Mary Russell



hroughout the life of my Shields & Swords II series of medieval battle games, we've experimented with the format, searching for the one that would result in the widest audience. Our first release, The Grunwald Swords, had a single medium-sized battle. House of Normandy was a "quad" game made up of four much smaller scenarios, but it didn't seem to get nearly the same traction either commercially or critically, and so with Battles on the Ice I went with two battles about the same size as Grunwald. While it attracted more attention than Normandy - especially thanks to Ania Ziolkowska's gorgeous ice map - it's ended up selling about the same number of copies.

All three games were conceived as small games with a modest pricepoint (though Battles on the Ice, having twice as many counters, was slightly higher than the first two). But with the two later titles we couldn't seem to recapture the magic we had with Grunwald. This was disappointing in the case of Battles on the Ice especially, which I felt was a stronger design. It felt like we still hadn't found the right format for the series.

The fourth game, published in 2018, was The Great Heathen Army. It was a much larger game - more counters, more maps, and eight battles all in a single box. It was also nearly double the pricepoint of the previous games in the series, and that seemed at the time to be a significant risk. But the game was very well-received, outselling both Normandy and Battles. It's still slightly behind Grunwald, but given that Grunwald has a two-year head-start, Great Heathen Army has done phenomenally well for the series.

Having decided this was the proper format, we tried something similar when we published With It Or On It, the first game in our Ancients spin-off series. The Ancients series was something I had been planning on doing, and talking about doing, for a good long while, and part of the reason why I finally buckled down and did it was that I wanted to stretch my legs a little bit and take the core ideas of the series in a new direction. And partially, it was because I didn't know what the heck to do next with the medieval series.

Oh, I had some ideas. "I should do a game on this", "I should do a game on that", "I gotta do some battles with crossbowmen so we can finally use the crossbowman illustration we paid for back in 2015". But I was having trouble getting really passionate about any of them.

And that's probably because I've done thirty of these things. Way back in 2011, I designed a game called Harold Versus Harald, signing it with a publisher. It languished in a long development pipeline for a few years before eventually being published in 2015 by a different outfit as the first game in the Shields & Swords series. Two more games were published under that series name during that same year, and a dozen more were designed for a deluxe boxed game that never materialized. And then, of course, there have been fifteen battles in the Shields & Swords II series released across four boxes.

While I gave the system an overhaul when it relaunched in 2016, the fundamentals remained the same. And don't get me wrong, the fundamentals are strong. But after seven or eight years and thirty battles, it was getting harder to get excited about this system I invented before anything of mine had ever been published, and I felt like maybe I had run out of things to say with it. I figured switching to the Ancients series would let me clear my head a bit, and play with those core mechanisms in new ways.

One of those mechanisms was Wing Integrity. In the medieval games, this is a check that is made during your turn, which might result in some of your less disciplined units deserting the battle. In a handful of scenarios, it's a rule that really matters, but most of the time, most units are almost always going to pass that check - something which had been eating at me. The Ancients version of this - the rout check mechanism - was much harsher, and much more central to the design. I was very pleased with how that rule turned out, and working on that made me think about how Wing Integrity was handled in the medieval games. This eventually led me to come up with an Advanced Wing Integrity rule, which is much less lenient and results in a faster and more exciting game.

This revised rule really reinvigorated my affection for the original series and was a driving force in the design of the four scenarios that made up Kingdom of Dyflin, a scenario pack expansion to Great Heathen Army that will be Hollandspiele's first release of 2020.

And you might well be wondering, "Why are you doing a scenario pack?" Partially, it's another experiment: we want to see what kind of audience there is for this sort of product. Partially, it's because I was able to do four great scenarios based on Irish-Viking battles, but was less certain of my ability to do six or eight to fill out a proper box.

And partially it was because Ania Ziolkowska has stopped doing wargame maps. Her work for the Shields & Swords II series has such a distinctive look, that it was kind of hard to imagine doing a new game without her. It's still hard.

2021 will see the second game in the Ancients series. The earliest we'd be doing a new boxed game in the medieval line would be 2022. I expect that version will not only have a new look but perhaps even a different emphasis. If that's the case, then Kingdom of Dyflin will not only be an expansion to Great Heathen Army but a sort of coda to the cycle of designs that began with Grunwald.

1 comment

  • Nice post, which I am reading having just finished Cynwit. For the next in the S&S II series, I would love the see you do something on one of a couple possibilities. First, take the series to Eastern Europe and do Byzantine versus Bulgar, maybe a quad like Normandy, or perhaps something involving the Kievan Rus.. Also, I wonder whether the new design/map opportunity means you could take the series even further east and do Medieval Japan?

    Randy Strader

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