Thursday, September 21, 2017

Edington, May 878 A.D. (Part two - The Game)

A Hail Caesar game set in the Dark Ages.

Saxons charge the heights

A battle between Saxon and Viking shield walls was documented as a brutally prolonged fight which could take an exceedingly long time for one side to give way. Meanwhile, men were gouged and maimed between the opposing shields in a bloody manner. In short, there was nothing very subtle or quick about shield wall combat. Two sides literally pounded, pushed, and butted up against each other until one side blinked. Our game was no different. With a couple of house rules added, Hail Caesar proved to be an excellent rules set for simulating Dark Ages combat.

The scenario, special rules, and orders of battle were detailed in part one of this post. You can find it here at:

Deployment was relatively simple. The Vikings under Guthrum positioned themselves upon the heights with a wooded area anchoring the Danish left and the steepest part of the heights protecting the right flank (from mounted cavalry at least). The Saxons lined up directly opposite the Danish positions. 

View of the entire battlefield, Danes at the top

Opposing troops line up against each other

Alfred's general battle plan was to advance and attack both flanks and deliver the coup de grace with the center division. Guthrum's goal was to simply repulse the Saxons at every point and then pursue down the hill and beyond. On turn 1, the Saxons slowly advanced across the entire line. The only action saw the Saxon bowmen came under long range fire from Danish skirmishers hiding in the woods; the fire was ineffective at this long range. 

As the Saxons continued to advance, the front line of the Vikings all formed shield wall. Skirmishers on both flanks traded bow fire with little effect. 

On turn three, the front line units in the Saxon left and center divisions form shield walls, while the Saxon right blunders forward in confusion. Danish bowmen on both flanks begin to hit their mark as the Saxon skirmishers begin to take casualties. Turn four sees the Saxons beginning to advance up the heights while javelins fly. Casualties across the line are beginning to appear. One Saxon unit in the center is forced to retire from the missile casualties.

The Saxon center and left closes against the Danish shield walls, while the Saxon right lags just a bit

Another view of the closing of the ranks

An exchange of javelins causes a center unit of Saxons to retire

Turn 5 really saw the action as the Saxons from Hampshire under Dunstan charged up the hill and, as the shield walls clashed, both of the front line Danish units broke immediately and began running for the cover of the fort to the rear. This movement disordered and pushed back the supporting units in this sector. The entire left flank of Oscatel's Danes was in serious trouble from the start. 

The Danish left flank is beginning to crumble in the face of the large Saxon shield walls

The Saxon center and left divisions, seeing the Vikings break on their right flank, exchanged javelins again and then launched their slow, powerful, shield walls up the hill and into the awaiting Vikings. Unlike Oscatel's division, these Danish warriors did not budge and the combat ground into a swirling maelstrom of blood and bone. 

The action across the entire line is furious and brutal

By turn six, the results across the line are mixed. At some points, the Vikings were pushed backwards. At others, the Saxons were forced to retire. Instead of a continuous line of shield wall combat, the combat begins to fragment into isolated fights. Casualties on both sides were mounting and the exhaustion of the warriors was becoming very evident. 

The action begins to fragment into combat between individual units and their supports

Furious combat on the Danish right

By turn seven, the Viking left flank is in serious trouble and just barely holding on, pursued by the Saxon warriors. In this sector, the beleaguered Danish defenders did manage to break one Saxon unit. In the center and Viking right flank, the combats were winding down into grinding matches. The warriors were becoming exhausted. And just like that, the centermost Viking unit (with Guthrum's raven banner no less) broke and ran. 

The Danes begin to break in the center!  The raven banner is retiring !

The Saxons are pushing the Danes into the fortress, while Guthrum's Vikings in the center begin to bend

Turn 8 sees a flurry of action. Oscatel's division completely breaks as the Saxon mounted thegns begin to pursue (although the remaining shield wall stops the cavalry, not without losses though). Both Alfred and Guthrum sense that this is the pivotal point in the battle. Alfred leads a charge up the hill towards Anwend's division on the right and breaks two Danish units immediately. Guthrum attaches himself to the rearmost support unit in the center and launches a counterattack that throws  Orthun's Wiltshire fyrd back in the center. 

