion, and what portion, of the 100,000-200,000 Ottoman troops on the field needs to be made, not just considering which units are worth playing, but it is also about balancing the size, and therefore resilience, of the army.
The next screenshot (above) shows the Christian forces emerging from the Weinerwald, also near the beginning of the game. Unlike the previous scenario, both the height and the difficult terrain from where the attack came is shown, including the Christian artillery set upon the high ground (see below). Compare this to the neatly-arrayed lines of Christian forces in the previous scenario, deployed on fairly featureless terrain. In that first case, the designer may have considered the terrain features to be superfluous. If the game battle is to take place after the forces have advanced out of the wood, modelling the wooded terrain is not necessary.
While the terrain lacks the symmetric beauty of the walled defenses and the siege lines, in their place we see some nice chrome with the inclusion of distinctive battlefield locations. The above screenshot shows a monastery, and there are several villages drawn and labeled on the main battlefield.
Perhaps more important, the battle (at least in the opening phases) seems to have rolled out very close to history – at least as far as my uneducated eye could tell based on maps I’ve seen drawn with positions and movements of troops. Like the first scenario, the Polish Winged Hussars are present on the map from the first turn, but in my game they didn’t become a serious factor until the battle was well under way. And, as it turned out, until it was too late.
As before, I gained a victory. I should add I’m playing on one of the easier levels, so this shouldn’t be taken as any comment either on the quality of the scenario or my skill as a player. What I will say is that the difficulty of this scenario felt much closer to the those provided with the game, in contrast to the first. I also notice the strength of the forces taking part in the portion of the battle which is actively modeled seems very close to the actual numbers (depending on your source and assumptions). In other words, I don’t think the battle was scaled down, as was the first scenario. I am also impressed and fascinated by the array of unit types. The battle is characterized by the wide variety of forces present. The Christian coalition had armies from Poland, Germany, Italy, and Austria while the Turks had forces from throughout their empire, including Western infantry. There were Tatar cavalrymen on both sides, prompting the Lithuanian Tatars to wear straw in their helmets to distinguish them from their Ottoman counterparts. I can’t speak for the research into the order of battle, but the variety of forces in this scenario sure seems impressive.
All I want is more
For a third look at this battle, one of the four campaigns that ship with the game is covering the Ottoman offensive starting in early 1862.
At the core of the Pike and Shot: Campaigns is a what so many gamers have demanded from tactical-level wargames for as long as, probably, there were such. The original game provided a way to auto-generate battles with the armies determined by points to get a level of balance. These were done within various “campaign” parameters, so that armies would meet with their historical counterparts or fight in the appropriate terrain. Or I should say, could be done. A player could select a face-off between the English Roundheads and the Ottoman Turks in the terrain of northern Italy. The emphasis was on creating a challenging scenario within those parameters. Remember, too, this is all based on the Field of Glory ruleset, which provides the methodology for building battles from opposing army “lists.”
What’s missing from this is the sense of being part of the bigger picture. If my army is victorious, that’s the end of it… the best I can do is generate other scenarios with different parameters. Tho original game also had campaigns of historical scenarios, where one would play through in an order – but again, the outcome of one battle did not change the setup for the next one.
The Campaigns expansion* adds the ability to take an army from battle to battle. Essentially, it is still the auto-generated battles (called “skirmishes” in-game) of the previous versions, but results of the battle feed into an operational wrapper.
That wrapper adds some intelligent details to augment the experience. Armies are reinforced and improved (based on experience) in between battles. The campaign level also handles sieges and has an auto-resolve for smaller battles. There is an economic model whereby armies in provinces will damage the economic output of the occupied territory, thereby reducing the ability to raise more units. In turn, armies that exceed the supply capacity of their province will lose units through attrition. Attrition also takes effect when an army retreats from battle or engages in a siege.
The campaign cycles through six turns per year, from early spring to late autumn. There is no fighting during the winter and units must return to an occupied territory (i.e. breaking off any sieges-in-progress). Over the winter turn is also when new units are purchased and added to the army.
Going back to the auto-resolution feature – I haven’t tried it yet, but it has long been a direction I thought multi-level (tactical/strategic or tactical/operational games should go.) Too many games with the “auto-resolve” option have a built in incentive to not use it. Auto-resolve can’t be too good (or a player will not want to risk additional losses by fighting a battle). On the other hand, even trivial or dull battles need to be fought out manually if the auto-resolve hits the player for losses that could be avoided. In Pike and Shot: Campaigns the Auto-resolution is intended to adapt to the players record so that, over time, the difference between playing a tactical battle and letting the computer take it is minimized.
What the campaign is not is an historical simulation of the Turkish invasion at an operational level. The campaign does not follow the historical movements of armies, nor will it lead to a battle similar to the scenarios discussed previously.
On the other hand, the campaigns themselves can be edited and modified and that includes the campaign maps. I wonder if anyone has tried to use the editing functions to model forces historically, or, perhaps use it to create fixed armies (not subject to the points system) on variable battle maps. Maybe I’ll try that out. One of these days.
*Chronologically, it is an expansion. If you buy the game new today, it is only available as a the whole package. Although if you have only the original game, the package can be completed at a substantial discount.