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When I started a campaign around the Great Heathen Army, I knew I was bound to depart from history. Even still, Wessex and the invading Vikings were certain to clash in one way or another. Let us imagine one of those ways.

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In this timeline, Ivar did not fare as well as his historical counterpart.

As the campaign played on, Ivar the Boneless was unable to keep his army together and conquer England. Instead of dying at the hands of the heathens, King Ælla not only survived but managed to fend off Ivar’s Great Heathen Army. Of course, one defeat is not going to send the Vikings back to their homelands. We are bound to see continued attempts to pluck the ripe fruit that is England, but perhaps in a less organized form.

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With the King’s army away, Wessex fell victim to plundering.

A major turning point in the real history, Spring of 871, finds Wessex in trouble. With King Æthelred having sent troops northward to help defeat a Viking incursion there, another raiding army has besieged Wessex. In the above screenshot, we see the Lesser Heathen Army (but still huge by historical standards) moving northward to defeat a smaller force under Æthelred in the field near modern Gloucester.

Alfred, Earl of Dorset (and that’s me, remember) has been designated as his brother’s Marshal. Unfortunately, he is also a bit sickly, so the present crisis finds him, not leading the troops in the field, but back at the barracks administering the training of replacement troops. Sensing a great battle in the making, he orders his own vassals’ forces assembled to march to the aid of Wessex. Unlike at Ashdown, no members of the royal family will be leading the armies to victory (or perhaps to defeat.)

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After a bit of maneuvering, the forces meet at the Battle of Cirencester.

Fortunately for the future of Wessex, my armies were assembling and on their way to Gloucester even as the Viking armies were. The arrival of the reinforcements was only a few days behind the Vikings. Upon joining together, it was Dorset’s commanders, presumably in a rare triumph of meritocracy over politics, who were put in command of the combined armies. That is there is no indication that the King’s soldiers are in one wing and Alfred’s in another. The armies look to be intermixed.

To delve further into the outcome of this imaginary battle, I will return to what might be simulated by the battle tactics in Crusader Kings. As the game’s calendar advances, the tactical battles also are displayed in real time with various battlefield maneuvers calculated for both the AI and the player. Obviously, though, the strategic clock and the battle clock can’t quite align and, just as obviously, the use of a single clock in both cases has to be some kind of abstraction – one can’t believe that a Medieval infantry battle is lasting a week or more. Instead, I think the interpretation is two-fold. First of all, the display should be seen as a window on a battle that might take the better part of a day, but it is displayed for the player over (let’s say) a week of real time. Secondly, the maneuvering of two armies in close proximity to each other might take days or even weeks. The forces have to concentrate and jockey for favorable ground. During that time, small engagements, attrition, and other losses are surely taking place.

In other words, I would interpret the real time battle screen as some combination of real time and artificially-expanded time. In the above screenshot, as an example, the battle view shows the armies engaged in skirmishing, as they have been for a number of days. We could interpret this as the skirmishing taking place over perhaps an hour, during a battle that happens at some point around this date. However, another way to look at it is that the armies haven’t really met yet. Portions of the army might meet and engage as the two main forces attempt to locate each other. Or maybe they are facing each other from fortified camps and periodically there are minor losses due to raiding.

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A vanguard spots a portion of the Viking army across a stream.

Although one can simply imagine and project what numbers on the screen might mean in terms of a more detailed encounter, we also dream of being able to actually play those details. To indulge myself, I got out Field of Glory II‘s recently released Wolves at the Gate DLC. I decided, to make it easier on myself, that (roughly) matching the total numbers was sufficient to reproduce the Crusader Kings battle. While CK gives a detailed breakdown of the armies’ troop mix, reproducing that while also maintaining a historical balance in the unit makeup of the armies was beyond what I wanted to do. As it turned out (after some trial and much error), the Quick Battles function created the best result I could come up with, numbers-wise. The Anglo-Saxon side may be a little high (by perhaps a unit or two) but I can justify that as a “home field” advantage. From the standpoint of Field of Glory points, the Vikings have the advantage, as is the norm for any Quick Battles.

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I assemble my forces to meet the enemy. Unfortunately, to face his shield wall, I’ve got some Poorly Armed Rabble.

