The Glorious Sword of Authority


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I occasionally make the effort to alternate between reading books for pleasure – often current mass-market fiction – and books for my own betterment – more often that not, historical works. With a best-selling novel, I often whip through it in no time, having to cut myself off so I don’t stay up all night reading. A more scholarly non-fiction work is the opposite – I have to push myself to read enough every day that I don’t draw out the exercise into eternity. Alternating between genres (fiction/non-fiction or pleasure/scholarly) helps motivate me to keep at it with the latter categories.

Every once in a while, a book I’ve chosen simply to learn about a period in history ends up being, additionally, a real page turner. Often unexpectedly so. The book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War fits that bill. It is well written (from the standpoint of a casual reader), aimed as an introductory history, and is written from the very perspective that I, myself, am coming from. It is the story of the last decade or so of the Taiping Rebellion (which the author prefers to call the Taiping Civil War), considered within the context of the major Western events of that same time.

The author, Stephen Platt, begins his work with an explanation of how he came to write it. As I mentioned briefly, I have no memory of learning the details of the Taiping Civil War (a term that I will use as the author has) in any of my history classes or historical reading. In his Preface, the author explains how he got “through twelve years of public schooling, four years of college, and the better part of a year in China before reading about [the Taiping Civil War] for the first time.” He speculates that part of the reason, in the United States, is that this civil war was concurrent with our own. He also adds that there is a misconception that the events in China at that time were isolated from global politics. With his book, he endeavors to correct that.

As I peruse some of the criticism of the book, there are complaints that it is too much of a Western-centric narrative of a Chinese-centric event. While the author gives his explanation (putting it in the global context), a critic brings up another factor. In victory, the imperial government eliminated all records of the rebellion. It is telling that for this war, contemporary with the American Civil War and its vast photographic record, there remains no images of any of the rebellion’s leaders. Thus, the book focuses on the interaction with Western actors and the theater in the area of the western treaty ports in part through necessity. It is not through Chinese records (because they were obliterated), but through the Western press and politics, that we understand what we do about the Taiping organization and personalities.

It least to this reader (and I’m pretty sure to the author as well), two characters in this tale stand out as particularly sympathetic. Hong Rengan is the cousin of Hong Xiuquan, who was the instigator, spiritual leader, and “Heavenly King” of the Taiping movement. Hong Rengan spent some time as more-or-less second-in-command of the Taiping government, and seemed to be the source of practicality and reasonableness of a philosophy that threatened to be the opposite. Zeng Guofan was a Beijing bureaucrat sent, in an hour of despiration, to raise a militia army in his home province. His army went on to be a keystone for the eventual imperial victory. While both “good guys,” Hong Rengan and Zeng Guofan are on opposite sides of the fight. This leaves the reader conflicted over for whom he should be rooting. In the end, history favors neither of the two. While Zeng Goufan was pivotal in defeating the Taiping forces and putting an end to Hong Rengan’s designs for a new government, in doing so he ran afoul of the imperial system. The central government was always wary of its underlings building up regional power, but Zeng was allowed a fairly long leash due to the emergency the State was facing. Nevertheless, the power that came with success would always be eyed with distrust by his superiors in Beijing.

Zeng suffered further at the hands of later history. While the history of the Taipings was wiped clean by the Qings, the Chinese Communist Party portrayed the Taiping movement as a proto-Communist revolution and demonized the imperialists, including Zeng Goufan. Zeng’s reputation has seen a resurgence in China, and particularly in his native province, in recent years.

Having walked us through his tale, Platt in his afterward (and if you prefer to read the book in the order the author presents it, skip over the following and start up with the next heading) summarizes in a conclusion that the reader has probably already drawn. First, there are several points in the war (specifically, this portion of the war in the 1860-1864 time-frame where the theater included a British presence) where choices made by officials of the British government may have been pivotal to the outcome of the war itself. Second, and in contrast to British opinion circa 1870, said choices were likely made counter to the interests of the British Empire, the West, and the Chinese people themselves.

The reader likely also concludes that the Qing Empire, while victorious, cannot take credit for said victory. In addition to foreign intervention, or lack thereof, forces such as Zeng’s Xiang Army (aka Hunan Army) seemed to succeed in spite of, not because of, the central government. Further, the case is made that Hong Rengan had both the vision and the competence to have created a better China following a Taiping victory. The book leaves us with a feeling of opportunities squandered, particularly in light of the massive scale of war and death seen in China over the century that followed.

To Arms

Recall that I picked up this book after seeing a movie and wondering how the Taiping Civil War would fit into the world of wargames. Based purely on the portrayal of battles on-screen, it seemed that the style of fighting in this war was closer to the Pike and Shot era than that of the American Civil War. The book did not much focus on units and tactics; it was more about strategy and motivation. While I have been enlightened considerably, the original question still remains.

While reading, however, it occurred to me that I do have one tactical engine specifically tailored to the time period and with scenarios from this war. Age of Rifles has, within its user-created universe of scenarios, a number of battles from the Taiping Civil War. The engine, such as it is, allows for modeling the simpler technology available to the Chinese at the time and so is potentially suitable despite some of the archaic features of this conflict.

While not comprehensive on the subject of weapons and tactics, Platt’s book does support the idea that the war was fought largely with weapons from another era. One incident he describes is the discovery of a cache of arms – muskets that were already some 200 years old and in terrible condition to boot. These were immediately put to use, being better than what the soldiers were using up to that point. One wonders how faithfully the engine can really handle these peculiarities, particularly in a battle (like the one below) where such matchlocks may have been facing off against “modern” muskets fielded by European troops.


A Chinese map of Shanghai from 1884 shows the American (top red-shaded region), French (blue), and British (pink) International Settlements. (Map borrowed and resized from Wikipedia image)

The Taiping assault on Shanghai is portrayed in Platt’s book as a drama of diplomacy, personality, and dumb luck. Shanghai was a treaty port per the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, making it one of the few gateway cities where Chinese markets were open to foreign international traders. The area to the north of the city walls were settled by Western traders, shown in the picture above drawn in 1884. Initially the Taiping leaders, preparing to capture the city in 1860, wanted to make it clear that they merely wanted to take control of the Chinese-administered portion of the city from the Qing government. They had no plans to attack the foreign settlements nor to disrupt their trade. In fact, they had hope that the powers of the West would take their side as fellow Christians in their fight against the “pagan” and foreign (Manchurian) minority which was ruling China. Letters were dispatched to the chief British envoy making clear that no foreigners or their property would be harmed and promising friendship and improved trade relations going forward. In a gesture made to appear neutral, he refused to open the letters from the Taiping and the Europeans forcefully defending the walls of Shanghai.

When the Taiping campaign again approached Shanghai, at the end of 1861, the supposed neutrality of England could be ever increasingly called into question. Nevertheless, it was the intention of the Taiping to engage only the Qing imperial forces if at all possible. By that time, however, the Europeans had committed to defending the city. As told in Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, that confrontation was postponed indefinitely by a most improbable (for Shanghai’s relatively warm climate) snowfall. By the time the weather permitted a major assault on the city itself, relief forces had arrived in the area shifting the balance of forces.

While this multi-year operation around Shanghai is generally called The Siege of Shanghai or the Battle of Shanghai, Platt refers to it as a “long distance siege.” After the first attempt, the British had warned that they considered Taiping operations in the immediate vicinity of Shanghai to be an act of war, over which they would violate their professed neutrality. While fighting took place within a hundred-mile radius of the city, I am not aware of any assault on the city walls beyond that initial attempt in 1860.

The Age of Rifles scenario proposes just such an assault on the city walls by a force of something like 10,000 rebels some time in 1861. While I cannot connect this scenario directly to a historical battle, I also must point out that the book is not a military history and is not necessarily comprehensive.


Not seeing a lot of options, I decide to throw my entire army at one section of wall.

Seen above, I’m zoomed in on a portion of the map where I intend to concentrate my assault. The mini-map, once again for those with good eyesight, puts this corner of the defenses in the perspective of the larger battlefield. Compare and contrast that mini-map with the drawn map higher up in the article. The representation of the Shanghai Old City is close enough to acknowledge it as such, but obviously contains a lot of differences.

Similarly, the modeling of the battle is close and yet so far. As my soldiers approached the wall they are, as expected, devastated by the cannon and rifle fire coming from the defenses. However, if I can survive that initial volley or two, I find that I can take out the enemy positions by charging over the wall with my pike.


I’ve breached the walls of the old city, and am advancing beyond.

Even more helpful to my troops, as can be seen in the screenshot above, in an attempt to drive off said attackers the enemy cannon blew a hole in their own wall. It makes you wonder what the model is assuming about the defensive positions. Clearly one thing it is not modelling is the medieval-style assault on, essentially, stone castle-walls.

I seem to recall it being not that uncommon when working with these open-ended scenario creation games to include various kinds of sieges and assaults in the mix. I’m probably think of my recent experience with Lords of the Realm as well as the Total War games. Crashing a gate or crossing a bridge add diversity to a game where the typical fight is using armies in lines, facing each other across an open field. The problem is that, while a bridge or a wall or a tower can be included, an engine designed for line battles will sputter when trying to deal with these special features.

