Further Reading: GMT Game's Pendragon – The Fall of Roman Britain

By Joe Robinson 12 Nov 2018 0

Volume 8 in GMT’s successful COIN series of board wargames, Pendragon: Fall of Roman Britain sits unique amongst the releases so far. First up, it covers (albeit lightly) a time period that lacks a lot of the historical sources and information that most other historical wargames do.

Secondly, it’s not quite about the idea of counter-insurgency as is portrayed in the original COIN games. More recent volumes, such as Falling Skies and Liberty of Death, have expanded the idea of COIN to not just literally mean ‘Counter-Insurgency’, but to essentially cover asymmetrical warfare between vastly different factions, with (often) vastly different objectives.

This perfectly sums up the experience in Pendragon. There is a bilateral divide between the four factions that lump them into two loose coalitions, but they all play differently and all have different wants and needs. The Dux player, representing what’s left of the Roman military in Britain, is trying to maintain order in a crumbling society. The Civitates, the governing elite of post-roman-Britain, must decide whether to trust the Dux, or take their destiny in their own hands. Meanwhile, the Saxon and ‘Scotti’ (a catch-all term for mainly Gaelic raiders from Ireland and Scotland) factions are all trying to establish new homes for themselves and/or find great wealth and plunder.

It’s a wonderfully atmospheric game with a lot of difficult decisions, and generally a great entry in the COIN series. But if you’re interested in reading up more about the Arthurian legend, where it comes from, and what the general consensus is, then I’ve got my own ‘further reading’ list to share with you today.

King Arthur’s Wars – The Anglo-Saxon Conquest of England (2016)

Author: Jim Storr
Pages: 320
Purchase: Amazon

61 rIrvLh1L. SX332 BO1204203200

Storr is an ex-British Army officer, and this fact is important as it really does set the context for his work in King Arthur’s Wars. Essentially, by using a combination of archaeology and place-name evidence, Storr tries to recreated a loose narrative of the strategic and operational progress of the Saxons in their conquest of England.

His works mainly revolves around the study of the remains of linear earthworks that are still dotted around the English countryside, many of which can be dated to the post-Roman era following the collapse of Roman Rule up to the known emergence of early Saxon kingdoms. He also uses his knowledge of Dark Age warfare and his 'officer's hat' to study the tactical implications of these earthworks, and how their construction at a theatre/operational level would effect a migration and/or campaign of conquest.

He rather side-steps the question of whether or not Arthur existed, and for obvious reasons completely ignores all the ‘expanded’ material from Monmouth’s works. However, he does know where Camelot is, and I think you’d find the answer surprising (especially if you live in the UK). For military enthusiasts especially, this is an excellent resource in trying to envision the military campaigns the Saxons might have waged, as well as how the Romano-British initially kept them at bay.

Worlds of Arthur – Fact & Fiction of the Dark Ages (2013)

Author: Guy Halsall
Pages: 400
Purchase: Amazon

511zSZTuuxL. SX310 BO1204203200 Halsall doesn’t pull any punches – he’s very sceptical of pretty much anyone who claims to know the ‘truth’ of King Arthur and is generally rather downbeat on the idea that you can prove the matter one way or another.

From deconstructing the earliest historical sources that mention Arthur, to examining the political, social and economic upheavals that went on during this time period, Halsall does do a very good job of ‘setting the scene’, of defining what was and wasn’t going on during the 4th – 6th centuries in Britain, and Europe as a whole. It also re-examines the old theories of the Saxon migration of Britain, echoing the picture that Storr paints but exploring it in more detail.

There is no ‘truth’ of King Arthur to be found here, so romantics might want to avoid, but you will come away knowing more about the world that King Arthur was supposed to have existed in, and it might help you contextualise your own beliefs on the matter.

The Warlord Chronicles (1995 - 97)

Author: Bernard Cornwall
Purchase: Amazon (3-Book Set)

41XlUdrw9CL. SX344 BO1204203200 This one’s a bit of a cheat (although it is in Pendragon’s own recommended reading list) as it’s fiction but considering much of Arthur’s story is surrounded in myth and legend, reading a good series on the subject isn’t such a bad idea.

Bernard Cornwall is an excellent fiction writer who’s covered subjects like the Napoleonic Wars via his Sharpe series, and more recently Alfred the Great and the formation of England in his Warrior Chronicles series (which has been made into a TV show named after the first book, The Last Kingdom).

The first book in the Warlord Chronicles was originally published in 1995, and Cornwall’s vision of the Saxon invasion is somewhat outdated (he uses the theory of the steady westward conquest). Still, it's a very compelling three-book series and some of my personal favourite works of fiction of all time. Cornwall manages to walk a fine line between historical fantasy and historical fiction by portraying events, especially related to anything Merlin does, that can at the same time be perfectly explained away by reason, and yet there's always that last element you can't explain away. The theme of Saxon vs. British is joined by Christianity vs. Old Gods and Magic & Faith vs. Reason. 

It’s also got some great characterisations of figures both familiar and new and tells an addictive but ultimately tragic tale of a people’s struggle against a relentless foe. Highly recommended.

In order, the books in this series are:

Official Sources

Being a GMT game, Pendragon itself draws from a lot of sources and scholarly works in its design. Many of the cards depict events that we know happened, as well as delving a bit more into the mythos of Arthur and the world he lived in. In the designer notes, you’ll see the game largely comes down on the side of believing that there probably was someone called Arthur who fought the Saxons, but beyond that nothing more can be said.

Neither of the two non-fiction books I’ve read are on GMT’s list, so if you’re interested in the books that directly contributed to the game’s design, here’s a capture from the game’s Playbook, which can be downloaded here.

pendragon sources

There is a second half-page of sources as well.

We hope you enjoyed this list of recommended reading - if you're a player of Pendragon or simply a a fan of the time period, these books represent some of the best learning that's been applied to what is a complicated and illusive subject.

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