I used the “Potluck” choice for the type of battle which resulted in a scenario I’ve not seen before (see below for in-game description). The map has designated areas for each side, basically you must own the center of your side of the map. Points are awarded for getting your forces in the enemy’s territory and keeping them out of yours. As it says below, it is supposed to simulate the meeting of small portions of the two armies as the remainder of each side slowly drifts while night approaches. The goal is to hold territory as those reinforcements come up. I found this interesting in light of the fact I was just musing whether the skirmish results shown on the Crusader Kings screen, just before I exited, should be interpreted as a pre-battle meeting engagement.

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The battle type was randomly selected. In the end, I don’t think either I or the computer AI fully understood the rules of the game.

At the scenario start I found myself with an inexplicably small number of units facing what appeared to be a slightly larger force across the stream. You see, I hadn’t really been paying attention when the scenario description popped up. Obviously my army was split and I’d be getting reinforcements, but I didn’t know when and how and I really didn’t know what those extra flags were on the battlefield.

Once I figured out what I was supposed to be doing, I took on an “I meant to do that” attitude. My original plan was to hold back with my inferior forces until I had brought up enough reinforcements to present a decent line of battle. The problem with that is that while I held back the Vikings were racking up points for holding my side of the battlefield. The way I figured it, though, was that charging impetuously forward when I didn’t have the force to do it was just going to get me wiped out piecemeal. On the other hand, if I formed a solid line and then advanced, I could probably make up the points in the end part of the scenario when the large number of units at my disposal would let me accumulate points faster than the Vikings were at the beginning.

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Reinforcements are arriving in waves. With them, I hope to turn the battle to my advantage.

When the reinforcements came, they came in successive waves. Three or perhaps even four of them. Once they appear on the back edge of the board, they then take a number of turns to advance towards the front lines. The early disadvantage may prove to be an advantage at this point – with the battle lines closer to my side of the “board,” my reinforcements should come on line before the enemy’s.

Relating this back to the narrative I hold in my head, how well does this fit? If my army was being summoned from around the country side, would they likely all come into play from a single direction? Also, Field of Glory does not model column march versus line of battle movement. So while it seems strange that forces summoned to rush forward into battle would enter already deployed in battle line, there may not be a better way to model it.

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My plan has come together, but has it come together too late?

The battle played out pretty much as I intended it, but considerably slower. As the Vikings came forward, I was able to reinforce my lines in time to meet them. Eventually, the fact that my lines were holding and turning back the attacking Norsemen more than made up for the fact that he, too, had reinforcements streaming into his rear. In the screenshot above, you can see I’ve got him just where I wanted him. My line is strong and intact while his units are crumbling and falling away. I am now able to push forward in a single front and use my entire army to pick up points. Problem is – well, look at the turns remaining. It took me far longer to stabilize the situation than I had intended and even against a wavering army its going to take a few more turns to advance my line into point-earning territory. Yet, I don’t have a few more turns.

Oh well, I might as well finish out the scenario and see how I do.

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For all those points the Vikings are sitting on the game still declared them the loser. On top of that, their forces were massacred.

Turns out, the game gave me a win. The Vikings held the line and scored a lot of points, particularly in the first two-thirds of the game. However, doing so meant a massive loss in units – nearly four times my own casualties. When that got tallied up, that counted as a victory for me. The problem is, if you thought that it was going to be those “VP”s shown in the upper left of some of my screenshots, the sacrifice of your forces should have proven to be well worth it when you “held the good ground,” or however you might choose to interpret it. I’m sure the AI would have fought differently had it “known” that, in the end, the victory would go to the the player with his army left intact.

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Back in Crusader Kings, similar results.

Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps there is a victory condition that requires that you meet the victory requirements as stated but also control your losses. I should read the manual but, whether it is or isn’t there, it isn’t a bad idea. It would prevent deliberately gamey sacrifices to score points – maybe. There is also the obvious point that I’m playing the AI on a mid-level difficulty, meaning any victory that I achieve means that I may only have won because I didn’t let the machine try harder. Whatever the takeaway, the results were similar enough to those that Crusader Kings produced to assume equivalent results. Not that it means much, but it was the point of this whole exercise – to fight the similar battle in both games.

This leads me back to an earlier point I made, that the Last Kingdom mod for Total War: Medieval II might well portray these tactical battles. In the Battle of Cirencester, I had combined my armies of Dorset with Æthelred’s main force making the size of the battle at least double (maybe triple) of what Total War would handle. To find a more suitable battle, I continued on waiting for another encounter, but of a smaller size.

