The Irishman: Think Forrest Gump, but with Teamsters.
A Game of Thrones, Braveheart, Crusader Kings, Crusader Kings 2, Field of Glory, Field of Glory - Unity, George R. R. Martin, Humphrey Hare, Isabella, Les Rois maudits, Maurice Druon, Neuchâtel, The Accursed Kings, The Iron King, Tour de Nesle
The title of this article is a line from Braveheart. It is delivered by soon-to-be Queen Isabella to the dying Edward I. While witnessing William Wallace’s execution, she tells him that her unborn child is not the offspring of her husband, Edward II, but is the result of a tryst with Wallace. She lets the King go to his grave knowing that his line will die with him.
Now, we all know that fictionalization of history can be used to add character and depth to a series of historical facts. We can’t know what the kings and queens of the 11th and 12th century said to each other, so a film must create entirely fictional dialog. This is understandable. Often, we don’t mind a dramatization going even further afield, advancing a compelling drama that capture the flavor of the times, if not the details. But sometimes a situation goes beyond even the absurd.
When William Wallace was executed, in 1305, Isabella was ten-years-old and still living in France, as of yet still 2-3 year away from her marriage to Edward II. It is unlikely she ever met Wallace. But on the outside chance that she did (when he was visiting France seeking political support), she was probably closer to the age of 5. Although Edward I arranged the betrothal of his own son and the daughter of Philip IV of France, the father had passed on before the marriage ever took place and he, likely, never met his future daughter-in-law either.
Stuffing Isabella into the Braveheart story is entirely unnecessary. She makes an interesting subject on her own and has been the subject of dramatizations starting from Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer and continuing to the present day. It is one of those present-day accounts I will turn to now.
Lost in Translation
When I was young, I had a bad experience with foreign novels.
There is no language, except English, where I have the proficiency to read anything of complexity. So any non-English novel that I want to read, I must read a translation of it. The first problem is that relatively few books are translated. I don’t have a handy source for my speculations, but I think that the number of non-English books published each year, which are subsequently translated to English and made available in the American market, is in the single-digits (percentage-wise). I’m talking in general, not classic literature, where the scholarly treatment is considerably different. I would think 5% would be a reasonable figure to use.
Once a book is translated, there is then another factor. Not only is the quality of the writing important, but the quality of the translation as well. Again, with classical works, academics will, over generations, work on refining translations to capture various aspects of the original language. But for a popular work, there is likely one translator, hired by a publisher, to do the work. That leaves us, as English-only consumers, as dependent on the translator as we are on the original author for a quality read. A really good translator needs to be not only proficient in both languages, but also should be a skilled writer (of the translated genre, one might imagine) in his own right as well as something of a literary critic.
I honestly don’t remember what caused it, but for years I simply assumed all translated books were going to be tough reads, and avoided them wherever possible. This finally changed in college when I was assigned a rather nice translation of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir. But even with my prejudice lifted, there are still so many native language books to read that it is rare for me to take up a non-native work.
An Iron King for an Iron Throne?
I digress so because I was looking at some of the more modern dramatizations of the life of Isabella and I found that there are many. One that stood out for me was the author Maurice Druon and his series Les Rois maudits in that, despite being something like six decades old, the novels are receiving current attention. Most noticeable, the author and the series come recommended by George R. R. Martin, citing it as an inspiration for A Game of Thrones.
This last would seem to be more than just coincidental. As Martin discussed his appreciation for Druon and his works, the series was being re-released in English by Martin’s publisher. The “original Game of Thrones” line could be put on covers and sold to fans waiting, desperate and disappointed, for the next book in the actual Song of Fire and Ice series. Whatever the behind the scenes, it works out well for me. Instead of having to try to find used copies of translations from the 1960s, I can order a newly-printed, English version of The Iron King to be delivered to me two days’ hence and enjoy these books that were, until a couple of years ago, decades out of print.
The book is well written and an enjoyable read. This is a compliment not only to the author, but to the translator. The latter, Humphrey Hare, is the original translator of the book; it does not appear that the series was re-translated for the current printing, except that the final book in the series, which was never translated in the first place.
The opening book of the series ties together the execution of the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar (Jacques de Molay) with the crises of succession that began with the Tour de Nesle affair, the death of Philip IV of France, and the questions of inheritance that ultimate fueled the Hundred Years’ War. Historical events are convincingly, while also entertainingly, told. They are also almost certainly not accurate.
The relationship between Edward II and Isabella, as I said, has been developed over the centuries, creating a narrative of how the “She-wolf of France*” was ignored by her weak and homosexual husband, leading her to resent, hate, and ultimately kill him. While she did indeed play a major role in dethroning her own husband, there is plenty of evidence that their marriage was a happy and loving one. They had, together, four children and, when apart, addressed each other in letters using affectionate pet names. Written signs of this affection extend even beyond the date when Edward had abdicated and was imprisoned. Isabella’s role in his death is by no means proven. More likely, established story of today is a combination of political rumor of the time combined with fanciful storytelling from future generations.
Even the titular “curse” may be a combination of a several different, yet similar events. There are even historians that doubt the veracity of the accusations of adultery. The proof of them are confessions obtained by torture, which is not the most reliable source of information.
As improbable as the narrative of Les Rois maudits matching the true events of the day may be, it is nevertheless impossible to prove that things did not take place in such a manner. The story fully fleshes out the tale in a way that is believable, compelling, and fun.