There are few PC games that deal with siege warfare and probably few to none that handle it in anything resembling a realistic manner. Part of it is the issue with a the timescales.  A siege may take months or even years with the “battle” portion of it being fairly anti-climactic. Often sieges ended with a breach created using cannon or mines, and then culminated in the attackers charging through a hole in a wall and looting the city beyond. There are a handful of board games that try to address this specifically, but none that I have yet to play. At the operational level, a common solution is to simply have a time that it takes for the siege to succeed; subject to attrition, relief armies, and perhaps some random factors to keep the besieger guessing. For anything except a purpose-built siege game, this might be the best solution. After all, for most sieges, the outcome is never really in doubt; it is merely a question of when.

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom portrays the actual fighting has having occured mostly through a series of sieges or, at least, the attempts to maneuver armies into position to effect a siege. There are interesting “game” factors involved. For example the siege which left open a supply route into the besieged city seemed like it wouldn’t have a chance to succeed at all, as it did not. In another example, Nanjing was able to provide its own food supply via gardens within the city walls whereas the besiegers, having devastated the surrounding countryside, had to go without. A simple battle of attrition looked to ultimately break towards the besieged.

Back to the battle. While it wasn’t the best “simulation” of a siege, playing this scenario had one unexpected benefit. The behavior of the AI was very clear in its reactions to my moves giving me a chance to think about how the AI handles battles and reacts to particular events.


Having breached the walls, I charged to take possession of the city center.

Once I broke through the defenses at one location, I moved as many forces as I could in to try to come at the other defensive positions from inside the walls. What I found was that every position that was defended was difficult to attack, regardless of my direction. The path of least resistance was straight towards the center of the city, where a walled building was flagged as a victory location (see above screenshot).

I’ll point out here that I was playing the computer on the default setting for AI difficulty, which is toward the low end of the possibilities. I don’t know if the AI gets smarter as you push the slider, or if it is given other advantages.

If you squint at the mini-map in the above screenshot, you can see my plan coming to fruition. The bulk of my army (the little white squares on the map) attempted, and then achieved, a breakthrough in the upper-left quadrant of the city walls. They then pushed diagonally to the center right of the city, through the area of no resistance. You can also see that many of my own formation broke and ran in the attempt. Those white squares trailing off diagonally to the left. I also kept a secondary force in reserve, seen gathered near the bottom of the map. My intent was that a threat of a second attack from the south would deter the enemy from pulling forces off walls not under assault to reinforce the positions which I was attacking.

From the turn immediately following, when I took the city-center objective, the AI abandoned its defensive positions on the outer walls and moved towards the objective on the center. The AI managed, for a turn, to retake that objective and begin preparations for defending it. My response was to move in to take the outer-wall objectives that were now left undefended. Once that was done, the AI began to send forces back to retake those objectives. By this point they were in disarray, reacting to my moves without an overarching direction, and I was able to easily win a decisive victory.

The AI made several mistakes, and they are mistakes that I’ve made as a wargamer more than once. The first is the decision, probably baked into the scenario design, not to have any forces in reserve. Military doctrine demands that one hold reserves in any battle plan. But particularly when you are outnumbered, it seems like preventing the enemy breakthrough in the first place should take priority of having a reactionary force ready for when they do. It is also probably true that many a walled-defense has fallen to pieces immediately once the walls are breached. Second, had an overreaction upon losing victory locations while seemingly little planning not to lose them in the first place. Whether a particular location is a priority to take/hold should not be entirely dependent on who the current owner is. I’m sure I’ve done the same – ignoring a location until it becomes a crisis and then scrambling for cover. It is also probably fairly well represented in reality. As a defensive position falls apart, conflicting orders to rush from one defensive position to another has probably hastened the end to many a battle.

Sadly, the ability to watch the AI aside, I didn’t get what I had hoped for in playing this scenario. That is, I never did answer my question; is there a potential for historical wargaming in the Taiping Civil War conflict? Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom does not highlight any open-field battles that would fit into a tactical engine (whether Age of Rifles, Pike and Shot, or something else). The book also does not offer enough of a big picture to determine the whether an operational-level treatment of the war would be interesting. We can see that Age of Rifles isn’t suited to siege warfare and, not having any non-siege battles to play with, evaluating the engine’s suitability to the conflict isn’t possible.

I did really enjoy the book, though.



Parliamentary Procedure


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Many of the earliest PC games had their roots either in war board games or with the Dungeons and Dragons, pen and paper gaming. What that meant was that the bulk of “serious” strategy games were probably in one of three categories; The Second World War, The American Civil War, or The Wars of Napoleon. Conversely, if a game had kings and swords in it, it was also extremely like to contain dragons, magic, and princesses.

Lords of the Realm, released in June of 1994, therefore was something of a novelty. It had castles and knights in armor, but there was no magic. Battles were between armies using only the technology of the time – ranged arrows and crossbows, or hand-to-hand combat using an array of weapons.

The original release was followed by Lords of the Realm II, a sequel covering pretty similar ground. The rapid pace of improvement in Windows gaming circa 1995 meant that even a year or two could see a big improvement in things like graphics and user interface. I’ll speak of them largely interchangeably, as I had some difficulty getting the original to run on my system and, anyway, Lords of the Realm II  is all-around much closer to meeting present day expectations for a PC game.

The other innovation of this time was the Real Time Strategy genre. Dune II was released at the end of 1992 and through 1993 (depending on the platform) and began popularizing the genre where battles were fought in running time, commanded by the player’s clicks on screen. By the time that Lords of the Realm II was released, the massive franchises of Command and Conquer and Warcraft had seen their initial releases.

In this context, Lords of the Realm stood out (but was, again, not unique) in that it combined the tactical fighting with a strategic layer. In the turn-based strategy level, the player was responsible for creating his offensive (armies) and defenses (still armies, but also castles) capabilities to be used in battle. He also had to manage the economy – food, money, and the raw materials (wood, stone, iron) necessary to sustain that army.  In this sense, it was a predecessor to the genre eventually dominated by Total War (Shogun Total War was a year 2000 release).

Indeed, one contemporary review of Lords of the Realm II discussed its promise of combining the best of Civilization II (1991 for the original, although Civilization II was out 9 months before Lords of the Realm II) and Warcraft. That review seemed to suggest that Lords of the Realm II didn’t quite live up to that promise. One way to appreciate the title 22-years on is to consider it within the context of the environment in which it was released.

The Lords of the Realm series is now available and easy to get running through outlets like Steam and GOG.  On those platforms, you can now read modern reviews of the games, presumably written within a modern context. Surprisingly, some of those reviewers tout the game’s merits as a stand-alone entity. It’s hard to take that too seriously. Yes, we can fondly remember how the limited technology of yesteryear focused gameplay on important strategic elements. With no 3D animations or complexity-for-complexities’ sake (put in when the computing power is there), the strategy elements may well have had more thought put into them than what we’ve come to expect today.

But don’t think that Lords of the Realm is going to “stand up” to a modern title. The Real Time Strategy portion saw rapid development in the years that followed making the battles in Lords of the Realm primitive, not only in graphics, but in gameplay. I can deal with the pixelated, top-down rendering of my units. I had forgotten about the computers struggle with path-finding for these early games, and the annoyance of having to nurse units around obstacles. Likewise, the strategic layer – nostalgia aside – has been vastly improved in the interim. The management of your economy very much reminds me of the 1999 title King of Dragon Pass. While that game is not constructed as a strategic layer for turn based battles, the management (while similar) has a lot more strategic depth than Lords of the Realm.


The Lords of New England. The expansion for LotR2 includes the ability to fight on a large variety of “real world” maps. Screenshot via

The way the graphics are rendered in Lords of the Realm II, it does not capture with the built-in tools for Windows. So, unable to take my own screenshots, I’ve borrowed some from around the web. I don’t think my own brilliant gameplay demonstrates any features that aren’t visible in random players’ screens from throughout the years.

Mad Parliament

I’ve mentally placed this game in the Second Baron’s War. Technically its starting point is several years too late to really be historically simulating that conflict. Further, the lack of concrete ties to history mean that it could represent many succession wars that took place during the thirteenth century. One might imagine it representative of the Great Interregnum and the struggle to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor taking place in that time. Or even the fight for the crown of Sicily. The first in the series explicitly has you choose a campaign for England or Germany. Nevertheless, the game seems to be themed pretty “English” to me and therefore, despite the lack of real historical context, I place myself in the politics of 1260s England.

At that time, England was engaged in yet another struggle between the powers of the lesser nobility and the power of the king. There were a number of ways in which Henry III incurred the ire of his barons, many involving the compiling of debt which would have to be paid, ultimately, by the English nobility. By 1258, a group of leading nobles pressured Henry into signing an agreement establishing rule through a privy council overseen by a thrice-yearly parliament. While Henry suffered under this reduction in power for 3 years, he eventually had first the Pope and then Louis of France declare that he was not responsible for honoring his agreement, due to his divine right.

By 1264, this turned into an open revolt, lead by the organizer of the 1258 Parliament (sometimes referred to the “Mad Parliament”, due to its disruption to the Monarchy), Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. The first critical battle of this war was the Battle of Lewes, on May 14th, 1264. At that battle Henry’s forces were defeated and the King, himself, was captured. Henry was not deposed, but he was once again forced into the government outlined in the previous agreements. One might imagine, however, a number of ways he could have been removed from the throne, sparking an actual succession war.

For our Lords of the Realm game, we’ll just go with that.

