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This exercise with historical games began when I first started watching Vikings. I think I was originally watching on the History Channel; each new episode as it came out. When I first heard Vikings was going to be broadcast, I was a little nervous about a) how the History Channel might fumble the development of a historical-based drama and b) the obviously over-stylized interpretation of the period in question. As I watched a handful of the episodes, I wasn’t thrilled, but neither was I entirely put off. Eventually I lost track of the shows, as one often does when trying to catch things on the TV’s schedule.

Around that same time, I happened to be reading one of the books in The Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. It was a the combination of Cornwell’s writing and the depiction of a shield wall on Vikings that made me decide I wanted to find a game that would go with the experience. My first attempt was a using Medieval 2: Total War and a mod-package called The Last Kingdom, apparently made by someone inspired in a similar fashion as I. From there, I got interested in the Wolves from the Sea expansion for Field of Glory, which generated its own long and sordid tale. Worse yet, now that I finally have that expansion in hand, there were no battles created for the period of the Great Heathen Army or Alfred the Great. In any case, before I got very far, I ended up focusing on the Cold War period, rather than the Age of Vikings, and never got back to it.

Now, it seems, Vikings has come a full circle for me. I’ve watched up through the awkwardly-named Season 402, wherein the Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok (as defined by this series) threaten to intrude upon the story line of The Last Kingdom and the other books of The Saxon Chronicles, itself now a TV Series.

My initial misgivings aside, this is a period that’s ripe for a fictionalized treatment. Actually, with The Last Kingdom and Cornwall’s other works, I’ve always been impressed by his treatment of Dark Age history. Stories of Ragnar Lothbrok and his offspring survive today in the form of myth and legend. The primary source for this era, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is too thin on detail to create from it a modern novel-style narrative without a whole lot of elaboration and speculation. If the paucity of details weren’t bad enough, the accuracy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has been called into question, at least in terms of some of is assertions. Being written in the court of Alfred the Great, one would have to expect an interpretation history favorable to his reign, as opposed to just a strict record of facts. To some extent, the self-history of the Saxons can be cross-referenced with the oral histories of the Norse via the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons. The Norse story, however, is clearly mythological in nature. Historians question whether Ragnar Lothbrok was was even a single personage, as opposed to an iconic representation of Scandinavian virtue. One can freely mix a story about the “real” Ragnar with mystical elements without worrying to much about “accuracy” because nobody really knows what an accurate version would look like.

Even still, one wonders at the necessity of shoving every Norse legend into a single TV show. Ragnar’s character on Vikings not only sires his sons through his wife Aslaug, as is documented in the sources, but his wife previous to Aslaug (when he is but a farmer) becomes the also-legendary Lagertha. His life-long friend Floki, having created the first fleet of boats capable of sailing to England, turns out to be none other than the historical Flóki Vilgerðarson, the discoverer and founder of the Norse colony on Iceland. We also find out that King Alfred the Great was, in fact, the bastard son of Queen Judith*. Not content to have this Judith marry two successive kings (father and son!), as her namesake did, this Judith not only has a long-running affair with the her father-in-law**, she has also produced a son with one Athelstan, one of the few survivors of the massacre at Lindisfarne Abbey, the first Viking raid upon the island of Britannia. Here, naturally, we credit the raid to Ragnar Lothbrok. Granted, these historical events are not well pinned down and did, in fact, all occur in the generation or two in which the story takes place. Nevertheless, it remains quite a stretch to weave them into a single familial narrative.

A little more problematically, from a math standpoint, Ragnar’s brother, Rollo, takes part along with Ragnar in both the raid on Lindisfarne (793) and the Siege of Paris (845). For Rollo to have accomplished all that he does in the show, from raiding Lindisfarne to besieging Paris to being crowned Duke of Normandy and founding the dynasty that would go on to rule England (as well as Sicily), he would have had to have lived to be around 140 years old.

The departure from the historical would seem to be particularly ironic by the fact that this is a History Channel production. One would expect a fidelity to the historical as a top priority. Of course, when Vikings first premiered, the History Channel was also running programs like Ancient Aliens and Pawn Stars. While long ridiculed for its seeming mockery of the channel’s name, by the time Vikings came out (and certainly by the time it was popular), nobody expected much history from the History Channel. The creator of Vikings, for his part, defended his decisions to heavily dramatize his story. He claimed that an exciting, albeit ahistorical show, would draw far more interest in actual Viking history than a dry and historically-accurate series. In this, history (so to speak) has backed his claim.

