The other crusaders

One of the most important points of Steve Tibble’s recent book The Crusader Armies was that the contribution of non-western Christians to the politics and warfare of the crusading period is typically overlooked. Contemporary writers tended to either minimise their importance or take them for granted, but that shouldn’t be the case for modern historians — or gamers — trying to imagine the era.

This meant that when we began designing our scenario for Salute, we wanted to make sure that Christians other than Franks were represented in the game. In the scenario, we decided to include some Armenian characters.

There are some great Armenian models on the market, including parts of the excellent Perry Miniatures Crusades line. We cheated a little, however, by mixing together elements of plastic models from Gripping Beast, Conquest, and Fireforge to create models that represent the combination of Arab, Byzantine, and European styles that we might find among the Armenian nobility.

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Now, these are approximations, and there are a few things that probably don’t quite work — the pteruges are a little early — but they achieve one of the most important goals of figures in a miniature wargame: they make the differences between forces visible to the players. That sometimes involves some exaggeration of those differences.

The rest of our Armenian team is going to consist of figures that would fit in with our Muslim forces, just without distinctively Islamic iconography. Again, it’s a little bit of a shorthand, but it works well to convey the fact that everyday dress throughout the region would have a lot of similarities.

With only two weeks to go before Salute, we’re tweaking and refining our scenario, simplifying some areas and expanding others. Don’t forget to come by and see us at gaming table GG10 and stand TG06!

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Visit us at Salute 2019

Salute 2019 is right around the corner, and we’re getting ready to host a game there. The show is on April 6th at ExCel London; doors open at 10 AM. We’ll be running a Lion Rampant skirmish game set in the Byblos castle model at game table GG10 throughout the day; we’ll also be showing off the model and talking more about the project in general.

If you’d like to learn more about how gaming and historical research combine, or check out some other Supreme Littleness Designs products, just head across the aisle to stand TG06.

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At the moment, we’re busy getting everything ready, but we’re really looking forward to seeing some of you there!

Interior design in a crusader castle

As we mentioned in our earlier post, if we’re going to be focusing on a game inside the castle, we’ll need to think about how to decorate it. So far, the castle has had a fairly plain interior.

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The plain interior and some test furniture during a recent playtest. It’s all still work in progress, but we’re starting to get there.

Now we need to start making it more eye-catching for our games at Salute. This poses some interesting challenges. The truth is that we have very little information about what the interior of this space might have looked like. These structures have either been demolished or repurposed many times — like Byblos itself — and although there’s been some important research, they haven’t been subjected to the kind of intensive investigation that castles in western Europe have. Most writing on castles has focused on the strategic elements, with domestic spaces being secondary until relatively recently.

That doesn’t mean that we know absolutely nothing, though — we can engage in a little educated speculation. We know that the elites of the crusader states adopted a number of local fashions in terms of dress and lifestyle, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that the same might be true for homes. Of course, our sources for those interiors are a little patchy as well, but it gives us a starting point.

Gameplay also matters in deciding how to lay out our castle interior. We want to have enough furniture to suggest the busy life of a medieval castle, but not so much that it’s difficult to set up or keeps getting knocked over when players move their models. Because difficult terrain is important in Lion Rampant — some units are better at moving over it or fighting in it than others — we’ve decided to group furniture into vignettes so that the edges of the zones are clearly defined. This will also simplify transport and setup. You can see the unpainted prototypes created by Supreme Littleness Designs in the photo above.

For the rest of the decoration, we’ve decided to decorate the walls with tapestries and also add some ornaments based on the heraldry of the Embriaco family, the Genoese house that controlled Byblos castle for most of the 12th and 13th centuries. This should add some of the colour and luxury that European elites of the middle ages were so fond of while still leaving it easy to move figures around the model.

Of course, that’s only for the upper floor — the hall where the castle’s noble residents would have lived their lives. On the lower floors, we’ll have much more utilitarian set dressing.

In our next post, we’ll be talking about creating models for Armenian or Syrian characters in the game. These local Christians played a vital role in the crusades, but there are far fewer good models available for them than for Arab, Turkish, or Frankish characters.

Happy new year and new plans!

Updates have been slow over the holidays, but we’re back at work on the Gaming a Crusader Castle project. We’ve got a show appearance coming up this April as we bring the keep to Salute 2019. It seems like April’s a long way away, but two months is no time at all in wargaming years.

With that in mind, we’re working away on getting ready for the big show. This means that we’re playtesting a new version of the battle in the keep.

We tried this scenario earlier using Outremer, but our most recent version is based on Lion Rampant, using the rules for reduced-model units that appear in the fantasy version, Dragon Rampant.

