Giving Outremer a try

Our search for the perfect system to use for fighting inside the keep led us to Outremer, a medieval skirmish wargame from Osprey Games. In order to learn the rules, we gave the game a try at our local bookstore’s game night. We didn’t have the keep model itself, but we threw together a board using some of James’ generic buildings and the scenery we had to hand. We used the warbands that we created in our last Outremer post.

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Saracen guards keep a watchful eye out for the arrival of a rescue party.

We decided to play a rescue mission scenario, in which the retinue of Guido Embriaco would try to recover some hostages from the troops of ‘Adud al-Dawla.

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Embriaco troops advance cautiously through the outskirts of the village.

Outremer has a lot of character customisation options, but in play these didn’t turn out to be too confusing (although we did probably forget to use some of the characters’ Traits, or special abilities). We definitely forgot a few rules, some of which were important, but that’s the first game of any system for you.

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If we had been doing it right, Guido wouldn’t have been quite such a one-man army.

So what was our verdict on the game overall? Will it be right for fighting inside the castle?

  • Outremer works well with a small handful of characters. We had six each side; you could go larger, but beyond a certain point the differentiation between individuals could make them very hard to keep track of. It would be good for duels, brawls, and assassinations, all of which might well happen in the castle.
  • Outremer has quite a lot of detail, but probably just the right level for the kind of smaller skirmish game we’re thinking about. Fears of losing track of its complexity proved to be unfounded.
  • The Saracens in Outremer are definitely the high-mobility, hit-and-run choice, who rely on their excellent archery to whittle their foes down at range. They would be at a significant disadvantage in a confined space, so if we use Outremer for a game set solely in the castle we’ll have to take that into consideration.
  • We’re not totally convinced that this kind of spread-out skirmish combat really happened a lot in the middle ages, but that’s something you can say about most premodern skirmish games, not Outremer in particular.
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Things are about to get real over on the Saracen left flank.

Overall, then, Outremer makes a welcome addition to our repertoire of games for the project. It probably won’t be the last one, though.

Is there a game you’d like to see us try out? Check out our previous post on our game library and let us know which you want to see a post about! And if you have some experience of Outremer and want to share your thoughts with us — or if you just want to follow the project as it develops — come and join us at our Facebook page.

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How big is too big?

In the last post, we mentioned in passing one of the limitations of making accurate models of historical buildings: space.

Most 28mm scale wargames buildings are much smaller than the notional scale would suggest; this is simply because if a game’s ground scale and figure scale were the same, battlefields would be so large that it would be impractical to create and play on them. A 2011 recreation of the Battle of Isandlwana using a 1:1 ground scale required several tables to represent the different areas of the battlefield, with just one table measuring 32 by 6 feet (9.75 by 1.8 metres). Impressive at a wargames show but not exactly practical in the home!

Similarly, the Byblos keep model is a big beast: it’s about 11.5 by 14.5 inches (about 29 by 37 cm) and around 14 inches (36 cm) high. This is good, because it gives plenty of space to play in the interior and because it accurately represents the imposing scale of such a keep.

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However, this imposing size has some downsides. It increases the cost of producing the model, of course; it also has implications for storing and transportation. It totally dominates this 3-by-3 foot board, and will stand out even on a larger table.

Creating a model like this one means striking a balance between accuracy and practicality — and what’s practical depends on what people actually do with a model like this. With that in mind, we’ve created a survey that asks our readers about their gaming habits, the tables they use, and the types of scenery they like. If you would take a few minutes to fill it out, it’d really help with our project!

It’s what’s inside that counts

In a previous post, we talked about the reconstruction of the mezzanine on the ground floor of Byblos castle. In this one, we’re going to look at a similar feature on the upper floor and the very different interpretation we think it supports — and in the process, raise some points about designing interiors for wargames buildings.

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If you take a look at this plan of the castle, you can see that both the upper and lower floors feature rows of holes in the walls. On the lower floor, our interpretation is that these held beams that supported a mezzanine or gallery.