Particularly given that the depiction of small-force combat was one of the things I liked about Vikings, I’m a little sad to say that it doesn’t scale up. The portrayal of the larger battles, at least the ones I’ve seen so far, does not particularly impress. The emphasis is on the stock-fantasy “epic” battles, where the heroes smite the nameless hoards before facing off with each other in a one-on-one duel. Part of the problem is that there aren’t records of the battles whereby Ragnar’s sons conquered England. It is possible, even, that no big, decisive battle did occur. The campaign could easily have consisted of weaker armies retreating before stronger ones and a series of sieges and plunder.

Unfortunately, this inability to realistically visualize the period extends to the gaming world.

No One Else Can Take My Place

One game that is explicit in modeling the Sons of Ragnar and the Great Heathen Army is Crusader Kings II. A little over a year after the initial release, Crusader Kings‘ fifth expansion extended the start date for the game backwards to 867 AD, shortly after the start of the Great Heathen Army’s campaign. Other mechanics were added to add unique capabilities to the Vikings and to pagans in general. The technology system was revamped to allow for the greater range of advancement that will occur when you extend the potential length of the game backwards towards the fall of the Roman Empire.

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Ivar the Boneless, supported by Sigurd, leads the Viking army in a war against East Anglia. It isn’t really 865 AD.

I’ve begun a new campaign, for academic purposes of course, that has me playing as Alfred the Great at the beginning of the Viking scenario. That means my older brother, Æthelred, is still king and I might expect to inherit his title if he dies reasonably soon. Of course, Crusader Kings can rapidly diverge from the historical formula so I could just as easily find myself fighting it out for control of Wessex as saving and uniting England. Doing my part to spoil the historical flavor up front, I’m arranging a marriage between myself and a Frankish princess, hoping to catapult my fortunes forward via continental politics.

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The Saxons raise their forces to confront Ivar’s horde. 24,000+ Heathens is pretty great indeed.

Whatever happens politically, the challenge of this scenario is the Viking threat. Sons of Ragnar Ivar the Boneless and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye are leading the Great Heathen Army in the vicinity of York, a force that exceeds 24,000 soldiers when all totaled. While the very name of this force brings to mind a vast, angry horde, modern scholars’ estimates are far lower. A figure under 1000 has been arrived at by calculating the documented carrying capacity times the recorded number of boats. The consensus produces figures in the low 1000s.

Why Crusader Kings starts the Vikings off with an army roughly ten times the size it should be is a matter for speculation. I don’t think its as simple as they had some bad data. More likely, a part of it is the necessary balance to give the Viking forces the military power to accomplish what they historically accomplished. Within the game mechanics, historical outcomes may well require a force that is perhaps ten times the size of the real one.

I don’t think it is just the Vikings, either. Across the board, the Dark Age armies seem overpowered in a number of ways. It seems easier to raise large forces of 10s of 1000s of soldiers than historical data suggest it should be. The seasonal limits on military campaigns are also very weakly enforced. In reality, soldiers would have been sent home for the winter to avoid battling the elements. Not only that, they probably would have also been sent home during planting and harvest, so that war time wouldn’t interfere with unduly with their kingdom’s food supply. Crusader Kings, instead, uses the basic 4X mechanics of upkeep costs to the player’s treasury combined with war weariness calculations. It creates practical limits to the raising of armies, but not limits based on the same factors as were (likely) most important in reality.

I think I’ve complained about the seasons and weather before. If not, I’ll complain again. Crusader Kings (and the EU family of games) get points for modeling weather and the seasons. But only a few. The arrival of winter in the northern climates should, more often than not, put a dead halt to military action until the spring thaw. Instead, the way the game handles it – increasing attrition during winter months – makes it just one more “cost” to manage when maintaining an army. It seems to me that you’re more successful keeping your army in the field and just feeding money and reinforcements to it through the supply system versus actually losing the 4-5 months out of the year required to cycle your armies home and back with the weather.

Although that’s one of my persistent complaints, lets just return to the army size and with it go back to something I said about Medieval II: Total War. Contrasting with Rome: Total War, medieval-period battles were much smaller than those of the classical age such that a “typical” fight could be played with the Medieval II units at a one-to-one ratio between rendered and modeled men. That goes doubly so for the Dark Ages, where the ability to support large armies was even less than in the tail-end of the High Medieval period. Remember, I was first drawn into Vikings by its depiction of shield wall combat in a battle consisting of hundreds of participants, not thousands – something at the low end of Medieval‘s range. The drawback, of course, is that Medieval II isn’t (nor is it really meant to be) much of a simulator of realistic combat.

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The Last Kingdom is a comprehensive mod that includes a cinematic introduction.

