Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Battle Ravens, wargames, and history

In my recent post about playing the upcoming game Battle Ravens, I talked about the challenges of writing historical wargames and board games. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately in conjunction with my work on the Gaming a Crusader Castle project.

Battle Ravens is an interesting game in this respect. In one way, it's essentially an abstract strategy game. You could absolutely rename the two sides Red and Blue and change the Ravens to Energy Points and you would still have a fun game. Indeed, the currency being called "ravens" doesn't make an enormous amount of sense other than thematically. Ravens, like wolves and eagles, are associated with battlefields in Old Norse poetry, but you'd think that more ravens would appear as the dead started to pile up.

These ones are getting ready for it to pop off.
People often talk about historical gaming as a "simulation," but I don't know that that's really a useful idea for a game like this one. Simulation presupposes a level of knowledge about the realities of early medieval combat that I just don't know we can claim. Historical accounts of battles are either highly poetic or very matter of fact -- "and the Danes had the victory," that kind of thing. We don't necessarily know what shieldwall combat was really like. Was it the kind of tentative skirmishing envisioned by John Keegan, with sudden bursts of fighting flaring up here and there, or was it more of your phalanx-style shoving match? 

Battle Ravens takes the view that it's all about the nebulous quantity represented by the ravens -- "momentum," perhaps, or "initiative," or maybe "cohesion" -- and about forcing a breach in the enemy's line where both numbers and elan are lacking. I think that is as reasonable an understanding of shieldwall combat as any. 

Of course, in reality there's no thousand-foot general allocating "initiative" to the different parts of the army, but other than directing reserves I don't know what a general in this kind of showdown is supposed to do in real life. It feels like most of the real tactical work is done before the fighting starts -- or at least you hope it is. 

So in general what I'm looking for in a game -- in historical terms, that is -- is not so much "does it accurately model this aspect of early medieval life?" I'm not sure I believe that's really possible. I'm more interested in "does it feel early medieval," but I recognise that that's a very subjective question. Perhaps I mean that I want to know if the game makes you think about some aspect of the early middle ages. And I think that Battle Ravens, for all its simplicity, does a bit. 

Here's the info about Battle Ravens again: Battle Ravens is going on Kickstarter on 20 November 2018; the Kickstarter will go until 6 December. Expected release date is April 2019. Retail price will probably be £35, but Kickstarter backers will be able to get the game for £30 plus a free Scottish army pack. The core game will include Anglo-Saxon and Norse armies, but they plan on making Norman, Scottish and Welsh ones for separate purchase; each will include counters and tactics cards. I reviewed a promotional pre-production copy of the game. 

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