Mary Russell

Last time I talked about the goals we had in mind for our third game in the Shields & Swords II series, as well as the design of the Peipus scenario. This time, I'm going to talk about the second half of the game: the Battle of Karuse.

happier times for LO

The times as they were in 1260, ten years prior to the Battle of Karuse.

Karuse is much more obscure than Peipus. Peipus is, after all, the victory that made Alexander Nevsky a Saint in the Orthodox Church, and the battle that was immortalized by Eisenstein's rousing 1938 film, and Prokofiev's score for the same. That's church geeks, film geeks, and music geeks all with some awareness of "the Battle on the Ice". Karuse has got none of that, and indeed, primary sources for this battle are scant. The only mention of it is in the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, an obscure High German text. 

I love primary sources from the medieval period. They're rich, obscure, mysterious, and entertaining. Probably my all-time favorite sentence is this one from the Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib (James Henthorn Todd translation):

Then the fearful, murderous, hard-hearted, terrific, vehement, impetuous battalion of the Denmarkians, and the vehement, irresistible, unanswerable phalanx; and the fine, intelligent, acute, fierce, valorous, mighty, royal, gifted, renowned champions of the Del Cais, and all the descendants of Oilioll Olum met in one place; and there was fought between them a battle, furious, bloody, repulsive, crimson, gory, boisterous, manly, rough, fierce, unmerciful, hostile, on both sides; and they began to hew and cleave, and stab, and cut to slaughter, to mutilate each other; and they maimed, and they cut, comely, graceful, mailed bodies of noble, pleasant, courteous, affable, accomplished men on both sides there.

Clontarf by Frazer

"Battle of Clontarf" by Hugh Frazer, oil on canvas, 1828. The battle lasted from sunrise to sunset, and ended in a rout of the Viking and Norse-Irish forces. It is estimated that between 7,000 and 10,000 men were killed, including Brian Boru, High King of Ireland.

In the same source, discussing the same battle, we learn that Murchad mac Brian was the last man ever to kill a hundred men in a single battle; "there fell fifty by his right hand, and fifty by his left... and he never repeated a blow to any one [sic], but only the one blow, and neither shield nor mail-coat was proof to resist any of those blows, or prevent its cutting the body, the skull, or the bone of every one of them." It's pretty metal.

I was able to find that free translation of the Cogad online, and you can do likewise for a number of other primary sources; there are probably a half-dozen different takes on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example. But other, more obscure texts, like the Annals of Fulda, are impossible to find online, and, given the specialist nature of the topic, are very expensive to purchase. That's when I have to go to my local library. No, they wouldn't have anything like that at my actual library - it's still way too esoteric - but through my library system I can request a book be sent via inter-library loan from a university, which is more likely to stock it. And that's exactly what I had to do to get a hold of a copy of the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle. I put in the request and anxiously waited for three weeks until I got notified that it was ready to pick-up. I was pretty excited.

LRC with Tom

Which is kinda funny, because the only thing I needed was the one page that covered the Battle of Karuse, which I read in its entirety in the car on the way home. I did skim the rest of the book before photocopying the page I needed and returning it, which gave me some useful context about the Livonians and how they saw themselves. (It also gave me some insight into the thankless job of translating excruciatingly bad High German rhyming couplets.)

What drew me to the battle were the similarities between it and Peipus. Both battles saw the Livonian Order - elite, heavily-armed, heavily-trained, heavily-disciplined men of war - humiliated by an opposing army that, by rights, they should have mopped the floor (or the ice) with. And, of course, both battles were fought on ice (you'd think after Peipus that Livonian masters would be skittish about lacing up their skates). So, it just made sense to package the two battles together.


They're also different enough to make an interesting contrast. While Peipus was decided by the timely surprise deployment of Nevsky's cavalry, Karuse was won by makeshift defensive works. The Lithuanian army under Grand Duke Traidenis drew up their sleds to create a defensive line. When the Livonian cavalry charged, the Lithuanians drew back behind the barricades and from there took a special delight in unhorsing and butchering the knights. The Livonian battle plan called for all three wings to advance together, both horse and foot, but this was abandoned almost immediately by the knights who instead charged headlong into the danger.

To encourage this impetuosity, I added a special rule that allows the Livonian Player to activate the horse units (only) from all three wings for a Charge phase only, instead of activating a single Wing for two phases of his choice. This creates a natural tension in the Livonian Player's position. Charging with twenty horse units at once can be pretty powerful, but neglects the other half of his army, the foot soldiers, and forgoes the flexibility that's inherent in the Shields & Swords II command system. Activating only one Wing at a time means you're effectively only concentrating on one sector of the battlefield, which gives the Lithuanian Player the chance to regroup elsewhere.


When the Horse Units move adjacent to a barricade, or when they suffer a step-loss, an Unhorsing check is made. An Unhorsed Unit is swapped out for a single-step C-class Veteran that's worth double VP. These Veterans constitute a separate Wing; moving these guys out of the way and/or to safety thus requires that you spend a turn doing that instead of furthering your own aims. The Livonian Player also has the option of voluntarily Dismounting Units, which makes them part of the same Wing as the Unhorsed Units. These Veteran units are more vulnerable and less fearsome than a Heavy Horse, but they're not going to give up the kind of VP when Eliminated that an Unhorsed Unit would.


The barricades each have an Unhorsing DRM printed on their reverse side, which is revealed only when the Livonian Horse units move adjacent. The Lithuanian Player sets these up at the beginning of the game, and so can choose where to be strong and where to be weak.


On the Lithuanian side of things, you have two Wings composed solely of Levies and Infantry. With no Veterans among them, Wing Integrity can only be satisfied if the units are within four hexes of at least two other units. The Lithuanian position has a tension of its own, because you need to cover a wide front (especially as the Livonians start to break through the barricades), but if your units are dispersed too far, a single Elimination in combat might result in additional units being Eliminated due to Wing Integrity. (Really, in both battles, the key to the Livonian Player's victory is exploiting Wing Integrity.)

The victory conditions are more lopsided in this one than in other Shields & Swords II games. Typically you'll see the threshold phrased as "X VP, and 5 VP more than the other player". In this case, the Lithuanian Player generally needs 30 VP and fifteen (not five) more than his opponent. That seems like a ridiculously high hurdle to overcome, especially considering that the Livonian Player need only score 20 VP to win. But the Lithuanian Player scores between 2 and 4 VP for almost every Unit they Eliminate, while the Livonians score their VPs one at a time. (Which is why Wing Integrity is so very, very important!) Achieving that fifteen-point spread against a good Livonian Player certainly requires some skill, but it's definitely in the realm of the possible, and not some super-human feat.

When I started working on Karuse, I figured it'd be a nice "bonus battle" - a B-feature, if you will, to Peipus's blockbuster. So I was kinda surprised when I found that I liked Karuse just as much. I ended up with two very different (yet thematically linked) battles, each with their own special chrome and dynamic - two equally exciting experiences. I really hope you enjoy them.

Battle of Karuse Overview

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