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.

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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

 

Help us plan a scenario, part 3: playtest!

August 2018 will see Gaming a Crusader Castle’s first appearance at a wargames show. We’re going to be hosting a game at Claymore 2018, using the scenario we’ve been developing for Osprey Games’ Lion Rampant.

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Jolanda Contarini and her retainers prepare to defend the village.

Last week, we had an opportunity to playtest the scenario at Heffers Books in Cambridge. Lion Rampant creator Daniel Mersey was in attendance and was able to offer some advice on scenario development, which was very welcome.

The previous week was spent making terrain and painting the last of the models; it was a bit of a sprint, but in the end we got it all done (This isn’t the terrain we’ll be using at Claymore itself, where we’ll have the splendid new keep from Supreme Littleness Designs to show off).

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Panicked servants try to hide plunder from the raiders.

Scenario-wise, we learned some lessons, but it seems like the fundamental idea of the scenario itself is sound. We wanted to communicate several key ideas in play:

  • Castles weren’t just military or residential structures, but places of refuge in times of emergency for the civilian population.
  • Small-scale raiding was a significant problem for local landowners.
  • Groups nominally on the same side still competed politically, socially, and even militarily.
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Jolanda’s archers take cover as enemies approach.

The scenario, which consists of two sides of two players each, fulfilled these roles well. Within the sides, each player had objectives that conflicted with those of their partner, meaning that it wasn’t as simple as a two-on-two battle, and the objectives of capturing loot and prisoners meant that the tactics were more complicated than just charging in.

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Ghazi volunteers make their way up a flank.

There were a few things we’ll want to change — we’re working on simplifying the briefings and making the way objectives work more consistent, for instance, and we probably overdid it with the terrain — but we’re looking forward to seeing you at Claymore. We’ll be in the Atrium Hall at Table A1, right next to the Supreme Littleness booth. If you’re interested in playing the final version of the game, you can register your interest at this Doodle poll!

 

Help us plan a scenario, part 2: historical inspiration

In an earlier post, we talked about choosing a set of rules for our first game. We’ve spoken to a lot of people, here, on Google+, on wargaming forums and on our Facebook page, and the overall response seemed to be that people were recommending Osprey Games’ Lion Rampant for the kind of mid-sized scenario we were aiming to start with. This is good news for us, because we’re already reasonably familiar with the rules, cutting down on the preparation work for our playtest.

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The defenders of Lodi Vecchio from the 2017 game.

Now that we know what rules we’ll be using, it’s time to answer the next question: what is our scenario going to be about? One of the aims of this project is to use wargaming to present the history of the Crusades, so we want to be sure that we don’t just have two sides ranked up and fighting on a rectangular battlefield. We want something that represents the distinctive nature of the period — and, of course, something that involves the castle.

When you’re looking for inspiration for a historical scenario, the best place to start looking is, of course, the primary sources. We’ll be doing an upcoming post about some of the available sources, but for now here are some of the incidents we considered when creating our scenario:

  • In 1170, an attack on the Frankish castle at Darum (Dair al-Balah, near Gaza) was almost successful: the Saracens broke their way into the tower, but the defenders mounted a spirited defense of the upper floor and held them off until reinforcements arrived and lifted the siege.
  • In 1124, the inhabitants of Ascalon raided the Frankish-controlled town of Mahumaria, capturing it. However, some of the inhabitants were able to retreat into the castle and were saved.
  • In 1182, the village of Buria was surrounded by a Turkish force. The villagers retreated into the castle, but the attackers undermined it within just four hours(!), forcing the defenders to surrender.

Most of these incidents come from the history written by the 12th-century archbishop William of Tyre, but wouldn’t be out of place in a 13th-century setting. They seem like good inspiration for a mid-sized scenario: relatively short engagements with a focus on raiding and protecting or capturing civilians. An emphasis on plunder gives us something for the attacking side to do other than simply fight, and something for the defenders to do other than simply wait behind their walls.

The basic structure for the scenario therefore looks like it’s going to be an attack on the settlement near a small keep. The defenders will need to hold the attackers off and get civilians and valuables into the tower while the attackers try to snap up as much of value as they can before reinforcements arrive. In keeping with the examples here, we’ll have Muslim forces on the attack and the Franks as the defenders.

The scenario is therefore going to feature a Muslim raiding party attacking a keep and its village while most of the defenders are away. As a small group of defenders try to get the civilians and valuables in the town to safety, the remaining defenders must hurry back to stop the raid.