Turn 9 sees Guthrum continuing to countercharge, breaking another Saxon unit and forcing back another, but alas, the Viking chief was surrounded by 4 Saxons and speared. Guthrum died a Viking's death as he took out two of the opposing warriors on his way to Valhalla. 

Upon seeing their chief slain, panic begins to overtake the remaining Danes and the entire army begins to run. The game is over. The pagans were defeated and the exhausted Saxons were surveying the blood-red field in triumph. 

King Alfred the Great stands victorious on the field at Edington

Hail Caesar proved to simulate Dark Age warfare well. The shield walls typically held for several turns until finally one of the exhausted units broke. All across the line, it was critically important to use support units wisely and attach leaders for extra attacks when the situation called for it. As per the victory conditions, Guthrum's death counted as a broken division, and with the left flank division broken, the Saxons were victorious. The fight was back and forth for many turns, but by turn seven, it was evident that the Saxons were winning. Guthrum's counterattack put some doubt into that, but his death was the final blow for the Danes. 

Edington, May 878 A.D. (Part one - The Scenario)

A Hail Caesar scenario.

The invasion of the British isles by the Danes and Norwegians is a particular area of interest for me.  There's something about Viking warriors clashing with the Anglo-Saxons, Irish, and Scots that inspire vivid images of a particularly brutal period of history. The emergence of a strong Saxon leader in Alfred, who fought against the Danes and defeated them, is also an inspirational tale of courage and perseverance against a determined foe. The Battle of Edington occurred between the 6th and 12th of May, 878, and was one of the most critical battles of  early English civilization.

Saxons form up and prepare to advance against the Danes lining the ridge 

As a side note, I was exposed to this period through Bernard Cornwell's outstanding series "The Last Kingdom," which is also featured as a dramatic TV series. The Battle of Edington is featured in the series as the important historical event that it, in reality, was.

Still from "The Last Kingdom" which portrays the clash of shield walls at Edington

The Battle of Edington


The first Viking raid has typically been documented as the attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793. The Danes continued to ravage the coasts and raid throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms for many years thereafter. In the year 865 or 866, there was a dramatic escalation; the Great Heathen Army under the command of Ubba, Ivar the Boneless, and Halfdan Ragnarsson  began a systematic conquest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. East Anglia, Deira, and Mercia all fell, accompanied by  regular attacks into the Kingdom of Wessex. The Danes were almost always victorious over the Saxons during this period (with a notable exception at Ash Down in 871). By 875, the Great Heathen Army had largely broken apart, with Halfdan Ragnarsson departing for his lands in Northumbria and further north. The remnant of the Great Heathen Army was then led by a powerful Danish warlord, Guthrum, who promptly conquered East Anglia and began to attack Wessex.

Guthrum attacked Chippenham in Wessex after "Twelfth Night" and almost captured a vacationing Alfred, who fled into the marshes of Athelney and evaded detection by the Danes. The legend of Alfred burning cakes and being castigated by a local maid was born in these marshes. At this time, things looked bleak for the Saxons, with the Danes seemingly in control of Wessex. Alfred was a fugitive who commanded a non-existent army.

After hiding in the marshes during the winter months, Alfred was ready to go on the offensive in the spring, but had to gather a large enough force to counter Guthrum. Calling out the "fyrds" of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire to concentrate at Egbert's Stone and march, Alfred gambled for the fate of Wessex; it was doubtful that he could muster enough warriors in these dark times. Heroically, his men did not disappoint and mustered as a potent force.  Guthrum and the Danes still occupied Chippenham and learned of Alfred's advance, quickly departing in order to meet the Saxons. Attempting to follow the tried-and-true Dane strategy of demanding tribute in return for leaving Wessex, Guthrum miscalculated the stubborness of Alfred this time. There would be no payoff in silver this time.

Although the exact location is not known (debated vigorously) the forces met at a place called Ethandun (Edington). The Danes occupied the high ground and the advantage. The scene was set for one of the most important battles of the Viking wars.

