The first game in the Shields & Swords II series, The Grunwald Swords, sold fairly well and was well-received. A number of very kind folks have said some very kind things about it, which encouraged other very kind folks to give it a try. It helps that the subject was, if not exactly popular, then it wasn't exactly obscure, either. The particulars of the battle also make for a rather dynamic gaming situation. (Some folks find the game very hard to win as the Teutonic Player, and while the game does lean towards the Allies - as does the history - it's certainly possible for the Teutons to pull off an upset provided they're able to properly seize the tempo.)
Shields & Swords II - How to Play
The second game, House of Normandy, was a "quad" collecting four smaller and decidedly more obscure battles. Way back when that game came out, I described it as "a sort of an experiment":
One of the reasons why Mary and I founded Hollandspiele was to publish games on unconventional, sometimes obscure topics that might not always be the strongest sellers. Middle ages games, and thus the S&S II series as a whole, fall into that group. I joke about wanting to release a game on something ridiculously obscure like the Barbary Wars or Jenkins’ Ear – and, okay, I’m probably not actually joking and will actually do that someday – but the question of exactly how obscure we can get, well, the jury’s still out on that one. Doing a game on these small, strange engagements is one way to test the waters. The success of this one will determine, at least in part, the feasibility of other S&S II games along the same lines, and more generally, of super-obscure topics in general.
So, the question is, what were the results of that experiment? The game sold okay. Not as many as we'd hoped, but neither was it as few as we feared. It sold about half as well in its first three months as Grunwald did. The second quarter (December 2016 - February 2017) saw Grunwald drop by about 45%, while House of Normandy actually sold the same amount in both quarters - zero decline! - so, only slightly fewer copies than Grunwald had in that quarter. Both games were helped by the holiday sale, and by the release of one of Normandy's four battles (Tinchebray) as a free standalone PNP as part of the CSW Support Drive. So far in the current quarter, Grunwald is still outselling Normandy, but only slightly, and the sales of both games dropped by the same rate compared to the previous quarter. (This drop-off is normal and natural for any game.) Or, to come back to the short version: House of Normandy sold okay, not great, but okay.
One thing we noticed is that Normandy usually was bought with at least one other game. (In fact, the number of single-item orders for Normandy in the months after the initial release period can be counted on one hand.) Nearly 60% of these had Grunwald as one of the other items in the order. This seems to confirm the rather obvious truism that games in a series help one another out. (And, indeed, many of the initial, single-game orders for Normandy were placed by folks who already had Grunwald.) We think that Grunwald probably helped Normandy more than Normandy helped Grunwald.
Perhaps more important than sales - not as far as my mortgage is concerned, but hey - is how the game was received by gamers. And, like with Grunwald, that reception was overwhelmingly positive. There just wasn't the same quantity of people talking about the game. Partially this is because there are less sales; games that sell better have more owners, which in turn means more people talk about them. Certainly our games that have the most ratings and reviews on BGG, such as An Infamous Traffic and Agricola, Master of Britain, are also the games that have sold the most copies.
The Grunwald Swords
And partially this is because with Grunwald, there was more to talk about. With both games, folks can talk about how much they dig the system, how quickly it plays, how much they enjoy it, but with Grunwald, they can also talk about the retreat & reform rule. That rule has drawn favorable comparisons to French reinforcements in Napoleon's Triumph (very high praise indeed!) and is easy and cool and fun to tell your friends about. Normandy, for all its charms, doesn't have that kind of "hook", which limits the ability for that kind of word-of-mouth to spread.
This all makes it sound like I'm getting down on Normandy, but I'm not. Again, it wasn't really a flop, not at all. It just didn't do as well as Grunwald did, and there were reasons for that - there were elements about Grunwald that enabled it to have a greater degree of success. So Mary and I were cognizant of those elements when we started talking about the third game in the series. We didn't necessarily want to replicate Grunwald, but we wanted a game that would hit some of the same notes (in its own way) and utilize some of the same elements that made it more successful. We wanted a larger battle. We wanted a timing/tempo element that could serve as a "hook". We wanted some kind of asymmetry in force structure, size, or player priorities.