Enter the Medieval II mod, The Last Kingdom. I first came across this overhaul of the Medieval‘s Kingdoms sequel many years ago. I recall reading introductory material from, I think, The Last Kingdom‘s developer’s website, which I can’t locate today. Whether I just can’t find it or whether the site has been taken down, I don’t know. This stuff is 10 years old by now. I’ll tell you what I remember, but half of how I remember it is probably wrong.

I believe the developer is, himself, in academics as a profession. His intent was to make a strictly historical mod, accurately portraying aspects of life the Viking Age. He found himself limited in that goal by the mechanics of Total War, and so the result is a mixed bag of historical fidelity and Total War mechanics. He also uses, as a major source, Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. As a result, in addition to the historical elements he has some of Cornwell’s fictional or speculative characters participating in the campaigns.

The modified elements run the gamut of what conversions typically do. The artwork and skins are redone to provide a more authentic-looking Viking/Dark Age depiction of clothing, armor, and weaponry. New unit types are introduced to distinguish between the various Northern European cultures. The build-tree has also been redone to provide a set of buildings and technological advances more appropriate to the period. Lastly, the stats of the units have been altered to change the feeling of the real-time battles.

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Non-campaign battles are built using army points, with random or automatic unit selection.

Originally, my interest in this was for historical battles, to the extent that we can find such. Like I said above, Medieval seems to be right at the spot where it is capable of representing the vast majority of organized fighting from it’s period as a one-to-one ratio.

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Modifications include the graphics, unit types, and parameters that govern battle resolution. It looks nice.

My initial impressions of this mod were very good. Normally, Total War battles are frantic affairs. Units race around the field, often executing contorted commands frantically clicked in by the player. Almost any realism mod is going to start by slowing everything down. This mod does that, and more. I won’t speculate on exactly how it was done but the shield walls act like shield walls. When similar units meet, they’ll stand in line bashing away at each other for a long time. Eventually, one side or the other will begin to dominate. In reality, shield wall combat was exhausting but not particularly deadly as long as the line held. Once a line broke, the fleeing army might well get slaughtered unless they were protected by other, intact forces.

This is still Total War, so the downside of the more deliberate battles is there is a tendency to fight to the last man. I’m guessing the casualties are ahistorically high, but that is pretty much guesswork all around as we’re not going to be finding detailed battlefield reports circa 865 AD. A second major problem I have with this as a tool for fighting one-off historical battles is my inability to get those battles set up in the game engine.

I’ve long had trouble using the scenario editor in Medieval II: Kingdoms and this mod seems to exacerbate the problems that are already there. The random battles are fairly easy to use, especially (if you are trying to get a historical setup) since you can hand-pick the armies on both sides of the field. Two issues conspire to make this less than fully satisfactory, both obvious when comparing experience of playing Total War in the campaign mode. First, there is no way to “carry over” your army, from either a victory or a defeat, into a future battle. You can construct a new army, but all units will be at full strength. This is particularly noticeable in that the campaign engine manages casualties and experience, allowing your army to be reshaped by the battles in which it engages. Likewise, the terrain. In the campaign game, the battle maps are created based upon where the encounter takes place on the strategic map. In the single battle mode, you need to choose from a more limited set of maps, which can detract from the experience. For example, in that last screenshot, I didn’t actually want to fight the battle as a contested river crossing, it just seemed to turn out that way.

This heightened realism mod, whatever faults it has, does seem to be quite a find for Dark Ages tactical battles. The larger problem is the lack of historical information on battles to which to apply the engine. Information is scarce regarding the details of battles. Similarly, there are no strategic or operational engines that focus on realism. The Last Kingdom does add new life to its Viking-centric campaign, but at the end of the day it remains a Total War game. For Crusader Kings, it does a descent and immersive job of portraying the politics of the time but, as I’ve identified early in the article, it is probably pretty far from being an accurate operational engine for the Viking invasion of England.

*This character is a fictional daughter Ælla of Northumbria, who may or may not have had daughters. The name and some of the narrative is based on Judith of Flanders, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor.

**The mixing of fiction and fantasy can become confusing. Judith, the real Judith, was the second wife of Æthelwulf, son of Ecgberht, not his first as was shown in the series. As his second wife, the once-and-future kings of England were not her own children, but rather her stepsons. Indeed, it was cause for court intrigue as some wondered whether Judith’s children by Æthelwulf, being the grand-children of the Holy Roman Emperor, might claim the thrown of Wessex over their older half-brothers. As it turned out, she had no children in this, her first marriage, nor in her second to Æthelwulf’s son Æthelbald, who is left out of the Vikings series entirely (see the discussion on time compression in the main text).