The Battle

Details of the battle are sketchy, but it is assumed that the Danes occupied the high ground with a fortified structure to fall back on if necessary. Thus, King Alfred was forced to not only assault uphill, but supposedly against a superior force. After a long and brutal struggle between the opposing shield walls, the Saxons eventually prevailed and the Vikings fled in panic, Guthrum losing about a third of his army in the process. The Danes were forced back into Chippenham and, after a couple of weeks of starvation, sued for peace. Guthrum was baptized as a Christian and forced to depart Wessex with his warriors. He settled in as king of East Anglia until his death in 890 A.D. King Alfred then proceeded to rebuild and refortify Wessex on his way to forming what would eventually be known as the Kingdom of England. Although Alfred had been fighting the Danes as a warrior-king for years, the victory at Edington would solidify his reputation as "Alfred the Great."

A purported location of the battle at Bratton Park, with the Danes in blue holding the high ground and the Saxons in red fighting uphill. 

In retrospect, Edington was a critical battle for the Saxons. A defeat would probably have shattered  Alfred's reputation and forced the Saxons to allow the Danes control of the majority of Wessex. The end result was that the battle established Alfred as "the Great" and provided for an extended period of peace for the Saxon kingdom. A defeat would have also guaranteed Alfred's placement in the "dustbin of history" as just another ineffective Saxon leader in the age of the Vikings.

The Scenario

The terrain was relatively simple. The ground was mostly open with prominent heights upon which the Vikings were deployed. Wooded areas protected the Danish left flank and a very steep cliff would anchor the Viking right. A fortified village lay to the rear of the Danish position. The Saxons would deploy facing these heights. The steep cliff on the extreme Viking right flank will block cavalry movement. 

Very little is known of the orders of battle. The three Viking commanders were Guthrum, Oscatel, and Anwend. On the Saxon side, the commanders were unknown, but the fyrds were gathered from three counties: Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. The armies were built along guidelines in the Hail Caesar Army Lists for Late Antiquity to Early Medieval Periods. Hail Caesar ratings for each unit are detailed below: 

The Saxons

King Alfred     Command Rating: 9    Number of added attacks: up to 3
Left Division   Aethelbricht  (Somerset)     Command Rating: 8     Number of added attacks: 1

4 units of heavy infantry (standard) Thegns    Clash/Sustained attack 7,  Short range 3,    Morale Save  4+,   Stamina 6

1 unit of bowmen / skirmishers (small)     Clash/Sustained attack 2, Long/Short range 2, Morale Save 0, Stamina 4   
Center Division  Berthun  (Wiltshire) Command Rating: 8   Number of added attacks: 1

3 units of heavy infantry (large) Mixed Thegns/Ceorls    Clash/Sustained attack 9/8, Short range 4, Morale Save 4+/5+, Stamina 8

1 unit of skirmishers with javelins (small)    Clash/Sustained attack 3/2, Short range 2, Morale Save 0, Stamina 4
Right Division  Dunstan (Hampshire)      Command Rating: 8      Number of added attacks: 1

2 units of heavy infantry (large) Mixed Thegns/Ceorls    Clash/Sustained attack 9/8, Short range 4, Morale Save 4+/5+, Stamina 8

1 unit of bowmen/skirmishers (small)    Clash/Sustained attack 2, Long/Short range 2, Morale Save 0, Stamina 4

1 unit of Mounted Thegns (small)      Clash/Sustained attack 6/3, Short range 2, Morale Save 5+, Stamina 4

Special Rules for the Saxons: 

- Alfred is granted a reroll each turn for any unit commanded by his subordinates. He is also allowed up to 3 extra attack dice if attached to a unit in melee. But if Alfred is killed in the melee, his loss will count as a complete division lost for victory purposes. 

- I have modified the Shield Wall rule (Close ranks) from Hail Caesar. Troops in this period used Shield Walls as the primary tactic in melee. Shield Wall has to be formed as a formation change in movement and only has a maximum of one move. Also, there is no penalty for hits for a unit in Shield Wall, but there is a +1 bonus for Morale Saves. So, in summary, Shield Wall is a powerful formation that all heavy/medium infantry may utilize but it is not very mobile.