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This would increase storage and dwelling space on the lower floor, which makes sense if we think of this level as the castle’s working level, with the upper level being the residence of the family. One clue that tends to support this idea is the position of the staircase: it’s possible for guests, petitioners and so on to go directly from the main entrance to the upper floor without passing through the lower level at all.

Despite this, we don’t think that the row of holes in the wall of the upper floor is the same. It isn’t impossible that were would be a gallery in the upper floor — it could support the solar, or private residential space — but in the end we concluded that there probably wasn’t. There were several reasons for this interpretation:

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  • The holes on the upper level are considerably smaller than the ones on the lower level, suggesting that they supported a different kind of structure.
  • Although a gallery would be in line with the upper window shown in the image above, we think that this window is probably a later addition to the structure.
  • High ceilings are a typical feature of the halls of noble residences in the middle ages; if this was a high-status hall, efficient use of space might not be as important as an imposing appearance.

If these holes didn’t support an upper level, then, what were they for? There are a few different options, but we think it’s possible that they attached some kind of decorative paneling. These could be wooden or perhaps marble.

Noble residences in the middle ages, even those with an explicitly military role, were stages for the residents to show off their wealth, power, and sophistication. Decorated interiors were one part of this overall display; while we think that Byblos castle probably had some kind of paneling, other castles were decorated with tapestries or wall paintings.

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Now if you’ve been looking at the images we’ve posted of the castle model from Supreme Littleness Designs, you’ll see that the interior is pretty bare-bones: not exactly consistent with this idea. This is mainly because we want to show off the product itself, rather than things that the customer could do with the product. Still, if we really wanted to recreate the splendour of the castle’s interior, we should add some decoration. There isn’t much of a tradition of wall decorations in medieval wargames buildings — like our model above, most tend to look functional. That’s at least partly because most building interiors don’t really provide room to manoeuvre. With a model of this size, though, the interior is going to see a lot more use, making interior decoration more important.

As always, Byblos provides us with some challenges of interpretation. We think that this reading of the remains is the most plausible, but we don’t know exactly what kind of panels might have lined the keep’s hall. What’s frustrating for the historian, though, creates plenty of choice for the wargamer, creating room for creativity when planning and painting castle interiors.

Outremer skirmish project: getting started

As we develop the gaming side of this project, it’s important for us to bear in mind the role of the castle. One of the challenges of creating a castle model for a miniature wargame is how to use it effectively on the battlefield. Ultimately, even a game with relatively small units like Lion Rampant struggles to fit a lot of figures inside a building — even a very large one like the Byblos Castle model.

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It’s got a very roomy interior, but large units still aren’t going to have much room to move in it. And of course they wouldn’t have had!

To represent fighting inside the castle, then, we need a system that’s more focused on individual models than larger units. We settled on Outremer, a skirmish game written by Jamie Gordon and published by Osprey GamesOutremer focuses on combat between small groups of mixed combatants. This kind of combat is best-suited to urban or castle environments, making the game a good fit for the project.

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Using some of the models we already had available, we quickly put together two warbands. In game terms, these might not be the best choices, but they provide some variety and hopefully they’ll give a taste of the game’s different mechanics..

Our Crusader warband represents a few soldiers and a civilian travelling with Guido Embriaco, who was lord of Byblos from 1196 to 1238 or so. He fought in the crusade that recaptured Byblos and then went on to fight in several more.

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Guido accompanied by one of his civilian followers, Brother Guyart.

Guido Embriaco, Knight 1: Sword, long shield, heavy armour, great helm

This represents Guido shortly after the recapture of Byblos, at around the age of 20.

Brother Guyart, Monk 1: Improvised weapon

This humble monk has attached himself to Guido’s travel party for safety.

Guido has brought a few guards with him on his trip as well.

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Baldassare and George, Melee Militia: Gambeson, spear, shield, helmet, dagger

Mafeo, Ranged Milita: Gambeson, helmet, crossbow, dagger

Evrard, Pilgrim 1: Hunting bow, dagger

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Opposing Guido is a minor Ayyubid noble, ‘Adud al-Dawla. He isn’t quite a historical figure: there was a young military officer by that title, but he died in the late 12th century. It’s a common enough name that we felt comfortable reusing it.