Agreed to Have a Battle
The Tour de Nesle was a political event which would not have counterparts in wargames. It is easy to trace the impact of what happened into the future of Europe. For example, with the parentage of the grandchildren of Phillip IV in doubt, French inheritance would come to emphasize the male relatives over closer relatives through the female relations. The difference in French and English interpretations led to Edward III’s claim to the French throne, a claim that led to the Hundred Years War. It is harder to find a companion game to share in the flavor and timeframe of The Iron King.
Instead, I’ll return to the alternate timeline that I had started earlier. My House Neuchâtel continues to rule Upper Burgundy with an eye to either independence or further prominence within the Holy Roman Empire. By this point we are obviously pretty far afield from any direct relation to historical events.
In fact, in this reality, we find ourselves with the Holy Roman Empire at war with England. King George (350 years too early) of England has managed to get himself excommunicated. Holy Roman Emperor Bořivoj Přemyslid declared war on the Heretic, probably with good reason, but those reasons weren’t shared with me. I saw an opportunity to advance my position.
I managed to “discover” that I had a strong claim on the County of Auvergne, near enough to my coveted “Greater Burgundy,” but currently under the jurisdiction of King George. Having done so, I offered to send my forces in support of Emperor Boris. Now, as far as I know, my claim was rather irrelevant to the whole process. Unlike Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings does not allow a negotiated peace drawing from all sorts of potential concessions. The conclusion of a war results in exactly the peace conditions that were specified when the war was declared. However, I figured coming in on the side of the Emperor would improve my standing in his court, earn me some prestige from my victories, as well as smack England around making it easy to capture Auvergne in some future war. On top of that, the Emperor seemed like he could use the help.
This setup leads a to a battle that is interesting from a strategic perspective in that it engages the vast majority of the troops available to both sides. It is also interesting in that the outcome is by no means preordained. Because of the close match, I’m going to once again create a tactical version of the battle in Field of Glory.
Bringing my Burgundians into the battle gets the two armies very close to evenly-matched in numbers. As the main battle commences, my money was against the Empire. The English have a slight edge in numbers and in organization, although other factors work against them. Reconstructing this fight in FoG(U) creates an even bigger gap.
My first and obvious mistake was that I chose a map too big for the armies and the battle. It having been a while since I set up a random battle, I thought the two armies sounded really big. In fact, they are to the large end of medium. With the large battlefield, it took 7 turns for the two armies to move forward into a reasonable engagement distance. As we’ve seen before, the FoG(U) AI moves aggressively forward, without attempting to keep his armies in line. I, on the other hand, did my best to retain my formation until engagement. In addition to its size, this terrain is probably too flat and open for Southwestern France. In FoG(U), random battle maps are not autogenerated. You must chose from a subset of the existing scenario library.
The last time I tried this, I thought the haphazard AI attack would be their undoing. It turned out not to be. In this case, my own line held together throughout the battle, and I was able to defeat the enemy as the waves came at me. In the end I won a solid victory.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the tactical result again matched the strategic result. Now, I’m not saying this is anything but dumb luck. While there may be factors that predicted a German win in Crusader Kings, there is nothing that translated those factors to the tactical battle. I just find it surprising that this exercise has worked, now, twice in a row.
Death Comes to Us All
In the end, everyone died. First King George, then the Emperor, and the my own Duke. The Emperor’s death, in particular, shook all of Europe. With the child heir now nominal Emperor, factions rose up across Europe trying to place a more capable successor on the imperial throne. Suddenly, the war with a now-dead excommunicated English king seemed like a minor worry. England’s armies had been beaten down enough that, while they were left to retake their lost castles rather unopposed, a truce was eventually declared with no clear winner (a White Peace in EU terms).
Somewhere in here, my aging Duke died leaving his inheritance to his grandson. The claim on the English county died with the elder Duke, leaving the whole episode an exercise in pointlessness. Welcome to the twelfth century.
*The epithet was used by Shakespeare in History of Henry VI, Part III to describe Margaret of Anjou, but was reapplied to Isabella by Thomas Gray in 1757. Isabella is probably most associated with the term today.
actor's age, Age of Empires, Age of Kings, anachronisms, Bernard Cornwell, Braveheart, Field of Glory, First War of Scottish Independence, Hammer of the Scots, Medieval: Total War, Mel Gibson, Robert the Bruce, Shogun: Total War, The Scottish Chiefs, Tom Dalgliesh, Total War, wargames, William Wallace
In 1995, the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart was released to theaters. Famous as Mad Max and bankable as Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series, Gibson was by then established as an A-List celebrity. Despite his status, Gibson found it nearly-impossible to raise money for his new film.
Gibson did not want to play the main role of William Wallace, as he felt he was too old (then 50-year-old Gibson portrayed what is likely a 30-year-old Wallace). Gibson was eying then 40-year-old Jason Patric in the part he ended up taking, but no studio could see backing the project without Gibson’s name as the lead actor.
The film was criticized when it came out for its violence (Gibson cut scenes to avoid an NC-17 rating and the ultimate R rating came with a warning for “brutal medieval warfare”) and subsequently for lack of historical fidelity. Yet another round of criticism came into play accusing the film of being provocatively anti-English. Despite offending almost everybody, the film has become the iconic image of William Wallace and has been a measurable inspiration to the modern Scottish independence movement.