- The mixed Thegn/Ceorl units is a reflection of the Saxon "fyrd," which mobilized not only warriors, but simple peasants and farmers. The units have the advantage of being large in size, but once the unit is shaken for the first time, the unit reverts to the Ceorl ratings for Attack and Morale Saves. 

The Vikings

Left Division   Oscatel    Command Rating:  8    Number of added attacks:  1

4 units of heavy infantry Hirdmen (standard)   Clash/Sustained attack 7, Short range 3, Morale Save 4+, Stamina 6

1 unit of Bowmen/Skirmishers (small)     Clash/Sustained attack 3, Long/Short range 2, Morale Save 6+, Stamina 4

1 unit of Thrall skirmishers (small)     Clash/Sustained attack 3/2, Short range 2, Morale Save 0, Stamina 4
Central Division  Guthrum   Command Rating: 8   Number of added attacks: 2 

4 units heavy infantry Hirdmen (standard)   Clash/Sustained attack 7, Short range 3, Morale Save 4+, Stamina 6

1 unit of Bowmen/Skirmishers (small)   Clash/Sustained attack  3, Long/Short range  2, Morale Save 6+, Stamina 4
Right Division  Anwend   Command Rating: 8   Number of added attacks: 1

4 units of heavy infantry Hirdmen (standard)   Clash/Sustained attack 7, Short range 3, Morale Save 4+, Stamina 6

1 unit of Bowmen/Skirmishers (small)    Clash/Sustained attack  3, Long/Short range 2, Morale Save 6+, Stamina  4

Special Rules for the Vikings: 

- All heavy infantry Hirdmen are considered Tough Fighters and may roll 1 missed melee hit every turn.

- Guthrum  is the overall Danish commander, but he controls his own division as well. He does not have a re-roll capability like Alfred. He does have up to 2 additional attacks, but if killed, his loss counts as an entire broken division for victory purposes. 

- All Bondi bowmen/skirmishers are considered Marauders and may ignore distance penalties for command rolls. Thrall skirmishers are not considered Marauders.

I have modified the Shield Wall rule (Close ranks) from Hail Caesar. Troops in this period used Shield Walls as the primary tactic in melee. Shield Wall has to be formed as a formation change in movement and only has a maximum of one move. Also, there is no penalty for hits for a unit in Shield Wall, but there is a +1 bonus for Morale Saves. So, in summary, Shield Wall is a powerful formation that all heavy/medium infantry may utilize but it is not very mobile.

Victory Conditions: The standard victory conditions apply from the Hail Caesar rules.  

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Sea Wolves: A History Of The Vikings

I've always been interested in Viking lore, from the invasion of England to the exploration of North America.  There is something mystical about the reputation of the bloodthirsty Norsemen, with their raven banners and dragon-prowed longboats.

Recently, I have been building some Viking and Anglo-Saxon forces for Hail Caesar battles.  Although my interest has been deep concerning the Viking age, I realized that I needed to expand my knowledge past my rudimentary ideas about what really happened in the Dark Ages.

I ordered Lars Brownworth's book The Sea Wolves: A History Of The Vikings and read it cover to cover quickly.  The writing is easy to follow and keeps the reader engaged throughout. As a concise, yet thorough, history of the entire Viking age, I highly recommend it to all dark age history buffs.

Although the book doesn't go into great detail on battle tactics and only has basic information about some of the larger battles in England or continental Europe, it excels as a broad overview of the two and a half centuries that encompass the Viking age.

First off, the author explains that the term "Viking" is actually a word for "raider" and goes on to detail the different regions that made up the Scandinavian world: namely the modern-day countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Although the brutality of the Norse exploits are described in a graphic manner, the author always keeps the overall accomplishment of the impact of the Viking age at the forefront.

The book is organized by regions of Viking influence and flows in a generally chronological manner and  opens with a description of the raids of Lindisfarne and the Irish monastery at Iona. After a general description of Norse culture and the geographic areas of Scandinavia in which the Vikings are described as adventurous sea-wanderers, the text shifts to the raids and campaigns in continental Europe and the plundering and ultimate breakup of Charlemagne's Frankish empire.

