The second game in the Shields & Swords II series is House of Normandy, a “quad” containing four battles of the twelfth century. The first question a prospective purchaser would have is, why does this exist? Even among middle ages aficionados, there’s not a huge demand for games on this specific period. None of the battles are famous, nor really the commanders who took part; this is after William conquered, but before Richard became lion-hearted, a bit of history that bridges the gaps between two more interesting eras and as a result is often skimmed past. So, what gives?
USS Philadelphia burning at the Battle of Tripoli Harbor in 1804 during the First Barbary War
What gives is that in a way, it’s 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.
A 14th-century depiction of the White Ship disaster in 1120
Of course, obscure or popular, the subject matter has to be interesting and the resulting game has to be fun. “Interesting” is subjective, of course, but I personally find the whole twelfth century to be utterly fascinating history, and leapt at a chance to share my enthusiasm for this period with others. This was a time of violent upheaval, but also of grand, chivalric gestures: I’m thinking of Stephen of Blois paying off the army his nephew had raised against him, or of the Empress Matilda’s men refusing to leave the continent to secure her throne until the ground had thawed so that her father the King could be buried. Fortune (and misfortune) played a significant role in creating opportunities. The reign of William Rufus ended in a “hunting accident”, and his brother Henry was close at hand, enabling him to seize the treasury and usurp the throne that had been promised to Robert Curthose. The carefully-laid plans of that same Henry for his son and heir William Adelin sunk along with the White Ship, creating the vacuum that was ultimately filled by Stephen, who would have went down with that same ship if not for a last minute, and particularly virulent, attack of diarrhea. Then there's the shifting nature of political and personal ties; a signal feature of the twelfth century are the on-again, off-again rivalries, and the use of armies not so much to defeat your enemy in the field (because he could just as easily defeat you), but to compel him to come to the negotiating table.
Of course, all that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to quality simulation gaming, particularly when it comes to gaming specific set-piece battles of the period. The key wasn't just to find four battles from the period, but four battles that each brought something unique to the table. When it comes to series games, I like to look at each battle through the lens of "this is the one that does that" or "this is the one with this thing". For example, The Grunwald Swords is the one with all the horses, and the Lithuanian Retreat and Reform. In House of Normandy, we have "this is the one with the surprise attack on the flank" (Tinchebray), "this is the one where one side has fewer, better units with high ground, while the other side has more units of somewhat middling quality" (The Standard), "this is the one with the defections and the capture of the King" (Lincoln), and "this is the battle at dusk that can end suddenly" (Wilton).
15th century depiction of the 1106 Battle of Tinchebray
Each battle has its own flavor, but there are some commonalities: each side only fields a handful of units on an 11" x 17" field, and none of the battles should take longer than forty-five minutes or an hour to play to completion. Compared to The Grunwald Swords, with its larger armies, larger map, and the all-important (and game-altering) decisions surrounding the Lithuanian wing, these are much simpler battles, and the parameters are much more constrained. While I could easily see myself replaying The Grunwald Swords every couple of weeks, I'm not going to get that same amount of mileage out of say the Battle of Tinchebray. There's still a reasonable amount of replay value baked-in, but not to the same degree as with Grunwald - it's just the nature of the beast. House of Normandy has different aims, and is meant to do different things.