1066 And All That Act 1: A Table-Top Census12 Oct 2016 1
October 14th marks the 950th anniversary of the battle of Hastings, a critical moment in British history (if not THE critical moment), so it’s a great time to check out cardboard counters and toy soldiers in chainmail and buckler. Admittedly, from a wargaming perspective the battle is really small. The English fielded between 5 and 13 thousand warriors, mostly the Fyrd or peasant levy, supported by the king’s bodyguard known as the Huscarl, a smattering of archers and not a horse to be found. Indeed, the only difference between the Fyrd and Huscarl was the quality and quantity of armor worn. The Normans landed between 5 and 12 thousand men, about half infantry, the other half split between heavy cavalry with lances, and bowmen or crossbowmen. We have the names of about 20 English and 35 Norman nobles who fought at the battle, but other than the three large “divisions” (or mobs; King William the center, Alan the Red on the left, William Fitsosborne and Count Eustace II the right) of the Normans, who commanded what is problematic. Tactics had not really progressed past Viking 101 at this time, to the extent that Norman cavalry was not yet couching their lances
Then there is the battlefield itself. Overall the turf is pretty nondescript, or at least it would be if anyone knew exactly where the battle was fought. Battle Abbey near the town of East Sussex has long been accepted as the place of battle, just near the Senlac Stream, but this pronouncement has always been disputed. As late as December 2013 the UK Telegraph reported on not less than three other sites that may have been the site of the battle, to include Caldbec Hill, nearer the coast at the village of Crowhurst or most recently at a small roundabout on Road A2100. The government supports the Battle Abbey site, but given no remains of the nearly 10 thousand who perished has ever been found near the place, one does wonder.
In a word, this battle is obscure, especially for Colonials like me.
Cardboard and All That
Obscure is not a good thing right now for traditional cardboard counter type wargames. This wing of the hobby continues to decline, and even in its heyday a battle like Hastings rarely made the top 10 list for any company. I got my start in wargaming with boardgames like this (Panzerblitz specifically), so I had a huge collection of games from firms like SPI and Avalon Hill. Had is the operative word here as on one of my military moves the van carrying all my family’s household goods, to include all my games, caught fire and burned to ashes. OK, like, I can stomach losing the king size bed or the wedding china, but my wargames? I damn near had a case of apoplexy.
Yet from what I can remember – and what Uncle Sam’s Army replaced – there wasn’t a lot even back then on Hastings in particular, or the Dark Ages generally. One of the four quad games in the 1992 3W compilation Age of Chivalry did cover the battle, but the SPI quad Great Medieval Battles did not, substituting King Arthur’s last stand at Stonehenge (really, seriously?) instead. SPI also had a 1975 game on the Dark Ages called Viking, one of its vaunted PRESTAG series that covered the battle. The game used a generic map and generic units (swordsmen, spearmen and the like) to recreate a plethora of Dark Age engagements, and say what you will, given the simpler “hack and jab up the middle” style of combat back then, the game worked pretty well.
Today there are fewer large board game companies around, the two most notable being GMT Games and Decision Games, the latter an SPI descendant. Neither have games that cover 1066, and this actually surprised me just a little as regards GMT. GMT does have a series of board games called Men of Iron, of which four games have been produced so far. These are tactical level games designed by the highly knowledgeable and creative Richard Berg, so a game on Hastings would get a very fine treatment if designed. Alas, the first and baseline game in the series starts with the 1298 battle of Falkirk, and everything else covers later years.
Yet, remarkably, little independent game producer Revolution Games has picked up the slack with not one but two games on the subject, the first being Invasion 1066 – Stamford Bridge to appease all you Viking lovers out there, and of course, Invasion 1066 – the Battle of Hastings. Both are designed by Norm Smith and are updated and graphically retooled versions of two products previously sold by Saxon Games. Each game has a 17 by 11 inch map, 140 counters, 12 pages of rules and two sets of charts. Scale is 50 yards per hex, and 100 to 250 men per counter, with intriguing details such as arrow supply, Saxon javelins and the Papal Banner included as a bit of chrome. At $ 21.00 US, the price is reasonable enough to tempt me, so take a look. Also, some of the games seem to be licensed to GMT, so this does say a lot about quality, all of it good.
Other boardgames I am aware of that cover the engagement include the low complexity Shield Wall – Hastings 1066 (great title) by White Dog Games, while Strategy & Tactics #110 had the battle as its feature magazine game back in 1987.
Pewter and All That
Miniature, or tabletop, games have a bit more robust support for the battle of Hastings. This is due to this wing of the hobby being primarily a cottage industry. This means that a lot of figures and rules are done by folks who are either retired or have a normal day job, and are not dependent on wargaming to put a suckling pig on the table or mead in the fridge. True, there are a few true business firms, but these seem to be the minority, especially for rules writing where a combination of cheap off shore color printing and powerful, yet easy to use PHD (punch here, dummy) publishing software has made everyone his own Gutenberg. This has also enabled some book sellers such as America’s On Military Matters or Britain’s Partizan Press to reprint many old classics even as their authors and publishers fade away.