The scenario above seems to fit the mechanics of Crusader Kings II quite well, and I am disappointed to find that no scenarios start in this environment. Of course, as I have already lamented, Crusader Kings isn’t particularly suited to replaying an episode of history. The structure is there – vassals demanding a change in government, you the king reversing those changes, and then a civil war between the various factions of the government. But the odds that the game would choose the historical path are probably slim to none, assuming things like having the French king adjudicate the English form of government wouldn’t flummox the engine from the get-go. I’d actually be really interested in trying to use the event system to create such a thing, but I expect it would be a huge amount of work.

So instead, I will try an even less realistic approach and play through that basic scenario in Lords of the Realm II.


The above screenshot shows a basic view of the strategic layer. The map is divided into counties and each county will have a town center, a castle (if built), farms, and several industrial resources. Your population must be balanced between the production of food and industry. Industrial production can be activated or not. So above, the peasants who are not working to raise cattle are working to harvest wood. It is from that population that armies are raised. Converting peasants into soldiers (including knights – so much for historicity) creates an army, which will cost upkeep. It also removes those peasants from being able to produce for the economy, as well as detracting from the “happiness” of those peasants remaining. The happiness is also influenced by taxes, food rationing, and dramatic political events (e.g. change of ownership of the county).

It’s a slightly complex, but still comprehensible, economic system that ends up being reasonably fun to play with. I talked about this when I dug out my copy of Imperialism 2. The original Imperialism came out a year after Lords of the Realm 2 and went further into the “economic” game weeds. As I said then, this portion of the game presents as a puzzle which requires that the gamer learn the balance, and vigilantly maintain that balance, as a prerequisite to supporting his victorious armies in the field. It makes the games “challenging” for sure and was part of what made them popular back in the day. But it goes against the design philosophy of today’s games, where the focus is on directing players straight towards the meaningful decisions and removing the tedium.

Lords of the Realm 2 did simplify some of this from the original. As the player, you set economy via a fairly limited number of sliders. It appears that there is some computation going on behind the screen to allocate the players food-versus-industry setting into the details of those two categories. In fact, sometimes it seems necessary to “jiggle the handle,” to shuffle some setting back and forth, to force a recalculation of the actual allocation behind the scenes. For example, when there isn’t enough iron to produce armor, the computer will reallocate blacksmiths to work in the mines, but you need to give the engine a kick so that it knows to do so.

It actually feels like a “light” game by today’s standards, but it also needs to be remembered the game starts out easy and ramps up the challenge. As a player, you start out with a single opponent, some decent starting resources, and a limited economy manage, even at the end game. Winning a “level” sends you on to the next challenge. The design again emphasizes the placement of this title as a “computer game” and not a “historic wargame.” Nonetheless, I’ll continue to plunge ahead treating it as something of the latter.

While the economic portion of the game has its charms that garnered positive attention at the time, contrast the experience to Crusader Kings, or even a non-simulation like Civilization. In those games it is often obvious that war is expensive and rarely pays for itself. If possible, I try to get myself into peaceful stretches where I can build up my economy instead of throwing resources away on battles. In LofR, and the similar games of this genre and time, there is nothing but the battles. One can’t really focus on building an great economy and ignoring the battles, because the computer will bring the fight to you, like it or not. In one three-way scenario, I tried making an alliance with one of the factions only to find his army taking my counties while still allied with me!

I don’t yet know how deep the “campaign” goes and this is also just the basic game and not the expansion. So while the gameplay seems a little simplistic, it does provide entertainment value as it progresses. Remember that at the time of the game’s release this was a tier-one title and was considered quite deep and complex. It also made the top 20 in computer game sales two years after its release, making $3 million in sales that year. Total sales were about 10X that during the games prime.

So back to that initial scenario. You have only four counties to ultimatetly deal with and start with one of them under your control. See the screenshot below and the mini-map in the upper corner of the  picture for this initial configuration. As I alluded to above, this means the economy really isn’t that complex. Armies are also fairly limited, with perhaps 400-500 men being a game-dominating army. Its all quite manageable and would even be more so were not the interface, both at the strategic and tactical levels, kind of primitive. As I stated above, the economy requires more micromanagement than I’d prefer and the RTS battles require controlling individual soldiers (although they can be roped together into a group). This is before hot keys, so control is rudimentary and occasionally not what you would expect. But all things considered, it doesn’t hold up too badly.

One oddity, compared to similar games is the way the warfare, as it draws out, slowly destroys the land over which you are fighting. On an easier level, I first noticed it with my computer opponents. In most RTS or 4X games, the course of the game sees you building gradually stronger armies both in size and composition. Maybe it comes through technology or maybe it is through just better units and more “upgrades.” Here, I started to see the opposite. The first enemy army I encountered was pretty formidable, but subsequent armies began to sport higher and higher concentrations of peasants and lower numbers of quality units. By game end, I could easily build similarly sized armies that simply outclassed the enemy. On harder levels, I find myself in the same trap as the enemy. Fighting over lands results in the destruction of their economic value. War means reduced population, unhappy populations, and a growing shortage of the wealth and materials necessary to equip your army. I find myself fielding more and more peasants and also fighting enemy armies similarly composed. Perhaps it is my own poor game play, but in this, the “simulation” seems accurate. Medieval warfare wrecked the lands over which it raged.


This is the standard campaign for the game, with four counties. This time, showing is the blacksmith interface. To change production, you select your weapon of choice from the wall. Screenshot via

One design decision, and one that was probably common in games at that time, is happily no longer part of the modern game. Remember, this was the time when game started releasing on CDs rather than stacks of floppies. That, combined with the standardization of Windows APIs, meant that it was easier to include nice looking graphics; both stills and animations. Using that, and drawing from the computer game’s  role playing game heritage, a favorite user interface became the “room.” Look at the main view in the above screenshot. To designate the product of a county’s blacksmith you must engage in a multi-step process. First, if the blacksmith isn’t working, you find the blacksmith on the main map and click to activate his production. Next, you find the county’s village on the main map and click on it, which displays a detailed graphic of how the villagers are allocated to different tasks. On that screen, find the blacksmith’s yard and click on that. Doing so takes you inside the blacksmith’s shop (above) where, by selecting from the weapons hanging on the wall, you task the blacksmith with forging a particular weapon.

That path is cool to navigate the first couple of times, and gives you more of a first-person feel. But as you’re engaged in playing, the immersion factor goes away, and its just a bunch of extra actions, first hunting for the right location and then “drilling down” through the menus. Add to that, each turn has multiple screens to navigate through. For example, after you’ve manufactured these weapons, you can then go to the army screen (mercifully included on the main interface – it’s that shield and helmet under the “www” in the lower right corner), where you build your army by picking weapons hanging on the wall. If you don’t have a particular weapon available, it won’t be there on the wall. Conceptually, kind of cool. User interface-wise: tedious.


The tactical battles have some interesting features. Castle sieges provide a foreshadowing of Total War, where the siege engines can be built over multiple turns in the strategic engine and then used tactically to assault the castle. Screenshot via

The detailed battles also have some nice features, compensating for the datedness of the interface. The terrain is randomly generated. Sometimes a battle is fought across a large, open field and sometimes there are obstacles, to movement or to line of sight or both. Some maps have rivers and bridges that must be crossed, although this seems to have little relation to the terrain on the strategic map. Sieges are resolved on maps where a castle has been included – the design of which depends on to what extent you’ve upgraded your castle back in the strategic game. The siege interface was where I really saw the extent to which Medieval Total War borrowed from this design. Like M:TW, to lay a siege, you pick what types of siege engines you need to construct (in this case, catapults, battering rams, and/or siege towers). A certain number of strategic-level turns is then required to implement the construction. At the end of it, the castle is assaulted where not just your armies, but the constructed engines, take part in an RTS fight. The look feel and tactics are really very much like Medieval Total War, and even M:TW2.

Advancing through the campaign, the difficult does quickly ramp up. More enemies and more towns means more complexity, but not necessarily more depth. Furthermore, as you move from scenario to scenario, the calendar resets and there is no real continuity, no “story.” It’s nothing special about this game, I was a Heroes of Might and Magic II fanatic at the time, and those campaigns were structured the same way. Having won one challenge, you then start over – build an economy, a castle, and an army up from scratch to take control of another chunk of land. It’s standard stuff, but any feeling that your actually part of a larger world does tend to get quickly squashed.

Quickly Squashed

The reality of the Second Barons’ War was a political struggle that dragged out over decades but, warfare-wise, was concluded by two major battles. In 1264, the rebel forces under Montfort’s command prevailed at the battle of Lewes, capturing  King Henry, Prince Edward, and King Richard (King of the Romans and Henry’s brother). Within slightly more than a year, a second battle saw a victory for the king, the death of Montfort, and (after a few more years of sporadic fighting) a re-balancing of royal power.


I had a plan. On my left, my intention was to hold back until my right was engaged. Alas when de Segrave saw those enemy banners coming up the slopes, he charged ahead. I had to commit the entire wing.

Back in the original Field of Glory, I am once again playing a user-designed scenario, this time depicting the historical Battle of Lewes. As an anti-monarchist in real life, I chose to take the side of Simon and the Barons.

Having done so, the battle’s setup seems a fair representation of history. Henry started that morning with his back to the town of Lewes facing an lesser number of enemy, but situated on the high ground to the north and west of town. As Henry attacked, his forces became divided and his assault broke apart against prepared lines defending a slope.


While my left did a little better than planned, on the right my son Henry’s force fell apart after charging the royalist knights. This is a reversal that will be hard to overcome.