Gibson has defended the glaring historical inaccuracies by saying that his duty was to make an entertaining film, not document history. The film’s writer, Randall Wallace (no relation), said that he wrote the script before doing any historical research specifically because he didn’t want the details of history to interfere with the telling of his story. He has gone on to say, because so little factual information from the actual battles are preserved, that while his version of William Wallace’s life is obviously made up, so is any other telling of his life’s story. We just don’t know, so why not make it entertaining?
While I’ve defended the mangling of history in pursuit of story, it a fair accusation that this film takes it too far. The battle of Stirling Bridge (which CNN, in a 2007 best-of list, included as one of the top ten battles of cinema), most notably, lacks a bridge. Apparently, Gibson was asked during filming why he shot the Battle of Stirling Bridge in a big open field and responded that the bridge got in the way of the battle. “That’s what the British found” was the comeback. While only #9 on the best battles list, The Times ranked Braveheart as #2 on their list of the most inaccurate historical movies of all time.
While I am in no position to measure such things, Braveheart seems like it was one of those movies that infused the culture and grew in influence as the years went by. It was certainly fairly popular in theaters when released and went on to be within the top 20 grossing films of 1995. But as the years went by, one saw bits and pieces of the movie becoming more-and-more part of the popular culture. Not to analyze it too deeply, but I’d say peek William Wallace was probably several years after the film came out. Furthermore, a character in a kilt with woad-warrior paint on half of his face (both glaring anachronisms from the film) is, to this day, clearly identifiable as being Wallace.
As I’ve said, I don’t want to try to map William Wallace enthusiasm in pop culture, but I will point out that just days ago, as sequel to Braveheart called Robert the Bruce was announced to being production. I note it is being floated as a sequel to Braveheart, not simply a historical drama about Robert I of Scotland (about whom, incidentally, the term “braveheart,” was likely originally intended).
A Dug’s Age
This brings me to 1999 and the release of The Age of Kings. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings was a sequel to Age of Empires which brought that semi-historical strategy game into the era of medieval warfare. When I looked at the game before, it was in the context of the early 15th century. While the expansion for Age of Kings clearly was created for including New World exploration, the time period and technology were pushing the limits (such as they were) of what the game reasonably simulated. With the First War of Scottish Independence, we are firmly back in the 13th Century, to which Age of Kings is (such as it is) well suited.
Given Braveheart‘s popularity, it surprises me that there weren’t more games at that time trying to capitalize on the popularity of the movie. William Wallace via Age of Kings was my first shot at gaming the movie. Are there other games that I’ve never tried that cover this ground? Perhaps. But I’d be surprised to find games that predate Age of Kings. I’m also surprised that there haven’t been more and better games since then. Am I simply missing some games that attempted to explore this territory? That I don’t know. But I do recall being pleased with the inclusion of Wallace when I first installed my Age of Kings way back when.
The William Wallace campaign is the one included as a tutorial. Back when I originally played this, Age of Kings was entirely new to me (I had only ever played the demo version of Age of Empires) and it was also the first time I’d ever seen Wallace represented in a game. I did not remember the silliness involved.
As you might derive from the above screenshot, or remember if you also played this game, the campaign starts out in the usual way of Age of Empires tutorials. You have a scenario or two that involves you following a well-marked path, engaging some enemies in fairly isolated and one-sided battles, and building a few buildings. This path leads you to the two historical battles presented, #5 The Battle of Stirling [Bridge] and #7 The Battle of Falkirk.
The story up until Stirling Bridge merely presents Wallace as some other entity, fighting the English for Scottish freedom. The player is cast as some nameless Scottish Chief, ready to join in the fight. At Stirling, we are told we will join with the army of Wallace.
But we don’t meet Wallace and we don’t engage in the Battle at Stirling Bridge. Instead, the tutorial is about locating and destroying the enemy headquarters, which is the normal way of winning any Age of Empires game. The scenario end matter goes on to say that, having completed this tutorial, you are now prepared to embark on any of the random scenarios. As a nod to the ahistorical nature of the outcome, you are described as having engaged in some sort of side action. By taking an English strongpoint, you helped facilitate Wallace’s historical win at Stirling Bridge.
After one more tutorial about working with allies, we engage in the final scenario, The Battle of Falkirk. This was pivotal point in William Wallace’s story. He has, thus far, defeated and humiliated the English, been proclaimed the Guardian of Scotland, and seems poised to gain Scottish independence. At Falkirk, though, he faces Edward himself (a veteran commander of the crusades) and the English first string, if you will. Braveheart (the movie) tells his defeat as a story of betrayal, but the reality is that the Scots were simply out-maneuvered and out-fought. Will Age of Kings attempt to follow a historical telling of the battle or depict it as Gibson did in the movie?
I know, silly question.
The Falkirk scenario is a fairly easy win, provided you follow through with the instructions. At then end, the victory panels describe how we (the Scots) have torn down the English castle at Falkirk and intend to build a Scottish one in it’s place.
In the context of writing this, it is almost painful to think about.
U Can’t Touch This
A few years later, in 2002, perhaps the best game treatment to date came out. It was not a computer game.