Several key characters from legend are discussed in great detail, especially Ragnar Lothbrok and Thorgils "the Devil." The campaigns in England are covered in chronological detail including the conquering of Northumbria and East Anglia. The rise and steadfastness of Alfred the Great's Kingdom of Wessex is covered as well. The major battles of this era are covered in general, but not in great detail.

The Viking adventure in Ireland is also covered nicely, and this is a section that I found especially enlightening. When one thinks of the Vikings, Anglo-Saxon England comes to the forefront, yet the Norwegian and Danish campaigns in Ireland and western Scotland are equally as exciting.

The book shifts at this point to discuss the exploration of the Norsemen in the discoveries of Iceland, Greenland, and Leif Erikson's landing in North America. This was an interesting focus away from the bloodthirsty raids that everyone thinks of and highlights the Norse impact on world history.

The Viking adventures in the Slavic lands and what is now modern-day Russia is discussed in a great amount of detail, demonstrating the adventures of primarily Swedish Norsemen in this area of the world. The impact of the opposing empire of Byzantium and the eventual creation of the Varangian Guard is also discussed. Many ideas were brought back to Scandinavia from the Byzantine Empire and served to begin the process of modernizing the Norse world.

The evolution of paganism to Christianity is covered throughout the book. The impact of the Anglo-Saxon and Byzantine cultures were especially important to the hesitant, but ultimately successful, conversion of the Norse beliefs in the Christian God. It's important to note that there were still holdouts to the end and continued embrace of the worship and cultural impact of Odin, Thor, and the rest of the pagan Norse gods.  

Sea Wolves winds down with a discussion of the struggles and evolution of Scandinavian culture at home, highlighting real upheaval and legendary personalities especially in Norway and Denmark.  

As the story winds down, the battle of Stamford Bridge is acknowledged as the sunset of what is known as the Viking Age. The quest for the English crown by Harald Hardrada is described in great detail and Harald's death is heralded as a great Viking death and ultimate entry into Valhalla.

The impact of the Vikings that helped to shape the modern world is huge, although this era of history occurred over a thousand years ago. The ultimate creation of a united England, the formation of Russia, and the discovery of the New World, were but a few of the major consequences of that Norse sea-lust. Lars Brownworth has written an excellent general history of the entire Viking age that is a great starting point for any historian interested in this time period.

As a great beginning to the journey of researching the Dark Ages, this book is outstanding.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Historicon 2017 Recap in Fredericksburg, Virginia

Historicon 2017 is now in the books and, unfortunately for me, was the last miniature gaming convention held in historic Fredericksburg (at least for the time being). Held from July 13th-17th, the temperatures were high, the restaurants and hotels were great, and I had a blast at the convention center.

One of the many impressive games during Historicon 2017

My son accompanied me and we were determined to play in more games and buy more "toys" this year, knowing it was our last Historicon for awhile (we are not planning on making the trek next year to Lancaster, Pennsylvania).

I'm not privy to the convention statistics, but it seemed that attendance was very high throughout the week. The parking lot was almost always full and the gaming rooms were packed. On the negative front,  it seemed that the vendors, for the most part, were experiencing a decrease in total sales. Again, I'm not sure of the accuracy of that statement, but heard several merchants lamenting about the lack of traffic in the vendor hall.

As for gaming, I was able to play in a Chain of Command game (great), an Et Sans Resultat demonstration game (great), a SAGA multi-player game (awesome), and learned how to play the Triumph ancient rules  (Very Good). My son played his hand at Frostgrave, played a critical part in the Battle of Bouvines, more SAGA, and was my opponent in Triumph. I enjoyed all of the games, but James McWilliams' SAGA game was my favorite part of the convention. James, again, proved to be the consummate game master, ensuring that everyone not only had a great time, but taught the details of SAGA in a way that made all of us believers in the system.

I particularly enjoyed chatting about game mechanics with David of Et Sans Resultat, and admired the huge amount of work and original ideas that he put into this relatively new Napoleonic rules system.

The quality of the games and terrain seemed excellent. My pick for "best terrain" was Bill Johnson's Age of Piracy game in Exhibit Hall A. It was obvious that the host went way "over the top" in putting on an impressively beautiful game.

Incredible Terrain !

So here are some of the highlights of Historicon 2017.....what a great show !