As might be expected during given the background, this scenario quickly became dicey. While my original plan was to engage starting from my right, my over-eager left charged into battle without orders. But while that left wing did better than expected, my right wing’s perfomance left much to be desired. As the fight wore on, I found the battle trending slowly towards a conclusion that would not be my favor.


On turn 7, I captured (or killed) Prince Edward on the enemy’s far right. Turn 8, I captured (or killed) King Henry, which caused his retinue and several surrounding formations to break and run. I’m still behind, but defeat no longer seems a sure thing.

To me, at least as important as the victory at Lewes is that the battle resulted in the capture and ransom of King Henry and his son Edward. Whether by dumb luck, normal statistics, or something special in the scenario design, the fortunes of these digital armies hinged upon the status of their leaders. While Lewes was a military defeat for Henry, it was the fact that the rebels held, in their persons, Henry and Edward that made this battle so definitive, and resulted in Simon governing, at least for a couple of years.

Field of Glory doesn’t actually export the narrative that details the disposition of individuals in a unit. However, combat resolution does entail a number of different factors. The result of combat could be simply a decline in combat effectiveness of a unit. Additionally, that effectiveness may be from actual combat deaths (as opposed to organization and morale). Finally, it is possible for a leader to be killed or incapacitated during a combat resolution. In game terms, an icon of a Roman helmet pops up and no more is ever said. It does have fan out into gameplay, however, as the death of a leader may also reduce morale and effectiveness of a unit going forward, under that leader’s replacement.

So it was on turn 7 as I engaged the knights led by Edward, I saw that little white helmet pop up. Then, on the next turn, against the force led personally by Henry (and rather successfully I might add – I had little hope of breaking it), I again saw the little white helmet. With their king down, his retinue of knights fled the field causing much of the royalist center to falter and retreat.

Over the next several turns the tide of the battle had shifted. What had seemed like an inevitable defeat slowly swung to an inevitable victory.

As far as I know, the actual outcome of the battle was considerably less dramatic. The defeat of Henry’s own retinue was not the moment the battle turned, but rather it was something that came at the end of a battle that had gone against him. Thus the evaluation of whether this result “matched” history is one of great interpretation. I’d like to think that, playing as Simon, I captured Henry and Edward and did match the historical outcome.

Another interpretation is that the “white helmet” actually meant the leaders were killed. What might have been the historical outcome if both Henry and Edward were cut down at Lewes? Who can tell. But it does open up the possibility that by 1268 the crown of England would be entirely up for grabs, as the introduction to Lord of the Realm II posits.

The End

The fruits of Montfort’s victory would prevail for barely more than a year. Roughly one year after his capture at Lewes, Edward I (in a rather amusing tale*) escaped from his captors. In August of 1265, Edward led an army which forced Montfort into battle at Evesham.

The victory of Edward at Evesham was more strategic and operational than tactical. Simon’s son, also Simon, was tasked with raising a new force to help counter Edward. Enward, in turn, defeated the parts of Monfort’s army in detail, first catching and crushing the younger Simon’s forces while unprepared. Subsequently at Evesham he managed to trap the elder Simon’s army in a bend of the Avon river, as Simon was moving to join the younger’s army, not knowing that Edward had already scattered it. Montfort was forced into battle on a field of Edward’s choosing and was outnumbered by perhaps 2:1. Montfort attempted a bold attack to try to shatter Edward’s center, but given the situation any stratagem was perhaps doomed to failure. Montfort was killed on the field of battle and his body mutilated by Edwards troops.

One might not expect this to make the best tactical scenario but, nevertheless, a user-made scenario for Field of Glory is available. In contrast to the previous, this shows some of the weaknesses of the engine.

The Battle of Evesham (from 1910)

A drawing of the battle as presented on Simon’s trapped army is forced to fight Edward who is arrayed on the high ground beyond the Abbey.

First (above) is a sketch of the battlefield for perspective. Edwards superior numbers face Montfort from the Greenhill, some heights to the north of Montforts position. Meanwhile, a contingent of Edwards army, under Baron Mortimer, blocks Montfort’s escape over the bridge back across the Avon. One might speculate whether fighting his way out against the lesser forces could have been successful, but it appears that Simon, realizing he had been outwitted, decided that the honorable thing was to fight Edward in open battle.


As Simon, I’ve decided to defend the rocky ridges surrounding the Abbey.

Compare and contrast the drawing with the Field of Glory representation of that same battlefield (shown in the screenshot above). The image is focused on the view surrounding the Bengeworth bridge and the location of the Abbey. If your eyes are up to the task, the mini-map shows this view in the context of the Avon river horseshoe bend itself.

Although an attempt was made to faithfully reproduce the terrain, I think this is a good case where Field of Glory simply fails to convey any sense of “there”. In particular, the scenario-building tactic of creating terrain walls was used to construct the Abbey proper. I don’t know whether this was meant to model the defensive advantage of a walled abbey and surrounding village or it was done this way simply to constrain movement (and particularly AI movement) through “urban” terrain, but it does create a nonsensical battlefield feature that detracts both from the aesthetics and the game play.

I’m quite sure that a gallant charge up the hill at Edward, à la Simon, would leave me dead and mutilated, as it did my historical counterpart. Given the digital battlefield as it is, I decided to use the terrain to limit the numbers advantage of the enemy, forcing him to fight it out on a very narrow front. Meanwhile, that frees up some of my army to engage the blocking force on the other side of the river. As the scenario is created, I have control over the bridge proper and, therefore, I am able to transfer units back and forth across with relative ease.

In the end, the scenario timed out and produced a draw. Unlike the Lewes battle, whose alternate outcome invites speculation, I see this result as entirely an artifact of the way the battlefield was constructed.

Of course, none of these games are particularly connected to this history. Instead, consider it an opportunity to do a little reading into a chapter of English history that just isn’t that well known.

*As related by, roughly a year after his capture at Lewes, Edward escaped his custodians. Edward challenged his minders to a day of horse racing and, once all of the horses had been worn out, he took the last fresh one and made off to a waiting party, sent by the Welsh Marcher Lords who were in rebellion against Montford’s government.

If It Keeps on Rainin’ Levee’s Goin’ to Break


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The films that Brad Pitt produces are, insofar as I’ve watched them, universally interesting.

These include a number of top-tier releases (The Departed, Kick-Ass 1/2, Moneyball, World War Z, 12 Years a Slave, Fury) as well as some “indie” type productions (Killing Them Softly, The OA).  One gets the impression that he is personally backing the type of films that he believes (and it seems that I believe) that Hollywood should be making, but generally doesn’t. Of course, his production list includes many I haven’t watched, and probably more than a few I wouldn’t care to watch. That said, Pitt’s involvement is starting to feel like, if not an instant mark of approval, at least a mark of “this could be interesting.”

In this case, however, I had no idea until the opening credits started in that I was watching one of the above. The movie The Big Short was slated to come off of Netflix just after the first of the year, so I jumped on it before it disappeared.

Likewise, Pitt as an actor continues to surprise, also in a good way. I had dismissed him as a pretty boy without any real acting skills until I saw him in 12 Monkeys. Much like Depp and DiCaprio (of whom I had the same opinion back then), he has grown on me as the years have gone by. As one measure of acting ability, if I am unable to recognize the actor from movie to movie (Frances McDormand was my classic example of this), I assume I’m looking at a job well done. In this case, despite the fact that Brad Pitt’s face is actually on the “box cover,” I actually did not place him until several scenes in for him. Pitt plays Ben Rickert (based on real life ex-trader Ben Hockett) and does so convincingly enough for me that I just didn’t make the connection.

In fact all the actors (except maybe Christian Bale, who has blown me away more than once) are delivering performances beyond anything I expected from them. They are mostly light and/or comedic actors in a fairly serious movie. Furthermore, with the script jumping between characters whose lives only casually intersect, it would seem that the ability of the multiple lead actors would be critical to a successful film. The professional film critics seemed to agree; praise for the actors is a common theme in reviews of the film.

I believe I saw a review somewhere that suggested the film would have been a dud except for the excellent acting. With that I cannot agree. I actually have praise all around for this picture. Other reviews concentrated on how the film, like the book it was based upon, was written to help explain to regular folks how the mortgage crisis happened. Some praised or critiqued it on that account. Myself, I’ve read quite a bit on the subject already, so the level addressed by this movie wasn’t really over my head. Some have said that, despite efforts to make it easily digestible, many viewers still didn’t understand the “what” of the crisis and were only left with the sense that what happened was a system gone terribly wrong. That in itself might also be a measure of success.

The film uses a number of devices to help serve up the technical subject. In another context they could be considered cheap tricks, but I think they added to the real-life-as-black-comedy feel that made the movie. Frequent breaking of the fourth wall seems to be common these days, almost to the point of being overused. Yet it is some of my favorites that do it (I’m thinking House of Cards and Mr. Robot, right this second). The Big Short adds a flourish where the character turns to the movie audience and says, “it really didn’t happen that way.” By explicitly drawing attention to the artistic license used to make a real life event into an on-screen drama, I felt it enhanced both. Another trick is to use real celebrities, as themselves, to explain the technical details of Wall Street’s financial products. I don’t know how many finally understand mortgage backed securities having had it explained by a hot babe in a bubble bath, but to me, that’s entertainment.