I am thinking of the Columbia Game’s Hammer of the Scots. Hammer is one of Columbia’s “Block Games,” a style that uses wooden blocks with stickers to implement a combination of hidden movement and step reduction. Unlike cardboard counters, the wooden blocks can be set on end so that the face with the unit information is hidden from your player opponent. Similarly, the block can be rotated, to show up to four different strengths (also hidden from the opponent) as opposed to the two that might be indicated by flipping over a counter as a measure of reduced strength.
Hammer of the Scots was not the first block game. That distinction would seem to go to Quebec 1759, released in 1972. Hammer is cited by Wikipedia as being “among the best-known” block games, without attribution for that analysis. Assuming it is accurate, this is also likely due to Gibson’s influence as much as anything.
Hammer of the Scots concentrates the play at the operational/strategic level. Each block represents the forces raised from a county or a clan. In the case of the Scottish nobility, that force is represented as a “noble” block. In most cases, these blocks can switch between the English and Scottish sides, representing the nobles propensity to switch their allegiance between an independent Scottish ruler and Edward’s claim to the throne. Other blocks represent the county or clan contributions as either horse, archer, or infantry. Each noble in the game has a home county (or two), and either loss of that home county to an enemy occupier, loss of the noble block in battle, or political action (via card) will cause the noble to switch sides. In this way, the blocks are doing a double duty as both military and political representations.
A glance at the map and the representative units obviously indicate a level of abstraction. Not all counties or nobles are represented, and what is there is fairly one-dimensional. For example, an English army might enter battle consisting entirely of Welsh long-bowmen. That seems unlikely. If you compare the map board, you can see that while simplified, it remains slightly more detailed than Crusader King’s map of Scotland from the same time.
Battles are also fairly simple, but in an engaging way. Blocks have three different ratings when it comes to battle. They have an initiative, which will determine the order they get to exert damage. They also have a numerical combat rating, which determines essentially their “to hit” percentage. It is the fraction out of six that an attack to will do damage to the enemy. There is also the aforementioned strength, which represents a combination of manpower, supplies, and readiness. Each strength point is worth one die to be rolled on the attack, and reducing strength to zero removes the block from the fight. Battles are fairly straightforward, but a little deeper than the single roll on a combat table. It also is more engaging as far as the theme goes. A powerful block – be it William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, or King Edward I – becomes a key determinant in the outcome of the battle. “Yes, I am losing,” I may think “but William Wallace is up next to roll, and he may turn the battle around.”
All in all, it is a nice representation of the Scottish War of Independence and a decent game to boot. But the biggest reason this game stands out for me is the treatment of winters.
Many games (and perhaps even computer games particularly) factor in weather these days. At the strategic/operational level, campaigning during the winter months entails penalties. Perhaps it is a loss of supplies, or may it involves an attrition applied to armies in addition to, or even when not engaged in, battle. No doubt there is a disincentive to moving and fighting in the wrong season, but rarely is it decisive. Honestly, I find these factors hard to keep track of and I would get pretty upset if an army just vanished because it got too late in the year.
In fact, fighting (and especially pre-Napoleonic fighting) had to ebb and flow with the change of the seasons. Weather aside, when raising an army from the productive males of the population, it was often necessary to conclude the fighting in time for them to return home for the harvest. Certainly keeping your army fed over the winter months must have often been second best to just letting everyone go home, and come back in the spring. Not every campaign or theater had these concerns in the same way and modeling it needs different approaches given time and place.
Hammer of the Scots keeps track of the years by assigning a hand of cards for each calendar year. Once all five cards are played, a winter phase is entered where units either have to find sufficient winter quarters or they must be disbanded. The year’s campaigning can also end early if both sides play an “event” card, meaning careful planning for the winter can be foiled by the unexpected. A key strategy, as mentioned in the rule book, centers around the fact that England can’t normally move armies far enough North in a single year to take all of Scotland. Thus a plan to extend an invasion though the winter is a necessary factor. Incidentally, the King of England block (a key factor in increasing the strength of the wintering army) cannot spend two consecutive winters in Scotland. It is a great way to acknowledge the overarching impact of the seasons on the war while minimizing the record keeping and the unit losses to bad bookkeeping. While it is realistic to consider that managing supplies and logistics might be the critical factor in winning a war, it doesn’t usually make for fun gaming.
The main feature of a block game like Hammer of the Scots would seem to be, at least at first glance, the Stratego-like ability to hide your units from your opponent. It may be surprising to consider that this was not the original intention of the design. The designer said his original design was to have six steps, essentially using 6-sided dice for the blocks. The cost of producing such a six sided piece, however, turned out to be prohibitive. A co-designer came up with the idea to only print one side, which still leaves four steps. The change not only brought costs under control*, but introduced the fog of war concept. With that feature, the ability for players to deceive opponents as to the location of their strongest armies would seem to be a major factor in play. For a high-level player, the ability to remember the results of battles and extrapolate those to the possible future states would seem to be an advantage.
Strip that away, and I still think there a worthwhile approximation of the history in there. I’ve talked before about converting a board game to the computer can make it seem far simpler than the board game version was. Strip away the (rather elegant) representation of battle strength, and how much do you think is left? So, for example, imagine that the three level combat rating was a hidden resolution performed by the computer. How big a part of the game is working those details? Either way, I still giving this one the gold star for its treatment of winter.