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‘Adud al-Dawla, Arif 1: Heavy armour, short shield, sword, hunting bow

Baydamur and Qarsaq, Mamluk recruits: Spear, gambeson, short shield

‘Ali, Yaqub and Salih, Askaris: Composite bow, dagger

We’re hoping to get in a game or two in the near future to test out the system and see how we can use it to play some castle-based scenarios. Watch this space for updates!

If you’re interested in equipping or painting your own castle defenders, you might take a look at David Nicolle’s Knight of Outremer, which discusses the Latin knights of this later period.

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Lawrence of Arabia and the problem of preservation

In addition to all the interesting characters who attacked, defended, or lived in it in the middle ages, Byblos Castle also plays a role, if a small one, in the story of a fascinating figure from the 20th century: T. E. Lawrence, later to become famous as “Lawrence of Arabia.” In 1909, Lawrence, than an undergraduate at Oxford, embarked on a walking tour of Ottoman-controlled Syria, looking at crusader castles as part of the work that would become his thesis, The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture — to the 12th Century. Among the castles Lawrence inspected was Byblos, the keep of which is, of course, the inspiration for our model.

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Lawrence (left) in Syria with Leonard Woolley in 1911.

One of the interesting things about Lawrence’s work at Byblos castle is that the upper floor in his photographs looks quite different from the upper floor that we see today.

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This photo from Lawrence’s thesis shows Byblos (also called Giblet, Jiblet or Jubayl) standing a good deal higher than it does today; you can plainly see a row of windows that are no longer extant. Another view of this construction appears in a collection called Architectural Lantern Slides of Lebanon:

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In this image, you can also clearly see the difference in material between the lower and upper levels. At some point, then, the castle seems to have been being used as a residence, with appropriate remodeling. We don’t really know more about these changes: they were made some time before 1910, and they no longer exist today, but why they were made and when they were demolished remain unclear.

 

This raises an important issue that anyone trying to “reconstruct” a historical building has to confront: buildings aren’t static. When you’re trying to create a reconstruction of a building — or even if you’re trying to restore an actual historical building — you have to start by deciding exactly what it is that you’re trying to restore. Buildings change constantly, and there’s no “correct” version. You’re just making a choice to prioritize one of the building’s many forms over the others. Once again, we see that the idea of “accuracy” or “authenticity” is more complex than it seems to be.

That is, of course, if you’re even sure what the building looked like at any point in its history. Subsequent rebuilding can make it very difficult to identify earlier phases of a building’s history, and rebuilding is very common. After all, in the late medieval and post-medieval periods, most high medieval castles were considered draughty eyesores at worst and convenient sources of building stone at best. A medieval keep was useless to whoever made the alterations we see in Lawrence’s photograph, so rather than let the building go to waste they modified it to fit their needs.

Changes in the fabric of buildings are inevitable when you’re dealing with structures like Byblos castle that have long, varied histories — but without images like Lawrence’s, we’d know even less about them than we currently do.

Some more Crusades reading

Wargaming in the crusades seems to be in the air at the moment! We mentioned the recent release of Osprey’s Outremer: Faith and Blood, as well as the wide variety of other Crusading games out there. There’s also a series of articles currently running in Wargames Illustrated that should be of interest to our readers.

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Steve Tibble is the author of Crusader Armies, a new book about, well, Crusader armies from Yale University Press. To tie in with this new release, he’s contributing a series of articles to WI about his work and how it could apply to wargaming. In the process, he’s challenging some of the assumptions about warfare in Outremer that often appear in medieval wargames.

We’re not going to summarise the articles here — there’s a lot to cover and they’re worth reading yourself — but there are a few points that are very relevant to Gaming a Crusader Castle, particularly in the article that appears in issue 370. In this piece, which is about sieges, Dr Tibble argues (among other points) that the crucial difference between early (mainly successful) Crusader sieges and Muslim strongholds and later (mainly unsuccessful) ones was distance from the sea. Close to ports, the Crusading armies were able to benefit from the supplies and technical expertise of mainly Italian fleets. Gangs of Italian ships’ carpenters are a pretty uncommon site on a wargaming table, but they may well have played a vital role in the success of the early Crusades. Since Italian crusaders play a big role in our project, we’re pretty excited about that fact.