I saw in an interview promoting the movie where Pitt expressed some admiration for Hockett in his willingness to prepare for difficult times. The admiration seems genuine, although Pitt says he is “too lazy” to actually put in the effort to (for example) be self-sufficiently growing food. Contrast that with the description of the character on Wikipedia as ” a paranoid and germaphobic retired former trader.” Maybe it says more about me than about Rickert/Hockett, but his level of paranoia and germaphobia seemed reasonable and prudent to me.

I seem to have a take on this movie perhaps a little different than the average Neflix watcher. One Netflix review begins “You’re not supposed to like the protagonists…” Another describes the characters as “An assortment of despicable people…” Is it simply that, as the villains of this tale are bankers, and the lead characters themselves are all bankers, most assume that the they are all bad to some degree? Or maybe it is a societal prejudice for those on the Asperger’s Spectrum?

Yes. Both. But I think there is another factor at play here. Imagine with me a situation.

We have a neighbor who is always talking about how this place where we live is long overdue for a huge storm; a hurricane of epic proportions. He has all kinds of stories about shifting ocean currents and how the powers-that-be-are ignoring the obvious, and how we’re all fools not to prepare for what is bound to happen. He’s mostly ignored – dismissed as a crank. He is not on the top of most lists for neighborhood party invite lists.

Imagine also, though, that as he describes what is going to happen when the storm hits, and the levee breaks, and we’re cut off from electricity for weeks on end – it is not fear and trepidation in his voice. No. He actually seems to be looking forward to this mini-apocalypse that he is predicting. In your mind, that probably adds to his unpleasant qualities.

Summer rolls into fall, and a Cat. 5 hurricane rolls right over our city, just as our unpleasant neighbor said it was going to do. All of his predictions (and presumably much of his advice) turn out to be dead on.

Think of it… do you know say “Boy, that guy was right all along. I probably should give him more respect than I have in the past?” Or do you hate him even more. Be honest.

Now imagine that you come to find out he was actually hoping, praying for his prediction to come true. As the hurricanes track seemed to shift from a harmless pass out to sea to smacking you right in the gut with its full force, he was watching the news saying “Please, please, please, please… YES!” Don’t you really hate him now? Do you even blame him for your own suffering? Just a bit?

Now, you know full well that no amount of sitting in front of your T.V. saying “please” is going to impact the track of a storm. Even if you do believe in the power of prayer, do you really believe that one man’s quest for schadenfreude drew God’s attention over the 10s if not 100s of 1000s of those praying for God to spare them? The rational part of your mind knows that full well, but the emotional part says, “It’s this guy’s fault. He WANTED this to happen.”

Now, imagine, in addition to stocking up on extra water and canned food, he bought some financial instruments the netted him a massive profit when the storm hit. He not only seemed to want the storm to come, he saw to it that he would profit from that storm. What do you think of him now? Do you hate him more than ever? Do you, perhaps, feel entitled to some of what he has… either the water and food he saved for his family, or the many, many millions he’s got from cashing in his Cat Bonds? If the power is out, and the police have fled, and nobody else is around, how far would you go to take your due from him?

After all, he is profiting from your misery. Right?

When I watched the movie, I have nothing but admiration for Dr. Burry as a visionary who saw what nobody else would see. The data right in front of everyone said that a collapse was inevitable, but he was one of the first to see it. Furthermore, he put himself on the line to prove he was right. I say this even though I, like most, personally suffered from the the crash from which he profited.

Part of why I respect this film’s characters is that, in a properly functioning financial markets, money is information. “Betting” on truth is itself a way to correct market failures, and perhaps a more effective one than just trying to warn people. Recall that the players in this tale did both – they not only invested against the mortgage market, but they explained why they were doing it. What is truly scary about the movie is to the extent it demonstrates that the markets were not, and almost certainly still are not, properly functioning. If being smart, or good, or right are all irrelevant, what is left that is relevant and what does that say about the next time we’re all about to get screwed over by the system?

Nothing good. That’s all I know.

Oh yeah. I still have yet to watch Fight Club. Sue me.

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition


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I am playing out a game in Pax Renaissance, trying to analyze the end moves. Having just put some thought into the time surrounding the conquest of the Emirate of Granada, it leads me to consider how the various options for fit into a historical narrative (either similar to or departing from actual history.)

For this turn, we are considering the options of the Fuggers. In the late 1480s the Fugger family, while established in Augsburg, were not yet players on the world stage. They had only begun their financial relationship with the Habsburgs, a relationship that would soon see them financing Charles V’s election as emperor. Indeed, the card layout fairly represents the Fugger’s interests at the time, with some market concessions in Germany and some heavy investment in Hungary. The Fuggers actually did, within this same time frame, control copper mining operations in Hungary and mines elsewhere in Silesia and Tirol. Perhaps not enough to actually “control” the throne of Hungary, as in this game, but – well – close enough.

Fugger Tableau

The only empire under control is Hungary. On the other hand, look at all that law prestige accompanied by “vote” operations in both tableaux. No money, though.

By contrast, my rivals (the Medici bank) dominate the Silk and Spice trade from the East with control of the trade routes through the Mediterranean. Despite heavy influence in the courts of the Ottomans and Byzantium (which quite ahistorically has not fallen to the Muslims), they are unable to substantialyl profit from the Silk Road trade, which is no longer fully reaching Europe. The Medici also have their fingers in the court of Portugal, but despite some exploration of the African coast, there is no alternate sea route to the east. The Medici do control the more accessible trade through the Black Sea port of Tana, although it is more difficult to profit from those investments.


Medici (yellow cubes) dominate the trade routes. They also have substantial influence in the Muslim controlled east. But the future is in Republicanism.

In building this powerful position, the Medici let one opportunity slip by.

Medici Tableau and map

The Medici have control over Portugal, the Ottoman Empire, and Byzantium, in addition to their trade dominance.

Recall that the victory conditions in Pax Renaissance are determined dynamically by the players.  Within the theme of the game, a comet appeared in 1472. Rather than superstitiously dwelling on the portents, astronomer Regiomontanus of Nürnburg (Johannes Müller) used geometry and astronomy to estimate the size and distance of the comet from the earth. He failed by orders of magnitude, but at least he tried.  Gamewise, the Fuggers were able to declare a “Renaissance Victory” which measures the advancement from the Medieval Age to the Early Modern Age by the ascendancy of Republican-ruled nations and city-states. It was largely a defensive move, as the Medici’s have two types of victory within their grasp. Their control of the Ottoman empire gives them a “Holy Victory” (for Islam) and their additional control of Portugal and Byzantium gives them an “Imperial Victory.” Fugger really didn’t have a Renaissance Victory in sight when choosing it, but there is now an opportunity for them in the West.


While the real money is in the spice and silk trade with the Far East, that wealth is largely inaccessible to the merchants of Western Europe.

What Fugger does have some influence over is the clergy on the Iberian peninsula, particularly the zealots of the Office of the Inquisition in Castile and an anti-monarchy faction in Aragon. This can be deployed strategically to substantial advantage. By critiquing the pace and enthusiasm of Castile’s commitment to the reconquista I will provoke a new crusade to be declared charged with wiping out the Muslim occupation once and for all. In doing so, I can force a upheaval in the ruling powers of that nation (and, of course, replacing the Medici people with those loyal to myself). As an added bonus, a crusade will draw in knights from France and Aragon, potentially weakening those powers and making them vulnerable to the inquisitors of Castile and Portugal. Having gained control of Castile, Portugal, and perhaps France or Aragon, I can now go after the monarchs themselves. Shifting the power from those nations’ kings to republics will win me the game.


The Emirate of Grenada is a black mark on the heart of Christendom. It is here I will make my move.

Given the choice between France and Aragon, it is France that presents a weakness. At first glance, they are the strongest of the three empires bordering Castile. However, in additional to co-opting their knights into my crusade, I have another card up my sleeve (almost literally, as we are talking about a card game here). In the north-west corner of the area of French influence, there are several provinces that have eschewed feudalism for centuries. It will be easy enough to provoke conflict between the republican sentiment in Friesland and Groningen and the nobility who see an opportunity to be granted hereditary control over those territories. Such a conflict would also draw in the forces of the French king and, combined with the crusade, leave France open to invading armies.

The Turn of a Friendly Card

That’s quite a tale and I’d like to walk through it again in gameplay terms. Cast in those terms, the Renaissance Victory is active and I already have 3 cards with “Law” prestige. That means to qualify for victory, I simply need to have more republics than my opponent. In this case, neither myself nor enemy control any Republics thus far. So as it stands right now, converting one of my monarchies to a republic will be sufficient to win.

There is one caveat in this. Claiming victory in itself is a move. Each player turn consists of two actions, so in a way one player takes two turns and then the other player takes two turns. If you are able to achieve conditions for victory in one move, you then use your second action of the turn to declare victory. If, on the other hand, it takes two actions to put you into a winning position, you then must allow two turns from your opponent. In a way, it disadvantages the “offensive” player in that “defender” always gets one extra move to stave off defeat. It also means that a victory is often a multi-turn plan that can go wrong any number of ways in the interim.


The Spanish Inquisition card can launch a Crusade.

Considering this, although I only need to convert one empire to a republic, I’m going to target two to give my plan some redundancy. Target number one is Portugal, given that the card in my hand has the ability to capture that empire via a Crusade. Target number two, as I discussed above, is France. If you look at my tableau (the first picture in this article), I have a card for France with the “Siege” operation. With that, I have the ability to weaken the defenses in France to a point where I can invade and capture it. Assuming, of course, that I control an empire from which to invade. Like Portugal.