Grooving with a Pict
I was a fairly early adopter of the Total War series. I picked up Shogun: Total War (released in 2000) and was immediately enthralled by its mixing of the strategic and tactical into one, unified game. It also seemed to be a fairly realistic portrayal, given the parameters. Yes, the strategic/operation layer consisted of moving something like chess pieces on what was portrayed as a table-top map, but this could simply be interpreted as that “general simulator” I’ve talked about earlier. Did Sengoku-era generals move representations of their armies around on a giant table map? Maybe not, but it still feels natural.
Likewise the tactical part of the game. While it probably wasn’t really all that “realistic,” even by the standards of the time, it was a huge step up relative to much of the RTS genre. The results took into account factors such as unit facing, cover (such as woods), and height. It’s all the same factors we’d find if we were looking at a highly-detailed tactical system in the miniatures or the board game world. It also helped that it was a relatively lesser-known subject for a wargame. Because few gamers know too much about Feudal Japan, there was less of a expectation out there that could be disappointed.
Of course, that works both ways. As someone who really hasn’t given much thought to the history of that time and place, it was difficult to connect to Shogun. So when the Medieval: Total War follow-on was released (2002), I became even more enthralled.
When it first came out, the game immediately offended some of those in the large and growing player community. The accusation was that the developers had realized their bread was buttered more by the real-time strategy community, and the head-to-head online players at that, than by the serious wargamers. The feeling was that they had somehow dumbed down the game to appeal to the click-and-twitch crowd.
While their was something to the criticism, part of me also wonders if there wasn’t a nostalgia factor involved. As the game became more complex in the newer iteration, issues not so obvious with the older game maybe just became more so. Was the AI really worse in the newer version, or was the game just harder to play (both for the human and the AI).
Mitigating all of this was the fact that Medieval: Total War was very modable. It wasn’t much more than few months before user-made mods were available that fixed some of the “realism” problems. The primary focus was on increasing the rate and effects of fatigue and, more generally, slowing movement so that battles were not just a 3-minute clicking race. The openness extended to scenario files, where they were stored in a plain-text, structured (XML-like) format. I seem to remember an extensive amount of user-made mods for historical battles. I also seem to remember that the stock package had a Stirling Bridge scenario and perhaps a Falkirk as well.
In 2004, Rome: Total War was released, changing the face of the Total War franchise. The big change was the move away from the “chess pieces on a map” strategic interface to a map where armies can move to almost any location in the world. The regions still existed, but only for the purpose of control, no longer as “spaces” on a map board. Armies in the same region could move to engage, or avoid each other, or just coexist in two different places within the same region. Further, the location on the strategic level would determine the terrain for tactical level battles.
Rome also made obvious, by contrast, another feature of the Medieval: Total War system. When creating a historical battle in Rome, it is clear that you had to abstract the unit sizes so that each Rome soldier was representative of dozens or maybe even hundreds of men. The size of the armies in the great battles of the Roman Republic and Empire simply exceeded the capacity of the game system, in a number of ways. While Rome awed users with the number of soldiers animated in real-time 3D on the screen as an impressive cinematic feat, getting, for example, 130-140,000 soldiers to fight an historical Battle of Cannae was simply beyond the capabilities. Even if you assumed a reduced ratio, the number of units cap is also exceeded by these large battles.
While the period covered by Medieval: Total War also had large battles, easily exceeding the capacity of the engine, the game did seem to be capable of simulating the smaller unit action that were likely common during, for example, the Hundred Years War, on a one-to-one ratio between rendered soldiers and actual men on the field. I even took a look at using the openness of scenario editing to refine this further. For example, fielding units with a number of soldiers matching some sort of roster, or even creating “hero” units, that consist of a single man with custom stats.
When Medieval II: Total War came out at the end 2006, it was certainly highly anticipated. The graphical capabilities of Rome simply blew the original Medieval right out of the water. Furthermore, the Rome expansion Barbarian Invasion brought Rome awfully close to entering the Medieval era. As a matter of fact, mods for Rome covered a huge range of time periods, including the Medieval time-frame and beyond.
The release of Medieval II once again met with complaints from the “realism” crowd. Once again, the emphasis on graphics and head-to-head online play seemed to detract from the ability of the system to actual simulate period battles. After all the effort that modders had put into tweaking the Medieval game to achieve realistic results, here came a version that went in entirely the opposite direction. Furthermore, the system was considerably more closed. While graphical modding was still in an open and openly encouraged system, the grognard level of the game was more closed. Very upsetting to me personally, the scenario files were no longer text based, but required editing in a supplied scenario editor that, frankly, I’ve just never been able to get the hang of.
After some time figuring out the capabilities and limitations of Medieval II, there were many online extolling the virtues of the original Medieval as a tool for replaying historical battles. At that time I even got so frustrated as to reinstall the original Medieval and play it to see if it was really the superior system we all remembered. It did not stick. As I suspected with the nostalgia around Shogun, I think part of the fond remembrance of the original Medieval is misplaced. Again the simpler system probably made the AI seem better, and just memories being the way they are, the older system is remembered as better than it actually was. I returned to the Medieval II installation and eventually many extensive mods came out that contributed to the game’s ability to better recreate history.
One thing that did not seem to come from the community is a range of historical battle mods that accompanied the earlier games. The Historical Battles section of the menu is also remarkably underpopulated. The focus has obviously shifted to include that integrated strategic/tactical engine, although randomly-generated “quick battles” remain an option.