Anyway, it isn’t all engineering and logistics: in the second article, which appears in issue 371, Tibble suggests that wargames err by making Crusader armies act too much like their European contemporaries and suggests that, rather than being an extension of European warfare, Crusading warfare quickly adapted to meet the challenges of a new environment, with the result that Crusader armies that look quite similar to contemporary European armies on paper might behave in quite different ways.

It’s thought-provoking stuff and it’s very relevant to this project; if you haven’t read it, it’s well worth checking out. If you’d like to discuss it, why not start a conversation here or on our Facebook group?

Building the castle part 2: the upper floor

In a previous post, we went over the decisions that went into the design of the keep’s lower floor. The upper floor is a little simpler in terms of its interpretation, but poses equal challenges for the model builder.

The upper floor of Byblos Castle was a residential space for the family that inhabited the keep. This is a common division of space in castles of this period; indeed, the upper floor is sometimes known as the “noble floor” because of its association with high-status living quarters.

In order to get to the upper level, residents and visitors would use a staircase located within the thickness of the keep’s wall. The entrance to this staircase is located next to the main entrance to the keep, meaning that visitors don’t have to pass through the lower level, with its storage areas and low-status sleeping quarters, in order to visit the lords of the castle or conduct business.

Stairs within the thickness of the wall are also very defensible. Even if attackers managed to get through the main entrance, it could still be possible to defend the upper floor. Indeed, William of Tyre records an instance in which attackers were able to destroy the door to the lower level and enter the keep. However, the defenders were able to prevent them from gaining access to the upper floor. The defenders held out until an approaching relief force made the attackers withdraw.

Although a staircase within the wall is highly defensible, it poses some challenges from a model-making perspective. Most model castles simply omit the stairs or relocate them to the interior of the building in order to simplify the task. This makes sense because in most models, the walls aren’t nearly thick enough — whether MDF of plastic, realistically thick walls would be heavy and expensive. If you’ve ever visited a medieval castle, you’ll understand why: castle walls could be metres thick.

To solve this problem, Supreme Littleness Designs created a castle that includes a double wall. Sandwiched between the inner and outer walls is the staircase. Gamers can position models on the staircase by using removable panels in the inner and outer walls.

The upper floor was far more than just a residential area, of course. Medieval buildings often included living spaces that could be used for several different purposes. In the case of a noble family, this could include activities ranging from dining to judging court cases; public activities like these served as forms of display that helped to reinforce the family’s social role.

The interior space of the upper floor might have been divided into a number of smaller areas, but it’s harder to determine what these might have been. There are small holes in the walls of the upper floor of Byblos Castle, but we don’t know exactly what these were used for. They could have been attachment points for marble cladding on the walls, which would have been yet another visible sign of the family’s wealth. Ultimately, what this means is that gamers can decorate the upper floor of the castle however they choose — with hangings, wall paintings, or panelling — and still be in line with the evidence.

Most wargaming buildings with multiple stories feature simple removable roofs that allow gamers access to the upper floor. The problem with this when designing a keep is that the roof of a keep is in use during combat. Players are going to want to have archer models lining the battlements, making it tricky to remove the roof. In the Byblos Keep model, Michael solved this problem by making only the central part of the roof removable. Because the walls are realistically thick, players can leave troops on the battlements while still having access to the whole upper floor.

The result is a model that represents as many of the features of the castle as possible while also being accessible for wargaming.

Claymore report

We’re back from Claymore, where we ran our first participation game. Although we might be biased, we think it went really well! This was our first chance to actually play a game with the spectacular keep model from Supreme Littleness Designs.

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The table, almost completely set up and waiting for players to arrive. 

We got a great response — the game was completely full both times we ran it. Indeed, we had to team people up to fit a larger group in the second game, which was very satisfying!

