Detail of Matejko's "The Battle of Grunwald"

Death of Ulrich von Jungingen, detail from "The Battle of Grunwald, Jan Matejko, 1878

Way back in 2013, I designed an ACW boxed game themed around the Seven Days Battles at Mark Walker's request. For various reasons it was decided in 2015 to break the game's five battles into five separate games for publication in Tiny Battle's folio line. The first game was the second battle to happen chronologically (Gaines's Mill), the second was the fourth (Glendale & White Oak Swamp), then the third (Savage's Station), then the first (Beaver Dam Creek). The reason why it didn't start with Beaver Dam Creek and go through the other ones in the order they happened is that BDC was fairly peculiar (as, for that matter, was Savage's Station). If we started the series with BDC, those peculiarities might overwhelm the overall picture of the system as a whole, and hurt sales for subsequent titles. Gaines's Mill and Glendale were the two "least peculiar" battles, and the two most likely to show off the system. Beginnings are always difficult, as Herbert Marshall said in Trouble in Paradise. In fact, it's one reason why Hollandspiele led with Brian Train's The Scheldt Campaign. A well-regarded WW2 game from a "name" designer is going to garner a lot more attention than a middle ages battle game from that guy that maybe you heard of once.

First impressions are important, and this is just as true the second time around. With The Grunwald Swords, the first title in the Shields & Swords II line, my medieval battle system is effectively making its debut all over again. So, why, in particular, did we start with The Grunwald Swords? Why not open with my twelfth century "quad", House of Normandy, which was developed concurrently and should be coming out sometime in November?

For starters, the Battle of Grunwald is bigger, one of the biggest battles of the Middle Ages. Each of the four HON battles are played on one of two 11"x17" maps, with a handful of units to each side, similar to the games in the previous S&S series. Grunwald unfolds on a 22"x17" canvas, as befits a massive cavalry battle. As also befits a massive cavalry engagement, there's a lot of opportunities for both sides to maneuver. A lot of Middle Ages battles can be reduced to "the two sides lined up, and then bashed the heck out of each other", which doesn't always scratch the maneuver itch.

The predominance of cavalry also meant that The Grunwald Swords was an ideal way to show off the new wrinkles to the combat resolution introduced by the distinction between Heavy and Light Horse Units. It doesn't just show off what the bones of the system can do, but what specifically Shields & Swords II can pull off.

Grunwald also had a built-in narrative element: the retreat, and then the timely return, of the Lithuanian wing. As soon as I found out about this, I immediately thought of ways to build a timing/tempo mechanism into the battle that made use of the game's Initiative system. I had done something similar with Our Royal Bones, where the French Player decides exactly when to turn the battle from an Infantry battle into a cavalry charge, and I found that it greatly increased the replayability and tension of the game. As a result, it became my favorite of the original series.

The dual tempo mechanism in The Grunwald Swords works like this: the Allied Player must choose when to retire his Lithuanian Wing, and when to bring it back. The longer he waits to retire the Wing, the longer he'll have to wait before bringing it back, leaving his other Wings in danger. But the longer he waits to bring it back, the more likely it is that their return will turn the tide-- represented abstractly by an escalating number of VP scored. Pursuit of an alternate, non-VP victory condition for the Allied Player means he might not even need the Lithuanians to come back, which gives him some flexibility, and gives his opponent incentive to overpower the Poles quickly.

The result is that the game is more competitive and replayable than any of the original games, with intertwined tactical and strategic decisions. This really makes it an ideal way to show off the possibilities inherent in my quick, simple, "mussless and fussless" system.

On top of all of the above, there's also the fact that the Battle of Grunwald is one of the most famous battles of the Middle Ages-- well, in Eastern Europe, anyway. It's one of the foundational events of Polish history, a decisive victory that helped usher in the Golden Age. Reenactments take place annually, and draw big crowds. It's not as big a deal in the States, but then medieval battles in general aren't as big over here, probably because we never had any of them. Grunwald is probably best known on my side of the pond by specialists and enthusiasts. But, of course, specialists and enthusiasts are the ones who are the most likely to want to play a medieval battle game in the first place.

See Part 1 of (Re)Making Shields & Swords

See Part 2 of (Re)Making Shields & Swords


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