Back to the subject at hand, this version of Total War seemed to be ready to give William Wallace his due with the release of the Kingdoms expansion. That expansion focused on three new campaigns; one for the Teutonic Order and north-eastern Europe; one for the European conquest of the New World; and a Britannia campaign. The last restricted the map to the British Isles and pits five nations against each other; the English, the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish and Norway starting in the year 1258.
Much like the main release, the expansion does not have much in the way of historical stand-alone scenarios. Playing as the Scots, there is a choice of a couple of pre-made scenarios that are more of an enhanced random map than any kind of historic battle reconstruction. Similarly, and despite the prominence of a William Wallace in most every introduction screen, the 1258 start means that the details of the Scottish War of Independence are not configured into the campaign. In order to get to 1296+, it is necessary to play through the decades that precede it.
Initially, there is a hopeful sign. The starting year puts us right at the beginning of the Second Baron’s War. A few years after I started playing Scotland, an event split the English nation into two factions, one for the king and one for “the Barons.” Also, immediately, the Welsh sided with the Barons in that conflict. Perhaps the event triggers in the game would drive us towards the various important conflicts of this era? Unfortunately, the Medieval II: Total War engine isn’t really suited towards the political subtleties. Even by the 1314 or so, the Barons retain some territory and continue to duke it out with generations of English monarchs, despite the utter impossibility of such a scenario. The Second Baron’s War was never about splitting up England. It was a fight for political control that moved to the battlefield. The Baron’s War event is probably somewhat useful to an English player, who will be highly motivated to take out that extra “nation.” Within the context of a Scottish campaign, it becomes a distraction.
Likewise the open-ended nature of the campaign produced another distraction. While the real Scottish War of Independence saw Norway allied with Scotland against England, in my game the Norwegians decided to try to grab some territory from me. What ensued was a decades long war between Norway and Scotland, with some minor participation from Ireland and Wales. The war with England (perhaps because of their own endless Baron’s War) never broke out.
Within this context, William Wallace still rose up with an army of highlanders prepared to protect Scotland from the Viking hordes. But he co-existed with not only the Scottish King Alexander III (who, in this reality, apparently survived the fall from his horse) but Alexander’s son, who showed himself to be a great field commander. Absent the context of Scotland’s struggle for independence, one wonders what the point of including William Wallace even is. Still, here he be, and just in time too.
The critical series of battles for Scotland’s survival indeed took place in the 1290s. The Norsemen swarmed across the northern borders and had me well outnumbered, threatening several cities simultaneously. Scottish finances prevented the raising of armies to counter them, so it was only the arrival of William Wallace and his highland army that saved the Kingdom (or at least the northern part of it). The battle above shows an engagement where Prince Alexander has attacked the marauding Norwegian army, which was considerably larger in number. He did so, however, knowing that Wallace and his troops would arrive in time to reinforce the fight. As you can see, my (Alexander’s) army has crumbled, but Wallace’s forces are coming up the hill to hit the Norwegians in the flank.
So in the end, the campaign really doesn’t entail that much in the way of immersion. The battle shown above was the first in a series whereby I seized the initiative and recaptured all my lost territory and then some. Having weakened them, my fight against the Norse has settled down. I wound up spending most of the early 1300s growing the size of my towns, building castle walls, and trying to make money in the wool trade. In other words, the shape of the map aside, it isn’t that much different than any other Total War campaign. OK, I’ve got a couple of special Scottish units (that wheel of red arrows on green in the schiltron formation) and my leaders have Scottish accents. Well, most of them. There seem to be a few Russian accents thrown in for good measure.
So Medieval II shows us some pretty pictures, but just doesn’t align real well with the Scottish war. Even the pretty pictures probably owe more to Gibson’s Braveheart than a serious portrayal of that war. Did you really expect that much from Total War though? I didn’t think so.
Take ’em to the Bridge
Field of Glory (2009) has the distinction (among the games I’ve played here**) in that there is actually a bridge in the Battle of Stirling Bridge scenario. It is a user-made scenario, and it is a “land bridge.”
The scenario maker here wanted to capture the desperate struggle of the English to get their armies across the River Forth using a bridge that was wide enough for only two knights to cross abreast. The Scottish commanders waited until enough of the English were across that they could still outnumber them, and then commenced the attack. They were able to isolate a portion of the English army on the north side of the river, cut off reinforcements by blocking the bridge crossing, and cut down the trapped portion of the army. Likely as much as half the army was destroyed while the other half watched helplessly from the opposite shore of the river.
The tactics of this battle take a back seat to the pre-battle maneuver, where this engagement was truly lost. The English lost several days, dithering on their side of the river, a mistake which may have squandered their first-to-the-field advantage. They also had an opportunity to cross upstream at a ford and perhaps prevent their army from being trapped, but this stratagem was rejected by the English commander. It seems like the battle was lost through decisions made well before the fighting even started.
Of course, the English didn’t feel they needed these advantages. They knew they outnumbered the Scots and figured they had them well outclassed. English and Welsh longbowmen along with English Knights faced a force they considered to be mere rabble. One wonders, also, if they may have expected the Scots to follow good manners and wait until the battle lines could be fully formed before engaging in a one-sided battle.
In any case, Field of Glory does not support a river crossed by a wooden bridge. So the scenario added a few hexes of land and made it rough terrain to simulate the difficult in moving soldiers rapidly across. Given the difficult predicament in which the English find themselves at the start, I figured I had better take their side to have a shot at approaching the historical results.