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James runs the second game at a crowded table.

Both the project and the castle were much admired, and we also got the chance to take some more photos — so look out for a post on the keep’s second floor, coming soon!

We definitely learned a few things from the scenario we ran:

  • Lion Rampant seems like it was a good choice. No one who played had played it much, and most had never played or read it, but it was easy to get them started, although the difference between activation values and attack or defense values could sometimes be a little confusing.
  • Some of the random events were a little too random. We had wanted to make them unpredictable, but a small child turning on his captors and apparently punching a man to death might be beyond plausibility.
  • We thought quite a lot about how to use the interior of the keep, but in the end it didn’t happen. The archers made good use of the battlements, but the forces of the scenario were sufficiently well balanced that in both games the attack turned into a slugfest in the village square before anyone could even think of breaking into the keep.

Overall, the games went well, and it was great to meet and talk to lots of gamers and hear their enthusiasm for the project. We’ve got a lot to think about over the next few months!

To cap it all, we won a prize:

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Third place is not bad at all, given the high standard of games on display. We even got invited to put on the game at another wargames show — Hereward in Peterborough — although sadly we won’t be able to make it this year. Still, it’s really encouraging to see people responding well to the project.

In our next post, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at the keep itself, including the upper floor and the stairs.

Building the castle part 1: the gallery

At the centre of the Gaming a Crusader Castle project is the new crusader keep model from Supreme Littleness Designs. The creation of this model provides an interesting look at the challenges of turning historical and archaeological evidence into a model usable for gaming.

People often talk about the tension between historical accuracy and ease of play, but that presumes a starting point. In medieval history, the problem is often knowing what historical accuracy is. Byblos Castle, which we chose because it represented a common type of Crusader keep, demonstrates some of these challenges.

These images of Byblos Castle come from 1934 book Les Châteaux des Croisés en Terre Sainte (Castles of the Crusades in the Holy Land). As you can see, the standing remains of the keep include a cellar, a mostly-complete first level, and a partially-complete upper level. We also don’t have a lot of information about the internal layout of the levels. That doesn’t mean we have to guess, though; we can use our knowledge of other castles and our understanding of the social structure of medieval society to make some educated interpretations.

Level 1 of Byblos Castle shows a row of square holes running along the walls. These probably served as supports for some kind of construction, but we don’t have definitive proof what it was. Based on other examples in medieval castles, Gianluca concluded that these were probably supports for a gallery of some kind. If, as was typical, the upper floor was the residence of the castle’s owners, it would follow that the lower floor served as living quarters for servants and troops, as well as for storage.

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This photograph shows the gallery as Michael from Supreme Littleness implemented it. It’s a roomy space that could accommodate a pretty sizable staff or garrison. But even with the basic idea, there were still lots of decisions to make in the design. For instance, Michael had to choose where to put the staircase — would it run along the wall from the door up to the gallery, or would it be under the gallery? In the end, he chose to place the stairs at the rear as a security measure. Michael explains: “this was partly influenced by a visit to Edinburgh Castle that has a small mezzanine in the great hall – probably used as a minstrel gallery. There is no obvious way up to it at all!”

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Like all wargaming models, the keep does contain some concessions to playability. The stairs are wider, with more space between them than real stairs would have; this makes it possible to place models on individual bases up to 3mm thick on them.

Working to create a historically authentic model like this crusader keep means dealing with more than one of this kind of question. In the next Building the Castle installment, we’ll be talking about another authentic but technically challenging element: the keep’s internal staircase.

If you’re interested in learning more about crusader fortifications, here’s some further reading:

Kennedy Crusader Castles
Crusader Castles by Hugh Kennedy
Nicolle crusader castles
Crusader Castles in the Holy Land by David Nicolle

Nicolle’s book combines these two titles, which you can take a look at if you’re interested in just one part of the period:

Nicolle crusader castles 1097-1192
Crusader Castles in the Holy Land 1097-1192
Nicolle 1192-1302
Crusader Castles in the Holy Land 1192-1302

 

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