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It looks a little rough without the proper castle interior and whatever scenery we could scrounge up, but the finished product should impress. We were initially a little uncertain about how the keep interior would cope with the increased number of models, but our playtests have been promising so far.

We are going to have to make some changes to the rules to account for the smaller playing area — for instance, units in the Rampant games exert a 3-inch zone of control, including over friendly units. That’s not going to be feasible for an environment like this one, so we’ll have to reduce it. We might also want to alter some unit types to represent the fact that the surprise attack is catching some of the participants without their heavy armour. And we’ll need a more elegant way of tracking casualties than a die stuck next to the models. Still, we’re pretty happy with Lion Rampant as a basis for a fast skirmish. Given the short timeframe we’ll be working in at wargames shows, this seems like a strong choice.

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The next thing we’re working on is decorating the interior of the castle.

One of the great things about the Byblos castle model is its roomy interior. But if we want to use the inside of the castle to fight battles, we should use it to give some impression of what this type of high-status residence would look like. In our next post, we’ll be discussing some of the sources and the types of things you might expect to find in a building like this one.

 

Further Outremer playtesting

Over time, we’ve been refining the proposed scenario for an Outremer skirmish game using the Byblos castle prototype. In our last post, we talked about an early playtest in Cambridge. This revealed that the system was working well for us, but suggested that we might want to vary the force composition and deployment in the scenario.

The scenario sees four retinues of troops, led by an Arab nobleman, a Turkish commander, a Frankish knight and an Armenian noble, all trying to either keep or rescue a hostage. For the second run, we added a secondary objective: an heirloom that had belonged to the castle’s original Frankish owners, which the knight and his followers were trying to retrieve. The new Arab lord of the castle, concerned about his Turkish guests, had hidden his treasure, including this heirloom, somewhere in the castle.

At the beginning of the scenario, the Armenian noble and his retinue have entered the castle under false pretences. Their goal is to pretend to negotiate for the hostage’s release while secretly opening an access point to let the Franks in. This led to a few turns of tense gameplay as the Armenians tried to pick their moment and the castle’s defenders searched for the heirloom. Everyone suspected the Armenians were up to something, but to attack a guest would be dishonourable.

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The negotiations are looking tense.

That uncertainty didn’t last long, though: the Armenians let in their Frankish allies and the battle on the lower floor began in earnest. When the alarm sounded, the guards in the upper floor pounced, attacking the members of the Armenian delegation there. One managed to escape by climbing out of the large window and clambering down the wall to get to the window on the lower level. Because the wall is so thick, the lower window arch is large enough to shelter in, and that’s what this survivor did, taking cover from enemy arrows.

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“What’s taking them so long?” Frankish attackers creep up to the main entrance.

Meanwhile, the Frankish and Armenian raiders overcame the defenders on the ground floor and mezzanine and tried an assault on the stairs.

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Attackers flood into the ground floor.
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More try to make their way up the stairs.

It didn’t go so well.

The narrow stairway proved too easy for the defenders to hold; attackers fell one by one, leaving the stairs a carpet of bodies. Eventually we ruled that the area had to be treated as difficult ground, which made an assault even less likely. Eventually, the fight settled into a bloody stalemate: the attackers had control over the lower levels and were able to retrieve their heirloom, but they were unable to mount a successful attack on the upper floor, leaving the hostage firmly in the hands of the defenders.

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A familiar sight on the stairs.

What’s interesting about this is that it resembles an incident we’ve already mentioned from the works of historian William of Tyre: an assault on a castle in Gaza in 1170 that ended with the defenders holding out on the upper floor while the attackers controlled the ground floor. Although that meant the defenders were cut off from their water supply, the possibility of a relief force arriving meant that the attackers were forced to withdraw. This isn’t a foregone conclusion in this scenario — we have had previous playtests where the attackers were able to capture the upper floor  with heavily-armoured troops before the defenders could get organised — but it is a feature of the castle’s design. The narrow stairs and limited number of entrances were a result of both architectural and strategic necessity; in an emergency, a single choke point was easier to defend with a small number of troops.

Obviously, producing a result that has occurred in history is very gratifying, but there are still a few things that we can adjust about the scenario. We’re considering adding some more advantages to the attackers to balance things out a little, since at present it seems like the defenders have a positional advantage. We also want to create some kind of system for searching the castle and opening its access points to add a little tension to the opening moments.

In any one-shot wargame, players tend to be cavalier with the lives of their troops in ways that real commanders usually aren’t. One way we might try to reward a little more tactical caution would be to introduce an additional victory condition for being the player with the most surviving figures at the end of the game. These are the things we’re considering as we refine the scenario for the new year.

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.

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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