Still from Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film "Alexander Nevsky".
The Battle on the Ice - more properly, the Battle of Lake Peipus - fit the bill on all of these counts, with the added bonus of sporting a "cool" locale. A small but elite Livonian army faced off against a larger army of Novgorod rabble under the able leadership of Alexander Nevsky. The decisive moment in the battle came when Nevsky deployed his hidden cavalry, which resulted in the encirclement and destruction of the Livonian horse. Not only were they cavalry; they were horse archers! I'd been looking for a battle that had horse archers, mostly because when we commissioned Gonzalo Santacruz to create the Shields & Swords II unit illustrations, we had the foresight to request horse archers (alongside crossbowmen, who have yet to appear).
So, Lake Peipus would be a natural fit for the next game in the series, and indeed, it didn't take long for me to whip together the units, map, and the scenario rules. (As this happened while I was knee-deep in a couple of other, more difficult projects - Charlemagne and Optimates et Populares - this was a bit of a relief.) The Livonian forces were divided, easily enough, into two wings - horse and foot. The Novgorod army was commanded by Nevsky, with the assistance of his brother, and so I divided the foot units into two primary wings.
When you have an army made up of farmers and peasants who were levied in a hurry, you can't be too certain of their quality. For that reason, each wing's make-up is semi-random, with three of the available units being blindly drawn and put back into the box. The mix for both primary foot wings has a large number of Levies and a handful of Infantry. Seasoned S&S II gamers will note that there are no Veterans present, which can make it difficult to satisfy Wing Integrity. This is where the third wing of foot for the Novgorod Player comes in, a small but elite force of Veterans.
Druzhina, the red A units
These are the Druzhina, Nevsky's elite bodyguards. I reasoned, quite naturally, that the presence of the Druzhina (and, of course, Nevsky himself) would be instrumental in holding the levies together as a disciplined force. Rather than incorporate half of the Druzhina into each wing, I made it a separate wing that could still be used by the other two to satisfy Wing Integrity. And, as the cherry on top, being near a Druzhina would inspire the members of the other two wings to fight better (at +1 CC). This also makes the Druzhina a juicy target, and should all eight of those units be Eliminated, the entire army falls apart - giving the Livonian Player the win.
The fourth and final wing for the Novgorod Player of course are those horse archers. Much like Grunwald, the longer the Novgorod Player delays their arrival, the more VP they can score. The risk of course is that if he waits too long, even the added VP and fresh troops might not allow him to win the game, and if he does it too soon, he's not going to score enough VP. What constitutes "too long" and "too soon" is meant to be contextual, and is largely going to depend on the pressure the Livonian Player is putting on the Novgorod line. There's an added pressure in this case as the Novgorod Player earns no VP if the Livonians manage to break-through the Novgorod line before the horse archers are unleashed (spoiling the element of surprise, which is what those VP represent).
In Grunwald, this timing element was two-fold, in that you had to wait X number of turns before retreating the Lithuanians off the map, and then Y number of turns before they returned - with X dictating the maximum and minimum value of Y. This meant that at least six turns would need to pass before you could earn 1 Victory Point. But for Lake Peipus, the progression is more linear. If you bring in the horse archers on Turn 6, you're looking at a huge 8 VP. Therefore the Livonian Player needs to put considerably more pressure on the Novgorod Player than the Teutonic Player had to against the Poles and Lithuanians in Grunwald.
Testing moved pretty rapidly and smoothly. One of the joys of working with a core set of series rules is that most of the work has been done already, and testing becomes more about fine-tuning and balancing rather than solving any particular design problems. While I was researching this Battle on the Ice, I came across another Battle on the Ice, that also saw the elite knights of the Livonian Order get creamed by an army of rag-tag peasants. When I read that, I immediately decided that this was going to be a two-battle set. We'll talk about that other battle - the Battle of Karuse - next time.
Battle of Lake Peipus overview