Once again, we see the perils of pushing Field of Glory outside of its comfort zone. Besides the aesthetics of having a wooden bridge represented by a lump of marsh, the battle did not approximate reality in a number of ways. I quickly moved my forces to try to break up the Scottish attack. This had an unexpected effect of having retreating forces battling fleeing back across the bridge while my reinforcements were attempting to cross forward. The result was a further slowing down of my crossing and the disruption of my formations before they could enter into battle.
It was also clear that the AI just didn’t understand the terrain. No attempt was made to duplicate the historical move of surrounding and cutting off the forward English. Rather, the Scots began lining up along the river to the South of the bridge, apparently flummoxed by the impassible river terrain and the “land bridge.” In the end, the scenario timed out before the forces could engage enough to produce a decisive outcome. Given the difficulty in moving forces across the river, it is hard to see how the English can win within the timeframe.
The answer might be within the scenario text suggesting an alternate victory condition. It suggests that the Scots can win if no non-routed English remain on the north side of the river. This duplicates the historical win, and would cause a human Scottish player to likely follow the historical strategy. It may even be that if the Scots attempt such a strategy and fail, the losses would drive the outcome to an English victory. Or, perhaps, in a two player game with this alternate victory condition, one might agree that the draw should go to the English as a win.
Only a few miles away from the Stirling Bridge battlefield, the Battle of Falkirk has the advantage (for Field of Glory) of not featuring a bridge.
The terrain is probably looks a little less contrived than the marshy land-bridge of the previous scenario. I’m pretty sure the large pond in the middle wasn’t really there. Rather, it is Field of Glory‘s best representation of impassible terrain. If you can figure out how to see the screenshots at a larger size, you might pick out the overall battlefield in the mini-map. If so, you’ll see that the “pond” breaks the battlefield into two wings. On my left, King Edward I leads his men forward. On my right, I’m facing a lesser number consisting of almost all horse, and realize they are going to separate themselves off from the rest of the army once they cross the burn (stream) and put the pond on their flank. I also notice that AI Edward’s men are a bit timid when it comes to crossing that marshy terrain.
As shown in the screenshot, I therefore move my schiltrons forward to meet the English as they drag themselves out of the muck. Better still, my John Comyn and his cavalry do not flee the field. Rather, I am swinging them around to my far right flank to support the infantry. In all of this my hope is that by holding back on my left, I can engage and perhaps run off the English on my own right flank, and then turn that back in toward my left for support.
The next screenshot shows my strategy working. While my left wing has taken a beating, Wallace and some followers have held together long enough for half of my right-wing infantry come into play. My horse is also more or less intact and is once again supporting my flanks. Victory is in sight.
In a rather strange AI behavior, captured above, the Welsh have failed to move forward in support of the English knights. Strange because it seems that even when the AI isn’t aggressive, it at least likes to shuffle units around just because it can. Watching them hold formation, as they are, except for the occasional loss of cohesion when a routing unit charges through their lines – well, I think it is a first.
One might muse that an alternate Falkirk where Comyn stayed the course, but the Welsh refused to die for Edward was not entirely outside the realm of plausibility. But did it mean victory for my digital Wallace?
It did not. While I moved forward and was actually able to either kill or capture the King himself (again, Field of Glory doesn’t model that detail), the heavy losses on both sides and the scenario turn limit ended the game in a draw. I was a couple of points up on the AI and I think I could have put them over the edge with one more turn, but it wasn’t a blow out.
Although to a lesser extent, I think again this pushes the battle beyond the comfort zone of the programed opponent. The obstacles in the center of the battlefield seemed to prevent the AI from coordinating its attack. And while I can imagine a historical explanation for the lack of participation by the Welsh, there was no in-game announcement of some sort of event indicating they were frozen.
Kings, Dukes, and Earls
Every so often, one of these wars just seems like it would fit perfectly into Crusader Kings that it surprises me to not find a scenario for it.
I know I’ve complained about this a couple times before. I realize, however, that I forgot about one of the features of Crusader Kings. The game has several scenario starting dates, with particular countries recommended fitting the them of the scenario. There are also “bookmarked” dates; dates of particular interest, again with the relevant countries highlighted. But in addition to start from one of the pre-packaged dates, it is possible to select any date and any country and start playing from wherever and whenever you’d like.
One can scroll through the years preceding the events of the Scottish Independence War and select Scotland under various rulers according to the disputed succession. King Alexander III is replaced with Margaret, Maid of Norway. Upon her death, John Balliol rules for a few years before being followed by Robert the Bruce. The problem is, nowhere built into the system, are the events that would trigger the involvement of King Edward I and England in the fight over the Scottish throne.
I played starting at the date of the Hammer of the Scots scenario, which already sees Robert I as king. Further, he is king over a united and peaceful Scotland not at all in conflict with England. I tried starting a little early, as Robert the Bruce with John Balliol as king. Once again, the involvement of England is absent, and Balliol decides to commit Scotland to the ongoing Crusade in the Holy Land. While waiting to see if any sucession crisis developed, Edward I died with Balliol still firmly in power in Scotland leaving a underage Edward II in charge of England and unlikely to embark on any kind of expansion.