The Grand Inquisitor card is playable immediately and would transfer Portugal from the Medici tableau to my own. But there is a problem. I don’t need to just control the Portuguese government (and remember, back in the narrative, Portugal and Castile are both represented by the Portugal designation within the game), I need to further be able to unseat the monarchy. I have the means to do so in the form of two “Vote” operations in my tableau, but I can’t win that vote. To be successful with a vote, I need to have a plurality of the concessions bordering the empire where the vote is taking place. Right now, the Medici have the one and only concession. The black pirate blocks a second concession from being place. So while I am entitled to place one concession upon taking control of Portugal, that would require repressing the existing Medici merchant first. Repression costs money and, again looking at that top picture, I don’t have any money.

Therefore, before I consider playing that card I’m going to need to generate some cash. The Trade Fair is out because the Western market doesn’t have money and the Eastern market is completely under the Medici’s control. What I do have is a “Commerce” operation in my Tableau, courtesy of a secret organization of guilds based in Aragon which is anti-monarchist, anti-feudal, and anti-Islamic. The “Revolt of the Brotherhoods,” the event in “The Hidden” one-shot, will never take place in this game (and is anyway some decades in the future), but were they around already it might make sense that these folks would support my own play. If I play that Commerce operation before launching the Crusade, I’ll be able to fund the it properly.

As an action, executing operations is special. Rather than launching a single operation the player, using a single action, can play any or all of their operations within a single tableau (East or West). This obviously opens up the possibility of some complex moves, particularly in the end game when there are a lot of cards on the table. It also means for some complex interactions you have to not only carefully choose which operations to execute, but also the order.

My plan for the turn is to use three operations to pave the way for my use of the Grand Inquisitor for the crusade. First, I get some advantage from the existing Medici influence in Portugal/Castile. With the tax operation, I warn the Grenadians of the impending assault upon them and cause them to tax the Medici merchants to build up their defenses. It costs the Medici all of their remaining money and will make the impending crusade all the more bloody, which I think will be to my advantage. Next, as I suggested, I draw on the Brotherhoods to raise funding for my own army. Finally, the Frisian Freedom card is used to eliminate the rook from Lyon.

That opens up the play for the seizure of Portugal. With this setup, the ensuing battle will see the loss of the two defenders (the rook in Granada and the black pirates), and I will sacrifice the crusading knights from Paris and Valencia, thus preserving the Catholic army in Toledo. The Portugal empire card is transferred from the Medici tableau to my own, eliminating their influence via Elżbieta of Bohemia in the process.  In order to facilitate the republican surge that I intend for the next turn, I will place my concession from the regime change on the border with England, repressing their existing merchant, and set up ready to support a vote.

That repressed merchant may cause problems going forward, as the residual influence of the Medici would try to block my disassembly of the Castile monarchy. Fortunately, I have the Spanish Inquisition and two operational cards to facilitate it. Upon placing the Grand Inquisitor in my tableau, I will deploy the bishop on that card. In the following turn, I can move the bishop to Portugal and pacify the Medici serf. With two inquisitor operations, which I have, I can also move the bishop back, freeing up the Kingdom of Portugal and its armies to pressure France into my camp.

These move are enough for me to set up a win for next turn, but the Medici has a turn to foil my plan. Indeed, they have a path to do so, even though it may not by obvious at first glance. (Actually, it is not obvious at all to you, because my screenshots don’t show my opponents hand, which holds two “one-shot” cards). The secret to saving himself relies, not on countering my moves and blocking my conversion of France and/or Portugal to be a republic. One of those two is enough for me to win and, anyway, there is no means for the Medici to influence either. Instead, he needs to control a Republic of his own, insuring that I need, not one, but at least two republics to claim victory.

But that drama is going to have to wait for another article.

I’m Feeling Lucky


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Why are word clouds so fascinating?

If I look at my own most-used tags and categories, it left me wondering what are the top articles in the WordPress universe that use those same tags?



History of Games

Cold War


Number 5 on my own list is Netflix, which is largely me griping about my own experience with their service. Part of me really thought that I’d find similar content associated with the Netflix tag elsewhere. Of course that is silly. It’s pretty much reviews of Netflix’s in-house content.

I’m Not Saying It Was Aliens But…


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I was talked into watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull by my kids, who wanted to round out their watching of the series of Indiana Jones films. It’s not a terrible movie. In fact, it is roughly all the stuff that made up the originals, but now with 2008 CGI.

Possibly because of that CGI, the story went from classic-movie suspension of disbelieve to crazy-cartoon-superhero suspension of disbelief. Yes the original was filled with crazy stunts and frequent sure-to-be-deadly situations for the heroes, but there seemed to be some limits. Spielberg was deliberately trying to reproduce the feel of the serials of the 1930s and 40s, where each episode would end with the hero in ineluctable mortal danger. Of course, if you paid your dime and came out to the theater for the next episode, you would get to watch how the hero was able to defy his doom. Compared to the original, a line seems to have been crossed. There is a difference between surviving being sealed into a tomb versus being tossed a half mile into the air by a nuclear blast while riding in a kitchen appliance. And yet for both, Indy merely has to dust himself off a little.

I’m not angry I watched it, but I don’t regret waiting almost a decade to do so.

For what its worth, I’ll give an extra quarter star for working “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” into Harrison’s dialog.

Wolves of the First Reich


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The main reason I bought Field of Glory when I did was because Slitherine was preparing an additional module called Wolves from the Sea. That module is focused on the Viking Age armies and battles, expanding from the late-Roman Empire offered in earlier modules. At that time, I was indulging in the History Channel’s Vikings series, and was seeking wargaming tie-ins with that period. Outside of Medieval: Total War and some Viking oriented mods, I could not find a serious treatment of this at a tactical level.

Field of Glory, at that time, was going through some difficulties. The game was originally released in 2009, which isn’t all that long ago by the standards of many of the games I’ve been playing. Nevertheless, a couple of years after its initial release, there were issues. The original developer was no longer supporting the game, but it it remained popular enough and Slitherine was continuing to release new modules. I have this vague memory that there was a hard-core user who had taken on the original source code, but that would require searching back through the forums, which I won’t do. Whether a false start was abandoned, or never really took off in the first place, Slitherine ultimately decided that the source code (in Real Basic) was not maintainable.

By around 2012 another group of developers came up with a plan to port the system to the Unity gaming engine. The release of the Wolves from the Sea became tied to that project – that is, the new module would be released to run on the updated base game. Then the years began to go by and neither the new version nor the new module were available to the paying public.

I had been eyeing the product since it’s original release. I was deterred by lackluster reviews (particularly as a single-player experience) and one design flaw. I was persuaded by a particular criticism concerning the use of hexes versus squares – for the linear battles of the Roman era, the use of hexes for the map just seemed to throw things off.

Then a couple of years ago, I was (as I said) searching for a serious, tactical Viking game. That imminent Wolves of the Sea release popped up again. The situation at the time was that the Unity project was well under way and was trying to reproduce faithfully the original Field of Glory experience. That Unity version (Fog(U)) was available for download for FoG players in a beta form. I read that the beta included a (beta) Wolves of the Sea module. I decided that the combination was enough to put me over the edge and I bought the original FoG, discounted as part of that year’s Christmas sale.

By the time I got everything installed and working and was able to try out the combinations, the availability of the free Wolves of the Sea was no longer part of the package. The Unity version was available, but only to play modules that were duly purchased for the original game. Furthermore, the state of Fog(U) at the time was buggy enough that the best experience was to play in the original engine. And so I stuck with the old engine. Any experience up to this point focuses on that version.

The long delay in release bled much of the steam out of FoG(U)‘s engine. The delay certainly halted the momentum of frequent expansion modules, which of course will blunt enthusiasm for a game. Furthermore, as the development remained focused on getting a non-buggy reproduction of the original Field of Glory, but in the new engine, that meant work was not going into the improvements to the engine – the whole raison d’être for upgrading the engine in the first place. Finally, by the time FoG was released and moving forward again, Field of Glory II was in development. At least for me, FoGII looks to deliver much of the promise that FoG doesn’t fulfill.

Once again, however, it is time for the Slitherine/Matrix Games Christmas sale, and this time it finds me again dwelling on medieval fighting. As before, I am looking at the period leading up to the ascendancy of Charles V to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. This time, however, I decided to go way, way back to the chronological predecessor of Europa Univeralis. That is, Crusader Kings 2 ($10 in the Steam Christmas sale, I might add).

Crusader Kings was a follow-on to Europa Universalis, but its predecessor in terms of historical chronology. CK2 can start as early as the beginning of Charlemagne’s rule and lasts until where Europa Universalis takes over. There are several start dates scattered throughout that period. I was actually a little surprised that there aren’t mods out there to capture other snapshots of history. Maybe the sheer amount of work to research the name of every count, duke, king and emperor for a given date dissuades anyone who might decide to try.

I was hoping to target the ascendancy of the House of Hapsburg from mere control of a county to the control of the empire. Roughly, the mid 1270s. Within CK2, their main scenarios taking place around this time start at 1220 (titled Age of the Mongols) and at 1337 (focusing on the Hundred Years War). I went this time with the 1220 date. Further, I decided the emperor himself was a shaky play. The game warns that the Holy Roman Emperor is a “difficult” faction to play. Historically, the Hohenstaufens were a decade or so from being eliminated as a political power. Instead, I searched for a lesser title in the Empire that the game ranked as a little easier. I ended up settling on Ulrich III, Count of Neuenburg (or Neuchâtel from the French side of the border), who in CK2 is given a ducal title.

