Friday, February 22, 2013

Theremin Thursdays - Gaming in the Viking Age

While there are possibly a few different pieces of music that would be appropriate for this theme, one of my favorites is Steve McDonald's "Sons of Somerled".

This is telling the story of Somerled, who was a ruler of the Kingdom of the Isles (gaining parts, through marriage and conquest, until he ruled everything from the Island of Lewis to the Isle of Man) in the 12th century.  His name (Somerled, or Somairle) is from a Norse word meaning "Summer Traveler".  A Summer Traveler, to the Norse, was one who did his "business trips" in the summer months - a Viking.

On one of his other albums, Steve McDonald has another song, called Seawulf.  Here are the lyrics (another great song).
In the long-boats Seawulf came,
Crying out the War god's name,
Highlander, raise your warning fire,
Seawulf's on his way,
To feed the battle-crow's desire today.

Isle of Man and Isle Tiree,
Faced Odin's giants of Valkyre,
Gaining control of Argyle,
The western highlands too,
Somerled has delivered us from you;

Seawulf will rise

Oh, oh, oh, oh, ooh
Oh, oh, oh, oh, ooh

Viking child, oh Viking child, oh Viking child,
Who will tame the wolf behind your smile...
Viking child

Viking child, so free and so wild,
Tell me why do you roam,
Battle on, the Seawulf in search of home. 

(A lot of oh-oh's in the middle, but a good song nevertheless).  Again, from the same period (late dark ages, during the times when men of the north were raiding and setting up kingdoms in the coastal regions of Scotland, the Isles, England and Ireland).  

As far as gaming in this time period goes, there are a lot of different "collection" games of medieval and dark ages battles (based on the old SPI idea of a Quad wargame - one set of core rules, with a number of different scenarios, each with a different map and counters, and different special rules).  But there are also a fair number of games that deal with the Norse world in general, and Viking ideas and ideals in particular.

One that has fantastic artwork and production values, but the theme could have been just about anything related to economic competition, the game Vikings is one I own and enjoy playing.  Sadly, there is little or nothing involving conquest, raids, or combat in this game.  It is a Michael Kiesling game, and (as I mentioned already) one I find very enjoyable to play.

Another game about this time period, but one more in line with what the Vikings themselves thought about the world, and their own destiny, is the old TSR minigame, Saga.  I have a copy of this game, and although I haven't played it in years, I used to play it quite a lot, in high school with my two brothers, and later on with gaming buddies.  A great game - you begin as a hero, and have to travel the Norse world, dealing with creatures and foes (both mortal and from myth), slay monsters and dragons, fight trolls and berserkers, gain a named (magic) sword, and construct a Saga about yourself.  

Great game.  Text from the box, reads like this -

"Saga minigame recreates a mythical time period occuring sometime after the fall of Rome - the age of heroes and vikings! Each player takes a heroic figure and attempts to perform deeds that will generate enough glory to ensure that the hero's memory will live in the sagas composed after his or her death. 
To gain glory, the heros slay monsters, accumulate treasure hoards, recruit lesser heros ("jarls", or earls) as their companions, and establish kingdoms. The hero who gains the most glory is the one whose fame will live on in the sagas, while the others are doomed to be forgotten by posterity. Each player must be decisive and alert to grasp chances and avoid having other heroes gain glory at his or her expense."

Those were the days.  At that time (around 1980) TSR was riding high on HUGE success from AD&D, and they wanted to get into the hot Sci-Fi/Fantasy microgame market (made successful by companies like Metagaming and Task Force Games).

Two other microgames come to mind in this theme.  First is the great game from Metagaming, Fury of the Norsemen.  This was one of their historical micros, and although it isn't a phenomenal design, it was pretty solid for its size, and I really enjoyed playing it.  The cover art, and the rulebook art, was atrocious.  It was a bad pastiche of Frank Frazetta barbarian artwork (which I DO enjoy, but which is NOT historical).  The counter art was, on the other hand, really good.  The map, well, it was a map.  Here is a picture of a setup for the game - Monks, women, livestock - in the backfield lots of peasant soldiery.  And out of the mists, on the shoreline, appears a Dragon Ship.