Otherwise folks engage in this sort of commerce to put a bit of extra coin in the pocket for conventions, stroke an ego or two, or because they just enjoy it. Thus tabletop gaming has become the domain of the obscure in the wargame world. Think about it, how else does one survive producing figures for such (ahem) “universally fascinating” conflicts such as the 1912 Balkan Wars or Alexander Nevski? Likewise, tournament based rules use point based army lists include the Norman conquest, another reason to start painting chainmail and kite shields. Such games do not directly support the battle of Hastings, but the army lists make it very easy to field forces that do.
And miniatures from the battle can do double duty, since, for example, the Normans were always butting heads with the Byzantines in Italy. The small size of the clash is also an advantage since if 15 mm figures are used, a huge number can be played. Not so much for the larger and more expensive 25 or 28 mm, but fewer troops are needed and the extra detail is gorgeous. Think not? Check out the pictures with this article from Tom Mouat’s mapsymbs.com Website where some 1500 28 mm troops graced Battle Abbey in 2008 at game hosted by a friend from Bury St Edmunds.
This means there are actually LOTS figures and rules sets, not to mention supporting products like flags and references, for both the Dark Ages and 1066 specifically. There is no way I could cover them all in three or four pages, it could be hundreds. However, I hope the list below might give at least some idea about what I am talking about, and also what a budding King Harold and William can easily get their hands on if they wish to cleave a few heads for fun. And remember, the Dark Ages is pretty obscure by even tabletop standards.
Gripping Beast UK. This British firm produces the Saga Dark Ages skirmish rules (25 GBP) and has just announced the publication of its new Swordpoint rules to fight larger battles. They also produce their own line of fine 28 mm miniatures. SAGA tournaments are quite popular at US gaming conventions.
Warlord Games US. The firm produces the very popular Hail Caesar 28 mm wargame rules ($ 48.00 US) which actually cover combat through 1500 AD. There is also a supplement with army lists covering Later Antiquity to Early Medieval ($ 32.00), and the site lists one of the very few miniature rules set I have ever seen covering the 1066 campaign exclusively. This is Battle for Britain, Wargame 1066 by Peter Denis and Andy Callan, 48 pages for $ 20.95 US.
Day of Battle. Written by Christopher Parker, the game is of the non-tournament variety and concentrates on historical scenarios for big battles. Weighing in at $ 24.00 US, there is a Norman Conquests supplement covering 1016 to 1100 AD for $ 20.00.
Warhammer Ancient Battles. This tournament style game hit the streets in 1998, followed by a Dark Ages supplement with army lists called Shieldwall in 2002. The experiment failed and the book is no longer published. I’ve included it because it remains very popular and is a mainstay at US miniature conventions still. Check Ebay or hobby flea markets.
Warrior. This is an American edition of Phil Barker’s classic 7th Edition WRG (Wargames Research Group) Ancients tournament style wargame rules, which dominated ancient and medieval wargaming for decades. Cost for the base rules is $ 30.00 US and the Dark Ages army list book is $ 12.00. Also, the original WRG suite of rules can still be found at Partizan Press in the UK or other dealers that have acquired the rights to republish them. One set, the simple DBA (De Bellis Antiquitatis; and no I’m not kidding, this is the name) is still played at conventions.
Wargames Foundry. This UK company produces some of the best and most well-known 28 mm miniatures to include both a Norman and a Saxon line. Unpainted of course, three cavalry or six to eight foot will run you about 12 GBP a set. The product illustrations are from the company’s Website.
Old Glory and Old Glory 15s. Two US firms, the former carries the traditional line of 28 mm miniatures (and now 10 mm) while the latter is a spin-off that continues to carry the old 15 mm line. The original firm pioneered the concept of multiple poses in the same set of figures, and packaging figures in large numbers to reduce costs. Right now 30 Huscarls with axe 25 mm cost $ 36.00 US while 24 of the same in 15 mm cost $ 10.00.
Miniature Figurines Ltd. One of the oldest and most respected of British miniature lines, affectionately known as “Minifigs”, is now owned by the Caliver Books/Partizan Books folks. Minifigs continue to have a HUGE Dark Ages lines in both 15 mm and also 25 mm. Prices vary, but are listed on the site in GBP.
Osprey Publishing. Not only is the publisher world famous for its Men-at-Arms and other series supporting the miniatures community, but it also produced the tournament based Field of Glory tabletop rules, and there is a dark Ages supplement called Wolves from the Sea. These are the same rules converted to computer gaming by the folks at Slitherine.
Little Big Men Studios. I could list dozens of other firms, this is but a sampling. However, I would like to finish up with one of the most unique and most welcome hobby firms ever to grace a work bench. Little Big Men Studios produces an extensive line of flag and shield transfers, thus greatly reducing the need for behavioural health medication among many miniature wargamers. Like me. Seriously, can you imagine trying to paint Saxon banners or round shields as depicted from this sample from their Website? I don’t do this period but I do 15 mm Romans, and that winged thunderbolt and claw motif has made me straight jacket eligible on occasion. The transfers come in a variety scales and are designed specifically to fit the figures of specific companies. I kid you not, if there was one tabletop product that deserves the best of all time award, this is it.
So finis. Hopefully this has gotten your blood pumping for October 14, 2016, pumping enough to grab some cardboard or a paint brush. If not, remember this – modern England exists today because of a FRENCH* victory on English soil. Isn’t it about time for you chaps across the pond to rectify this?
* Well technically they were Franco-cised Viking decedents (Norman = North Men) but w/e - ED