It is another lesson in the illusion of detail within the Paradox engine. So much is modeled within the engine, it is sometimes a shock when things are not. From 1152, the house of Zähringen had been granted a duke-level title (Rector) over the former Kingdom of Arles or Kingdom of Burgundy. That dynasty ended with the death of Berthold V, and the duchy was divided rather than assumed. At the start of the game, Ulrich III held county titles to Neuchâtel, Fenis, Aarberg, and Strassberg, as well as lower level titles. Bern, by contrast, become a Reichsfrei, a free imperial city beholden only to the Emperor himself. CK2 discourages flat hierarchies and, for example, an Emperor directly controlling a city would cause problems for the algorithms that are their to penalize the unwillingness to delegate. Although technically Ulrich was not a duke, within the game it probably makes sense to set it up as such.

Besides being ranked as “average” difficulty, this duchy for the Kingdom of Burgundy has some other appeal. Historically, the lands became part of the Hapsburg holdings, and so fit in with the theme I’m trying to follow. Also, I can perhaps aspire to uniting the French and German Burgundian holdings into a single, perhaps independent, Kingdom and elevating my faction to the global stage.

Unlike EU, CK2 does not have the driving set of historical events behind it. While the first decade or so of game play has a chance of resembling history, the game is most likely to rapidly veer off from the historical path. So it was in my game. Initially, the game begins with an active call for the Fifth Crusade and I so sent off some of my soldiers. My armies were soon overwhelmed vast Muslim armies and I was forced to disband my crusading force before the end, leaving them to return from Jerusalem on their own. And that end was not a successful one for Christianity, either, with the crusade ending in failure. Shortly thereafter, Ulrich’s death resulted in a lot of bellyaching from the other counts in his domain and several small wars were required to keep them all in line. By the time another (the Sixth) Crusade was called, I was in debt and suffering from depleted manpower as a result of my own succession struggles and so I did not participate.

As to the Emperor Frederick II, despite his German titles he considered himself to be a Roman Emperor in the historical sense. His focus was on uniting Sicily and Italy to Europe so as to recreate the reach of ancient Rome. Indeed, in the game, Frederick finds himself fighting wars in Naples as he deals with Italian rulers reluctant to conform to his plans.

The departure comes in the mid-1230s. Historically, Frederick was friendly with France, helping them to quell a succession war over Champagne (although the intervention probably had more to do with the succession fights in Germany than the actual politics in France). In the game, however, Frederick challenges France over territory in the low countries. Sensing an opportunity to further ingratiate myself to the emperor, I sent my soldiers to help in his fight.


It’s hard to read, but a French army of just over 20,000 is attempting to lift the Imperial siege with its roughly 23,000 soldiers. The timely arrival of my own Burgundians tilted the numbers to Germany.

In the above screenshot, the king of France has fielded an army of over 20,000 men and is leading it to lift the siege of the contested province. My own army, of some 4,000, has just arrived from the south putting the besiegers at a slight advantage.

Give Me Unity or Give Me Death

This battle is close enough to make it interesting as a tactical fight. So back to Field of Glory – Unity and my new Christmas purchases (namely the Oath of Fealty module). First order of business is creating the above army in Field of Glory‘s Digital Army Generator.

As I began building the armies, I see that one of the criticisms I had of Field of Glory has been corrected in this version. Specifically, I complained that the only choice in the random skirmish mode was to create two evenly-matched armies. The FoG(U) interface now matches up two entirely pre-built armies, one for each side. So I can construct exactly the match-up that I desire. The downside to that is, unlike Pike and Shot (and, indeed, the original FoG), you cannot leave the computer opponent to generate their own army given the number of points. It became an easy shortcut in the other games to a) not have to build an enemy army in addition to building your own and b) give some random variation – you couldn’t know exactly what you’ll face. However, in using the engine to match up specific armies (either historic or generated by a strategic engine), you are probably given the makeup in advance, so it really isn’t that much of a loss.

In this case, I did not dwell on the detail. While CK2 breaks down the armies into different troop types, I did not try to match what was in CK2 with what I created in FoG(U). In fact, an army of 23,000+ men is about double the size of the armies that come with the modules, and so the choices when filling out the large army become limited (without some off-line modification of the army data.) In most cases, I’m not sure the detail is all that important, but I’ll put some more effort into it another time. In this case, I was able to narrow in on a suitable match-up very quickly. The experience was much more like the positive Pike and Shot games than my previous FoG games.


We move forward to battle across an open field. On the third turn, our skirmishers meet. I’m not sure why the setup forced me to have only a single unit of skirmishers ahead of my army, but I make do with what I have.

The interface for FoG(U) largely reproduces that of FoG. You can see some upgraded look-and-feel in the main menu and some of the quirkiness of the original unit interaction has been improved. In other cases, though, it seems to have regressed. In the above screenshot, note the brown box in the lower left. It’s title is a “=>”. I don’t know what that means here but, in fact, there is some ample use of animated ASCII graphics to convey information, particular combat details. Some of the screens look more like a error log dump than a circa-2015 user interface. For some features that seemed better the old way, I do wonder if that’s just because I got used to the old way.

I ran into a couple of bugs, but nothing too significant. The worst of them were when I tried to run the game in full screen mode. In full screen certain UI functions were just not working. Those problems seemed to go away when I windowed the game. However, for the window size that I’m using, the design doesn’t seem to account for the Windows tool bar. This means that the last line of the unit reports (brown boxes, again) is obscured and unreadable. While slightly sloppy looking, it isn’t show stopping. Between this an other minor issues I’ve come across, there is nothing that says I should prefer to use FoG when both are available – with one exception. As far as I can tell (and I haven’t tried very hard yet), the user-made scenarios for FoG don’t automatically carry forward to Fog(U).  I am assuming that to play the scenarios which I’ve downloaded, I’ve got to load them in the version for which they are made.


The lines are becoming fully engaged. We’ve run off each others skirmishers, which is a big advantage to me as I only had the one unit.

Having created French and German armies of approximately the right size, I loaded them on to a battlefield. The field of battle is picked randomly from pre-built choices. I honestly don’t know if FoG did it differently, but clearly there is no such thing as a randomly-generated terrain in this version. Once begun, the battle should not be in doubt. Unless the AI has made huge progress since the earlier version, I’ll always have an advantage over the computer in an even fight. And this fight isn’t even. The Empire is starting with a sizable 15% force advantage.


I’ve broken the enemy’s left and center. I would probably lose my own left in the process, but the enemy army is about to collapse before that can happen.

The enemy is fairly aggressive, perhaps more so than I remember from FoG. Having run off my lone skirmisher, they hit my main lines and hard. In many cases, though, I have heavy foot defending against assaults from lighter units and skirmishers. My little men aren’t about to be chased off and give more than they take. On top of that, of course, I just have more men on the field. The early momentum continues to build inevitably towards…


A substantial victory. Probably a forgone conclusion given my initial advantage in numbers.

… victory.

The fact that the Germans were victorious, as well as the size of the victory, is consistent with the results back in Crusader Kings. But I’m not sure if that says anything useful given the circumstance.

In contrast to earlier versions of the Paradox engines, and even EU4, the Crusader Kings 2 engine works to simulate the battle at a higher fidelity. I’ll dwell on this more in a future post, but it does question the desirability of fighting a battle off-line in a “tactical” engine when the battle tactics are portrayed for you right on-screen. Furthermore, the CK2 detailed battle is generating the results needed for the operational layer of the game. As units break away from the fight, distinctions are made between casualties, desertions, and just broken morale such that when the losing army retires from the field, it has some substantial portion of its force ready to reform and perhaps fight again. Can a table-top style simulation of that battle add anything that would justify changing these results?


The Battle of Cambrai. This is going to cause 680 years from now when historians want to talk about the First World War battle.

In the end, either way you look at it, the Holy Roman Empire was victorious in battle and picked up a county from France. History is off an running down an alternate path.

¿Ferdinand y Isadore?


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What a difference a chromosome makes.

Reading a history book, it is often remarkable how unlikely the historical outcome seems to have been, given the odd sequence of events that got us here. So it is with the unification of Spain under, first, Ferdinand and Isabella, and then, under Emperor Charles.

There is a note in the documentation for Pax Renaissance, explaining some of the “wrong” geography on the map cards. One of the explanations is justifying the cities of Toledo and Granada being located in Portugal, which takes up the better part of the Iberian peninsula. The designer explains that it was by no means forgone that Spain would form from a union between Castile and Aragon. Castile and Portugal could have easily been the basis for that empire.

I pondered this as I played another early-Renaissance scenario from Europa Universalis IV.

I EU/EU II, this historical timeline was heavily event driven. Events would triggered by a combination of the current situation and the date, roughly imposing a backdrop of history over your player-driven narrative. In some cases, those events would give the player a choice – do you support the Lancasters or the Yorkists?, for example. But particularly if you were striving for historical fidelity, you could probably follow right along with the history books.

In the latest version of EU, it has become a little more complicated. Yes, there are still the events and triggers, with the appropriate historical choices. But there are also a lot more little choices, and small randomly assigned variations, which potentially could have some real impact. In all, it feels a lot easier to wander away from the history books into an alternate reality.