So while I was mistaken in my earlier assumption that the historical figures weren’t available for arbitrary starting situations in Crusader Kings, that still leaves quite a gap relative to what is needed for a scenario. The triggers necessary for Edward I to press claims on Scotland need to be included in addition to having all the appropriate Scottish claimants ready and willing to go to war. I’m also not sure the diplomatic system could handle the switching-of-sides needed to properly convey the politics of the situation. Finally, and this is what the on-line discussion of such a scenario focuses on, the involvement of Wallace doesn’t really fit into the Crusader Kings model. One obviously can’t play as Wallace, as he was not an earl (the minimum rank for a player). While an army and commander could be created for him, it would probably take some tweaking of events to produce suitable gameplay.
Flowers of the Forest
Perhaps the best historical fiction writer in the market today is Bernard Cornwell. His novels delve into the day-to-day routine of the period in which his stories take place, with a result than sometimes makes them seem more real than actual history. Cornwell has yet to write any novels based in the War of Scottish Independence. He did, however, write a four book series (although I think I’ve read only three of them) taking place in the Hundred Years’ War, following the fate of an English Longbowman who joins the British armies in Britany and fights at Crecy. The first book in that series is called Harlequin. The name refers to a “devil” figure from medieval plays but, in this case, is the antagonist of the novel. Harlequin is a mysterious knight, dressed all in black, who provokes the hero into joining the war.
When the book was released in America, it was deemed unwise to keep the name Harlequin, under which it was already being sold in England. Instead, it was called The Archer’s Tale, it being indeed a tale about an archer and the Chaucer-like title putting it into its medieval setting for unwitting readers. The original title, publishers worried, would bring to mind for Americans the Harlequin Romance novels and thus not attract the intended audience.
Whether or not one finds this scenario plausible, if one were to try to imagine a Harlequin-style romance novel about medieval warfare, one might come up with something close to The Scottish Chiefs.
The Scottish Chiefs is a historical novel, one of the earliest examples of that form, written by English author Jane Porter. In many ways it may remain the definitive, modern telling of the story of William Wallace (especially once you start poo-pooing Braveheart). Few facts are known about Wallace’s life beyond his victories (and defeats) in battle but speculation and embellishment upon those details form a critical piece of the Scottish identity.
Once again, this book has as much to do with the time in which it was written as opposed to the time about which it was written. The time saw Walter Scott and Robert Burns establishing a Scottish identity in literature and we see that going on in this work as well. It casts the “revolutionaries” of Scotland as heroic figures while portraying them, in many ways, in a modern context. For example, the phrase “Live Free or Die” is used, connecting the Scottish Independence war with the then-fairly-recent American Independence War. In fact, the Scottish Independence War has considerably less similarity to America’s political movement than contemporaries might liked to have imagined.
As to the story itself, once again I’m left wondering how much of the writing style is simply that of the time versus the quirks of this particular author. The publication of this book precedes The Fair God by several decades and in certain ways it is more single-dimensional than that work. A character, it seems, must be of the purest and sweetest virtue or consumed by vile, contemptible tyranny. No subtleties of character can be allowed to exist.
As to Wallace himself, each knight or earl that lays eyes upon him realizes his manliness and virtue and falls deeply in man-love with him, willing to follow him to the end. For the women, they immediately desire to possess him based on that initial vision, or even less. One woman seems intent on dedicated herself to Wallace, sight unseen.
The writing itself is modern enough in its use of vocabulary, but the structure is not. Sentences are extraordinarily flowery, with exclamatory adjectives and adverbs heaped on like so much rich gravy. At times it seems like an elevation of the prose to a form of poetry. At other times, it seems like someone who took Creative Writing 101 earnestly trying to add a unique set of words into each and every sentence.
As before, I’ll point out this was no obscure work. This was one of the most popular books in Europe when it was published (1809) and remains read in Scotland to this day. So the weakness in literary style cannot be passed off as the product of some unknown amateur. If I wanted to be truly scholarly, I compare the writing to a contemporary like Byron, but it is enough of a task to wade my way through this prose. The issue is not that the writing is so terrible as much as the florid descriptions slow down the pace of the actual story to something of a crawl. I am eager to see Wallace get at it in Stirling, but there are so many admirers to fawn over him between here and there.
One he finally arrives at Stirling, we find (as always, it seems), the author is fast and loose with the historical facts. The fight at Stirling Bridge is a side action to Wallace’s siege of Stirling Castle, similar to my Age of Kings training scenario. As a relief army arrives (under the historical commanders, but 4-5 times the strength), Wallace lays a clever trap, jury-rigging the bridge over the river Forth to be pulled down by some hidden soldiers. His opponent thus fooled, he manages to defeat an army nearly ten times his own strength, returning to complete the taking of Stirling castle later in the evening. It is quite a tale, and also quite unrelated to the actual battle.
In the end, it looks like I’m stuck with Braveheart and finding someone to play Hammer of the Scots with.
*In the same story, the designer explains that the simplified battle system was also created for cost savings. The original design of Quebec 1759 had ten different tactical areas, so different battles would each have a different feel. The decision to streamline battle resolution allowed the elimination of the extra boards, and reduced production cost for the games.
**As I pointed out, I recall playing a Stirling Bridge scenario with an actual bridge in Medieval: Total War, the original. The fight may have even started with the armies on opposite sides of that bridge, the typical “bridge battle” that features in many random maps. I did not try to reinstall that game on my current machine though. My memory suggests that this version of the battle may have also included the ford which the English didn’t use, but might have allowed their horse to outflank the Scottish attackers.