We’ve thrown together some force lists and roughed out a map of a possible board setup; now we just have to source and paint a few figures for some of the characters in our scenario and write up briefings for the commanders. We’ll upload these to the blog as soon as they’re complete, so watch this space. If you want to give the scenario a go yourself and tell us what you think of it, including any improvements you can suggest, we’d be grateful!

New recommend reading page!

Part of the Gaming a Crusader Castle project is designing not only the castle itself but also scenarios for historical wargaming. We’d like these scenarios to illustrate the various roles castles played in the warfare of the crusading period.

In order to do that, we’re going to be basing our scenarios on a range of accounts from primary sources, combined with the best and most relevant scholarship on the topic. If you’re interested in doing some of your own reading on the Crusades, we’ve started a recommended reading page with links to some works we think could be helpful.

Right now, the recommended reading page has some introductory works on the history of the Crusades as well as some overviews of the military history of the period. As the project progresses, we’ll be updating it with translations of primary sources and works on more specific subjects, from the role of the Byzantine Empire in the Crusades to castles, specific campaigns, selected sections of the period, and more.

If you have a favourite work on the Crusades to recommend, why not let us know in the comments?

Help us plan a scenario!

Or: “Looking at Games with Gianluca and James.”

As we get started on developing the gaming side of the project, we want to ask our readers and the wargaming community at large for their advice.

Our first event, Claymore, is coming up in August, and we want to have a game ready for it. A lot of factors come into play: what forces do we have painted? What terrain do we have available? How much room will there be, and how much time? How many players are we aiming for?

For Claymore, we’re aiming for a game that should be playable in a pretty short amount of time, or that can be divided into phases, so that playing in it doesn’t mean committing to spending all day doing so. Two “sides” are fine, although it might be nice to split those up into sub-commands to allow more players.

We’re fortunate in that we have a pretty good selection of both Frankish and Islamic forces already painted, although we may have to rebase some of them and add a few models called for by the scenario. And with a terrain maker as partner, we’re probably all right for terrain — our goal is to suggest a small settlement near the keep itself.

Defender
We’ll be reusing some of the models from the 2017 Lodi Vecchio game.

Logistics and setup time, though, suggest a pretty small model count. We want something that has enough figures to look visually interesting, but not so many that we have to spend ages setting them up. Dozens per side, maybe, but not hundreds.

With that in mind, we sat down and looked at the big pile of books we’d acquired!

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There are a lot of them, and just going through them and comparing them was an interesting exercise. Obviously we haven’t had time to try them all out, but the list so far includes:

Clash of Empires (with its expansion, Kingdom of Heaven): intended for larger battles, it seems. We might look into this for later games, though!

Deus Vult: explicitly intended for the crusades, which is nice. Has options for smaller games, although it seems mostly focused on larger ones.

Impetvs: again, mainly focused on larger battles. It seems popular, though. Like Deus Vult, we might consider it for next year’s larger games.

Kings of War Historical: it only makes sense that Mantic’s Warhammer challenger/replacement would spawn a historical game just like Warhammer did. Has a reputation for simplicity, and if a lot of players are familiar with it that could help make participation games easier.

L’Art de la Guerre: looks like a game designed for big battles using multi-based figures in units. We do have quite a lot of multi-based cavalry, so games like this one that use that system are appealing — rebasing them all might be a lot of work.

Lion Rampant: last year’s Lodi Vecchio game used this system, and it seemed to work nicely for a medium-sized battle. It’s designed for armies that are quite similar to one another, but with a little modification (maybe by importing some of the special rules from Dragon Rampant), that could be fixed — and anyway, how much complexity do we want in a one-off game? That’s not a rhetorical question.

Lords and Servants: a skirmish game, apparently designed for play by more than two players, which is always handy. We haven’t had much chance to look at it in detail yet, though.

Outremer: Faith and Blood: a warband skirmish game with lots of detail for individual models. Probably not right for a medium-sized game, but we have toyed with the idea of having a big battle simultaneous with an individual-scale game as one of our later projects.

SAGA: a SAGA warband is a pretty good size for the game we plan to run, and the game’s distinctive battle boards make armies characterful. On the other hand, they might result in too much extra paraphernalia on the table.

Soldiers of God: our Saracens are already based for this game, which is handy. It also explicitly addresses both raids and sieges, which we’re interested in. We don’t have experience with it, though, so that’s all we know.

Swordpoint: with sides in the hundreds, this game is probably too big for our early effort, but could still be worth looking at for a later game.

Whew! That’s a lot of games. Since we don’t have a lot of experience with most of them, we’re looking for recommendations. If you were planning to run convention games partly intended to show off a castle and partly intended to get people excited about the history of the crusades, which one would you choose?