Again, I thought I’d give EU IV another spin trying to reproduce the conditions that lead to the Charles V -led Holy Roman Empire, this time starting the game in 1444. EU IV has recently updated, obsoleting the Charles V mod that I was looking forward to, so I already started thinking maybe I should just concentrate on the 15th century rather than the 16th.

As soon as I could do so without blatantly violating various treaties, I relaunched the Reconquista for to take Granada from the ruling Moslem Emirate. The war went smoothly, but I only managed to grab about 2/3rds of the territory in the final treaty.

Then came a family squabble. The Trastámaras have their hands in the running of Castile, Aragon, and Navarre, but getting along with the cousins doesn’t seem to be a family trait. I had hoped to bring Navarre closer in to the Castile branch with some strategic marriages and even had some hope of a direct inheritance of the Navarrian crown. Unfortunately, Aragon’s King John (II) had similar ideas (along with, admittedly, a better historical basis for them) and, after a brief civil war within Navarre, he attacked the tiny country with the combined forces of Aragon and its puppet in Naples.

I felt compelled to defend my political and marital alliances in Navarre and was vaguely peeved by the lack of respect from my cousins. A rather destructive but ultimately fruitless war ensued, depleting the manpower of the Iberian peninsula without producing a clear winner.

All of this is to set the stage for what happens next in this alternate reality.

King Henry IV was a terrible king. This was both true in reality and true within the various numbers of the game. His own attack on Granada suffered from a lack of initiative and, rather achieving my own albeit partial victory, the real king fought several wars consisting mostly of cross-border raiding.

Despite rumors of impotence, homosexuality, or possibly both simultaneously, Henry finally managed  to produce a daughter with his second wife, himself at the advanced age of 37. When Henry proclaimed his new daughter to be his heir, it split the Castilian nobles. Or more accurately, the Castilian nobles, who were already split, found a cause to focus upon. A League of Nobles formed out of concern for Portuguese influence (through the personage of Juan Pacheco) in Henry’s court and who were backed by the newly ascendant John II of Aragorn, and they began questioning the legitimacy of Henry’s issue. Being either gay, impotent, or both, it seemed, to them, likely that the child was the offspring of Henry’s best friend Beltrán de la Cueva. She was also (with certainty) a girl. A better heir to the throne would be Henry’s half-brother Alfonso, with whom the League of Nobles happened to hold more influence. Henry initially agreed to this arrangement with the condition that Alfonso marry his own daughter (also Alfonso’s niece, assuming the rumors were not actually true). When Henry reneged on that commitment, Castile descended into civil war with 12-year-old Alfonso being declared ruler of Castile. In addition to being gay and impotent (possibly both), Henry stood accused of abiding Muslims and being something of a peacenik.


In this world, the League of Gentlemen are proposing Lope I of Nebrija as the legitimate heir to Castile. This cannot stand.

Within the game, some very minor variations changed the story in a big way.

I don’t know if the Henry of this world is gay, impotent, or both, but despite being an awful ruler, he has managed to produce a son and heir and named him Felipe. We’ve made arrangements with the cousins in Navarre as well as the Portuguese royal family to solidify our alliances with marriage. Aragon being left out of this arrangement, they propose advancing one Lope of Nebrija to the throne. The game does not supply a backstory, just a name.

The capitol and much of the southern coast joined the League of Nobles in supporting Lope. As the player, I could chose which version of history to champion, but the subtle changes meant I could not follow the historical narrative and back Lope. First, Lope doesn’t sound very regal to me. Sorry, Lope. Second, I had begun investing both practically and emotionally in Felipe in ways that became difficult to turn my back upon. I even had a fantasy that maybe Felipe could, though the marriage arrangements, gain claim to the throne of Navarre as well as Castile. It didn’t seem wise to give that up and back Aragon, with whom I had just been in a nasty war.

The forces of the League outnumbered the royal armies, but were not well coordinated. I was able to maintain a slight edge, locally, in numbers and defeat each rebel army in detail. Towards the end, I had to rely heavily on foreign banks and a large mercenary force, but I was able to prevail. The screenshot (several paragraphs above) shows the rebel armies making their final, pitiful stand as I lay siege to the fortresses in Granada with my main force.

With the rebellion soundly defeated, the nobility never again questioned the legitimacy of Felipe to inherit the crown of Castile.


Recall that one of my goals with EU IV is to integrate with a tactical engine to create what-if battles from the time period. You might also remember that I’ve had some luck with medieval period battles in Field of Glory. This War of the Castilian Succession perhaps could present another opportunity to indulge that impulse, but for a few problems. First, the supporting mods have not kept up with the releases of the EU IV engine, meaning that the integration I was attempting to use earlier is not available. Second, the operational nature of this fight – where I am first achieving local superiority before engaging – means that the battles are never matched. This is a particular problem for Field of Glory.

I speculated that perhaps Field of Glory might lend itself to the same sort of manipulating that I’ve used in Pike and Shot. That is, by editing the army definitions I might cause the randomly-generated battles to conform closer to the battle I wish to model. For example, I might force a cavalry heavy army onto a nation that, historically, wouldn’t have fielded such. I fiddled around with the data files a little bit, but I wasn’t able to get it working. In doing so, however, I found some other files that probably need to be modified as well, so I won’t give up just yet.


Brother against brother, the different noble factions within the Castilian kingdom line up against each other for battle.

The result of my battle was much in line with past experience. As expected, an even matchup (again, it seems to be the only choice in FoG) is going to favor the player. The unit mix, terrain, and other randomly generated components lack the personality that would make it a memorable fight. The AI isn’t terrible but, then again, I never really felt in fear of losing the battle. It wasn’t horrible, but also wasn’t quite worth the effort – doubly so because (at the moment) the results are not actually fed back to the strategic layer. I will say that the results were similar in both games, with solid victories in support of Felipe’s inheritance.


Back in the real world, the result was considerably more complicated. After Alfonso was crowned King of Aragon what was called the Farce of Ávila, war continued for four years with neither side gaining a clear victory. Then, at age 14, Alfonso died (circumstance unknown today). His backers intended his crown, such as it was, to pass to his sister (Henry’s half-sister) Isabella, under whose name the civil war could continue. Instead, Isabella agreed to cease hostilities in exchange for being named the rightful heir of Henry.

So it remained until Henry himself died, at the age of 49, in 1474.

With the world preferring to have male monarchs, Alfonso had a decent claim to the throne over Joanna simply by being a boy. That advantage was not shared by Isabella. Upon Henry’s death, those nobles who would be disadvantaged by Isabella’s succession (via her now marriage to her cousin Ferdinand of Aragon) joined with the King of Portugal in supporting the daughter of Henry over his half-sister, perhaps a reasonable succession claim. Assuming, that is, that Henry was not gay, impotent, or both.

Evidence to this day strongly supports the accusations that Joanna (known accordingly as la Beltraneja) was in fact illegitimate. Remember, however, that history is written by the victors – in this case Isabella, whose side ultimately prevailed in the war. It is interesting to cast doubt on the evidence in that the alliance between Isabella and Ferdinand and their subsequent uniting of Spain, the Netherlands, and Austria under Charles V, is one of the defining moments in European history.


Even still, EU4 is driven by events. Despite the fact that Portuguese interests prevailed in the Castilian civil war, the option to bind the Castilian and Aragonese branches of House Trastámara was still presented.

Back in the game, despite my shunning of Lope, the Trastámaras nevertheless arrange a union (screenshot above). As the game went on, it turned out to be a badly managed union. Aragon frequently felt slighted in our arrangement and, each time I fumbled in may kingdom management, England would egg them on to revolt against me. As unpleasant as it was, it gave me a chance to make one more comparison.

More Tactics


Carlos de Toledo leads the Guardia Real against the Aragonese invaders. We expect an easy victory.

One such rebellion occurred in December of 1533. By that time, Spain had adopted combined pike and shot formations and was transitioning to a firearm-based army. This allowed a fairly similar comparison to the match-up played out in Field of Glory, but this time using Pike and Shot solidly within its own period.


My Castilians deploy against the Aragonese, watched over by a ghost of Christmas-that-never-was, Charles V. My horse is deployed on my right, and I’m advancing it to hit the enemy flank.

Right away one can see that the graphics make a big difference. I used randomly generated “hilly” terrain, but the variety and the style gives it much more character than a Field of Glory generated battlefield. Likewise the units. Similar to FoG, the two armies are both minor variations of the same setup, but the style of the units in Pike and Shot just add a little bit more gusto to the whole affair.

I’ve mentioned it before, but the interface for Pike and Shot allows easy tailoring of the army size. I was able to match, with fair precision, the army sizes presented in the EU4 game with only a small amount of fiddling. Of course, outnumbering the enemy by some 3,000 men meant the outcome of the battle was never in question. Even still, the beginning of the fight was a little tense, as I was a little worried that my flanks would start to break before the enemy’s center. Again, while the AI isn’t exactly brilliant in the random match-ups, it seems to be a bit more talented than the Field of Glory AI.

One little hitch I ran across – it is the selection of armies that determines the flags, the names, and the portraits in use. So when I create a Spanish-on-Spanish skirmish, they both use the same Spanish flags. The mini-map (as you can see) shows the two sides in red and white, but the main map it can be difficult to determine which units are on which side. As far as I can tell, this is not configurable in the skirmish interface and would have to be edited in the army file ahead of time.

Something for next time.