The other title was the microgame "Viking Gods" by TSR. This one had a really good looking map, and represented a battle at the end of time (Ragnarok) between the Gods and the Giants (and other evil aligned personages - like Loki).  Great little game, but horrible game balance.  True to the sagas, and myth, Good loses this battle.  But it is fun to play.

Mentioned are the fact that there are several games that are basically a single set of core rules with a lot of different scenarios, or battles, included that play off that base set of rules.  These games often, to me, feel ALMOST like a set of miniature rules, but with the action taking place on the map.  One of the best, and one that is available in multiple different versions, is William Banks' design, Ancients.  Ancients is currently available from Victory Point Games in a very nice professional version.  But it is also available online, as a free download.

Pictured here is the Vassal Module, but the game, in some of its versions, looks quite good - especially the counters from Victory Point Games.  There are some definite Viking age battles including in the massive list of scenarios, including Clontarf, Ashdown, and Hastings (pictured above).  These are all good, solid Dark Ages battles, and certainly in the feel of anyone who wants to roll dice, hear the clang of the battle axe, and sing to Odin while playing the game.

An older game, that is based on a set of core rules, and then expanded with optional rules, is the game Viking, in the PRESTAGs series of games from SPI.  It was billed as "Tactical Warfare in the Dark Ages" but as it covered 700AD to 1300AD, I think that most historians would call this the end of the Dark Ages, and the Early Middle Ages (if not also the period of Chivalry).  The scenarios included with Viking were impressive, here is a list...

  • Qadisiya (Persians vs. Arabs, AD 637)
  • Tours (Arabs vs. Franks, AD 732)
  • Constantinople (Byzantines vs. Varangians, AD 860)
  • Paris (Vikings vs. Franks, AD 885)
  • Lourain (Franks vs. Vikings, AD 891)
  • Hamburg (Vikings vs. Germans, AD 988)
  • Balthusta (Byzantines vs. Bulgars, AD 1014)
  • Clontarf (Vikings vs. Irish, AD 1014)
  • Cannae II (Byzantines vs. Lombards, AD 1017)
  • Civitate (Normans vs. Papists, AD 1053)
  • Cerami (Normans vs. Arabs, AD 1063)
  • Stamford Bridge (Anglo-Saxons vs. Vikings, AD 1066)
  • Hastings (Normans vs. Anglo-Saxons, AD 1066)
  • Manzikert (Byzantines vs. Seljuq Turks, AD 1071)
  • Durazzo (Byzantines vs. Normans, AD 1082)
  • Dorylaeum (Crusaders vs. Seljuq Turks, 1097)
  • Hattin (Crusaders vs. Moslems, AD 1187)
  • Liegnitz (Mongols vs. Germans, AD 1241)
  • El Mansura (French vs. Arabs, AD 1250)
The front cover has a great picture of the metal statue of Leif Erikson, the real statue of which is in front of the beautiful, and very informative, Mariner's Museum, in Newport News Virginia (one of my favorite haunts, especially their historical Naval library).
The box cover from SPI

The fantastic statue from the Mariner's Museum

Back in the 1980s, the great Cry Havoc series of tactical Medieval and Dark Ages battles include a volume dedicated to Norsemen and their fights.  It was called Viking Raiders, and was a pretty good addition to that series - including, amongst other things, pieces for Longships, so that naval fights (which were basically infantry fights, but on floating platforms) could be accomplished in the game.  Fun series.

No discussion of games about Vikings would be complete without mention of the Game Of the Vikings, Hnefatafl, or "The King's Board".  It is an abstract game, where one player plays a King and his huscarls, and the other player plays an army trying to kill the King.  Very exciting game, and loads of fun, even in the 21st century.  Here is a picture of a handmade set, made by the Father and Grandfather of Boardgame Geek member, Jerzy Brzozowski, from Brazil.

Of course, Diplomacy and its many variants was not free from Dark Ages efforts.  Two that stand out, are Heptarchy and Bretwalda, both by Geoff Bache.  The first is set from about 650AD, and the second about 30 years earlier, in 620AD.  Both feature the British Isles in the early Dark Ages, when there were competing kingdoms. at war.  Here is the map for Heptarchy, which is very nice.

And here is the map for Bretwalda (which, by the way, is the word for High King).  As mentioned, both of these are by Geoff Bache, who just wanted to have Diplomacy games based on territory he was familiar with.