Why Byblos Keep?

When you want to create a piece of terrain based on a historical building, the first thing you need to do is choose the building you start with. For this project, Gianluca and Michael chose the keep of the 12th-century Byblos Castle or Gibelet. With all the crusader castles in the middle east to choose from, why start with this one?

med_The-Crusader-Castle-Byblos-Jbeil-Lebanon-1418053803485

There are a few factors that go into selecting a location. We want a location that’s typical of the period and region, that offers good possibilities for gaming, and that can be expanded. It’s also nice if the site provides a good starting point for discussion of the period and if it’s closely related to Gianluca’s current specific project, which studies the engagement of the  Italian city republics in the crusades. Lastly, we need a site for which we have at least a reasonable amount of information.

Taking all these criteria into consideration, Byblos is the ideal place to start a crusading castle project. The original Byblos castle served as the citadel of the city of Byblos — not an uncommon arrangement in the urbanised Levant. However, its design is typical of castles all across the Holy Land, whether urban or otherwise.Moreover, it was owned by the Genoese Embriaco family, as a fief from the Cathedral of Genoa, which received Byblos as a reward for that city’s contribution to the First Crusade and its aftermath.

Byblos castle also offers great possibilities for optional expansion. The starting point of this project is the keep itself, a fortified tower that formed the heart of the castle. At Byblos, this structure was surrounded by an outer curtain wall, which we hope will be the next stage of the model project. However, if you don’t want to add an outer wall to your castle, you don’t have to: many of the crusader castles of this era consist of a keep by itself. There were dozens of crusader keeps in the Holy Land which had no outer curtain walls or very rudimentary ones. Keeps that were very similar to that of Byblos can be found in other crusader castles as well. Chastel Rouge and Chastel Blanc, among others, are good examples of this type. The Byblos keep design therefore offers versatility in table and scenario design.

The history of Byblos is a fascinating one, revealing some of the complexity behind our stereotypes of the crusading period. We’ll go into more detail in future posts, but the Embriaco family, holders of the castle during its heyday, are not at all what you’d expect. Finally, we have reasonably good sources about the castle’s history. There are some standing remains, and there are published reports that date to a period when more of the castle was intact (about which we’ll have another article coming soon). In addition, we have a good range of textual sources that give us some insight into the castle’s history.

So these are the factors that went into choosing our starting site. Of course, we don’t intend to use the castle model as Byblos on the wargames table, at least not every time: our first scenario is likely to have a more modest setting. More about that will be coming soon!

Welcome to Gaming a Crusader Castle

Welcome to Gaming a Crusader Castle, a project that combines historical research, wargame terrain creation and scenario design. Over the next year, we’ll be posting articles about wargaming in the Crusades, progress reports on the creation of an ambitious terrain project, scenarios you can use in your own medieval wargames and more.

Creating a Crusader castle

The heart of the Gaming a Crusader Castle project is the castle itself: a model of a Crusader keep created by Supreme Littleness Designs. Through the South East Scotland Wargames Club, Michael Scott of Supreme Littleness met Dr Gianluca Raccagni, who was already working on a project related to wargaming and the Crusades.

Through the offices of Interface Knowledge Connection and Scottish Funding Council, Luca (for short) started to consult with Michael on a new project: a 28mm scale model for wargaming, based on the castles built by crusading forces in the Levant.

The castle model is based on Byblos Castle. Built in the 12th century, this castle stood in one form or another throughout the crusades. It was the home of a branch of the powerful Genoese Embriaco family, of whom more in a later post, and is a fantastic example of the distinctive type of fortification built in the middle east by Europeans.

Byblos

What’s next

Gaming a Crusader Castle will be at a series of wargames shows in the UK throughout the year, starting with Claymore 2018 in August. We hope to have the castle model itself to show off at Claymore, and we’ll be running participation games showing off the castle and some of the gaming potential of the period.

The castle model will start with the keep, but look out for future expansions to increase it to full size.

Over the coming months on the blog, we’ll be posting scenarios and articles based on the project’s work. We’ll cover everything from pitched battles to skirmishes, along with profiles of significant characters in the castle’s history.

Knights

Gaming and history

Gaming a Crusader Castle is all about finding ways that historical research can contribute to wargaming, both for wargame creators and for gamers. But we’re also looking for the things wargaming has to offer academics, both as a teaching tool and as a way to learn how people use and engage with history. This means we’re always looking for new collaborations: gaming events, roundtables, seminars, scenarios and things we haven’t thought of yet. If you’re interested in contributing, just click on the Contact link in the menu above.

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