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Crushed.

That turned out to be easier said than done. After defeating the Vikings, Alfred’s army took off after the fleeing enemy but without the support from his brother. When the Viking force finally turned and fought me, their advantage in numbers plus their advantage from fighting on the ground of their choosing led to a crushing defeat on my part. It would then take a year for my army to recover enough to again find itself at an advantage over the Viking attackers.

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Putting an end to the invasion.

I ultimately managed to corner the Vikings with a restored army approximately equal to their own. In addition, however, I was joined by an Irish lord leading a group of his troops. Apparently it was a lord who outranks Prince Alfred, meaning that the battle is actually displayed as an Irish army against the Vikings, despite Saxon generals being in command.

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Wrong time, wrong place, and wrong generals in command.

I did not use the Medieval II Battle Generator to recreate this battle. What I’ve done instead is to use the armies created for the Last Kingdom campaign game and shuffle those units around to get the right force size. Interestingly, based on the commanders of this battle, it appears I’m actually fighting the Battle of Cynwit, the action where Ubba Lothbrokson died. I’m using the campaign wrapper to create the battle for a couple of reasons. First, it saves me the mental exertion of trying to create a historically-balanced army from all of the possibilities available to each nation; the campaign has already created the armies and I just need to adjust for size. The savings is particularly noticeable when you consider that each of these units has different experience levels which is nearly impossible to “figure out” in any meaningful way. Second, it removes the issue of “saving” the results. After the battle, the surviving units will still be there, allowing rebuilding or reuse or even just additional analysis.

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Armies are now fully engaged.

Initially, my experience went very well. As the battle started, the numerically inferior Vikings retreated to high ground to their rear to await my assault. I approached and then attempted to outflank their lines, but was unable to do so. The armies engaged just below the hilltop’s crest and began the long process of shield wall combat. Employing one the Medieval UI buttons, the screenshot shows a sense of the two armies’ positions (I’m green). In addition to seizing the high ground, the AI in these scenarios also has a habit of holding units in reserve. This is a strategy I do not recall seeing in stock Medieval II battles, although I don’t know how a mod would introduce entirely new AI strategies. It is more likely that the computer has always been programmed to do such things, but it isn’t until the pace of the battle is slowed down that one can actually see it in action.

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Vikings have horses

Although I have numerical superiority, that is offset by the fact that the Viking forces have mounted troops where I do not*. This is an artifact of using the campaign game armies as the basis for individual battles. Counter-intuitively, the Vikings are the only ones with horses at the beginning of the campaign and can easily transport them from Denmark to England. The West Saxons do not have any initially and would have to rely on building up their cities to obtain the equivalent. While it looks a little weird, the result is that it made the battle very even when taking on the computer’s AI.

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Reserves in reserve

This screenshot illustrates that enemy strategy of holding units in reserve. Initially it gave them an advantage but later it seemed like their reluctance to commit them might have cost them the fight. I perceived moments where a wing of the battle was about to tip either way and yet the enemy still held back their strategic reserves. Of course, I had long since thrown everything I had into the battle, and probably too early at that. Once again, what may be at play is the stock AI dealing with modified unit capabilities. The tenacity of the soldiers in Last Kingdom, both in terms of resistance to losses and morale (particularly for the veteran troops), may wind up “surprising” the AI every time with unexpected results.

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Butchery.

On the subject of unexpected results, see the above screenshots for the battle’s end. The slaughter was on an extraordinary scale. Critically, in terms of my experiment, it does not reproduce what I would expect to see; low casualties while morale remains intact and high casualties to the army who breaks. Instead, the loser (Ubba is the Viking) managed to kill even more men of Wessex than the victors took from his own force. Comparing to the first two results, this one isn’t even close.

So whereas Field of Glory II is capable, and indeed designed for, producing historically-plausible results, Last Kingdom does not seem to be. This is particularly disheartening considering the things that Last Kingdom actually does get right, such as the resilience of the shield wall formation.

*This counter-intuitive setup may be a nod to the Battle of Edington, particularly as portrayed by Bernard Cornwell (The Pale Horseman). In the decisive battle between Guthrum’s viking army and Alex the Great, the vikings have seized all of the Saxon horses through their occupation and pillaging across much of Wessex. Cornwell describes the viking army as mounted while the Saxon’s have very few horses which they mostly employ as pack animals.