Some years ago, I ran a Hordes of the Things (fantasy miniatures rules, based on DBA) campaign based on the Bretwalda map.  There was also a Dragon moving around (eating troops, at random); a Sea Wyrm, moving around sinking fleets, and Merlin (wandering around, making peace, and halting wars).  A fun game, although there were some player incompatibility problems (mostly personality).

There is also a variant called Viking Diplomacy, which is a nice overview of the period that most of this article is concerned with (9th-11th century, northern British Isles).  But it covers all of Western Europe, to even include North Africa (can't ignore the possibility of Norsemen battling it out with Moors).

These days, in miniatures however I really like the (now out of production) ruleset Warhammer Ancient Battles.  Although there are problems with the series (in print? out of print?) there were some books that were put out, as period supporting books, with lots of info on miniatures, army lists, painting, history, and scenarios in them.

The first is the Age of Arthur (written by Steven Jones and James Morris) which covers that period in the Dark Ages (approx 6th century) when many surmise that a historical Arthur lived.  It is set in the early Dark Ages, and the armies are just right for the region and period covered in this article.  The army lists from this book cover the span from 400AD to 800AD.  The armies covered are these:

  • The Romano-British Civitates - including the armies of Vortigern, Ambrosius and the Bretons.
  • The British and Welsh Kingdoms - including the kingdoms of Gododdin, Gwynedd, Strathclyde and Dumnonia.
  • The Saxons - including Saxon raiders as well as the kingdoms of the Heptarchy.
  • The Franks - the armies of the early Merovingians.
  • The Picts - including the Northern and Southern Picts, and the enigmatic Attecotti.
  • The Scots-Irish - including Irish raiders and the kingdoms of Dalriada and Ireland.

It should be mentioned that in addition to the history and the great army lists, both this book (and the next one) offer a number of very, very good scenarios that are a lot of fun to read and to play, as well as a number of different campaign ideas.  And the pictures (both black and white, and color photos of painted miniatures) are very evocative, and extremely nicely done.

The second Warhammer Ancient Battles book that I will mention here is Shieldwall, which is more appropriately themed for the Viking age.  Written by Stephen Patten, this is an excellent wargamer's guide.  It has army lists (in detail) for the following:
  • Kingdoms of the North (Armies of the Danish and Danelaw, Norwegian, Dublin-Norse, Orkneyinga, and Islemen)
  • Kingdoms of English (Saxon armies of Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, Anglia, Kent and Sussex)
  • Kingdoms of Caledonia (Armies of Dal Riata, the Pictish Lands, Strathclyde, Alba and Scotland)
  • Kingdoms of the Welsh (Armies of Gwynneth, Powys, Dumnonia, and the South Welsh Kingdoms)
  • Kingdoms of Hibernia (Armies of Connacht, Munster, Ulster, and Leinster)
  • Western Franks (Kingdoms of Normandy, Brittany, Flanders and France - the Normans)
   An excellent gamer's resource, for the history, army lists, background reading, and scenarios.  Even if you don't play Warhammer Ancient Battles.

A really nice photo of some painted figures from the period is here, and it comes from Kevs Wargames blog.

My own miniatures for this period include a vast assortment of painted 15mm figures covering lots of Dark Ages armies.  I also have a really large collection of 28mm figures.  Many of which are painted, but I have a whole project awaiting my attention - half of it in the really nice Somerled line from Old Glory, and the other half of it in Wargames Factory plastic Viking figures.  I am really looking forward to painting the Old Glory figures, and the Plastics give lots of kitbash and individualizing possibilities.
Finally, a few last music pieces to end the article with.  The first is the theme song from the Richard Widmark movie, The Long Ships.  Which also features Sidney Poitier and the Mare of Steel!

More fun for me, however, was the movie The Vikings, staring Ernest Borgnine and Kirk Douglas.  This was a GREAT movie, and didn't have "the mare of steel" (who's idea was that, anyway?). HAIL RAGNAR!!

And finally, the modern epic of the Viking Age, none other than Eric the Viking.  Enjoy!  This is not the soundtrack, which is elusive, but it is the trailer of the movie.  Highlighting just how good (bad?) this movie is.  But it has a cast of thousands (Eartha Kitt?  In a Viking movie?), and is really fun to watch.  At least once.

Thanks, and I hope you get a chance to enjoy some gaming in the Viking World!

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